Logan Sky was busy making analog synth music in various teamups and the Electroclash band Riviera F [where he was produced by Sir Nick of Rhodes] when he was plucked from his largely instrumental solo work milieu and dropped into the Visage collective. Playing synths with Visage as they managed a very impressive third act with three albums [plus a massive compilation] and live touring [!] on his CV with them before it was all cut short by the untimely death of singer Steve Strange.
We loved those Visage albums, and when the band ceased, we looked up what the diaspora of the band were busy with afterward. Logan Sky had teamed up with singer Steven Jones [who sang somne tunes at the Steve Strange memorial concert] to form a modern synthpop duo that we have been following ever since as they move from strength to strength.
10 Hours To Berlin
Forced from Khartoum [w/Robin Simon]
Zona Rose Prime Time
We Fuel Progress
Return To Land
This “Systems Broken Down” compilation represents the proto-Visage years; taking the busy synthesist through his active solo period of 2009-2013 when he was mining a rich vein of music as contained on the albums “Journeys Into the Interior” and “Face The Flames.” The music here was mostly vintage analog hardware such as to make a synth-lover’s heart palpitate. Classics like the ARP Odyssey, Korg Polysix, Roland TR606, Yamaha CS20, and even a Crumar Trilogy string synth combine to give the gritty, cinematic the sort of minimal tech flair that caused John Carpenter to be name checked by a later generation of synth-heads that would coalesce as the Synthwave genre.
But don’t let references to John Carpenter soundtracks cast a pall over any approach to this material. This may use some of the instrumentation and vibe of the Synthwave genre, but it’s far closer to pop music than dry soundtrack material. There were a plethora of hooks and the arrangements were juicy and rich with inventive detail, as the opening “Zeitgeist Disco” proved with its rubbery bass lines juxtaposed against maxed out beatbox, dubby handclaps, and squelchy swells of portamento leads rising above it all. Sample below.
The once prophetic and now ironicallyretrograde “2019” proffered a compelling dive into the New Wave bucket with lead synths and rhythms that evoked Greg Hawkes of The Cars at his peak and the kind of perky electropop of Men Without Hats “Safety Dance.”
Things got more cinematic with the curdled synth string strains of “10 Hours To Berlin.” Whose methodical sequenced rhythms dropped out in its coda for an airless finish. “Forced Form Khartoum” was distinguished by a guest guitar courtesy of Visage bandmate Robin Simon, who adopted a radically different one here I’d never heard from him elsewhere as he explored sitar-like sounds here.
Not all of these tracks were from the two earlier solo albums. On occasion, Mr. Sky has been known to invest some instrumental action into his current partnership with Steven Jones, and the pensive “Through Swededn” was an instrumental interlude that slotted nicely into the “Corrupt State” album of 2015.
In spite of its subtly disturbing title, “We Fuel Progress” [surely the motto of some multinational conglomerate responsible for the ruin of earth?] surprised me to offer a dignified, yet minimal vibe. But the breakdown of the placid feel in the chaotic coda perhaps what I had been expecting all along.
This collection, covering from roughly 2009 to 2013 makes for an appealing accompaniment when the mood speaks to that netherzone between pop music and soundtrack sounds. A few of the pieces here were from the ill-fated third solo album that got tabled once the artist was drafted into the Visage Army® so including them in this retrospective makes for a tidy send-off to that era of his career. Sometimes this strain of his musical DNA manifests in his current project, but who knows when we’ll get another fabbo collection like this. Yours for a mere £4.00 if you click that button below.
So the painful reality of things is that last year was my least efficient year since maintaining records again from 2011. I spent about 75% of my largest outlay for a middling amount of titles. the two graphs are overlaid at 10:1 scale with the two dots for 2020 almost reaching parity; indicating nearly $10 spent per title! An all time high. The closer the two dots are on the vertical axis are, the more expensive the music was to buy. 89 titles for nearly $900 was not an inexpensive average. Quite the opposite.
2020 was the year of the Boxed Set OF God®. I purchased four ultraboxes, and three of them were all over $100. My stats were skewed majestically by the final purchase of 2020; the Heaven 17 “Play To Win: The Virgin Years” which set me back $158, though the dealer was selling the ltd. autographed Amazon version, complete with the replacement disc pak® – all in mint, unopened condition! Good thing too, since Edsel Records, who released this, is under lockdown and unable to send out any of those replacement discs right now. I had not cared too much about obtaining the signed copy, but having the replacement discs bundled, NIB for each, was Monsastic Catnip.
The fact remains that these four titles:
Ultravox: “Vienna” @ $58
Prince: “1999” @ $104
Prince: “Sign O’The Times” @ $113
Heaven 17: “Play To Win” @ $158
Nits “Ting” show was like Cirque Du Soleil with the best music ever!
Came to a total outlay of $433. Or roughly HALF of my entire $864 music budget. So, yeah. This was a very unusual buying year. The splits between vinyl and CD are nearly equal with vinyl up 50% from last year with the amount of 12″ singles, thank goodness. If I get vinyl, better that it’s the holy 12″ single format. Other stats that were higher on last years numbers were DVDs and DownLoads. This year there were five DVDs, with four of them bundled in boxes. The only standalone was the Nits DVD we got last January. The show was the band playing their music live with the Scapino Ballet. How we wanted to see this show live in the Netherlands back in 2016, but that was certainly not in the cards so having the DVD was as good as it would get for us. All of the other DVDs were bundled with boxes and CDs. The Ultravox one was high-res 2.0 and 5.1 mixed audio only. The Prince sets had shows from the respective album tours.
2019 Top 5
John Foxx + The Maths: “Howl”
It’s Immaterial: “House For Sale”
The Vapors: “Together”
Barry Andrews: Live @ The Tin Angel ’03
Stic Basin: “Stic Basin 2”
Shriekback: “Live @ The Orange ’94”
Given the modest numbers of titles this year, there were deucedly few albums released this year crossing my desk. This year just six! Though I am most often looking backwards, this was in indeed a spartan year for 2020 albums. Even so, my 2020 list consisted of two vintage live shows released only now.
The John Foxx +The Maths album fit right into the uncomfortable year of 2020 with guitarist Robin Simon adding his heft to The Maths this time out for something radically different. Having It’s Immaterial release that loooooooong-simmering third album was a delightful treat that we had waited several years for. And The Vapors made regrouping after almost 40 years seem to be an easy thing.
EP Of The Year
This was an easy one. There was only one new EP under my roof, but it was a corker.
The Countess Of Fife was the new Fay Fife band of tough country music that acted as a taster for their new album coming next year. The band just had a Kickstarter last month for the costs of recording their debut album and the projected £5K budget got funded by fans at over twice the amount asked for! Fantastic, but with the higher costs of the new lockdown, they will need every penny they got. Good to know they got breathing room. It’s weird. There are no labels any more, but less than 300 fans can make an album happen. It’s astounding.
Singles Of The Year
There were many new singles this year; half on vinyl and half on DL. Try a Baker’s Dozen this year!
Green Gartside: “Tangled Man”
Peter Godwin: “You!”
Steven Jones + Logan Sky: “Sons Of Hallucination”
Iggy Pop: “Family Affair”
John Foxx + the Maths: “The Last Time I Saw You”
John Foxx + The Maths: “Howl”
Steven Jones + Logan Sky: “Shedding My Skin”
Peter Godwin: “You! [Johnson Somerset Mix]”
John Foxx + The Maths: “Tarzan + Jane Regained”
OMD: “Enola Gay [extended mix]”
Ultravox: “Sleepwalk [Steven Wilson 2.0 mix]”
Ultravox: “Herr X [Steven Wilson 2.0 mix]”
ABC: “Look Good Tonite”
I can’t remember the last time that I bought a dozen new singles in a calendar year, but most of these were well worth the effort. The only dud was the ABC lockdown single. Amazing things from the reluctant, yet talented Green Gartside; putting an end to 14 years of musical reticence with an amazing 7″ of folk music covers transformed into pure Green/Scritti Politti music. Perennial favorite Peter Godwin released two mixes of a new single that managed to both move the needle dramatically with the rock-hued “You!” and also release it in a remix by long time partner Johnson Somerset that kept up his residence in widescreen chillout territory.
OMD and Ultravox released new mixes of 40 year old singles to worthy effect. Ultravox went back to their clear vinyl tropes and this time we now had “Sleepwalk” on a clear 12″ single. More on OMD on oxblood vinyl later. John Foxx + the Maths released three singles from their new album with edits on DL and even a 7″ single.
Steven Jones and Logan Sky are now straddling an intriguing synthpop/art rock axis most deliciously with their new material. The album, “European Lover” should happen this year and it should be another bold move by these two. We await with bated breath following on these two single efforts.
And finally, Iggy Pop somehow released a cover of Sly + The Family Stone’s “Family Affair” with Guest Star Bass by Bootsy Collins [!] this spring on his birthday without anyone mentioning it to me until last month! But it was incredible. More to come on this one.
Reissues Of The Year
This year was filled to the max with some astounding reissue material. It just exploded this year with boxed sets, and the output or Rubellan Remasters, in particular was like having a part of my brain running an actual instead of fantasy reissue label [my hobby].
Prince: “Sign O’The Times” [SDLX]
Berlin: “Pleasure Victim”
Visage: “Fade To Grey: The Singles Collection Dance Mix”
Visage: “The Anvil”
Ultravox: “Vienna [40th SDLX]”
Fingerprintz: Bulletproof Heart – The Best Of Fingerprintz”
Ric Ocasek: “Beatitude”
Berlin: “Love Life”
Roxy Music: “Roxy Music [Steven Wilson 2.0 mix]”
John Foxx: Concrete + Organized Noise.”
The placement of Prince at the #1 spot won’t come as a surprise for any fans. His legendary Vault tracks [this box had three CDs full of relevant material to this album era] are simply the best of breed bonus track material that no other band can touch. He’s got a probably 8-10:1 ratio of recorded/mixed songs to released material and his stuff isn’t Portastudio demos. To put it mildly. As long as the Prince Estate will be releasing boxes as heavy as “Sign O’The Times,” look for him in this spot each year. Last year’s best reissue in my list would have been “1999 [SDLX]” if I hadn’t bought it this year instead [owing to budgetary issues].
Scott Davies of Rubellan Remasters slayed me this year with six discs that take my breath away. His Visage program kicked into high gear with the “Anvil” we have been waiting for for decades, and then he topped that with the “Fade To Grey: The Singles Collection Dance Mix” CD!! When I made my copy a few years ago, I was cockily confident that it would not happen in a million years, but I’m eating crow this year! And not just the remixed album, but his laser like focus on relevant material not elsewhere on CD [or on CD sounding worth a damn] was stunning attention to detail. In any other year this and “The Anvil” would be tied for top slot, but boy howdy, he does fantastic work.
His Divinyls and Fingerprintz CDs of this summer were more things I’d given up on. I fully expected Virgin to make this Fingerprintz CD in the 90s but noooooooooo! It took 30 years further for Rubellan Remasters to do the job right. I had imagined that I would have to source an incredibly expensive “Desperate” OZ pressing to finally hear the original album released in their territory but now he’s added the stuff edited out of that album in the Northern hemisphere by Chrysalis and some further extras to make the ultimate Divinyls CD.
We lost Rick Ocasek in 2019, but gained this fully packed CD of his first solo album last year. Rubellan’s reissue of “Pleasure Victim” by Berlin was a transformative experience for me. Resulting in a completely different view of that album; now made even better by the incredible bonus tracks. I still need to review the fascinating Steven Wilson 2.0 remix of “Roxy Music” that should be a must hear for any Roxy Music fans. Too bad about the awful CZ LP pressing! And we know it’s a heck of a year for reissues when a John Foxx LP of rarities, with a beautiful Barnbrook cover sits at the bottom of my reissue list.
So this was an exciting year. Particularly from the boxed set and reissue action. Not so much from current material, which if you’re me, isn’t exactly #1 priority. But there are at least two handfuls of albums issued this year that are on my want list and I’ll probably get them in a few years like I usually do. I really should go back and issue year end best ofs 20 years onward, when I’m finally in a position to do that sort of thing. Because it might take me that long to get the new things I wanted this year but was too entranced by the re-polished gems of the past instead.
Had I not gone hog wild on the boxes, I would have been on line to spend at an all time low level last year. And I’m fine with that. I have tried in the last month to listen to the records I buy on a regular basis. I have so much vinyl bought in the last 20 years but still unheard that I could probably not buy anything and not notice! Or maybe even care. Last month I bought another Big Box O’Records® [my 2nd one this year] and that to me is about as happy-making as it gets. It’s so satisfying to bust out the Discwasher and digitize those puppies. Hopefully making REVO discs of the results. Lately I’ve been pretty active on that front and we’ll get to those in due time. I think that this year I’d like to try to hit a target of $500 for the year…if it’s possible.
I don’t have to tell anyone how awful this year was. Let’s just say that it managed to make 2016 look like some bygone golden era in comparison. I don’t need to elaborate too much on the details of 2020. We all have eyes. Let’s just say that the human race and its capacity for stupidity and malfeasance rarely disappoints my baked in negativity.
As usual I had reviewed last year’s purchases and thought that I would like to spend less money but enjoy what i did buy a little more. As we entered 2020 I was curbing my purchases in advance to a planned trip to the UK in the middle of March to see Heaven 17 play a rare set of the first two Human League albums. So I was spending almost nothing the first four months of the year. I was not actually planning on a buying spree in England. I felt that the records I wanted would be priced out of my comfort zone, and in any case, I was more interested in spending my time with people I had not yet met but only interacted with over the ether and wanted to know better. So unlike my trips to most places, I was not planning a big blow out of sales. I think I tried to get Echorich interested in a trip to Sister Ray in London, or was that the other way around? No matter now, as we all know that my trip, or anyone else’s, for that matter, didn’t happen.
Days before my departure time the foreboding nature of the pandemic stopped me cold in my tracks, though I had been waffling for a few weeks prior. My employment also became more tenuous, and that stayed my hand as we negotiated the lockdown and Capitalism. As it turned out, my company produced products deemed “essential” so while my wife and I contemplated living on her salary [it was possible, with severe cutbacks] my employment was never on shaky ground after all. That might have promoted me to splurge on the first of two Big Boxes O’ Records last spring with over 20 titles ordered for the pittance of $61.
The biggest change this year were zero Record Store Road Trips®. Zero trips to any record stores. Zero concerts! But the latter’s nothing too new. It’s feast but mostly famine in Western North Carolina where I live. I’m used to no gigs for over half a year worth attending. We mostly worked and stayed home. An upside was that I finally went into hock for a spindle [100!] of archival gold, printable CD-R media. Like anything involving gold this year, the already high price catapulted upward. Ouch.
We now look at $2.50 per CD instead of the merely expensive $2.00 cost of the past. Given the state of the CD/CD-R, I wonder for how long I may indulge in my beloved of making the CDs The Man won’t sell me in a world where The Man only wants to rent me music…of his choosing!. I like making my vanity label discs, and this year I actually made a few more than normal. It’s taken me several years of buying new computer/software/peripherals but the pieces are in place now, and I finally turned some attention to making this happen. Before it’s too late.
Some of my usual favorites were active and there were occasional titles by John Foxx + The Maths and OMD that got bought on principle. The new Maths album had been simmering for years before finally appearing just when it could not have been more appropriate. Their “Howl” album was an entirely appropriate response to the new now. And this year there were four BSOGs of super deluxe releases that contributed to the highest yearly average per release that I’ve ever experienced. But we’ll dive into those details now.
Total titles purchased: 89 [↓13%] Total expenditures: $864.95 [↑36%] Average cost: $9.72/title [↑60%]
If you attempt to add all of these numbers up you’ll find discrepancies. This is down to treating purchases as “titles.” That could mean a single DL track, or it means a boxed set of 8-10 CDs. CDs are counted numerically, even if they were from the same purchase, so there’s 54 CDs but not that many CD “titles.” Capish?
So that was the overview. Tomorrow comes the details of interest [and some graphs].
This was a book that I didn’t want to waste too much not reading time before the print got cold. It came out last summer and my spouse got me a copy from the library where she works. It was last year I read David Byrne’s book and while the tales of recording the TVLKING HEVDS albums were a thread through the book, I felt that the other topics that “How Music Works” covered [and in such detail] were far more interesting than a history of Byrne’s band and solo career. Chris’ book in comparison, was more a story of his life in a traditional sense, incorporating his band, his wife Tina Weymouth, and their adventures outside of the band where they got their start. They had production successes as well as their own, very successful band.
Through it all, Chris [who did not have a ghost writer, by the way] maintained his affable tone that was a straightforward projection of his unaffected persona. Hhe outlined his childhood with his family, when he decided that the arts would be it for him, in spite of his father’s military background as a General. He grew up in Kentucky but found himself attending the Rhode Island School Of Design, where the fell in with David Byrne and the ball started rolling there. Next came Tina who was not immediately his girlfriend in college.
They both had other partners at the time that they met in school but Chris screwed up his courage and told her that he would be interested in such a scenario and with a little time, the moment came for each of them to try out that option. And that’s been the root of their 40+ year marriage. Their days in school together were spent delving into the finer points of P-Funk and assorted very groovy music, though their own noise was more astringent.
Eventually Tina was brought into the band though Byrne was hostile to this notion, and a thorn in her side. Through it all, Frantz thought that Byrne could be rude and difficult, but genuinely felt that his singular songwriting perspective was a unique voice in rock. Even as he was taking credit for songs that the band had written together. In this respect, much of this memoir had the feel of an abused spouse telling their story. Always reasoning, that the good times outweighed the bad.
By the time that the band were a successful three piece and playing shows in NYC on the weekend, labels came sniffing around. Seymour Stein of Sire Records had to wait until the band were ready; biding his time, but before they signed with Stein in 1977, they realized that they needed another set of hands and got Jerry Harrison into the band.
Harrison had gotten burned by the Modern Lovers experience earlier, and wanted to make sure that this band would not flake out on him like Jonathan Richman had. So after a suitable courtship period, he dropped his architecture studies and joined in time to begin recording their debut album, “Talking Heads ’77.”
Frantz painted a portrait of the band having more solidarity when they were less successful and that with success came distance and unhappiness for Byrne. Looking back it’s hard to believe that they all lived together in a city loft in their early years. Particularly when the band are all estranged from Byrne for the last two decades.
The chapters in the book are for the most part brief and Frantz tends to ramble; jumping in timelines when the persons he’s writing about had other roles to play in their story at later times. One exception was the amazing travelogue of the band’s first European tour, as the opening act for label mates Ramones. The detail here could have been its own book as the intellectual Heads all were soaking up Europe like sponges as Alpha Ramone Johnny was bemoaning a lack of burgers and American culture. Dee Dee may have been a junkie but when he managed to get a little cocaine in Europe, he made sure to share it with Frantz.
The light shone on the extremely dysfunctional Ramones inter-band relationships was astounding. From Johnny beating his girlfriend in public to his bullying of the rest of the band [“just don’t make him angry…”], the parallels that one might draw between Johnny Ramone and David Byrne were interesting. Both bands has a headstrong dominant leader who while at opposite ends of the personality spectrum, were content to use the band for their own ends and to undermine their bandmates while having a terrible time.
By the time that the band had been thriving but ultimately almost dissolving under the aegis of Brian Eno was discussed in great detail, with new insights given by the book. While I knew that “My Life In The Bush of Ghosts” was used as a “test kitchen” for where TVLKING HEVDS would go following the “Feat Of Music” album, what was news to me was how Byrne and Eno had a falling out after recording their album together. Frantz and Weymouth seem to have been the band’s nurturing factor and expended a lot of their energy keeping the fractious band together. Frantz stated that the “Remain In Light” sessions were begun by them and Harrison calling up Eno then Bryne and offering up the hot sessions as bait to renew their interest. One at a time. Once Eno was in, then Byrne followed suit. That fourth album might not have happened but for the machinations of Tina.
Even so, the band fissured following their “Expanded Heads” tour where the former shrinking violets of New Wave became expansive and afro-centric. With a nine member large band that I would have loved to have seen. I remember at the time that I thought that TVLKING HEVDS were goners. and of course that was when the three factions produced some of their best ever work apart from each other. Harrison and Byrne were working in adjacent and congruent areas to their main band, but Tina and Chris had the biggest succcess by making music far from the familiar Heads purview as Tom Tom Club. That they mined gold records in advance of TVLKING HEVDS was apparently galling to the others, though Chris was quick to point out that “The Catherine Wheel” was a very interesting record. but a Twyla Tharp soundtrack was pretty much destined to sell 1/100th of the caribbean funk monsta that was “Tom Tom Club.”
The second phase of the band after they reunited in 1983 had Byrne assuming tighter control of the songs and performances. They did one more tour then in 1984 and after that Byrne would no longer let the band do their thing onstage. Something that particularly stuck in Frantz’s craw. The later albums were very diminishing returns for my ears, and it’s sad reading of how the band were sucking it up and complying with Byrne just to keep together.
Meanwhile Tom Tom Club continued to make albums, albeit without the level of success that the first one had. For the record, I enjoyed all of them, with the exception of “Boom-Boom Chi-Boom-Boom.” That one just lacked the amount of Weymouth sisters mojo that I loved about the band. Given that the TTC and TVLKING HEVDS spent a lot of time in the 80s at Compass Point Studios in Nassau, it was heartening to see that their neighbor Robert Palmer was a steady presence in their story. Playing percussion on “Remain In Light” and giving them the friendship and encouragement that they were not getting from Byrne. I’m still waiting for a rock scribe to begin the Robert Palmer story and his appearances here only whetted my appetite for such.
Tina and Chris also had a successful production career with gold albums by Ziggy Marley but their production career was definitely over shadowed by their involvement with Happy Mondays for the infamous “Yes Please!” sessions that stretched them to the limit and beyond. The tale of recording that album [I’ve heard nothing from it] will turn your hair white. Forget white. You’d lose your hair! Tina and Chris new Tony Wilson and thought they’d be up for production but even their relaxed attitude toward drug use got put to the test once The Mondays arrived in heroin withdrawal. It seemed that Shaun Ryder had dropped his methedone in the airport and panicked as his lifeline was on the floor; leading him to lick up any remaining droplets of the precious substance from the Heathrow floor.
Then as they arrived, things got weirder. The band members were in were five car wrecks; one of them having almost completely severed and crushed Bez’ arm. The band wanted to actually play on this record. Apparently DJs had constructed everything up to this point in their discography. The band could barely play and Tina was in the studio teaching them song construction and conducting them with placards …verse…now chorus [points]! Then Shaun Ryder was unable to function at all, much less write and sing lyrics. He had to ultimately go home and straighten out before finishing the album successfully in later sessions. The band were attempting to strip the studio and sell the gear to feed their habits. The tale of recording that album [I’ve heard nothing from it, actually] will turn your hair white. Forget white. You’d lose your hair!
The sad ending of TVLKING HEVDS with a final performance during their admission into the Rock + Roll Hall Of Fame® has been well recounted elsewhere, but what none of us knew was that Byrne’s wife was contacting the band that night, asking where her husband was afterward.He had mentioned to Frantz that he was leaving her. “It’s time to move on.” Frigid cold! But Byrne was an equal time offender. The amount of abuse that Frantz and Weymouth had to endure to keep the ideal of the band alive in his head was heartbreaking. Only in the last 20 years did it seem that he and Tina had finally moved onward. Making the last Tom Tom Club album in 2000 [the great “The Good, The Bad + The Funky”] and their apparent swan song, the “Downtown Rockers” EP in 2012 [which I still need to get…].
There’s not too much self-reflection here. Mostly a guy spinning the yarn of his life late in his years. Through it all, Frantz painted a self-portrait as an easygoing guy who liked his pot, coke, and hash and oh yeah, there was a page in there where Tina almost left him over his drug usage… oops! Better shape up. One interesting notion was that whenever the band, no matter how large, were recording, it was the ladies who stopped the drugs long enough to get the work done. For this let us be thankful! Especially since as the book ended, Frantz revealed that Tina was writing her own memoir. This was a fun read, and informative as to the interband politics we had glimpses of prior; but never in this detail. But I am already queued up awaiting the book that Tina Weymouth has probably been writing all year in quarantine. To that I say “…yes, please!”
The ticking hi-hats ping-ponging back and forth in the stereo field and acoustic guitars in the intro to “Thelma + Louise” were a deceptive cover for the most synthetic track here with a thwacking drum machine rhythm track and synth accents calling back to 1982 in the biggest way on this new album. As did Ms. Shazar’s non-legato singing, delivering each syllable to the beat in her distinctive manner. The sampled pizzicato strings added some rare tension to this current album; not unlike the plucking of taut neck tendons.
Following that nostalgic slice of angst, the placidly paced “In Situ,” was well placed for great pacing. It acted like a healing balm in its place with the gently paced piano notes folding into the acoustic strums of Chinich. I absolutely love the lyric below.
“It’s a long way from here to there
Sometimes there’s no there, there, there, there”
It not only managed to reference Gertrude Stein’s witheringly poetic dismissal of…so many things, but by doubling her quote it brought attention to a lack of compassion and reassurance. The way Ms. Shazar faded on the last two “there, there’s” left no mistake to her motherly intent on delivering that line. The tambourine rhythm here was the only percussive device as the song was as gentle and the ghost harmonics that faded up on the coda had me straining to hear more.
Pal Shazar and Andrew Chinich ca.2016
The winsome folk sound of “I’d Remember” was far away from the tension that this band had built its foundation on. It was a song for a gentle, breezy, late summer afternoon of bittersweet reflection. “You’re Bored”‘ was built on the acoustic template of the album with a touch of the blues but what made this song so [ironically] memorable was the A/A/B/B and full-on A/A/A/A rhyming scheme of its verse and chorus structure. How better to invoke boredom and repetition than by such a limited palette?
The album ended with the twangy, almost country music sound of “Lonely Bee.” The wistful number carried out the end of the album on a resigned, yet hopeful note. A far cry from the two-steps from adolescent angst of the early work. And that, in a nutshell, is what makes “Cottoncloud 9” such an engaging listen. It’s a leap back to a writing team that had been apart for half a lifetime and brought their respective growth experiences to the writing table and had no problem exploring the changes to their sound without trying to resurrect anything other than the partnership.
Normally, when a band gets the Rock G.P.A. treatment there are more than three albums, with some touching perfection while others fall far short of that standard. In short; there can be a lot more drama. But this time we took a look at a band with a very small footprint of albums, owing to the brief burst of work at the start of their careers followed by 30+ years apart. The joy of this album was that there was almost no similarity to the sound of the band’s youth. Apart from the distinctive delivery of Ms. Shazar, who always had time to deliver her lyrics cleanly enunciated right on the beat with not much in the way of legato phrasing or blue notes.
The latest album was constructed of ten strong songs that bring distinction and accomplishment to the table in equal amounts. They were all memorable with a relaxed vibe that would have been unknown to the younger Slow Children. More than that we can hardly ask for. The big notion now is that there are another seven albums that were either Pal Shazar solo albums from the 1991- 2006 period as well as an album where she co-starred with her partner, Jules Shear as Shear-Shazar. The time I saw them in concert, there was no Slow Children music performed by her; just newer solo material and it was a good show. The only reason why I didn’t buy her then-new CD “The Morning After” was down to my penury at the time. I was lucky to afford the door charge then, but looking back from 2020 there is all of this music beckoning.
Against all odds, the 21st century managed to cough up something positive along with the unceasing flow of calamity getting on my nerves. The third Slow Children album was released into the world in 2016; 34 years following their last one, and against all odds, the same winning team was present all these years later. The album was produced by Jules Shear, who sang BVs, but left all guitar duties to Andrew Chinich this time. Stephen Hague was not co-producing this one, but he was once again playing the rest of the band with bass, synth, and now percussion duties added to the roster. No actual drums this time, but Kit Watson was on programming and virtual instruments to add anything else needed. The album’s white on white cover featured the now grey haired Chinich and the blonde Shazar looking diametrically opposed to the look on their US debut album.
From the very start, it was apparent that things were going to be a little different. As “Where The Buffalo” began with a pumping piano rhythm and sampled cellos filling the song’s intro, the vibe here was a slow, spacious, loping groove so laid back that one might think it was a completely different band. When Pal Shazar opened her mouth to finally sing, it was astonishing. Her the topline melody was seriously quoting Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire” and hearing her sing the first lyric of “well you can borrow my caaa-aaaar” dared me to not think of that little ditty immediately. And I failed that test.
The luxuriating groove here, even after quoting Springsteen, gave the song a vibe that could cruise for miles and miles. The tense young woman who had populated the first two Slow Children albums had certainly gone through some serious changes over the years. The subtle guitar twang coupled with the cello rhythm could have lasted forever, and showed that Mr. Chinich had more to offer the world than jittery New Wave [though we love that…]. This was not your father’s Slow Children.
As if to reassure us that this was still, indeed “Slow Children, next came a song that while featuring acoustic instrumentation, showed that Pal Shazar had not yet thrown out the Slow Children playbook where she strongly favored non-legato phrasing in her singing. This brought a touch of the familiar to what was, on the face of it, a folk song. “Coulda Been Someone” was a delicate pop song delivered in the established vocal style of the first two albums while being further afield musically.
The outlier of “Suspense” on album number two obviously went place in the ensuing decades. “What You Gonna Do About It” was another bluesy track with acoustic instrumentation that simmered for its first two minutes while Ms. Shazar parlayed her storyline via traditional verse/chorus structure until the band perked up to add drums and electric guitar as she settled into a repetitive groove vocally in the song’s middle eight. With triplet lines ending with the word “me” and the next triplet all rhyming A/A/A. When she dropped the F-bomb in the last line before resuming verse/chorus structure, she was obviously no longer the distraught young woman of the first two records. This was a woman having her say no matter what anyone thought of it and no one’s victim.
Fingersnaps and a touch of psychedelic dub on the intro to “Sweet Sue Lyon” let us know that the band were still into Nabokov [their name was from the text of “Lolita” and their early single “Spring In Fialta” was inspired by a Nabokov short story]. But certainly not in an obvious way. This song was a character study musing on the later life of the actress who starred in Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film of the “unfilmable book.” Here she was imagined as a waitress in a diner after fleeing her brief Hollywood stardom and circumstances parallel to that of the book character for something more banal [yet safe]. The swinging, complex melody here was the furthest thing from banal.
It should be considered something of a breakthrough to have the almost passive voice of the first two albums assert itself as in the song “Something Bad.” The twangy, loping pop song had more piano rhythm in it, as did the opener and the net effects is of the band producing a cheekily ironic country music song of their own stripe.
“Vanessa Vacillating” opened deceptively, with acoustic guitar strums before the energy of the song took a drastic uptick with a jittery synth ostinato that was doubled with delay for a touch of the old Mororderspace sound. This one was definitely a throwback to the New Wave sound of their debut album; right down to the textbook cold ending that came out of nowhere.
Then, all bets were off as the band took a plunge into the waters of acoustic blues!! The sound of “Suspense” was only acoustic guitar and a solitary, plodding beat that sounded like a boot stomping the floor. Eventually some spectral synths joined into the song to add a touch more of the song’s requisite fatalistic air. Through it all, singer Pal Shazar kept her laser-like focus on articulating her sense of unease that was the push and pull of all of her songs. Seen through that lens, her [successful] dalliance with The Blues here was not only not a shocker, but thoroughly right and proper. That didn’t stop the tune from having another of their great cold endings as the music bed dropped away on the final line “this suspense is making me siiiiick…” with all of the arid dryness that the production could muster.
It was obvious to me that the director of A+R for this band was really stuck on “President Am I” becoming the hit single that was latent in its pop perfection, since the extended 12″ mix of the song from the previous album was included on this, their subsequent album as well. We’ve written extensively about the remix before, but the take away here is that the inclusion of a dancefloor vibed track like that in the middle of this album of songs was somewhat ill-conceived. It really didn’t belong here on an album that was branching out and away from their New Wave roots. I’m guessing that this track from the band’s Soundcloud page might have been the original 10th song on “Mad About Town.” Sample below.
“Respective Sides” was a song that I can always hear and find that it sounds new and exciting each time. The dramatic drumbeats and percussion juxtaposed with guitar chords, coupled with the filtered effects on Ms. Shazar’s vocals lent it a dramatic urgency. The hook-laden “Skill of A Caveman” sported a very memorable melody that could get caught in my cranium for long hours of the day. The repeated rhythmic guitar hook steamrolled right through the entire song and gave a foundation to the fantastic multipart harmonies by Shazar and Chinich.
If a track like “Suspense” was pushing far past the former boundaries of this band’s comfort zone, then the hyperkinetic “Missing Missiles” was New Wave “discomfort food.” With a frantic tempo of stop-start beats cheek-by-jowl with urgent drumrolls, an explosion of lyrics, and all of it underscored by wailing air raid siren synths announcing doomsday. How could it end any other way but suddenly and coldly… following this panicked two minute warning.
The closing “East Berlin By Rail” offered an unsettled ending to this typically anxious Slow Children album. The cinematic lyrics outlined a third person storyline for a change of pace. One got the impression that all of Ms. Shazar’s songs were projections of her own persona. The tritone synth figure wailing throughout the song seemed to echo on the sounds of the preceding “Missing Missiles” with the focus of the song’s angst being tightly centered on the Hans in the song’s lyric, instead of the millions of people at risk the the previous song. And the real standout here was the distorted, metallic noise guitar solo in the middle eight. Where did that come from?
Slow Children in America ended up making a big plash in 1982 with two albums in a short window of release that led one to expect that more would be forthcoming from the pixilated duo, but alas. It was not meant to be. The band had two albums but after RCA was pushing for the follow up to this album to be an EP, the band sensed that the label was not smelling any hits and was in retreat. The band were cut free and unraveled, which was a disappointment for me as I had no sightings in the wild for either Chinich or Shazar for decades.
Ms. Shazar ended up as the partner and wife of Jules Shear, which was interesting. They lived briefly in my city and I once saw a gig where they played together in a favorite local club almost 15 years ago. By that time Ms. Shazar had a thriving solo career of several albums of material out on various labels, but in 2010, she reconnected with Andrew Chinich and the songs began happening again. There was talk of a long-awaited third Slow Children album manifesting.