Mike Atkinson

Kevin Ayers – The Unfairground

Posted in album reviews, Stylus by Mike A on October 26, 2007

Originally published in Stylus magazine.

For anyone who has become immunized to the false dawns of that most debased of critical terms, the “stunning return to form,” it is only right and proper to approach the comeback album from Kevin Ayers with a certain wary skepticism. After all, it has been over thirty years since the run of inventive, idiosyncratic albums which won him his reputation—a run which was brought to an end partly by botched attempts to turn the deeply reluctant Ayers into a mainstream star, and partly by his own loss of confidence following the critical backlash which ensued. (The paradigm shift of punk which followed close on its heels didn’t help much either.)

Routinely described, even during his heyday, as “self-effacing,” Ayers responded by exiling himself to Spain and releasing a series of patchy albums during the 1980s, which gave the impression of a somewhat lost and defeated figure. Although 1992’s creditable Still Life with Guitar showed signs of getting back in the game, the subsequent tragic death of guitarist Ollie Halsall, Ayers’ closest musical associate for nearly twenty years, sent him scuttling back into semi-obscurity, leaving his remaining supporters with little hope that he would ever record again.

For these long-suffering fans in particular, The Unfairground comes pre-loaded with perilously high expectations, as well as some clear warning signs. After fifteen years of studio silence, a playing time of 34 minutes sounds distinctly miserly, and the reworking of two songs from that troubled 1980s period (the opening “Only Heaven Knows” and the closing “Take It Easy,” now re-titled “Run Run Run”) suggests that the well of inspiration might be close to drying up. Such understandable misgivings only serve to make The Unfairground’s triumph all the more remarkable.

The album’s three years of gestation have yielded a warm, luxuriant richness of sound, balanced by a tightly crafted compression of ideas; consequently, not one second of those 34 minutes feels wasted. As with the best of Ayers’ 1970s work, there is a sense that the listener is entering a self-contained musical universe, which defines itself on its own terms. It is a world of brightness and color, as reflected in the cover art (a mildly surreal depiction of Coney Island), but the gaiety is tempered by a certain sense of the solitary and forlorn (the “unfairground” is a deserted one).

Although Ayers’ talent for penning crisp, wry, tuneful songs had never altogether deserted him, this is his first album in three decades that gives his songs the musical context which they properly deserve. In this respect, the difference between the bloated “Take It Easy” of the 1980s and the nimble “Run Run Run” of the 2000s is quite remarkable; the bare words and melody may be the same, but in all other respects, we are looking at two utterly different works. Perhaps the crucial difference is this: for once, Ayers is not prepared to let the hired hands walk all over him. Instead, he has surrounded himself with a set of collaborators who sound in tune with his ethos, and both willing and able to do these songs full justice. With Ayers firmly back in the driving seat, directing every last note, this sense of engaged, enthusiastic collaboration permeates the whole album.

Perhaps trickiest of all, a bridge has been formed between the old and the new—between the 63-year old founding father of British psychedelia, and younger admirers such as Ladybug Transistor and Architecture In Helsinki, members of whom accompany him throughout. Rather than strive for the self-consciously contemporary, the arrangements bring a fresh feel to a broadly classic template, as well as making subtle references to Ayers’ musical heritage. There’s a slight whiff of Pepper-era Beatles lurking within the Tuscon Philharmonia’s string accompaniments, and a brief but unmistakable nod towards “I Am the Walrus” at the start of “Friends and Strangers.” The tumbling guitar figure which runs through the brooding, ominous “Brainstorm” evokes memories of “Irreversible Neural Damage,” Ayers’ 1974 duet with Nico, and there’s even a heart-warming reunion with former singing partner Bridget St. John on the standout cut “Baby Come Home.”

Other old friends include Hugh Hopper (Soft Machine) on bass, Phil Manzanera (Roxy Music) making some fine guest contributions on guitar, and a sampled Robert Wyatt adding wordless vocals to the suitably plaintive “Cold Shoulder,” by means of a mysterious piece of software known as “The Wyattron.”

Lyrically speaking, the songs deal with lost or long-distance love, and with Ayers’ mixed emotions as he contemplates the passing of the years and the approach of old age. As ever, the language is simple and the sentiments deceptively oblique, with the occasional cynical aside. (“Some people really need attention, see just what they want to see; never more than their reflection in someone else’s fantasy.”) The sheer catchiness of the songwriting lends the material a straightforward initial appeal, which peels away over time to reveal something altogether more subtle and elusive at its core.

If The Unfairground doesn’t quite qualify as a “stunning” return to form—“stunning” never really being Ayers’ stock in trade—it certainly represents the delightful and unexpected renaissance of a perennially undervalued artist, whose quiet but significant influence is long overdue for re-assessment.

Rating: A-

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Interview: Kevin Ayers

Posted in interviews, Stylus by Mike A on October 23, 2007

An edited version of this interview originally appeared in Stylus Magazine.

Since the recent release of The Unfairground, the first new album from British singer-songwriter Kevin Ayers in fifteen years, there has been an increasing and long overdue acknowledgement of his position as one of the founding fathers of British psychedelic rock. Along with Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge and Daevid Allen, Ayers was a member of the original line-up of the Soft Machine. Following a grueling tour of the US in 1968, supporting the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Ayers left the band and embarked upon a remarkably varied and consistently engaging solo career, releasing a series of critically acclaimed (if commercially under-performing) albums during the 1970s, before slowly sliding off the radars of all but the committed few during the 1980s.

For his latest album, which marks something of a return to the freshness, eclecticism, and clarity of vision that characterized the best of his 1970s work, Ayers has enlisted the services of a wide array of younger collaborators. These include members of Ladybug Transistor, Architecture In Helsinki, Noonday Underground, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Teenage Fanclub, as well as Euros Childs (the former leader of Gorkys Zygotic Mynci, and a long-time champion of Ayers’ work), and the rising pop-soul singer Candie Payne.

Ayers is widely regarded as an awkward and reluctant interviewee, whose distaste for self-promotion could be attributed partly to unreconstructed hippy anti-commercialism, and partly to classic upper middle-class English reserve (he is, after all, the son of a diplomat). Speaking to Stylus from his home in Southern France, where he leads a simple and mostly reclusive existence, he willingly submitted himself to a guided stroll through his solo career to date. Choosing his words slowly and carefully, with frequent pauses, Ayers’ natural wariness was tempered by a wry humor and a gentle, understated charm.

To anyone who knew your work with the Soft Machine, your debut solo album Joy of a Toy [1969] would have been viewed as a radical change of direction: from free-form experimental jamming into a kind of classic songwriting approach.  Had you been storing up songs for future use over a long period, or was it a sudden decision, that you were going to switch direction and try your hand at songwriting?

The latter.  Basically, I’m a songwriter.  I’m not a virtuoso musician, or anything like that.  It was great to do the so-called “free-form” stuff – but after a while, you get the T-shirt, you know?  I think that songs are more enduring, and more fun to do.  A lot of free-form stuff is very self-indulgent.  That’s why I left, because Soft Machine was heading more into fifteen minute solos – and frankly, it wasn’t just Soft Machine.  There was a whole era, wasn’t there?  Endless guitar solos, and people just banging around.  Which is great fun for a while, but then you just want to move on.

You got out ahead of the curve, I suppose.  But then with Shooting at the Moon [1970], you threw another curveball.  You’re back with a band [the Whole World] – indeed, it’s your only album which is credited to you and a band – and there’s actually quite a lot of free-form stuff on there, where you’ve abandoned traditional rhythmic and harmonic structures.  It’s not quite heading back in the same direction, but it’s certainly a surprise.

Well, I was surrounded by some incredibly talented musicians, and it’s a side that’s just… there.  I still have it, to a certain extent.

Was that album more of a band effort, or was it more your vision as interpreted by others?

Both! [laughs]

So were you the benevolent dictator figure directing everything?

In a way.  I always consider myself as a sort of catalyst, for these very talented people.  I provided a sort of framework, and allowed them an incredible leeway.  Letting them have their heads, basically.

And I suppose you were also mentoring a young Mike Oldfield at that stage?

In a way.  He was quite a lost soul at the time.  I think it provided some kind of stability for him.

Onto Whatevershebringswesing [1971].  There’s a lot of eclecticism at work: you’ve got symphonic rock, vaudeville, avant-garde, and almost MOR balladry on there.  This genre-hopping is a key part of your appeal, I think.  What was the motivation?  Was it experimentalism; was it showing off; was it restlessness?

It’s just the way I am – it’s as simple as that – and it’s to my disadvantage, I think.  If you think about most best-selling albums, they’re all basically one tone, one direction, repeating the same thing over and over again.  I just wasn’t able to do that.  But there certainly wasn’t any showing off in it at all, I can assure you.  That’s just how my mind works.

It seems to me that you were constantly picking a new genre and seeing what could be done with it.  And then trying another, and then trying another…

Yes.  And also, a lot of stuff is kind of arbitrary.  It happens in the studio.  Choices are made, simply because some machine sounds better than another, or someone suggests another bass line, and you say: yeah, that’s a good idea too.  So it’s kind of random.

Thinking about the eclecticism: as someone who has always admired your music, I have always found it difficult to recommend a definitive Kevin Ayers album, or even a definitive Kevin Ayers track, as somewhere for people to get started.  But I think that Bananamour [1973] is as close as we get.  It’s a more unified album than before.

I’m glad that you said that, because that’s one of my favourites.

You must get asked the same question, and I wondered whether you’d give the same reply?

Pretty much.  I think it sort of covers the ground.

The reason I originally bought it was because of an interview you gave while supposedly promoting The Confessions of Dr. Dream [1974].  During the interview, you said that you were disappointed with Dr. Dream, and that Bananamour was the superior album.  I thought that was such an extraordinary thing for an artist to be saying, especially as you had just moved to a different label.  So I went out and bought Bananamour and left Dr. Dream for a couple of years, because you told me it wasn’t very good!

[softly] Oh, shit… [laughter]

Were you just winding up the interviewer, or did you have reservations about that album after it came out?

[ruefully] I don’t know; I’m always saying things like that, and putting my foot in my mouth… and always getting told off for it too.  Managers tearing their hair out, you know… [laughs]

Round about the same time, you collaborated on Lady June’s Linguistic Leprosy [1974].  Lady June was your landlady, wasn’t she?

[fondly] Yes, she was.  And a great friend… poor old soul.  It was actually quite a fun collaboration.

It conjures up images of arts labs, and happenings, and spontaneous poetry readings, and Bohemian life in general.

Yeah, spot on.

It’s an image of a free and easy time.  Was it as free, and was it as easy, as I imagine it to be?

In terms of things being open?   Yes, that’s how it was.  And it’s not like that now.  At all.

The live album June 1st 1974 [recorded with John Cale, Brian Eno and Nico] sounds like one of the first Big Pushes, if you like.  There was an attempt being made to turn you into a rock star, and it sounds like a pre-conceived showcase.  You’ve said that you weren’t always too comfortable with that.

No, I wasn’t.  It was too stagey, and you’re absolutely right – it was Island’s attempt to make me into a kind of pop star, with high heeled shoes and all that kind of stuff.  It just wasn’t me; I didn’t fit the picture.

And in any case, you were promoting the Dr. Dream album, which is quite “out there”.  It’s not something that you would expect to be pushing to a mass market.

Not at all.  Especially the second side, which is basically one track, all interlinked.  It’s sort of the remnants of my Soft Machine days.

And there’s an old Soft Machine song, “Why Are We Sleeping”, on the first side as well.

[gently bristling] That’s not Soft Machine, that’s my song.

I do beg your pardon! [nervous laughter]

Granted.

It was round about this time that Ollie Halsall came onto the scene.  He then stayed with you, as your closest musical associate, for the next eighteen years.  At a time when an awful lot of collaborators were constantly coming and going, what was it about Ollie that led to the two of you sticking together for so long?

[long pause] Gosh, that’s a really hard one.  I think it was just instant empathy.  I met him while I was in the studio doing Dr. Dream; I think he was working with members of Colosseum at the time.  I needed a guitar solo for “Didn’t Feel Lonely Till I Thought Of You”.  I opened the door, and there was this guy walking along with a white Gibson.  I said, “Do you fancy doing a guitar solo?”  Sure, he said… and then came in and did this stunning solo, after listening to it just once.  That was it.  That was love, you know?

Ollie worked with you closely on the next album, Sweet Deceiver [1975].  This is a problematic one.  I listened to it again this week and absolutely loved it – I had forgotten what a good album it was – and I really do think that it’s one of your most underrated albums.

Well, thank you for saying that.  [emphatically]  Thank you very much for saying that.

It just annoys me, because up until that point, you’d been the golden boy of the music press.  You’d always had good reviews.  And then all of a sudden, they turned against you with this one.

They did, yeah.

I suppose it was because you were saying goodbye to the avant-garde, and they didn’t like the idea of you going in a more conventional soft-rock direction.  I think you were nobbled by the cool police, actually.

Absolutely right.  It was probably Nick Kent, or someone like that.  It was panned.  I think something about the title pissed them off.

And the cover art maybe, because there’s this rather of-its-time line drawing of you.  But these are very superficial reasons for dismissing an album.

Well absolutely, but it’s so damaging to the artist.  People don’t realise that.  They sit there, sniffing their lines of coke, writing you off, sniping away [laughs] …and you get slammed.  At that time, the musical press was very powerful.  Today it’s zero, compared to what it used to be.  If you had a good review in Melody Maker or NME, you sold records.  Now, no-one really gives a shit. [laughs]  But thank you for saying that it’s an underrated album; I totally agree with you.

And then came Yes, We Have No Mananas [1976], which makes me think of sunshine, beaches, palm trees…

Falling in love does that for you. [laughs]

That was the emotional context, was it?

[fondly]  Of course.  It always is.  Either falling in love or out of love; those are the only two things that motivate anybody.

Well, my favourite song on there is “Yes I Do”, which is kind of pining for love; it’s unrequited love.

Oh my God.  I squirm when I hear that…

Do you?  That song summed it all up for me at that stage.  But we won’t go into that.

No!  [laughter]

You had John Reid, of all people, managing you at the time – and I think this was another Big Push.  He also had Elton John and Queen on his books, didn’t he?

No, but the problem was that it wasn’t a Big Push.  I was like a token; a golden boy; another charm on his bracelet.

Was he trying to talk you up, into the idea of becoming this silver-heeled pop star?

Not at all, no.  He just totally abandoned me.

Did he sell you a dream and then walk off?

He didn’t even sell me a dream.  He just bought me somehow, I don’t know how, and then proceeded to totally ignore me, in terms of any positive, constructive plan of what to do.

Was there, at any time, any part of you that wanted that kind of mainstream rock star status, or was it always anathema?

[long pause]  I think probably when I very first started, with the Wilde Flowers or something way back then.  It was part of the dream, yeah.  But after that, not at all.

By the time that Rainbow Takeaway [1978] came out, the ground had clearly been pulled from under your feet, in several ways.  The album had no promotion at all, and punk rock had come along.  All of a sudden, people didn’t want to hear about sunshine and palm trees; they wanted to hear about high-rises and dole queues. [laughter]  Rainbow Takeaway isn’t even a rock and roll album, really.  It starts with flutes, and vibes, and one of your most easy listening numbers, “Blaming It All On Love”.  Then the very first line on the album is “I guess I’m feeling old today”.  How did you feel about that kind of paradigm shift?  Did it touch your world?  Did it make you feel like a man out of time?

I kind of numbed out on that.  I kept working, but obviously it wasn’t working.  What I was doing was out of context, as you rightly pointed out.  Because punk came in, and all this kind of mad… I mean, another generation had just clocked in, you know?

It was another explosion of creativity, but in a very different direction.

Yes, and the best of punk rock is great.  I was just rather out of context.

With That’s What You Get Babe [1980], there was more promotion once again.  You had a nice sleeve, you were getting daytime radio play for “Money Money Money”, and so on.  But once again, the NME absolutely savaged you, with the reviewer [Ian Penman] launching into a tirade against the whole concept of the Cult Figure, and holding you up as an example.  And in some ways, you are the living archetype of the Cult Figure – at least in terms of someone who’s actually living, of course.  Is it a description with which you feel comfortable?  Are there pros and cons, or is it a completely meaningless classification?

[mildly baffled] Having never been in any kind of cult, I don’t really know what that means.

I think it means that there’s a small number of people who really get what you’re doing, as opposed to having a larger number of people who might only have been half listening.

[sternly] Cult is the wrong word, then.  It’s a selective audience. [laughter]

You then left your major label, moved to Spain, and Diamond Jack & the Queen of Pain [1983] came along.  In many ways, this is your strangest album.  It’s the only time where it sounds as if you’re trying to follow fashion.  There are typically Eighties-sounding synths on there, and so on.

That’s because it was commissioned.  Someone offered to pay for it, but on condition that I agreed to his producer, and his musicians, and his ideas as to how things should be.  I was very poor at the time, so I had to do it.  And that’s really all there is to it.

Listening to it, I almost sensed an invisible stick, just off-camera, forcing you to sing in a way that’s not your normal singing style. 

Yeah, you’ve got it.  Absolutely right.

Various albums then emerged during the Eighties, which are less well-known: Deia Vu [1984], As Close As You Think [1986] – which no-one seems to have heard, as it isn’t available on CD – and Falling Up [1988], which sounds you’re just having fun.  One of the Amazon reviews says it’s as if you’ve “just drifted up from the beach bar to the studio with old friends”.   Was music perhaps less of a priority during this period?

[pause] Der der der… I think Falling Up was a good record, though. [another pause]  I mean, hopefully what you said was right.  It was coming up from the beach and having fun with friends?  Well, that’s good then.  Leave it there.

But there’s a track on there called “Am I Really Marcel”, in which you hold your hands up and talk about being lazy, and about how you lack any ambition – and you talk about it in a way that suggests that you’re very comfortable with that.  Should we take that at face value?

Well, obviously I’m not that lazy, or else I wouldn’t have had a whole career in the business.  But you have to be clear in terms of what “lazy” means.  It just means that you don’t need to be involved in the day-to-day hustle, or hassle, of city life.  You can actually exist as a person on your own, without all the trappings.  “Lazy” means that you don’t necessarily have to keep making an effort to make yourself… liked.  [pause] Jesus, I got that out! [relieved chuckle]

That’s a good answer.

Thank you!

Still Life With Guitar came out in 1992.  Shortly after its release, Ollie Halsall tragically died – and then you didn’t release another album of original new material for fifteen years.  It’s very tempting to draw certain conclusions from that.

Well, you’ve got it, yeah.

Right… [mutual pause; nervous laughter from both sides] 

I mean, you’ve answered… it’s a rhetorical question.

OK.  Well, I could delve further, but I kind of don’t want to.

[evenly] No, I don’t think you should.

That’s fair enough.

[quietly] Thank you.

Let’s fast-forward to The Unfairground – which, I have to say, has caused delight and celebration across the land.  I certainly think that it’s your best album in over thirty years.  Why now?  What gave you the impetus to return to recording, after so long?

That’s a really tough one to answer; I’ve been asked that already.  A: I need to earn a living.  B: I need some kind of intellectual satisfaction, and life.  I need to feel that I’ve been vaguely useful on the planet.  B… um, B, C, D, where are we?…  [laughter]

So there was a sense that you had something more to say, and something more to offer.  But there must have been a change in your general mindset…  in your confidence, maybe, I don’t know…

Well, I think it’s probably been made more from a lack of confidence.  I need to re-affirm that I still exist, you know?  It’s my job; it’s what I do; it’s been my whole life.  I kind of have to do it – otherwise I’m dead.  Dead to myself. [pause] Was that a good answer?

With some of the 1980s albums, it didn’t feel as if you were so firmly in the driving seat – but with this album, it comes across that you very much are.  I gather that you personally directed every note on the album.  Was this a happy experience?  Was it a long hard slog, or was it a joyous explosion of energy?

A long hard slog.  It always is!  There’s no such thing as a joyous explosion in recording studios…

I’m outside of it; I can romanticise these things. [laughter]

You might have it for a while.  You might have a few moments of it, but then you find it sounds like crap on tape – and then it’s the long hard slog.  It’s work; it’s like anything else.

Tim [Shepard], your manager, helped bring in a range of younger collaborators. 

He did.  In fact, he arranged most of those people.

Has it led you to a curiosity in their work?

Sort of, but I don’t really listen to pop music these days.  I listen to jazz – the old jazz – and classical music.  I’m not trying to be snobby about it; there’s just so much crap around.  I turn the radio on, and listen, and I just have to turn it off again.  I’ll listen to world music, but mainstream pop, or whatever, I just find to be totally uninteresting.

And how many more ways are there of expressing the same emotions, over and over again?  I have one specific question about the album.  Robert Wyatt features, and yet he doesn’t.  Instead, there’s a credit to something called a Wyattron.  What the blazes is a Wyattron?

It’s a synthesiser, with his voice recorded on it.  So you can play the piano, but instead of a piano or organ note, you get his voice.

Did he record a part for that particular song, and then have it shipped in?

No, no.  It’s a program on a computer, which I can use.

There has been a sustained period of publicity involved with this album, and I know it’s not your favourite activity in the world.  Are you longing for the buzz to die down, so you can go back to your quiet, bucolic, rustic life – or does this mark the beginning of a new period of activity?

It’s like a punishment tour for me.  [laughter]  No, you have to support what you do.  You don’t necessarily have to enjoy it.  But I do enjoy talking to people, sometimes.  And other times, it’s not enjoyable at all.

I would imagine particularly when they’re asking you questions which they could have found out for themselves, without too much effort.

Well, particularly when they know the answers already.

And they’re just trying to get you to parrot them back?  Fair enough.  Well, that’s just about covered everything.  Thanks for talking to me.  It’s the first time that I’ve ever interviewed someone as a fan – and I am a lifelong fan of your work.  It’s brought me a lot of pleasure over the years, so I just wanted to say thank you – and I just hope that you can find it in yourself to do some live dates in this country, at some stage.  Please.

I’d like to thank you for intelligent questions.

I did my best.

You certainly did.

Thank you.  All the best, Kevin.

V/A – Golden Afrique Vol.3

Posted in album reviews, Stylus by Mike A on March 2, 2007

Following widely acclaimed historical round-ups of West African (Vol.1) and Congolese (Vol.2) musical styles, this exemplary series now turns its attentions southwards. Disc One traces the development of South African music from 1939 to 1998, covering all its best-known genres: Mbube, Kwela, Kwaito, and Mbaquanga, a.k.a. “township jive.” The emphasis is on dance grooves rather than song structures, and although over half the tracks rely on the exact same ascending three-chord sequence, the defiantly joyous spirit of the apartheid-era “shebeens” is equally all-pervading.

Disc Two, which splits equally between Zimbabwe and Zambia, is dominated by the sort of pealing, tumbling guitar lines which came to prominence in the mid ‘80s, via bands such as the Bhundu Boys. There’s less rawness and more fluidity, but the overall celebratory vibe is equally intoxicating.

(Samples from the album’s 34 tracks can be streamed here.)

Joan as Police Woman – Real Life

Posted in album reviews, Stylus by Mike A on December 20, 2006

It starts with an unambiguous declaration of love (“we’re real life”), building up to an arresting “reveal”: the real life name of the lover himself. Thereafter, the experience of love is explored from varying angles: from the slow-burning exultance of “I Defy” (a duet with Antony Hegarty, whose multi-tracked entreaties bring the song to climax), to the mournful sorrow of “Save Me” and the almost post-coital stillness and resolve of “Flushed Chest” and “Anyone.” The dominant mood is one of resolved reflection, tenderly expressed, and only punctured by the remembered adolescent yearnings and Banshees/Cure goth-pop stylings of “Christobel,” the sole up-tempo interlude. Joan Wasser’s voice is soft and strong, velvety and honeyed, coaxing and caressing, uncommonly intimate and quietly compelling.

CSS – Let’s Make Love and Listen to Death From Above

Posted in singles reviews, Stylus by Mike A on December 20, 2006

Yes, but which Death From Above: the Canadian indie duo with a fondness for elephant trunks, or the NYC dance-punk label which forced them to append “1979” to their name? The track’s friskily loping Le Tigre/Tom Tom Club groove strongly evokes the latter, whilst the swaggering rock and roll lurch of its two short instrumental interludes suggests the former—particularly when you clock the accompanying visual references on the video. Since DFA 1979 split up shortly after the single’s release, all we can do is savor the irony as we carelessly disco-dance upon their graves, turning a breezily irreverent tribute into a cruelly pointed epitaph as we do so.

V/A – Queer Noises 1961-1978: From the Closet to the Charts

Posted in album reviews, Stylus by Mike A on October 4, 2006

Originally published in Stylus magazine.

he one characteristic which unifies Queer Noises 1961-1978: From the Closet to the Charts—a diverse ragbag of mostly obscure, limited release tracks—is that all concern themselves, in one way or another, with aspects of the American and/or British gay experience. More remarkably, compiler Jon Savage has succeeded in assembling material which is almost exclusively written and performed by gay men, and aimed at an audience of other gay men.

As the tracks are arranged chronologically, what emerges is a kind of oral history of the nascent gay movement, from its underground beginnings to its emergence into the popular consciousness. Consequently, the themes which predominate are markedly different from the stock ways in which gay “issues” were handled by the mainstream straight media. There are refreshingly few “victims” here. No one is blackmailed, trapped in a loveless marriage, eaten up by self-loathing, or even beaten to a pulp by The Evil Homophobes Who Oppress Us From Every Corner. Best of all, and contrary to tacitly accepted Hollywood convention, no one dies.

Instead, we are presented with a series of truthful testimonials to a more everyday gay existence—to life as it was actually lived. These are songs of longing, lust, tenderness, pain, fantasy, hope, and celebration. Many are intentionally comic—and a few are unintentionally hilarious along the way.

As a social document, the collection is a great success, and a valuable piece of material for any queer theorist. However, as a rewarding musical experience, there are some serious barriers facing anyone who wishes to listen to it in full for more than a couple of plays.

The selections are at their most consistently strong during the opening sequence of nine songs from the 1960s. A pronounced seam of vaudevillian sauciness and downright bitchiness runs through most of them, as a largely closed community opts to create its own entertainment. Best of the bunch is the deliciously filthy “Kay, Why?,” performed by The Brothers Butch, and almost certainly influenced by the camp, subversive banter of Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick as “resting actors” Julian and Sandy, on the BBC’s weekly Round the Horne radio show. It’s a thinly disguised ode to the properties of KY Jelly, that perennially essential anal lubricant, masquerading as a lovelorn lament. (“Why did you have to make a mess of me? Why did you slip through my fingers? Oooh!”)

Elsewhere, there are two selections (“Florence of Arabia” and “I’d Rather Fight Than Swish”) from the astonishingly prolific Camp Records: a small underground operation running out of Los Angeles, whose entire back catalogue is available for download via the web. It’s truly thrilling to discover stuff like this, and a case could have been made for devoting an entire album to similar material. It’s also interesting to note how the occasional use of non-PC terms such as “freak” and “fairy” fail to offend in this context, and to compare this with the re-appropriation of the term “queer” in the early 1990s.

Unfortunately, things begin to come unstuck once we reach the early 1970s, as represented by a motley bunch of bargain-basement obscurities whose lengthy absence from view cannot solely be accredited to homophobic attitudes in the dominant host culture. In the copious and highly informative sleeve notes, we are told of licensing difficulties with a number of better-known artists, which blocked their inclusion—and maybe here is where the pinch is most keenly felt. David Bowie’s “Queen Bitch” would have worked wonderfully well (“She’s so swishy in her satin and tat”), as would the still unreleased “Cocksucker Blues” from the Rolling Stones (“Where do I get my cock sucked? Where do I get my ass fucked?”).

Instead, we are inflicted with toe-curling horrors such as Michael Cohen’s dirge-like “Bitterfeast,” the amateurishly mixed C&W knees-up of Chris Robison’s “Lookin’ for a Boy” (“very popular in the New York clubs of the day,” so we are told, although one has one’s doubts), and the inexplicably revered cult figure Jobriath, once again providing ample evidence of the true reasons behind his catastrophic commercial failure. Perhaps worst of all is “Coochy Coo” by Polly Perkins: the collection’s one female vocalist, and its sole nod towards the lesbian experience. As a glitter-rock plagiarism of Dion’s “The Wanderer,” delivered in the rasping, gravely tones of the Sunday lunchtime pub singer, it communicates nothing of value, and its inclusion ends up smacking of the sort of well-meaning “here’s one for the ladies” tokenism that subsequently led to the Tom Robinson Band’s excruciating “Right On Sister.” (Robinson is another notable omission.)

“Coochy Coo” also exemplifies another problem for the listener—namely, that it sometimes takes a concentrated effort of will to divine any “gay” content from the material at hand. Allow your concentration to lapse for a moment or two, and you’re simply left with an assortment of undistinguished and imitative period pieces. This particularly blights the closing section of punk/new wave choices, although Black Randy & The Metro Squad’s “Trouble at the Cup” is redeemed by an arrestingly sleazy defiance.

There are still some gems to be found among the dross—most notably from the overlapping worlds of soul, funk, and disco. The late Dave Godin, curator of the fine Deep Soul Treasures series, is credited as an advisor to the project, and his hand is surely evident in the unearthing of tracks such as the rousing “Closet Queen,” from the Chairmen of the Board’s Harrison Kennedy. “Closet queen, you’re alright,” assures Kennedy, over an addictively catchy stop-start acoustic riff. “Come into the light, where you can be seen,” he continues, with a rare and touching benevolence for a mainstream soul artist.

This theme is continued with the album’s standout cut: “Ain’t Nobody Straight in L.A.”, from the post-Robinson Miracles. “Homosexuality is a part of society,” they coo, as a heavenly flute trill underpins the song’s essentially carefree feel. “I guess that they need some more variety; freedom of expression is really the thing!” The track ends with the cheerfully heterosexual band members debating whether or not to visit a local gay bar, and eventually deciding in the affirmative. (“But, you know, some of the finest women are in the gay bars!” “Look, gay people are nice people too, man!”) As with “Closet Queen,” what initially strikes the listener as gawkily ridiculous soon converts to the genuinely affecting. Which of today’s R&B acts would risk unambiguous statements of this nature? At times like this, one is tempted to wonder how much true progress has been made.

The album concludes, almost inevitably, with Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” the first major hit single by an openly gay act, here re-contextualised as a moment of triumph for gay culture, ushering in a new era of visibility and acceptance—but you can probably collate your own history from here, as the signposts are clearly marked. It is to the lasting credit of Savage’s wildly uneven but fascinating compilation that this hitherto shadowy first chapter can now be filled in.

Rating: B-

The Hidden Cameras – Awoo

Posted in album reviews, Stylus by Mike A on September 21, 2006

Originally published in Stylus magazine.

Full disclosure: the second album by The Hidden Cameras, Mississauga Goddam, was my favorite release of 2004, and I have been panting with anticipation for its successor for several months. It therefore gives me no pleasure to report that, even after dozens of plays, AWOO steadfastly refuses to graduate from the extremely pleasant to the truly transcendent.

I have given AWOO time, because Mississauga Goddam also needed time. Time enough to accept that the same so-called “gay church folk music” formula was still being followed, with little discernible musical or lyrical progression. Time enough to realize that this was no reductive repetition, but an elegant refinement and consolidation of the themes which The Smell of Our Own set in motion. For when a house style is this singular, with so few points of useful comparison outside of its own self-contained universe, then unfair charges of sameness are almost inevitable.

For me, what sealed Mississauga’s greatness was witnessing it being performed live. Whilst his perma-grinning band-mates cavorted and exhorted, whipping us up into a suitable state of exultant communion, singer and songwriter Joel Gibb stood stock still in the center of the fray: lofty, inscrutable, and detached, reciting his lines with barely a glimmer of visible emotion. So here were multiple contradictions: between the gleeful extroverts and the aloof loner, between the innocent fun of the high school revue and the darker undertow of the confessional booth, between the intensity of the lyrics and the impassivity of their performance. The private and public, the adult and the child-like, the sacred and the profane: all gloriously intermingled for maximum effect.

AWOO duly conjures up all of these memories—but it adds nothing to them, beyond a mental projection of what it will feel like to hear the new songs performed in a few weeks’ time, in the same small venue, in the same city, two years on. So, yes: the insistent, pile-driving “Lollipop,” largely performed on one repeated note at great speed, like a punk rock Philip Glass, will have us all frantically head-bobbing and pogo-dancing. Similarly, the call-and-response nature of the title track will have us hollering “Awoo!” in all the right places, and beaming like loons as we do so. Which is all neat and dandy—but we’ve been here before, our imaginations need more to work on than mere anticipation of a jolly night out, and we expect more from The Hidden Cameras than safe, predictable indie under-achievement.

Nevertheless, not everything has remained static—for this third re-working of the formula is conspicuously lacking in one of its key ingredients. Quite simply, all the raunchy gay sex has gone—and with it, the thrill (and let’s be honest, itwas a thrill) of scouring the lyrics for the latest transgressive gobbets, and of being the only person in the room to know what Gibb was really singing about. (“Guess what, everybody! This one’s about two guys pissing on each other!”)

Not only are they stripped of sex; their pointed lack of gender-specific references means that the unequivocally gay perspective has also vanished. Now, this can be interpreted in one of two ways. Either the Hidden Cameras are moving away from the limitations of the sexual-orientation-specific and towards a more all-encompassing universality—or else this is a pragmatic move towards the mainstream, made for fear of alienating potential new listeners who have the band tagged as gay-sex-obsessed one-trick ponies, and hence of no direct personal relevance. It’s a dilemma which the Scissor Sisters must also have been wrestling with, as the distinctly de-queered Ta-Dah will testify.

In the absence of the directly carnal, new themes emerge. Some of the time, you sense that Joel Gibb is celebrating his release from a sexual relationship, and gratefully embracing his new-found freedom from desire. Sex is no longer viewed as the holy sacrament; instead, celibacy and solitude are leading him towards an elevated state of grace. Maybe Gibb is outgrowing his penchant for the wilfully provocative; there are no “Ban Marriage” polemics to be found here. On the other hand, by blurring the gender boundaries (there’s the odd “she” to be found here and there, and even a couple of veiled hints that babies might be on the way), maybe he is seeking to provoke his existing audience, in an altogether subtler manner.

Not that any of this matters when you listen to AWOO without the aid of a lyric sheet, as most will happily continue to do. As ever, none of this material is particularly matched by the music, beyond a certain tendency towards the euphoric, or the beatific. Once again, this is emphatically major-key, rousingly assertive stuff, heavy on harmonic and rhythmic unison, and furnished with huge, rollicking melodic refrains which evoke something of the campfire sing-along. Once again, these are contrasted with softer, gentler, altogether more low-key interludes, such as the prayer-like swoon of “Heaven Turns To” and the achingly lovely “Wandering.” Once again, these are tunes that will effortlessly lodge themselves in your head: contrary to its title, the lead single “Death of a Tune” has been a particularly insistent earworm over the last couple of weeks, as has the absurdly catchy title track.

For many of the confirmed diehards, this will be a more than ample extension of the band’s undeniable capacity to entrance and delight. However, and much as it hurts to say so, rather than winning over new converts, AWOO’s main achievement might be to delineate, skilfully but inescapably, the outer boundaries of its creators’ artistic reach.

Rating: B

Ali Farka Touré – Savane

Posted in album reviews, Stylus by Mike A on August 30, 2006

Originally published in Stylus magazine.

Completed just before Ali Farka Touré’s death in March of this year, the posthumously released Savane forms the final part of a trilogy of recent Malian albums to be recorded in situ on the banks of the River Niger, using World Circuit’s mobile studio at the Hotel Mandé in Bamako. Sonically speaking, it sits somewhere in the middle of its two companions: the lush arrangements of Boulevard De L’independence from Toumani Diabaté’s Symmetric Orchestra, and the set of stripped-down improvisational duets between Touré and Diabaté which made up the Grammy Award-winning In the Heart of the Moon.

What all three albums share is a distinct sense of place. With Savane in particular, the slightly echoing acoustics of the recording location are quite wonderfully represented, evoking images of a cool, capacious interior space, whose bare, solid walls shade it from the light and heat outside. (Then again, it’s easy to project.)

As such, Savane feels very much like a daytime album, best suited for afternoons and early evenings. There’s nothing of the night here, be it celebratory or carnal—these are mature, thoughtful, clear-headed pieces from a recognized master in his late sixties, whom you sense is comfortable with the authority which both his musical track record and his status in Malian society have bestowed upon him. (For the last two years of his life, Touré served as the mayor of his hometown of Niafunké.)

This sense of authority is carried through to the album’s lyrical content, which touches upon such socially responsible topics as the need for road building in order to integrate Mali’s disparate, multi-lingual population, and for the sale of powered pumps instead of instruments of war. Indeed, the translated lyrics of “Machengoidi” begin with a direct challenge to Touré’s fellow countrymen: “What is your contribution to the development of this country? Who has worked? What has he done?”

It’s not all finger-wagging polemic, though. Many of the songs have their roots in folklore, several concern themselves with the spiritual or the supernatural—and one number, the swirling, violin-led “Hanana,” is an arrangement of a song traditionally performed in celebration of a forthcoming male circumcision.

Nevertheless, it is inevitable that for listeners outside Mali—and indeed for most Malians themselves, as Savane is sung in at least four different local languages—the album is bound to fall short of Toure’s introductory statement in the sleeve notes: “It’s not so much the music that’s important, as what you’re saying. But the music has to be good for people to listen to the words.” Happily, the music on display here more than compensates for this loss.

Whereas Touré and Diabaté’s In the Heart of the Moon suffered from a tendency towards aimless, under-baked free-form noodling (Ali picks a riff and strums it for six minutes; Toumani tinkles away over the top; stop, pick a new riff and repeat), Savane benefits from a more considered, structured approach. Sure, there’s plenty of space here for some thrilling improvisational flourishes, such as the arresting interplay of lone guitar and dual ngoni that dominates the title track—but these passages never become overlong or stale.

Indeed, it is this clear mission to innovate—to take traditional song forms, genres, and instrumentations, and to twist them into diversely satisfying new shapes, both rhythmically and texturally—which gives Savane some of its most special qualities. In particular, it is wonderful to hear fresh new mileage being squeezed out of a seemingly played-out genre such as the blues—something which has been happening increasingly over recent years, thanks to the likes of Tinariwen, Boubacar Traoré, and the whole “desert blues” phenomenon.

If Savane has one unifying musical characteristic, it lies in the way that tracks anchor themselves around a central melodic phrase, each repetition ending and briefly pausing on a “base” note, thus locking the mood of each piece into a perpetual state of “coming home.” The overall effect is an intensely reassuring one.

This sense of melodic reassurance is further enhanced by an all-pervading air of calm concentration, engaged collaboration, and a steady, unfussed industry—all of which makes this an exceptionally effective album for de-stressing, and for the soothing of troubled souls. (Trust me on this, for I know of what I speak.)

However, to recommend this album merely as some sort of aural palliative would be to do it a massive disservice. For over and above this, Savane stands out both as Ali Farka Touré’s masterpiece, and as one of contemporary African music’s finest achievements to date. As such, one could not ask for a more fitting memorial to his talent and influence.

Rating: A

Stylus Singles Jukebox, 15th August 2006

Posted in singles reviews, Stylus by Mike A on August 15, 2006

Bela B ft. Charlotte Roche – 1,2,3… 

Now, you really do need to understand a bit of German in order to extract maximum value from this, as it could easily be dismissed as a booze-addled bar-room stomp from a past-it old rocker (Bela B fronted Berlin’s merry punky-popsters Die Ärzte back in the 1980s, before turning to an acting career).  However, once you figure out what’s going on (and the video does help enormously), then this reveals itself as a tidily constructed comic mini-drama, in which Bela rebuffs the drunken advances of some random creepy dude, before making similarly creepy moves on a Hot Chick who turns out to Creepy Dude’s main squeeze.  Uh-oh, threesome alert!  What’s a guy to do!  Notable also for the ace chat-up line: “Hi, my name is Bela, I like Nelson Mandela.”  Oh come on, you’ve got to admire the man’s front.  (And guess what: in the nudey Swinger’s Club video, you can literally do just that!)  (8)

David Guetta vs. The Egg – Love Don’t Let Me Go Walking Away 

Apparently, The Egg took some persuading to let this DJ mash-up go out under their name – as well they might, as this bears no residual traces of their original mid-tempo guitar-based chugger.  Instead, French producer David Guetta has grafted the vocals from his recent dance hit “Love Don’t Let Me Go” over the Tocadisco remix of The Egg’s “Walking Away”, twisting the latter’s central riff in a variety of ways, and augmenting its sturdy electrohouse sound with some of the trappings of French filter-disco. Happily, the riff is a chunky, seductive killer: an instantly recognisable “OH MY GOD IT’S THIS ONE!” affair, whose already lengthy shelf-life is hence usefully expanded by a few more weeks. (6)

Alesha – Lipstick 

Nearly three years after Mis-teeq’s last hit, Alesha Dixon returns with a self-penned solo début, which maps out very different territory to her former band’s tolerable if unremarkable soul-pop. Fatally—because I can’t think of one instance where this has ever worked—she has pitched herself to a younger demographic than before, attempting to unite warring factions in playgrounds across the land by means of a latter-day anthem to Girl Power. Playing to none of whatever strengths she might once have had as a soul-based singer, Alesha yowls her “message” over a stridently clomping rock-based backing, which takes “Let’s Get This Party Started” era Pink as its starting point.  Alesha’s other mistake is to start the track at full throttle – after which there is nowhere else to go, other than repeatedly bashing you round the head with a nagging shrillness that swiftly grates.  Having dutifully played this track at least half a dozen times over the past few days, I find myself bitterly resenting every second that I have spent enduring this wretched, wretched piece of work. (1)

Da Buzz – Without Breaking 

In which a late 80s Stock Aitken Waterman Hi-NRG vocal rides atop the sort of burbling chugalug “wally disco” rhythm that might have graced something by Kelly Marie or Liquid Gold in 1980, the sum total also sounding rather like a typical Scandiwegian Eurovision entry from the early 2000s. It could almost have worked, but Da Buzz bring nothing new to the party, and the song suffers from a tediously flattened melody line, which stands still in all the places where it should soar. The musical equivalent of a “shit, why did I do that” hit of stale amyl nitrate, from the dregs of that funny little bottle that has been lurking at the back of the refrigerator since the night when… yes, well. (4)

The Spinto Band – Oh Mandy

At the very real risk of repeating what everyone else has to say about this (because I think we might safely hazard a reasonable guess), there’s just no getting away from the fact that “Oh Mandy” has “Arcade Fire” written all over it – albeit an Arcade Fire stripped of its grandeur and depth, and replaced with a winsome, plaintive, floppy-fringed indie-boy feyness.  Consequently, the only emotion that such reductive mimesis can provoke is the strong urge to exhume Funeral from the bottom of the CD pile and give it another listen.  Because it’s been a few months.  So, you know, cheers for the reminder. (4)

Stylus Singles Jukebox, 8th August 2006

Posted in singles reviews, Stylus by Mike A on August 8, 2006

Debojit – Jeena (My Heart Goes Duma Duma)

This 30-year old crooner from Assam won an Indian TV talent show last year, and “Jeena” – the title track from his debut album – is an endearingly easy-going, old-fashioned soft-shoe-shuffle of a love song, with melodic and harmonic touches that evoke something of the spirit of 1960s MOR.  Somehow, it just about manages to stay on the right side of corny – unlike the cheesy little reciprocal hand movements which Debojit and his lady friend demonstrate during the chorus, which involve a mixture of breast-tapping, baby-waving and sign language. (7)

Laura Lynn – Jij Bent De Mooiste

The “Schlager queen of Flanders” doesn’t quite scale the dizzy heights of last year’s sublime “Je hebt me 1000 maal belogen,” this being more of a straightforwardly traditional, four-square, oompah-at-the-beer-fest belter: all blaring brass and sturdy unison, and unapologetically old-fashioned in a late 1960s/early 1970s Eurovision kind of way. I had no idea that people were still making Schlager records like this, and a large part of me is immensely cheered by the discovery. (6)

Kasabian – Empire

Much as it pains my kneejerk if-the-NME-likes-it-it-must-be-shit sensibilities to admit this, Kasabian—much like their close contemporaries Razorlight—are beginning to show signs that they could develop into quite a decent little band. The neatest trick on display here is the tempo shift into the schaffel-glam-stomp of the chorus, with its nods to “Rock And Roll Part 2” and its insistent chant-along refrain. (“We’re all wasting away!”) They could still do with a decent lyricist—but, you know, small steps. (6)

Sistem – Never 

Sistem are the Romanian Stomp-esque percussion troupe who backed Luminita Angel at Eurovision 2005 (a.k.a. The Night Of The Big Drums, as all who witnessed it will testify). This suffers by comparison, being let down by a weedy, under-par vocal and a disappointing lack of variety in the banging and crashing department (although this is partially redeemed by a rather nice marimba break). It also suffers by comparison with Mihai Traistariu’s mighty “Tornero,” which has set a benchmark against which all Eurovision-related Romanian dance music must be judged. (5)

Marisa Monte – Pra Ser Sincero

Frustratingly enough, my favourite song on this week’s Singles Jukebox is also the song about which I can find the least to say. Marisa Monte belongs to the same culturally well-connected Brazilian popular music tradition as Caetano Veloso, and “Pra ser sincero” is a fine example of that tradition: graceful, sophisticated, elegantly restrained music for grown-ups, which shimmers like fireflies at dusk, and soothes like an ice-cool Caipirinha after a hot shower. (7)

Adem – Launch Yourself 

Sporting remixes by Four Tet and Hot Chip, you know what you’re in for straight away: laidback, sun-drenched folktronica, which combines delicate intricacy (Adem does some lovely things with toy bells and musical boxes, if that’s what they are) and shambling dourness (those slightly ragged multi-tracked vocals, which anchor the track’s sonic flights of fantasy in glum everyday reality). (6)

Shanadoo – King Kong

Cultural cross-pollination ahoy!  Double the sugar rush, double the fun!  Girlie J-Pop meets boshing Eurodance, as specifically engineered for the German and Austrian market by Swiss producer David Brandes. However, it’s the Eurodance that wins out: swamping the winsome Japanese four-piece with all the usual tricks: orchestral synth stabs used as counterpoint, one-fingered rinky-dink melodies in the bridge between chorus and verse, and a general relentless giddiness which eclipses even the 2001 original by fellow Brandes protégés E-Rotic. (6)

Stylus Singles Jukebox, 25th July 2006

Posted in singles reviews, Stylus by Mike A on July 25, 2006

Nadiya – Roc 

As a one-off appropriation of rock stylings by a predominantly R&B-based act, “Roc” invites comparison with En Vogue’s similarly yowling, strident – and ultimately irritating – “Free Your Mind”.  Once again, all traces of anything approaching funkiness, or “groove”, have been taken right out of the equation.  What remains is a shrill, top-heavy rattle, punctuated by ugly power-chord guitar stabs and a tinny, brassy keyboard refrain which – like the whole performance – falls well short of its triumphalist, anthemic aspirations.  Not that any of this stopped the song from reaching #2 in the French singles charts, but what can you do? (3)

Beatriz Luengo – Hit-Lerele 

After squandering the initial promise of its sweetly strummed acoustic sample, this insipid, plodding piece of instantly forgettable Hispanic R&B is partially redeemed by Yotuel Romero’s guest rap, whose animated reggaeton/dancefloor inflections provide a welcome counterpoint to Luengo’s ineffectual simperings. Nevertheless, it’s still much too little, much too late. (2)

Ne-Yo – Sexy Love 

Doing markedly better in the UK than in the States, this—how can we put this delicately?—“affectionate tribute” to Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” is underpinned by a clappity-clappity Diwali-esque rhythm track, which duly evokes fond memories of Wayne Wonder, Lumidee, and the summer of 2003. Ne-Yo softens the song’s underlying sexual thrust with a gently yearning romanticism, the backing singers go “ooh-ooh” in all the right places, and the combined effect is one of teasingly understated seduction. Which, of course, makes it as sexy as hell.  (7)

George Michael – An Easier Affair

Nope: this one isn’t going to arrest the long slow artistic/commercial decline, either.  Over the same tired old suburban-wine-bar soul/funk backing that he has been peddling ever since “Fast Love”, George recycles the same tired old post-coming-out “revelations” that have graced all of his interviews since being busted for cottaging a full eight years ago.  Whereas 1998’s “Outside” handled much the same issues with wit, aplomb, and a boldness which was genuinely ground-breaking for its time, “An Easier Affair” has nothing to say that we haven’t heard before, and says it with the sort of narrow, self-absorbed literalism that even Madonna at her most solipsistic manages to swerve clear of.  Hell, some of this half-digested self-help piffle (“Don’t let them tell you who you are is not enough”) would make even Geri Halliwell cringe. (4)

Ze Pequeno – Ze Phenomene

French language reggaeton, somewhat inevitably rendered in a Manu Chao-esque style, avec accordion (naturellement).  Presumably huge on the back-packer beach bar scene; markedly less essential anywhere else. (5)

The Similou – All This Love 

The freshest, peppiest, friskiest, zingiest re-casting of funky 1980s electro-pop since Chromeo’s “Needy Girl” – but directed this time at a teenage rather than an art-school audience.  Like so much of this year’s best pop, it’s from Sweden, where they know how to put these things together to maximum effect.  The elastic bassline boings along like the Human League’s “(Keep Feeling) Fascination”, while a dinky little “Popcorn” synth riff skips over the top, and a syn-drum occasionally makes its presence felt.   The vibe is light, summery, and clad in shades of pastel, with a thin cotton jersey slung around its neck.  The vibe has blonde highlights in its hair, trousers rolled up to the ankles, and espadrilles on its feet.  The vibe is sipping a pina colada through a bendy straw.  Fun and sunshine – there’s enough for everyone.  All that’s missing is the sea.  (7)

Stylus Singles Jukebox, 18th July 2006

Posted in singles reviews, Stylus by Mike A on July 18, 2006

Paolo Nutini – Last Request 

Oh, Paolo.  I came not to praise you, but to dismiss you as this year’s James Blunt, and thus bury you under veritable mountains of smart-assedness (such an easy lob).  And yet, while this year’s James Blunt you most certainly are – that half-strangled upper register alone! – something about this song has hooked me in against my will.  Like “You’re Beautiful” before it, what seems at face value to be a bog-standard sappy love song reveals itself over time to contain something murkier at its core – and yet there’s something about Nutini’s desperate, self-abasing, borderline-creepy “give me one last shag before we split up” fucked-upness which is both believable and oddly compelling.  Tell you what: if this was belted out by some low-rent diva in a Eurodance cover version, it would sound bloody fantastic. (7)

McFly – Please Please

OK, so for those of you out of the UK teenpop celeb-goss loop, here’s the backstory: In the touching belief that this will Break Them In The States, Just Like A Hard Day’s Night Or Something, McFly make rubbish new movie (Just My Luck), starring Lindsay Lohan. During filming, drummer Harry has alleged Saucy Fling with Lohan. Following said fling (hotly denied by Lohan’s “people”), the other three members of McFly “secretly” pen a rib-ticklingly lustful ode to Lohan (“Please please Lindsay please!”), as a Bit Of A Wind-Up Like, God You Should Have Seen His Face. Wot larks, eh! The result is a serviceably jolly piece of punky-power-pop fluff, whose nascent laddishness is augmented by some nifty bar-room/pub-rock piano fills along the way. Oh, and it’s for charity, and it’s bundled with an equally uncomplicated romp through Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” (7)

Franz Ferdinand – Eleanor, Put Your Boots On 

If you were thinking that this understated, gently yearning ode to long-distance love was a strange choice of single from the second album, then be advised that Franz have seen fit to re-record it, in a fuller, brighter and beefier new arrangement which chimes right in with the current vogue for soft-rocking AOR/MOR Guilty Pleasures pop. While radio-friendliness is certainly gained, something of the original’s lilting, touching romanticism is also lost—none of which is helped by Kapranos’s somewhat mannered occasional departures from the core melody. Happily, the song itself is just about strong enough to withstand being buggered about with. (8)

TV On The Radio – Wolf Like Me

No, no, no. Good grief, what are they teaching the kids in Goth School these days?  Look, if you’re going to do a song about turning into a werewolf “when the moon is round and full”, then you’re supposed to sound all bleak and sinister and tortured, and not so bloody cheerful about it, OK?  Bauhaus would never have made such an elementary error, I’m telling you. (8)

Young Dro ft. T.I. – Shoulder Lean

Sigh. As P.D. James said about Lily Allen on this week’s Newsnight Review: this simply wasn’t made for people like me.  (The endless droning repetition of the title does it no favours, either.)  Hell, I can scarcely even tell that Young Dro takes the first section (slurred like Fiddy, oozing languid menace), and T.I. the second (sharper, crisper, amusingly surreal).  Oh, and there’s a swift knock-back for Plan B in the Reality stakes: his mother might be shacked up with a crackhead, but round T.I.’s way, “don’t nobody live with my mum but a bunch of junkies”.  That’s bunch, as in plural, as in suck on that, skinny English boy. (5)

Plan B – Mama (Loves a Crackhead) 

An arrestingly accomplished tell-it-like-it-is depiction of a son’s concern, frustration and anger at his mother’s no-good waster of a boyfriend. The delivery is impeccable (the rat-a-tat staccato contrasting nicely with the summery vibe of the acoustic-driven backing), the emotion palpable (rising to a crescendo of perfectly aimed vitriol in the last verse), the situation entirely believable (you instinctively feels that he knows of what he speaks), and the inevitable Mike Skinner/Eminem comparisons fully justified (and in any case, both artists could use a couple of lessons in quality control). (9)

Sarah Nixey – Strangelove

In which Her Out Of Black Box Recorder, to put it bluntly, “does a Goldfrapp”. Flaunting a rather played-out set of stylistic tricks, it comes at least three years too late to make any sort of impact outside the usual circles, viz. art-fags over the age of 30 (the continuation of mid-1990s Billie Ray Martin by other means) and lovestruck str8 boyz with a yen for a bit of breathily purring Posh Totty (the continuation of mid-1960s Honor Blackman by other means). As I fall cheerfully into one of the above categories, I have no problem in giving it 7.  (7)

Stylus Singles Jukebox, 7th February 2006

Posted in singles reviews, Stylus by Mike A on February 7, 2006

Conjure One – Extraordinary Way

The chap behind Conjure One was also one of the chaps behind Delerium, who (along with guest vocalist Sarah McLachlan) had a UK Top 3 hit in 2000 with “Silence”. This is essentially more of the same: melodic commercial trance with soft female vocals, and the sort of non-specifically “deep” lyrics that can readily be customised to soundtrack the peak-time, big-room, rushing-on-the-second-pill e-piphany of one’s own devising. (“Oh God, this is ME! How did they KNOW?”)  (6)

The Ordinary Boys – Boys Will Be Boys

The Ordinary Boys seem content to inhabit a perpetual Autumn 1980, and on the strength of this dinky little 2-Tone pastiche (the only such number in their repertoire, which mostly tips its hat in the direction of Paul Weller) I’m not about to rock their boat. With the breakneck tempo of Bad Manners, the block chords of Madness (specifically “Baggy Trousers”), the horns of The Specials, and even a guest appearance from the son of The Beat’s Rankin’ Roger, it scores full marks for verisimilitude. I once saw Phil Jupitus sing guest lead vocals on this, on stage at the Rescue Rooms in Nottingham. And very good he was too. Better than that jumped-up media whore who usually sings with them, at any rate. (6)

Rahat Fateh Ali Khan – Jiya Dhadak Dhadak Jaaye

Having served since boyhood as an apprentice to his late uncle, the legendary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Rahat was officially appointed as his successor, taking over the Qawwali master’s musical entourage upon his death in 1997. So, no pressure then. OK, so maybe Rahat is no Nusrat—but he’s a fine singer all the same. Taken from the soundtrack of the recent Bollywood smash Kalyug (a genre-busting exposé of the porn industry, no less) this old-fashioned romantic ballad has just reached Number One in the Hindi charts, giving Rahat a renewed visibility and a welcome career boost. This is the sort of thing which presses all of my buttons, and I think it’s perfectly lovely. (7)

Kapanga – Rock

So you were back-packing through Argentina, and you ended up in this little place in the middle of nowhere, where you spent every night getting hammered on tequila slammers at the bar in the main square, and two or three times a night someone would walk up to the battered old jukebox in the corner and put this record on, with its raucously good-humoured Manu Chao-esque blend of ska and thrash and accordions and the whole bar would start shouting along and stomping their feet and bashing their pool cues on the ground, and someone would always grab you from your seat and start whirling you round, while chickens scattered out of your way in the dust, and grinning, toothless grandmas emerged from the kitchen, nodding their heads from side to side and rattling their pots and pans, and, well, you had to be there really, but hearing this brings it all back. Even if you were never really there in the first place. (8)

Lil Wayne – Fireman 

Known to us Brits—if indeed he is known at all—as one of the two guest rappers on Destiny’s Child’s godawful “Soldier” from this time a year ago, Lil’ Wayne turns in an efficiently workmanlike piece of lumbering, lascivious, amiably menacing crunk. Hmm, crunk. We don’t get that much of it over here—but when we do, it’s mostly provided by Lil’ Jon. So is that a crunk “thing”, calling everybody Lil’ Something-or-other? And if so, where does that leave Lil’ Kim? (As you might have gathered, I am paddling in unfamiliar waters. But this is quite good.) (6)

t.A.T.u. – Friend Or Foe 

Written by Dave Stewart from the chart-topping Eurythmics! Featuring chart-topping Sting on bass! And sounding just like any other Tatu single, but polished up a bit, and thoroughly de-lesbified of course, and not quite as shrill and breathless and urgent as they were in the old days, but then they are All Grown Up Now, and Re-establishing Themselves In The Global Marketplace, and clearly No Longer Ruled By An Evil Svengali Figure, and therefore Free To Be Themselves At Last, and, yeah, you know the script. Never being much of a fan of Trevor Horn Faux-Lesbian Tatu in the first place (except when they scandalised Eurovision, which was FACKING MEGA), I can’t say that Dave Stewart Adult Contemporary Tatu either improves or dilutes the original blueprint in any significant way. (5)

Stylus Singles Jukebox, 30th January 2006

Posted in singles reviews, Stylus by Mike A on January 30, 2006

Tokio Hotel – Schrei 

On the strength of this stridently yowling, faux-rebellious, pop-metal monstrosity – with a chorus that must have been precision-tooled to annoy the living fuck out of anyone over the age of consent – their chances of international crossover success would seem mercifully slight. Really darlings, it’s quite the most fearfully horrid racket I’ve heard all year. (2)

Chris Brown – Yo (Excuse Me Miss) 

Put together by A Touch Of Jazz productions, who have done some good work with Jill Scott in the past, this tries and fails to transplant “nu classic soul” values onto a wholesome, fresh-faced ode to teenage courtship. Several things let it down: the cloying winsomeness of the song, the unappealingly weedy lisp of young Master Brown (who you just know is only a couple of years away from ripping off the prom suit and the dickie bow, to reveal the usual oiled-n-tatted tits-n-abs), and a horrible loop which sound like two wooden blocks being knocked together, mixed up way too high, which – once you’ve spotted it and locked onto it – all but dominates the whole track. (5)

Elena Paparizou – Mambo! 

Greece’s reigning Eurovision champion returns with a cautious re-jigging of her winning formula, including – oh God, the flashbacks! – copious helpings of those infernal Big Drums which so dominated last year’s contest. (This year, to save us all, the powers-that-be should look at introducing some sort of European Big Drum Quota, impounding all excess percussion at Customs.) Although light on anything which might resemble your actual Mambo as such, this is a cheerfully efficient romp, with plenty to commend it – particularly the Eurodisco-meets-Cossack-wedding-party inflections of the bridging section which follows the chorus. (6)

West End Girls – West End Girls 

No, sorry, I don’t get this. Why, pray, does the world need a Swedish girl duo whose entire act is made up of cover versions of Pet Shop Boys songs? (There’s a whole album of this stuff, I’ll have you know.) Who decided this was a good idea? Which I guess it might have been, had this been re-conceived as, ooh I dunno, boshing Eurotrance or something daft like that. As it is, this disappointingly faithful re-working strips out all the atmosphere and context of the original, leaving nothing but a homogenised sheen of gormless vacuity. (4)

The Go! Team – Ladyflash 

Slap a bit of Cookie Crew/Wee Papas proto-femi-rap on top of the guitar chops from Archie Bell’s “Tighten Up”, shove some late 90s Big Beat underneath for ballast, lighten the mixture with the odd string sample, leave to marinate on a Mercury-nominated album for the thick end of 18 months, and then – just when everyone assumes that every last drop of promotion has been wrung from said album – bung it out as a single and see what happens. Raucous, messy, invigorating… and very, very Brighton. (In any case, most of your sales will come from the Kevin Shields mash-up of this track with “Huddle Formation”, on the CD single and the B-side of the 7-inch. Word to the wise: it’s serviceably catchy, but you’d never know that Shields had anything to do with it.) (7)

Stylus Singles Jukebox, 23rd January 2006

Posted in singles reviews, Stylus by Mike A on January 23, 2006

Remioromen – Konayuki 

Until discovering that Remioromen were a Japanese band, I had blithely assumed that they were of Scandinavian extract. Finnish, maybe – or Icelandic, at a stretch. God knows why: a particular quality in the phonetics, perhaps, combined with a kind of widescreen melancholy which I have grown to associate with northern Europe. Anyhow, such lyrical impenetrability does have the benefit of lending universality to the music, regardless of what specific sentiments are actually being conveyed. The effect is not unlike listening to Sigur Ros, albeit wedded to the sort of midtempo indie-AOR chug that would normally turn me right off. However, any potential dreariness is staved off by a glorious refrain, in which the singer switches to a soaring upper register which displays all his strengths, while a sympathetic string arrangement strikes up behind. As the whole song shifts into a higher gear, moody introspection is dispelled by a yearning, expansive intensity – which reads to me like a final, desperate, doomed plea for redemption, rising up from the smouldering wreckage of a shattered love affair. So please don’t tell me that it’s about, I dunno, believing in yourself and following your dream or some other sort of Martin-esque cod profundity. Some stones are better left unturned. (8)

Pharrell Williams – Angel

A potentially delightful exercise in classic soul stylings of the Marvin Gaye/Prince variety is obstructed by the harsh, lumbering lower half of the arrangement, which awkwardly disrupts the flow of the upper half, all sweetly honeyed falsettos and beatific piano figures. Maybe that was the intention: to subvert the surface innocence of Pharrell’s vocal performance by hinting at the more directly libidinous intentions which he cannot convincingly conceal. After all, are we really expected to buy his “respectful son” act, as he first seeks the advice of his mother, before reassuring his girlfriend’s father that his intentions are honourable? Maybe the tell-tale moment comes with the line “I won’t touch your girl in your sight”. Well, that and referring to her “ass like a loaf of bread” at the top of the track, before asking whether anyone wants a “slice”. Bit of a giveaway, that. This light-hearted combination of the sacred and the profane could have worked – but ultimately, its opposing musical and lyrical themes create messy confusion rather than intriguing dynamic tension. (5)

A-Ha – Analogue (All I Want)

It’s hard to believe that A-ha have been having hits – in mainland Europe, at least – for the past twenty years, quietly notching up the sort of sneaking, how-did-they-do-that longevity which has also been bestowed upon fellow 1980s survivors Depeche Mode. As someone who hasn’t exactly paid much attention to them over those twenty years, I find myself struck, on the evidence of this at least, by a sense of natural generational progression, successfully sidestepping the sort of Faded Teen Hero/Peter Pan syndrome that would have scuppered a lesser act. Pleading for a second chance from both his wife and his son, Morten Harket – in as fine a voice as ever – articulates a kind of mournful desperation that is particular to a man in his time of life. The band hasn’t lost the knack of fashioning an instant hook, either. Like “Take On Me” before it, “All I Want” is centred upon the sort of emphatic, ascending three-note figure which – as recent personal experience can testify – can lodge in the brain for days. (6)

Cascada – Everytime We Touch

Like so much of the best pop-oriented Euro-NRG-Trance, this manages to strike just the right balance between the plaintive and the ecstatic. While the verses offer up a yearning plea for emotional/sexual fulfilment, the storming choruses illustrate just what a joyous release that fulfilment can be – at which point, we lurch into a rasping, brutal, deliriously dumb slab of Scooter-esque stadium techno, built around one of those insanely catchy melodic figures which are a speciality of the genre, and further emphasised by a gonzo-militaristic insistence on the down-beats. It’s wilfully dumb, not unlike the wilful dumbness of the early Ramones: a tightly constricted formula which can be endlessly re-jigged, each slight re-jigging topping pleasure levels back up to their maximum. In this case, it falls to the second verse and chorus to tinker with the expectations of the dancefloor: with each successive four-bar section, you can never precisely forecast where you’re going to be taken next. (7)

Richard Hawley – Just Like The Rain 

As many have observed, Hawley’s songs really do sound like they have been around forever: lost standards, plucked from the ether and made into living, breathing flesh. Besides which, South Yorkshire has always been big on Country & Western – and indeed, you can almost imagine a Sheffield version of Don Williams belting this out on a Friday night, at the sort of working men’s club where the teenage Hawley first cut his musical teeth. However, what separates “Just Like The Rain” from any number of MOR C&W standards is precisely that quality of the ethereal: a shimmering lightness of touch, where the exquisite intricacy of the gently tumbling arrangement adds weight to what might otherwise have been a perilously slight song structure. There’s precious little musical movement to the verses, which simply hang in the air, content to state and then re-state their purpose, just as Hawley – here cast as the returning prodigal wanderer – states and re-states both his remorse and his relief. Faced with this blend of lachrymose regret and shining-eyed hope, you sense that redemption is mere moments away. (9)

Miranda – Don 

Whereas with some foreign language songs, the absence of literal meaning can open up all sorts of possibilities for subjective interpretation, in the case of this bizarre little Latino-pop confection, I must confess to remaining utterly mystified. For what it’s worth, my guess is that some sort of lightly comic narrative is being conveyed, as a youthful sounding boy/girl duo deliver the verses in chiming unison over jerky triplets, a fuzzed-out rock riff, and next to no bass. But if a story is being told here, then why does the track keep skidding off into the most ridiculously chirpy bubblegum interlude, featuring a preposterous one-note synth melody which could have been lifted from an early 1990s Nintendo platform game? Daft, disconnected and disorientating – but at the same time, perversely effective. (6)

Stylus Singles Jukebox, 17th January 2006

Posted in singles reviews, Stylus by Mike A on January 17, 2006

Arctic Monkeys – When The Sun Goes Down 

Yeah well I wouldn’t expect a bunch of smartarse Heard It All Before Darling clapped-out soft-as-shite arty-farty PONCES to understand the TOTAL FOOKIN KICK-ARSE GENIUS of the UK’s BRIGHTEST HOPE IN YEARS blah blah authentic sound of the streets blah blah telling it like it is in Tony B.Liar’s Nightmare Britain blah blah we don’t need no fat cat record labels blah blah the kidz are all-REET etc etc (cont’d next week’s NME, pages 1-94). Oh, look here. Spontaneous grassroots movement or tightly orchestrated conspiracy: I really, truly couldn’t give a shit. At least, not when the end product is as powerful and as pure as this raw-as-fuck kitchen-sink mini-drama, spinning its tale of a Sheffield prostitute and her leery “scumbag don’t you know” punter to maximum effect. Because when all is said and done, some young UK guitar bands have just Got It, and not having to sit down and analyse WHY they’ve got it is all part and parcel of their appeal. (7)

Mark Owen – Hail Mary

Although, on one level, it’s kind-of admirable that Little Marky has managed to sustain a tolerably successful solo recording career over the ten year period since the demise of Take That, one really has to wonder why, with the big reunion tour only three months away, he still feels the need to bother hawking such pedestrian fare as this. The big fat cheques are as good as written, dammit! So go brush up on your dance routines, and spare us this risible, James-Blunt-sings-Coldplay, Gustav Klimt referencing turgidity! (2)

Ashlee Simpson – L.O.V.E. 

Hang about, wasn’t Ashlee supposed to be the “edgy” Simpson sister, all pouts and sulks and Keeping It Real’s and This Is Me’s? In which case, why has she suddenly regressed from Goth Teen to Sleepover Party Girl? I thought Ashlee’s thing was all about Evolving And Growing As An Artist, not desperately hammering the pre-teen demographic because everyone else saw through her the last time round. Frankly, if I was a pre-teen Sleepover Party Girl, I’d feel a little insulted. Anyway, by far and away the worst feature of this would-be anthem to latter-day Girl Powah is its infuriating speak-and-spell chorus, of such desperate inanity that it would disgrace the compositional skills of a four-year old. I mean, does anybody—even the girlies dumb enough to sign up for Ashlee’s Gang in the first place—really need to be prompted with the letters L and O twenty-eight times in the space of one chorus? What is this, remedial class? Educational and fun, in the same way that a Krispy Kreme is nutritional and tasty. (1)

The Veronicas – Everything I’m Not 

Bloody Hell, it’s “Since U Been Gone” Part Two! Same stuttering one-note guitar figure underpinning the verse, same quiet-loud-quiet-loud dynamic, same vocal timbre, same defiant end-of-the-affair, screw-you-Jack, I-will-survive sentiment, same general Avril-does-Interpol stylings… how DARE these CHARLATANS get away with it? Possibly because “Everything I’m Not” was written and produced by Max Martin and Dr. Luke—the same team who were responsible for, er, “Since U Been Gone”. So that’s all right then? No, not really. While Clarkson’s effort felt refreshingly formula-busting, and in some sense (however artfully contrived) personally liberating for Clarkson, this merely feels like reductive I’ll-buy-me-some-of-that hackwork: re-casting last year’s smart breakthrough as this year’s dumb orthodoxy. (2)

Cat Power – The Greatest 

There’s something about the arrangement of this stately, gently regretful ballad—the strings, the little touches of tremolo twang, the overall sense of space—which puts me in mind of an Angelo Badalamenti soundtrack for a David Lynch film, sometime in the early 1990s. Julee Cruise or even Chris Isaak could have performed this, positioned in front of an old-fashioned radio microphone, shimmering in gold lurex, caught by a single blue spotlight, with a backdrop of crimson velvet, on the stage of a half-empty supper club in the middle of nowhere. Anyway, this has the sort of elegantly classy soulfulness which I hadn’t previously associated with Cat Power, and it would be good if it found an audience beyond her customary indie-folk niche. (That KT Tunstall, she could spare a few for starters.) (8)

Belle & Sebastian – Funny Little Frog 

Ten years ago, this breezy, brassy, infectiously chirpy little ditty would have slotted in perfectly between Baby Bird and the Boo Radleys on the Radio One Breakfast Show. (“Holly Hotlips, is that not a great record?” “It’s a great record, Chris.”) Its trajectory would have been clearly defined: teatime slot on TFI Friday, straight in at Number Eight on Sunday, bosh slap wallop, job’s a good ‘un. What simpler, happier times. Ten years on, we look through a hall of mirrors: at a bunch of reformed indie shamblers in their thirties evoking 1996 Britpoppers in their twenties, in turn evoking the sort of British bubblegum which would have held sway while they were all in infancy. In other words: two fondly re-imagined Golden Ages for the price of one. Thus, for all the charming optimism on display, it’s difficult not to feel a certain wistfulness: for a time when this truly would have been Pure Pop for Now People, rather than Meta Pop for Ipod People who still feel a bit guilty about tuning into Radio Two at the weekend. (7)

Stylus Singles Jukebox: The B-Side Special

Posted in singles reviews, Stylus by Mike A on November 18, 2005

Will Young – Hey Ya 

I like Will, so I’m going to try and be nice. All credit to him for realising that, buried within the first half of Outkast’s “Hey Ya” there’s an altogether more melancholy song – not so much ripe for covering, as for uncovering – and there will be no minus points for attempting to uncover it via the medium of Supper Club Jazz, either. (This might get me lynched, but I liked Jamie Cullum’s versions of “Frontin’” and “High & Dry”. There, I’ve said it.) However, Young’s major interpretive mistake is to lose sight of the song’s essential concision, opting instead to ornament his delivery with a series of aimless trills and cadenzas which strive for soulfulness, but instead betray his unfortunate Jamiroquai-fanboy roots. Most annoying of all is the endless vamping around the phrase “nothing is forever”– pulled from its context, slapped around a bit, and then subjected to a slow, lingering Death By Faux Gospel. (4)

McFly – Mr. Brightside 

What interests me most about this whole collection of largely bashed-out-in-spare-studio-time, play-them-twice-and-forget-about-them oddities is trying to fathom out the varying intentions which lie behind them. In McFly’s case, I can only assume that this is part of a strategy of making the little kids feel like they’re not listening to a little kids’ band – ‘cos, you know, The Killers are like Dead Cool and all that, right? (You’ll have to construct your own translation into the current vernacular; I fear the task is quite beyond me.) But as a cred-booster, it’s such a strange choice – way too current, forcing all the obvious detrimental comparisons from NME-reading older siblings, and suggesting such a fore-shortened grasp of musical history. And they just don’t do anything with it, beyond an efficient carbon-copy workmanship which brings to mind those awful Top Of The Pops/Hot Hits albums that you could pick up for 99p in petrol stations in the early 1970s. (4)

Busted – Teenage Kicks 

Excuse me while I calm myself down for a moment. This shouldn’t matter. This shouldn’t matter in the slightest. I mean, poor old Peel’s not around to suffer the slings and arrows of Tory Boy Busted’s out-fucking-rageous fortune, now is he? And the rest of us can cope with the DESECRATION (eek, I said it), can’t we? Besides, it’s not even as if Busted themselves can be expected to comprehend the enormity of their crime. They’re young, why should they care, and this is no worse, in generational terms, than Sid Vicious pissing over “My Way” from a great height. Oh, who am I kidding, this is an utter abomination, and if this isn’t sitting RIGHT at the top of the page when our scores are totted up and the full article assembled, then I despair for our future as a nation. (1)

José Gonzalez – Hand On Your Heart

Oh God, it’s him again… that dreary acoustic bloke who sucked all the life out of The Knife’s “Heartbeats” a couple of years ago, now attempting to do the same job on Poor Brave Kylie? The sheer insensitivity of the man! She doesn’t need this right now! The trouble in this case being: if you take Kylie’s tangy seasoning out of the equation, all you’re left with is a drab slab of processed SAW/PWL sausage-meat, without any discernible flavour of its own. Hey, you want slow acoustic versions of pop classics, done by craggy Latin dudes? Then go seek Seu Jorge’s Bowie covers, from the soundtrack of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. He’ll see you right. (2)

Lemar – I Believe In A Thing Called Love 

“This week, I’ve decided to do something a little different for the judges, and for the voting audience back home. It’s a tough song, and not the sort of thing I’d normally go for – but this show is all about challenges, and stretching myself as an artist. I’ve been working really hard on it all week, together with my voice coaches, and I only hope that my interpretation does it justice.”

“Lemar, I’ve got to tell you: on that stage tonight, you were a disaster. Hold on, hold on, let me finish, you’ll have your say in a minute. Lemar, you looked nervous, you were trying too hard, and as for starting and ending the song with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”… what were you thinking of? It was a car-crash of a performance, and I think you might well be in serious trouble this week.” (3)

Girls Aloud – Girls On Film

Suffering hair-straighteners, this is enough to make me come over all Rockist in my old age middle youth. How DARE these manufactured Reality TV Pop Moppets, with their weedy, indifferent, processed, pick-and-mix counter at Woolworths so-called voices, DESECRATE the CHERISHED memories of True Vocal Artists such as, er, Simon Le Bon? Anyway, another argument (and one which I fully expect to hear expressed in an adjacent paragraph) would have it that the essential blankness of the girls’ performance is actually a perfect foil for the glossy vapidity of Duran Duran’s original. You choose, listener. Still, it’s nice that they’ve replicated the original guitar chops so precisely, and there are some pleasantly funky percussion flurries to keep you amused along the way. (4)

Goldfrapp – (Let’s Get) Physical 

It would be easy to perceive this as a smirking piss-take of Olivia Newton John’s aerobicised, flagrantly be-headbanded original – but the way I see it, Goldfrapp have taken a song which was already cheerfully aware of its own ludicrousness, and have actually stripped it of kitsch, thus imbuing it with a genuine sense of erotic potency for the first time. (Mind you, our Alison is clearly giving that porta-theremin some serious welly round her unmentionables towards the end, the saucy minx. Still, the theory stands.) (7)

Embrace – How Come 

If I were being flippant, then I’d say that as my indifference to Embrace is matched only by my indifference to D12, then the two elements nicely cancel each other out. But that’s the sort of cheap shot to which I would never stoop. There’s an awful lot of this sort of “genre-busting” cultural cross-pollination going on with these B-sides, isn’t there? R&B singers covering rock, indie bands doing hip-hop… before now, I hadn’t quite realised to what an extent this was happening. All of which rather numbs my response to Embrace’s shot at translating Eminem’s Middle American trailer park angst into their own idiom of dour, drizzle-spattered Northern English angst. It basically works well enough – give or take the odd linguistic dissonance (do Yorkshire homeboys “beef” with each other?), but then I guess that’s part of its charm. (5)

The Streets – Fit But You Know It (The Futureheads Remix) 

Blurring the lines between “remix” and “cover version”, The Futureheads smartly chuck out every last shred of Mike Skinner’s weedy, half-baked after-thought of a backing track, even muscling in with their own vocals come chorus time. The result is a wholesale geographical transposition of the track – from Lewisham kebab house to Mackem chip shop – which somehow works a whole lot better, making me actively long for a complete Alternative Northern Version of the second Streets album. (Oh, and I love the bit at the end which sounds like The Members.) (8)

Ladytron – Oops (Oh My) 

When Tweet sings this song, you sense that she is describing an auto-erotic “scene” that has been played out before, and which has been honed to teasing perfection; there’s something wickedly pre-meditated about all that “accidental” clothes-shedding, as if she’s the star of her own peep show. In Ladytron’s version, there’s no sense of self-control whatsoever; there’s barely any sense that the singer knows what the fuck is going on anymore. This is the sound of someone stumbling back in from the club – alone, totally trashed, all sexed-up and then some – but with no options for satisfactory release left, save for crashing into a sweaty, writhing, gasping, finger-frigging, amyl-nitrate spilling mélange of feverish, glassy-eyed, relentless, remorseless, keep-right-on-to-the-bitter-end self-abasement. Where Tweet invites you to watch, Ladytron dare you to. (7)

Jamelia – Numb 

In this instance, I am in what many might consider the fortunate situation of never having heard Linkin Park’s original. As a result, I find it almost impossible (beyond a certain degree of dark shading in the melody) to imagine this being sung as nu-metal, and quite inconceivable that these lyrics could ever have been sung by a conventional male rock voice. I mean, what self-respecting rock singer is going to admit to being this pussy-whipped by a Chick, eh fellas? Maybe that alone betrays how little I know about Linkin Park. Anyway, Jamelia plays the weary, wounded victim – right at the end of her tether, major Self Esteem Issues – to heart-rending perfection, her ever-intensifying anguish soaring way above the Lite Lounge Unplugged instrumentation behind her, the contrast between the two making her performance all the more effective. (8)

Teenage Fanclub – He’d Be A Diamond 

As good an example as any of the intentions behind one species of B-side cover: to take a strong song by an obscure artist and grant it a wider exposure. Listening to this – a sexual politics “message song” of the old school, with its lilting, gently strummed Byrds/Simon & Garfunkel qualities – my received wisdom concerning the Bevis Frond (leftfield psychedelic outsider, fairly whimsical, strictly cult appeal only) is overturned in an instant. Job done, then. (6)

Sophie Ellis-Bextor – Yes Sir, I Can Boogie 

Sophie’s a sharp cookie, and hearing this makes me realise how much I miss having her around. I love the way that she effortlessly recontexualises the whole essence of the song, turning it right around from the dead-eyed, wilfully gormless, no speaka da lingo mista, port-and-lemon swilling Desperate Slapperhood of the original, and transforming it into a sly, knowing, effortlessly commanding, I-call-the-shots-round-here-Mister signal to arms. In this context, the lines “already told you in the first verse, and in the chorus, but I will give you one more chance” take on a gently chiding, finger-wagging, amusedly world-weary quality which I find utterly charming. Nice filtering on the disco strings and all. (9)

Belle & Sebastian – I’m A Cuckoo (The Avalanches remix) 

Full disclosure. That Avalanches album from a few years ago, which gained universal critical acclaim for its groundbreaking use of sampling technology? I always thought it was massively overrated: such a dense, continuous collage of so many disparate elements – competing as much as harmonising – that every listening left me with a kind of mental indigestion. However, with this one remix-slash-complete-remake for Belle & Sebastian, the Avalanches have justified their entire career. I absolutely adore it – especially the ecstatic South Sudanese choir towards the end. And the curious thing about it is this. Whenever I listen to Belle & Sebastian’s original, I never give a thought to the Avalanches version – and yet, whenever I listen to the Avalanches version, I can never imagine it existing in any other form. Thus, despite sharing the exact same vocal line (if nothing else), the two versions co-exist, side by side on the same EP, as fully distinct pieces of work in their own right. Not many remixes manage to do this. (9)

The Delgados – Mr. Blue Sky

It’s impossible to form a serious objection to The Delgados’ good-natured romp through the ELO’s so-called “guilty pleasure” classic. Sure, the chop guitar chords during the verses are no substitute for the heavenly staccato strings of the original, which keep the song bouncing along with such airy precision – but we’re not here to burden ourselves with comparisons. Not that this is a slapdash job, either – a fair degree of care has been expended on the arrangement, considering that this was on a single which got no higher in the UK charts than #72. Fair play, if you ask me. (6)

Stylus Singles Jukebox, 27th June 2005

Posted in singles reviews, Stylus by Mike A on June 27, 2005

Towers Of London – Fuck It Up

Ye gods, is no stone from the early 1980s to be left unturned? Clearly not, as Towers Of London remorselessly exhume the festering corpse of the “Punk’s Not Dead movement”, with a rudimentary, Gumby-voiced, four-chord clodhopper which leaves you longing for the delicate, nuanced touch of a Chelsea or a Sham 69. Praise the Lord and pass the Boots “Country Born” hair gel! Older readers will know of what I speak. (4)

Royksopp – Only This Moment

Oh, is that Erlend Oye sharing the vocals with the breathy chick? (Sorry, can’t be arsed to Google. It’s the heat.) As far as I know, this is the first time Royksopp have ever put out a fully fledged Song, with, like verses and stuff. Well, I say “fully fledged”, but this actually comes over as half-assed, underworked, and… sorry to say it… generically Habitat coffee-table. Which, for all their warm, accessibly melodic user-friendliness, is a trap which Royksopp have always narrowly avoided falling into. Until now. In a word: drippy. (6)

The Tears – Lovers 

If this had come out in 1993, when Suede were my favourite band, then I’d have given it 9, easy. However, all the admittedly fantastic guitar work in the world still can’t disguise the fact that The Tears are, essentially, a grudging marriage of convenience between two slightly desperate thirtysomethings, faking it for the early nostalgia market. Nevertheless, Anderson and Butler do carry this one off with a reasonable degree of verve and panache – and if nothing else, it has to be a distinct improvement on the curdling non-event that was “Refugees”. (7)

Charlotte Church – Crazy Chick

Considering what a big deal has been made of Charlotte Church’s desire to be seen as a contemporary young miss, with her finger on the pulse of today’s pacey teen scene, it comes as quite a surprise to find her paddling in such explicitly Shania Twain-esque waters with this, her début solo single. It’s a jolly enough little tune, with its nifty horn stabs and its knowingly tongue-in-cheek self-references, but it all sounds determinedly pitched at the mums and dads. In this respect, maybe the erstwhile “voice of an angel” hasn’t changed her spots as much as we might have expected. (7)

The Faders – Jump

“You say you need me… WHATEVER! WHATEVER! I’VE HEARD IT ALL BEFORE!” With this agreeably bratty pop-rockin’ sugar rush, the follow-up to the awesome “No Sleep Tonight”, The Faders prove once again that they are a) a Very Good Thing Indeed, and b) the nearest we have to a home-grown version of Estonia’s mighty Vanilla Ninja. Whatever the song lacks in melodic variety, the inventively detailed widescreen production and the leather-jacketed, fist-pumping Quatro/Jett attitude more than make up for it. (8)

Sons & Daughters – Taste The Last Girl

I’m sorry that Sons & Daughters have seen fit to turn their back on the gothic country rockabilly of last year’s Love The Cup, in favour of a more straightforwardly rocking NME-friendly post-punkiness. A natural, organic development, or a market-influenced volte face? Either way, this feels like reverse evolution, and I’m left feeling let down by a band who, only a year ago, promised so much. (6)

Mario – Here I Go Again

This is going to hang around all summer, isn’t it? Goodness, what a depressing prospect. The equally all-conquering “Let Me Love You” was lame but liveable-with, up to a point. However, this freze-dried, vacuum-packed microwave ready meal of lyrical dreariness and wearying “rock influenced” stodge is going to have me reaching for the remote for weeks. (3)

Stylus Singles Jukebox, 21st June 2005

Posted in singles reviews, Stylus by Mike A on June 21, 2005

Michael Woods and Judge Jules – So Special 

Was there any manual human input in this at all, or did they just activate the randomiser on the trancebot? (2)

The Juan MacLean – Tito’s Way 

And I’m normally such a sucker for trendy shite. (5)

Stylus Singles Jukebox, 13th June 2005

Posted in singles reviews, Stylus by Mike A on June 13, 2005

Shakin’ Stevens – This Ole House 

Look: this man used to play left-wing benefit gigs! He physically assaulted a young Richard Madeley on live kids’ TV! He nearly co-headlined a punk/ted “stop the violence” unity gig with the Sex Pistols! To say nothing of his glittering career with Fulchester Rovers in Viz! In short: Shakey used to be HIP, dammit. So let’s show a little RESPECT, kids! Word to the Godfather! (6)

Jem – Just A Ride

Zoe’s “Sunshine On A Rainy Day” … Soho’s “No Hippy Chick” … One Dove’s “Breakdown” … there’s something about this which evokes fond memories of a long-forgotten strain of early 90’s pop. Maybe it’s a certain sensibility in the melody. Maybe it’s the way that Jem’s summer-breezing insouciance is underpinned by that jiggling, rolling, midtempo groove. But whatever it is, I welcome it back with open arms. (8)

The Long Blondes – Appropriation (By Any Other Name)

An acquaintance of mine, who promotes small but carefully chosen showcase gigs up and down the country, came rushing up to me in a bar about four months ago, with the names of three hot new bands on his eager lips. Of these three, the Magic Numbers are already safely on their way to becoming this year’s Thrills, the unusually young Fear Of Music remain an unknown quantity – but on the strength of this cracking little tune (imagine Elastica fronted by a blend of Chrissie Hynde and Siouxsie Sioux), the admirably precocious Long Blondes could out to be the pick of the bunch. I particularly commend them for being precocious enough to stuff “Appropriation” full with loads of slightly unwieldy Big Words, thus re-introducing a vocabulary which is well outside the range of most – if not all – of the current crop of young guitar bands. One suspects that Morrissey would approve. (9)

Patrick Wolf – Wind in the Wires

Oy! Give it a rest, Wordsworth! “Like a bird, in an ay-vyer-rrree”, croons Patrick, oh so earnestly, with a preciousness of diction which constantly teeters on the brink of absurdity. “Singing to the sky, just singing to be free-uh.” At which point, you wish someone would just revoke his Bad Poetry Licence, and bundle him off to a retreat for six months with a copy of the Antony & The Johnsons album. Because although there’s nothing wrong with pseudo-literary effeteness per se (indeed, I would defend it to the death), it really needs to be founded on something a good deal more substantial than this kind of vapid, swooning self-regard. (5)

Bark Psychosis – 400 Winters 

What sweet relief it is to stumble across a single which, instead of frantically trying to assert itself all over the place, is merely content to evoke. In this case, what is evoked is a kind of gauzy, shimmering midsummer haze: a vaseline-smeared lens, through which one might catch glimpses of veiled nymphs cavorting in lush, verdant meadows, or dragonflies buzzing above still lily ponds, or… well, look, why don’t you tell me what you see? Yes, let that be your creative writing assignment for this week. Four hundred words on my desk by Friday lunchtime, please. (7)