Monday, 31 January 2011

REVIEW: The Decemberists - 'The King Is Dead' (Capitol Records)

Since the moment I first played this album I knew it was good. A few plays later and I have become obsessed with it. I've heard the name of this band somewhere before but I hadn't discovered any of their previous material and it wasn't until I heard a couple of their new tracks on BBC 6Music that i decided to investigate further. 'The King Is Dead' was released in January and in about 11 months time there is every chance I will looking back to this as one of the albums of the year. The songs are just astounding, imagine Frank Turner, REM and the Levellers thrown into a blender and served with a country twist and you'd come up with something that sounds very much like this record. Almost every track is a standout, from the naggingly upbeat 'Calamity Song' to the simple acoustic beauty of  'January Hymn' to the folk stomper 'Rox In The Box' to the Smiths-esque jangle and potential hit 'This Is Why We Fight', this album is near essential.

So essential it makes me want to check out all this band's previous work.... as an introduction to the Decemberists, it doesn't get any better than this. 8.5/10

Charity Shop Discoveries Jan 2011

The great British charity shop is a wonderful thing. Not only do you get the satisfaction of funding many good causes but you can also pick up some great music, often very unexpectedly. Over the last two years while re-building my beloved music collection, these shops have allowed me to buy back many CDs that I used to own for bargain prices, that I would've paid £10 for when they were first released. But just as importantly, shops like these accept donations from many different people, so the music on sale can often be very diverse, so it is possible to find a classic Bowie LP or a rare Jesus And Mary Chain 12" in amongst the Jim Reeves records....

Melksham now only has 3 charity shops compared to the four it had last year, and the one that closed down often sold some good stuff... in fact once I spent £30 in there on what can only be described as a treasure chest of records from the Manics, Primal Scream, Pulp, Edwyn Collins, Suede and others. The Dorothy House shop in Church Street has always been good for the occasional lucky find, and this week was no exception....

It must have been a couple of months ago that I was listening to Steve Lamacq's 6Music show and hearing an old track by a band called Space. And no, this wasn't the group of Britpop-era scousers who sung 'Avenging Angels' and 'Female Of The Species'. The track in question was a 1977 track called 'Magic Fly', which was apparently rather a big hit back then, but not often remembered in this day and age. So when i found a vinyl copy of the 'Magic Fly' LP for 75p I couldn't believe my luck.

The title track itself is probably the centrepiece of the album, and it is wonderful. Sounding like Kraftwerk doing the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever, or like a disco taking place on board the Star Trek ship, 'Magic Fly' is the sound of French space-disco, and the rest of the album is just as interesting. The unfortunately titled 'Velvet Rape' is a prog-funk ballad, 'Carry On, Turn Me On' is sexual disco (with some awesome synth sounds) while 'Fasten Seat Belt' and the title track sound way ahead of their time, bringing to mind an early version of Daft Punk perhaps. A great record, even if parts of it do sound like an intergalactic porn soundtrack.

Also purchased were volumes 6 and 9 of 'Motown Chartbusters', a Ray Charles greatest hits LP, 'The Big Wheels Of Motown' and a cruelly defaced copy of 'Lee And Nancy', the 1968 LP from Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra. And even though some fool had scrawled all over the back of the sleeve, this was a record I HAD to get. I knew this record had received a lot of critical acclaim over the years so I decided to find out for myself how good it actually is. Now I can see why the album is so well loved. Two sides of dreamy, mysterious and lush 60's pop, with country and easy listening vibes, this record is just lovely to listen to. The production by Hazlewood himself is fantastic, and the arrangements (by conductor Billy Strange) are superb. The contrast between both voices add an extra brilliance to all of these tracks, including the best version of 'You've Lost That Loving Feeling' ever and a rendition of 'Jackson' that is even better than Johnny Cash and June Carter's. 

The other record i bought was 'Daltrey' by Roger Daltrey, which i seem to remember buying randomly from a car boot sale many years ago when i must've been about 10. The record didn't seem t bring back any childhood memories (except for the sleeve), so obviously the songs can't have made much of an impression on me back then. And compared to all The Who stuff I've heard in the years since, I can sort of see why, even though 'Daltrey' is a good album. God bless the charity shop.

Friday, 28 January 2011

GIG REVIEW: Manic Street Preachers- Blackwood Miner's Institute, 27/01/2011

Tonight the legendary Manic Street Preachers returned to their hometown of Blackwood, Wales to perform an intimate gig. Originally scheduled for December of last year, the gig had to be postponed due to James Dean Bradfield being ill after a long (and incredible) tour of the UK. But tonight the band stepped on to the stage to perform a stunningly powerful set of absolute classics from their back catalogue.

Radio 2 gave listeners the chance to win tickets to this exclusive show and after applying I sadly didn't win one of those tickets, but luckily the BBC pulled out all the stops to make sure everyone had a chance to witness an incredible night of music. Radio 2 broadcast the gig live and on the BBC website a video of the gig was streamed live onto the internet, which for me is great since my computer is viewed through a 32" HD TV and the sound is linked up to the stereo system.

The group kicked off with the classic 'Motorcycle Emptiness' followed by 'Your Love Alone....' and the most perfect performance of  'It's Not War....' that has been heard so far. But just when I thought this might be another one of the usual greatest hits shows, they surprise everyone with underrated 1998 album track 'My Little Empire' AND for the first time in many years they play the debut single 'Suicide Alley'. But what struck me tonight was how powerful and note perfect every song sounded, and how this performance demonstrated a band giving 100%, revelling in the absolute glory of their back catalogue. In particular, 'Slash And Burn' and 'You Love Us' sounded fierce and majorly enjoyable, while 'You Stole The Sun' seemed to have an extra power to it and even the next single 'Postcards From A Young Man' came across with an anthemic quality. Just under an hour into the set and many classics later the band launch into 'Motown Junk', a song which the band claim takes them all back to being 18 every time they play it, and judging by the energy and the incredible guitar solos it's treated with tonight, you can see why.

'A Design For Life' was the final number of the main set, and there was something great about lots of mostly Welsh voices singing the second verse as James turned the mic on the crowd. An encore of 'Suicide Is Painless' was followed by a rare airing of the sensational 'Enola/Alone' which sounds just as exquisite now as it did back in '96. And a final 'Masses Against The Classes' proves that as a singer, guitarist and a frontman, JDB has to be among the very finest.

One of the greatest gigs I've ever seen without actually physically being there, along with Blur at Glastonbury last year. Stunning.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Sunday: an awesome day on 6Music

Back in my school days this is how it used to be: 7pm every weeknight tune into the Evening Session on Radio 1 and listen to three hours of the best new releases and alternative classics. Then at 10pm the absolute god that was John Peel took over the airwaves for his usual 2 hours of wonderfully diverse records from many genres, eras and places. And sometimes I'd feel compelled to listen to The Breezeblock at midnight, which was a treasure chest of odd electronica and the more creative side of dance music.

2010: if you're a young person wanting to hear the best in new and old music, Radio 1 is useless. We all know that. So where do you turn?

If you don't know the answer to this question then let me introduce you to what is reported to be the most listened to of the BBC's digital radio stations.... BBC6Music

This Sunday after a nice lay in, my 6Music day began with Cerys Matthews, former singer with Catatonia (whose 1998 album 'International Velvet' I re-purchased last year) whose radio show provides a lovely start to my Sunday, especially this Sunday.... because thanks to Cerys I have now discovered The Decemberists through their awesome track 'Calamity Song' which I heard first on this show, leading me to seek out their new album (more about that soon). The thing that sets 6Music apart from other stations is the DJs REALLY do know their stuff, and they're certainly more than qualified to identify what's great, unlike Chris Moyles or Zane Lowe or any of the morons you'll hear on Radio 1 these days (have any of them even been responsible for playing great music let alone making it?)

So over to a man definitely responsible for some awesome tunes: Guy Garvey of Elbow. 6Music is known for broadcasting some excellent documentaries and this one was no exception, with Guy taking a look into not just the legendary music of Manchester but also its industry, culture, art and even the weather. After this fascinating glimpse into Northern life, next on 6Music was Huey Morgan, who like Cerys and Guy is also a member of a band who feature in my record collection, the Fun Lovin' Criminals. And on a Sunday, Huey's show is a blast: great music from all different ages and Mr Morgan's enjoyable presenting style: chilled, laid back but always entertaining. And through Huey's show this week I was overjoyed to hear my first taste of The Milk with their awesome track 'Danger', quite possibly the best Soul music that has been made for many many years. Cheers Mr Morgan.

And following Huey is 6Music's Sunday centrepiece, the increasingly brilliant show from Jarvis Cocker. This show is well and truly essential listening, with Jarvis playing fascinating music old, new, obscure and classic. And not just music, the show often addresses film, art, literature and many many other aspects of culture and history. THIS is what Sundays were made for.

7pm every Sunday is time for The Freak Zone, hosted by Stuart Maconie and home to radio's most mind bending oddities, followed by the 6Mix, and this week we had Gang Of Four playing a mixture of their influences and their favourite records. Awesome. Except that the fucking BBC iPlayer decided to crash during the first 20 minutes of the show, and after great frustration at trying to get it working again I just watched some telly instead and tuned back into 6 a few hours later when it was time for Guy Garvey's Finest Hour. Yes, him from Elbow again, this time with his excellent weekly show, which provides the perfect end to the weekend. I don't quite know how to sum Guy's show up in words, but not since John Peel has a DJ sounded so intimate with his audience, and the music is often mind blowing, as well as eclectic, which was demonstrated when I realised how fantastic Glenn Miller's 'Moonlight Serenade' is, and how stunning the chord changes are in Mama Cass's 'Dream A Little Dream Of Me', two songs a world apart from much of the other records Guy played that night.

And of that isn't enough you can stay tuned into the early hours of Monday morning to hear Don Letts followed by BBC Introducing with Tom Robinson, where you can hear all sorts of fine new bands and artists.

So there we go, that's Sundays sorted.... tune in for yourselves and prepare to be converted.

FM radio is dead... welcome to the incredible world of 6Music.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

So goodbye to 2010....

Like 1998, 2010 wasn't a year that brought that many classic albums, but it bought plenty of incredible songs. But when you read the top 100 'best selling' singles and albums lists for 2010 it makes for very depressing reading. One look at these charts and you'd think we'd had the worst year ever for music. The best selling albums rundown features an Oasis best of, a Gorillaz album with about 5 good tracks on and about 3 or 4 decent albums that are all pre-2009. And the rest? A steaming pile of shite. Worse still is the singles chart which to my knowledge doesn't even contain ONE decent song, in fact the 'songs' that make up this chart are so poor that to refer to any of it as "music" is an insult to every hard working band and artist out there that has to constantly fight for exposure in a mainstream that has been numbed by poor quality manufactured pop.

The facts are 2010 brought some incredible music. Most of it didn't get anywhere near the radio let alone the charts, because of the media's obsession with the talentless.

So now to 2011..........

REWIND: Dark Star - 'Gracedelica'

A band who were tipped for big things.... A three piece from London who emerged in the late 90's and who excited me with this excellent groove. The other day while re-sorting my CD collection, I came across a promo sampler of their album 'Twenty Twenty Sound' and a CD single of this lost 1998 classic 'Gracedelica'. Judging by their impressive debut (and only ) LP, it's shame they didn't carry on. Dark Star consisted of Christian Hayes, David Francolini and Laurence O'Keefe, making a psychedelia-flavoured sound with a dub undertow and effect-heavy guitars. 

The band enjoyed two Top 40 UK Singles Chart hits with re-releases of 'Graceadelica' and 'I Am The Sun', both from their Steve Lillywhite-produced debut album. After, the band entered the studio to record the follow-up, but despite a song 'Strangers And Madmen' receiving play on The Evening Session, the band parted ways with their label EMI due to a change in personnel at EMI and a general lack of interest from the label in the new material. The band subsequently split in 2001 but were unable to release the already recorded second album, as the rights belonged to EMI. A bootleg of pre-master mixes of this album found its way onto the internet, entitled 'Zurich. According to a website, "the title 'Zurich' came from a sketch in Dadaist comedy show 'Big Train' of which the band were huge fans. It was Laurence's job to make sure that the latest episode was always ready for viewing on the tour van VHS. Apparently the sketch comprised a tense office meeting, a deadline to be met, a graph paper bikini and, of course the word 'Zurich' was involved." If this sounds interesting, you can hear that album HERE.

Dark Star are featured on my mega, mega 1998 best of compilation, which is now is HERE for all to listen to.