Tuesday, 28 January 2014

REVIEW: Cast - Deluxe Editions: 'All Change'/'Mother Nature Calls'/'Magic Hour'/'Beetroot' (Edsel Records)

During the mid 90's, British music suddenly became very exciting again, entering a golden age not seen since the 60's. Although nowadays not ever regarded by critics as legends of the Britpop era, Liverpool four-piece Cast still earned their place in musical history with a string of memorable singles and their classic debut album 'All Change'. Like many others from the time, the band went their separate ways in 2001 and reformed nearly a decade later. After their comeback album 'Troubled Times' from 2011, the four albums that Cast released between 1995 and 2001 are being reissued as 2CD deluxe editions, each containing all the extra songs, live tracks and remixes featured on the original CD singles. In addition, there are all the BBC radio sessions and a few interesting rarities.

If you're used to hearing the old version of the album, the remastered sound given to the terrific debut 'All Change' noticeably has more strength, more dynamics, and more life than the original release from 1995, yet it doesn't seem to lose any of its 19 year old character. Back then, its mod-rock sound came along at just the right time, as the spirit of Britpop was in full flow. It was Polydor Records' fastest selling debut album of all time, and shifted over a million copies. The sprightly opener 'Alright' perfectly captures the optimism of the time and provides one hell of a singalong too, but as well as the other unforgettable anthems here, we also get some top quality album tracks. The brilliant intro of 'Promised Land' is so joyfully retro that no matter what format you're listening to it on, it sounds like some bit of vinyl from the 60's, while the track itself thrives on the same unstoppable guitar-powered zest that can be heard throughout much of the LP. 


'All Change' shows how a great melody can make a few basic chords and not the most original of styles sound fresh, exciting and very much like the product of magic. The terrific psychedelic-tinged rocker 'Sandstorm' is still as exciting and empowering nearly two decades later, and on this remaster that fantastic guitar solo seems to stand out more. Without a doubt, a true anthem of the period. A jolt of Who-like energy shoots through the driving 'Mankind' before the superb 'Tell It Like It Is' delves into a darker side of Cast, in places recalling frontman John Power's previous outfit The La's. The moodier vibe continues on the excellent 'Four Walls', a slice of shadowy Merseybeat with a delicious mixture of acoustic and electric guitars as well as another fine melody. 

The strident breeze of hit single 'Fine Time' again turns simple ingredients into something that still shines brightly years later, another truly exuberant tune that encapsulates the wide eyed positivity of the mid 90's. The buoyant 'Back Of My Mind' is another effortlessly addictive number that precedes the stunning 'Walkaway'. Its heartstring-pulling hooks and tearful anthemics are put together magnificently and as a song it easily equals any of the big Oasis epics. Another all-time classic. The pace and mood turns a lot more stormy on the urgent 'Reflections', while the irresistible stomp of 'History' really does feature some of the greatest guitar sounds ever put to record, and is a track that benefits hugely from John Leckie's top class production. 'Two Of A Kind' puts together jangly chords with Northern romance and a chaotic outro to close the main album in a bright but reflective fashion. 


After a rather lovely excerpt from 'Walkaway''s string section, CD1 continues with all the B sides from the album's singles, and impressive many of them are too. As well as the Small Faces-esque 'Better Man' and primitive rock and roller 'Satellites', there are the spacey guitars and insistent rhythms of 'Follow Me Down' as well as the basic but effective riffage found on 'Meet Me'. The upbeat 'Hourglass' is something that could have easily made it on to most band's albums, and the same goes for another b side highlight 'Fulfill', which brings out more of their darker, psychedelic side. The catchy Rolling Stones-like 'Mother' is equally pleasing, however 'Between The Eyes' is typically average bonus track material. All of these are overshadowed by the breathtaking non-album single 'Flying', one of Britpop's most magical moments and a snapshot of Cast at their peak. All the nostalgic memories of the era are impossible to forget while hearing it, and it's one of those songs that has grown even more powerful as the years have gone on. An underrated classic of the times. The selection of non album songs is concluded with the alluringly subtle 'For So Long', ending a sort of 'All Change' companion album that shows Oasis certainly weren't the only British guitar band to be throwing great moments onto the b sides of their singles. Two unreleased outtakes from the album are included near the end of CD2 after five live numbers and 11 BBC session tracks. Like other Cast numbers, 'All In You' is rather Who-like and features some great guitars, but ended up being given a complete musical makeover and a new chorus to become 'For So Long'. The other outtake 'All My Days' is a nice little waltz-timed number that could have made a good b side, and although it would undeniably sound weak alongside the stuff from 'All Change', who knows why it didn't appear on later releases.


After Britpop became a phenomenon, the most popular music was once again being made my talented musicians with their own ideas. Many saw it as the ideal opportunity for mainstream music to become revolutionary, creative and interesting again, like in the golden days of the 60's and 70's. Cast stuck to their template, yet tried something slightly different and at times less commercial on their second album, 1997's 'Mother Nature Calls', an LP that disappoints now just as it did then. However, it does contain a handful of great moments that saved Power and co from disaster, one of them being the fantastic 'Free Me'. Like on much of the debut, it's built around simple chords played in a straight forward way and yet it still has plenty of refreshing energy, that unknown magical ingredient that makes it lift you up when you hear it. It's also tailor-made for those 'Top Gear' compilation CDs, definitely one to hit the road to. 'On The Run' takes the quality down immediately, a mid paced trudge through what sounds like b side territory, and not particularly great b side territory either. It's a good job that the resigned yet rousing 'Live The Dream' puts things firmly back on track with something that falls somewhere between The Kinks and dusty country-blues, delivering another knockout chorus. Such high quality doesn't last long though, as the dull, rambling 'Soul Tied' fails to hit the mark and is overshadowed by the Lynard Skynard-esque 'She Sun Shines', which brings back the upbeat vibe of the first album but undeniably lacks the same vitality. The centrepiece and third highlight of 'Mother Nature Calls' is the powerful, elegant weep of 'I'm So Lonely', a shining example of how string epics should be done, and a majestic Britpop ballad up there with the work of Gallagher and Albarn.

It's one of those albums where it sounds like all the magic was all used up on a handful of tracks, and a selection of fillers were knocked out to make up the numbers. It's not terrible, just very unremarkable. Listen to the directionless 'The Mad Hatter' and you'll know what I'm talking about. The straight-up retro rock romp 'Mirror Me' is when Cast get it right, and even though it's hardly groundbreaking, it again highlights their ability to turn the basics into the stuff of greatness. The classic 'Guiding Star' is even better, and years after its infectious verses and nagging chorus provided them with another smash hit single, it's lyric about "the glimpse of a forgotten dream" against the jaunty, carefree backdrop stirs up more nostalgia for those simpler, brighter days. The mildly psychedelic 'Never Gonna Tell You What To Do' is put in the shade by the dark, epic drama of the closing 'Dance Of The Stars', which flows and builds in a way similar to 'Champagne Supernova', also pointing forwards to the occasionally grand 'Magic Hour' that would follow two years later. 

Many of the additional tracks that appeared across various formats of the album's four singles provided more quality than a lot of the actual LP itself. It's a mystery why a fine bit of rock n roll like 'Come On Everybody' (not an Eddie Cochran cover) was left off the album in favour of much weaker tracks, and the same can be said for the darker, La's-esque 'Canter', which is more engaging and also a great deal more interesting than some of the fodder on the album, ending in a riot of Spanish guitar. I guess it wasn't to Polydor's taste. After annoyingly being broken up with an acoustic version of 'Free Me', the selection of b side songs continues with the delta blues-psychedelica of 'Release My Soul', a song that would be raved about by critics if it was the Arctic Monkeys that came up with it. The acoustic 'Dancing On The Flames' is given extra charm thanks to the subtle banjo that surprisingly arrives halfway through, while 'Out Of The Blue' sounds not unlike a grittier take on 'All Change''s Who flavours. 


CD 2 begins with the likeable 'Keep It Alive', before being interrupted by four live tracks. Someone really should have put more thought into this running order rather than just featuring the tracks in the sequence that they appeared on the CD singles. 'Hold On' is perhaps an indication of the more tender sound that appeared in places on the next album, and has a lovely drum sound, while the pub rock of 'Flow' contains lines as bad as "you've got to bake the cake that we can eat", and is best avoided. 'Effectomatic Who' is a lot more enjoyable, even if it is the obvious imitation of the group that its title suggests, but again two acoustic/demo tracks halt the flow of what would be 'Mother Nature Calls'' companion album. After those, the rather downtrodden 'The Things You Make Me Do' fails to ignite much excitement before 'Theme From' occasionally hints at the more downbeat reflection of their next offering that would arrive in 1999, but does sound like a typical fourth-single-from-an-album b side. 

The second disc is completed by a live track, two acoustic selections from a Radio 1 session and two fine remixes of 'History' that both make good use of that excellent guitar line. One of them comes from the great 90's big beat-punk collective Lo Fidelity Allstars, who stretched the original into nearly 10 minutes of hard punching funk beats and the maverick vocal mayhem of Lo Fi's vocalist and "urban poet" Dave 'The Wrekked Train'. It's the sort of thing that Power would try and replicate for the band's doomed fourth album that came four years later, but we'll get to that later...

Four superb lead tracks, a number of great b sides and two top notch remixes made purchasing these singles even more of a pleasure when I did so in 1997 and 1998, but after hiring the album from the local library and not taking to it much, it would be over a decade before I eventually bought myself a copy. 17 years on, 'Mother Nature Calls' still sounds like four fine singles held together by what is mostly forgettable filler, while the b sides from the period often revealed a slightly more interesting side to the band. The album wasn't a critical success, and as the Britpop movement they were associated with gradually faded bit by bit, Power talked of refreshing the Cast sound for their third album. 

1999's 'Magic Hour' was to produce three of Cast's greatest moments, four very good ones and five not so great ones. They hadn't managed to record another solid album like the debut, and had to make do with a few great songs plus whatever they could come up, very much the same as with 'Mother Nature Calls'. But knowing that album still sold enough to please them, and supplied them with more radio staples and Top Of The Pops appearances, they thought they could do it again. But times had changed, and the bands of the Britpop era were having to do more to impress, and to prove themselves to critics.

This time around the sound displays two contrasts: the rock numbers given a harder edge by producer Gil Norton, and the sweeping moments of orchestral beauty (provided by David Arnold) that give the album a softer side. But to this very day I'm not sure exactly what opener and lead single 'Beat Mama' is supposed to be. The rhythm suggests funk, the chorus recalls 80's metal, the guitar line hints at reggae while Power delivers something that could almost be described as Merseybeat rap, and yet it still has that classic British rock vibe running through it. Some hate it, others love it, but there's no denying that it's one of the most interesting moments in the Cast cannon. Which is a lot more than can be said for the rather plain mod-rock of 'Compared To You', which is pleasant but uninspired. 'She Falls' is an improvement, combining both the heavy and gentle elements of this album in an enjoyably subtle fashion, while 'Dreamer' may be another Who homage thinly disguised with some obligatory modern electronic squiggles, yet it comes close to the simple, direct appeal of their early work and in terms of songwriting it's almost Cast at their best. 

But everything before it is put in the shade by the magnificent title track, which may very well represent Cast's finest single piece of work. Chiming with a tranquil elegance, the stunning 'Magic Hour' sets a charming atmosphere to the sort of humble, melancholic beauty not usually associated with a band that many labelled "dadrock". You can almost picture the four of them sailing away peacefully into the sunset. Blissful and hugely underrated.

The catchy 'Company Man' has more bite than anything else here and recalls a rougher, pissed-off relative of 'Free Me', while the magnificent orchestral drama of 'Alien' provides the second major highlight and manages to top both 'Walkaway' and 'I'm So Lonely' in terms of epicness. At 03:35 we get the most magical thirty seconds of the group's entire career, as the glorious strings and soaring guitar solo glide together in beautiful harmony. It makes the substandard fare that immediately follows it sound all the more underwhelming: 'Higher' and 'The Feeling Remains' are both Cast by-numbers with some fancy sounds bolted on, while the uneventful limp of 'Chasing The Day' is the point where it would have been impossible to deny that ideas were starting to wear thin. 'Burn The Light' tries to weld a dull chorus to a heavy verse and achieves very little apart from a rather ugly mess. 


Luckily 'Magic Hour' ends on a high note with the brooding string epic 'Hideaway', which occasionally brings to mind a hybrid of 'I Am The Walrus' and The Boo Radleys' 'Lazarus', and is the sort of thing that could have put Oasis back at the very top if Noel had penned it. And if that isn't enough, the LP has one final treat in store at the very end, as a splendid solo reprise of the strings from 'Alien' closes the album, highlighting just how great its orchestral arrangements were.

After the main LP, we get three remixes of 'Beat Mama': a chunky but monotonous hip hop take, a light funk-tinged reworking that keeps the entire song structure, and best of all, the 'Fire Island Classic Boys Own Dub' which completely reimagines the track as a pumping 4/4 house floorfiller.

Following a pointless radio edit of 'Beat Mama', we get the B sides. 'Get On You' throws some typical but enjoyable classic rock shapes and would have been good on the album in place of one of the weaker tracks. It was probably left off because people may have considered it to sound too much like Oasis. '3 Nines Are 28' isn't just a bad bit of maths, but an ill-advised experiment with offbeat rhythms that grates horribly, while 'Hoedown' is every bit the weak, throwaway Wild West parody that its title suggests. The shadowy acoustic-flavoured 'Whiskey Song' (which has a touch of The Doors to it) and the sombre Spanish-tinged 'Gypsy Song' provide two interesting, rewarding moments that again could have improved 'Magic Hour' if they had been included. Bleaker moods also filter into the grey, mundane 'I Never Wanna Lose You', while the more satisfying 'What You Gonna Do' and the Beatles-like 'All Bright' provide a brief return to the band's early sound. Their version of The Who's 'The Seeker' highlights just how much of an influence the 60's legends had on Cast, and is followed by a selection of 'Magic Hour' songs played live for Radio 1. I'm quite sure this is the set they played on the 'Lamacq Live' show the week the album was released, because I remember listening to it and recording it off the radio back in the day. And since I lost the tape years ago, the inclusion of the session on this CD is most welcome. 

Although 'Magic Hour' gave the band a Top 10 album and 'Beat Mama' was a number 9 hit, they failed to match the success of the first two LPs. By this point the band's music was no longer receiving the same amount of support from radio and telly, while the music press had marked Cast (along with many other Britpop-era bands) as targets for criticism. They were no longer surfing on a wave of popularity and were aware that their style was becoming stale. So what happened? Power attempted to refresh things by reinventing the group's sound... With disastrous consequences.


'Beetroot' killed them stone dead. Lead single and opening number 'Desert Drought' didn't sound that bad when it first heard it in 2001, I was just interested by their major change in direction: I certainly didn't expect the new Cast tune to feature beats, electronics, brass and gospel choirs. It didn't take long to realise that it wasn't a great song. Not even a good one. Frankly it's a mess, however you can't blame John Power for trying something different. But then it all gets a bit too much. 'Heal Me' is almost like a scouse Primal Scream in places, but very awkward sounding indeed, and on 'Curtains', jumbled beats pile up to distract from the fact that John hasn't really bothered writing much of a song here. 

The acoustic guitar and breakbeat combo on 'Kingdoms And Crowns' is pretty dire, as is the song itself. A lot of the tracks follow that same path: 'Giving It All Away Again' has a nice Kinks-esque verse, but again the arrangement is awful and the chorus completely deflates the whole thing, while 'Lose Myself' would actually be a good Cast song if they applied their more familiar style to it. Here, it just sounds like a crap remix. 

The highlight is definitely the nice Beach Boys esque ballad 'I Never Can Say' which doesn't employ the use of the ill fitting, overdone samples and beats found elsewhere. It quickly turns to shit again though: 'High Wire' is pointless, 'Meditations' excruciatingly pairs banjos with hip hop beats, 'Jetstream' features painful lyrical cliches about hitting the open road and is even sadder when little hints of the old Cast magic appear every so often, buried underneath lots of electronic blubber. The cod-funk of 'U-Turn' makes a dreadful bit of songwriting even worse, while the oompah brass flavoured 'Universal Grinding Wheel' is an admirable attempt at doing something different arrangement-wise, but again, another very weak moment. 



The unexciting b side 'Cobwebs' begins with seal noises and a bit of Power leaving an answer machine message containing the tracklisting. The song itself is just unnecessary, like much of the regrettable offerings on the album itself. Fans didn't take kindly to 'Beetroot': it reached number 78 in the album charts and the group split just days after its release. Throughout the 2000's, most of the other groups from their era had either disbanded or been completely forgotten about, but as the decade went on, many realised that there hadn't been another proper musical phenomenon since Britpop. As many of the scene's greatest names soon reunited, Cast returned in 2011 with the back-to-form album 'Troubled Times' and some great live performances. This time round, they've learned what their strengths are, and stick to what they do best. 

So there you have it. The songs that you need to check out, and the ones that are best avoided. For fans, all of these reissues are essential purchases, just for the b-sides being collected together. For those looking to investigate Cast's music, I would recommend these versions of all the first three albums for the extra tracks that bring together the rest of the group's output, which was often just as interesting as some of the album material. They may have had their musical limits, and they certainly weren't the most consistent of bands, but Cast's best moments were just as essential as anything from the era. 

'All Change' 9/10
Deluxe edition: 9/10

'Mother Nature Calls' 7/10
Deluxe edition: 8.5/10

'Magic Hour' 7/10
Deluxe edition: 8/10

'Beetroot' 3/10
Deluxe edition: 3/10

You can also read a review of their comeback LP 'Troubled Times' from 2011 HERE.



2 comments:

  1. This sounds like it was written by someone who's favourite bands are Oasis, The Charlatans and Kasabian - hence why you appear to love the basic sounding All Change which sounds like a typical Britpop album, but not keen on the next two albums where they venture into far more interesting avenues.

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    1. hey Dave. of course i love Oasis and The Charlatans, but can't say Kasabian are one of my favourites. i love All Change because it is the most consistent, but i'd love 'Magic Hour' even more if all of it was as good as Alien and the title track! i certainly don't love it because of it being "basic"!

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