During the early-’60s The Pretty Things were promoted as still more outrageous than The Rolling Stones, and their wild R&B strove manfully to live up to this image. Hits like “Rosalyn”, “Don’t Bring Me Down”, and “Midnight To Six Man” did the business for the band before they went psychedelic in 1967 with the flower-power classic “Defecting Grey” and the concept album S.F. Sorrow. This three-disc set follows their career, through various line-up changes, to 1999.
LIVE IN THE CITY OF LIGHT
GOOD NEWS FROM THE NEXT WORLD
STREET FIGHTING YEARS
Kerr and co arose from a post-punk landscape where minimalism and lack were sovereign; when burgeoning fan appeal required them to present this as arena spectacle, simply reverbing and over-amping the jangly guitars destroyed the crude charm of a track like “Promised You A Miracle”. And by this time, Simple Minds had been found out; that early, gawky simplicity had given way to congenial dullness.
MIGHTY LIKE A ROSE
Two ideas seem to connect these albums: production and fascism, emotional or otherwise. Armed Forces (1979) was Costello’s commercial peak, the home of “Accidents Will Happen” and “Oliver’s Army”, the latter still sounding like a natural anthem for “the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne”, despite or because of the Northern Irish unease that inspired it. Costello’s sleevenotes reveal the tour infidelities and numb celebrity that fuelled the (self-)disgust in his work at this time, as much as the violence and creeping fascism of late-’70s Britain. He’s right, though, to now note his “mistake” in equating the two too heavily (the lyrics mention “lampshades” and “final solutions”), and first attempts at sonic sophistication don’t disguise Costello’s most simplistic yet superficially enjoyable early album.
The Geoff Emerick-produced Imperial Bedroom (1982) is the one where musical ambition and emotional force combined. It was hailed as his best to date; today, starved of such Sgt Pepper-style richness, its baroque majesty still thrills. “Man Out Of Time” sums up a shabby kind of British political disgrace?it was also, Costello reveals, about his collapsing, deception-riddled marriage. Elegant, expansive, knotted with concealed emotional conflict, exciting, beautiful?more like this, please. Mighty Like A Rose (1991) is Imperial Bedroom’s even more ambitious sequel, the quasi-classical arrangements and most of the Attractions giving weight to songs now divided between those addressing disappointed love and those criticising our obsession with celebrity and consumer culture. You might not be able to tell, but this is. Costello’s angriest record. You also get some fascinating chamber-synth demos and an excellent unreleased track.
ZAPPA PICKS: BY JON FISHMAN OF PHISH
Nerdish and pointless or fanatically worthwhile? The jury is out on the wisdom of asking modern musos to cherry-pick their favourite Zap tracks-anything from “Wind Up Workin’ In A Gas Station” to “It Can’t Happen Here”?and it probably won’t bother to come back. The verdict lies in making connections. If Phish and Primus float your boat then this parlour game could amuse. It’s hard to imagine Frank’s followers needing these sets, although I could be entirely wrong.
The catalyst for this routine roll-call of “House Of Fun” and similar early-’80s vaudevillian pop is the West End musical of the title where, like Abba and Queen before them, the Madness songbook has been Lloyd Webbered. At least the new tailor-written “Sarah’s Song” and “Simple Equation” sound like vintage Suggs and co (circa 1982’s The Rise & Fall), though how “Night Boat To Cairo” is worked into the show’s plot is anyone’s guess.
This collection includes unreleased tracks and new solo versions of Dr Feelgood classics like “Back In The Night”. Wilko’s nasal twang is endearingly English, the material is more varied than you’d expect, and the former Blockheads bassist Norman Watt-Roy and drummer (Steve) Monti form a solid foundation to anchor the eccentric axeman down. British blues doesn’t get much better than this, and it never did.
MONK AT NEWPORT 1963 & 1965
Remastered with additional tracks, these three albums come from the beginning of Monk’s contract with Columbia. In fact, Monk At Newport is effectively a new release since this 35-minute 1965 set is unlisted in standard discographies and was only stumbled upon recently by legendary producer Orrin Keepnews among a pile of old tape boxes. Monk’s Dream is the pick of the bunch, Monk’s first Columbia release and his career bestseller. Only a little less good, Monk has been unavailable for some time.
The highlight of this latest trawl through Axelrod’s finest work between 1967 and now is Cannonball Adderley’s “Tensity”, which, apart from inventing trip hop, features Adderley’s most impassioned alto solo on record. Elsewhere, we hear subtly uneasy orchestral pieces (“The Sick Rose,” “The Divine Image”), some fine pop-soul from Lou Rawls (“Dead End Street”), a beyond-bizarre silence-filled cover of “Good Day Sunshine” by one Ray Brown, and a couple of ominous pieces conducted by The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s David McCallum, one of which, “The Edge”, turns out to be the basis for Dr Dre’s “The Next Episode”. Anxious but compelling music.
That Herbie Hancock is basically an abstract player is the secret of his versatility of style?which is another way of saying that he has no stable sense of taste, being willing to play a line of notes in almost any idiom or sound-world if it fits. It was during his Columbia years that he made his most blatantly commercial music, of which about half of this four-disc set consists. Since it’s unlikely that many enjoy such a wide range of approaches, this selection, irrespective of its size, doesn’t make much sense. Better to have separated the material into its categories (and audiences).
Before his Top 10 hit “You’re Gorgeous” knocked him off course, Stephen “Baby Bird” Jones had written and recorded over 400 demos on cheap keyboards and guitar. The limited edition, DIY albums he released between 1988 and 1994 (I Was Born A Man, Bad Shave, Fatherhood, The Happiest Man Alive, Dying Happy) consistently topped the indie charts in their day and constitute a cycle of forlorn, heartfelt bedroom symphonies that chronicle unemployed outsider Jones’ passage into adulthood. Prolific and poignant, this is how a chart-less Jarvis might have sounded.
This dazzling set was originally released in 1991, when Dylan’s reputation had sunk about as low as it has ever been. The Bootleg Series was a perfectly judged, and desperately needed, reminder of Dylan’s roots, and of the way he’d used them to create so much transfiguring music of his own. It reached from early-’60s talking blues and gutbucket folk to wildly different unreleased versions of the likes of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Like A Rolling Stone” before galloping on to such recent epics as “Foot Of Pride” and “Blind Willie McTell”. The great mystery was, why the hell hadn’t we heard this stuff before?
What, exactly, do Nirvana sound like? It’s a tough job cutting your way through to the music of this legendary, blighted band when all their records are so hemmed in by context. How can we judge songs from a decade ago that are permanently linked with cultural change and personal tragedy, whose innovations have been exploited and devalued by tribute-bearers in the interim?
The good?and surprising?news about Nirvana is how well these 15 songs stand up. Fears that the sandblasted, supercharged tracks from Nevermind, in particular, might sound dated prove thrillingly wrong. Just the first eight or nine seconds of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” are enough, from Kurt Cobain’s choppy warm-up riff, through Dave Grohl’s formidable kickstart and the dam-burst of power and melody that follows it. The quiet/loud dynamic might be ancient news now, and Butch Vig’s production skills devalued by his gloomy loyalty to Garbage. But “Teen Spirit” astounds, the sense of a band manoeuvring influences?Pixies, Beatles, Black Sabbath, Fugazi even?and originality in an intuitive, anti-cynical way. Often forgotten amid the vitriol, a significant part of Kurt Cobain wanted to be a rock’n’roll star, however much the process scared and disgusted him.
This is the side of Cobain which dominates Nirvana. Plainly, his paymasters at Geffen would like him memorialised as an anthemic figurehead rather than a brilliant contrarian. One suspects Courtney Love prefers it that way, too, since she so keenly denounced punk ethics and underground scenes once they had exhausted their usefulness to her. Thus we get the assimilable, sweeter moments from the early years (“About A Girl”, “Been A Son”, “Sliver”), the hits from Nevermind, and the ones from In Utero that sound most like the hits from Nevermind.
There’s nothing to fault here musically. Still, it does provide a somewhat lopsided view of Nirvana, one where their most splenetic and radical music is quietly afforded second-class status. What’s more, the three tunes selected from Unplugged, including Cobain’s pointed version of Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World” and coruscating howl through Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”, let him be seen as a neat part of the rock continuum instead of an artist who was in a deep state of conflict over his relationship with traditions. Wonderful music, sure, but the tidying-up of the legacy verges on Stalinist: as if Kurt Cobain has been elected into a private club just to stop him trying to break its windows.
Fortunately, the much-heralded “You Know You’re Right” redresses the balance somewhat. Recorded in January 1994, it’s Cobain’s one last great subversion of his formula: the quiet/loud routine mangled into a wracked, venomous dirge. As the token unreleased track, it’s sensational. Better still, as a riposte to an industry that smugly assumed Nirvana would ditch that nasty screaming business and turn into R.E.M., it proves that Kurt Cobain still had the spirit for a fight, and the compulsion to make uncompromised, visceral music, even as his will to live was slipping away.
Rusby’s fourth album is effectively a retrospective, revisiting material from all phases of her career to date with new recordings of seven old songs, plus remastered versions of four more and a couple of live tracks. There are also two new songs that make you wish for more. Rusby has a voice that can squeeze the heart, that makes old ballads sound fresh and vital. As a holding exercise, this collection will do admirably, but roll on the next one!
First released in ’94, this tribute to one of rock’s scuzziest troubadours featured many of his punky peers, including the three Dolls that survived him, all paying evidently heartfelt homage. The 2002 version is bolstered by Marc Almond’s well-chosen “Hurt Me” but undermined by a colourless Glen Matlock, Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s faithful but incompetent “Personality Crisis”, and the inexplicable dropping of Mike Monroe’s “So Alone”. Thunders himself-live, acoustic and hidden at the end-shows them how it’s done.
Compiler Daryl Easlea has assembled these four CDs thematically, one each devoted to roots, dance, politics and love songs (CD four includes a sublime sequence: EW&F’s “That’s The Way Of The World,” Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves The Sunshine,” Kool And The Gang’s “Summer Madness” and Smokey’s “Quiet Storm”). It gives token stylistic nods to the likes of Louis Jordan and John Lee Hooker, though it mostly settles for Motown, Stax, JB and ’70s disco.
Though the music is largely faultless, this anthology can only hope to scratch the surface.
SINGLES As AND Bs
The flawed genius of Wood was multidirectional. Wizzard’s hits like “See My Baby Jive” are ornate but homemade po-mo rock’n’roll, the exact midpoint between Spector and Meek; other tracks like “Bend Over Beethoven” could almost be Zappa. But for Wood’s undiluted vision, the first CD of his solo anthology stands as a UK Smile; ranging from the Scottish reggae of “Going Down The Road” to inventing Kid Creole on “Indiana Rainbow” and the shattered beauty of the greatest song he ever wrote, “The Rain Came Down On Everything.” It is best to pass over disc two in regretful silence.
JUST LIKE EVERYBODY PART 2
As with ESG, 23 Skidoo are enjoying fresh reappraisal. Following on from last year’s album reissues, these compendiums will thrill aficionados and newcomers alike. The Gospel Comes To New Guinea zooms in on their industrial/improv strengths via the grisly tape loops of “Just Like Everybody” and floor-magnet “Coup” (appropriated by the Chemicals on “Block Rockin’ Beats”)
Just Like Everybody Part 2 features largely unreleased material from when 23 Skidoo evolved into production unit Ronin: blueprints for Ninja Tune-style jazzy hip hop.
This twin-disc survey, compiled by Uncut’s contributing editor Nigel Williamson, tells you everything you need to know about “Americana”, alt.country, or whatever else you’d call it. It highlights the strengths of this fairly elastic genre?its rootsiness, melodic qualities, indie-style rejection of studio airbrushing, and tolerance, or even encouragement of, idiosyncrasy?while also exposing what drives non-believers nuts. In the latter category come a certain saminess of tone and tempo, a reliance on a narrow template of instruments, and the absence of enough genuinely original talents working in this field. For example, if Josh Rouse or Thea Gilmore didn’t exist, how many people would actually notice? Is any adjective stronger than ‘agreeable’ really applicable to the Radar Brothers or Dan Bern? Does BR5-49’s version of “Hickory Wind” serve any purpose other than to drive listeners back to the Gram Parsons original?
At least it gives the real talents the space to shine, like Steve Earle with “John Walker’s Blues” and disc one’s opener, Bob Dylan’s “High Water”. Sounding older than the hills and more inexplicable than the universe itself, the Bard serves up an object lesson in the timeless mysteries of American folk and blues. Lambchop hit a fragile, soulful note with “I Can Hardly Spell My Name”, The Flaming Lips provide “Do You Realize??”, and Jeff Finlin underlines his simmering potential with “I Am The King”, a starkly melancholic affair containing more than a hint of the young Randy Newman. Warren Zevon’s darkly Leonard Cohen-ish “You’re A Whole Different Person When You’re Scared” isn’t his best-ever song, but at least it’s by Warren Zevon, while Silver Jews risk a tarring-and-feathering with “Horseleg Swastika”. Nice to see the criminally unsung Rodney Crowell in here with “Ballad Of A Teenage Queen”.
One encouraging aspect of this collection is the strong showing by the Brit contingent. Grand Drive’s “Track 40’s Gone” lights up disc two, hotly pursued by The Arlenes and the desolate “Lonely Won’t Leave Me Alone”. A tip of the hat, too, to The Vessels and their cunningly off-kilter “Don’t Waste Your Time”.
Food for thought.
Nowhere is the line between genius and madness so thin and permeable in recent music than in the work of Miles Davis; nor is there any critical divide deeper in jazz than the line drawn by Bitches Brew in 1969. Opinion on the 22 years of music he continued to make thereafter is still fundamentally fissured on the issue of whether what Davis played in his long final period can be called music at all. This gigantic 20-disc boxed set, retailing at an amazing
Todd Rundgren’s ’70s heyday has been late in busting into the legit-bootleg CD reissue market, but this power-pack of prog-punk-pop does help to redress the balance. “Love Alone”, “Trapped” and “Last Of The New Wave Riders”, here, can only be described as the hybrid of an ecstatically damaged mind, one of rock’s tightest-ever bands and sheer live energy. Music to punch the air to.