Mojo Reviews Challenge #011 – The Wonder Stuff – If The Beatles Had Read Hunter…The Singles

Where I dig into something I’ve not heard before, from the reviews section of old Mojo Magazines, on an irregular basis.

CS1813972-02A-BIGThe Wonder Stuff
If The Beatles Had Read Hunter…The Singles
1994 – Polydor

I would count Brit Pop as my big light bulb moment of music. I loved chart pop and a little bit of grunge, but the war between Blur and Oasis – and the rush of bands that included Ash, Supergrass, Pulp and more – was the first music that was mine.

Which is unfair to Brit Pop because It was already on its second or third wace by 1994/1995. The few years before that are still largely a mystery to me, although I’ve heard of a lot of those bands. Take the Wonder Stuff, who had several chart hits and four albums (3 of them bothered the top 10) and had broken up and released a greatest hits before ‘Common People’ was even recorded.

My knowledge of the Wonder Stuff can be summed up thus;
– ‘Dizzy’, the friggin’ awesome single they did with Vic Reeves in 1991
– ‘Size Of A Cow’ and ‘Unbearable’ on various compilations
– The singer has long, curly hair

The kind of perfect amount of knowledge to bring in a Greatest Hits, then.

The title comes from a review of the band, (the Hunter being Hunter S Thompson) and it is a very generous assessment. They don’t have the clean lines of the Beatles, but they do have a lot of thrash-it-out energy, which is the most exciting part of this compilation.

There seems to be no order with this set, and I hate Greatest Hits collections that do this. Why? Why not just go chronological? Tell me a story. I don’t know your songs, and putting it in some biggest-hit-to-obscure-songs order helps me nothing. It is a bit of a jumpy listen straight through – production values and instrumentation (the violin in particular) come and go.

There’s a lot of catchy, fun stuff here, regardless. The songs I knew still shine. ‘Welcome To the Cheap Seats’, ‘Don’t Let Me Down Gently’, ‘Caught In My Shadow’, ‘A Wish Away’ – all lovely little pop confections. But there is filler too – a very British thing to have so many singles over a short career. The quieter stuff, the country-ish stuff, are nice but unremarkable.

(Here’s Welcome To the Cheap Seats, album in a longbox and Paul Schaffer on keys and everything)

Unremarkable also, because of history. Maybe it is my age bias, but the aforementioned Blur and Pulp would sweep in and add this level to artistry that would bury this band and other similar bands. I don’t know about the Thompson comparison – I don’t know if the lyrical ambitions are that literary. Maybe these were cool lyrics in 1994, but by 1996 they were pop fluff.

At some point, I’ll probably start deleting some tracks off the iPod and be left with like 10 absolute solid thumpers. I don’t know if anyone talks about these guys anymore, and history is written by the victors. They missed to Brit-Pop movement going mainstream and international, although they have reformed and put out new albums. They also look dated. They had some great songs, but they just didn’t have it.

One last note – ‘Dizzy’ is still an amazing track. One of the very best.

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Mojo Reviews Challenge #010 – Portishead – Dummy

Where I dig into something I’ve not heard before, from the reviews section of old Mojo Magazines, on an irregular basis.

Portishead_-_DummyPortishead
Dummy
1994 – Go! Beat

Dummy is an album that was very much around, but avoided. I guess, in 1994, I was falling madly in love with guitar bands from the UK. The strange sophistication of this record and Portishead came second to, say, Supergrass‘s ‘Alright‘. An age thing.

I did hear a couple of the songs. Heck, I remember the TV ads for his album – this was a big deal. So some of the big songs from this album are familiar. I know of their acclaim, and I’ve heard bits and pieces from their later records.

And yes, this album was exactly what I expected. Which isn’t totally good thing. The same reason I’ve not ever really felt the need to explore this band is all over this record.

We probably don’t talk about trip hop now, and the groundbreaking sound of trip hop has been absorbed and seem normal. The album has an interesting sound, but even by the late 90s, Moby, the Chemical Brothers and all would make it mainstream.

Listening to it today, it just seems nice. It drifts by. Yes, that Barry-Meets-EDM thing is clever, but it is not arresting. The real highlights come when Beth Gibbon‘s voice just….GOES for it. ‘Sour Times‘, ‘Glory Box‘ and others kicks ass, as Gibbons gives it her all. Songs like It Could Be Sweet, however – so light that they float away.

Lyrically, its all a bunch of nonsense. There’s a sense of longing and drama, but there isn’t much to say. Maybe I’m just coming to this record when I’m too old, and I care about lyrics more than ever. But it hampers this record. Repeated listens, and I found it to be all surface, little feeling. Maybe if I held more leftist dinner parties…

Gibbons is a gifted singer, and Geoff Barrow has put together a very interesting soundscape. It sunds great in films, and film music is no doubt a big influence. It won the Mercury Prize, and it definitely pushed the conversation of music forward. It certainly hasn’t dated.

I’ve given this album weeks, and I’ll give it a few more. But as I suspected about Portishead for twenty years seems to hold ture – its not really my thing. And it comes down to the songwriting. Gibbons sounds like she’s tearing her heart out. Why is mine still intact and bored?

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Mojo Reviews Challenge #009 – The Cookies – The Complete Cookies

1326006410_the-cookies-the-complete-cookies-fWhere I dig into something I’ve not heard before, from the reviews section of old Mojo Magazines, on an irregular basis.

The Cookies
The Complete Cookies
1994 – Sequel Records

This is a wonderful compilation. 12 tracks covers the complete As and B sides of this 60s girl group The Cookies. Four tracks by Earl Jean in solo mode round it out to 16. The Cookies were not on a big label like Stax or Motown and would probably be extremely obscure if not for their association with Carole King and Gerry Goffin. They were lucky enough to first sing some of the greatest pop hits.

I only really knew of The Cookies from that association, and their later work with Ray Charles. They are included on a couple of comps and box sets I own. So it’s great to have songs I know from later versions in original form. The classic ‘Chains‘, ‘On Broadway‘ and solo Earl Jean’s original of ‘I’m Into Something Good‘. I particularly love ‘The Old Crowd‘.

Ten of the songs here are King/Goffin compilations – making it an essential part of the Carole King discography. Goffin contributes to the other two, and the others are by other Brill Building stalwarts. It’s a tour de force of songwriters. It turns out that King continued to give Earl Jean financial support after her career ended.

I don’t know if this is an obvious point, but this was the first rush of teenage music from the girl’s point of view. It’s all about teenage concerns and a lot of romance. The mystery of the boys. A lot of it is pretty chaste – hugging and kissing. But the passion underneath – it’s pretty fiery.

These funny old regional girl groups. There are so many of them, and in many ways they caught into a fad. The Cookies didn’t even get an album out of it. Like so many more fads to come, be it Nuggets, Punk, Disco, Brit Pop, Grunge, New Rock etc. The Cookies were not one of the greats, and were not signed to one of the big labels. So they are a bit of an also ran, and there are lots of those. Who knows what treasures are hidden amongst those discount discs on obscure labels.

The production here is actually pretty good. They could sing, and sing with character. It hasn’t dated too much, and the songs remain solid. It’s a brisk listen – no filler and half a dozen absolute classics. A great compilation.

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Top 10 films of 2014

The year started off great, in terms of catching lots and lots of films. It dropped off by the end of the year, but it really doesn’t seem to be much. Here in Australia, various films that make the 2014 list (say Foxcatcher or Mr Turner) are not out yet.

So here are the films, for what it’s worth.

1. Boyhood
Richard Linklater

What can I say that has not been said? Breathtaking, and groundbreaking. Started me on a year of filling the gaps on Linklater’s work. He took out my number 2 spot last year too.

2. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson

He’s my favourite director. So what can I say? Other than he’s making his best work yet. The last couple have been so great, and he’s really found how to spread his wings whilst keeping with his style. The opening a closing bookend scenes alone are enough to fascinate. His nod to Lubitsch, it is beautiful and dark yet affirming.

3. Dawn Of the Planet Of the Apes
Matt Reeves

I’ve never really heard of Matt Reeves til this year. But he’s pulled off the best blockbuster of the year. And yeah, I saw my share of blowing stuff up films, but they are usually a nice ride and that’s it. Reeves managed to make a Shakespearean epic that just breaks your heart. And he’s even improved on the script – you’ll notice how quickly he cuts away from the minor, undeveloped characters and keeps it about Caesar. And that tank shot…wow.

4. God Help the Girl
Stuart Murdoch

God Help the Girl is one of my favourite albums of all time. According to my iPod, it’s my most listened to album – ever. So to finally see the film, I was always going to love it. I knew the songs so well, and the details of these characters. But to see it – Murdoch’s rose coloured view of Glasgow – is stunning. The songs, a big part, are great. And these characters who I have thought about for years, great to meet them. Top of the bunch is Olly Alexander as James, one of films great music philosophers, up there with Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs.

5. Her
Spike Jonze

One of those films that was last year for everyone else, but 2014 for me. A film that has touched me very deeply – the bright romantic side to Black Mirror’s brutal cynicism. It’s a vision of life with technology that is beautiful. Never has skyscrapers looked so gorgeous, computers looked so wooden, and typing looks like handwriting. In the end though, it joins the very, very short list of great break-up films.

6. Gone Girl
David Fincher

A powerhouse performance by Affleck and Pike make this drama one of the best of the year. It feels like even by now, this might have been turned into a TV thing. But Fincher shows what cinematic drama can be. A scene, that I will only say features someone driving in a car, is beautiful cinema. I watched this without knowing anything, and even if you pick it, it is worth the ride.

7. Guardians Of the Galaxy
James Gunn

Plenty of jokes out there about how Marvel is just so good these days that they can make us see anything. I’ve never read Guardians Of the Galaxy as a comic (and when I was reading Marvel, the team was a completely different thing anyway) so I had little expectations. And I’m pretty sick of superheroes onscreen, but this managed to stave off that sickness for just a little. The best thing about it was the humour – it’s swashbuckling fun. It’s not perfect in script, but it is in tone.

8. The Wind Rises
Hayao Miyazaki

Another 2013 in the US one. The last film by Hayao Miyazaki, one of my favourites. He returns to his more realist dramas to tell the story of Jiro Horikoshi, its beautifully animated and very touching. Wrapped in this prettiest of presents is bigger ideas, especially the price for progress. A stunning last picture – lets hope the old man was lying.

9. Magic In the Moonlight
Woody Allen

Still fantastic after all these years. What starts off as a light hearted romp ends up deadly serious. Eventually we have to face what we do and don’t believe. I don’t want to give it all away, you have to decide for yourself. So why not get swept away to the gorgeous French Riviera to do it?

10. Frank
Lenny Abrahamson

Not really about Frank Sidebottom, and after you see the film you only see Michael Fassbender’s Frank. A lovely tale about what makes artists really artists, and not just a hanging out guy who plays a bit. Quirky in a good way throughout, and the songs are wonderful.

Top 10 Albums Of 2014 #2-1

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2. Damon Albarn – Everyday Robots
Parlophone

This album is a clear number 2. These last two records twoer above anythign I heard this year, and are albums I will carry around with me for years.

I have loved so much music from Damon Albarn. Blur were a favourite, and the Gorillaz has many moments of pure joy. I like the man too, I love his approach to art, and what he has to say.

This is Albarn’s first genuine solo record. It took a long time, and a lot of flirting with opera and musicals before coming back with a pop record. But it’s not a Blur record, and he has synthesised his explorations in opera, world music and electronica, and then went and wrote some songs. Actual songs.

I listened to this album quite a bit and it never quite hit. But over time, those hooks, those melodies, and those sentiments started to stick. This is a grower, but I cannot imagine living without these songs. It makes little sense on first listen.

So many highlights – and oddly the singles are the least strong. The gentle History of a Cheating Heart, to the epic Heavy Seas Of Love. I love Photographs and the samples used. And Everyday Robots – the killer title track – it feels like Albarn has been trying to write this song his entire life.

The problem with Albarn is you never know what he will do next. Maybe his next record wont be so softly and lovely. Who knows where his spinning head might land next.

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1. Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott – What Have We Become?
Virgin

The voices of the Beautiful South return with my album of the year. A modern, angry political record, wrapped up in some of the prettiest melodies. I often complain that music has nothing to say – well there’s more said on this album that just about every album I’ve heard this year combined.

The world is broken. And Heaton, who has been writing scathing songs about life for over 30 years now, has plenty to say about it. The idiot who is led astray in ‘Moulding Of A Fool‘, the type that gets to vote and run our lives. How we should talk about the baseball cap like we do the burqa. The enduring image of pizza boxes stacked towards the sun.

The phrases, the ideas, and the story of this record still roll around my head. It’s Heaton’s talent that he can turn that anger into wonderful images and great songs. And then it was a stroke of genius to get Jacqui Abbott on board to make the medicine even sweeter.

It’s not for everyone – not everyone cares for the subtext. That has been Heaton’s trick from his very first hit single, Happy Hour. He has always hidden deeper meanings in songs that milkmen can whistle. He’s back at it, and I couldn’t be happier.

Modern music is supremely lacking in balls. No one is challenging anything. Our artists have stopped leading us, and left us with nothing to learn. This record was the only bright spot of a year of ball-less music. Maybe some of the bands Heaton has inspired, from Manics to Arctic Monkeys to Belle And Sebastian, will follow suit.

Top 10 albums of 2014 #5-3

Part 2! Numbers 3-5!
Part 1 here.

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5. Wilko Johnson & Roger Daltrey – Going Back Home
Chess Records

I was very touched by Wilko Johnson‘s year. At the start of the year, he was supposed to be dead, diagnosed with a cancer that was supposed to kill him last October. Then he made this record with an old friend and it actually did better than any album of his career. One more tour then. Then another. Right now, it looks like Wilko will be ok.

This record is a lot of fun. It’s also a lot of covers which is the reason it’s not higher up on the list. However, many of the songs, taken from Wilko’s later career, are still new to me.

Here’s the blistering title track.

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4. King Creosote – From Scotland With Love
Domino

I’m still very sad about what happened to Scotland. But one of the by products about the swelling of national pride there, was the art. And this album would not exist if Scotland did not make the brave move to go on their on own.

One of the more lovely art projects is From Scotland With Love – a film of archival material, showing the progress and life of Scotland of old. The soundtrack was this, a sentimental synthesis of Scottish folk. Emotionally charged and tender, it’s a trip through time. Even without the film, the music makes sense.

I’ve heard of King Creosote many times, but this is my first album. It’s love for me, and I’m exploring the catalogue.

Here’s a scene from the film, with music from the album.

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3. The New Mendicants – Into the Lime
Ashmont Records

The team up of Teenage Fanclub‘s Norman Blake and Pernice Brother‘s Joe Pernice. It’s one of those records that feels like it’s made for me. That beautiful pop songs left unadorned.

Not quite power-pop, not quite alt-country, this is just a collection of lovely songs by two master songwriters.

Starting an album

I don’t know what it’s like for anyone else, but there is definitely a point where a bunch of songs start to feel album-y. I like the idea of writing albums – they are like writing a play. When you have enough scenes and moments that you start to get a sense of the story.

There are two main things for me that separate an album from a collection of ten songs.

1) thematic consistency in the story.

For the last couple of years I’ve been writing songs that fit into various themes. There are some political songs. Lots of songs about death. Alcohol. Usually one or two ideas win out – some just end up with better songs.

The two that won out this time, and jostling to win, were the Inner West and the idea of writing just third person character studies of women. It’s feeling like the album is a mix of the two – it’s not a hard and fast rule. But I’m excluding songs based on theme.

I’m also excluding songs based on intent. There were a couple of angrier, more mean spirited songs. And as the album develops, those songs are going away. I’ve made one very angry record before. This one will be quite intimate.

We are over halfway through the record making process and I am tossing between two titles – both reflect the two themes. They are:

Do You Think We’ll Live Here Forever?

Or

12 Girls

2) musical consistency

This is sort of the easy one. At any given time, in probably writing songs to solve a puzzle. Trying to figure out how a particular genre of song works. Or how to make certain chord patterns fit.

More so than the last album, I’ve wanted to use more chords again. I feel like I’ve done the simple country songs for now. I was also fascinated by getting from a minor chord to the same major chord (Am to A for example) and what keys and ways to make that work. The other big one, that appears in almost every song, a major chord that descends a half step and then a minor (C to Bm for example).

It really helps with songwriting, these ideas. If you need variation, or if you’re stuck, you have a way out. They key is to repeat the trick in different ways.

By nature of the recoding process this time, the record will slow and hopefully soulful. That third Velvets album has loomed large in my mind. Soul music, the sound of Memphis, and how they do things, is a constant touchstone. A definite process when it comes to production or instrumentation.

These are all high falootin’ ideas that may never come off. There’s at least one song that won’t be about the Inner West or a girl and it’s looking like track 2.

But, developing both those steps is crucial, for me anyway, in sort of feeling like there’s an album here.

But it’s the spine that makes up an album. And once we had that – I could start the painful process of selecting songs. Which I will write about next.

Top 10 albums of 2014 #10-6

Not a great year for music for me. Not many new discoveries, and plenty of disappointing efforts from some of my favourites. Instead, I find myself going back to older weirder stuff, and trying to fill in gaps of my knowledge with my Mojo reviews challenge.

But what of contemporary music. It was kinda tough to even put together 10. But here we go.

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10. God Help The Girl – Original Soundtrack
Milan Records

This should be number one. The songs on this record are re-recorded versions of the original, one off, God Help the Girl album, now repurposed for a film. I love that original record so much. According to my Last.fm, I’ve listened to it more than any other, and I can’t describe how much it means to me.

So any album that contains these songs is always going to win. That they are not songs of 2014, I’ll put it at #10.

This is probably my favourite song from this album at the moment.

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9. Real Estate – Atlas
Domino Records

It’s very similar to their last album, but they solidify a sound. There’s just something about this band – they worked out a sound that is so familiar yet original on their first record. They own it here.

Lots of mysteries abound for me still in this record. It’s murky and mysterious, soulful and jangly. One of those records that kept coming on, and I kept not skipping. They are working their way towards a masterpiece – I can feel it

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8. Lake Street Dive – Bad Self Portraits
Signature Sounds Recordings

A discovery from the documentary Another Day Another Time. A modern soul band. Some people call it indie – but there’s nothing indie about it. It’s beautiful, fresh, honest music. And what a voice, with Rachel Price up front. This band could be as big as Amy Winehouse. They need slightly better song ideas to do it, and if they do – look out.

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7. Elbow – The Take Off And Landing Of Everything
Fiction

I’ve written about this record before. A gorgeous album, that is probably perfect for someone my age. What I love about this band most is the unabashed romance. They write poetically, about big things or not at all. They are also, let us say, older men, who are not making retro music.

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6. Ball Park Music – Puddinghead
Stop Start

The only Australian album to make the list this year. Sad that. But oh well – this album is killer. Such an abundance of musical ideas, so many catchy hooks and production ideas. But really, it comes down to this band actually has something to say. There is a real conversation about what it’s like to be young today. The best reflection of it is Next Life Already – one of my favourite tracks of the year.

They are getting angrier, and sharper, and it makes them stand out. The best Australian band at the moment.

Numbers 1-5 to come.

Making an album

I’ve been writing songs since I was 17. Playing in bands most of that time and occasionally making albums, I have started making my fourth. (The long term plan is to be like Felt – 10 albums, 10 songs each. At this rate I should get there sometime in my fifties. ) It will once again be under the name ‘The Reservations’.

I have no aspirations for the album to sell or change my life in any way. I mainly enjoy the writing of songs. Or more accurately (and to quote Randy Newman) I like having songs written. Making an actual album has always been secondary. But it is necessary – otherwise you never finish anything.

I’m terrible at sharing info, and ironically I tell a lot of young bands out there to do just that. So, to heed my own advice, I’m trying to figure out how to write about this experience.

The decision to make an album usually comes these days of having enough for an album. I’ve been toying with certain ideas, musically and thematically, and when I have enough, it’s off on an adventure to figure out how to make it!

I’m recording with Tim Kevin in his studio in Marrickville. Tim has played in many fantastic bands and ushered many great records. I first saw Tim play in the band Hoolahan in the late 90s. I loved that band.

Right now I would say we are a little over half way through. I came in with 12 songs, intending to record 10. For various reasons we’ve lost 3 and now I’m one short. There is certainly a direct connection between writing this blog entry and delaying writing a 10th song for this record. There’s more than enough half written bits lying around to make something.

This is not a terribly insightful entry, but future entries will focus on particular aspects of this process, like choosing songs, or tracklisting, or organising musicians, etc.

Stay tuned

Mojo Reviews Challenge #008 – Syd Barrett – Barrett

Sydbarrett-barrettWhere I dig into something I’ve not heard before, from the reviews section of old Mojo Magazines, on an irregular basis.

Syd Barrett
Barrett
1970 – Harvest

I’m not much of a Pink Floyd fan, although I must say in recent years I feel that wall breaking down. Maybe it’s age, but even listening to some of the new, apparently final Pink Floyd album, I find a lot of it nice. Maybe it’s what someone my age does instead of buying jazz….later Pink Floyd.

What I do like about Pink Floyd was Syd Barrett. He’s easy to like. Firstly, he looked great. Syd in 1967 was as striking as any figure in popular music – that mess of hair, those deep eyes, those fancy shirts. Not to mention that wild, wild imagination.

Musically, I definitely could have spent more time with him. Piper At the Gates Of Dawn is never one of my go-to’s. I love ‘Bike‘. Somewhere along the line I picked up The Madcap Laughs and quite enjoyed it. I never got any further, and his second a technically last record Barrett passed me by. If that Crazy Diamond box set didn’t look so awful, I probably would have picked that up.

So what of Barrett? It seems widely accepted that this record is more of the Madcap Laughs style acoustic mumbling. The pair would make a nice twofer, and are both reviewed together in this issue of Mojo. It’s part of the very first proper reissue of Barrett’s stuff.

The record – a lot of it is very nice, and his random imagination is still spinning. But this feels more Daniel Johnson than Ray Davies – it’s more naive pop, not a craft master.

There is some lovely stuff, and top of the pile is ‘Gigolo Aunt‘. A bright, sparkling pop song that maybe could have been a chart hit like ‘See Emily Play‘ if it had been performed by steadier hands. ‘Baby Lemonade‘ and the other English weird folk stuff still taste the best. The blues-y jams…god. Utterly disposable. ‘Effervescing Elephant‘ – genius. Overall it’s a fine record, and that naivety gives it quite a lot of charm. And god knows I love obscure little quirky records such as this.

Poor Syd. I think I’ve always liked the story of Syd Barrett more than his music. He was barely functioning at this point, and there’s probably an awesome biopic in the works that tells the rest. I’m probably still going to reach for Madcap first, but it’s great to finally cover off many of these songs.

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