Should auld acquaintance be forgot…

Despite another morning of waiting for the ice to dissolve from its windscreen before blasting the Ferrari’s mighty engine off of my drive and into the school-run and commute, the steady bead of afternoon sunlight in my eyes and the calling of the blogging urge has pulled me from my hibernation.

Where have I been? Fucking nowhere there’s a pandemic on and the rules change as much as that cockwomble-in-charge’s excuses do, triple-jabbed or not.

What have I been doing? The break wasn’t intended it just happened, maybe I’d lost my mojo, maybe I just needed to switch off a little. I’ve been reading a lot (potentially to be detailed later but Franzen’s latest was as excellent as expected, The Passenger is an amazing ‘lost’ novel rediscovered and Anna Karenina is proving the Russian beauty I wish I’d read sooner), using the festive break to watch films old (unlikely to be detailed later so Bad Boys 2 was as awful as I thought it would be, Face-Off has not aged well at all while Beverly Hills Cop is still a time-capsule joy) and new (Don’t Look Up suffers from split-personality only one half of which is very good, the other shite) of an evening instead of falling asleep in a cattle-truked daze. Oh, and watching Get Back*.

Of course, I’ve also been consuming music across as many formats and mediums as I can including catching up with some 2021’s finest. As Aphoristic Album Reviews points out in his fine summary of the year: putting together a list of a best albums during the year in question always feels a bit weird. What if your favourite artist surprise released a new album on Christmas Day? There’s also the fact that I don’t always get to absorb ‘new’ albums until that end of year break. Anywho, with that in mind and keeping it short and sweet, here are my five favourites of 2021.

Mogwai – As The Love Continues

Mogwai came out swinging in February with As The Love Continues. After the restrictions of 2020 (especially tougher in Scotland than here) gave them an opportunity to work distraction-free on their album, they produced one of their finest ever some 24 years after their debut and a very early and easy contender for AOTY. It bristles with great tunes, a warmth and thrust that they’ve not exhibited in a decade. A big hit with critics and fans alike it actually hit the top of the album charts here (surely that’s the first post-rock album to do so?),it felt too good to be true at the start of 2021 and, tens of plays later, still feels too good to be true at the start of 2022.

Snail Mail – Valentine

I was already hooked on this album on Spotify but after finding the vinyl under the tree this year I’ve fallen ever deeper under its spell (more reason to leave those lists until the year has passed). ‘Sold’ to me as a midway point between Hole and Lucy Dacus, Snail Mail’s second album is a glorious slab of 90’s inspired, emotionally fuelled alt-rock with real range and power.

Dinosaur Jr – Sweep It Into Space

The reunited Dinosaur Jr ‘classic’ lineup have now put out more albums than the three of their original run and one more than the various iterations of the band put out during its major label run. What’s surprising is that they’re still bitingly keen and putting out solid and inspired albums that always have plenty of great tunes on them and a lot of J Mascis’ always dazzling guitar solos. The addition of Kurt Vile as co-producer and occasional rhythm and acoustic guitar player has yielded one of their most sonically interesting and just plain-fucking-great-to-listen-to albums thus far and has been a regular spinner since it dropped in April.

Lucy Dacus – Home Video

I loved Lucy Dacus’ 2018 Historian. Why, then, it took so long for me to pick up Home Video is beyond me.. perhaps it was too much to listen to and too little time but, when my local announced a re-stock I made sure one of them had my name on and I’m glad I did: Home Video is just brilliant: Dacus goes from strength to strength here with an album richer in sound and more personal in lyrics – a compelling mix of alt-rockers and gut-wrench ballads.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – God’s Pee AT STATE’S END

Two post-rock giants releasing great albums in the same year? Yup. Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress and Luciferian Towers were ok but didn’t move me in the way that ‘old’ GY!BE and even ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend Ascend did… yet AT STATE’S END is a powerful return to that earlier form. Reintroducing found recordings and, like Don’t Bend… delivers two monumental slabs of post-rock with the band’s glorious build-ups from scratchy, static transmissions to crescendos that make your soul go ‘oh fuck YES! interspersed with a couple of drone tracks as if to cleanse the palate.

If this were a Top 10 it would also have included The War On Drugs’ I Don’t Live Here Anymore (a brilliant album that’s way too over-priced on vinyl to have been added to my collection and made the Top 5), Explosions In The Sky’s Big Bend (three post-rock albums in the Top 5 would be pushing it though), The Weather Station’s Ignorance and My Morning Jacket’s self-titled album while Ben Howard would’ve taken an honourable mention for his Collections From The Whiteout.

My favourite ‘Old Stuff Revisited’ release of 2021 is a tie between Tom Petty’s Finding Wildflowers and the re-cast Angel Dream (Songs and Music from the Motion Picture ‘She’s the One’) – that Rick Rubin helmed era of tunes from ’94 thru to 99’s Echo was a rich seam for Petty and these archival releases and new versions are like visiting a golden era and finding it even better than you remembered.

That was 2021… 2022 already has some promising releases on the horizon. I’m eagerly anticipating new albums from The Mysterines, Big Thief, Eddie Vedder (of course), Placebo (for the first time in a while) as well as ‘it could still happens’ like Springsteen’s Tracks 2 to name a few.

*Finding a way to summarise my thoughts on Get Back is likely to take a while

Monday spins

Here we are with the weekend behind us and staring down the barrel of another week. So, on the day that always feels like a kick in the pills, here’s a quick wander down the path of tunes I’ve been giving a lot of ear time this last week.

Eddie Vedder – Long Way

An Eddie Vedder solo song without a hint of a ukulele? Yup – what’s more there’s an album on the way (I think he plays all instruments but that might be a malicious rumour from the fan forums) following quickly on the heels of the ‘Flag Day’ soundtrack he’d put out earlier. This is a real Tom Petty vibing track, rather than a Pearl Jam song that didn’t pass muster, and that’s no bad thing.

Regina Spektor – While My Guitar Gently Weeps

I’ve been watching a lot of Studio Ghibli films recently with my son and ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ (which isn’t a Studio Ghibli but from Laika, another studio with a very strong set of films under its belt) came up. It’s got a great soundtrack as you’d expect from a film about a boy with a magical instrument, and while it’s mostly originals there’s this really cool cover of a – frankly – stone cold classic that runs with the credits. I don’t think Regina Spektor has put out a lot of late but she put out a couple of belters back in the day.

Sting – Rushing Water

I can’t say I’ve paid much attention to Sting’s solo output for a long time. I don’t think he’s put out much in the way of ‘straight ahead’ solo music for a bit. If I recall there’s been a musical about a ship, a winter solstice themed album, some tosh with Shaggy, duets…. if anything I’ve listened to his daughter’s work more than his. That being said, turns out he’s got a new album called The Bridge on the way. Not a cover of Billy Joel’s album, more one primed with ‘pop-rock’ tunes that he put together over the last year when nobody could really do anything outside for more than five minutes. Maybe I’m getting older but this seems like a pretty good upbeat and cheerful place to be.

Aerosmith – Boogie Man

We’re all victims of algorithms aren’t we…. I guess because I’d talked about Joe Perry’s book out load in the presence of my phone Prime recommended I watch Aerosmith’s ‘Rock for the Rising Sun’ concert doc. It’s an alright live doc but the most interesting thing was hearing them dust off ‘Boogie Man’ – the almost-instrumental closing track from their gargantuan selling Get A Grip. It’s been in my head ever since and has got me pondering an Aerosmith Least to Most series…

Pixies – Here Comes Your Man (’87 version)

When picking up my copy of the Trompe Le Monde anniversary press from my local record shop I decided to add the Pixies EP aka The Purple Tape to my collection which is a collection of those songs recorded during the band’s first studio session in 1987 that didn’t make it to Come On Pilgrim and it’s a great blast of ‘pure’ Pixies magic.

Pink Floyd – One Slip (2019 Remix)

As part of The Later Years box set Pink Floyd decided to remix their oft-derided 1987 A Momentary Lapse of Reason, their first without that cockwomble Roger Waters shouting at them about how shit they were. Because of Waters’ shouting neither Nick Mason or Richard Wright had enough confidence in their playing to contribute much to the album and it was mostly Gilmour and session musician – hence the remix that’s about to be released as a stand-alone outside of the box set. It features new drum parts from Nick Mason as well as the restoration for Richard Wright’s keyboard contributions to “restore the creative balance between the three Pink Floyd members”. It also sheers off some of the overwrought 80’s production that hampered the original too. Having loved it on The Later Years I’m glad it’s getting a wider reissue.

Midweek spins

Here we are on the downhill stretch to the weekend once again and I thought it an opportune time to pull up a chair, pour a mug of the caffeinated stuff and take a butchers at those tunes that have been on repeat this week.

Elliott Smith – Let’s Get Lost

My wife recently added Air’s instalment of Late Night Tales to the record collection and that – as if I needed one – was a prompt to dust off From a Basement on the Hill this week and enjoy the gorgeousness of Elliott’s last (albeit posthumously released) studio collection.

Tad – Trash Truck

Tad loomed loud and large at the heavier end of the Seattle scene spectrum. Flicking through the racks in a charity shop a few weeks back I found an original copy of 8-Way Santa (before the couple on the cover found it and threatened to sue) still with its shrink wrap for a measly £8 (considerably lower than current market rate). Had to be done.

Metallica – Sad But True

Sticking with the heavy for a moment – with the album’s 30th Anniversary pushing a lot of attention toward it, I’ve had Metallica’s ‘Black’ album hammering away in the car for a few days this week, it’s one of those landmark albums from a period in 1991 that was just dripping in classic albums.

Placebo – Beautiful James

A couple of years ago I thought it was curtains for Placebo – their newer stuff was approaching the bottom of the barrel. On the evidence of ‘Beautiful James’ which harkens back to their Meds sound I’d say the layoff – seven years since their last album – has done them some good.

The War On Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore

More proof, if needed, that the next War On Drugs album is gonna be a good ‘un.

My Morning Jacket – Regularly Scheduled Programming

Apparently, in summer 2019, MMJ played a set of shows that were to be their last for some time and were going to be calling it quits for a bit with whispers of retiring the band. Instead those shows reinvigorated them and they decided to get back to cutting great music together. Somewhat sidelined by the pandemic, that new music is finally here and I’ve had ‘Regularly Scheduled Programming’ on repeat this week.

Some current spins

It’s been a while since one of these but here’s a quick look at some of those things that have been repeatedly inserted into my ears by one process or another lately.

Courtney Marie Andrews – If I Told

I think I’ve mentioned Courtney Marie Andrews on here somewhere before… I remember hearing ‘May Your Kindness Remain’ and saying ‘this is almost perfect, all it needs is for that lurking guitar tone to break’ and it did. ‘If I Told’ is of a similar model – great bruised tones pinned down by Courtney Marie Andrews’ voice. Her latest, Old Flowers, is well worth investigation if you’re that way inclined.

Gang of Youths – The Angel of 8th Ave

Some groups – especially a certain massively ‘meh’ group from Las Vegas – try waaaay too hard to shove some form of Springsteen element into their sound. For others there’s just something there that makes you hear it and Australia’s Gang of Youths falls into that category for me. It took a while for their 2017 Go Farther Into Lightness to break on these shores (perhaps it took the boat from Down Under) but I really dug that one over 2020 and this one – from their new ep – is another good slab of the good stuff; cool rhythms, jangly guitars and a great beat.

The War On Drugs – Living Proof

FINALLY: there’s a new War On Drugs album on the horizon, arriving conveniently the day after my birthday. For me this band just gets better with each new album, A Deeper Understanding was pretty much perfection, I’m digging the title track from the new one so eagerly looking forward to more.

The Staves – Satisfied

The Staves are one of those discoveries you get from hitting a different radio station once in a while. BBC 6Music has gotta be one of the most eclectic stations out of there so while not everything is gonna be my cup of coffee it’s usually solid stuff regardless of genre – driving home one Friday afternoon I caught three great tracks in a row, this was one of them and sent me off to discover more. Cracking group – an indie / folk trio of sisters – who played as part of the live Bon Iver lineup and have four albums of their own behind them now.

Lucy Dacus – Thumbs

Lucy Dacus’ Historian and, particularly, the song ‘Night Shift’ were massive mainstays on my stereo 2017-18. I was pretty stoked to check out her new album and I really need to get round to picking it up, ‘Thumbs’ is such a bare song but so massively affecting.

Björn Olsson – Tjörn

You know there are some weird ways to discover music out there… my son has been watching (and re-watching) ‘Hilda’ on Netflix, it’s a really quirky and pretty wholesome thing with a nice little Nordic feel to it and a surprisingly great selection of songs used across its two seasons. A couple of Björn Olsson songs were featured in it – including this one – and while this dude has one fucking weird discography I’ve been hooked on slipping the headphones in and chilling out with his The Crayfish album lately

Billy Joel – The Downeaster ‘Alexa’

I can’t remember how it started but I found myself going down one of those artist rabbit holes lately with Billy Joel and listening to an array of what are, frankly, great tunes from the piano man and spending a good bit of time with Storm Front which, along with the annoyingly catchy ‘I Go To Extremes’ also has ‘Leningrad’ and ‘The Downeaster ‘Alexa” which has always been a favourite.

Another round for everyone, I’m here for a little while… Angel Dream and revisiting She’s The One OST

This year marks the 25th Anniversary of Ed Burns’ She’s The One film – a pretty bland and forgettable flick the anniversary of which would probably go uncommented by most (including me) were it not for one thing: somehow the film ended up with a cracking soundtrack album provided by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.

Given the obvious and somewhat lengthy title Songs and Music from the motion picture “She’s The One”, what the film was gifted was the Heartbreakers’ ninth studio album and easily, as a result, one of their most over-looked gems. Produced by Rick Rubin on the back of Tom Petty’s 1994 Wildflowers and containing some songs held over from those sessions after the decision to scale it back to a single album, She’s The One OST contains some of the group’s finest moments and is always worth revisiting, 25th anniversary or not.

Back when I started getting into Tom Petty and building up my collection, this one always felt like a missed opportunity. Petty, still on that prolific songwriting wave that had fuelled what was inarguably one of his greatest albums to date – Wildflowers – and the album contains some absolute gems – take ‘Supernatural Radio’, ‘Angel Dream (No.2)’, ‘Grew Up Fast’ or ‘Zero from Outer Space’ as examples – while songs like ‘Hope You Never’ or ‘California’ gave a hint at what else the Wildflowers sessions yielded – we’d have to wait a long time for the Wildflowers and all the Rest album to show in full.

Then there’s some great choice covers too like Beck’s ‘Asshole’ and Lucinda Williams’ ‘Change the Locks’:

So what’s ‘missed opportunity’ about this? Well as good a Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers album as I feel is hiding in the mix, it’s the fact that it’s been gifted as a soundtrack to a pretty naff film that stops it reaching full flight. There are two great songs on here – ‘Walls’ and ‘Angel Dream’ but, as it’s a soundtrack and these being its themes, we get them double up with two variants of each. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great tunes but still…

We also get instrumentals in amongst those, the overall effect of which is to throw off the flow and the feeling of consistency. Writing this in 2021 I can honestly say it’s the equivalent of streaming a cracking album only to have in interrupted whenever it gets going by an advert that you can’t skip. Yes, I know, it was the age of CD and you can skip CDs but you get my point… it also means that with the doubling up of tracks and shoehorning in of instrumental bridges that it suffers somewhat from CD bloat. Given the joyous back-to-basics yet still warm and rich sound of Wildflowers the production of She’s The One OST is lacking – it’s a little too direct and simple, almost giving the feeling that there was an element of rushing to finish and release, it doesn’t do it or the songs any favours unfortunately.

Now, don’t get me wrong: for all its faults, the She’s The One OST is still a bloody fine Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers album just not the great one it could have been…..

And yet… I am writing this in 2021 and it would seem I’m not the only one (you may say I’m a dreamer) who felt that the songs here deserved revisiting. For, in the wake of Tom Petty’s early passing, his estate has been busy realising his original vision of Wildflowers as a double album and last year it was released – in varying degrees of extravagance – as Wildflowers and All The Rest. This year Angel Dream (Songs and Music from the Motion Picture She’s the One) has emerged as both an anniversary-timed release and as a pretty fitting companion to last year’s archival release.

Now, it’s hitting general release in July but a nice cobalt-coloured vinyl edition was released as part of 2021’s Record Store Day and now sits happily on my record shelves. Well, when it’s not being played that is and it’s played a lot over the last week or so. Why? Because this isn’t just a reissue. As the PR surrounding it is keen to point out, Angel Dream is more of a reimagining of that album. As if reading my mind, gone are the instrumental bridges and duplicates of ‘Angel Dream’ and ‘Walls’. Gone too are the songs that were restored to Wildflowers in last year’s release and, in their place are four new songs – two of which are Petty originals, there’s a cover of JJ Cales’ ‘Thirteen Days’ and, oh, an instrumental (just the one) ‘French Disconnection’ which at least closes the album rather than gets in the way, and an extended version of ‘Supernatural Radio’.

There’s also a subtle reordering of the track listing – running now at a slighter and tighter 12 tracks – but, most importantly is the sound. There’s been a subtle but still vital remix of Rubin’s original production that adds a gorgeous warmth and charm to the songs that was previously missing and makes it feel much more of a piece with both the time and Wildlflowers.

I’ve listened to this album a huge amount over the last week or so and I’m still not bored of it. If I could spin records in my car I’d have been running it constant, instead I’ll have to wait for general release formats as it didn’t come with a download (thanks, Warner Music). I wouldn’t go as far as to say it sounds like a ‘new’ album, more that it finally sounds like the great Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers album that was hiding in the original release, it’s not perfect but it’s damn near close. Given that the Heartbreakers’ decade was bookended by the lacklustre Into The Great Wide Open and Echo (another massively overlooked and Rubin-produced album), it’s an important reevaluation of their mid-90s output that’s definitely worth checking out when it hits the streaming and general release in July.

Spinning Some Newer Things

Stepping out of the mid-90s for a moment, I thought it high time to throw a few things up here to show what else – during this long-arse pause in the ‘norm’ – has been going through my ears lately.

Daughter – Youth

So… anyone else catch Ricky Gervais’ ‘Afterlife’ on Netflix? We powered through both seasons earlier this year. Not what I was expecting – gutting at times… jesus. Hell of a soundtrack though and sent me off exploring a lot of new artists and many I’d heard of but not heard. This particularly stood out and I’ve been enjoying Daughter’s catalogue since.

Eliot Sumner – Information 

Some time back I took a punt on Destroyer’s Kaputt having seen it on sale for £5.99 and found out I really dug it. The same thing happened with Eliot Sumner’s album Information: I saw it in a sale for £6.99 and thought ‘why is a double lp so cheap?’, checked reviews / information, not a lot them about so pinged it up on Spotify and… holy shit! The name didn’t click at first but the voice…. it’s like the same timbre of her father and she’s singing with such confidence and there’s a real power to it… really enjoying this album from Gordon’s daughter even if, or perhaps because, it’s not what would normally be in my wheelhouse.

School Is Cool – Close

Another new discovery – these guys hail from Belgium. Their new album Things That Don’t Go Right is a pretty good mix of the same sun-kissed guitar tones and vibes that The War On Drugs have perfected along with some cool vocal harmonies and those 80’s sci-fi synths that Stranger Things seems to have revived.

Turnover – Cutting My Fingers Off

I’d seen this album so many times on ‘the ‘gram’ and for some reason thought it was something entirely different – I thought it was one of those stone-metal albums like Sleep…. However; took the opportunity afforded by not having to get up for work (only as an acting teacher to my son at least) to listen in on headphones in the evenings and have been hooked on Turnover since.

Gary Clark Jr – This Land

Holy shit did I sleep on this one. I mean, I’ve always dug Gary Clark Jr’s playing – his Live album is a frequent spinner even if I haven’t found his studio albums as rewarding – but this is just something else and, right now, still, essential.

Philp Sayce – Burning Out

Again – new to me, this guy, but I’ve been digging what I’ve heard thus far and, much like Gary Clark Jr, this guy drew a lot of ears playing at one of Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festivals.

Pearl Jam – Quick Escape

March seems like a decade ago already doesn’t it? Without being able to tour and promote it’s easy to forget Pearl Jam had a new album out this year – which sucks especially when you consider how long we had to wait for it! Still, Gigaton is an absolute beast – one of their most ‘on’, diverse and consistently strong albums in a long time and I enjoy it more with every spin. ‘Quick Escape’ is a thumper! “Crossed the border to Morocco , Kashmir to Marrakesh . The lengths we had to go to then to find a place Trump hadn’t fucked up yet.”

 

Seven!

This one started as a joke, a throwaway comment… but then, I like the idea of a ‘theme’ or ‘write about this’ approach so took a look at seeing what I could put together for the number 7.

Well… staying within this blog’s wheelhouse, there’s ‘Seven Seas of Rhye’ according to Queen and Wonders of the World for Fleetwood Mac, both decent tunes. Perhaps most famously now it apparently takes more than a ‘Seven Nation Army’ to hold back Jack White:

Aside from being ridiculously catchy, ‘Seven Nation Army’ has probably made Jack White more money than anything else he’s done. While their label was initially reluctant to release it as a single in 2003, The White Stripes’ single was moderately successful in the charts (hitting and peaking at, fittingly enough, number 7 here), its usage in about a gazillion sporting events, broadcasts and adverts has netted its writer millions on its way to becoming what’s got to be the second-most recognisable guitar phrase ever (nobody’s gonna top ‘Satisfaction’).

There are also ‘Seven Curses’ and ‘Seven Days’ on Bob Dylan’s The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (now THAT is a great collection of Dylan tunes) but only ‘7 Seconds’ for Youssou N’Dour and Neneh Cherry.

On a more recent note there’s also ‘Seven O’Clock’ one of the standout tracks on the new Pearl Jam Gigaton* and what kind of fan would I be if I didn’t take the opportunity to feature it and it’s glorious lyric ”Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse they forged the north and west, then you got Sitting Bullshit as our sitting President”:

On the subject of Pearl Jam, there’s also 7 Worlds Collide – a musical project of Neil Finn (Crowded House, Split Enz and a raft of great solo albums).  Taking its title from a line in Crowded House’s ‘Distant Sun’, the project bought Finn together with a number of other musicians for a series of shows in support of charities. The group featured contributions from Eddie Vedder, Johnny Marr,  Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien and Phil Selway, Tim Finn and many others – and a record , 7 Worlds Collide: Live at the St. James, was released in 2001 with tracks from a series of 5 shows at the venue and still gets taken off my shelves for a spin or three today. I’ve not checked out the studio album the project – with a pretty different ‘cast’ – put together a few years later but it still warrants checking out given that the set revolves around some of Finn’s strongest tunes along with a few written by his guests at the time:

Now, here’s a thing: I’ve often had a theory that the seventh track on album can often be one of the strongest. It’s not always the case, of course, and will depend on artist etc but my logic is that it’s the key point at which to drop a great tune and keep the listener’s ear into the second half of an album.  With this in mind I took a rummage through my records then realised I could save myself a huge amount of time and use Spotify… duh.

With that in mind, there are loads of albums in which the seventh track is not only bloody strong but ranks among the best on that album. Take ‘Us and Them’! Or ‘Ramble On’… easily one of Led Zep’s greatest with that seamless switch in gears… or the actual title track on Highway 61 Revisited! There’s a wealth of great track sevens and, sticking to the ‘no more than 2 per artist’ rule I’ve oft imposed upon myself on this blog, I put together a playlist of great Track Sevens, enjoy:

*Moving away from Brendan O’Brien’s production sets it in with Binaural and Riot Act in terms of the band’s embrace of different sounds and vibe but I think it’s better than both of those, it’s easily their strongest set in some time, possibly since Yield.

Spinning Some More New

I’m still here! You’re still there, I hope. Despite being busier than a contagious disease expert I have been listening to music new and old. The old as part of my now way-behind schedule Albums of my Years series and the new because, well, who doesn’t like hearing new music?

So, as I try and finish the 1988 post in another tab, here’s some of the new tunes I’ve been spinning and streaming and Alexa…ing of late:

 

The National- Never Tear Us Apart

It’s safe to say that I was underwhelmed by last year’s much-hyped album from The National. Nothing hooked me in the same manner as their previous work but after x albums that’s not too surprising. This however…. well I really dig it. A cover of INXS’ most 80s of ballads for a bushfire relief album and shows (along with their cracking cover of Bruce’s ‘Mansion on the Hill’ a few years back) the band have a way with a cover.

Biffy Clyro – Instant History

My wife digs this band more than me but I think that’s more down to the singer… I like em though and have caught em live at least once. I saw a tweet that summed up my response to their slightly-new direction that went something like “I’m not sure about this new Biffy Clyro song.. THIS IS THE SOUND THAT WE MAKE!!!” It’s a real earworm that even my son is hooked on.

Bush – Flowers On A Grave

Obvious euphemism aside, I used to really like a bit of Bush back in the day. Their first three albums had some great tunes on but Golden State, their fourth, felt like the end of a road. Turns out they got back together in 2010 and have released a few albums since that I’ll earmark for future listening. This is their latest from an upcoming 8th album.

Pearl Jam – Dance of the Clairvoyants AND Superblood Wolfmoon

It gives me so much pleasure to put Pearl Jam in a ‘spinning the new’ post once let alone a twofer and say that there’s a new Pearl Jam album out in just a couple of weeks now. It’s been so long and the waiting drove me mad… It took a minute or two for me to love this song, it didn’t hit immediately. My first reaction was “wow that’s.. different.” But each listen revealed more: that bass line, Vedder’s vocal the most committed he’s sounded in ages and it’s got a real groove to it. New producer, new vibe…  the other new song release from the album is a little closer to the band’s ‘expected’ sound but still has a pretty different vibe (and a killer solo):

I can’t wait for Gigaton. Thankfully I don’t have to wait for long.

Then and Now: Stereophonics

Then: A Thousand Trees

This is going back a bit…. August 1997, in fact. I remember hearing this tune on the legendary John Peel’s radio show as he was championing up -and-coming bands. Next chance I got I was in Richard’s Records – now long long gone – picking up the CD single in the days when they came with another 3 tunes on them and were worth collecting in their own right (but that’s another blog, surely).

For those unfamiliar with the Sterophonics, Jim, then they were three young Welsh lads, freshly signed to Richard Branson’s new V2 label, pushing out short, urgent songs with lyrics detailing gritty small-town life. Take this, their third single, which “was about rumours spreading around a very small town and somebody’s reputation being basically burned to the ground. It was a football coach who did some very untowards stuff with younger kids. He had his name celebrated in wrought iron outside the football pitch.”

While “it was basically about rumours in a very small environment crushing someone’s reputation” this, like most songs off their debut Word Gets Around were rooted in something real and were a little vital as a result.

Second album Performance and Cocktails contained more than a little of the same spark that infused their debut but started to slow things down too and signs of the ‘meat and potatoes’ rock were already sneaking in (‘Just Looking’). I caught them at Wembley Stadium in ’99 when they were one of the acts opening for Aerosmith and can confirm that then, at least, they could cut it live too.

Then I guess they got caught up in it all… the songs lost their focus, started to move toward acoustic, a cover of ‘Handbags and Gladrags’ took off… they began churning out what I’ve already referred to as ‘meat and potatoes’ – uninspired but does the job, I guess – music. I seem to remember seeing pictures of singer Kelly Jones stumbling bleary eyed out of bars with Ron Wood.. taking the stage at Isle of Wight festival in a white suit with ironed-flat hair.. the three-piece’s numbers swelled to five and then they fired their Keith Moon-style drummer, Stuart Cable. In keeping with tragic tradition Cable would be found dead in 2010 having drunk himself into a stupor and choked on his own vomit*.

I tuned out after their third album as they no longer appealed to my tastes. Several albums of by-the-numbers later..

Now: Fly Like an Eagle

I read an interview with Keith Richards around the same time as I was discovering the Stereophonics. In reply to a critique of then-new album Bridges to Babylon he pointed out that “the Stones aren’t here to break new ground, we’re here to be the Rolling  Stones.”

There’s something to be said for that, of course.

Some twenty plus years after their debut, the Stereophonics are still going. I wouldn’t say strong but they are still going. Hearing this on the radio last night, the DJ pointed out that the band is still working, still writing and are “still the Stereophonics” in that they haven’t stopped doing as they’ve always done, have never said “we’re going for  a disco sound on this one” or tried a concept album… They’re enjoying something of a renaissance as a result of the fact that a) they’ve been around so long and b) guitar-music is picking up place on the radio again.

But then, to keep doing something mediocre too… the reason nobody needs the Rolling Stones to break new ground is because they built a back catalogue of fucking belters. You can’t apply the same logic to all.

Every other year there’s a new Stereophonics album and every other year there’s the same ‘amazing new single’ and attempt at a little punch from them then everything sounds the same. There’s no real sentiment to it. I mean: “Hey hey, my my, everything’s gonna be alright, Hey hey, my my, everything’s gonna be just fine.” Ta, Kelly, I’d not caught up on my horoscope today.

If you like that, I guess, there’s nothing wrong with it but I find ‘Fly Like an Eagle’ symptomatic of all they’ve been doing lately – solid enough but uninspired and too often meandering instead of getting in and out.

I’m not going to be spending any time looking back at what I’ve missed on the strength of this one. Word Gets Around, however is always worth a listen.

*which you can’t dust for.

I wake up in the morning, just glad my boots are on: Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars

I read a line this morning that said “Springsteen sounds like an episode of Home Improvement if it was a song” and it’s thrown me off somewhat… I came here to work on a couple of the Bruce posts that are in the works and now all I can hear is Tim Allen going “uuuuuuuuAH?”

I will persevere though and talk about The Boss, specifically about his first new album in seven years, Western Stars.

I’ll be honest – at first I was nervous, apprehensive. Springsteen had been talking about his new ‘solo’ album* before he began his Broadway residency and the idea of an album that had been long-laboured over as with Human Touch made me wonder if it was ever going to see the light of day. Throw in producer Ron Aniello** and lack of E Street band…

I was wrong. Very fucking wrong. Western Stars is Springsteen’s strongest in a long time. Where it sits in terms of my Least to Most is still tbc but the songs on here are far and away some of his best story tunes to date.

Now a lot was said in the run up to the album’s launch, and still is being said, about the sound. How this album is supposed to be influenced by the southern-California  pop sound of the 70’s championed by Burt Bacharach or Glenn Campbell…. I don’t know a lot about that because, well; frankly it’s not something I’m all that familiar with. It is a different sound to what you might expect from Springsteen – there’s no snarling guitar or stomp on here. But… at the same time….. it’s not. Some of Springsteen’s later career highlights such as ‘Paradise’, ‘The Last Carnival’ or ‘The Devil’s Arcade’ found Bruce moving into more contemplative tunes with strings vs screaming guitars and the sounds on Working on a Dream had already hinted at a taste for the lush.

It was only a matter of time before he ditched the rock and tried the orchestra and there’s also a progression in his ‘solo’ album sounds, from Nebraska to Ghost of Tom Joad to Devils and Dust there were increasing embellishments on the sound from the initial ‘one man, a guitar and a four-track’ approach. Here we have the ‘solo’ album that is, in fact, one man, a producer, multiple guest musicians, former band members and several orchestras…

Yet it takes a little getting used to, this approach. Exactly one and two-thirds of a song, in fact. Opener ‘Hitch Hikin’ isn’t a success. From a lyrical point of view we’re good, it’s standard Bruce travelling-tune fare complete with reference to a ‘souped-up ’72’. Yet for a song with little weight to it, the production is way over the top – I’m looking at you Aniello – with strings and slobbered over it as though building to some cinematic climax that simply isn’t there. It’s jarring.

‘Wayfarer’ suffers a similar fate, at first. Lyrically we’re fine – love the line “Some folks are inspired sitting by the fire, slippers tucked under the bed, but when I go to sleep I can’t count sheep for the white lines in my head” – but the orchestral accompaniment here sounds as fake and appropriate as the tits on ‘Baywatch’. It doesn’t work. Until 02:30 that is. Bruce pushes his voice a little too hard and, instead of collapsing, everything comes together behind him – horns, strings and melody complete and, suddenly, it’s working together in a, yes, Burt Bacharach soundtrack style.

From here on in it gets good. Really good. Where this album works so very well is when the strings and music is minimal – used more as a graceful backdrop to what are some of Springsteen’s finest character and story songs with gentle sweeps of string and lap steel to move between verses and time as on the title track:

The tex-mex flavour of ‘Sleepy Joe’s Cafe’ lifts the pace a little while there’s a cadence to Bruce’s lyrical delivery that almost brings to mind the upbeat numbers on The River. Lead ‘singles’*** ‘Tuscon Train’ and ‘Hello Sunshine’ differ the least from Springsteen’s songwriting and sound – hell, one of them is a bloody ‘train’ song complete with steam train sounds at the end – but are nonetheless strong tunes.

The real highlights for me, though are songs like ‘Drive Fast (the Stuntman)’ – a deceptively simple gentle guitar strum and piano accompany the first lines before the orchestra joins gently to rise and fall with the story in gorgeous surges and rolling out like the soundtrack to a gritty short film****.  When the instrumental passages and orchestral accompaniment blend with – rather than being the focus – Springsteen’s lyrics and initial melody as they does with so many songs on here, Western Stars is a triumph.

Western Stars has met with near unanimous acclaim including critics that usually scoff at Springsteen and with good reason. It manages to be both a move in a different direction and familiar at the same time. The sheer strength of Springsteen’s songwriting on this album means that his songs are both immediate and reveal more on each listen as the sounds unfold beneath them – sounds which, while initially unexpected, suddenly make sense and you end up wondering why he hadn’t tried this earlier.

Whether we get to hear any of these live is another question – there’s no tour for Western Stars – after performing twelve million shows on Broadway the man’s entitled to a break I guess. Plus there’s now talk of a new E Street Band album being written and worked on at the end of the year. Then there’s the Tracks 2 and second Seeger Sessions album and….

We’ll see…

*only live releases have been credited to anything other than ‘Bruce Springsteen’

**case in point: High Hopes and Wrecking Ball are among Springsteen’s low points in terms of production and sound IMHO

***does anybody really do singles anymore?

****one of which is apparently due in autumn.