Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Sound Of The Smiths (updated 30/7/2011)

Only the hottest cutting-edge bloggage here, friends – this entry is a review of a two and a half year old CD that I’ve only just got round to acquiring which is itself compiled from tracks recorded and released over twenty years before that. Why on earth would you review a compilation CD, particularly one featuring a band who have already been over-compiled to the point of exhaustion by greedy record companies (“extra track/and a tacky badge”)? And if you were enough of a nut to buy a CD composed solely of songs you’ve already got in your collection why not get it straight away? Well, it’s like this…

The thing about The Smiths on CD, as opposed to The Smiths on all those beautifully packaged and designed albums and singles that I collected obsessively during my teens, is that they’ve always sounded crap. I know a lot of people, including one or two whose judgement is otherwise pretty sound, will be taking the opportunity to righteously sneer and be wearyingly dismissive on reading that assessment (“they’ve always sounded crap to me too, mate”) but it’s nonetheless true – the albums available now are from the original CD masters, which were done in the 1980s, and they’re tinny and over-compressed and the music just doesn’t live the way it does when you hear it on a 12 inch record. This isn’t vinyl fetishism by the way, I haven’t got unusually sensitive ears for this kind of thing and I’m perfectly happy to listen to most things on CD or even mega-squashed MP3, but this stuff is just bad. And that’s just a little bit heartbreaking, given how many hours Johnny Marr in particular spent slaving over the amazingly intricate arrangements of subtly layered guitars and effects that are one of the reasons this band was so extraordinary. Morrissey’s vocals and lyrics are so arresting, and the songs generally so short and compact, that it’s easy to miss this stuff, but it’s true: many Smiths songs have a dozen or more separate guitar tracks on them. And most of them just get lost on CD.

So I’ve been waiting for a Smiths re-mastering programme for a while. And with the release of The Sound Of The Smiths I thought I was going to get it. The unique selling point of this collection, what it has over Best or The Singles or whatever other ropey round-ups there are out there, is that the tracks have for the first time been re-mastered for CD, with Johnny Marr overseeing the process to boot. I heard an interview with Marr at the time this came out in which he mentioned that he’d been involved in re-mastering all the original albums, so I started anticipating some class of boxset: the four studio albums, all the BBC sessions, the aborted first stab at the first album produced by Troy Tate, all the many and splendid B-sides, the live album…it could have stretched to ten discs, easy, with no barrel-scraping necessary. Surely, the new compilation was just a taster? I held fire on it, and waited.

And waited. Thirty months later there’s absolutely no sign of any Smiths reissues coming, and the rumour that Morrissey is refusing to authorise them because they would give estranged drummer Mike Joyce an income stream seems to have gained more credence. The Sound Of The Smiths is still out there, and finally curiosity has overcome me. Was it worth the ten quid it cost to get a bunch of old songs I already own?

Absolutely. The first big plus about this album is the sheer quantity of material on it. It was released in both one disc and two disc editions, with the first disc consisting mainly of tracks released as singles, both in the UK and elsewhere, and the second being a mix of B-sides, alternate versions and the odd album track, and it goes without saying that the two discer is the one to go for. There’s a total of 45 tracks here, with only one song appearing in two different versions, which means that close to two-thirds of all the songs recorded by the band are represented. No collection that still manages to omit Reel Around The Fountain, I Know It’s Over, This Night Has Opened My Eyes and Rubber Ring could ever really be called definitive, but it’s not half bad, certainly striking value for money, and if you’re only ever going to get one Smiths album this just about edges it over The Queen Is Dead.

The second justification for getting this is the inclusion of a handful of high quality rarities that haven’t ever been properly rounded up before. We get the jaunty Jeane and the mysterious Wonderful Woman from the B-sides of This Charming Man, the searing live take of Handsome Devil from the 7 inch of Hand In Glove, a cover of fellow Mancunians James’s What’s The World, which I think was only ever issued on a cassette single, a harrowing live Meat Is Murder, and the Troy Tate produced demo of Pretty Girls Make Graves. Oh, and there’s also the extended New York vocal remix of This Charming Man, which seems a bit of a liberty given that the band never authorised it and it takes up space that could be occupied by one of the omissions I’ve mentioned. While I’m on the subject of rejigged singles, it’s worth mentioning (because the sleeve notes don’t always) that some of the tracks on the first disc are specifically 7 inch versions, so no atmospheric intro on Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me here.

And to finish where I started, the third and best reason to get this CD is the improvement in the sound quality over the existing album versions of these songs. The remastering is just great – the songs sound bright, vibrant and punchy, with bass and high end coming over as they should, and the wealth of detail in the recordings can finally be heard clearly. For ten pounds it’s a steal. I may not be getting a Smiths boxset for Christmas just yet, but this will do nicely for now.

Postscript, 30th July 2011: Rhino records has just announced that they’ll be releasing an eight album set this October consisting of the four studio albums, Hatful Of Hollow, The World Won’t Listen, Louder Than Bombs and the live album Rank, all re-mastered with the approval of Johnny Marr. The pedant in me recoils a bit at the fact that this is being marketed as a “complete” collection, but it looks like a must-buy, particularly at £35 for the standard release. There will also be a stupidly lavish limited edition containing LPs, DVDs, posters, prints, 7″ singles and probably Morrissey’s long-lost sense of his own ridiculousness, all for a somewhat higher price. ‘Bout bloody time.

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Out Of This World: science fiction at the British Library

Quick mention of the Out Of This World exhibition on science fiction, which is running at the British Library until 25th September 2011. As befitting its location the exhibition concentrates mainly on literature, from the second century writings of Lucian, who speculated about a journey to the moon, through the new possibilities suggested by the Industrial Revolution and onto the hopes and fears inspired by the wars, technological developments and medical advances of recent years. The bulk of the displays are made up of rare, vintage and illustrated editions of classic and influential sci fi texts, and the thoroughness is admirable – there are many authors represented I’d never heard of, alongside the expected H.G.Wells, Jules Verne, Arthur C Clarke and more contemporary names like Alan Moore, Margaret Atwood and China Mieville. I made a ton of notes on writers and books I’m going to try to hunt down. Not a lot of space is available for non-literary fictions (I didn’t spot anything about Star Wars or Alien, for example), though there are some interesting sound samples scattered through the hall that one could listen to on headphones: interviews with Wells, Clarke and William Gibson, fifties radio shows and musical interpretations. Doctor Who fans are catered for with a TARDIS (full-size, on the outside anyway) and a steampunk K9. Really worth checking out, if you like this kind of thing.

The Mountain Goats at Koko, London 25/5/2011

I was surprised at the length of the queue to get into Koko in Camden to see The Mountain Goats, given that I was convinced I was the only person in the UK to have heard of them, but there you go: a long line of generally young and studious-looking folk, some of whom were filling the waiting time by reading Shakespeare or poetry. I sensed that the probability of any trouble kicking off was low. After the line eventually started moving I was surprised again, this time by the interior of the venue: it’s essentially a very well preserved and maintained Victorian music hall, with high twisty balconies and alcoves that function as private boxes, all done out in vibrant scarlet with chandeliers and mirror balls. It’d be perfect for a burlesque show.

The support act were The Submarines, a boy/girl, electric guitar/acoustic guitar duo from Los Angeles, whose sound was supplemented by both a MacBook which provided beats and guitar effects and, rather charmingly, a glockenspiel. They were pleasant, melodic and definitely Californian, and singer Blake Hazard has a clear and powerful voice, but there didn’t seem to be much about them that was terribly original. The crowd seemed to like them though, and a good vibe was established.

The main act came on stage promptly at nine o’clock, and are surely the nerdiest looking band I’ve seen since those clips of Talking Heads awkwarding their way through Psycho Killer on The Old Grey Whistle Test. All three Goats were wearing suit jackets, and while drummer Jon Wurster could just about pass muster in dudedom with his designer stubble, bassist Peter Hughes comes over like a preppy sixth-former who’s secretary of the chess club and head Goat John Darnielle resembles a slightly-gone-to-seed FE lecturer, complete with uncool spectacles and slightly-too-long hair. They have the air of a group of teachers relishing the chance to be let off the leash and play their music in public, and Hughes and Darnielle seem almost alarmingly free of inhibition, lolloping around the stage grinning maniacally between verses. This is not standard behaviour for major cult figures. The slightly shambolic feel extended into the sound mix, for the first couple of numbers anyway – the vocals were getting lost, and the instruments were hard to pick out, which isn’t too impressive when the line-up is as basic as acoustic guitar, bass and drums. Thankfully, the mix improved (or I adjusted to it), and for the bulk of the set Darnielle’s distinctive and slightly whiny voice could be heard just fine, and as The Mountain Goats are most definitely a lyrics band this is just as it should be.

There can’t be as many bands as spoiled for choice for material as the Goats. Darnielle has been releasing records in profusion for twenty years and has apparently written over 500 songs so there’s really not a lot of point trying to predict a setlist. Sure enough, there was a pleasing contrariness in the song selection – out of around twenty numbers played there were only four from the recent (and brilliant) album All Eternals Deck, and only one from the two albums that preceded it, whereas there were three representatives from the 1994 album Zopilote Machine and a liberal smattering of obscurities and unreleased songs. Darnielle took a couple of solo turns, where he seemed to be deciding on the spot what he would play (this may have been stagecraft, but it seemed pretty genuine) and was generally garrulous, enjoying banter with the crowd and requesting that the house lights went up a couple of times to make the show more inclusive. The band cracked through the songs, and it was a blessed relief that none were extended or padded out with gratuitous solos or extended climaxes. Darnielle knows how to please a crowd when he wants to, mind – the main set ended with the rousing This Year, and the encores featured both No Children, which may be the finest Goats song of the lot, affording the opportunity for a roomful of people to holler “I hope you die, I hope we both die” in unison, and The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton, the opening track from the immortal All Hail West Texas. There was one cover version: a seductively creepy version of Houseguest by California band Nothing Painted Blue, for which Darnielle put down his guitar and stalked around the edges of the stage, working the crowd.

The Mountain Goats are my favourite band of the last few years on the basis of their albums. The live experience is a lot less polished, but I was far from disappointed, and the audience certainly lapped it up – the bloke in front of me was even punching the air a bit. May the nerds inherit the Earth.

Eurovision debrief

Every year I put up token resistance, but as inevitably as the awarding of twelve points by Cyprus to Greece I yet again found myself slumped in front of the simultaneously spectacular, bizarre and banal festival of crud that is the Eurovision Song Contest. Or rather, the final of the Eurovision Song Contest – when I was a kid Europe only seemed to contain about twelve countries and you could easily accommodate all eligible entries into just the one three-hour extravaganza. These days, there are former Soviet and Yugoslav republics a go-go, which means there’s now a whittling down procedure involving two semi-finals, which tend to have the unfortunate effect of stripping out most of the bollocks-to-it-this-is-my-moment-in-the-sun wild card efforts (for some reason Norway used to be notorious for these) and leaving a residue of purest bland for the main event. Anyway, I’d somehow managed not to expose myself to any of these songs before Saturday night, not even the UK’s, for which apparently an actual real-life multi-hit-making boy band had been roped in, so I settled in with my score card and Twitter feed without any particular expectation as to who might walk off with the non-more-coveted trophy.

Perhaps I should have put in a little preparation. Twenty-five songs that have been tailor-made to be as inoffensive as possible is just too many to assimilate in one sitting, and by the time the interval act came on I was having trouble distinguishing my Slovenias from my Estonias. The ones that were definitely rubbish were Finland (drippy ballad about how some boy called Peter was going to singlehandedly defeat global warming), Bosnia-Herzegovina (Frankenstein-style mishmash of misbegotten Euro-tropes) and Russia (low-rent leather boys who looked like they thought were entertaining a hen party). A few countries had tested the formula a bit, notably France, who fielded a proper opera bloke singing something that sounded unusually highbrow and free of anything resembling a hook, and long-absent Italy, whose song had a classy jazz piano nightclub vibe. My picks were Serbia, who offered a punchy 60s-style pop song that got extra points for being one of the very few lyrics not sung in English and for having a female singer chosen for her vocal talent rather than for her age and looks, and what looked like the obvious winner Moldova, whose entry was performed by five energetic if not conventionally camera-friendly men wearing surreal Dr Seuss-type pointy hats. Their number “So Lucky” started as a full-on high-speed shouty rocker, before dropping into a surprisingly tender and melodic interlude during which  a girl dressed in white unicycled onto stage for a brief duet, and then morphed into a sort a mutant oom-pah thing with trombones. Honorable mention should also be given to the universally-derided Jedward twins, here representing Ireland, who did at least have a half-decent song and were undeniably giving it 110%.

The collation of the vote in Eurovision is the stuff of legend, and these days seems to last longer than it takes to listen to the songs as no less than 43 countries get to have a say. This year was marginally more interesting than usual, as no clear winner emerged early and the normal blatant stitch-up between neighbouring countries whereby they swap the big points was less pronounced than it has been in recent years, but the results were still baffling: Ukraine? Which one was that? The lady making art in a dirt box? Sweden? The self-absorbed ponce singing narcissistic rubbish about how the most important thing was to be popular? Eventually, and inexplicably, the prize went to Azerbaijan, whose “Running Scared” may well have been the least memorable morsel on the entire menu. Still, singers Eldar and Nigar were pleasingly overcome with emotion to have triumphed (they want to use their victory to “bring Europe together”), and least the UK entry’s unimpressive eleventh place disproved the theory that celebrity beats all. Moldova? Nowhere.

There’s something peculiarly masochistic about spending three hours watching something on which so much expense, time and effort has been spent to so little artistic effect. But then as Charlie Brooker says, can you imagine how shit Eurovision would be if it was any good?

Attack The Block: beat on ET with a baseball bat

A rundown inner city 20 storey building becomes the target of vicious extra-terrestrials in the sci-fi/horror comedy Attack The Block. The film is the directorial debut of Joe Cornish, as in the comic double-act Adam & Joe, the former TV and current radio show presenters and all-round pop cultural deconstructionalists, and as such you might well be expecting it to be a spoofy and ironic take on its subject matter. Surprisingly though, it’s played pretty straight, with most of the generally very successful funny bits arising naturally from the characters and situations rather than through cheap references to other films. Also quite unexpected are both the level of horror and suspense, with some classic edge-of-the-seat moments and liberal splatterings of blood once the action gets going, and the skill with which your sympathies are manipulated towards a bunch of initially pretty unpleasant-seeming characters – underneath the B-movie trappings this is in many ways a highly accomplished film, and it gets bonus marks for coming in at under an hour and a half.

Cornish’s boldest step may be to make the heroes of his film a gang of teenage muggers, who are seen threatening a nurse with knives in an early scene. Their behaviour here is not excused or apologised for, and it makes for an interesting dynamic when later on their personalities come to the surface and they find themselves making the choice to use their facility with weapons to defend rather than menace other members of their community. The threat to them comes mainly from a swarm of shaggy and fluorescent-toothed aliens, who are surprisingly frightening given that they’re basically men in gorilla-style costumes, although there’s a subplot about an unsavoury drugs baron living in the tower block who also doesn’t have particularly benevolent intentions towards the teenagers. It’s very refreshing to see a monster movie that doesn’t rely on computer generated effects, and it’s unusual to get moments of tension this heightened in a plot where the basic trajectory is as clear as this one. The final resolution is neat and carefully set up, and the redemption of the lead character is earned.

Attack The Block is probably the best favourite horror/comedy I’ve seen since Shaun Of The Dead (which also featured Nick Frost, clearly channeling Danny the dealer from Withnail & I in the newer film), although there isn’t much of a direct comparison to be made: Shaun was basically an extended sitcom with added zombies, whereas Attack is horror with funny bits. Joe Cornish should be able to secure a bigger budget for his next project, and it’s to be hoped he doesn’t get so beguiled by Hollywood that he compromises on the script quality. On the evidence of this film he could be a major talent.

Have Moicy! Another cult classic I’ve only just got to grips with

Time to talk about the album that I’ve derived the most pure unalloyed pleasure from over the last few months. Have Moicy! is a 1976 release that I’ve been vaguely aware of for decades but only got to listen to for the first time in January, and if nothing else it’s certainly a candidate for the album having the most convoluted recording artist credit outside of the hip-hop genre: Michael Hurley and The Unholy Modal Rounders and Jeffrey Fredericks & The Clamtones.

I first heard of Have Moicy! way back in the pre-internet 80s, when I  was relying on only the weekly music press and one or two reference books for information and opinion about bands and records. By far the most authoritative and austerely self-important looking of these tomes was Robert Christgau’s massive and tightly packed Consumer Guide to the rock albums of the 1970s, in which the august New York critic had compiled his super-dense and often sardonically opaque reviews of more or less every major (and many many minor) release from the decade in question. Most of the reviews didn’t make much sense to me as a teenager, and still don’t now, but Christgau also helpfully graded every album on a scale from A+ to E-, which gave me some kind of starting point to work out whether he liked them or not. Not many albums in the book got a grading of A, and the top mark was vanishingly rare, so the records that achieved it tended to stick in my memory – the two original New York Dolls albums, Marquee Moon by Television, an Al Green album I think, and a few others, including (to return to the point) Have Moicy!, which Christgau describes as the best folk album of the rock era. A mere 25 years later after reading the review I got round to downloading the album after I noticed it was available from emusic.

Michael Hurley is an American singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who’d been sporadically issuing collections of pleasantly laidback folky material since the early 60s. The Unholy Modal Rounders, led by Peter Stampfel, were an off-shoot of folk/psychedelia duo The Holy Modal Rounders, who shared some lineage with legendary proto-punks The Fugs and also at one point included respected playwright and actor Sam Shepard in their line-up. Jeffrey Fredericks was the leader of Vermont group The Clamtones, who played in a style that would probably be referred to as alt-country or Americana these days, and wrote (but didn’t release) many accomplished and irreverent songs in the early 70s. What these three pretty disparate acts had in common was that by 1975 they were all signed to, or in the orbit of, folk label Rounder, which meant that when somebody (possibly Stampfel and Robin Remaily of the Unholy Modal Rounders) had the idea of setting up some sessions to record the best songs of the three acts, with the combined musicians functioning as the backing band, Rounder was able to release the resulting recordings without getting entangled in too much red tape.

The sessions took place over two days and resulted in seventeen songs, thirteen of which ended up on the record: four each written by Hurley, Fredericks and the Rounders, with the thirteenth being a highly idiosyncratic cover of the pre-war jazz ballad Midnight In Paris. The finished album is riotously entertaining – the best term I can find to describe the music is “hillbilly”, in that there are prominent fiddles and banjos and quite a few references to all-night parties and campfires and women walking out on drunken husbands in the lyrics, but much of the joy of the thing is the way it lurches between styles as every new song comes up. The closest point of comparison in my collection is Bob Dylan and The Band’s The Basement Tapes, but there’s none of the earnest beardy respect for tradition that you sometimes get the whiff of from that collection. The wildest of the three main vocalists is Peter Stampfel, who sounds like he’s voicing a cartoon coyote and gets to sing the loosest and most obviously comical songs, such as the closing Hoodoo Bash, a description of a Mardi Gras style occult ceremony. Michael Hurley’s contributions are less manic and more radio-friendly, but still include the eyebrow raising Slurf Song, which seems largely concerned with the digestive processes of someone eating beans and spaghetti. Jeffrey Fredericks’s songs may be the real highlights: they’re bright and melodic with toughly funny and subversive lyrics. His Robbin’ Banks, a celebration of “bein’ illegal”, is my favourite from the album and seems to have lodged in my brain permanently with the occasionally embarrassing side-effect of making me burst out into song while walking to work. The musicianship is as organic and spontaneous sounding throughout as you’d expect given the brevity of the recording sessions, but it’s also surprisingly tight and disciplined. Either the groups did more rehearsing than they’re letting on, or they’re a lot more professional than their reputations might suggest. Anyway, a brilliant album. Should have got to it sooner.

The best record ever made

One of my regular internet haunts is The Word magazine blog, which is basically a fairly standard music, film and TV forum, except that the people who post on it tend to be unusually well-informed, articulate and polite. Without wanting to generalise, there seem to be a lot of music-obsessed males in their 40s and 50s, and topics discussed are typically things like comparisons of Richard Thompson albums and how it’s impossible to have a good time at gigs these days because the music’s too loud and there are too many people talking and flashing mobile phones around. Every now and then someone posts a question to try and achieve consensus on a particular question (such as “what’s the best Beatles album?” or “what’s the best year for music?”), with predictable but still enjoyable lack of success – ask the same question to 100 musos and you’re going to get 100 different opinions back.

This week, someone was brave and foolhardy enough to go for the big one: what’s your all-time favourite track, asked in the hope of eventually being able to compile some kind of chart. This is of course an inherently ridiculous question, and to be fair, the poster was quite aware of this and that the joy of the thread was always going to be in the debate it stimulated rather than the definitive establishing of the best record ever made. I, like rather a lot of the other regular frequenters of The Word blog I suspect, have a stock answer to this question, as I have to the other chestnuts like favourite album, favourite film and favourite book (not Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, I should point out, despite some of the resonances with my life I found in it*). I therefore posted up my answer – (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais by The Clash – expecting this to be the only vote for this truly magnificent but not overly well-known record. I was truly surprised to come back later to find a fair amount of other posters agreeing with me. At the time of writing it seems it might even win the poll.

To be honest, I can’t remember when I first heard (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais, but I do remember getting obsessed with it round about Summer 1985 after hearing it a few times on tapes of old John Peel shows. Despite an evidently raw and unvarnished production it didn’t sound much like your standard three chord punk thrash (not fast enough, too considered), and despite the rhythm guitar chopping out a pronounced backbeat and the spare, dub-influenced bass it’s not really reggae either (too stiff, too, well, white). It’s catchy, but has no chorus or any repeated verses, and it’s structurally weird, with the middle bridging bit coming between the first and second verses, rather than between the third and fourth as you might expect. It’s jaunty and uplifting, but you’d be hard pressed to dance to it. There are classic Mick Jones weedy backing vocals, and some tastefully restrained lead guitar and harmonica fills, and there’s a great spontaneous feel to the recording, as though this is the first take of the song immediately after the band finished working out the arrangement. But what really lifts this song up into greatness is Joe Strummer’s vocal and, particularly, his lyric.

The song starts out by describing Strummer’s experience as the only white man in the audience at a reggae gig at the Palais. He’s initially thrilled at what he hopes will be an inspiring experience, but gradually realises that the groups he’s listening to are playing essentially pretty conservative music and are going through the motions for the sake of appearing cool. The scope of the song then widens to take in youth culture in general and the stagnant state of politics, and Strummer muses on the dangers of complacency (“if Adolf Hitler flew in today/they’d send a limousine anyway”). At the same time, he’s also amused and self-deprecatory, which helps to stave off any potential preachiness. The dominant emotion conveyed is disappointment, but the lyric never lapses into cheap cynicism, and I can’t think of any other pop song that achieves a similar mix of social concern, wit and passion with such subtlety.

Strummer may be the very worst singer ever to front a stadium-level band if you’re going to apply strictly technical criteria, but the success of his vocal performance here is nothing to do with formal virtuosity. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else attempting this song and sounding convincing. He’s singing from life experience and his character shines through – at the line “they’ve got Burton suits/you think it’s funny” he even breaks out into an unmistakably natural laugh.

I’ve probably listened to (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais through choice more often than any other piece of music, and it’s still utterly beguiling. I’m still waiting to see if it is officially the best record ever made, and won’t be too heartbroken if it isn’t, honest – I’m just glad I’m not the only person who still appreciates it.

* Nick Hornby once worked in the same independent record shop that I did (though not at the same time), and the bits in High Fidelity that take place in the main character’s own shop seemed uncannily familiar to me when I read the book.