HEATH COMMON AND THE THIN MAN
Performance (Platform 54)
For their follow-up to 2011’s Bohemia, Scarborough-based Common and Sheffield’s Mr Man are without the talents of Manchester’s Ella Bee, bur are instead augmented by bassist Robert Downe with contributions on sitar, piano and pipes from Trevor Pollard, Kate Halliwell and Tim Gleaves respectively. The Kurt Weill influences that mingled with the sound of avant-garde 70s New York remain, as does Common’s atonal broad Northern accented talk-sing approach, though this time there’s no instrumentals or covers while their frame of reference now adds 1969s London (Powis Square at 4am, a spoken tale about spotting Mick Jagger filming Performance) and modern Manchester (the Eastern swaying Zorba The Beat).
Referencing Kerouac and 1955 San Francisco, sombre harmonium accompanied opening number The Beat Manifesto announces where their cultural and philosophical affections life, Edie Who? recalling the brief flame of Warhol protégé Edie Sedgewick while When Dino Valente Sings celebrates the vocalist with SF cult psych-rock outfit Quicksilver Messenger Service (under his real name of Chester ‘Chet’ Powers, he wrote Everybody Get Together), although conversely The Gypsy And The Priest takes them musically back a few centuries to trad British balladeering and an appropriately bluesy The Death Of Honeyboy (as in Delta bluesman David Edwards) slaps the faces of those with their ‘ pretty boy poetry’ who claim personal familiarity with or to understand the lives of musicians like him, Champion Jack Dupree and Robert Johnson. As with the debut, it’s a more about cabaret and poetry than songs and of firmly limited and niche interest, but it’s a fascinating piece of work.
Discovered by the late Clarence Clemmons, Maine-born Johnstone is better known as a writer, her songs having been covered by such luminaries as Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Trish Yearwood , Stevie Nicks and Johnny Cash. However, as this, her sixth album, demonstrates, she deserves to be recognised as an artist in her own right too.
The album built around themes of tearing down to rebuild and learning who you truly are, there’s a strong Southern gospel feel to the opening title track, trumpet and trombone adding soul to the organ bedrock while elsewhere she digs into smoky cellar bar jazz on What A Fool, smouldering gypsy violin torch with The Underground Man, marries wailing sax to calypso for Free Man, harks back to the gin and blues 20s on Touchdown Jesus where sounds like she’s singing through a vocoder and haunts the shadows in the jazz-soaked Halfway Home.
With echoes of Randy Newman to the regret and loss stained piano ballad Your Side Of The Bed, whether or not it and songs like Alcohol and Girl Afraid are confessional, she’s patently a master at capturing the heart’s dark and desperate moments, just as she’s capable of encouraging belief in its resurrection.
Kill You Again (Black Glove)
Listening to the latest from the Bath quartet, you get the impression they’ve not got anything in their record collection after the early 70s. Influences and reference points positively tumble around the ears as they merrily make their way through the twelve tracks. That’ll be The Move’s Flowers In the Rain and I Can Hear The Grass Grow on the respective intros to L.O.V.E. Yeah with April Showers, Slade on the opening of Oranges & Mary, Barrett-era Floyd for Mrs Drawnel, the Kinks on the calypso flavoured Strays, a nod to Baby You Can Drive My Car for Taxi Driver (which also recalls The Who’s Pictures of Lily), the bluesy psychedelia French/Japanese getting high courtesy of Steppenwolf’s The Pusher and a mix of T Tex and 10cc on Lesson One. Meanwhile, Hendrix parties with Thin Lizzy and (stepping out of the era, Lenny Kravitz) on Oh Yeah (Uh Huh Huh) while Wings flutter through the Bond theme inspired title track (and album cover).
Unabashedly retro perhaps, but with musicianship and songs this strong, their future may indeed well be behind them.
THE GREEK THEATRE
Lost Out At Sea (Truce)
A Swedish duo comprising 40somethings Sven Froberg and Fredrick Persson (augmented on drums reed and woodwinds), the fact that the album was recorded in a rustic wood cabin conjures thoughts of a Scandinavian Bon Iver, though more ready musical comparisons would be the mid-60s sounding West Coast rock of Blitzen Trappen infused with elements of Brian Wilson, Arthur Lee, Summer Breeze-era Isleys and, on Mountains Meet ocean Sand especially, The Byrds. All of which seems rather at odds with the band’s insistence that the prominence of British folk (Drake, Fairport, Span, Pentangle) will be most noticeable. It’s hard to imagine anyone listening to things like Even You Will Find A Home My Son, the sun-kissed August Streets or Frozen Highway and find themselves thinking of Pink Moon or Now We Are Six, though the drums or Overprotection Doesn’t Work do recall Unit 4+2’s Concrete and Clay.
They do 60s prog folk with Stupid Costapleton while piano ballad Hold On surely owes a debt to Lennon, but otherwise this is the music of Big Sur and, while at times overly heavy on the echo, all rather dreamy.
American Ride (Blue Rose)
Starting out with Dylan and progressing to Springsteen and The Clash, Nile has had a career of comparisons without ever getting to shine in his own spotlight, his albums consistently well reviewed by critics, consistently under-promoted by his labels and consistently overlooked by the public at large. After spending most of the 80s tied up in legal wrangles, there was a decade between his second and third albums, and then another eight years before Beautiful Wreck Of The World marked the start of his re-emergence. Seven more years passed before Streets of New York, but since then the gaps between studio releases (there’s been several live albums punctuating these) have been shorter with House Of A 1000 Guitars and The Innocent Ones following in reasonably quick succession. Now, three years later comes his eight studio offering, one that finds him fully energised, rocking and positive. And, of course, drawing comparisons to Dylan, Springsteen and The Clash.
It kicks off with the punk rocking battle cry This Is Our Time, setting the defiant tone that’s echoed in things like the E-Street euphoric If I Ever See The Light and the jazzy finger-clicking brass-splashed Say Hey, sounding almost like something the Alarm might have recorded. The comparison is more apposite than it seems since the title track is actually co-written with Mike Peters, though perversely this musician’s road trip sounds more like an early Dylan track.
Inevitably, much is steeped in life in the Big Apple - the celebration of Sunrise n New York City, Life On Bleeker Street’s rock n roll snapshot of social strata (the tourists, the shiny movie stars, the ‘how ya doin’ honey kinda guys’, cafe revolutionaries, the old men staring at their feet) and, while it doesn’t specifically say so, the jaunty There’s No Place Like Home – but there’s more universal topics too.
With it snarling guitar, Holy War is an angry topical attack on the self-righteous who justify what they do in the name of God, Nile spitting out ‘God is great, you suck’ while on the other side of the coin, the chorus-friendly, four chord rocking playful (and for many blasphemous) God Laughs (co-written with Eric Bazilian) depicts the deity as your ordinary blue collar guy who pumps your gas, drinks, smokes, ‘goes to bed and fornicates’, cheats, steals, heals and kills all ‘for your cheap thrills – because he can.
Uplifting hymnal piano ballad The Crossing pays tribute to those built America in liberty’s name, honouring those who sacrificed and survived while his punchy cover of Jim Carroll’s People Who Died honours those who didn’t make it through, Carroll and Nile’s brother among them, while the set’s completed by She’s Got My Heart, a straightforward love song that Rod Stewart might have covered and which underline’s Nile’s deeply romantic streak. He describes the album as full of life, you should get one.
Green 25th Anniversary Edition (Rhino)
Released in 1988, this was their sixth album and their major label debut with Warners. It was, according to Buck and Stipe, intended not to feature any R.E.M. type songs and described by Mike Mills as "haphazard, a little scattershot”. At #27, it was their highest UK chart entry to date, spawning two Top 50 singles with Orange Crush and Stand (a memorable promo featuring Kate Pierson from the B52s, it gave them their second US Billboard Top 10), though neither Pop Song 89 or Get Up registered in the UK. Save for World Leader Pretend and, perhaps, You Are The Everything, few other than the most fervent fans are likely to remember the likes of The Wrong Child, Hairshirt or I Remember California, so this reissue may be a chance to rediscover the band as they embarked on what would prove their career’s global breakthrough.
As ever with the reissues, it comes with a live CD, this one from Greensboro 1989 and an energised set that featured seven of the album’s 11 tracks alongside earlier such earlier crowd favourites as The One I Love, Exhuming McCarthy, Finest Worksong, Fall On Me and It’s The End of the World As We Know It (though not The One I Love) as well as offering an early preview of their Out Of Time breakthrough in the form of the dark, rumbling murmur of Low and, fourth number in, the equally sinuous Belong.
Four (Acts of Love) (Mute)
Actually the album only has three, but who’s really counting when the erstwhile longtime Nick Cave collaborator can come up with a song cycle as evocative and engaging as this? The first two acts comprise five songs each with the third made up of four, each act titled for a cover version it includes and reflecting that song’s particular spirit.
Thus we commence with Summertime In New York, although the first number is actually Praise The Earth (Wheels of Amber and Gold), a slow pulsing Waterboysish folk number based on the hymn by Bishop R.Hebert. Then comes the Glorious, an old, previously unreleased song by PJ Harvey built upon her stark frowning guitar riff and featuring her on harmony vocals, its tension followed by the calm of the instrumental Midnight On The Ramparts featuring mournful whistling of what sounds a lot like Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat. The Act’s title finally arrives with a sparse Tom Waits styled punk jazz take on the Exuma number (probably the least well known of all the covers) the before the section closes out on a drone with Harvey’s own shaman-like spoken Where There’s Smoke (before).
Act Two is titled The Story Of Love, named for an old song by Australian punks The Saints, but opens with the Harvey-penned God Made The Hammer, again conjuring the spirit of Cohen as he addresses the pain love brings. The theme continues on I Wish That I Were Stone, but the song has a far more plangent, anthemic sound that deliberately echoes the melody line of the Third Act’s title cover, Orbison’s Wild Hearts (Run Out Of Time). A moody, stripped back and haunted windswept reading of Van Morrison’s The Way Young Lovers Do provides the act and the album’s centrepiece before moving on to the minimal, spoken A Drop, An Ocean, the Act finally closing in glorious form with the more fulsome but still brooding sound of the aforementioned Saints classic.
Where There’s Smoke (after) opens the final act, the lyric featuring small but significant variations on the first version, and then comes the piece de resistance with a naked and exposed, understated and world-weary piano backed take on the Orbison, the cycle coming to a close with the spare, bitter-stained Fairy Dust and, as a fitting bookend, a musically and lyrically reworked version of the album’s opening number, now subtitled An Ephemeral Play as it both laments and celebrates the fleeting but glorious nature of love, dreams and life itself.
When It Was Now (Warner)
The Australian duo hit the headlines with simply structured catchy breakthrough single Trojans. That was two years ago and now, after that initial rush of interest has died down, along comes their debut album. Almost inevitably, it looks to build upon the sound of the single with its prominent drum beats, most evidently so on follow-up single If So and Don’t Make A Scene, but unfortunately also plunges into the now rather tired sound of 80s synth pop. When they accentuate the funky side of the guitar riffs for Electric or crank up the bouncy pop with the title track, it works well, but the rest of the album tends to merge into homogenous anonymity that, unlike their name, is neither big nor clever.
Disappearance of the Girl (Decca)
With a cruel Islamic Egyptian stepfather who banned music from the house, dumped her toy piano and threw out the family record collection, Kensington born Irish-Chinese Phildel Ng would grab what music she could during school lunchtimes. On finally escaping her oppressive home environment, her repressed passions erupted into composing the music she’d dreamed of, her work eventually finding its way into dozens of TV ads and film soundtracks.
Now it also surfaces on her debut album, its title referring to how, when her mother remarried, she found herself trapped in a world of silence and control, while the songs are clearly frequently drawn from life in their themes of isolation, living in the imagination, the desire for change, cruelty and fear. It’s not difficult to interpret Afraid Of The Dark and The Wolf as directly concerning her stepfather.
Musically, she writes lushly orchestrated melodies and while not averse to employing synths and electronics, the tracks that work best are those which, like Beside You, Switchblade and Union Stone, are built around piano. Interestingly, on all of those her vocals recall Kate Bush. She’s not confined to slow sweeps, however. Storm Song gradually gather speed and force in a way that reflects its elemental title, Mistakes feels like its nimbly dancing over tacks, Moonsea employs processed sound and effects, and, opening on sombre piano notes, Holes In Your Coffin swiftly evolves into a hypnotic dance beat that’s part Celtic mists and part Euro disco with Ng’s voice soaring on gothic winds.
The album ends with the hushed, hymnal-like harmonies of the American folk flavoured Funeral Bell which, despite its death and leaving, offers a curiously soothing and uplifting parting note, an intriguing paradox from an intriguing artist.
Nocturnes (On Repeat)
Emerging amidst a female electro-pop explosion, debut album Hands gave Victoria Hesketh a top five hit and two Top 20 singles, but since then she’s virtually vanished from the radar. Four years and the loss of her record deal later, she’s resurfaced on her own label to try and claw her way back into the public consciousness. The run-up hasn’t gone well. None of the five singles between 2011 and now has registered in the Top 100 while the album entered at #45 and vanished from the sight the following week. The lack of any tour (she’s just playing Glastonbury and Bristol) doesn’t help, but she deserves better because, if you happen to like detached, moody dance music, this is rather good, as you might expect given collaborators that include Tim Goldsworthy (DFA), Andy Butler (Hercules and Love Affair), Pascal Gabriel (Bomb the Bass) and James Ford (Simian Mobile Disco).
Mixing up contemporary electronic with 80s house and 70s disco, it’s a sparkling clubland sound that knows its cowbells from its congas and while at times it may get a little overcrowded on the dance floor (as with the aptly titled Confusion) or occasionally seem stuck for inspiration (the repetitive Every Night I Say A Prayer), things like the bass throbbing Shake, the motorik and fireworks that is Satellite, Broken Record’s Kylie-strut and Beat Beat’s turn under the 70s glitter ball all warrant more than the shrug with which they’ve been greeted.