Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Our Arthur "Strange About The Rain" EP (A Work Of Heart): Our Arthur "Humour Me" (A Work Of Heart)
 
The Beatnik Filmstars were an exceptional band. By our reckoning, over the course of 17 years they were responsible for 11 albums, 17 singles, 5 compilations, 5 Peel Sessions, a complete box set and a DVD (courtesy of at least fifteen different labels, including heavyweights such as Summershine, Slumberland, Merge, 555 and Track & Field). In that time they lurched between (and invariably mastered) psychedelic dreamgaze, raucous indie-rock, fizzing lo-fi, grown-up melodic pop and so much more. Unlike others with such a prolific catalogue, the quality levels remained high: their back catalogue leaves us with such great (but profoundly different) songs as "Curious Role Model", "Hospital Ward" and "Bigot Sponger Haircut Policy".

As if that wasn't enough, former Filmstars frontman Andrew Jarrett has been involved in a variety of other musical enterprises, ranging from the thrill-rush of the legendary Groove Farm in the 1980s through to the garage band capers of his recent Nervous Rex project, but also including two of the most underrated Bristol acts ever, the shimmeringly quiet-fi aesthetes Kyoko and his supreme solo outing as the Bluebear. However, it's to Mr Jarrett's latest venture, Our Arthur, that we now turn.

There was a brief preview of Our Arthur a few months back, when a tune called "I'll Wait For The Summer" featured on Vollwert's "No Sleep 'Til Torcross" compilation (a CD somewhat criminally limited to 100 copies). "I'll Wait" was smart, melodic, lyrically a little bitter, and suggested that the new venture merited further investigation. This is now confirmed by two 'proper' releases. And while Andrew (Arthur) Jarrett is at the heart of them both, they also feature a host of other contributors, many of whom are longtime collaborators.

"Strange About The Rain" is the single (OK then, the lead track on a six-track EP) and it's been chosen wisely: if you sighed in sympathy with the majesty of the last Beatnik Filmstars outing, "The Purple Fez 72 Club Social" (a desperately overlooked album, which we would have had up for a Mercury at the very least) then you should find yourself fairly instantly tickled by it. Mixing Jarrett's deep-whispered vocals with brass and string-peppered guitars, it's a mid-paced sweep of ambition, a dusky take on hope and regret with short verses and a catchy enough chorus, but that opens out a couple of times into noisier guitar passages that trace rising chords not dissimilar to those of "The Only Mistake". The other songs on the EP can't match the lead tune's crossover potential, but shouldn't be dismissed: the fleeting "Event Arts '92" strikes its sombre chords with resonance, "The Middle Class Epidemic" is a dark, compelling, Short Stories-ish ballad of English manners (not surprising, given a guest appearance from the Short Stories' own ex-Beatnik, Tim Rippington) and "This Car Will Not Drive" is a finely-hewn, fairly harrowing piece of self-reflection that's aided by guest guitar from Secret Shine's Scott Purnell.
 
The associated full-length "Humour Me", even more than the EP, is a (deliberately) discomfiting blend of the mellow and bleak, but it oozes the richest texture and depth. The opening "Reputations" sets out Our Arthur's stall as it glides effortlessly within East River Pipe and Galaxie 500 territory (the latter, of course, being a constant reference point on the Beatniks' first album, "Maharishi"), before the absolutely gorgeous, drizzle-soaked ballad "The Company They Keep" opens out in front of the listener like a butterfly, and the tone is set.

The instrumentation at times seems so sparse as to be virtually imperceptible, a "less is more" trick learned no doubt in part from the success of some of Kyoko's stubbornly understated meanderings: in the context of the album, the attractive yet stillonly gently-smouldering "Strange About The Rain" sounds positively imposing, almost out-and-out pop. However, the willingness to demand concentration from the listener (Kyoko's sleeves used to say "play quiet", although the sleeve notes on "Humour Me" entreat a more reasonable "medium volume") contributes to the dynamics, with stunning effect on a song like "Clinging To The Records" in which a volcano of squalling guitar suddenly rises up from a previously becalmed songscape. The lyrics throughout, to take a phrase borrowed from a Mr Smith of Manchester, are cerebral (and) caustic.

Other highlights are provided by "Torn Anorak" (about the cruelty of the other boys at school: y'know, there are a few songs here which we could almost imagine Morrissey, of a certain vintage, having written!), the beautiful "The Southern 'R'" (which almost matches "The Company They Keep" for mournful pulchritude), and "Nasty Habit" which does the early to mid-period Beatnik Filmstars trick of being obviously a pearl of a song, despite valiant attempts to obscure its brilliance by making it as introspective, short and as lo-fi as possible.

The penultimate track, "The Tommy Cooper Affiliation Society" is another that stands out. With able assistance from the noble Rocker on Hammond *and* Vox, it's pacier and more percussive than much that preceded it, the keyboards and unabashed jauntiness making it sound in places like the breezier end of the Felt back catalogue. The closing "Good Conversations" is impressive in a very different way, a relatively restrained gem that comes alive thanks to a sweet clarinet part, but just as you're bedding down for a further few tear-jerking minutes it ends all too quickly and poignantly.

"Humour Me" is not an album that leaps from the speakers. Nor is it a record that can profitably be listened to while en route from A to B or otherwise buzzing distractedly around your daily business, given that much of the music and vocals are likely to be buried by the sound of your bus or train, or of the road alongside which your feet pound. Reserve yourself some special "me" time, curl up on your bed or sofa, turn the lights out and let this LP seep from your headphones: that's when it will really pay rewards. Sure, much of "Humour Me" is a downbeat little thing, but it's executed to perfection.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Public Enemy "The Evil Empire Of Everything" (Enemy Records)

Perhaps inspired by Bart and Friends having knocked out not one but two EPs in a mere three months (EPs now nestling contentedly between the Bardots and Bathory in our record collection), Public Enemy have deigned to drop two whole albums of sprawling post-apocalyptic hip-hop within the same timeline. "Evil Empire" is effectively the 'sister' record to this summer's largely triumphant "Most Of My Heroes", and while it may not be quite as startlingly good, there is, as ever, enough here to pay back your investment.

Having been instrumental in instilling consciousness in rap in the first place (as KRS-One noted on "Outta Here"), Public Enemy are hardly going to forsake one of their greatest legacies, and so the new LP inevitably picks up on some of the predecessor record's themes (from rap's descent into bling-encrusted ghetto parody, to the lessons of the killing of Trayvon Martin) as well as taking wider potshots at the Evil Empire of Everything itself (the E.E. of E. is, of course, America, but all is not as heavy-handed as that may sound: the whole point Chuck is making is that *it doesn't have to be* that way, hence the album's self-explanatory sub-title - which goes back to that man KRS and his mantra "you must learn" - "the cheapest price to pay... is attention"). But unlike the dyed-in-the-wool MC collaborators on the earlier record, there's a broader sweep of musical co-conspirators on display here: the likes of Henry Rollins, Ziggy Marley (following Chuck's righteous appropriation of "Get Up, Stand Up" for the last album, its sequel here is inevitably called "Don't Give Up The Fight"), Tom Morello and sax legend Gerard Albright.

One standout cut is "Icebreaker" (the ICE in the title being the United States' Immigration Customs Enforcement). It features a host of MCs, with Mexican rhymer Sekreto particularly impressing: his bars got us thinking about how we'd never listened to Spanish-language rapping before, which seems odd given how much French and even Italian hip-hop we've enjoyed, especially when those genres took off (OK then, peaked) in the late 1990s. Thematically, PE are firming up on the wider sentiments of the earlier song "1" - one planet, no borders - but the lyrics themselves focus on the Mexican border and how debate over immigration is all about making political capital, rather than the effectiveness (or otherwise) of border control.

"Beyond Trayvon", another of the stronger tracks, features verses from the children of three of the PE entourage, including Professor Griff's boy: the power of the song - and, indeed, of the whole incident amongst many black Americans - is in how conscious they all are that it could have been them.

Songs like "Everything" and "Fame" hark back to "Most Of My Heroes"' universal themes, decrying conspicuous consumption and the seeking of fame for fame's sake: but it's the laid-back and soulful "Everything" which deserves closer examination. It's rather a departure from Public Enemy production norms: Chuck, apparently having imagined how Otis Redding might 'rap' "A Lovers' Tale", adapts his normally tempestuous meter into perhaps his first ever *lilt*, accompanied by the super-soothing sound of Sheila Broady's singing. The anti-materialism message is clear, but not over-sentimentalised: and it revisits the ideas explored in his 1990s solo single "No", which set its face even then against the compulsory Rolex and the obligatory Rolls.

And then there's "Riotstarted", which goes back much further than merely the previous album for inspiration: it uses lyrics from "Rightstarter", from Public Enemy's first ever LP, "Yo! Bum Rush The Show", just as this year's Paralympic summer hit sensation "Harder Than You Think" revisited lines from the same record's "P.E. #1").

But the most fun to be had comes not necessarily from the interesting experiments, or the callbacks to past records, nor even the exploration of the record's overarching "evil empire" theme. It flows from the tracks that, musically, would have fitted best on "Most Of My Heroes" and which epitomise PE's rediscovered, funky and horn-flecked back-to-basics approach. These include the too-brief "Notice (Know This)" which, just like the previous LP's "Catch The Thrown", has Chuck kicking chunks out of Jay-Z and Kanye West's indescribably self-absorbed celebrations of high-end lifestyle (Chuck is all the more angry with them by dint of the fact that he admires their talents: his beef is not with their skills, but with their lack of integrity and vision). As with "Catch The Thrown", "Notice" works so well because while you can sense that Chuck *is* angry, he doesn't do what any other pumped-up MC would do and make a vituperative 'answer' record that just flails hate straight back where it came from. No, he uses reason, restraint and the power of argument to respond to sentiment he doesn't agree with. That, in this genre and in these times, is a true novelty.

Downsides ? If we're hunting for them, then of course the quickest way to get there is to see which songs feature the biggest contribution from Flavor Flav. As you'll have garnered by now, we are not the biggest Flav fans, given that his shtick started to wear thin circa 1986 (nor have we forgotten that priceless moment of Chuck visibly glancing at his watch while Flav was merrily showboating at Brixton Academy a few years back).
 
Which I guess means we're with Professor Griff on the whole Flav thing (Griff, when talking about Flav for that excellent BBC4 documentary not too long ago, really did do a convincing impression of the angriest man ever). Inevitably, therefore, our view on the obligatory solo Flavor Flav track, "31 Flavors", is that it adds nothing to the album whatsoever. The other mis-step on the record is "Broke Diva", a lamentably weak riff on gold-diggers which clashes with the rest of "Evil Empire" in pretty much every conceivable way (to be fair to Chuck, it's meant to be no more than a gentle dig, a dis aimed at women who live beyond their means, but that's a subtlety that dissipates when Flav is on the mic and when at the back of your mind you recall the faintly misogynistic side to the young PE that John Peel, for example, wrote about around the time that "Sophisticated Bitch" was re-labelled plain "Sophisticated").

Luckily, after that low the record finishes with a re-jigged version of 2010's wonderful single and Chuck's 50th birthday celebration, "Say It Like It Really Is", a reminder of the true power and glory of Public Enemy:

"the fact remains that when Chuck opens his mouth, you *listen*... thankfully the bulk of the song is devoted purely to furious scratching, a tankingly great repeated "trunk of funk" of a hook... and Chuck's confirmation that he's still more interested in bringing hip-hop to the world ("I just got back from SO-WE-TO") than "popping champagne", or having singing on his records. So long as Chuck D is in such imperious form, the idiots have no chance of winning."

Just as the Fall's "50 Year Old Man" perfectly captured the essence of Mark E. Smith at half a century young, "Say It Like It Really Is" does the same for Chuck D. In stark contrast to Flav, and to many of the current pretenders to his East Coast throne, Chuck remains a symbol of everything that can be inspiring about hip-hop (and not just lyrically: don't forget his Bomb Squad role as "Carl Ryder", either). When we listened to PE records as teenagers, we actually learned stuff: about history, about society, about foreign policy. Hell, we still learn such things from them now. It's hard to see how today's teenagers can achieve the same so accessibly, so danceably, so funkily, although we'd genuinely be delighted to be told we have that all wrong. In the meantime, D is still, indubitably, as he told us on "Bring The Noise", "Public Enemy number one".

So know this: the more you lot continue to ignore P.E., the more we're going to carry on going on about them.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Sugargliders "A Nest With A View 1990-1994" (Matinée Recordings)
 
As we eagerly scoured the latest Sarah Records communiqué, it said something like:
 
"We're more excited by the new Sugargliders single and Blueboy LP than a seventeenth bloody Field Mice album, even if you're not. And it's OUR label".
 
This, we'd hazard a guess, would have been about the time that Sarah released "Letter From A Lifeboat" - the first of half-a-dozen 7" singles that the Sugargliders would record for the label - and so when many of us might have first set our ears on this fine, fine band. It was a marker that there was a changing of the guard at the Garden Flat.
 
And the Sugargliders were very much part of the new breed. Formed in Melbourne's suburbs around a hub of brothers Joel and Josh Meadows, they specialised in gentle-ish, softly danceable, guitar and bass-led indie-pop: their songs were compact, aesthetically pleasing and imbued with a rare lyrical clarity, which gave them the advantage of being the antithesis of basically every wrongly-touted UK music press darling over the course of the early to mid-1990s. "A Nest With A View" captures the best of the Sugargliders' output in those few short years, during which they contrived to produce a towering catalogue comprised, rather wonderfully, of no less than ten three-track, seven-inch vinyl singles. All of which are represented here.
 
The sublime "Ahprahran", one of their Sarah A-sides, is quite a way to start. It's easy and unassuming on the ear, a marinade of fluttering guitars (picked acoustic, strummed electric) seasoned with a soupçon of keyboard. Yet it's desperately touching, ringing with couplets that manage to be original without ever sounding arch, or forced, and it's all the more believable for its self-deprecating humour:
 
"Last Sunday, I heard myself say / "A good day for you is a good day for me" / Can't believe I've sunk this low..."
 
Each of these elements render it, if you like, a *typical* Sugargliders song, although that undersells it rather: the execution is simply masterful. You can see why, as soon as the boys got their mitts on the master tape, they *ran* to Clare and Matt's to play it to them.
 
"90 Days of Moths and Rust", taken from their last 45, is next. A tad subdued in comparison to "Ahprahran", at first it seems a little understated to appear so early on in a "greatest hits" celebration, but when it comes the skyward chorus (from which the compilation takes its title) proves well worth the wait, and suddenly *everything* makes sense. "90 Days" is followed by "Seventeen", which was their second Sarah single. At the time, it grabbed us even more than its predecessor, as well as marking the most Go-Betweensy song yet released on the label. "Seventeen" was ample demonstration that the Orchids were not the only band on Sarah who strived for (the) lazy perfection: charting the emotional rollercoaster of teenage years, it's a mazy mélange of mellow embrace and drama-riven heartache ("never so scared... take me with you"). We were fortunate enough to see the Sugargliders perform the song at the Jericho Tavern in Oxford when we were still (just about) teenagers ourselves. Like many a Sarah night, especially Sarah nights on cold winter evenings, it was one of those gigs which radiated happiness... that, at this distance, prompts *goosebumps*.
 
"Trumpet Play" keeps those A-sides coming. When the Sarah story began to unfurl with "Pristine Christine" back in '87, we feel reasonably confident that they would not have envisaged releasing a single a few years later that opened with nightclub chatter, settled into a relaxed nocturnal groove, sampled the sound of glasses clinking and pivoted on a human trumpet solo: but by now, such things felt almost natural (frankly, after fellow countrymen Even As We Speak's gleeful "Beautiful Day", anything was possible). "Trumpet Play" is joyful, elastic, and jazz-strummingly soulful. The first verse, not for the only time in a Sugargliders song, revolves around an 'all at sea' metaphor, and lines like "there's no-one out here / but the fish and me" could be a cheeky echo of labelmates Brighter's "Out to Sea" (you know, "the fish look up at me...")
 
"Reinventing Penicillin", from the penultimate EP, "Will We Ever Learn ?" ushers us to the quarter-way mark. Starting a capella, it soon installs a winning shuffle-beat over sweetly spiralling guitars, but its narrator is stern, the lyrics tinged with an air of disappointment: "it's a typical mistake that anyone could make / but I'm expecting a lot from you".
 
Talking of high expectations, it's then time to revisit that first Sarah 45, "Letter From A Lifeboat". Quite a coup, in retrospect. For a Sarah single, it felt louche, even funky. It didn't have the cold, hard, electronic sheen of the Field Mice's increasingly pointillist outings. Nor did it go straight for the pop jugular without passing "go", à la Heavenly. Instead, flourishing on a surging bass current and bobbing on a "black, black sea", it was warm, consoling and rewarded repeat plays. Years later, we dug it out when we travelled down from Perth to Cape Leeuwin to see the Southern and Indian oceans meet. It felt like *just* the right tune to listen to as we stared out in awe across the vast waters.
 
Jumping from one end of the Sugargliders' Sarah discography to the other, we find "Yr Jacket", the third track on the last single. The closing number on any favourite band's swansong record can be strangely moving: a sensation compounded by "Yr Jacket"'s stark, sombre and minor-key nature. Adorned only by trills of guitar and trembling voice, it's probably the most naked and honest song the band recorded. By way of contrast, "Fruitloopin'" (from the "Seventeen" EP), *springs* into life: a joyous whoop of "Hey!" transporting us back to (relatively) upbeat indie-pop pickings. It must have been recorded only a year or so before "Yr Jacket", but there's an ocean between them: compared to "Yr Jacket", "Fruitloopin'" is a treatise from happier, more youthful times. The added irony is that "Fruitloopin'" tackles ageing, but seen through a young man's eyes: the juxtaposition of the two tracks tells you just how quickly the Sugargliders grew up.
 
"A Nest With A View" continues with "Unkind", a nugget from "Trumpet Play": recorded in England with White Town's Jyoti Mishra, it's an ode to purity and shyness that clocks in at a mere 53 seconds. It precedes a scenic detour to a couple of the group's earlier 7"s, which were recorded for seminal Melbourne indie Summershine prior to the long flirtation with Sarah. "Give Me Some Confidence" was the lead track on their third and last Summershine single, the "Furlough" EP. It's also the first song on this comp that was completely new to us, and well, what a discovery: eschewing the grooving bass vibes they would later trademark, this is a number more in the traditional, bouncing indie-pop mould (it's hard to hear it now and not think of cousin Tali's Lucksmiths, another legendary Melbourne combo, who would support the Sugargliders a few times on their own way up). In its wake - and taking us into the second half of the CD - comes "Police Me", taken from the Sugargliders' second Summershine single, the "Butterfly Soup" 7". Again, the song is a revelation, brilliant and poppy but also bristlingly defiant:
 
"someone said that 'Flag Day' reads like fifth-form poetry / but I'll write songs about injustice / if that is what I see all around me"
 
It's their "Sensitive", their "if the sun going down / can make me cry" moment, their early statement of positive intent.
 
"Aloha Street" provides a bridge from the Summershine years back to the Sarah days in that it's an early Sugargliders work, but one that came out c/w, and thus completes the selections from, "Seventeen". Its depiction of a relationship born in haste (and repented of at leisure) is rounded off neatly by a strangled yelp and a squall of guitar before "Will We Ever Learn?", another smash-hit Sarah single, takes command. On this doozy, the Sugargliders are fired-up: the stylings are more scratchy than sweet, the guitars clearly mean business and there's palpable anger rattling around. Actually, with its gargantuan hooks, frissons of distortion and vaguely Smiths-ish break it's the kind of song - every Sarah band had one - which even our mates, who generally treated the label with outright derision, would condescend to damn with faint praise. Ironic, really, that it could be regarded a "crossover" song in that way, as of course one of the things it's about is staying true to your school and not touting for a wider market: that's the reason the boys are so exercised...
 
"Why should I swap this thing... for some line as predictable as a tired Mark Seymour lyric ?"
 
That pricks us, just as Brighter did with the lament of "So You Said": "you said you'd change the world... what happened to the things you believed once ?" But it resonates equally with the fierce ideals that drove "Police Me" and "Furlough", that ignited the Sugargliders from the beginning.
 
Anyway. A sense of bitterness carries through to "Beloved" (another Jyoti-produced song from "Trumpet Play"): if the music is more becalmed, the words are quite the opposite ("can't forgive... can't forget... no second chances"). Happily, such sentiments are turned on their heads by "Corn Circles", originally on the B-side of "Ahprahran" (along with the splendid "Theme From Boxville", which is not included here, but isthankfully available on "Gaol Ferry Bridge", meaning you can download it for the price of one-and-a-bit first class stamps, and should). "Corn Circles" is, as you'd anticipate, both blooming (a tale of the kindling of romance) and golden, with dual vocals that dovetail gorgeously, but it's also as tender and wistful as any Sugargliders number, ending with a shout-back to the imploring 'come get me' call of "Seventeen" ("my mind is ripe, so come on, take me").
 
"What We Had Hoped" is up next. It hails from "Letter From A Lifeboat", but unlike the EP's title track, it's sallow, muted, stripped-down and sad, dealing ultimately with the dashing of dreams. As someone whose own memories of Melbourne are bittersweet (a five-year relationship ended by being given the elbow one long, dry night in St Kilda), I confess to my own intimate tête-a-têtes with this song over the years. When the Sugargliders chose to write heartbreakers, boy could they...
 
Ahem. "Everybody Supermarket" is very different; indeed, something of an outlier. Partly, this is because it's the only track not drawn from one of the Sugargliders' own EPs, instead featuring on a 1992 various artists 7". But it's a little offbeat, too - more clumsy than elegant - an engagingly turbulent mix of lo-fi strum, seize-the-day principle, tinny drum machine and spoken word reflection, as if the young Field Mice had fallen in love with Messthetics over a bottle of Bristol cream and a 4-track. More accessible is "Another Faux Pas (In The Cathedral Of Love)", an A-side on Brighton's Marineville Records (Fat Tulips, Confetti, Jane POW), sandwiched in time between the Sugargliders' outings for Summershine and Sarah. It's their "You Be Illin'", we suppose: all bands should have at least one faux pas song. Funny and self-effacing, it may only be skin-deep, but eloquently displays their lighter side. (My own faux pas for these purposes is that I had a girlfriend who was rather taken by "Sway", which appeared on the flip of this 7", so I foolishly gave her my copy of the single. I wish I hadn't now, obviously, but I can only hope she treasures it like I would have done, and hasn't instead sold it on eBay and used the proceeds to buy a house).
 
The song right on its heels - wouldn't you know it - is "Sway". Which, it transpires, was in fact their first single, even though we'd first encountered it as a B-side. Laid-back, sassy, and strewn appetisingly with harmonica, "Sway" sounds a very assured début to these ears. The words are poignant (the sign-off is "when a broken promise stings you badly, you sometimes have to close your eyes / and just sway") and somewhat marvellously the tune gets hijacked late-on by a thrilling injection of noisy guitar (not unlike the way the Field Mice, back then, often threw in a disconcerting new layer of fuzz for extra effect). It's fitting that - in common with the last song on their last record - this first song from their first record floats serenely, shorn of percussion: the focus is all on the jostling guitars and plaintive voices.
 
But perhaps the *very* best (yes, even pipping "Aphrahran") is saved for last. We vividly recall the first time we heard "Top 40 Sculpture", in our student room over Emden quad, and thinking how - somehow - the Sugargliders had managed to ascend to another level. And how, after singing "Saturdays can still provide some comfort..." they sang something that sounded like "lately Allison / carry along my goal", and *that* got us in a further tizzy because we wondered whether they were following Tramway's example and shoehorning-in a Bristol Rovers reference (yes, it sounds barking mad now, but bear in mind that Sarah Records were from Bristol, [Malcolm] Allison was Rovers' boss around that time, the Sugargliders were sports fans, and we were young and stupid,...) and only when "There And Back Again Lane" came out did the sleevenotes proclaim the actual words: "Laidley - Allison - Carey - Longmire - goal!" and that was even better, a shout to North Melbourne and to another code, and that line especially makes us smile every single time, even more than the beautiful overlapping vocals, the tremendous lyrics, the *divine* trumpet sound. And though we'd have *hated* to think it then, it was right that "Top 40 Sculpture" was the last Sugargliders single, because it was probably untoppable. It's been another soundtrack to our own life changes, too:
 
"See the things you thought were ever constant, disappearing fast"
 
And that's it. Some twenty songs - just like the rather becoming Hit Parade retrospective! - that pass by oh-so fast. It's astonishing how Josh and Joel summoned up quite so many storming compositions within such a short window of time. Yes, the brothers and many of their collaborators in the Sugargliders would go on to make oodles of other truly cherishable records with the Steinbecks (off-the-top-of-the-head top five: "1987+1994=2007", "Which Part Of No Don't You Understand ?", "Are You Guys Into Wings ?", "No Strings, No Money, No Worries" and their cover of the Go-B's "Draining The Pool For You"), and one hopes, in future, that the Steinbecks - who were less prolific, recorded more albums than singles and didn't have the caché of having been on Sarah - will get their due, but for the time being we are here to honour the Sugargliders, and "A Nest With A View" does that in spades.
 
"For now we can see dimly, but then it will be clearer..."
 
That it works so well, nearly two decades after their final release, attests to the alchemy that we always suspected, secretly *knew*, was at play. It confirms that Matt and Clare's communiqué - remember, at the time, new bands on Sarah were regarded by some acolytes with a certain fear, even hostility - was absolutely on point. That's a tribute to the Meadows brothers, yes, but it's also a testament to Sarah Records, who were rarely content to rest on their laurels. The relationship between band and label, with their shared worldview, "no sell out" philosophy, and conviction that shyness, heart and melody could sound rebellion as powerfully as any agit-prop, was always symbiotic: and it wasn't too long after the Sugargliders split at the seeming peak of their powers, citing the need to quit while they were ahead, that SARAH 100 marked the not dissimilar implosion of the label.
 
These postcards from the past show how Sarah and the Sugargliders were lucky to have had each other. And, beyond any doubt, that there really was something in the striving that was worth holding on to.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Hit Parade "Pick Of The Pops (Vol.1)" (JSH Records)

The Hit Parade are a band who we've always been fond of, but (as has been the case with the Would-be-Goods) it's only been with each passing year of their increasingly august career that the true magnitude of their greatness has revealed itself. It's this sultry slow-motion strip-tease, revealing layer upon further layer of naked pure pop talent, which is captured exquisitely by the new career-spanning compilation on Julian Henry's own JSH label, a necessarily boutique concern which (by virtue of only serving Hit Parade platters) basically has the highest quality control known to music. This collection is no exception: documenting no less than twenty standout songs recorded between 1984 and 2011, it's the perfect Parade primer.

Our usual second-para war story, if you'll permit. The first time that our ears tripped across the Hit Parade was via a compilation LP, "Fruitcakes And Furry Collars", that came out with Record Mirror back in the 1980s. Side two of the disc, curated by Andy Strickland (the Loft, Caretaker Race), closed with "See You In Havana": his other picks included Edwyn Collins and some obscure outfit called Pulp (for years, "Don't You Know" was the only Pulp song we'd ever heard, just as "Havana" was the only Hit Parade tune we knew). That changed in 1991 - probably around the time the Hit Parade clambered aboard the Sarah Records roster- when we saw them opening for the Orchids and Brighter at the Islington Powerhaus, and listened to some of these songs for the very first time.

Before diving between the grooves, it's worth briefly dissecting some diverting legends that are emblazoned on the sleeve:

"Warning: This record contains tuneful melodies and thoughtful lyrics"

Indeed. Fair enough.

"London's No.1 Pop Group"

They've used this one before, but yes, quite possibly. (Let's reserve debate as to its precise geographical accuracy for another time).

"File under: C86 twee sarah sixties pop"

No. I know it's tongue-in-cheek, but no. Firstly, do not file under 'C86': the Hit Parade have no earthly connection with C86 or the C86 'scene' (much as we love them both), unless you count the fact that Cath Carroll, a longtime JSH collaborator, appeared on side two of the original tape. Secondly, do *NOT* file under 'twee'. You know our thoughts on twee, and the Hit Parade simply aren't twee. (No, nor were Sarah Records. If we do ever track down whoever is responsible for pretty much every Wikipedia entry on a Sarah band leading off with the t-word, there is gonna be DRAMA).

Hm. What of the record itself, you huff impatiently ? Well, some of you will remember when "The Story Of The Clash (Volume 1)" came out to sate the impatient desires of those old punks who had come into disposable income and bought these new-fangled CD players, but only had the likes of Dire Straits or Level 42 to play on them. Basically, it contained pretty much all of the Clash's hits, and especially given that the band had long since imploded we were all sceptical at the time that there could ever be a Volume 2 (there wasn't). It's a similar story here, in that "Pick Of The Pops (Vol.1)" is brimming with pretty much all the songs that we would cite in a heartbeat as Julian Henry classics, as dead certs for the 'greatest hits'.

Like "In Gunnersbury Park", a plaintive pearl of acoustic genius which made for a desperately touching Sarah 58; "See You In Havana" itself, which we like to think gave lead vocalist Cath Carroll a thematic taste for the jetset, a few years before she spent Factory Records money on the real thing; "The First Time", guitars sparkling like upmarket prosecco as Julian and Harvey's voices dovetail gorgeously (reminding us of once seeing them share a stage on the Thekla); the festive "Christmas Tears" duet - with somebody called Amelia Fletcher - which was on "More Pop Songs" but that we're sure we also recall from a Vinyl Japan comp CD; "House Of Sarah", a touching hymn to that label which lyrically updates "Emma's House" to be about the Upper Belgrave Road garden flat; the rocking "As I Lay Dying", with its ever-punchy guitar hook; the beautifully observed hommage "The Boy Who Loved Brighter", the song for Keris that thrilled and touched us last year; "My Stupid Band", maybe the best song about, well, being in a band since "Running Order Squabble Fest"; the slinky, cheeky and danceable "I Like Bubblegum" 7", which recently reunited Cath and Julian once more; and "Autobiography", the stunning later Sarah single, which may yet prove the most enduring of them all.

That's half the CD, but even then there's more, so much more: at the moment, we're finding ourselves particularly bowled over by the über-melodic, mid-tracklist hat-trick of "Huevos Mexicana" (new to us, but a revelation), Britpop-era belter "On The Road To Beaconsfield" and the delightful balladette "Sugar" (from their last album, "Return Of The Hit Parade", which was top ten in our 2006 charts and hearts).

Of our many personal favourites from the Hit Parade canon, perhaps only "Harvey" (just like "The Boy Who", a 7" B-side devoted to a Sarah labelmate), last year's overflowing-with-catchiness "There's Something About Mary" single and the last LP's "You're Bloody Rubbish", are conspicuous by their absence. They are, however, reason enough to hope that one day there will be a "Pick Of The Pops (Vol. 2)". And if there is, for its sleeve we'd tentatively suggest:

"File under: music. For fans of: music"

which might well be as good a descriptor of the general brilliance of the Hit Parade as we, at least, will ever muster.

In the meantime, internet rumour has it that at some juncture there should be an all-new long-playing record by the Hit Parade. Reflecting the seeming change in their centre of gravity from South Bucks to Cornwall, at least in terms of their lyrics, this may or may not be called "Cornish Love Songs" (or, indeed, "Cornish Folk Songs"). But either way, it's fair to say that we're looking forward to it immensely.

Friday, October 05, 2012

No Lay "Off With Ya Head" (FreshWave Entertainment)

There was some attempt to culturally christen the thirtieth Olympiad the "grime" Olympics, on the basis that it was being hosted amidst that genre's East London heartlands: to this end we had much-trumpeted involvement from the likes of Dizzee Rascal and Tinie Tempah, and there was actually a fair blaring of grime(ish) music as you wandered around the Olympic Park, too. The only problem with this well-meaning attempt to capture the zeitgeist, then, was the fact that grime peaked in about 2003 and is now, at best, a component of the rather watered-down hip-hop / pop hybrid currently booming out of many a twelve-year old's mobile phone: a true grime Olympics might have had Marcus Nasty compère the closing ceremony, or climaxed with Durrty Goodz doing "Battle Hype", a pièce de résistance that would really have shaken the stadium up. As it was though, it all felt a little like having a "punk" Olympics in the mid-eighties, or celebrating C86 at the height of Britpop: a reality almost painfully out of sync with the good intentions behind it.

Back in the day though, when Lethal Bizzle was More Fire's Lethal B, when Wiley and Dizzee were blood brothers, when Riko, Kano and Tinchy were doing "Ice Rink", even when Skepta was "fuckin widda team", grime was *completely amazing*. That's all-too easy to forget now, notwithstanding the fact that over the years a steady(ish) stream of worthwhile music from E3, E9, E13 and E17 continued to trickle forth: Goodz' "Axiom", "Reloadz", "Ultrasound" and "Battle Hype"; the clubbable Trim's various mixtapes; Wiley's slept-on XL set "Tredding On Thin Ice", Big Dada opus "Playtime Is Over" and alter-ego Eskiboy's "Umbrella"; a pre-breakthrough Tinchy Stryder's "Cloud 9"; Ghetts' "Freedom Of Speech"; several explosive releases from Newham Generals; some 2011 output from Family Tree (Merky Ace, Shif Man etc); and this very summer's thrilling Terror Danjah and Riko 45.

It's just that... the highs are becoming more and more sporadic (see how many of those reviews go back to 2008 or earlier), and looking back at the whole picture... it feels like there could have been so much more, and that it could have been so much better.

Y'see, a collective eyebrow was raised when we made Platinum 45 and More Fire Crew's "Oi!" a single of the month back in 2002, and in retrospect it probably marked the beginning of the end for our fanzine in that form, but we were sincere and, with the benefit of hindsight, right. What we didn't realise was that More Fire's subsequent "C.V." album - which at the time seemed unduly dark, stuttering and unfocussed, but which now seems to ring with just the right balance of youth, eagerness and menace - would actually represent a high of the genre, rather than a nervous first step in its ascent towards heady new planes. The early days of So Solid, south of the river, have likewise held up rather better than you might have expected at the time. John Peel was really starting to big up grime too, and would later host that legendary "grime special" featuring Eastwood, Krafty, MC Purple et al. One wonders in what direction all that might have gone, were it not for Peelie's sad death a few months later. Another sadness now is that we saw so few of the grime scene's artists in the flesh back then, although we did at least get to see Newham Generals in the early days, and even Dizzee circa "Showtime" (ever late to the party, I know).

Shortly after grime peaked, its essence was at least captured on the two excellent "Run The Road" compilations, which show how it became a springboard for later urban pop and dance glories, if nothing else. If you cast your eye over the tracklistings of those you will see plenty of now-familiar names: since then, Kano and Skepta have gone top twenty, Sway and Lady Sovereign top ten; Plan B has a string of hits behind him and is making the move into film; and there have been a staggering *nine* UK number one singles by artists who appeared on "RTR": yes, the first came from the Streets, but we've also had two by Roll Deep, one from Wiley solo, two for Tinchy Stryder, and three so far from Dizzee. Yet one star of "Run The Road" who has not achieved such lofty successes is No Lay, despite being responsible for real highlights on both, first with the ilwtt,isott favourite "Unorthodox Daughter" and then with its equally relentless sequel "Unorthodox Chick" (see #10 in here). A formidable mixtape / album "No Comparisons" followed in 2008 (#9 in here!) - we still blast "Know Yourself Out Here" on the regular - but it still wasn't enough to build any real momentum.

Thankfully, after a not totally convincing EP at the tail-end of last year, "He Said She Said I Am Bad",we're pleased to say that her newie "Off With Ya Head" is *much* more like it. The production - from DJ Limelight- is urgent and dominating, crucially referencing the dancefloor (albeit a dancefloor that probably needs to be reinforced against low-bass damage), rather than tacking No Lay's rhymes over perfunctory beats, or using the old trick favoured by weak MCs of using a looped melodic hook to distract attention away from anodyne rapping. No Lay is at her confident best on the mic, displaying a mix of bravura and controlled aggression rarely seen since the midfield heyday of Graeme Souness (or perhaps Ronnie Maugé): for definitive proof, check out the blister-giving a cappella version. There's no crooning, or crossover nonsense, but "Off With Ya Head" doesn't sound dated either: even the schoolkids on the no. 30 bus could go for this, surely ?

Pleasingly, there's a Ricochet drum and bass remix floating around too, which seems neat given that many a moon ago, it was over D&B riddims that No Lay first started rhyming. More importantly, the remix is completely head-caving: listening to it feels a little like you're being attacked. But in a brilliant way.

Anyway, there was a reason for all the pseudo-historical guff above (no, really). We wanted to set the scene, in order to explain why a single like this is what we've been missing: not just from No Lay, but from the wider grime family. Seems like she's stepped back, re-focussed, and come up with a single that meets the demands of the "now" for instant gratification, but still rings with the anger, heart and soul that informed her earlier songs. This is No Lay, nearly a decade on, throwing off any self-doubt and throwing down the gauntlet to the rest of the grime community to try and match her. If they accept, there might be a *new wave of grime* yet.