Saturday, 28 February 2015

The MOJO CD - Physical Graffiti Redrawn

As everyone knows by now - frankly if you don't, you must have been living on Ganymede these past few months - the new reissue of Led Zeppelin's sprawling 1975 double album Physical Graffiti is now available for our delectation. MOJO have gone to town on it in their latest edition, including a cover versions album of the classic as its cover CD.

If I were forced to take only one Zep album to the mythical desert island, it would most likely be Physical Graffiti as it runs the gamut of every stylistic twist and turn that the unmatchable band went through in their relatively brief career.

Assuming the guitarist knows the chords and the singer isn't tone deaf, it would be difficult if not impossible to do a bad cover of one these songs, so strong and instantly recognisable as they are to any self-respecting rock fan, and this tribute album does not disappoint and is a fun ride. So, here goes...

1.  White Denim - Custard Pie
Kicking off the album is this rumbustious piece of blues-rock. There are two ways of attempting cover versions - do them straight, or reinterpret in a new way. Few acts on this CD are brave enough to do the latter, and Australian psych-rockers White Denim are not one of them. Sensibly they do not attempt to repeat the thunderous Bonzo reply to Percy's last "drop down", but they do manage to slightly psychedelicise the Pie. The track is let down by a weedy production.

2. Blackberry Smoke - The Rover
According to MOJO, "the hottest hard rock band on the planet right now", although not a name I had come across before. They play it straight, but again it pales in comparison to the original. What this CD is telling me only two tracks in, is that Zep's sheer power is hard if not impossible to match.

3. Miraculous Mule - In My Time Of Dying
One of those blues/gospel standards that Zep were so good at stealing...sorry...adapting, here given a proper heavy then country gospel kicking by a mule. Not bad at all.

4. The Temperance Movement - Houses Of The Holy
Suitably, given this band's name, this is straight.

5.  Son Little - Trampled Underfoot
The first artist with the cojones to do something radically different is nu-soul icon Son Little, who turns the stomping whiteboy funk metal of the original into a languorous swamp soul-blues that Dr John would have been proud of. The best track on the album, so here it is:

6. Songhoy Blues - Kashmir
Running Son Little close in the innovation stakes is Malian band Songhoy Blues who turn the timeless and genre-defying original into a desert blues psychedelic hymnal, taking the Page & Plant desert rock version one stage further. Robert Plant will love it. Marvellous!

7. Syd Arthur - In The Light
We are now on to LP no.2 of the original issue, and it is fitting that the opener of side three, and one of Zep's most "prog" songs is covered by the currently feted and nonetheless highly talented UK prog kings-in-waiting Syd Arthur. They use their dozens of effects pedals to practically copy the original, but it's enjoyable enough.

8. Laura Marling - Bron-Y-Aur
A natural choice to cover Page's folk standard, and she plays it with panache.

9. Max Jury - Down By The Seaside
Des Moines new age hippy type Max Jury takes an Americana twist to the wistful original, making it even more blissful. Sounds like The Band fronted by Jackson Browne. Nice!

10. Michael Kiwanuka - Ten Years Gone
A sad song about a past and failed relationship, and a tune that always vied with the more obvious choices for the title of my favourite from the original album. London singer-songwriter Kiwanuka makes the song even sadder, aided by a minimalist accompaniment that swings the focus to his slightly reverbed and powerful voice. Another triumph from yet another name I'd not come across before.

11. Duke Garwood - Night Flight
More minimalist instrumental backing, this time fuzzed out sparse guitar and percussion to Garwood's cracked croon.

12. Rose Windows - The Wanton Song
A band I've vaguely heard of, apparently from Seattle and on the Sub-Pop label slow this rockin' mutha right down, and with Rabia Shaheen Qazi's soulful Earth-mother croon leading the way turn the song into a smoky psych-blues. "The wheels roll on"...Yes!

13. Kitty, Daisy & Lewis - Boogie With Stu
Whoever these three are, they turn Ian Stewart's showpiece into a skiffle knees-up, mirroring the good time party vibe of the original. No piano, either!

14. Hiss Golden Messenger - Black Country Woman
Takes the country rock of the original and strips it right back, making it even more down-home. Sung from a rickety rocking chair on the porch of a tumbledown shack in Georgia in the as yet unmade video.

15. Sun Kil Moon - Sick Again
Ah...someone I've heard of, if not heard. World-weary and desolate, Mark Kozelek's voice takes the album closer way, way on down, with a suitably subtle and delicate instrumental backing. As different from the original as you could wish, this is a fitting conclusion to a more than decent album.

Physical Graffiti Redrawn makes this month's edition of MOJO more than worth the admission fee. Of course, what this CD really does is make you want to play the original, which was probably the intention...

Friday, 27 February 2015

John Lydon - Anger Is An Energy

It sure is John, and with the excessive amount of rage that still courses through your system even after all these years, you could power PiL's stage monitors for a year. For such a once slightly built fella, it's a wonder he could keep those massive chips from falling off his bony shoulders. Mind you, just look at that jaw line now! John Lydon is the sort of chap who is probably the epitome of "never meet your heroes" - not, I hasten to add that he would be an embarrassment in the manner of a Morrissey, but that you get the impression he'd bite your head off so much as look at you. Definitely the sort of fella you'd want on your side in a scrap though.

The book was ghost written by Telegraph rock journalist Andrew Perry, whose remit was to keep as close to Lydon's spoken tracts as possible. Sounds like money for old rope to me!

This sprawling and seemingly practically unedited autobiography traces the development of John Lydon the man, from poverty and illness stricken childhood via generational icon and focus of Establishment ire, to star of celebrity TV and presenter of low brow nature programmes and star of comedy adverts for butter. It also gives Lydon another chance, after 1994's first foray into the world of the autobiog, No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs to rail at his favourite targets, some of whom no doubt deserve it - come on down, Talcy Malcy, a man who was so obviously a flake - but most of whom get it in the neck for little reason. That list would be too long to type out completely, but let's start with Joe Strummer, who seems to be the oft-repeated focus of Lydon's gimlet-eyed glare, and reading between the lines I'd hazard a guess it was simply because he had the ability to tune in to the zeitgeist and thus make The Clash a success. Lydon, being an iconoclast and a major reason why the Pistols were almost wilfully self-destructive (it wasn't all McClaren's fault) was never going to see his band sell out venues in New York for 17 successive nights, was he? Jealous? Very probably, although he'd never admit it. And poor old Glen Matlock, whose only crime appeared to be that he could actually play a bass guitar.

For all that, Lydon has led an interesting and highly unusual life to date, which of course is the stuff of all good biogs. Growing up in grinding poverty in an Irish enclave of Finsbury, north London, Lydon's youth was typical of his peer group, right down to running with the local Highbury football hooligans. A good autobiog is also often enlivened by some unrealistic claims, and Anger Is An Energy is no exception. Johnny tells us, amongst other things, that he was the first serious pop lyricist, and that he practically invented rap and rave culture, and the 5-4-1 football formation. I may have made one of those up.

This is all grist to the mill, and all is forgiven, for although prone to bouts of rambling, a trait of sometimes not seeing the wood for the trees, and an overindulgence in comic book language - phwooooar! - there is much in here beneath the verbosity. The stream of consciousness Lydon lays before us is if nothing else, brutally honest. Absolutely no punches are pulled, and this is another contributing factor to an entertaining and occasionally gripping and hair-raising read. An early bout of meningitis which left our hero with a shattered memory followed by a recovery process of grim revelation is written in a typically forthright manner. When you get to the bit where he describes how he caught the bug, I'd advise you not to be eating or drinking while reading.

His recovery, on instructions from the doctors, involved his family being hard on him, no mollycoddling, and him being constantly angry with himself, in order to provide enough mental stimulation to prevent him sliding into a permanently introverted state, and he muses that this may account for his constant spiky attitude to this day.

Anger is an energy...

Of course the main reason anyone bought this book (or dropped unsubtle hints before Xmas in my case) is to read about the years 1975 to 1981 when John was a major part of two bands, one who changed the course of a moribund popular culture, let alone changed popular music forever, and the other who, in their first three years at least made a truly progressive, ground breaking, and glorious noise. The best art is borne of adversity, and both the Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd had that in abundance.

Replacing the unfortunately musically able Glen Matlock with Sid Vicious, a bloke who had so little musical ability it quickly became apparent that he was incapable of picking up even the rudiments of the bass guitar, is an example of Lydon's wilful self-destructive tendencies where his bands are concerned. Sid was so completely musically inept that he was often unplugged when "playing" live. As for his demise, John pulls no punches, saying his mate was out of reach and beyond help. A combination of a dreadful upbringing - apparently his junkie mother used to give him heroin wraps for his birthday - the utterly wrong choice of squeeze, total gullibility and a complete lack street-sense meant his decline was perhaps inevitable.

Contrast Sid with the other mate Lydon drafted in on the four strings, this time Jah Wobble (John Wardle, name mispronounced by an out of it Sid - it stuck!) in PiL, another bloke who had never picked up a bass guitar before. This guy was a natural, and soon picked up the ability to deliver the pummelling thunderous dubwise bass that underpinned PiL's first two and not uncoincidentally best albums. Wobble was a genuine hardcase, unlike Vicious for whom it was all an act, and also in complete contrast, totally driven. Reading between the lines he essentially got the boot from PiL for bullying guitarist Keith Levene, another future H junkie, and by all accounts a right royal pain in the 'arris, and precious with it. However, that unlikely trio as Public Image Limited made certainly the most challenging and best music of Lydon's career.

Even though musically, as the various versions of PiL became less and less envelope-pushing, more predictable and thus safer, lyrically Lydon has maintained an ability to this day to target inequity and class inequality with a razor-sharp wit. There are many instances in the book where John explains the inspiration behind his lyrics, both for the Pistols and PiL, some of which were well known - Death Disco was written for his mother, dying from cancer, Albatross was a long sigh of relief at "getting rid" of McClaren - and some not so, which I won't spoil by quoting here, and it all makes for insightful reading. He also doesn't shy away from criticising the sheep-like attitude of his own class, and often highlights his own faults. In that respect this book is the mirror image of Morrissey's self-aggrandising and vainglorious autobiography, and is much the better of the two because of that, for all the unintended hilarity within the pages of Mozza's tome.

Away from his musical pursuits, it is amusing to contrast Lydon's varying degrees of frustration veering on disdain for McClaren's partner in crime Vivienne Westwood with his obvious love of her quirky fashion designs. He has carried on this love of dressing up to this day. I never had Lydon down as a clothes horse, but there you go!

The one constant throughout most of John's adult life is his soulmate, his wife Nora, and the book frequently comes back to the anchor in his life, and it is often mentioned how the author would not be able to cope without her. Becoming foster parents to Nora's wayward daughter's kids shows a seldom revealed human side to the face of punk. Quite rightly Lydon has always striven to keep his private life out of the glare of the media, and for the most part he has succeeded.

Diversions such as the Country Life butter adverts, the money from which was used to reform the re-invigorated current version of PiL, appearances in various TV shows, and tales of being offered the part of King Herod in an eventually pulled tour of Jesus Christ Superstar (no, really!) make for amusing reading.

Nowadays pop music is a corporate and bland affair that, to paraphrase one of Morrissey's lyrics, says nothing to modern youth about their lives, and the stars of this new era tend to increasingly come from privileged backgrounds. As I may have said earlier, all true art comes from adversity, and John Lydon is the modern equivalent of the American blues singer, signing his life experiences from the heart, a million miles away from the James Blunts of this world.

While the book could have done with an editor, it is a good read and Lydon gives enough away to reveal Johnny Rotten the man, and you come away from it with your respect for the author intact, even enhanced. More power to ya, John, keep on keeping on!

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Ashley Reaks - Compassion Fatigue (1-8)

I stumbled over this intriguing oddity thanks to James Hendry's Gigging Forever website. Mr Reaks describes himself thus: "Born wrong, collage artist, experimental post-punk musician, adult child, dole-veteran, therapy survivor, reality-avoider". While avoiding some reality or other he came up with the novel concept behind Compassion Fatigue (1-8). There are eight songs. The first is in A and is one minute long. The second is in B and is two minutes long and so on.

Musically it is a weird mix of cut-up, dub reggae bass, restive percussion, post-punk jerkiness, off-kilter jazz breaks, and poptastic melody, and all very toe-tapping it is, too. The lyrics are something else entirely, for it seems Mr Reaks has a mind full of deformed creatures that live at the bottom of sewers. Here's a milder example of the black-as-night humour on offer: "Smeared in baby lotion, lizard loving loner. Crackshot with a crossbow and a crack-induced boner". That comes from Street Cleaning which juxtaposes its filthy mind with "shooby doo-wops" in the style of M's Pop Music, shimmied with a nonchalant swagger.

Dig beneath the dirt and the flippancy, and Reaks delivers a serious message, best expressed in the concluding Disconnected:

"I am the little child without a game to play
I’m the preacherman without a word to say
I am the lunatic without his private hell
the comedian without a joke to tell...
...I’ve got a spirit that just won’t die
I’ve got a freedom only pain can buy
I’m not a part of the tick-tock lie"

All delivered to a groovy faux world-music vibe. It puts me in mind of the atmosphere of Jah Wobble's equally barking and great Take Me To God album. There's some marvellous dirty sax in there, too.

This guy, had he been in New York twenty years ago would have ended up in Kramer's Shimmydisc stable, no question. Ashley Reaks is a maverick with an ear for a tune, and Compassion Fatigue (1-8) is a quite refreshing change from some of the navel-gazing seriousness I tend to lose myself in.

1. Compassion Fatigue (1:00)
2. The World The Dead Have Made For Us (2:00)
3. Cold Body Pussycat (3:00)
4. Wrong 'Un (guess...)
5. Cot Death Grandmother
6. Street Cleaning
7. Joyless Joy
8. Disconnected (...yep...8:00)

Line up:
Ashley Reaks - vocals, guitars, bass, keyboards
Maria Jardardottir - vocals
Dave Kemp - saxophones, accordion
Ian Peak - saxophones on track 6
Nick Dunne - guitars and keyboards on tracks 4 and 6
Mark Law - drums on tracks 1 and 2.
Dan Mizen - drums on track 6

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Le*Silo - Kesamino

This is the third album from Tokyo trio Le*Silo, an avant rock band formed in 1999 who had to wait five years before being able to record and release their first album 8.8, relatively quickly followed in 2006 by the second, the snappily titled 3.27830. The gap to Kesamino, their third album has stretched to eight years, and in the 15 years of their existence the fairly low levels of activity, with the three members doubtless going off to take part in other projects has allowed the group to remain constant, with none of the comings and goings that may have occurred in a busier group over such a long time.

Prog Archives refer to the band as playing "a widely influenced blend of demanding prog rock, which mostly takes the form of RIO and avant-jazz, with punk-rock stylistics, which is not only captivating, but well played", which apart from unnecessarily describing Le*Silo as "prog rock" will do for starters.

If you follow the PA link above, scroll down to the first review, of the group's second album, written by a Japanese fan in that inimitable style the Japanese have when manfully coping with a different alphabet from their own...or possibly he wrote it in Japanese and stuck it in Google Translate, who knows? Whatever, the surreal and spiky but oddly amusing prose probably sums up the band's sound as well as I can.

Of course, I'm not getting out of it that easily, so here goes...

The main songwriter is piano player Miyako Kanazawa who contributes nine of the thirteen tracks on the album. She is or has also been a member of Japanese Zeuhl collective Koenjihyakkei led by Ruins man Tatsuya Yoshida, for I know very little about that band and it is difficult to tell if they are are still active. However, the left-field pedigree is present and correct, as guitarist Yoshiharu Izutsu and drummer Michiaki Suganuma were originally in another influential avant-rock band, Elegant Punk.

Miyako belies her elfin appearance with a fierce vocal style reminiscent of Yoko, taking in the occasional scream and yelp. Wisely, the strident vocalisations are kept to a minimum and are fairly low in the mix, so never become obtrusive. Her piano style is obviously classically influenced, and for a band who often tread the Zeuhl path there is one big surprise in their sound - there is no bass guitar! A thunderous bass flattening all before it is one the defining tropes of Zeuhl, and its absence here opens up the soundscape to allow the other instruments room to breathe. For all that, Le*Silo still manage to sound very heavy, but in an entirely different manner.

Melding a punky sensibility with jazz and Zeuhl structures, Le*Silo create a novel sonic collage where the rhythm is often established by fast, insistent, and more often than not damped chording from Miyako's piano, aided by drummer Michiaki Suganuma's propensity for playing around that established rhythm. Other traits include melodies played in unison by Miyako and guitarist Yoshiharu Izutsu, or counter melodies and rhythms from those two, with Michiaki's powerful drumming using the hi-hat and snare to great effect holding it all together.

Snow-capped land and Hypocondria in May are written by guitarist Yoshiharu, the former a brief outing on a reverberating Spanish guitar. Hypocondria in May features a nice change of pace with some lyrical and melodic guitar work to the fore, the theme woven through it giving the song a symphonic feel, in the manner of a rock chamber orchestra, building to a splendid climax.

The brief drum and percussion piece Guiggy's Frozen Tires and the following Ta.Ka.Ta.da-Zap are both penned by drummer Michiaki. The latter is an outing in fast syncopation, much in the style of the pianist's contributions.

"Kotatsu" must surely have another meaning other than a heated wooden frame upon which a futon or table top sits, the track A girl who is possessed by kotatsu itself being an initially elegant slow piano-led stroll that quickly ups a gear or two to become a menacing allegro in the Zeuhl style, with some damn fine howling guitar work taking the spotlight, the opening melody being reprised in a far more insistent fashion on the guitar near the end. Whisky and Soda frequently threatens to collapse inwardly in a drunken state, but pulls back reeling every time. Actually, a quite clever compositional device is used here, and it shows that this trio certainly have the chops.

The grand classical themes come to the fore on the typically strangely titled Overture of 'Let me take you to the public bath', where references to all manner of modern classicists rub shoulders with avant-blues licks from the guitar, Terje Rypdal fronting a Ligeti quartet perhaps. This tune is the pick of the bunch for me.

The album ends with Hevika Shot. Is that a drink? Whatever, it's a punky little number, full of vituperative energy and tight-knit ensemble playing with Miyako giving her best orgasmic primal screaming. It might frighten the neighbours, but it's a joyously untrammelled racket, and sometimes that's just what the doctor ordered.

Obviously an album for the more adventurous listener, Le*Silo with Kesamino have made the noise they want to, regardless of any commercial considerations, and good luck to them!

1. Zunda Zunda tsu (3:44)
2. ha-hi-ho-hi (5:54)
3. Paro Paro (6:19)
4. Snow-capped land (0:36)
5. Kenji (5:06)
6. Hypocondria in May (6:26)
7. Guiggy's Frozen Tires (0:38)
8. Ta.Ka.Ta.da-Zap (5:28)
9. A girl who is possessed by kotatsu (5:09)
10. Breath of ice (0:36)
11. Whisky and Soda (4:42)
12. Overture of 'Let me take you to the public bath' (5:40)
13. Hevika Shot (5:53)

Total running time - 55:41

Line up:
Miyako Kanazawa - piano, voice
Yoshiharu Izutsu - guitars, voice
Michiaki Suganuma - drums, voice


Band website - although years out of date, includes worldwide links to places where you might be able to buy the current album - sorry I can't be more helpful!

Buy here (Europe)

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