Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Family Traits

I’ve just discovered yet another band that sort of passed me by. And it all started so promisingly, too. Just in case you hadn't remembered, it's my birthday on the 29th (I know, there isn't one) but for my birthday in 1971, I received a record token (gift cert) that was not enough to buy an album.  So, being an impetuous fool and being unable to wait until more funds were available, I bought 4 singles instead. One of them was ‘In My Own Time’ by Family – included so that I could marvel at that manic vibrato and the effortless use of space in music to build tension.

I can see now that things didn’t really go to plan thereafter where Family were concerned. A year later, I coveted their album, ‘Bandstand’ like mad and for two very good reasons: it had a fabulous old style TV cover with Family shown performing on the ‘screen’ and it contained one of my all time favourite singles, ‘Burlesque’, which made even better use of the stop-start concept. But despite wanting it desperately, whenever I’d saved up enough money to buy it, there always seemed to be something rather better around just at that moment that I wanted more and so it came to pass that ‘Bandstand’ remained second best to a host of others and eventually its time passed.

Later still, the guy who ran our Hall Bar at University had a copy of Family’s ‘Best Of’ collection and used to play it virtually every night whilst pulling pints. This time, I couldn’t resist (especially as it had ‘Burlesque’ on it) and that LP has been the only representative of Family in my collection…until now. For I am now the proud owner of the double CD, ‘In Their Own Time’ which shoehorns the best of most of their albums (but strangely, not ‘Music In A Doll’s House’) into 150 minutes of manic vibrato and sub-prog arrangements.

From a safe distance I can see that my musical instincts were intact and that they prevented me from buying ‘Bandstand’ in favour of other stuff that have become firm rescue-from-burning-building albums for a very good reason; I’m not completely sold by Family. Whilst I love much of their stuff, there is a sizeable minority that doesn’t really do it for me. It’s amazing how you develop this sort of ‘6th sense’ for purchases which much of the time works beautifully.

So, whilst I’m glad to have my ‘Best Of’ package, I’m also comforted that my in-built critical facility filtered them out, otherwise I might just not’ve bought something else instead and that something else could well be a much cherished LP – who knows?

Thursday, 18 February 2010

The Fame Monster

GA GA OOH LA LA! So just the three BRITS for Lady Gaga? Should’ve cleaned up with ‘Best International Male’ as well! Haha!

So it’s official – Lady Gaga joins my list of great artists. We’ve been sharing a car whilst I drive out to the wilds of Berkshire every day doing some contract work and I can’t even contemplate sharing with anyone else. It may be that ‘The Fame Monster’, a strange 8 track sort-of album, is just damn good car music but I can’t seem to get enough of it on those long motorway hauls.

After her fabulous debut, ‘The Fame’ I was waiting for the burn out on the second album, but if anything, ‘The Fame Monster’ is better, more assured and more hook laden than a fisherman’s rucksack. I’m not really one for dance music but somehow I seem to be addicted to Lady Gaga and here’s why: She’s not what she seems. Behind the kooky, cutting edge fashion conscious image is an old fashioned musician. Here’s why.

She has paid her dues. At the dawn of time musicians would write a few songs and then take them on the road and play to the people. Sometimes this went on for years before some A&R bod took notice and signed them to a record label. It was a slog but was an accepted pre-requisite to fame and fortune. These days all this slogging around seedy halls selling your wares is now bypassed by selling your image (not your talent) direct to the record producers. All you need is ambition. Lady G appears at first sight to fit this modern ideal but actually she has been around for years writing songs for others (Pussycat Dolls, Britney Spears etc) as part of her apprenticeship.

She sings. This might sound obvious as she has a half decent voice and makes the most of it but consider this: her most recent single, ‘Telephone’ features her along side mega-property BeyoncĂ© and it is very revealing. Put side by side in the same song, it becomes clear that Ms Knowles is very firmly based in the tough modern R&B mould where vocal lines are part sung part rapped but Lady G doesn’t follow. She sings her lines and in doing so sounds like a throwback to a different age – she just can’t help it.

She sings The Blues. More than anything she is an old fashioned blues singer and has more in common with Janis Joplin than Madonna or Britney Spears. Have a listen to her heart-felt ballad ‘Speechless’ written about her father or ‘Again Again’ or even her acoustic variations of her own songs. Her songs are often blues-tinged but she wraps them up in the modern dance idiom to appeal to today’s audience. However, you can’t help feeling that she would make one helluva blues singer.

She writes structured songs. In these days of studio creation, traditional song writing skills are taking a bit of a battering but Lady G is a song-crafter. She writes with an appreciation of the rules of song structure and then breaks them to great effect. Again ‘Telephone’ is a great example of how to stretch a bridge passage to breaking point.

So when it comes to Lady Gaga – don’t believe the hype. She’s just and old fashioned girl with an old fashioned mind…and an old fashioned millionaire (allegedly).

Friday, 12 February 2010

Martha and the Muffins

Long time readers of this blog will recall that I posted my list of favourite gigs some time back. One of the events that made the cut involved me crowding into a cramped, sweaty backroom at the Nashville Pub in West London some time in 1979 to see a new bunch of raw recruits, Martha and the Muffins on their first UK tour. ‘Echo Beach’ had just hit the airwaves and I’d persuaded a few mates to give them a try on the basis of free beer and the possibility that they may be quite good. It turned out they were and ‘Metro Music’ (the first release on the new DinDisc label) was found to be nestling in my collection a few days after.

‘Metro Music’ was one of those albums that I took to immediately and still like to this day but the remainder of our relationship has been a bit hit and miss. As usual for a band with a good debut album, their second LP, ‘Trance and Dance’ was issued too soon after the first and suffered from being underdone. I dabbled with their reinvention as ‘M+M’ in the mid 1980s but have not really followed them since although ‘Echo Beach’ and companion single ‘Saigon’ often find their way on to my recent playlists.

So it was with some surprise and more than a little interest that I received an approach from The Muffins' Marketing and Media Manager, Jeremie Poirier to say that they have a new album, ‘Delicate’ out this very month (2nd Feb) and would I like to download a sample track ‘Don’t Say Anything’ from their site I thought I might. And what a good decision it turned out to be.

Now reduced in numbers from their original six-piece to a workmanlike partnership of Mark Gane and Martha Johnson, Martha and the Muffins appear to be very much alive and kicking. Only a few seconds into ‘Don’t Say Anything’ and that instantly recognisable Gane guitar sound has me hooked and pinned against a rhythm track that could be lifted from any of the more up-tempo numbers on ‘Metro Music’. But don’t get the impression this is just a retread of past glories, as this sound has a very modern feel and with Martha’s familiar yet more mature vocal in the mix, the Muffins have succeeded in fusing the old with the new with some aplomb.

Their style was always a bit difficult to pin down, being somewhere between new wave and art-pop, and this new material still has that slight left-field aura to it. But hey, that's fine by me and if this is anything to go by, I might just give ‘Delicate’ a listen and become a fan all over again.

Saturday, 6 February 2010


If you have received a letter (you remember, those paper things that arrive through your letter box) from the UK in the last month you may have noticed that the postage stamp is a tad familiar. This is because The Royal Mail has issued a series of 10 postage stamps depicting an eclectic sample of record album sleeves from the last 40 years.

This is an interesting development as it is an instance of the cover art being celebrated in its own right rather than in conjunction with the music contained on the record within. The 10 covers thought worthy of inclusion in the set are:

1. Rolling Stones/Let It Bleed (1969) - Designed by Robert Brownjohn (with cake created by the then unknown Delia Smith).

2. Led Zeppelin/’IV’ (1971) - The painting of the faggot-bearing old man was, it is said, found by singer Robert Plant in a Reading junk shop. For the cover it was nailed to a demolished house in Dudley.

3. David Bowie/The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972) - Designed by George Underwood with artwork by Terry Pastor.

4. Mike Oldfield/Tubular Bells (1973) – Designed by photographer Trevor Key

5. The Clash/London Calling (1979) - Ray Lowry designed the artwork around Pennie Smith’s iconic shot of bassist Paul Simonon.

6. New Order/Power, Corruption and Lies (1983) - Peter Saville’s design juxtaposed French impressionist Henri Fantin-Latour’s painting with a colour-coded strip.

7. Primal Scream/Screamadelica (1991) – Designed by Paul Cannell.

8. Pink Floyd/The Division Bell (1994) – Designed by long-time collaborator Storm Thorgerson.

9. Blur/Parklife (1994) - The racing greyhounds were captured by photographer Bob Thomas, and the sleeve designed by Chris Thomson and Rob O'Connor of London design firm Stylorouge.

10. Coldplay/A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002) - The work of Norwegian photographer Solve Sundsbo, and the result of medical imaging technology.

Predictably, 6 out of the 10 hail from the great era of the twelve inch record sleeve when cover art was displayed to its best advantage. Although the remaining four are memorable, they have that diminished CD jewelcase aura about them that somehow detracts from the effect. There is nothing quite like a ‘proper’ record sleeve. Twenty years after their final demise twelve inch sleeves suddenly seem overlarge and in-your-face – almost startlingly so. I have on the wall in my ‘music’ room (read: spare bedroom) some of those picture frames that you can display album covers in and change them around every few weeks. Each one holds great memories in its slightly garish glory.

Will CD inserts be revered like this in the future? Clearly four already have but generally I suspect not.