Friday, 30 March 2012

The Bangles - Sweetheart of the Sun

The one thing you could not accuse The Bangles of is being prolific when it comes to output.  Since their reformation in 2000 they have only managed two albums, the quite wonderful and still my fav Bangles album ever, ‘Doll Revolution’ (2003) and now ‘Sweetheart of the Sun’.  In fact, I nearly missed ‘Sweetheart’ completely as having been tipped off as far back as 2010, or was it 2009, that it was ‘imminent’, I’d mentally gone to sleep and only spotted that it had finally been released at the back end of last year when trawling through Amazon.

So was it worth the wait?  In truth, yes, but with caveats.  In a nutshell, it starts well with the mid-tempo ‘Anna Lee’, rather loses its way in the middle and then picks up again towards the end. So 8/9 of the 12 songs are fine but the remaining few are a bit under whelming.  Whilst this is undoubtedly a fine album, I can’t help missing the quirky and sombre-voiced contributions from bassist Michael Steele, who has retired from the music biz and does not appear on this album, the first not to feature her.  The result is that the remaining three chop up song writing and vocal chores amongst them and each gets a bigger slice of the pie.

Certainly, Susanna, Vicki and Debbi have more compatible writing styles which means that the album as a whole sounds more consistent and the majority of the songs are classic west coast jangly pop at its best, but it does miss the experimental and slightly more edgy contribution that Steele brought to the table.  Interestingly, it seems that drummer Debbi Peterson has taken on part of her mantle and produced some of the more interesting songs such as the delightfully poignant ‘One of Two’.  Elsewhere, you can always rely on Susanna Hoffs to produce a one or two decent ballads and Vicki Peterson to chip in a couple of individual efforts and provide those curious sub-Neil Young blustery solos.

In fact the self-written material is generally very good but it’s the covers that let the side down, which is unusual as the band are very adept at covering others’ material.  This time around, we have Todd Rungren’s ‘Open My Eyes’ (originally recorded by The Nazz in 1968) and Carter-Lewis and the Southerners’ ‘Sweet Tender Romance’ (from 1963) which are given the usual Bangles-o-risation treatment, but sadly these are not a patch on past covers like ‘Hazy Shade of Winter’, ‘Manic Monday’ and ‘If She Knew What She Wants’.

Musically, the album is dominated by two pervading influences: country rock and the aura of the late sixties.  Some of the songs have a countrified feel with pedal steel guitar and folksy harmonies; others have a definite psychedelic lilt with Indian tinged guitar figures and the ghost of Jefferson Airplane and Love hovering over them.  The penultimate song on the album, the beautiful ‘Through Your Eyes’ could quite easily have been lifted from the sessions for Crosby Stills and Nash’s 1969 debut such are the awesome vocal harmony arrangements.  Time has not dimmed those voices and they still harmonise with real aplomb.

So whilst not quite as diverse as its predecessor, ‘Doll Revolution’, this album is still a worthwhile addition to the Bangles’ catalogue.  It shows a determined move away from trying to ‘modernise’ their sound and instead it builds on their strengths of strident retro guitars and Beach Boy harmonies and reinforces their modern psychedelic take on today’s music structures, evoking a late sixties mood which I rather like.  In truth it is still growing on me.  A keeper.

Friday, 16 March 2012

The Who - I Can See For Miles

It has become apparent that, quite unconsciously, I have been led, as if by some unseen hand to post more than a few column inches about the so-called psychedelic era of 1967-8.  First there was the exotic ‘Paper Sun’ by Traffic, then the accordion infused ‘Reflections’ by The Supremes and finally, virtually anything by Cream, but especially stuff like the wah-wah drenched ‘Tales of Brave Ulysses’.  This is not really something I’ve thought a lot about before, but now I come to muse on those years, there are some cracking songs to pick on.

There is something about that summer-of-love period and just after that threw up some really adventurous sounds, presumably prodded on by the studio trickery of ‘Sgt Pepper’.  Some very intriguing singles can be found amongst the output from the psychedelic period, like ‘Rainbow Chaser’ by the Anglo-Greek band, Nirvana (i.e. not Kurt’s lot) with its dizzyingly flanged chorus, virtually anything from The Beatles’ ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ and as early as 1966, the rush of jangly guitars that heralds the Byrds’ ‘Eight Miles High’.

But having wallowed in a bit of strictly non-substance related nostalgia; I have come to a conclusion.  One song that, for me at least, has strong links to that time is from none of the bands so far mentioned, but from those mod-rockers, The Who.  Of course the song in question is ‘I Can See For Miles’.  Released in the relevant window of late 1967, it sees the Who on the rise to their creative peak probably around 1969/70 and uses so much studio enhanced ingenuity and complicated harmonies that, like many of its contemporaries, it was impossible to reproduce live without it sounding a tad on the thin side.

At the time, this was considered a bit inhibiting as most bands still went out on tour to hawk their wares instead of lounging around whilst their marketing company drummed up a bit of business (I know, what were they thinking?)  Whatever, it has a strange beguiling atmosphere that Who singles hadn’t had up to that date yet it still majors on the staple Who ingredients of the restlessly manic drumming of Keith Moon and the windmill chords of Pete Townsend.  Its almost whispered verse leading to a relentlessly rising chorus is one of Townsend’s crowning achievements.  There is a tension throughout the whole piece that is not fully resolved and gives it a twitchy, slightly anxious quality.

Whilst I am not convinced that any one decade is musically superior to any other in the history of pop music, there is an undoubted freshness about the 50s, 60s (and possibly 70s) born of charting new unexplored territory that is difficult to replicate now.  ‘I Can See For Miles’ has that new-born patina and listening to it even now allows you to feel it.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Kate Bush - 50 Words for Snow

Back in ancient times, during the decade that fashion forgot, or the 1970s to give it its proper title, I’d read all the music press on a regular basis – no mean feat as the amount of paper produced by the music press in those days was considerable – and I’d wonder.  I’d wonder how reviewers could really get under the skin of an LP (for it was LPs in those far off days) after a cursory play or two.  It was my experience that new releases were a minefield of pitfalls (to thoroughly mix metaphors).  You never knew which way it would go.

There were those that would leap off the turntable (an ancient music retrieval system, M’Lud) after a single play, filling you with the certainty that another purchase was going to join your list of great albums only to find after the third play you’d be bored stiff with it and that it was really a tedious sheep in a vibrant wolf’s clothing.  Others, of course were the reverse.  I have many an album that failed at the first hurdle yet, assuming I’d bother to persevere, would sneak up on you and make itself utterly indispensable.  So, I return to my question: how do reviewers know which way to jump after only a short period of acquaintance?

I’m having that trouble with Kate Bush.  Only worse.  It’s her latest offering ’50 Words For Snow’ that is causing all this musing and stopping me from writing an erudite and informed review.  The truth is; I just can’t make my mind up even after more plays than your average reviewer would ever have the privilege of hearing.  At first, I thought it disappointing, then it began to sneak up on me in the time honoured way, but now I’m beginning to get a bit bored with it again – but interspersed with bits where I can’t help feeling, ‘that’s quite good…’.

For those who need to get up to speed, ’50 Words For Snow’ comprises 7 fairly lengthy piano based ‘songs’.  I say ‘songs’ advisedly as one of the problems is the lack of melody.  Each piece seems to comprise a meandering vocal line against a jazz-tinged backdrop.  Each ‘piece’ therefore has a ‘mood’ rather than a melody.  Which is OK, but is very much dependent on the listener’s acceptance of the ambience, which can change from day to day, hour to hour.  You don’t get these problems with melodies.  Either you like them or you don’t.  And there lies the conundrum.  Therefore, my considered opinion is that this is an album that defies traditional review because its impression varies with time (and probably mass as well).  It is more than likely the sort of album that Einstein would’ve enjoyed.  So I’ll hand you over to Prof Brian Cox to tell you whether it’s any good…