30 Nov 2011

Active Listener's Top Ten Reissues of 2011.

1. Smashing Pumpkins - Gish / Siamese Dream
The original albums nicely remastered and repackaged with a bonus CD and DVD each. The bonus discs are an embarrassment of riches, curated by Billy himself with all manner of unexpected and welcome surprises.
The Gish DVD is an excellent 1990 show with covers of Blue Oyster Cult and Steppenwolf - lots of fun.
The Siamese Dream DVD shows the band's growth and sees them in world beating form.

2. Tame Impala - Innerspeaker
The recent U.S reissue includes an excellent bonus disc full of early b-sides and cast off material and makes what was already a great album essential. The best psychedelic act on the planet at the moment.

3. The Byrds - Complete Columbia Album Collection
The deluxe bonus track versions of all of the Byrds Columbia studio albums lovingly packaged in mini LP sleeves and housed in an attractive mini box. And all for under thirty pounds. There's never been a better way of investigating their essential back catalogue.

4. The Jayhawks - Hollywood Town Hall / Tomorrow The Green Grass
The Jayhawks two masterpieces get the deluxe reissue treatment with informative liner notes and some fantastic contemporary b-sides. Tomorrow the Green Grass also includes the fan favourite Mystery Sessions - a selection of all acoustic demos. Sure to please fans of Olsen and Louris' Ready for the Flood.

5. Suede - Suede / Dog Man Star
The entire Suede catalogue was extensively repackaged this year. The first two albums are the essentials - great albums now packaged with b-sides and alternate versions that are as good as anything on the albums. The long version of the Wild Ones is spectacular. Honorable mention also to their newly compiled 2 disc best of which concentrates mostly on their first three albums and their b-sides and is expertly sequenced to make some sort of Suede super album.

6. Dave Davies - Hidden Treasures
The Kink's Dave Davies was always the grittier of the two Davies but didn't get much of a look in on their albums compared to brother Ray. Steps were made to rectify this in the late sixties, but Dave's album never made it to release, with some of the material finding it's way onto future Kink's LPs and singles.  This release digs into the vaults and reconstructs the intended album as closely as possible and makes compelling listening.

7. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here
The Pink Floyd reissue campaign has generally been a bit of a damp squib and an excuse to take fan's money all over again. The experience edition of Wish You Were Here has been it's saving grace up to this point. The interesting bonus tracks include two embryonic live jams which eventually became part of Dogs, an alternate take of Have a Cigar with Gilmour and Waters sharing the vocal and a fascinating take of Wish You Were Here with Stephane Grapelli on violin.

8. The Poets - Wooden Spoon : The Singles Anthology 1964 - 1967
Despite being produced and managed by Andrew Loog Oldham, Scotland's Poets never got the dues they deserved. This excellent collection brings together all of their singles and charts their evolution from beat and r&b through to their masterful freakbeat psych moment In Your Tower.

9. X - Original Album Series
The first 5 albums from the best rockabilly punk band of all time, packaged as vinyl replica's and at a ridiculously low price. Nuff said.
Lots of other great releases in this series too ( Tim Buckley, Little Feat etc. )

10. Tally Ho - Flying Nun's Greatest Bits
A rather excellent two disc distillation of everything that makes New Zealand's Flying Nun one of the most important indie labels. From early gems by the Clean and Verlaines through to exciting new blood in the form of So So Modern's Grayson Gilmour and the Shocking Pinks. Highly influential stuff, and not just for muso's.

29 Nov 2011

H.P Lovecraft - Beginner's Guide

With their appealing blend of psychedelia and folk rock, H.P Lovecraft were one of the best underground American acts of the sixties. Although they only managed to stay together for two years they left an
impressive recorded legacy. Vocalist / Guitarist ( and former folk troubadour ) George Edwards and keyboardist / classically trained vocalist Dave Michaels met playing in a lounge / jazz combo and it wasn't long before their first single Anyway That You Want Me / It's All Over For You was released on Mercury Records, with borrowed members of local Chicago outfit The Rovin' Kind helping out. The A side was a forgettable piece of sixties pop drama, while the B side was a carbon copy of Dylan's It's All Over Now Baby Blue which showed promise.
Within six months a full line up had coalesced and they were recording their debut album. In that time they'd developed their own distinctive style, based around Edwards and Michaels dual lead vocals - an all male counterpoint to Marty Balin and Grace Slick from Jefferson Airplane. The majority of the debut is made up of well chosen covers and traditional folk material given the psychedelic treatment - Wayfaring Stranger, The Drifter and That's The Bag I'm In are all concise, well arranged folk rockers with stinging lead guitar licks and keyboard work which wouldn't sound out of place on an early Doors album. The centerpiece of the album though, is a group composition based on a short story by the author H.P Lovecraft. The White Ship is a moodily atmospheric gem full of as much drama and intrigue as the story it's based on.

The album was well received and the next year was spent touring, before record company pressures forced the band into the studio to record album number two. Unfortunately the band weren't given the time for writing and recording that they would have liked and there's a noticeable drop in consistency. With a new bass player and third vocalist on board in the shape of ex Shadows of Night's Jeff Boyan, the new album relied more on originals. At the Mountains of Madness was a successful attempt to replicate the success of The White Ship and again the album highlight. Jeff Boyan's It's About Time is a semi successful counterculture anthem in the style of Jefferson Airplane's Volunteers material with a nice orchestral interlude in the middle. Elsewhere however a little too much LSD seems to have been taken.

The band folded soon after, before Edwards and drummer Michael Tegza reformed the group in 1970 as Lovecraft. Edwards left before their 1970 album was released. A tepid country rock album, it bore almost no traces of the invention that characterized their two sixties albums. Worse was to come in 1975 with a grim new AOR direction.
Good news for fans arrived in the nineties however with the discovery of an immaculately recorded live performance from 1968. Released by archival specialists Sundazed, it paints the band in an entirely new light. Featuring a selection of material from both albums in extended form it's a much more high energy performance than you'd be led to expect from the studio material with busy and propulsive drums, searing acid guitar leads and amazing keyboard work from Michaels. The band are tight and focused and the harmonies are spot on. It's amazing that this was even recorded. An essential archival release.

28 Nov 2011

Smashing Pumpkins Siamese Dream Deluxe Edition Bonus Tracks - Track By Track Review

Stepping into the more mainstream for a moment here's a blow by blow on the bonus tracks from the Siamese Dream reissue. I received a copy of Siamese Dream for my 13th birthday a month or two after it's original 1993 release, and from that moment on the Smashing Pumpkins were the most important band of my teenage years. I've been waiting impatiently for these reissues since I heard of their impending release so now that they've finally hit the shelves, here's the lowdown. Gish will follow as soon as I get to listen to it.

1. Pissant (Siamese sessions rough mix) - sounds to me like a more bass heavy mix of the previously released b-side version.
2. Siamese Dream (Broadway rehearsal demo) - nothing like the released b-side version this is a much better recording and a totally different full band arrangement. The first half is very tightly structured and has great drums from Jimmy then the second half breaks down into a half time blues jam.
3. STP (rehearsal demo) - awesome heavy riff rocker with some lovely twiddly guitar leads. A very good recording with emphasis on the vocals, guitar and bass with the drums buried in the mix unfortunately.
4. Frail and Bedazzled (soundworks demo) - this is a kick ass instrumental version with the vocal parts replaced by some great lyrical guitar leads. Billy is a great player. It's a pity he doesn't let rip like this much anymore. An early highlight.
5. Luna (apartment demo) -  acoustic guitar, bass and vocal ( with some treatments ) demo. Billy obviously had a very precise idea of what he wanted with this track already at this point as the arrangement is identical to the album version.
6. Quiet (BBC session/BC mix) - a pretty good indicator of how tight the band were live by this point, but there's not really anything happening here that the album version didn't have.
7. Moleasskiss (soundworks demo) - this is probably my favourite unreleased Pumpkins track, so it's great to have a better quality mix of it finally. Shows how Billy could write anthemic choruses in his sleep at this point. Jame's harmony vocal in the chorus could do with being mixed a bit lower though. Or removed.
8. Hello Kitty Kat (soundworks demo) - an interesting early version with a completely different chorus and some different lyrics. Sounds a little hesitant early on but builds up a really good head of steam by the time the guitar solo(s) and outro arrive - both of which are again considerably different to the released version.
9. Today (Broadway rehearsal demo) - huge fuzz guitar on this heavier, slightly slower, early version with none of the dynamics of the released version as well as some different lyrics. Some nice guitar breaks, but a pretty lazy sounding, uncommitted vocal from Billy - but after all this was just intended as a rehearsal so we can't expect too much.
10. Never Let Me Down Again (BBC session) - very similar to the released version but without the treated backing vocals. Apparently Depeche Mode's Dave Gahan prefers the Pumpkins version to their own.
11. Apathy’s Last Kiss (Siamese sessions rough mix) - one of my favourite early pumpkins rarities this is a much more simple mix than the released version with clean slide guitar much higher in the mix and without the echoey vocal treatments. Good as an alternate mix, but the original is still my favourite.
12. Ache (Silverfuck rehearsal demo) - a pretty cumbersome rehearsal - a low point for me on here - there are too many good live versions of this around for me to think I'll ever play this version again.
13. U.S.A. (soundworks demo) - an effortlessly tight instrumental groove ( think gravity demos ) - good stuff.
14. U.S.S.R (soundworks demo) - a pretty basic instrumental demo - short and choppy - something a little different for the Pumpkins.
15. Spaceboy (acoustic mix) - the released version minus the mellotron bits ( which were the best bits in my opinion )
16. Rocket (rehearsal demo) - better than the other rehearsal versions of album tracks on here and with a slight variation to the main riff, but I still can't foresee a time when I'd want to listen to this if the album version was available to me.
17. Disarm (acoustic mix) - the released version minus the tightly strummed acoustic guitars - sounds a little too sparse to start with, but quite beautiful once the chorus strings come into play.
18. Soma (instrumental mix) - exactly what it says it is - there's enough going on for it to stand up on it's own two feet as an instrumental and it benefits from being able to hear some of the layers of lead guitars more clearly.

There was a reasonably negative response from some fans about what is on here compared to what they hoped would be on here, so it's very pleasing to report that this is much much better than expected with only a couple of weak rehearsal tracks that could have been left on the cutting room floor. Great stuff and I can't wait to hear Gish next.

As always comments are appreciated.

Elliott Smith - Misery Let Me Down

An excellent quality studio recording of a previously unreleased Elliott Smith song has just starting circulating online. Recorded in 1997 ( circa Either / Or ) as a warm-up for an appearance on WMUC-FM, a student-run university radio station, it was never broadcast on the show and has only hit the internet this week.

 Listen to it here :

Or Download mp3 here

Okkervil River - Golden Opportunities 2 - E.P Download

The fabulous Okkervil River have just released a free download only e.p as a thank you to their fans. It's available through their website.

Comprising 5 covers it's a sequel to a similar release from 2007.

Tracklisting is:

01 It is So Nice to Get Stoned [Ted Lucas cover]
02 U.F.O. [Jim Sullivan cover]
03 One Soul Less On Your Fiery [the Triffids cover]
04 Plan D [Bill Fay cover]
05 Dry Bones [Traditional]

Download here : http://okkervilriver.com/

27 Nov 2011

Mini Mansions - Obscure Classics ( Review )

Great albums you may have missed

Mini Mansions - Mini Mansions ( 2010 ) 

Formed in 2009 when multi-instrumentalist Michael Shuman got some downtime from his day job as bass player for Queens of the Stone Age, Mini Mansions are an unusual prospect in the indie rock world. Forgoing guitars for the most part, this three piece have a keyboard heavy sound which is obviously indebted to the past but sounds completely contemporary at the same time.
Heavily influenced by the Beatles, it's almost as if you're listening to a late sixties Beatles album that's been transported from an alternative universe where Lennon became obsessed with the fairground style of Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite and stuck with it through his intensely paranoid White Album material.
That's part of the major appeal of this album to me - the swooning harmonies are absolutely gorgeous but somehow manage to co-exist with an ever present sense of claustrophobia and something approaching dread.
Of particular note is the fantastic fuzz bass playing which helps fill in the spaces the guitar would generally inhabit. 
There's not a duff track in sight - one particular highlight is Majik Marker which starts out with the resigned melancholy of I'm So Tired before descending into a cacophanous maelstrom of fuzz bass and drums.
Also fantastic are Monk and Kiddie Hypnogoggia - check out their videos below:

"Genuinely psychedelic with huge hooks... After listening to Mini Mansions just once, you won't be able to get it out of your head.'" Says the Queen's Josh Homme. Who am I to disagree?
Criminally unknown and absolutely necessary for fans of the Beatles, Elliott Smith and of course Queens of the Stone Age.

Alastair Riddell - Space Waltz - Obscure Classics ( Review )

Great albums you might have missed.

Alastair Riddell - Space Waltz ( 1975 )

New Zealand is not the first place many people would think to look for a great lost album from the original seventies glam movement, so Alastair Riddell's Space Waltz project should be a very pleasant surprise for you glitter fiends out there.
Released after winning a national TV talent quest,  Space Waltz's lone release is required glam rock listening which was briefly huge here in New Zealand, and totally unknown overseas.
Ziggy Stardust era David Bowie is obviously Riddell's key influence at this point and while this is admittedly completely derivative it's carried off with such conviction and attention to detail that you can't help but get caught up in the enthusiasm. Indeed if subjected to a blindfold test you could be forgiven for thinking this was a lost Bowie album recorded between Ziggy and Aladdin Sane.
Out on the Street was the big local hit and the one song people seem to remember, but there's a much deeper vein to be tapped here.
Fraulein Love & Beautiful Boy are shoulda been hits that are as immediate as anything coming out of the UK at the time.
Seabird's lyrical guitar licks are pure Mick Ronson ( think Width of a Circle ) and Love The Way He Smiles is an epic closer in the vein of Moonage Daydream.
Naturally Riddell's vocal delivery and mannerisms are highly theatrical which does date this somewhat, but those with a taste for the genre are generally fairly forgiving in this regard.
For such a well known movement there are surprisingly few classic glam rock albums, so a find like this is invaluable.
Fans of Jobriath and similar artists need to investigate immediately.

Built To Spill - Live - Obscure Classics ( Review )

Great albums you may have missed

Built To Spill - Live ( 1999 )

The sixties had Live At Leeds by The Who.
The seventies had Thin Lizzy's Live and Dangerous and Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps.
I'm not too sure what the eighties has to say for itself.
And I'd like to nominate Built To Spill Live as the great live rock album of the nineties.
Ostensibly an alternative hard rock band pitched somewhere between Dinosaur Jr and Crazy Horse, Built to Spill have been releasing albums since 1993 ( and are still going strong today ) and are the sort of band that release consistently solid studio albums that you can tell aren't quite an accurate representation of their sound.
Culled from 4 separate live dates in 1999, this is a revelation and a definitive statement from a band who are clearly at their most comfortable on stage.
Their three pronged guitar attack have an intuitive understanding of each other and dovetail their guitar parts into some very intricate and beautifully textured places with excellent use of controlled feedback.
They're left plenty of space to stretch out and improvise on a stinging version of Neil Young's Cortez The Killer and their own Broken Chairs both of which find their way to the twenty minute mark without showing signs of lagging.

Car and the Plan offer more concise hooks, along with covers of Love as Laughter's Singing Sores Make Perfect Swords and a version of The Halo Bender's Virginia Reel Around The Fountain which builds to a glorious descending octave riff which threatens to release my inner air-guitarist every time I hear it.
My favourites though are Stop The Show with it's bludgeoning rock star finale and I Would Hurt a Fly - which although quite cryptic appears to be a creepy and insightful look into a troubled relationship with cleverly subversive lyrics.
Essential listening for anyone with a taste for the loud and melodic.

Manfred Mann Chapter Three - Volume One - Obscure Classics ( Review )

Great Albums you may have missed.

Manfred Mann Chapter Three - Volume One ( 1969 )

1969 was a good year to be a successful young musician. With the majority of major English record companies forming underground labels specifically for the more adventurous counter-culture longhair market, artistic freedom was at a high. Philips established the highly collectable Vertigo label, and one of their first releases was Manfred Mann Chapter Three Volume One. Manfred Mann  was of course a very well established pop group with hits like Pretty Flamingo and Do-Wah- Diddy-Diddy. Ready for a change, Mann and electric pianist / vocalist Mike Hugg dropped the rest of the band and enlisted former East of Eden bass player Steve York, drummer Craig Collinge and most importantly a five piece brass section comprised of some of the hottest young talent in the U.K at the time, and set out to explore their love of jazz.
For a band who's previous release only a year before had been a singalong cover of Bob Dylan's The Mighty Quinn, a dark, voodoo jazz-rock LP replete with Albert Ayler inspired free-jazz solos must have come as a shock to long term fans. Clearly this is not your Dad's Manfred Mann.
Along with contemporarys like Ian Carr's Nucleus and Colosseum, Mann and co. were instrumental in these formative years of the merging of jazz and progressive rock. American bands like Chicago were already working the brass rock formula, but the U.K scene was pushing the envelope a considerable distance further.
Not that the Manfred's pop hooks were gone - perhaps as a concession to older fans One Way Glass toned down the jazz elements and with it's clattering drums, insistent fuzz bass and psychedelic vocal treatments should have been a hit.

And to me what raises Chapter Three above other U.K acts of the time is the quality of the songwriting. There's no doubt that there were plenty of fine players on this fledgeling scene, but few had compositions this strong to launch from. Snakeskin Garter, One Way Glass, and Sometimes are all particularly memorable.
Mike Hugg's voice may be an acquired taste for some, but fans of the creepy juju stylings of early Dr John are in for a treat. It's a particularly good fit for their spooky half speed take on the Yardbird's Mister You're A Batter Man Than I.

Konekuf and A Study In Inaccuracy verge closer to Nucleus territory and give the brass section plenty of room to flex their improv muscles, while Where Am I Going supplies a calm, contemplative coda.

They also supplied the soundtrack for Jess Franco's psychotronic film classic Venus in Furs - a great headtrip of a score which needs to see release, as well as Chapter Three Volume Two and part of a third album before they folded leading to the formation of Manfred Mann's Earth Band who produced some interesting progressive rock ( notably Solar Fire ) in a more Pink Floydish style before being back in the charts with their cover of Bruce Springsteen's Blinded By The Light.

26 Nov 2011

David Axelrod - Beginner's Guide

David Axelrod was a unique and important figure on the sixties music scene. A visionary writer & producer his fusion of symphonic, r & b and psychedelic song structures and conventions wasn't fully appreciated at the time and has only been satisfactorily acknowledged in the last fifteen years or so. His rediscovery is largely due to some high profile samples and championing by artists like DJ Shadow and Dr Dre.
Axelrod started the black music division of Capitol Records in the mid sixties and was instrumental in the success of singer Lou Rawls, who's albums he produced at the time. Concurrently he also produced Cannonball Adderley's Mercy, Mercy, Mercy - one of the biggest selling jazz albums of the era, and a series of albums by actor / flautist David McCallum. McCallum's albums were mostly arrangements of popular contemporary tunes, but several of Axelrod's compositions - notably the Edge & House of Mirrors, found their way onto these albums and pointed the way forward.

What followed was a series of albums, not always credited to Axelrod, which explored his unique marriage of these seemingly incompatible musical styles. Quincy Jones credits him with creating Jazz Fusion with these albums, and while the spirit they were created in certainly shares something in common with fusion I tend to think of Axelrod as more of a modern classicist.

David Axelrod - Songs of Innocence ( 1968 ) The first album credited to Axelrod, Songs of Innocence is the first fruits of his exploration into combining psychedelic rock with strings and is an epic album which would be an ideal starting point for the uninitiated. The Smile is everything that is great about Axelrod distilled down to three and a half minutes of aural gold.

The Electric Prunes - Mass In F Minor ( 1968 ) The Electric Prunes were a garage rock band who had a few hit singles, notably I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night, and two popular albums in the mid sixties. When they broke up, Reprise still owned the name and approached Axelrod to compose an album to cash in on the band's continued success. Instead of attempting to recreate their sound, Axelrod pushed his own agenda and wrote a contemporary psychedelic take on a Catholic mass, combining chanted Gregorian style vocals and creepy church organ with searing electric guitars and r & b drum grooves. Kyrie Eleison attracted some attention when it appeared on the film Easy Rider.
It's an acquired taste but a wholly unique listening experience and one that I love.

The Electric Prunes - Release of an Oath : The Kol Nidre ( 1969 )  Mass in F Minor was successful enough to warrant this follow up volume which matches it's predecessor in quality and sounds like it could have been recorded in the same sessions. If you like one, you're bound to like the other.

Pride - Pride ( 1970 ) This is a lesser known release. Much like Axelrod's Electric Prunes releases Pride were never an actual band, but a supergroup of sessions players. Axelrod's son Michael wrote the lyrics for this album which shares an air of melancholy with Love's Forever Changes. Gone is the acid guitar and large orchestral accompaniment. This is a much more intimate affair than his usual arrangements, performed by a small group with prominent nylon string guitar leads and a hint of the desert breeze.

David Axelrod - The Edge 1966 - 1970
This is an essential introduction to Axelrod's capitol recordings and includes highlights from his first 3 albums, as well as his work with David McCallum, Lou Rawls, Cannonball Adderley and others. If you're only going to buy one Axelrod CD this should be the one.

David Axelrod - The Warner / Reprise Sessions
This is a great archival double CD which includes both Electric Prunes releases in their released forms, as well as in full instrumental form plus the Pride album. Detractors of the Prunes albums tend to point the finger at the choral arrangements so these instrumental versions will hopefully win a few of them over.

Axelrod released a high profile self titled album in 2001 on the Mo'Wax label utilising material he begun work on in the late sixties, and has also released a DVD / CD Live From The Royal Festival Hall. Recorded and filmed in 2004 it features a guest turn by The Verve's Richard Ashcroft and features many of the tracks discussed above.

Great Songs from Less than Great Albums

I was trawling through my LPs this afternoon and I realised how many I owned that had one killer track and a whole lot of filler.
We've all got albums like these that we grabbed with one particular track in mind and the rest of the album has failed to sink in.
It's hard to admit to yourself that you've spent your hard earned dollars on a stinker though so you hold onto them - after all they just need a bit more work to get into surely? The next listen will be the one that sinks in.
With this in mind I grabbed a bunch of these out and started listening to see how I really felt about these albums that I'd been carting around for years.
Sadly I didn't unearth any undiscovered gems, but I did manage to convince myself that sometimes one great track is reason enough to hold onto these albums.
So here's five absolutely essential tracks from five of those albums that I had hoped would be great but turned out to be ... otherwise.

1. The Fraternity of Man - Last Call For Alcohol from the album The Fraternity of Man.
The Fraternity of Man knew they were onto a good thing with Don't Bogart Me, their big marijuana themed country rock hit from the Easy Rider soundtrack so they rewrote and improved it as a drinking song. The rest of the album? Wacky ( i.e annoying ) Zappa-esque zaniness.

2. David Hemmings -Anathea from the album Happens.
Actors releasing albums is always a dicey prospect, but with this great cinematic psych piece written for him by Gene Clark and appparently backed by the Byrds, Hemmings seemed to buck the trend. The rot sets in soon after however.

3. Pink Floyd - Cymbaline from the album More.
OK this one's a bit of a cheat - Cyrus Minor & the Nile Song are pretty great from this album too, but they're also on the Relics album which is my preferred home for them. Asked to record a soundtrack for the film More, the Floyd turned up without any songs and hoped no-one would notice. Cymbaline was the exception to this and stayed in their live set for a considerable length of time.

4. The Beacon Street Union - Angus of Aberdeen from the album The Clown Died In Marvin Gardens.
This is a fantastically pompous and over the top piece of work. Unfortunately more time was spent on the great period front cover than on the other song choices which include turgid remakes of Blue Suede Shoes and a never ending 16 minute version of Baby Please Don't Go that wouldn't go, no matter how much you begged it to.

5. Juicy Lucy - Big Lil from the album Get a Whiff a This.
Crate-diggers will love this fantastic piece of white funk, with it's eminently sampleable breakbeat. That's assuming they can work their way through the pedestrian country rock which largely surrounds it on the rest of this disappointing LP from a band that had two very good hard rock releases behind them.

25 Nov 2011

The Minus 5 - Down With Wilco - Obscure Classics

Great albums you may have missed.

The Minus 5 - Down With Wilco ( 2003 )

Scott McCaughey's lack of recognition is a total mystery to me. His noisy alternative rock / pop act the Young Fresh Fellows were one of the most influential bands in the Seattle music scene from the mid eighties and we all know what that led to. He then formed the Minus 5 in the mid nineties with R.E.M's Peter Buck, and members of the Posies as a creative outlet for his love of vintage sixties and seventies style pop. Since then the Minus 5's roster has also included Colin Meloy and other Decemberists, and on this release Wilco. Clearly he has some fans - they're all famous and work with him, but why isn't he a household name? It's certainly not to do with a shortage of vintage pop hooks, because he's got them by the bucketload. I suspect that McCaughey's often self deprecating wit may be to blame - he simply seems too smart for mainstream acceptance. It also doesn't help that the media generally focus on who else is playing on his records, as if he's a bit player in his own show.
Having heard all of the Minus 5's albums now I can safely confirm that McCaughey is very much the captain of his own ship, and that it his unique voice which is the common, dominant thread throughout his back catalogue.
Case in point is 2003's Down With Wilco, which features a line up of McCaughey, Buck, the High Llama's Sean O'Hagan and all 4 members of Wilco ( at the time ).
Recorded concurrently with Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, this was feverishly snapped up by the music press as yet another adventurous Wilco side project. Never mind the fact that McCaughey had the lion's share of the writing credits and that Tweedy only had a couple of vocal spots on the whole album, this, we were led to believe, was Yankee Hotel Foxtrot part 2. Which would have disappointed a lot of people when they got around to listening to it as this is a McCaughey record through and through with Wilco playing a supporting role at best. I'd be curious to hear how different this would sound without their involvement. If anything Down With Wilco has more in common with Wilco's previous album Summerteeth - both show an obvious Pet Sounds era Beach Boys influence, and both are gems of harmonic piano and guitar based pop music.
This influence is most obvious on gorgeous chamber pop gems That's Not The Way That It's Done and Retrieval of You, which is a great example of McCaughey's skewed sense of humour. Apparently Tweedy sent McCaughey an e-mail using this phrase, which then inspired him to write this lyric where the narrator of the song picks up a famous rock star from the airport and kidnaps them.

My Retrieval Of You:

Tweedy contributes the Family Gardener which is a pleasant folk number which wouldn't have fit comfortably on Yankee but feels right at home here.
Elsewhere, Where Will You Go's guitar hook comes straight out of the Badfinger songbook, and The Old Plantation sounds like an old lost AM radio hit.
For those that connect with this I would also recommended 2006's self titled Minus 5 album and 2009's Killingsworth, as well as investigating the Baseball Project - a new band McCaughey has formed with former Dream Syndicate frontman Steve Wynn which unusually presents a musical history of the sport and it's major characters. Not as niche as it may sound.

Dear Employer ( The Reason I Quit ):

Witchcraft - Firewood - Obscure Classics

Great albums you may have missed.

Witchcraft - Firewood ( 2005 )

Witchcraft are Sweden's finest export in my opinion. Marketed as a metal band, Witchcraft actually have more of an affinity with the U.K hard rock scene from the early seventies that spawned bands like Free, Warhorse, Stray and Budgie. In fact one half expects to see a vertigo swirl spinning when glancing down at the turntable whilst playing this.  Whereas most modern stoner and doom rock bands place an emphasis on the heavy and sludgy guitars, Witchcraft have a much lighter touch and don't seem to have taken anything on board that's happened musically since the mid seventies. Those looking for something new and groundbreaking should obviously be looking elsewhere, but if you wish Black Sabbath had recorded another album in the same sort of sparse economical fashion as their first album then this is the album for you. The other obvious touchstone is Pentagram - vocalist Magnus Pelander is a deadringer for Pentagram front man Bobby Liebling.
Witchcraft have plenty to offer beyond period authenticity mind. Sorrow Evoker's slow funereal riff is as evocative as anything Tony Iommi has ever come up with and opener Chylde of Fire's choppy riff fest puts more well known retro rockers like Wolfmother to shame.
This is Witchcraft's second of ( so far ) three albums, and while some would have you believe it to be their weakest, I would argue that this is the perfect distillation of their early desire to re-create the glory days of their record collection. Their third album, The Alchemist shows the band willing to progress their sound with some longer tracks bringing a more progressive element to proceedings, and the introduction of the odd unobtrusive keyboard and saxophone.
If anyone can recommend any other modern bands that manage to capture this sound as convincingly as Witchcraft I'd be very keen to hear about them.

24 Nov 2011

Phantom's Divine Comedy - Part 1 - Obscure Classics

Great albums you may have missed

Phantom's Divine Comedy - Part 1 ( 1974 )

This is an interesting album that has been the subject of much debate over the years. It's hard to separate the fact from the fiction, but the story appears to go as follows. Three years after the death of the Door's Jim Morrison this album appeared on Capitol Records - apparently after the Door's label Elektra had tried to suppress it's release. The vocalist who called himself Arthur Pendragon at this time - obviously a pseudonym, bore an uncanny vocal resemblance to a certain Jim Morrison. A Jim Morrison that a large number of grieving fans had convinced themselves was still alive and well and living in Paris having chosen to abandon the life of a rock star to work on his poetry and deal with his addiction issues. Several song titles seem to purposefully evoke earlier Door's works ( Calm Before The Storm, Stand Beside My Fire ).
With the benefit of hindsight it seems hopelessly naive to think that people could assume this album would be the work of Jim Morrison but at the time social networking and the like were not even a twinkle in a programmer's eye so fans only had hazy news reports of Morrison's death to go on. The romance of the conspiracy theory was always going to win a few people over here. 
As it turns out Capitol signed them due to the fact that they sounded so much like the Doors, and let word of mouth do the rest. Arthur Pendragon turned out to be one Tom Carson ( not Iggy Pop as some decided once they'd worked out it wasn't Jim ), and the album turned out to have more in common with Black Sabbath than the Doors.
Based mainly on Arthurian legend ( King Arthur's family name was Pendragon ) the lyrics are enjoyably preposterous occult mysticism ( Spiders will Dance on my Face indeed ) - and more Ronnie James Dio than Jim Morrison.
Highlights include opener Tales from a Wizard, which is a hard rock monster with a guitar solo for goat throwers everywhere.

Devil's Child has a funky piano / bass riff reminiscent of some of the Soft Parade's more cartoonish, experimental moments.
Calm Before the Storm builds nicely and has Carson sounding his most Morrisonish.

Fans of the Doors need to check this out of course, but fans of occult rockers like Black Widow and White Witch and other devotees of seventies hard rock will also find much to enjoy here - with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

23 Nov 2011

A Chill Out Mix That's OK To Like - Download

The chill out mix has acquired a bit of a bad rap over the last ten years or so. Which is a pity because the idea is sound - the idea of a CD or playlist you can come home to after a hard day at work and unwind in the bathtub to is the ultimate idea of therapy to me. Unfortunately the people who put these mixes together generally are at the polar opposite end of the musical taste spectrum to me - I'm not saying that some people won't find Morcheeba relaxing, just that they wind me up something chronic.
So I got sick of waiting for someone to make the ideal chill out mix for me, and got stuck in and made one myself.
And here it is :

1. Heaven & Earth - Feel The Spirit available on the compilation Feel The Spirit

2. Blitzen Trapper - Heaven & Earth from the album Destroyer of the Void

3. Francoise Hardy - Mer from the album La Question

4. Fairport Convention - Fotheringay from the album What We Did On Our Holidays

5. John Cale - Andalucia from the album Paris 1919

6. Red House Painters - Cruiser from the album Old Ramon

7. Neil Young - Philadelphia from the Philadelphia Soundtrack

8. Candidate - Falling Leaves from the album Under The Skylon

9. Air - Afternoon Sister from the Virgin Suicides Soundtrack

10. Broadcast and Focus Group - What I Saw from the album Investigates Witch Cults of the Radio Age

11. Mogwai - Dial : Revenge from the album Rock Action

12. Doves - Willow's Song available on the deluxe edition of The Places Between - The Best of Doves

13. Wilco - Venus Stop The Train is an outtake from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and is not commercially available

14. Nick Drake - Which Will from the album Pink Moon

15. Nick Cave & The Dirty Three - Time Jesum Transeuntum Et Non Riverentum from the B-Sides & Rarities Box Set

16. David Crosby - Orleans from the album If I Could Only Remember My Name

17. Neko Case - Magpie To The Morning from the album Middle Cyclone

18. Arab Strap - Is Your Love In Vain. This track is unavailable commercially

19. Pride - Proud Sorrow from the David Axelrod compilation Warner / Reprise Recordings

20. Keren Ann - Song of Alice from the album Nolita

It goes without saying of course, that should you discover anything you like here, you'll support the artists by buying their material. Thanks and enjoy.