Martha Wainwright – ‘Goodnight City’ a review

This is Martha Wainwright’s fourth album of original songs since and including her 2005 eponymous debut, and until now her career highlight has arguably been 2009’s album of Edith Piaf songs. As a fan since her early releases I’ve always longed for an album that carried the quality of the early EP’s ‘Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole’ title track. And at long last here it is. Made with her long-time producer, collaborator, husband and father of her children, Brad Alberta, her powerful voice is given free rein to pour from these songs in the fluid, languid way that more often than not has seemed at an arm’s length away.


Opener ‘Around The Bend’ is an end of year mixtape cert, an organic, high on drama and melody with a bitter sweet lyric killer of a song. There’s a tip of the hat to Patti Smith, but it stamps Martha Wainwrights personality as the indisputable core of this album, a point that is driven home with ‘Franci’, a mother’s love song to her child. This kind of song can easily be mawkish without effort but this song avoids these pitfalls, mainly as it is such a wonderful tune and lyrically avoids becoming to sugary, despite it repeated refrain ‘Everything about you is wonderful’.


‘Traveller’ is song about a friend who passed way from cancer, bandmate Thomas Bartlett’s brother and in particular how dead people stay with us after they’ve gone. It’s touching and fragile, but powerful and understated too. It’s a fine piece of crafted songwriting and carries the line ‘And you won the race and you were furthest from last’ without making you cringe. ‘Look Into My Eyes’ is a family composition with Martha’s aunt Anna McGarrigle and cousin Lily, it floats over a trickling synth hook and a French refrain, with jazz infused piano and saxophone. The album is both contemporary in that it sounds fresh but timeless in that it could have been written and recorded and any time in the last forty years or so, something that only the best music can claim to pull off. ‘Before The Children Came Along’ is an autobiographical love song about Martha and husband Brad. Vocally it is supreme, it encompasses jazz, folk, art rock leanings and vocal gymnastics without a sideways glance and just as you wait to see where it takes you next ‘Window’ returns us to Martha’s children, this time eldest son Archangelo, a song written in response to his jealousy at Martha’s brother Rufus’ song about his younger sibling, ‘Francis’. The song moves around on a winding uncertain path but is infused with focus and purpose.



‘Piano Music’ is a poem by author and poet Michael Ondaatje (‘The English Patient’) set to music by co-producer Bartlett. It’s faintly Brechtian and sparse, a brief interlude and a thing of heavy beauty. ‘Alexandria’ follows, written by Beth Orton, I’d love to say it’s subject matter was the broken haven in ‘The Walking Dead’ but I‘d be making that up, so I won’t. ‘So Down’ is a guitar, bass, drum laden melodramatic rock song, with a Bowieesque sax gluing everything together. It’s a change of feeling and style for the album, but the voice remains strong and impressive, and the track is somehow another album highlight, a powerful, torrent of song, that threaten to burst the banks yet never quite reaches a level of panic required to push it over the edge.

‘One Of Us’ starts with piano and powerful crystal voice, it is classic songsmith balladry in the vein of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ and it has a drop dead spot on vocal. ‘Take the Reins’ is modern pop, over minimal beats, it has the ghostly feel of a latter-day Radiohead classic, and brings something completely different to the album, whilst meeting the quality set by all that’s preceded it. ‘Francis’ is the Rufus penned song for Martha’s youngest. It has Rufus’ stylings all over it, so much so you can almost hear him vocalising it. There is also a bonus track in some territories and it’s wonderful. A slow, smoky orchestral broody song, ‘Somehow’ is quite different in mood from much of the main album, but I wish it was on my UK CD, because it is splendid.


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And there it is, the one of the albums of the year that I’ve always wanted Martha Wainwright to put out is finally here. There are few records this year to touch this, and with this she truly steps out of Rufus’ shadow and becomes the Wainwright sibling to be bettered. A great collection.


9/10

‘Lazarus' – Original Cast Recording (including the Most Recent Studio Recordings from David Bowie)

So here I sit on a Sunday, nearly 48 hours after my first chance to listen to what many are billing as the last new David Bowie studio recordings have been available for me to play from CD, and I still haven’t been able to listen. I mean, if I listen to them will I ever get to hear anything new and unheard from the man ever again? Maybe not, but then again maybe yes. We know there is Bowie stuff in the vaults, we know other songs were recorded for ‘Blackstar’, and a read of a Danny McCaslin interview in the current music monthlies confirm that there is at least one more mixed and mastered complete track that has not been swept up in this release and also that these tracks whilst recorded during the ‘Blackstar’ sessions with the same band were not necessarily the last ones recorded, hence I’m referring to them here as the Most Recent Studio Recordings from David Bowie as the packaging itself does, not the final or last etc. So, with that in mind I’m ready to listen. Bowie unleashed these three songs into the world via ‘Lazarus’ the musical first so that’s how I’m going to hear them first, cast recordings then onto Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ band recordings.

 

‘No Plan’ at track six is the first to appear, sung by Sophia Anne Caruso. It sounds like a show tune, almost Disney Princess like, a song of aspiration for peace and calm outside of the realities of the world, to soothe and ease. ‘Killing A Little Time’ (tr.12) sung by Michael C. Hall is more recognisable as a song from the pen of Bowie, there’s anger and desire to be alone but in a far different way from ‘No Plan’. People will analyse the lyrics as more death song from Bowie, but remember these were written for ‘Lazarus’ the musical, purpose written to expand on the story being told, so the lines ‘I've got a handful of songs to sing, To sting your soul, To fuck you over’ might not be self-referencing, or maybe they’re knowingly double edged? ‘When I Met You’ (tr.18) is delivered by Hall again with Krystina Alabado, it displays plenty of Bowie-esque rock song construction traits and an intertwining lyric of the effect of one person on another in a life changing way. The three tracks here in Original Cast form have certainly got me wanting to hear the Bowie versions even more and stand up us great music in their own right.



The Bowie disc kicks off with ‘Lazarus’ itself, the only ‘Blackstar’ track that appears in the musical, so we’re already familiar with it and its creepy, sad and humbling video. The ‘By the time I got to New York, I was living like a king…’ line is already up there with some of my favourite Bowie moments, lyrically, aurally and visually. This is the same album version, a fantastic song and prepares the way after listening to the Cast Recordings for the Bowie ‘Blackstar’ band versions of the three songs above that follow in exactly the same order.  ‘Lazarus’ grinds to halt in its familiar way and ‘No Plan’ staggers in, here it’s shorn of its show tune stylings and sounds like it could’ve fitted into ‘Blackstar’ seamlessly, and more crushingly really sound like a message from beyond the grave from Bowie (I hate to draw that picture, it sounds too easy to say that, but that’s what it sounds like). How could lines like ‘Here, there's no music here, I'm lost in streams of sound, Here, am I nowhere now? No plan’ sound like anything else? A sister track to ‘Where Are We Now?’ though fuller and more fleshed out, after one listen its effect on me is more emotional than anything from ‘Blackstar’ on first listen, but then Bowie was still alive when I first played that album. ‘Killing A Little Time’ has already been written about as a nod to Bowie’s past (Ziggy type chiming guitar refrains etc.) and whilst that is there it’s also infused with the restless energy and spirit that informed ‘Blackstar’ to its roots. It’s far rockier than anything from that album, much more in line with the latter parts of ‘The Next Day’ album, but for me I would still have loved it to have been sequenced into ‘Blackstar’, it would definitely have complemented the album rather than jarred against it, perhaps at track 4 following ‘Lazarus’? Then ‘When I Met You’, (for now?) the last new Bowie song we may get to hear. Not cast here as a semi-duet, Bowie wrestles the vocal counterparts against his own deep in the mix backing vocals, it’s hard to see where this could have fit into ‘Blackstar’ though I’d still have liked it to form a part of a 10-track album. It’s thrilling, a little clunky, disordered, punky, untidy and all the more perfect for it. It’s a great affirmation that Bowie was creatively right back on it in his final years which make it all the sadder as we’d all’ve liked to see what might have happened next.


So, this final EP of four Bowie songs finishes, it is worthy of being a final offering, it’s strong and there’s no let up of the quality of the more recent Bowie recordings. I think ‘Blackstar’ would have been strengthened with the inclusion of these tracks, though perhaps made slightly more imperfect, but then that’s the charm of these songs by definition. They are great, but they can’t be perfect, because a full stop to Bowies life, career, music and creativity is hard to accept as perfect or faultless through the negative aspects of what those very words imply. But if you’ve enjoyed latter-day Bowie or simply clever, intuitive, finely crafted modern day alternative rock then you’ll love these songs. 

Pixies - 'Head Carrier' - a review

Thirty years since they formed, the Pixies release their sixth album proper, the second since reforming in 2004 and the first since then recorded as an album (2014’s ‘Indie Cindy’ was a collection of EP’s). Despite the stop and slow start nature of their career trajectory there is still a flow to their recordings, not least visibly as British designer Vaughan Oliver heads the design of their releases still. And there is a flow in the music too.

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Still nurturing the bass heavy beats and highly influential style of indie rock that they did all those years ago, ‘Head Carrier’ opens with its title track which could have been lifted from almost any point of their recording life. Lyrically not as dense as earlier songs this still manages to carry off being a song about a guy who is beheaded by a three headed monster but who then carries his head six miles down to the river before dying. ‘Classic Masher’ attempts to be just that, it’s a foot stomper with a much simpler lyric and though original bassist Kim Deal has departed, replacement Paz Lenchantin reproduces her style and backing vocal ability easily (the Pixies only do female bassists with ebullient childlike backing vocals). ‘Baal’s Back’ is much more screamy Pixies, and to me is all the better for it. The Pixies have always stood out more when at their most challenging and noisy, but this soon gives way to the more ordered ‘Might As Well Be Gone’, promising a classic Pixies quiet loud quiet ploy however it stays quiet (well melodic anyway) even as the chorus kicks in. ‘Oona’ channels its inner ‘Monkey Gone to Heaven’ vibe carrying it off very nicely and underlines the intent of the band to try and outperform their own best, 1989’s ‘Doolittle’. They don’t carry it off it has to be said, but this collection sits there at least with the two albums that followed ‘Doolittle’ as the original incarnation never really managed to surpass that albums promise. ‘Talent’ is again more formula Pixies, it’s OK but it’s not standout.



The albums second half (side two?) kicks off with ‘Tenement Song’ and is the most mildly paced bit of music here so far. Like many of the songs so far it’s a piece of music about music, again, it’s not bad, but it doesn’t smell of classic either. And so it is with ‘Bel Esprit’. ‘All I Think About Now’ is the song that most steals from the band past here, which says something as its sung by the bands newest member and is basically a thank you letter to founding member Kim Deal. It’s a lovely tribute, and an album highlight. As is ‘Um Chagga Lagga’ the albums lead single. When I first heard this back in July I was little (shrug of the shoulders’ ‘OK…?’, but this track has grown on me, it’s a bit more mindless, heads down boogie, and benefits from not being overthought. The album reels to a rapid close with ‘Plaster of Paris’ and ‘All The Saints’. One a sprightly pop song and the other an interesting half song. And after 34 minutes the album is over. It doesn’t outstay it’s welcome, and in that sense it is a proper album in the classic sense of the art form.

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On first listen, I was a little underwhelmed by ‘Head Carrier’, there seemed to be not enough memorable about it, and the band seemed too self-referential. A couple of listens later and without concentrating on it fully there seemed to be an approachable easy feel to things, the hooks were coming through. Sitting down and listening to it properly again I’m certainly more appreciative than I was on first listen. Though for me, ‘Indie Cindy’, the album that wasn’t an album was more the sound of a band pushing themselves to be relevant far more than ‘Head Carrier’ is, it’s still good, but not career defining and not the masterpiece that many long-time Pixies fans would’ve hoped for, not even really paving the way for a masterpiece next time out. But that is the joy and unpredictability of music, who’s to say that Pixies album number seven won’t be chock full of great tunes and crazy words? Here’s hoping.

7/10

The Divine Comedy – ‘Foreverland’ a belated review

Amazingly, this is the Divine Comedy’s 27th year, and their eleven albums span 26 of those years. This is the first since 2010’s ‘Bang Goes the Knighthood’ although Neil Hannon has also put out a second Duckworth Lewis Method album and dabbled in opera and classical pieces in the intervening years. This though is a welcome return from Hannon in his main guise and is possibly the highest quality Divine Comedy release to date.

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Everything you’d want is here, lascivious artwork, humorous history referencing lyrics, orchestral pop production and fabulous crooning. Other musicians are involved but Hannon has a go at everything himself too. The title track is a vocal arrangement masterpiece, a highlight, not just of this album but of the musical year. It’s a rich tale, almost a shanty of a pining for paradise, and the chorale refrain of ‘What are we looking for…’ is a true show stealer. The lead single ‘Catherine the Great’ is the best historical song since Boney M’s ‘Rasputin’, it ought to be on the national curriculum and has some great lyrics; “She had great hair, and a powerful gait, Catherine the Great” and “If I could touch but the hem of her dress, tell her a joke, bake her a cake, Catherine the Great” don’t get you then are paralysed from the brain down. ‘Funny Peculiar’ is classic call and response music hall pop, a duet with partner Cathy Davey and has a whistling solo. If I’ve not sold this too you yet, then you’re obviously not trying hard enough. ‘The Pact’ moves us effortlessly through the world of show tunes and ‘To The Rescue’ returns us to more straightforward pop band form whilst managing to namecheck Marilyn Monroe and Che Guevara in one line.



Second single ‘How Can You Leave Me On My Own’ puts some humour into loneliness, ‘When you leave I become a beer swilling, time killing moron, I surgically remove all the green food from my diet’. It’s jaunty and sad and features a donkey noise effect. It’s nowhere near the best song here but it’s still almost perfect. ‘I Joined the Foreign Legion to Forget’ is a bar song extraordinaire, and tackles the same subject from a different angle, running away to be alone and forget. When the album hits one of it’s few lesser songs the arrangements and musicality raise it above previous albums. ‘A Desperate Man’ is a story of a fugitive in a nun’s disguise set to a tango. ‘Other People’ is a very short song, opening with a vocal only as if drifting through time from a black and white movie before becoming awash in luscious strings then ending abruptly. The closer ‘The One Who Loves You’ is another soft pop belter and has the immortal line ‘Finding the one…who is with you besotted, Is like finding the lesser spotted dodo in Soho, so rare’.



This is the consummate Divine Comedy album, a summation of all the previous parts merged into a complete one. One of the albums of the year.

9/10

If you move quick and it may already be too late, you might be able to pick up the deluxe edition which includes ‘In May’, Hannon’s second involvement in operetta, in which he scores (and here sings) the words of Frank Alva Buecheler’s play in the form of letters from a son to father as he grapples with terminal cancer. It’s in stark contrast from the main album. It’s not without humour, but it is black humour and the tale is sad and tragic and often harrowing as hope is lost, sometimes rekindled and finally extinguished. It’s a tough listen because of the subject matter but it’s gripping and very good. Song cycles (as they’re often referred to) are often hard work and a struggle to get through, this one not so though, it’s tale draws you in and you desire to see how this plays out even through the setting of constant piano and string quartet and is sombre almost exclusively. It’d be a shame if this is only ever available only via this limited deluxe CD set as it deserves a much larger audience. 

DAVID BOWIE – ‘Who Can I Be Now?’ – The TDWS Box Set review

About a year ago, the first in a series of David Bowie box sets arrived on the shelves, ‘Five Years’, covering 1969 – 1973. It held six studio albums, four of them new remasters and two live Ziggy era albums, both available previously, as well as a sort rare 2003 mix of the ‘Ziggy Stardust’ album and a two-disc collection (Re:Call1) containing era curios and some genuine rarities. Within weeks Bowie was back with some of his most challenging, amazing music ever. A year later following the incredible ‘Blackstar’ and the passing of the great man himself, and volume 2 arrives. ‘Who Can I Be Now?’ covers 1974 – 1976 and houses three original albums, all masterpieces. There’s an alternative version of one of these albums, a 2010 mix of ‘StationToStation’, two previously available live albums of the era, one appearing twice (David Live, original mix and it’s 2005 Visconti mix) and ‘Re:Call2’ a largely superfluous collection of single edit hack jobs. And most notably, ‘The Gouster’, a previously unissued album. You what? Unreleased mid-seventies Bowie!!

David Bowie Who Can I Be Now? (1974 - 1976) Box Set

So, what do we make of 'The Gouster' then, the real dangling carrot of the ‘Who Can I Be Now?’ set, a so called unreleased album from the mid 70's? Obviously that phrase is a little misleading, 'The Gouster' is basically a first draft of 'Young Americans' that was dumped and morphed into the latter following some recording sessions with John Lennon. There's nothing here that's previously unheard, so era hailing Holy Grails like 'Shilling The Rubes' remain just a tantalizing snippet accessible via YouTube or the murky world of bootlegs. A shame but let's judge this album on what it is, and the track listing is at least true to what was put together at the time. The album opens with the exquisite full length 'John, I'm Only Dancing (Again), it would have been a great album opener at the time, marrying Bowie's new direction tidily to his recent past. This track was first made available in 1979 as a standalone (12") single, the mastering here is smooth and respectful, no over the top pumping up of the volume with no subtlety. 'Somebody Up There Likes Me' we know from 'Young Americans' so what can you say, a Bowie classic of its era. Of greater note is 'It's Gonna Be Me' a track dropped from 'Young Americans' that waited for its debut until Rykodisc’s 1991 re-issue campaign. This is that first heard non strings version, and it is amazing (though I prefer the with strings version personally). To us mortals what you hear makes you think 'why was that dropped', it is stunning with a drop dead vocal, a career highlight if recorded by virtually anyone else, a consummate soul ballad yet for Bowie it's a cast off. Tony Visconti has suggested Bowie felt it was too personal for release at the time, listen from 4m10s to 5m16s and you'll understand what he means, Bowie is stripped bare and vocally bares his soul in one of the great moments of his whole recording career. If for nothing else, then 'The Gouster' is worth its resurrection here for simply giving this song it's long overdue place as a centerpiece of a fully-fledged Bowie album. 'Who Can I Be Now?' is another song that had to wait for the Rykodisc era to make itself publicly known. If it didn't follow 'It's Gonna Be Me' it'd surely be hailed as another moment of sublime delight, it's that good, a lost classic.

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'The Gouster' then concludes with three 'Young Americans' staples. 'Can You Hear Me' was the soul ballad classic that survived the chop, here there is an alternate version with a different vocal getting a first official airing (though familiar via the world of bootlegs). It's chilling, I may had made a little tear hearing this for the first time at this quality on the 'The Gouster' today. It's a ‘Bowie is really gone’ moment. The familiarity of 'Young Americans' provides some light relief following this. We all know this song and the fact that it became the title track of the finished album is no bad thing despite the quality of what was left off. 'Right' brings 'The Gouster' to its belated conclusion, and again we have a different mix with a different vocal take.

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In conclusion on the subject then, 'The Gouster' is and sounds complete as a Bowie album. Despite the inclusion of the disco 'John, I'm Only Dancing (Again)' it is a bit more one paced that 'Young Americans' turned out to be, soul ballads dominate and in that sense with it variety 'Young Americans' is more the classic album of the two. In this CD/digital age there would have been no issue, everything could have been released, but 20 mins per side was the order of the day in the mid 70's. There could have even been a great double album here, but what was is what is, 'Young Americans' is a deserved jewel in the Bowie canon, and now we can at least appreciate that 'The Gouster' would have been so too.

So what about the other ‘extra content’? ‘Re:Call2’ is pale distant cousin of last year’s collection. It’s a collection of ham-fisted single mixes that for the most part rips the soul out of its songs, just listen to the sacrilege committed to ‘Young Americans’. Completely unessential. The 2010 Harry Maslin remix of ‘StationToStation’ is better, the mixes play on the songs main hooks, elevate the vocals and reveal subtle detail. Originally put out as part of that year’s remaster/reissue deluxe set of the album, it’s a fun version, but again hardly essential. The live set ‘Nassau Coliseum ‘76’ was also part of that set. I enjoyed it at the time but have returned maybe once in the last six years, Id’ve liked to have heard a first official airing for one of the many soundboard sets that have made it onto bootleg over the years, some have much more interesting set lists. ‘David Live’ also presents as well as the original mix the 2005 Tony Visconti mix with some extra tracks. Some peoples favourite live Bowie album (not mine, ‘Stage’ always held a soft spot for me) is not really improved by this mix. The album had its character in its flawed performance and the 2005 mix smooths it over a bit for me, losing its main appeal. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just not different enough, though on a plus side Mike Garson is perhaps a little more audible on keyboards in places, and the tracks that weren’t included on the original (but did appear on the Rykodisc re-masters/re-issues) are nice to have.

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Then there are the three studio albums that are the building blocks of this collection. What can you say about ‘Diamond Dogs’, ‘Young Americans’ and ‘StationToStation’ that has not already been said many many times before? Not a lot. Each is a fantastic ten out of ten album in its own right, simply put, genius. Like much of this set they are in fresh remastered form here, despite many remasters already over the years. And the sound is full and respectful, never mishandling the legendary content though perhaps not adding much to the last versions to present themselves. But you know what, that’s secondary stuff, it is such great great music.

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And so then, we now have the ‘Lazarus’ cast recordings to look forward to with three unheard tracks from Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ sessions. There’s also ‘Bowie Legacy’ the inevitable seasonal hits compilation that was always going to appear this year, then onto next year as Bowie’s European Cannon will get the box set treatment and who knows what else? But for this set, it’s not quite the supreme thing that ‘Five Years’ was, the music it represents though is 10/10, ‘The Gouster’ is 9/10, its other ‘bonus’ content is 6/10. The booklet is nice, and simply because of the music it’s impossible to give the set a whole anything less than 9/10.   

David Bowie - 'The Gouster', the TDWS review.

So, what do we make of 'The Gouster' then, the real dangling carrot of the new ‘Who Can I Be Now?’ set, a so called unreleased album from the mid 70's? Obviously that phrase is a little misleading, 'The Gouster' is basically a first draft of 'Young Americans' that was dumped and morphed into the latter following some recording sessions with John Lennon. There's nothing here that's previously unheard, so era hailing Holy Grails like 'Shilling The Rubes' remain just a tantalizing snippet accessible via YouTube or the murky world of bootlegs. A shame but let's judge this album on what it is, and the track listing is at least true to what was put together at the time. The album opens with the exquisite full length 'John, I'm Only Dancing (Again), it would have been a great album opener at the time, marrying Bowie's new direction tidily to his recent past. This track was first made available in 1979 as a standalone (12") single, the mastering here is smooth and respectful, no over the top pumping up of the volume with no subtlety. 'Somebody Up There Likes Me' we know from 'Young Americans' so what can you say, a Bowie classic of its era. Of greater note is 'It's Gonna Be Me' a track dropped from 'Young Americans' that waited for its debut until Rykodisc’s 1991 re-issue campaign. This is that first heard non strings version, and it is amazing (though I prefer the with strings version personally). To us mortals what you hear makes you think 'why was that dropped', it is stunning with a drop dead vocal, a career highlight if recorded by virtually anyone else, a consummate soul ballad yet for Bowie it's a cast off. Tony Visconti has suggested Bowie felt it was too personal for release at the time, listen from 4m10s to 5m16s and you'll understand what he means, Bowie is stripped bare and vocally bares his soul in one of the great moments of his whole recording career. If for nothing else, then 'The Gouster' is worth its resurrection here for simply giving this song it's long overdue place as a centerpiece of a fully-fledged Bowie album. 'Who Can I Be Now?' is another song that had to wait for the Rykodisc era to make itself publicly known. If it didn't follow 'It's Gonna Be Me' it'd surely be hailed as another moment of sublime delight, it's that good, a lost classic.

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'The Gouster' then concludes with three 'Young Americans' staples. 'Can You Hear Me' was the soul ballad classic that survived the chop, here there is an alternate version with a different vocal getting a first official airing (though familiar via the world of bootlegs). It's chilling, I may had made a little tear hearing this for the first time at this quality on the 'The Gouster' today. It's a ‘Bowie is really gone’ moment. The familiarity of 'Young Americans' provides some light relief following this. We all know this song and the fact that it became the title track of the finished album is no bad thing despite the quality of what was left off. 'Right' brings 'The Gouster' to its belated conclusion, and again we have a different mix with a different vocal take.


In conclusion then, 'The Gouster' is and sounds complete as a Bowie album. despite the inclusion of the disco 'John, I'm Only Dancing (Again)' it is a bit more one paced than 'Young Americans' turned out to be, soul ballads dominate and in that sense 'Young Americans' is more the classic album of the two. In this CD/digital age there would have been no issue, everything could have been released, but 20 mins per side was the order of the day in the mid 70's. There could have even been a great double album here, but what was is what is, 'Young Americans' is a deserved Jewel in the Bowie canon, and now we can at least appreciate that 'The Gouster' would have been so too.


9/10

This review will form part of a larger 'Who Can I Be Now?' box set review. 

Ed Harcourt - 'Furnaces' a review.

English singer songwriter and the son of a diplomat, Ed Harcourt has been releasing solo records since the year 2000, and with ‘Furnaces’ he releases perhaps his most fully realised album yet. Operating outside of the mainstream Harcourt has developed without commercial restrictions and has a loyal following, his music has been getting harder edged over the years and whilst this Flood produced cracker may not soundtrack the balmy summer days on national radio it demands your attention.


Mostly performed by Ed alone with some contributions from other musicians the album is one of those that opens with a short vocally assisted essentially instrumental piece, ‘Intro’. It’s elegiac. And soothing, a contrast to much of what is to follow. ‘The World Is on Fire’ sets the scene for what follows. The drums boom in underpinning echoed brooding vocals, fiery destruction, hopelessness, grim prophecy, the cold that follows the fiery destruction and perspective about our place in the scheme of things. A floaty icy synth props up the track, as fire and ice settle in as another theme. Ed as always had a way with a sweet pop melody and cosy love song, and that trait seems a million miles away from where he is now. ‘Loup Garou’ is a more guitar and percussion driven song follows and mythical themes are woven into Ed’s mindset (the Loup Garou is a French legend of a shape shifting human who is able to turn into a wolf at will). It’s a powerful, foreboding melodious track, classic heavy Ed Harcourt. Title track ‘Furnaces’ is a brass pinned driving on the beat rock track, the sound is cluttered, creating a sense of unease, even panic, a hymn to the destruction that big business brings to the natural world.



‘Occupational Hazard’ sees Ed hovering, almost victoriously over the destruction he leaves in the path of his life whilst warning potential victims to keep away. It’s uncannily like a classic turn of the century Depeche Mode track, and sparkles with it too.  ‘Nothing But A Bad Trip’ is an obvious ‘English Tom Waits’ moment that has littered Ed’s career, a comparison that is unfair to both of these inspirational individual artists. ‘Opened my mouth, The scream that came out was not even human, Got back on the horse, Rode away for a fix of destruction’ is the albums lyrical content boiled down to a hard core. Some comfort is offered in ‘You Give Me More Than Love’, as a lover is revered as a saviour who lines the path to better days with Augustan poetry. Yet the song is not wrapped in sugary sentiment in the way Ed has done with his sweetest love songs in the past, there’s still a heaviness, a danger present. ‘Dionysus’ describes battles with the demon alchohol, ‘Poor Dionysus, You drank yourself under the table again’ is a clever lyrical play linking Greek Mythology (essentially the God of Wine) with modern day drinking issues. The song has a soft piano melody that gets swept up but a thundery percussive orchestral swell as the battle is essentially depicted as hopeless.


‘There Is a Light Below’ is an odd upbeat song living above an almost drum and bass beat, with wonderful multi tracked vocals, but the mood is still not victorious, defiant maybe, but domineering and threatening. ‘The Last of Your Kind’ crashes in on a joyful melody, a modern Britpop anthem, and sings of hope in the moments before the end of the world as the last good man is left standing. Is Ed a Corbyn supporter? ‘Immoral’ though reduces hope from a personal level. ‘I will break your spirit’ I will break your heart, Put it back together, Then slowly pull it apart’ is offered as final solution, ‘Got a blind date with my death, I’m not a good man, who abides by virtue’ is the sort of fayre on offer here. It’s a great track, but short on relief. The album end with ‘Antartica’ as the singer retreats to the barren wasteland of ice in order to escape the misery and destruction of the world that pains him so. It is a call for the good, a new beginning, albeit one where withdrawing from the world into a desert of ice is the most promising solution on offer to the worlds maladies.


So this a heavy album, weighty at every turn, cramped with pain and fear. It’s also intricate, extremely well planned out, a crystal vision, a carer high point. Here’s hoping Ed Harcourt is making music for us for a much longer time to come. (Also out soon is Ed’s second collaboration with Sophie Ellis Bettor on her second post-modern LP.)

9/10

Dexys - 'Let The Record Show: Dexys Do Irish and Country Soul', a (belated) review.

‘Let The Record Show…’ was suitably announced on St. Patricks day this year and follows hot on the heels (four years, dwarfing the previous gap of 27 years) of the unanimously praised comeback LP ‘One Day I’m Going to Soar’. It’s only the seventh album from Kevin Rowland in the thirty-five years since and including the first and is the second comprised fully of cover versions. The first, 1999’s solo ‘My Beauty’ was explained by Kevin as being not a covers album, but an album of his take on some of his favourite songs. It was panned, reputably sold less than a thousand copies and remains out of print. This new album has also been proclaimed not an album of cover versions, but a loosely themed album of recordings of other people’s songs in Dexys own unique style. So should alarm bells be ringing? No way. ‘My Beauty’ had its charms and was unfairly panned, and this is quality throughout. But inspired? Let’s see…


At heart this an easy listening album, it’s pleasant and straightforwardly arranged, wonderfully crooned in places. It’s the sort of album that back in 1980 most Dexys (Midnight Runners) fans would have ran from. Yet, it is, as with most of Rowlands and Dexys recordings undeniably informed by punk, a movement with which Kevin flirted (The Killjoys) and which certainly enabled his unique vision and attitude a place in a business that previously wouldn’t have allowed him in. As always with Dexys personnel evolves album to album, ‘One Day…’s main collaborator, one-time Style Councillor Mick Talbot the most notable absentee, though Helen O’Hara, Kevin’s chief partner in crime from ‘Too Rye Aye’ through too ‘Don’t Stand Me Down’ makes an appearance and has performed on recent promotional activities with the band. At least three of the songs here were planned for an 84/85 Dexys album of the same title that never happened, so there is a passion and a belief in these songs that shines through.



Vocally when Kevin sings he nails it. But he doesn’t always sing through this album, some tracks having an almost spoken, certainly intoned vocal track. For me this simply doesn’t work. I want to hear Rowland sing, he's quite simply one of the most inspirational vocalists in popular music ever. So ok, he’s a much older man now (we all are) but does he do enough on this album? Opener ‘Women of Ireland’ is basically an instrumental. You can’t go wrong with the Bee Gee’s ‘To Love Somebody’ and Dexys lay down a great version here, covering both the intoned vocal in the verses and the crooned vocal in the chorus. Even some of the pop songs here date back much further though, ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ first appeared in 1933 and carries possibly the most soulful vocal here. Some of the Irish on the album goes back much further, some having roots in poetry and the 1700’s, though some comes from more modern sources such as Phil Coulter.


Other pop (Country/Soul) covers include Rod Stewart (‘You Wear It Well’), LeAnn Rimes (Diane Warrens ‘How Do I Live’), Joni Mitchell (‘Both Sides Now’) and Johnny Cash (’40 Shades of Green’). It’s a bit odd in fact to hear Dexys do a fairly straight guitar led version of a Rod Stewart song, but then again as someone who’s familiar with ‘My Beauty’ there’s nothing odd about Dexys when you expect the unexpected. ‘How Do I Live’ might also seem an odd choice but again remember on his previous ‘covers’ project we also got songs such as the George Benson and Whitney Houston classic ‘The Greatest Love of All’, ‘I believe the children are our future’ etc.



Also, not wishing to sound like a man who works in a hi-fi store, which I undoubtedly am, but if you do listen to this album you have to do so on a half decent system. A car stereo or MP3 simply doesn’t carry the feeling. Listening to it as I am writing this my previous grumbles about semi intoned vocals actually feel a little redundant. So sorry about that! The most soulful sounding track is without doubt ‘Grazing in The Grass’ a cover of a 1969 pop and R&B hit from Friends of Distinction, though the song typically has a fairly complicated backstory, coming from the late 60’s Jazz scene and reputably originally about the smoking of marijuana..


So in short, this a mixed bag. It generally works very well, but Dexys 2016 are fairly much an acquired taste, the days of chart topping anthems long gone (though this album did enter the UK charts at no.10), and it’s comforting to know or at least feel that nothing will come out under the name of Dexys that is in any way questionable as far as quality goes. Is it inspired? For me no, it’s not the joy ‘One Day I’m Going to Soar’ was, and as such I eagerly wait and hope for at least one more Dexys collection of originals. It is definitely worth investigating if you’ve ever had an interest in any of Rowlands earlier works. However, I am left a little confused by this strange mix of eclectic songs performed in a way that never threatens or challenges but yet that is still informed by punk and the past. And the packaging and vision is as always with Dexys superb too, a deluxe edition has a great film about the album and some interesting though superfluous instrumental and solo vocal versions of the songs. And it is Dexys, still making and releasing music in 2016. Which for me is enough anyway.

7/10