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.


'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.


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.)


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.


Cat's Eyes - Treasure House, a review

Not many bands can claim to have made their live debut at the Vatican in front of several eminent cardinals, performing as part of a mass at a ceremony there. In fact, quite possibly only Cat’s Eyes can claim this. Formed by the front man of The Horrors, Faris Badwan and his friend, vocalist (including opera), multi-instrumentalist and composer Rachel Zeffira in 2010, ‘Treasure House’ is their 2nd album proper though it does follow on from last year’s well received ‘The Duke of Burgundy’ soundtrack.

cat's eyes treasure house

The two began working together as a result of Badwan introducing Zeffira to the sound of 60’s girl groups and the production of Joe Meek amongst others, and this was evident on the first album, 2011’s ‘Cat’s Eyes’. These influences are if anything even more evident here, though boosted by an accompanying orchestral score reminiscent of Scott Walkers 60’s masterpieces. Though opener and title track ‘treasure House’ has a feel of the Syd Barrett’s about it, particularly in Badwan’s vocal. ‘Drag’ is a sweet sounding song with a typical Zeffira vocal that maybe describes the pairs relationship, ‘Oh the things we do when we’re together, If they ever knew they would keep us apart’. ‘Chameleon Queen’ is another bittersweet love song as Faris rejects his girls attempts at a reconciliation. A floating horn motif underpins the understated croon (Faris is not a crooner in the aforementioned Walker league but he’s pretty able here) though this lilting number is blown apart by the scorching 60’s beat proto punk of ‘Be Careful Where You Park Your Car’ and a perfect riposte from Zeffira from her mans rejections in the previous song. ‘Standoff’ with Badwan back on lead is the closest thing here to the Horrors and more modern sounding that what has preceded it though still with a knowing nod to the past. It’s urgent, spiky, a drum driven beat song that is the standoff of the situation described in the last two songs. The album is moving with pace, and Zeffira moves back to centre stage with ‘Everything Moves Towards the Sun’ as she looks back to her youth in Canada with an expression of a wish to share that part of her life with a friend or a partner. It’s pictorial, deft and slides the album towards its second half effortlessly and with consummate quality.

‘The Missing Hour’ finds Badwan back on lead, his developing croon growing in confidence. The background synths evoke bagpipes before the orchestration washes over the whole piece, a song about the clarity that the early hours can bring as night turns to day. ‘Girl in The Room’ finds Zeffira singing of lost beauty and past glories over a signature 60’s string arrangement and firmly strummed guitar. The following ‘We’ll Be Waiting’ suggest there is a loss of life on the way too, a hymnal organ sweeping in though there is comfort in the words ‘Don’t turn, don’t look around, Don’t turn away, We’ll be waiting for you’. The story continues on into ‘Names On the Mountains; as the departed pleads not to be forgotten, the rugged Canadian countryside is drawn again, though the organ that underpins this song is far jauntier than its predecessor even if it’s subject is not. The short lyric for the closing ‘Teardrops’ offers little hope, repeating in its twelve lines the couplet ‘Don’t you know, You’re Always on your own’ at the end of each short stanza. Zeffira handles this closing vocal too, the first time the album has carried a lead vocalist over from one track to another, suggesting maybe the story comes more from her that Badwan maybe?

There is a definite feel of a song cycle here, a life/love cycle, hard to pull a message out though for me it seems to be not to waste the time we are given here on earth and to follow your heart as you only get one shot at this thing called life. The eleven tracks here barely scrape past the thirty-five-minute mark, yet if you appreciate melancholy sixties pop and have stuck with the Horrors as their sound has changed over the course of four startling albums then I’d recommend you investigate ‘Treasure House’. It’s a gem.


Radiohead – ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ a review.

So Radiohead, kings of the ‘we’ll do it our way’ album release technique dropped their new album at 7pm BST on Sunday 8th May (ignoring the Google Play slip up earlier in the day) after a week that saw them make tracks one and two available with great video’s but little fuss and also saw them basically wipe themselves from the internet before doing so. At first glance I was a little uncertain of the albums running order as the songs were listed in alphabetical order, but it seems this is the running order and quite possibly some matter of fact statement from the band. A long time visual collaborator of the band, Stanley Donwood, has already described the album as ‘a work of art’ before it was even finished. As I sit here typing, producer Nigel Godrich has already gone online stating the making of the album was a very intense experience for him personally. But who cares about the hype, what about the music?

‘Burn The Witch’ debuted a week ago with a wonderful ‘Trumpton/Camberwick Green’ type video. Musically it’s very inviting, a string riff underpinning a song of subtle paranoia that general consensus seems to pin as being a comment on hysteria about mass immigration that has grown since 9/11 (‘This is a low flying panic attack, red crosses on wooden doors, we know where you live). The song builds to a mildly frenzied string driven climax then gives way to the much calmer sounds of ‘Daydreaming’. It’s soft, gentle and trance like, though the (at times heavily treated) vocal could reference relationship woes or the plain numbness of day to day life. The song finishes with a repeated phrase ‘Efil ym fo flah’ (Half of my life) which presses home the air of regret. This is a haunting piece with some strange noises and effects. I love it.

And then onto the stuff that we’ve not heard. ‘Decks Dark’ is another soft song, but Thom’s vocals are truly alive on this album in a way that recent Radiohead albums has been crying out for. Spacecraft’s, lies, and a darkness are referenced, I almost hear this song as a eulogy to David Bowie but that’s probably just me hearing that.  ‘Desert Island Disk’ slides in on a beat and a calming folk-like acoustic guitar refrain. The song seems to tell a tale of passing over to the afterlife, though the afterlife appears to be the aftermath of a relationship and that ‘Different types of love are possible’. Thom York has experienced the end of a long relationship/marriage and this seems to inform this song and maybe this is what gives the vocals an emotional connect that Radiohead songs have not always carried. ‘Ful Stop’ builds over syncopated beats and synth swirls with a driving bass and weaves a story of two friends or partners who have let each other down. The song shifts moods musically whilst always carrying the propelling beat in the same direction. The album is emerging as immaculately crafted and perceived despite its stop-start gestation.

‘Glass Eyes’ is one of the albums more obviously relationship based songs. ‘Hey it’s me, I just got off the train….And I’m wondering, should I turn around?’. Radiohead do often get accused of being ‘miserable’ by non-fans, and it is kind of undeniable, especially at times like this. But there is a beauty in this music too. This song as with most others here has the Radiohead signatures of treated electronics but there’s lush orchestration all over this album and some full on classic song writing too. Even as ‘identikit’ rolls in, sounding a bit more like the ambling Radiohead of some of their mid-career to later albums, there is a feel of craft and attention to the song that I’ve sometimes felt lacking. There’s a choir too, and the song develops into a guitar pinned groove, and all of this still dressed up with effects and quirkiness. ‘The Numbers’ opens with some ambient jazz noodling, some Mike Garson-esque keyboard and swiftly turns itself into a gently strummed ballad, and sounds like a love paean to mother earth, almost a hymn to the power of the planet blowing away the dodgy politics its inhabitants can display. In the middle a treated vocal morph into a wonderful orchestration takes the song to another level. If you heard ‘Spectre’, the bands rejected Bond theme and loved it then you will love this album, as the feel and craft of that song inhabit this album and take it further.

‘Present Tense’ is another song in the same vein. Fairly simple instrumentation is again led towards orchestration toward the songs climax, Thom’s vocals are beautifully multi-tracked in the backing, the song has a ghostly feel and again a hearty lament, ‘In you I’m lost, I won’t turn around when the penny drops…Or all this love will be in vain’. ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief’ has simple keys over basic percussion and expands into to a heavier groove with some haunting guitar and silky orchestration. It’s modern, but it’s classic too. As with much of this lyrically it’s oblique, Radiohead have always been somewhat guarded, but again affairs of the heart and of the planet seem to be the focus. And then finally ‘True Love Waits’ arrives, the albums closer. A song now over twenty years old and first appearing on a Radiohead album back in 2001 on the bands mini live release, it now features layers of treated keyboard, and pulls at religious beliefs against human nature and open with the immense lyric ‘I’ll drown my beliefs, To have your babies, I’ll dress like your niece, And wash your swollen feet.’ What’s not too like?

If I was to be critical I could say this album is somewhat singular in pace, and repeats the same ideas in arrangement and song planning over and over again. But that is just nonsense, this is a fine Radiohead album that bridges the gap between many of their previous releases but has a level of relatable content and simple classic sounding songs that few Radiohead releases since the turn of the century have had. I’d agree that it is a work of art. If Thom Yorkes voice pulled you into the band in the first place you’ll love this, if you’ve felt the band have never reached the heights of their first three albums you’ll love this (let’s not forget that ‘In Rainbows’ was pretty spectacular too). This album is highly recommended and gives the band a triumphant validation that can hopefully propel them onto a new classic period, and hopefully a less than five year wait for the next one.


Rufus Wainwright – Take All My Loves – 9 Shakespeare Sonnets - A review

It’s not unusual for pop or rock stars to branch out into the world of classical music. Off the top of my head, Paul McCartney’s done it and Elvis Costello’s done it, and even a briefest of Google searches reveal many more (Roger Waters, Glen Danzig included). They probably don’t do it to appeal to existing fans though there will always be a number that take an interest. As a Costello fan I enjoyed ‘The Juliet Letters’ with the Brodsky Quartet and ‘For The Stars’, a collaboration with Anne Sofie von Otter but failed to investigate ‘Il Sogno’ from 2002 on Deutsche Grammophon. And so it is I approach Rufus Wainwright and his collaborative DG release of 9 of William Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Music mixes with spoken word here, and guests are aplenty, William Shatner, Helena Bonham Carter, Carrie Fisher, Florence Welch, Martha Wainwright and Anna Prohaska included. I’d be more looking forward to this if it was mainly Rufus and his own vocal interpretations, and if the subject was something other than the bard, I’m not at all a Shakespeare fan, a take on the great poets for instance would be more enticing for me. But still, open mind and all that and being a fan of Rufus since his very first album, I’m a gonna give it a go.


So, the spoken word bits are hard going for me. Fairly straight recital, sometimes over minimalist music backing, they just don’t stoke my fires. Carrie Fisher and William Shatner carry a little more interest than the others simply because I know them from films and TV that I have watched though this is not enough to really capture my attention as mind reaches for the Shakespeare off switch.

The music though is quality throughout and the songs mask the Shakespearean language a bit too. Everything is beautifully recorded and performed, and there is enough to link this to Rufus own work in rock and pop. His own first vocal contribution comes on track three, ‘Take All My Loves (Sonnet 40)’, and has a stirring almost Scott Walker-ish quasi experimental rock-classical approach to it.  As a rock and Rufus fan it’s great, it’d make a Rufus compilation even. Not sure what Shakespeare scholars would make of it. I’d expect reactions to run the range from sacrilege to inspired. The albums joint production with Marius De Vries also links the work to Rufus’ past, and gives things a solid grounding. ‘A Woman’s Face (Sonnet 20)’ the second track to feature the works other main vocal contributor Anna Prohaska is more appealing than the earlier take on Sonnet 43, it’s short and sombre and segues into ‘For Shame (Sonnet 10)’, a slightly more fairground ride of a production and less convincing for being so.


‘Unperfect Actor (Sonnet 23)’ features Rufus’s sister Martha and fellow classical and pop crossover performer, the classically trained Fiora Cutler. There a dramatic recitation as intro from Helena Bonham Carter but for me things really get going when the song, a pounding, heavy, rock based piece really kicks in. As a classical music ignoramus I’d like to think this is all a bit much for some of the Deutsche Grammophon bigwigs, but this album is delivering far more range and diversity than I was expecting. This track puts me in mind of Marc Almonds collaboration with John Harle on ‘The Tyburn Tree’, there are truly two worlds clashing here, and the effect is quite thrilling and in places very impressive.

I’m not a fan of Florence (and the Machine) Welch but her track ‘When In Disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes (Sonnet 29)’ is an enthralling 3-minute diversion with 60’s pop and folk throwback beauty. It’s followed by what is essentially Captain Kirk reciting Shakespeare. If you’ve ever heard Mr Shatner ‘singing’ any of the pop classics that he has taken on, then you’ll know what to expect. Thankfully it’s soon blasted away by Anna Prohaska’s most dramatic and enticing piece yet on ‘Th’Expense of Spirit in a Waste of Shame (Sonnet 129)’, which squeezes into two minutes and forty-eight seconds the absolute essence of rock opera with some real actual opera.

‘All Dessen Müd’ dramatizes things even further with an opening German recital carried above a slightly jazz tempting under bed. The music carries on in fairly schizophrenic fashion on what is the most unhinged thing on the album, and it holds attention throughout it full eight and a half minutes. Rufus’ own final vocal contribution comes next on a reprise of ‘A Woman’s Face’, it’s a fairly standard Rufus Wainwright song, in fact, more memorable than a fair few of them. It’s sung as a gentle, slow building popular song with classical overtones merely hinted at. A final spoken word (in German) offering is presented with ‘Sonnet 87’ before the album closes with Anna Prohaska again with ‘Farewell (Sonnet 87)’, an intricate yet never quite ornate opera styled piece that radiates in its own lushness.


I may have approached this with some trepidation, yet having taken it all in it is fair to say it could be my favourite rock/classical crossover yet. The mix of highbrow with rock and popular music moods is carried off with unbelievable expertise. And as a devout non Shakespearean the balance of all of the albums elements leaves nothing overpowering, in fact there a sort of ‘what did I just listen to’ bewilderment (bewonderment?) that I love. It’s just about reverential, respectful, inventive and crazy enough to make the whole thing a success. 

PJ Harvey - The Hope Six Demolition Project, a review.

Anyone who’s taken notice will know that PJ Harvey’s latest album has had a fairly public gestation whilst managing to remain a thing of mystery too. Travels to Afghanistan and Kosovo with a photographer in tow has helped produce an album of songs painted by global politics, war and poverty that has already been preceded by a poetry and poems book (The Hollow of the Hand) and an unusual ‘watch as they record’ installation in London’s Somerset House involving an audience hidden by one-way glass. 

Following an increasingly singular and non-commercial path since 2000’s ‘Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea’ has not harmed PJ Harvey’s success. She’s a musician that produces art that the public seem to love to tap into. That album won the 2001 Mercury Music Prize and coming full circle her last album ‘Let England Shake’ (2011) made her the first to ever win a second Mercury Music award. The album kicks off with ‘The Community of Hope’, a song about a run down American suburb. If it’s pretty straightforward rock’n’roll, then the following ‘The Ministry of Defence’ is far more in your face, a pounding repeated full band riff, massed vocal choruses, paraphrasing from Linton Kwesi Johnson and dissonant saxophone wailing with a closing shot of ‘This is how the world will end’. It’s heavy, unflinching, a militaristic romp and very impressive. 

‘A Line in the Sand’ starts with a Tom Waits like resemblance of music and is a grim recollection of a visit to a refugee camp ‘’I saw people kill each other just to get there first’ tells you the impression the scene made on Harvey, and her belief that the future is there to achieve something good is where she draws her line in the sand. ‘Chain of Keys’ is built upon a bed of artillery drumming, flat baritone saxophones and a tale of a shattered old woman who has seen things that have broken her faith in everything. ‘River Anacostia’ (the river from Maryland into Washington) is a lower key simpler song built on a pulsing synth riff. There’s an underlying spiritual feel but no hope is offered, the message left is ‘What will become of us?’. ‘Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln’ takes us deeper in to Washington, a pretty simple anti rock song with a ghostly feel, it builds into a harsh hot and bothered abrupt finish. ‘The Orange Monkey’ explains the meat of the album, ‘I took a plane to a foreign land, and said, I’ll write down what I find’. 

‘Medicinals’ takes the uncompromising approach further. Sung almost in nursery rhyme style over a percussive sax bled under bed, it’s another song of loss and no hope. ‘The Ministry of Social Affairs’ starts on a sample of old blues which is seamlessly woven into the bands pounding marching music and contrasts a scene of broken, injured and sick people living within a major city and inhabiting the same streets as big money men that seem not to care about the poverty that walls their castles of prosperity. The song closes on dissonant saxophones grinding to a halt and is barely over before the jungle beat of ‘The Wheel’ crashes in, weeping for the lost children of a war torn country, ‘Now you see them, now you don’t, I heard it was twenty-eight thousand’ is as harsh a lyrical refrain you could want to hear in a rock and roll song. This is music that paints a very visual image. It’s a song that was its albums leadoff single. When an artist is given the freedom to create without the need to cater towards the hit parade then great things can happen. And that’s where PJ Harvey is, she follows her own path, bares her own soul, and people seem to love it. It’s why I love music, there’s no concession to product here, just creation, artistry and emotion. The closing ‘Dollar Dollar’ shows this perfectly. Harvey sings a tale of how she was left haunted by a beggar boy as she sped away in traffic unable to help despite the attention he garnered. 

What a great record. Musically there’s been little like it. It reminds me of late Bowie, with the stories it tells and the baritone saxes that dominate its mood, reminiscent of the great man’s comeback on ‘The Next Day’, even a sprinkling of ‘Scary Monsters’ guitars in places under the relentless percussive, almost drone like feel of this album. Not that Harvey’s aping anyone else on this record. This album is without apology a Polly Jean Harvey record par excellence. 


Pet Shop Boys - Super, a review.

Pet Shop Boys, now in their 35th year, return with their 13th album proper with Stuart Price (Madonna, The Killers, Kylie amongst others) on main production duties for the second album in a row. They’ve never really put forward a naff album for public consumption but have also only hit the heights of their early albums in occasional flashes.

Opening on a harder dance beat than you’d normally expect with ‘Happiness’ we’re welcomed to PSB13 with a clean, metronomic slice of synth dance pop, a slice of bread with Pet Shop Boys marmite spread all over it. To a fan like me it’s got everything you’d want, but it’s unlikely to garner the band a new generation of fans. Then we’re into lead single ‘The Pop Kids’, and, well, it’s more of the same really. A more involved lyric with a wistful look back to younger days. I can’t agree with the sentiment ‘that rock was overrated’, to me rock is a far more inventive musical form of art than PSB’s brand of electronica but when done well their electronica always entertains, and at least two songs in here you can say it’s done well. ‘Twenty Something’ is a superior slice of euro(vision) pop, it’s an Abba riff over another reflective lyric and the quality-ometer needle stays at the good end of the scale. On paper, ‘Groovy’ has a shallow and empty lyric, but the PSB’s always dealt squarely with irony. Musically it’s a tribute to their younger selves. I think it’s taking the rise out of modern instant celebrity status as fuelled by reality TV.

‘The Dictator Decides’ imagines Bashar Assad or Kim Jong-un into a place where they’ve lost the will ‘to threaten and kill’. Five tracks in and I’m hearing a harder edge to the Pet Shop Boys than I’ve heard for many a year, and a bit more breadth in the lyrics too. ‘Pazzo!’ at least musically carries this approach on, though lyrically there’s little depth. There’s been many a song about madness or sanity that lyrically do it better than this one. Should have been an instrumental. ‘Inner Sanctum’ is also all crashing beats and electro pulses and is virtually an instrumental. It’s reminiscent of the also recently returned Underworld, and if that’s what PSB’s are aiming for on this collection then they’re pulling it off quite well. Despite their earlier protestations ‘Undertow’ is dressed with a pretty atypical rock lyric. In fact, it’s a fairly atypical rock song, just wearing electro pop clothes. Imagine it as an 80’s Bon Jovi anthem, you’ll see what I mean. This is not a criticism, it works pretty well and the needle of quality it still wriggling around nearer the upper end of the scale.

‘Sad Robot World’ leads us into the albums closing third with more fully realised synthpop designs. There sympathy and even empathy for manufacturing robots (‘I thought I heard one crying’). The musical accompaniment is toned down to what you’d expect for the subject matter. It’s a simple but spot on song and ‘Super’ is beginning to emerge as a superior Pet Shop Boys album. ‘Say It To Me’ and ‘Burn’ edge on with the harder beat, and even a promise to burn this disco down. And then they disappear ‘Into Thin Air’, a song of escape built over a shuddering percussive beat.

And so, this is a very good Pet Shop Boys album, the best since the glory days, but will it draw you in for repeated listens? Perhaps not, but then a quality book is rarely re-read, and this a definite good read.