Author Archives: Marsh Gooch

Big Star • In Space [CD, LP]

If you started with BIG STAR’s In Space and worked your way backwards through Third/Sister Lovers, Radio City and then #1 Record, you’d feel like you’d quickly worked your way to an easy jackpot. Sorta like playing the slots and winning with the first lever pull (okay, these days, button push), then winning some more, then winning A LOT more, and then BOOM! Lights flash, slot machine makes all kinds of exciting noise and then the attendant comes over to give you buckets and buckets of coin. That may be exaggerating the point, but the final album in Big Star’s four album trajectory (not counting live stuff) is a winner, it’s just nowhere near as great as the others.

The rock critic in me feels bad making such a statement about In Space, as I know both Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow in real life and they’re a couple of great guys – AND they’re talented as hell! When they hooked up with remaining Big Stars Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens in the early ’90s all of us in the Seattle music scene were excited for these founders of The Posies, perfect youngbloods, to bolster the once brilliant band. They did some live concerts, eventually releasing a few (Columbia, Live in Memphis) and doing some short tours. When it was announced that Big Star Mk IV were in the studio recording an album of new material, it came as a pleasant surprise, tempered by the likelihood that whatever they recorded wouldn’t match the excellence of the original band’s (as in Mks I, II & III) near-immaculate output. Okay, maybe what turned out to be In Space might equal Third/Sister Lovers in awesomeness, but even that was likely not gonna happen. What I’m saying is, In Space turned out to be a pretty nice little album. Not necessarily essential listening, but in a way, exactly where you’d have expected Big Star to land if they’d stayed together. AND… it could’ve been a disaster. That, my friends, is why the Posies/Big Star merger made total sense: Because it didn’t end in disaster.

The album starts with the four best tracks, “Dony,” “Lady Sweet,” “Best Chance” and “Turn My Back on the Sun,” all songs that sport that patented Big Star power pop mixture: catchy tunes, tough but melodic guitars, hard pounding drums and killer harmonies. There’s even a Brian Wilson tribute (“Turn My Back”) with vocals that deserve to be heard on their own (which is just what you get as a bonus track). In Space also includes a pair of funky workouts like those Alex Chilton favored in his mid ’80s solo phase (“Do You Wanna Make It” and the Archie Bell & The Drells-inspired “Love Revolution,” which works as a nice mid album change of pace). Did you know that Ken Stringfellow is a real good bass player? Dig his playing here!

I can’t say all of the album is that good. I could live without “Aria, Largo,” which is an instrumental cover of baroque composer Georg Muffat’s original that sounds like the guys are still learning it, and the remaining songs are alright but not essential. But what the album lacks in all-out Big Star goodness it makes up for in a lighthearted, fun vibe that permeates the entire disc.

Omnivore’s 2019 reissue includes a rocking epic called “Hot Thing” that they ought to have included when the album was originally released in 2005, some demos and a rough mix, and the aforementioned a cappella take. The CD version sounds muscular and dynamic, and I’d assume the vinyl (initially available on clear blue wax) is going to sound similarly swell. It’s a worthwhile purchase, especially if you don’t have the original Rykodisc issue. Basically, in my dad’s words, In Space is “not too shabby.” Not superb, but NTS.

2.75/5 (Ominvore OVCD-338, 2019)

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Various • A Damaged Christmas Gift for You [DD]

[Review originally published 12/8/2009 on Skratchdisc]
PHIL SPECTOR would be rolling in his grave if he knew what these malcontents have done to his quintessential yuletide rekkid. Featuring artists like Billy Childish, Thee Headcoatees, Cute Lepers, Holly Golightly, and other mostly-Brit indie stars, A Damaged Christmas Gift For You is about as garage as you can get. The 14-track compilation pulls cuts from various Damaged Goods (UK record label) 7″ holiday singles from the last decade, plus a couple of new tracks. Holly Golightly is great with “Christmas Tree on Fire” and “Little Stars” (backed by a few of The Raconteurs under the Greenhornes guise), T.V. Smith (of The Adverts) has a ditty called “Xmas Bloody Xmas,” and then there’s the incredibly naughty “Santa Claus” by Thee Headcoatees—so dirty I’d be surprised these girls got anything aside from a summer sausage as a gift that year. Very Damaged, indeed. (Available as a download only from Damaged Goods)
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Harry Nilsson • Losst and Founnd [CD, LP]

HARRY NILSSON died of a heart attack twenty-five years ago. That would seem to explain why it took so long to finish Losst and Founnd, the “new” album from pop’s coolest singer. But there’s almost always more to the story than the obvious explanation, especially with Harry. And so, here we are in 2019 with a finished version of the album he was working on when he passed away in 1994 and it’s just about everything you’d want out of a Nilsson record.

Why’d it take so long to find Losst and Founnd? It’s apparently a convoluted enough story that there’s a four part podcast series dedicated to it. I don’t have time to sift through that now, so take it from me, it doesn’t really matter. This is a new Nilsson record! As it’s sung on the title track, “Losst and Found, what a miracle!”

From the humor that is uniquely Harry’s on “U.C.L.A.,” to the die-hard fandom of “Yo Dodger Blue,” to his interpretations of Yoko Ono’s “Listen, The Snow Is Falling” and Jimmy Webb’s beautiful-yet-funny “What Does a Woman See in a Man,” this album’s completion means there’s one more really good Nilsson record (or CD) to have on your shelf. Yes, by now his voice wasn’t the instrument it once was – but he could still sing, and in fact the gruff in his voice quite suits the material. Sorta like how some of Johnny Cash’s American Recordings tracks (such as “Hurt,” the cover of Nine Inch Nails) benefited from the maturity and experience that only an old guy could emote. The arrangements, too, are of a similar quality level to what Harry accomplished with Richard Perry back in the early ’70s.

You may not go to Losst and Founnd as often as you do Nilsson Schmilsson or Son of Schmilsson, but it’s right up there with Pussy Cats and some of Harry’s other greats. Despite its twenty-five year incubation, it was really worth the wait. Kudos to Omnivore Recordings and producer Mark Hudson for allowing it to finally hatch.

3/5 (Omnivore Recordings OVCD-346, 2019)

 

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The Damned • Black Is the Night – The Definitive Anthology [4LP, 2CD]

There’s no way in hell anyone would have ever guessed that a scruffy punk rock band called THE DAMNED would one day have their oeuvre compiled countless times by the year 2019, but it’s happened. Black Is the Night – The Definitive Anthology is the latest compilation, and it brims over with 39 songs over 4 LPs or 2 CDs that span from their first single, “New Rose,” released in 1976, to songs from their 2000s studio releases and even a brand new one (the title track)! That the band’s best stuff pre-dates the 21st century barely matters. I say barely… and if you read on you’ll understand why.

If you don’t know much about The Damned, you can see some of my other reviews of Damned-related releases to help fill in the blanks (click here). Let it be understood that I’m a BIG FAN – I tell people that I love ’em even more than The Beatles and that’s 50% true half the time – but I DO have misgivings about some of the material they’ve released in their nearly 45 years of anarchy, chaos and destruction. For instance, back in the ’90s, after numerous personnel shifts ’n’ changes, they released an album called I’m Alright Jack and the Bean Stalk (aka Not of This Earth) and I couldn’t find much of anything to like about it. And their latest album, Evil Spirits (2018), was such a letdown that I chose not to review it here because I didn’t want to “dis” on my favorite band! (“Standing on the Edge of Tomorrow” from that release is included on this new compilation.) Yet. The Damned – Captain Sensible, Dave Vanian and all the others – are a many splendored thing. Whether it’s the early punk of “Neat Neat Neat” or “Love Song,” the punky new wave of “I Just Can’t Be Happy Today” or “Bad Time for Bonzo,” the goth of “Grimly Fiendish” and “Shadow of Love,” or the sheer brilliance of “Stranger on the Town,” “Curtain Call” and “Smash It Up (Parts 1 & 2),” the band is so much more than the sum of their parts or their discography. (Still, I don’t see how they chose “Fun Factory” for inclusion on this compilation but left off “Lovely Money.”)

Black Is the Night gathers most of their greatest moments in a very nice package. The initial copies of the 4LP set are pressed on gold vinyl, housed in a gatefold cover and cloaked in printed inner sleeves. A band family tree created by the late, great Pete Frame is featured on an included insert to help you keep track of just who was in the band at any given time, but it only goes up to 1982 so it’s woefully incomplete. The cover was designed by graphic design guru Phil Smee, the liner notes are kinda snappy (written by Vive Le Rock magazine’s Eugene Butcher), and the credits come up short of crucial information such as who produced the songs or who did the mastering. Considering the colossal difference in their records from 1976 to the most recent title track (available only on this collection), it would be nice to know who to praise or blame for that. It’s generally a pretty good mastering job, though the sound on some cuts is a bit muffled, and there are some jarring segues where one song slams into another (even chopping off the last few seconds of “Alone Again Or” as “Lively Arts” starts!), which leads me to believe that this collection was culled from digital and not analog sources. Of course, you’d expect that since the 39 songs come from various and disparate sources. Still, the songs aren’t in strict chronological order so the difference between, say, “Eloise” and “Plan 9 Channel 7” isn’t as drastic as you’d think it could be. As Dave Vanian says at the end of the liner notes, “The Damned have been on an epic musical adventure. To have spent years and years making the same album was never part of the plan.” That they would make so many great LPs and singles may not have been, either, but they certainly did.

4/5 (BMG Rights Management* BMGCAT409QLP, 2019)
* Such an un-punk rock name for a record label.

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Will Birch • Cruel to Be Kind: The Life and Music of Nick Lowe [Book]

Once a long haired hippie, later a spiky haired new waver and currently a white-pompadoured troubadour, NICK LOWE’s story is finally getting told. With WILL BIRCH’s new book, Cruel to Be Kind: The Life and Music of Nick Lowe, the Basher himself comes to life in all of his many guises.

Birch, himself a new wave musician (remember The Records?), is clearly a friend and fan of the man, and tells the stories even-handedly. Many of the tales are not those of a choir boy, though Lowe could sing and put on a show from an early age. Still, Nick was interviewed for the book – as were many of those who feature in his life, such as ex-wife Carlene Carter and musician Ry Cooder – and seems to be okay with letting the cards fall where they may.  Birch’s own personality eventually works its way into the narrative, but he’s not such a fanboy that it becomes a concern. The fact that the author really knows the world that his subject comes from adds immediacy and authenticity to the book.

What comes to light in Cruel to Be Kind is that Nick Lowe is a man who has matured over time. The rough but lovable edges of youth have been sanded down to a texture that is smooth to the touch but still retains the essence of what made the guy so interesting in the first place. Lowe, indeed, is “half a boy and half a man,” and that’s in the good, lovable way. Birch demonstrates it best when he talks about how Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” started out as a cynical look at the world (when it was written in the early ’70s and performed by Lowe’s band, Brinsley Schwarz), became an angry plea with Elvis Costello’s 1979 cover (produced by Lowe himself), and eventually a heartfelt, serious question when performed by the author today. That he frequently plays the song on tour with a bunch of musicians in Mexican wrestler masks (Los Straitjackets) underscores the comic genius at Nick’s core. He’s still the quintessential Jesus of Cool.

4/5 (Da Capo Press, hardcover, 2019)

#CruelToBeKind

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The Muffs • No Holiday [CD, LP, DD]

When THE MUFFS’ lead singer Kim Shattuck died a few weeks ago, it was a sad day for alternative rock. On the one hand, it was great that the band were able to record one last, solid album before their leader passed away, but on the other, a bummer that their new No Holiday album would be viewed and reviewed with that event in mind.

Unlike many past Muffs releases, No Holiday is a mix of multiple indie rock strains, from the spare punk rock style they’re known for (like “Down Down Down,” “Pollyanna” and the slower “Earth Below Me”) to more poppy and even melancholy ditties like “The Best” and “A Lovely Day Boo Hoo.” I really dig “Lucky Charm” and “You Talk and You Talk,” too, with the lines “I am tired of you/and your ugliness, too/and I hear you can talk until forever.” In fact, there are 18 songs to choose from here, from really short (as in 23 seconds!) to not-as-short (face it: The Muffs don’t have “extended jam” in their vocab, which is a plus), but generally three minutes or less. Apparently, Shattuck and the boys picked out the songs from a batch of unused songs that go back as far as 1991 – basically the lifespan of the band – and luckily, these songs don’t sound like sloppy seconds. Kim said the songs had only been weeded out before to make for “super concise albums.”

No Holiday is still pretty concise and is available on CD and 2LP vinyl (with a laser-etched side four), and makes an excellent bookend to The Muffs’ nearly three decades creating some of the most uncomplicated, enjoyable pop-punk around. You’ll want to pick this one up, yup, and given that the band has now disbanded for the final time, hope that Omnivore or somebody continues reissuing their albums and maybe puts out a career-spanning comp. RIP Kim Shattuck!

3.5/5 (Omnivore OVCD-354, 2019)

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The Beatles • Abbey Road – Anniversary Edition, Pt. 2: Sessions [Multiple Formats]

Phase 2 in which Doris gets her oats…* (Part 1 is here.)

What many of us are interested in most with THE BEATLES’ new Abbey Road Anniversary Edition is the unreleased material. These Sessions, as they’re being called, are the biggest excuse for shelling out mega bucks on an album that many of us know backwards and forwards and have probably bought more than once. With this 50th anniversary release there are two discs of demos, alternate takes, etc., and whether you buy the super deluxe edition (1 Blu-ray, 3 CDs) or vinyl box set (3 LPs), you get the same material. (There is also a 2 CD version, which gives you some of the Sessions, and the single CD or LP versions with just the 2019 stereo remix.)

The 3LP box set of Abbey Road comes in a high-gloss clam shell box, with the 2019 stereo mix on record one (and in its own album cover), followed by the two records of sessions in their own non-gatefold cover. (The Bluray/CD set comes in an LP-sized hard cover book within a high-gloss slipcase.) In all, the Sessions cuts amount to barely 90 minutes of material. Hardcore fans will have heard much of this material – The Beatles have been bootlegged more than just about any other rock artist in history – though it is nice to have it in a better sounding and official, annotated set. Many of us could never quite conjure up the necessary bucks to pay for those inferior boots and so even people like me are bound to find lots of music to be wowed by here. The fact that Abbey Road is one of the band’s most beloved releases means there’s a big, built-in audience for things like studio demos of “Something” (George singing along with just piano and guitar), Paul’s home demo of “Goodbye” (not recorded by the band but given to singer Mary Hopkin for a future Apple Records release) and his studio demo of “Come and Get It” (on which he played all the instruments, later instructing Badfinger to record just as he demoed it). The bulk of the rest of the cuts are in-studio early takes, trial mixes and edits of the songs you’d expect, including an instrumental version of “Because,” a strings-only track for “Something,” and a strings ’n’ brass one for “Golden Slumbers”/“Carry That Weight.” It’s great to finally hear alternate takes of “Come Together” and “I Want You (She’s so heavy)” complete with Billy Preston’s amazing organ that was all-but-obliterated by the white noise that builds up in the last half of the original side one closer. Interesting, too, is a trial edit and mix of “The Long One,” i.e., the side two medley that makes up the last third of the album. Here you hear “Her Majesty” in its original placement, smack dab in the middle of “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam.” It was wise of them to snip it out of there and move it elsewhere on the LP, as its stark acoustic guitar and voice completely destroys the momentum building up to “The End.” (And that’s not to mention how “ironic” it is to have “The End” at, ummmm, the end of the record – if only to be followed by the originally unlisted little ditty that eventually closed the album out.)

On the one hand, it feels like there’s not quite the bulk here you’d expect to celebrate The Beatles’ penultimate release and greatest success, but on the other, it’s nice to give Abbey Road a tight super deluxe edition to fête its 50th. Each year they’ve done these releases (since Sgt. Pepper in 2017) they’ve been honing in on just the right way to present them, and I can only hope they keep it up and don’t blow it with next year’s inevitable Let It Be extravaganza.

4.5/5 (Apple/Universal 0602508007446, 2019)

* I know, wrong album.

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The Beatles • Abbey Road – Anniversary Edition [Multiple Formats]

It’s kind of wonderful, this worldwide wankfest over a 50 year old rock ’n’ roll album. All kinds of people, everywhere, getting all hot ’n’ bothered over THE BEATLES’ Abbey Road, the last album they recorded together but the penultimate release during their actual time together as The Fab Four. The cynical among us probably consider it another greedy cash grab, the romantic might think it’s a real sweet thing, and I’ve heard there are even those among us who don’t care! Whatever, I’m devoting some column inches to it (as they would’ve said in ’69), so I must care.

Once Giles Martin and his boys remixed Sgt. Pepper for its fifty year anniversary, all of us in Pepperland and beyond looked forward to the day when The Beatles’ other top-ranker would get its turn. Martin and co-conspirator Sam Okell have taken the highly lauded long player dad George Martin produced and given us another way to listen to Abbey Road. It was the last recording of the band’s career and the first in the modern multitrack era – you know, on a big whopping EIGHT TRACKS! – but was mixed the way they did back then, with exaggerated panning seemingly employed to prove it was in stereo. This time, the pans are much more nuanced, making more sense to our ears, and many of the instruments have been brought out in the mix. You can hear much more detail in the guitars (like on “Here Comes the Sun”), the organs (Billy Preston’s on “I Want You (She’s so heavy)”) and even the drums (listen for the actual hit of the snare or kick drum) in many of the songs. The vocals, especially the harmonies, are much sweeter, too. I’m not as impressed by any differences to the sound or prominence of the bass guitar, and as a matter of fact, find that sometimes McCartney’s playing (on “Something,” for instance) sounds more ad-libbed than is comfortable to me.

In terms of formats, well of course there are more than you can shake a stick at. You can get Abbey Road on single LP, double LP, picture disc LP, single CD (which is what I’m basing this post on), double CD, or the 3 LP and 3 CD/1 Bluray box sets (coming in the mail later this week!). As I’ve said in the past, what’s gonna work for you is largely a function of how big a fan you are. Take the guy on the left in the photo at left: he’s probably not going to get any of these, but was nice enough to play John Lennon to my McCartney (I couldn’t be bothered to take my shoes off, though) when we entered a Seattle area record store yesterday to pay our respects. But (his sister) Shirley there must be an edition that will work for you, so I suggest you get on down to Abbey Road at your earliest convenience and see what son Giles has done to dad George’s recording of The Beatles’s first or second greatest moment.

I’ll be diving into the bonus tracks (called Sessions on the discs) next time… Right here.

4/5 (Apple/Capitol/UMe B0030901-02, 2019)

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Robyn Hitchcock/Andy Partridge • Planet England [CD, 10″ EP]

As if I don’t cover ROBYN HITCHCOCK & ANDY PARTRIDGE enough already, they go and put out a record together. I didn’t see that coming. Planet England is the name of their nascent collaboration, a 4-song 10″ and CD EP featuring the two elder statesmen of new wave/post punk playing a style of rock that’s a mixture of the typical sounds they’re known for, with a splatter of psychedelia thrown on top.

This fab four starts with “Turn Me On, Deadman,” which isn’t as Beatles-y as you’d expect from the title – it’s more Egyptian than Liverpudlian. “Flight Attendants, Please Prepare for Love” is my favorite here, with Hitchcock taking the lead vocal on a slow, dreamy tune that sounds more like XTC than any of the others; you could say it’s got a slight Dukes of Stratosphear vibe going, too. The bass riff plays well against Hitchcock’s higher pitched voice, keeping this one in the air – or ear – long after the flight ends. Flip over the ten-incher (or let the CD keep playing) and “Got My…” registers as the one track where Partridge and Hitchcock share the main mic. It‘s a spare, folky ditty that sounds like neither fellow’s own stuff (though lyrically it appears to come from Andy’s pen). The EP closes up shop with the title track, the least interesting song of the bunch (surprisingly), though that’s relative because all four songs on this EP are worthwhile listening.

Fans of both Hitchcock and Partridge will be drawn to Planet England. It’s not different enough from either’s catalogs to turn off their fans, nor is it different enough to lure new recruits to the cause. That being said, if anything, it’s a great teaser for the rumored Beatles cover album they’re doing. I may not have seen this pairing coming, but now that I’ve witnessed it I’ll be sure to keep my eyes ’n’ ears open for their next outing.

3/5 (Ape House APEEP902, 2019)

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TC&I • Naked Flames – Live at Swindon Arts Centre [CD, DD]

A couple of years ago XTC’s Colin Moulding and Terry Chambers teamed up to form TC&I, and after releasing an EP of new material (2017’s Great Aspirations; reviewed here), they did some live shows and recorded them. Naked Flames – Live at Swindon Arts Centre is the souvenir of these concerts, a baker’s dozen of songs originally recorded by Moulding and Chambers in one of new wave’s most celebrated groups. Including one of XTC’s other songwriter’s tunes (“Statue of Liberty”), the selection is a pretty good look at Moulding’s best work.

Colin Moulding was definitely the George Harrison of XTC, contributing few songs to the band’s albums while Andy Partridge-as-Lennon-&-McCartney had the spotlight as the premier wordsmith in the group. Here TC&I run through many of Moulding’s good ones, such as “Grass,” “Making Plans for Nigel,” “Life Begins at the Hop,” “Ten Feet Tall” and a few more obvious choices, take a stab at later tunes like “Standing in for Joe,” and two original TC&I tunes, “Scatter Me” and “Say It,” and the result is pretty good. I say that because, though the band is not bad, they’re not exactly great either. While it’s nice to hear some of these XTC tunes played live, there’s a certain vibrancy missing on this disc. I think that’s partly due to the recording itself, which is missing some top end shimmer and therefore lacking in live vibe, and partly because Moulding’s voice seems kind of weak. They may have been able to beef it up for XTC’s studio recordings but in this live situation it lacks bulk.

This all being said, there’s no doubting that Colin Moulding has written some truly great songs, and TC&I covers them ably on Naked Flames. These live renditions just don’t pack the same punch that XTC’s originals did. Chances are the initial interest in these versions will wane soon after first hearing and the superior XTC takes will remain the quintessential versions of Colin Moulding’s greatest hits.

3/5 (TC&I Music TC&I-CD-002, 2019)

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