Welcome to Post #100 for My Treacherous Friends!!!
Two weeks in a row… I may actually be back on schedule. A short list this week, with some hip-hop, latter-day classic rock, some ’80s new wave from both the ’90s and the ’00s, some nostalgia rock, some jazz, and even a disco-laden soundtrack.
Also, these aren’t all my reviews for the week. I’ve also started a new/old thing where, two or three days a week, I’m revisiting an album released “on this day” in history and doing a quick write up on those. So check recent entries for more Retro Record Reviews.
Here we go…
Aceyalone, 2009 – Aceyalone & The Lonely Ones
Aceyalone somehow flew under my radar until earlier this year, but he is rapidly becoming one of my favorite hip-hop artists. At a time when the most headlines and the most money were being grabbed by gangsta rap, he eschewed the trends and has released more than a dozen albums since the mid-90s, including this neo-soul-hop gem.
Instead of just sampling old soul, jazz, and funk elements, Acey actively incorporates these sounds into his original pieces with what sounds like a live band behind him for the bulk of the record (more on this in a moment), girl-group sensibilities worked into some of the choruses (as on the standout “Step Up”) and a killer New Orleans second-string rhythm section and call-and-response chorus (on “To The Top”).
The songs are compact, only one running over three-and-a-half minutes, and at half an hour the disc is short enough to leave the listener wanting (much, much) more. A lot of the credit for the sound and feel of the album goes to producer Bionik (Stefon Taylor) who recorded all of the music on the album, performing most of the instruments himself and offering up a sweet ‘60s falsetto on several of the cuts. He bookends the disc with tracks that sound like they’re recorded in a live atmosphere – the first in a nightclub, the last with an a capella doo-wop quartet on a street corner.
Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay here is to say that as soon as I finished listening to Aceyalone & The Lonely Ones for the first time, I immediately had to go right back to the first track and hear it all over again. This record impresses from start to finish, calling to mind throwback soul artists like Raphael Saadiq with hip-hop flow as smooth as the lines on a ‘68 Continental. Though the album was released ten years ago it sounds as fresh as produce and as timeless as soul itself.
Various, 1994 – The Adventures Of Priscilla Queen Of The Desert, Original Soundtrack
This movie was ahead of its time (probably still is) and I won’t go further into the merits of the film than that because this isn’t a film-blog (for that, follow my friends over at The PopCulturalists). In fact, I didn’t even see it until years after I bought this CD. In the early-to-mid-‘90s there was a brief period where old ‘70s disco tracks made a resurgence and this record was the best use of that fad.
It would have been easy to just put together a collection of big disco hits (and the producers have certainly done that), but they also work in Charlene’s feminist anthem “I’ve Never Been To Me,” Lena Horne’s take on “A Fine Romance,” and the cheeky jazz vocals of “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man,” and “I Don’t Care If The Sun Don’t Shine.” Current numbers like Ce Ce Peniston’s “Finally” and Vanessa Williams’s “Save The Best For Last” round out the set.
The latter two cuts aren’t great and don’t make the soundtrack any better. The biggest mark against this otherwise excellent collection is the inclusion of ‘90s house mix treatments of classic disco tunes “I Love The Nightlife,” and “I Will Survive.” Twenty-five years ago I found these remixes fresh and exciting. Now, however, they just sound cobbled together and out of place. Fortunately, the originals are included as well so you’re not left longing for something that’s missing.
Overall, it’s a solid party album, with the bulk of the music immediately familiar and the rest of the tracks ranging from unobtrusive to exceptional. Still, best to skip those ‘90s remixes.
Aerosmith, 1993 – Get A Grip
A friend once said, rather cynically, I thought at the time, “Aerosmith is one of those bands that just didn’t put out anything good after they stopped doing drugs.” I feel the need to refute that. Specifically, they had a trio of albums produced by Bruce Fairbairn from 1987’s Permanent Vacation through 1993’s Get A Grip that not only stands up well in comparison to early Aerosmith but which were also three of their most commercially successful records.
The whole band was in their 40s when they recorded and released Get A Grip, the third and final Bruce Fairbairn produced LP. And the reason I bring up the producer’s name twice is that I think he really tapped into something with this band in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. I’m not the only one who heard it – the band had a more radio-friendly sound while still maintaining their hard rock vibe and occasionally stretching into arena rock anthems like “Amazing” and “Cryin’” off of this album – and they went from scratching out gold records in the early 80s to delivering three multi-platinum discs during Fairbairn’s run.
Obviously, credit is not due solely to the producer. Someone had to write and play and sing these songs. Steven Tyler and Joe Perry do the bulk of the heavy lifting in the writing department, but they also bring in outside collaborators to flesh out a few of the tracks. Still, these are undeniably Aerosmith’s songs with a few hitmakers consulted to sell some records.
Moreover, whether it’s the lack of drugs or what-have-you, the band sounds fresh, energized, and focused. Tyler’s vocals are as good as ever and the whole band, particularly Joe Perry’s lead guitar, sounds incredible. For that matter, the rhythm section shines on non-singles like “Fever” and “Gotta Love It.”
If anything, this album has gotten better with age. If you haven’t heard it in a while, take it out for a spin. It’s better than you remember.
Art Brut, 2007 – It’s A Bit Complicated
I grew up as a teen in the 1980s and, as such, New Wave occupies significant real estate on my musical world map. Loved it then, love it still. So listening to It’s A Bit Complicated for the first time today, I had to keep checking that this 2007 release wasn’t a reissue of something from 20 years prior.
I’d never heard of this English/German band before this rose to the top of a recently acquired box of CDs I’ve been going through. The vocals grabbed me first – practically spoken, and with a British punk rock sneer to them. The lyrics are often funny and self-deprecating. The bass and drums are strictly working-class and the lead guitar seems to have been raised on a diet of punched up jangle-pop. The sound occasionally reminds me of Madness or The Clash but it’s really an amalgam of all the British New Wave I grew up on.
This album is a really wonderful surprise. I had no idea what to expect when I played it and I’m always prepared to slog through unfamiliar material just for the sake of spinning everything once, but it’s especially nice when something brand new (to me) is so perfectly in my wheelhouse. Strongly recommended for ‘80s New Wave fans.
Anna Calvi, 2014 – Strange Weather
Over the past few years I’ve become a big fan of Peaky Blinders on Netflix. Among the many things to love about the show, one is their inventive use of modern music in a setting 100 years in the past.
Thus it was that I first encountered Anna Calvi and her stark cover of Bowie’s “Lady Grinning Soul.” When they utilized another of her songs, “Papi Pacify,” from the same EP, I decided it would be a worthwhile purchase.
Turns out I was only half right. The Bowie cover is worth the price of admission, but otherwise this isn’t something that really appeals to me. “Papi Pacify,” so effective over the closing credits of the Peaky Blinders season finale, doesn’t fare as well removed from the emotional impact of the tv show.
There’s some goth influence here, though I’d wouldn’t go so far as to classify it as goth music. It’s a bit too art-rock for my taste. It isn’t bad, and the title track featuring David Byrne is quite interesting, but aside from that and “Lady Grinning Soul” the disc is just a bit too far afield for me to fully grasp its thrust.
April Barrows, 2001 – All You Need Is The Girl
I’d recently revisited April Barrows’s debut album and that spurred me to seek out her only other release, 2001’s All You Need Is The Girl. Once again I’m astounded that she’s not a household name among jazz fans.
This follow-up doesn’t quite have the cabaret & swing angle that her first album did, but there are still hints of it on cuts like “Stay Out Of My Dreams.” Instead, it’s a more straight-ahead jazz album with a solid band behind Ms. Barrows’s smooth-as-glass vocals. And while I don’t recognize the names of any of the players, each one stands out at various points on the record. In particular, David Hungate’s rare guitar solos are exquisite.
Not a lot more to say about this album that I didn’t say about her first. As expected, her phrasing and delivery are flawless on these (mostly) self-penned numbers that all sound like well-chosen covers, so skillfully have they recreated that classic jazz feel.
Both this disc and My Dream Is True are worth seeking out. They’re both out of print, but they’re not hard to come by online. If she’d released a dozen more albums, I’d have bought all those, too.
Aztec Camera, 1990 – The Crying Scene (CD single)
I was introduced to Roddy Frame and Aztec Camera when a friend brought back a cassette from a visit to Scotland. I’d never heard of the band but I was head over heels for 1987’s Love as soon as I heard it. I wasn’t yet familiar with the term “blue-eyed soul,” but I was certainly a fan.
So when, on what was then a routine visit to a record shop, I saw a CD single I figured it was worth a shot even if I didn’t know the featured song. “The Crying Scene” is a great tune, but over the years it has been the other tracks that have stayed with me.
The “b-side,” insomuch as that term still applied in the burgeoning CD-era, was an otherwise unreleased song called “Salvation” which still ranks among the best songs Aztec Camera ever recorded. It was accompanied by a fine cover of “True Colors” which had been a chart hit for Cyndi Lauper a few years previous, as well as a short live version of Dylan’s “I Threw It All Away.”
If you’re a fan of Aztec Camera, it’s worth seeking out this single for “Salvation” and “True Colors.”
The B-52’s, 1981-1982 – Party Mix/Mesopotamia
I’ve been a casual B-52’s fan since “Love Shack” in 1989 but I’ve never spent a lot of time digging through their back catalog. Still, when I found this CD rerelease of two early ’80s EPs for a buck I figured I couldn’t go wrong.
All signs point to good instincts in that regard. The CD has Party Mix as the first six tracks and 1982’s Mesopotamia as the final six. There’s a lot more surf influence apparent here than on, say, the Cosmic Thing album, and it’s fun to hear a bit of a different sound from the band.
I’m not completely unversed in their early material; I have the first album and “Lava,” “Dance This Mess Around,” and “52 Girls” show up on this release as well, albeit as remixes to go with the three remixes of singles from Wild Planet, an album with which I’m unfamiliar. These remixes make up the Party Mix disc which is sequenced as a non-stop dance mix with no gaps between the individual tracks.
Unlike the remixes on the first half of this CD, Mesopotamia was all new material and, overall, not as strong as some of their other music. It isn’t bad but it lacks some of the vitality that characterized the classic B-52’s sound. The one exception from the latter half of the disc is the Fred Schneider-led “Throw That Beat In The Garbage Can” which is every bit as madcap as anything they’ve ever done.
Overall, a very worthwhile compendium for the completist, front-loaded with great dance mixes of their best early singles.
Various, 1962-1964 – Beat Beat Beat Volume One: The Mersey Sound & Other Mop Top Rarities 1962-1963
This is an ambitious if uneven compilation project, an exhaustive chronological collection of the Piccadilly and Pye “Beat” singles from 1963 sandwiched between half a dozen cuts from 1962 and two songs from 1964 at the very end of the second disc.
Unquestionably interesting as an historical document of the evolution of pop music on the eastern shore of the big pond, the disc also proves that not every song released by a given label is going to be an indispensable hit. That said, while there aren’t any bands here whose likenesses would be carved on the Mount Rushmore of rock’n’roll (the only name I recognize is The Dave Clark Five), there are some fantastic individual cuts that I’d never heard before so that alone makes this a worthwhile collection.
And if there’s a song not quite to your liking, you can rest assured your discomfort will be brief. Only a couple of the songs on this twin disc compilation crest the three-minute mark, many coming in under two minutes. Rick Wakeman wept.
Everybody covered everything back in the day, so you get covers of “La Bamba” (just okay), “Everybody Loves A Lover” (interesting with a male vocal and enjoyable), “Do The Mashed Potatoes” (excellent R&B dance number) and Undertakers’ “Money (That’s What I Want)” which could conceivably have influenced the Beatles’ take on the same tune if it hadn’t been released after the Fab Four recorded their version.
Some others I’m hearing for the first time standout, as well: “I Don’t Care” by The Chants, “My Pride, My Joy” by Buddy Britten & The Regents, and “It’s All Been A Dream” by The Searchers.
Apart from some of the excellent cover versions here, the most interesting find for me is Johnny Sandon who contributes four songs with his backing band, The Remo Four. They sound half a decade ahead the other artists here and one track in particular, “On The Horizon,” is unlike anything else on the record, a slow, quasi-surf fever dream that predates and predicts the decade’s impending psychedelia. This one song stands out like a lanky, sullen teen at a kids’ pool party.
Though this is ostensibly a Beat compilation there a lot of sub-genres – including doo-wop, soul, skiffle, R&B – across the sixty tracks included here. For my money, the music gets better as it progresses through 1963 and it is fascinating to hear how rapidly the new sound was evolving. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye peeled for future volumes.
That’s all for this week. Next week looks to include bands that are new to me, a band that is still relatively new to everyone (yes, I do actually listen to music released in the current decade and even the current year), and a couple CDs from my all-time favorite.
Thanks for reading and please leave comments – let me know what I got right and where we disagree. See you soon and in the meant time, keep those discs spinning!