Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A Godawful Small Affair: Seventeen "Black Tie White Noise"


COVER: Alone again, naturally.

He's BACK!  Out of nowhere, an unexpected solo album drops, and he's definitely not touring - sound familiar? - but at least we've got him back.  No more Tin Machine, save for the track "You've Been Around", which has all trace of the band's personnel scoured from it.  No more fannying about.  Let's get our chin-striking hands ready for another multi-layered classic!

For all the spirit of renewal, we're saying some quite poignant goodbyes on this album, and given the circumstances let's get them out of the way early: number one, the figurative laying to rest of Terry Burns, David Bowie's half brother, whose unfortunate psychiatric illness had given rise to many a lyric in the past, and here inspires a cover of Cream's "I Feel Free" and the original track "Jump They Say".  Burns had passed away in 1985, but this seems to be the first album since which decisively deals with his legacy.

We also bid a tearful farewell to Mick Ronson.  If you can remember back a few months to when we discussed him, Ronno was the alpha Spider From Mars, considered as much an architect of that period's sound as the man himself, and plays with Bowie for the last time on "I Feel Free".  Hatchets buried, it would seem, but too late for a Martian arachnid resurgence; Ronson was dead a scant four weeks after the album's release.

I know I built this one up like it's the second coming of Schumacher or something, but it's actually a tepid affair, aside from one or two tracks which show he's still capable of putting all the pieces together in an utterly compelling order, of which "Jump They Say" is first and foremost.  The lead single from the album sounds like he's writing the future again and won Bowie plaudits from all sides.  See also the fantastic double header of "Pallas Athena" and "Miracle Goodnight", which serves well to prepare us for a more challenging journey in the near future.

There's also disappointments and missed opportunities.  An arch cover of Morrissey's "I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday", which confusingly was Morrissey's attempt to sound like Bowie, falls short of the artistic intention by some way.  "Black Tie White Noise", his reaction to the Los Angeles riots, is just plain boring, and also sketches close to the whole Tin Machinian ideals of social conscience.

But the main problem here is that the album has one core sound that is never deviated from - a slick, politely funky and largely unobtrusive feel with bizarre interventions of skronking saxophone, one that immediately sounds compelling and different compared to our recent forays but takes a massive toll by the end of the album, so whereas I felt vaguely excited by "The Wedding", I was verging on homicidal by "Looking For Lester".

So it's not quite job done, but it's a positive step in a more compelling direction than has been taken since the last time Nile Rodgers was on board.  Where this all winds up is somewhere entirely different, but hey - it is the Nineties, and there is time for Klax!

Join us next time for an album with "Strangers When We Meet" on.  HA!  Can't tell which one, can you?  You'll just have to tune in then, won't you?  Eh?  Yeah, you're coming back.  I got you.

Monday, July 29, 2013

A Godawful Small Affair: Extra Credit 5 "Tin Machine II"

Tin Machine: "TIN MACHINE II" (1991)

COVER: A bunch of knobs (YES!!!  The knob gags are back!)

(If you're seeing another man's junk on this cover for the first time, then let me give you a hearty "YEEEEE-HA!"  Hello, America!)
I don't own "Tin Machine II", but decided to borrow a copy from a friend for several reasons.  Number one, I wanted an excuse to meet him for several drinks, which inevitably ended with me stumbling home early in the morning, waving a sandwich of dubious origins (not a euphemism, I must add) at my recently-sleeping wife.  Also, I did those Iggy Pop albums on a much more tenuous link than this, given it's a Bowie-fronted project, so in the end I felt I had made my own bed on this one.
If you've more than a passing interest in our protagonist, you hear a lot about how bad this particular offering is, and this was my first ever listen to the article.  As such perhaps I was feeling less condemnatory than others who had lived with it for longer, but this actually starts out alright.  There's even some very pleasing squalls of guitar terror from Reeves Gabrels, which point the way towards some of the things we'll be discussing from the mid-nineties.
In fact it was all going uncannily well, when an unfamiliar sound shocked me out of my reverie: an alien voice, not like Bowie's at all.  A chameleon he may be, but this was something quite different; and then I remembered the words of my friend, as he furtively passed me the disk in the manner that one may attempt to downplay the exchange of pre-internet pornography, or Arctic Monkeys albums:
"You do know the drummer sings on this?"
Oh, he does alright.  He really, really does.  He sings in a big, huge, scenery-chewing, Joe-Cocker-asking-for-A-Little-Help-From-His-Friends style - and it's awful.  I cannot stress enough how pedestrian it renders everything.  And that's when you remember: I wouldn't be listening to this if Bowie wasn't involved.  And the illusion is shattered, never to return.
It doesn't help that the song immediately after Mr Sales' unforgettable vocal debut is "Shopping For Girls", a track purportedly about child prostitution, which is a very serious subject and all of course.  However the lyrics' tales of mattresses in rat-infested hovels and drug dependency only served to remind me of what I hated on the first album: post-Live Aid, U2-evoking, we-gotta-sort-this-out arena rock.
So goodnight, Tin Machine.  There will be no encore.  I'm not doing "Oy Vey Baby", I get away with that one on a technicality since I didn't do "David Live" or "Stage".  Next time, it's back to the solo career, and back to the fun, as Nile Rodgers comes back on board and we get "Let's Dance 2: Electric Boogaloo"! 
Except, as per usual, it didn't quite work out like that.
Join us next time for "Real Cool World"!  Yeah, that's not happening either.  Instead, get ready for one wedding and two funerals.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Engine Blood: Hungarian GP


With the Dutch not having hosted a race since 1985, which is odd since the excellently-named Zandvoort was a pretty regular fixture from the dawn of Formula One, this is our first encounter with the classic Aquafresh design of flag, albeit with a green stripe instead.  Maybe it's a knock-off brand.  Don't much fancy its whitening chances if so.
* Hungary has a knack of presenting races that are either total carnage and hugely absorbing or extremely boring processions.  Guess which today's was?
* L'il Lewis takes a win for Mercedes, meaning he now has exactly half the races wins that his cheaper colleague has managed this year.  Vettel appeared to be nursing some issues that put him out of serious contention for the win and also dropped him behind Raikkonen, and Rosberg was the only high-profile DNF.
* Elsewhere, not great news for Ricciardo, the heir apparent to the Canberra Milk Kid's number two Red Bull drive; from a promising eighth in qualifying, he finished thirteenth, one place behind his teammate.  Red Bull must know something we don't, as Vergne is apparently not even slightly in the running for promotion, despite outperforming Ricciardo this season to date and also having beaten him last season.
* Listening to races on Radio 5 is not going to catch on around here, no sir.
* Now we go into the summer break; next up it's Spa-Francorchamps, king of circuits.  The season's been a bit sketchy thus far, and whilst Vettel is leading it's still pretty open - so stay tuned to Engine Blood for all the hot pix 'n' goss!

A Godawful Small Affair: Extra Credit 4 "Tin Machine"

Tin Machine: "TIN MACHINE" (1989)

COVER: Your uncles at any given childhood wedding.

With "Tonight" and "Never Let Me Down" behind us, it's tempting to ignore what Bowie did for the rest of the eighties, as it involves two words that strike fear into the heart of even the most stalwart follower of the Dame: "Machine" and "Tin", not necessarily in that order.  This legendary band were made up of guitarist Reeves Gabrels, a rhythm section comprising brothers Hunt and Tony Sales, and one David Bowie. 

Wanting to make a drastic break from the bloated, ever-so-eighties stadium fodder that his name had latterly become synonymous with, he had decided to retreat into the relative obscurity of being a member of a band, albeit as the lead singer, so not really taking that much of a back seat.  Cue legions of disappointed journalists, as the band also split their media duties in four, meaning three people drew short straws and had to interview a less obviously compelling member of the group.

The project fails on two separate counts.  Firstly, being a product of democracy, it lacks identity, with all the music being easily described as 'general rock'.  It's hard to pick out any songs; other than the title track, which I have previous with involving Christmas dinner and wine-soaked roast potatoes and will therefore literally not be forgotten, however hard I try, and "Baby Can Dance", the arrival of which means you're about to be able to put a different album on.

Secondly, there's a general sense of them wanting to highlight social issues that they have no real insight into; admittedly, Bowie was most likely several miles ahead of the rest of the band in terms of income, but it's to be guessed that the others were no financial slouches either, so hearing them bemoan inner city living conditions or speak of a "Working Class Hero" (also ridiculous in Lennon's hands, but you take the point) rings an empty note, particularly since their general solution seems to be the rather sixties-influenced "everyone's gotta get together, man, and just kinda sort it out, 'cause it's wrong.  Wrong, I tells ya.  And I should know: I'm incredibly rich."

This is, to be fair, a departure in the canon - just not a good one, being an attempt at the kind of earnest, big-money rock 'n' roll that grunge would all but obliterate a few years later.  It also seems to have reviewed well on release, but time and perspective have not been kind to late eighties rock in general and Tin Machine more specifically.

How lucky we are that Bowie recognised this project for the creative dead end it was, and didn't do something odd like announcing he would never play his solo back catalogue again and record a second album with Tin Machine!

Hang on a minute...

Join us next time, when that stuff we just described happens.

Monday, July 15, 2013

A Godawful Small Affair: Sixteen "Never Let Me Down"


COVER: In his defence, it WAS the eighties.

Three years have passed since The Album That Shall Not Be Named, and it's finally time for a big comeback.  So after this decade's version of "Pin-Ups" must surely follow another triumphant "Diamond Dogs", another masterpiece of creativity.  Ah, but this is Bowie, and nothing is ever straightforward with that guy.  In this case, that's actually a bad thing...

Including one track that Bowie hated so much I have never heard it ("Too Dizzy", removed from the reissue I have at the man's behest; personally I don't see why he stopped the cull there, as "Tonight" would have made an acceptable EP), "Never Let Me Down" is usually held up as the worst Bowie album.  But it isn't - "Tonight" is, as I told you last time.  However, this is an uninspired, glossy yet ultimately empty offering, a triumph of style over substance, which is a phrase I've been wanting to use ever since I started journalisting.

There's the odd OK track, with the disarmingly sweet title track, the scarily focused "Time Will Crawl",  and even the much-lambasted "Glass Spider" providing solid entertainment, along with "Day-In Day-Out", but you really need to see that with the video, wherein Bowie uses clumsy metaphor to demonstrate a social conscience.  Others are just loathesome; "Zeroes" in particular is so bad it gave me a chest infection.

To put this on the Godzilla scale, where an album like "Station To Station" may compare to a masterpiece like "Terror Of Mechagodzilla", and "Tonight" comes in as the execrable "Godzilla, Minilla, Gabara: All Monsters Attack", this album equates to a low-ranking film from the Showa era, probably a "vs. Gigan" or a "vs. Megalon" - it's good enough, if you absolutely cannot get your hands on something better by the same artist that very second.

If one felt kind, one could probably make a decent argument that some of the criticism this album comes in for should be directed at the Glass Spider Tour rather than the album that inspired.  Full of visual trickery and a dance troupe - including, as promised, "conceptual" crutch-wielder Spazz Attack - that sadly couldn't be seen from the cheap seats, and often accused of having muggy sound, it's considered to be a grand failure. 

From the surviving video evidence, its main problem seems to be an attempt to strike an unsteady balance between big spectacle for the newer fans and artistic endeavour for the more established followers.  That's not to say it's rubbish per se, of course, but the concept doesn't resolve itself in any satisfying sense, which definitely suggests that if you took out all the daftness the shows wouldn't have been hurt, and may arguably have been improved by the greater clarity.

And so we bid adieu to David Bowie, Singer Songwriter and Rock Star.  Unhappy with his direction, and with a hoodlum named Reeves Gabrels in his ear, Our Dave will now attempt to take a step out of the limelight and lose himself in a rock band.  I'll tell you how that worked out soon enough...

Join us next time for - actually I haven't listened to it in a few years, so this bit isn't going to work this time.  To make up for this oversight, we present a picture of a weasel:

Sunday, July 14, 2013

One From The Vaults: Our Price/"Odelay"

Had I been moved to examine music in the mid-nineties a couple of years earlier, I might have remarked that there were only a few larger record shop brands left.  The rate of decay in the high street is now so large that attrition has taken care of every single instantly recognisable brand in that bracket but for HMV, and who knows how long that will limp on? 

This startling demise has been blamed, variously, on the rush to embrace the sale of electronic doo-dads, the supply chain problems caused by Woolworths' collapse, the rise of online retailers (arrogantly dismissed by former HMV chiefs, with disastrous results) and supermarkets increasingly offering the goods at prices so low that the high street can't afford to undercut it.  The upshot of this is that I'm sure most musically-minded people of my age who lived in a small town has tales of a chain sorely missed.

I don't think my town of Bedford was alone in having a branch of Our Price as its major music-specific outlet.  The retail chain with the iconic red logo started up in the seventies but really took hold in the eighties, with spin-offs including specific stores for VHS sales, eventually numbering hundreds of locations and sometimes several in the same area.

When I reached my teenaged years, there was a certain stigma about buying records at Woolworths or WH Smiths, as if you were somehow circumventing the music industry - I suppose that's a bit like buying a CD at Tesco these days - so Our Price was the place for more widely-available CDs, favourable over the less predictable stocking and incorrect alphabetising of Andy's Records.  This was an argument that paid no mind to WH Smith actually owning the Our Price brand, but hey - we were young, and it was the nineties.

The Bedford store was a triumph of function over space, as the thin store was crammed with stock.  Not so the Milton Keynes branch - that was a two-floor monster, seeming to showcase every major-label release and a good deal of smaller ones.  Jobs, when they came up, were the holy grail for to a certain section of young adults, with empty pockets largely from the purchase of records, who recognised the chance to kill two birds with one stone.  I was unable to get a job there, as it's not like they were short of choice.

The rot set in in the late nineties, not just for the chain at large but for the Bedford branch in particular.  On the same street, a newly-opened MVC with a comparatively huge size was battling for sales, whilst WH Smith sold the stores and the Virgin Megastore chain to the Virgin group in 1998, who set about a vicious rebranding.  Hence one day we had a "VShop" instead, which eventually turned into a mobile phone shop.  With Andy's in similarly bad shape, and collectors' favourite Sounds Good To Me Too also gone, young pretender MVC was the last high street record store standing - and even that focused almost entirely on DVDs.

Our Price were by no means the last chain to get the plug pulled on them, but are probably the one I miss the most.  For records you could get outside of specialist shops, Our Price was my default destination, unless a trip to London and their sprawling HMV and Tower Records stores was in my near future.  The high street has seemed somehow less colourful without it - though Vodafone's colours are exactly the same, so...  Erm... (Quick, cut to the review!)

BECK "Odelay" (Geffen, 1996)

FOUND: Through super-cool single "Where It's At" on MTV Europe and the radio.  Purchased in a controversial "cash-for-voucher" deal involving Wolf People frontman Jack Sharp, whereby an unwanted Our Price voucher was purchased from said gent and used to procure the album.  I was buying it anyway so everyone was happy.

THE SELL: Beck was catapulted to fame with the track "Loser", which struck a sympathetic chord with the fashionably-jaded MTV Generation, though to be honest I'm still not too keen on the track myself.  Signed to Geffen, who had a proven track record of giving more alternative artists the freedom to express themselves and a half-decent wage, he was given an excellent platform to present himself.

This album helped cast off his mantle of one-hit wonder, spawning about twenty singles and establishing him as a household name (in relative terms, anyway).  He was also tokenised as one of the few American acts who were 'allowed' to be saluted during the Britpop era, as an example of a US act offering something a bit different from the post-grunge malaise.

THREE KINGS: Without wishing to be predictable, super-cool single "Where It's At" and the dynamic and unusual "The New Pollution" have to be in the top three.  The album is eclectic enough that most people would probably be able to choose different favourites, but I'd have to plump for the schizophrenic barn-burner "Novocaine" myself.

WORST TRACK: The comparatively uninteresting "Sissyneck" was a properly odd choice for a single, even it was about the eighth released from the album.  However, this writer doesn't listen to "Ramshackle" much, as it was the first song he heard after getting the news that his grandfather was dead.

ALSO TRY: The next album proper ("Mutations" doesn't count, as it is rubbish) "Midnite Vultures" is a cod soul experiment that largely hits the mark, and later on "Guero" is almost the spiritual successor to "Odelay", mixing excellent pop tunes with more eclectic fare.

BUT AVOID: I hear "Mutations" is rubbish!  Perhaps a little harsh, as it has a few decent tunes, but the while thing is so mumbly and plucky that it's hard to make it out through the fog.  The albums before "Odelay" are also hit and miss, to put it very kindly, and "Sea Change" is immensely depressing.

MAGIC MOMENT: At Glastonbury 1997, in unbelievably boggy conditions, Beck encores with "High 5", clad in a white rhinestone suit.  Unlike every other band that weekend, he does not get mud thrown at him.

Engine Blood: German GP

* Welcome back to the column that's controversial, so stinging, such a thorn in the side of the established motorsport press that it now has to operate on a court-mandated one week delay, which explains plausibly why this is a week late going up and that's definitely why, so there, ENGINE BLOOD!


One of the classics here, and we like the bold use of black, an underrated and under-used hue in the banners business.  Of course the really interesting thing about the flag, and this is utterly fascinating, is tha...
-------------------------URGENT PAUL DI RESTA UPDATE------------------------------
We interrupt this magnificently memorable story with the news that there has been a change in Paul Di Resta's nationality!
Yes, after an unassuming eleventh place characterised only by his usual combination of childish petulance and generation of all-encompassing ennui, his mood may have been brightened to hear that he has officially, if indirectly, been taken the heart of the larger UK populace.  For it has come to pass that:
Paul Di Resta is BRITISH, as all Scotsmen are now temporarily British to allow the whole country to benefit from Andy Murray's Wimbledon win, during which he played exactly one good player.
A quite extraordinary situation developing here, we're sure you'll agree.  We now return you to this quite excellent and never to be repeated anecdote, already in progress.
...ere we get the phrase "Sleeping Policeman" from!
* Vettel finally won on home soil, and despite the late pitstops adding some intrigue to proceedings there wasn't much doubt about the result.  A Mercedes pole on a track that allows overtaking has increasingly been shown to spell victory for someone else, with the Silver Arrows having an embarrassingly bad race pace for a front running team at present.
Elsewhere, Williams' sizable woes continue as the team failed to take any points in their 600th race.  And Massa - that guy just can't catch a break.  It was a bad day to be an onlooker as well, as a brave journo got absolutely flattened by an errant wheel from Mark Webber, who has obviously had his Dick Dastardly weaponry from Bahrain 2010 reinstalled.  "Drat, and double drat!  I was aiming for Seb", is a quote our lawyers advise us we should not in any attribute to Mr Webber.
* It's little while until the next race, but in the meantime we have the "Young Driver" test at Silverstone.  The quote marks should show that something's up, and indeed it is, for this year it is a misnomer - with Raikkonen being the first name announced (the real one, not a son or nephew), it's become clear that the tyre situation has persuaded the FIA to allow an experienced driver for each team to take part.
This has raised the ire of Mercedes, who have been banned from the test as a fall-out from the infinitely boring and inadequately reported "Tyregate" scandal of a couple of months ago.  To which the only logical answer is: shouldn't have cheated, then.
And THAT's all the blood that's fit to drain!