Friday, February 28, 2014

A Godawful Small Affair: Twenty-Three "Reality"

"REALITY" (2003)

COVER: Oh - I get it!

Having been slightly unprepared for my own strength of ill feeling, or least lack of feeling, towards "Heathen", I approached "Reality" with substantial trepidation.  Let's get this bit out of the way now: it is better than "Heathen".  It's nowhere near the top of the tree, but it's perfectly serviceable and with a fair few good tracks.
There's one other thing that it most definitely is: cool.  Not, however, the sort of effortless cool you might associate with The Fonz, or "Where It's At" by Beck, or a SUDA 51 game; no, this is the kind of cool that's worked hard at, like a teenage wardrobe, Matt Smith as Doctor Who or a post-Strokes indie band.  It's full of itself and screams it from the rooftops - and that's not always bad, but it does make the album come off a wee bit smug at times.
Witness the cover of Jonathan Richman's "Pablo Picasso".  Whilst not as wholly uninspiring as the last album's Pixies cover, it's like a collision of good bits of music and ideas, but too many of them at once, with Bowie throwing the lyrics on top wherever they fit.  Or "Fall Dog Bombs The Moon", which is so laid back it keeps stopping.  Or "New Killer Star", which has a good verse and a good chorus - apparently from different songs.
Then there's the closing track, "Bring Me The Disco King".  It's said that this was an idea that he'd had knocking around for quite some time, trying to figure out what to do with it.  The answer seems to have been to make a very loose-limbed, lounging crawl across the finish line.  It's not bad at all, but you get the feeling it thinks it's better than you - or maybe that's me being paranoid again.
Also, "Try Some, Buy Some" can fuck off.
But hey!  "The Loneliest Guy" is a cracking ballad, with good use of empty spaces, and "Fall Dog Bombs The Moon" actually is a very good offering, despite teetering under the weight of its own cool.  Even "Reality" itself is a bombastic track to send the album into the home straight, like a latter-day "Suffragette City".
Moreover, this album leaves an impression, unlike its predecessor.  And this is important, because for a long time we thought this might be the last of Bowie; after a cardiac incident, and that horrible episode with the lollipop in the eye, he withdrew from the recording industry for an indefinite period that started to seem more permanent as time went on.  This may have been the last thing he left for us: an album that tries hard and largely succeeds, full of what in retrospect seemed like coded references to retirement and death.
Join us next time for...

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Godawful Small Affair: Twenty-Two "Heathen"

"HEATHEN" (2002)

COVER: Laser Eye Surgery: The Horrible Truth

"Nothing remains..."
Well, we're off to an optimistic start here, aren't we?  A logical progression from "Hours...", towards the more mid-paced reflective, and - dare we utter that worst of musical profanities - adult-oriented material, and one track into the album we're straight into Maudlinville, with nowt but a one way ticket.
Contrary to the popular D:Ream song of the late nineties, I fear things cannot only get better.  DB's covers output has been patchy, as evidenced by "Pin Ups" and "Tonight".  Here he tackles "Cactus" by the Pixies, with little added but some funny noises and an extended midsection; it's still infinitely better than the following "Slip Away", which is a painful crawl through what appears to be an attempt at a heartfelt... Something.  I'm not entirely sure what, but something.
So we're a quarter of the way through the album and nothing has really switched me on yet; even by this point on "Tonight" we'd already had "Loving The Alien".  So the question must be asked: is this as bad?  The answer - of course - is no.  It's largely original material, rather than the jaded, mid-tour covers on the earlier selection, and it's inoffensive to the ears.
But let's consider that for a minute: here is an utterly inoffensive David Bowie album.  I've tried to think of the albums I've reviewed negatively in this series, or less gushingly at the very least, and I don't think I've ever been at such a loss for words before. 
"Tonight" certainly makes its presence felt, even if it is an unwanted one; "Black Tie White Noise" won't bloody shut up with that saxophone; "Pin Ups" is stuffed with classic songs, if not classic versions thereof; and "Space Oddity" and "Young Americans" have some great tracks and are fantastic genre pieces, just in genres I'm less familiar or comfortable with.  Plus there's the Tin Machine stuff, which I still managed to get a few gags out of.  All of these have talking points...  "Heathen", for this writer at least, simply doesn't.
What's good here?  Well, "Slow Burn" has an appropriate title, but at least it does burn, showing that this style of music needn't be boring.  "Everyone Says 'Hi'" is a nice little song, loaded with a wistful message that any ex-patriot of country or town would want to hear, though it does get a bit tiresome when he starts listing absolutely everyone who says 'hi' - "and your cousin Fred/and his daughter June/and Queeg from Red Dwarf/and Blue Monster (Munches)/and former Gretna striker and medical doctor, Kenny Deuchar/and Larry 'The Ax' Hennig" and so forth (which is totally unnecessary since he has already stated, quite unequivocally, that everyone says 'hi', and since that includes, well, everyone, there's really no need to go any further into it - not to mention that it's grammatically troubling to hear that you can add people to 'everyone', since 'everyone' AND "the guy upstairs" is more people than 'everyone', which is an impossibility on the level of schoolyard favourite 'infinity plus one'...  Sorry, where was I?)
To sum up: this is album that will quite happily go by in the background, and that's not what I personally look for in a Bowie album.
Join us next time for something that I will hopefully be able to actually write something about.

Monday, February 17, 2014

One From The Vaults: Mark And Lard/"Fuzzy Logic"

Ah, the graveyard shift.  Perfectly positioned for insomniac students of all ages, the ten to midnight slot, Mondays to Thursdays on BBC Radio One will forever be associated with two northern English scamps - at least by people of a certain age; they may be broadcasting live snuff porno in that slot now for all I know, or worse than that, bloody Zane Lowe.

From 1993 to 1997, Mark and Lard were contemporary tastemakers to the young and the restless, a pair of hip older brothers with an extensive and varied record collection and an initially impenetrable sense of humour.  DJs Mark Radcliffe and Marc "Lard" Riley, the latter of whom was a former victim of Mark E. Smith (all Marks today, eh?), built a safe space for the musically curious with their casual delivery and championing of the unlikely.

Aside from playing the latest indie hits - and what a fertile period it was for that, let's face it - they would also spin some older selections, helping me to draw a line through music and connect the influences to my latest favourites and slowly warming me to the idea that newer wasn't necessarily better.

There were also the live sessions, which I and many others would capture on a spare TDK D90 for posterity: Marion and Mansun spring to mind, as getting their sessions on tape tripled the amount of music I had to listen to by them, but there was also Nick Cave breaking the epic slaughter of "O'Malley's Bar" into three parts, either The Tindersticks or Babybird appearing what seemed like every single night and of course the mighty Salad, whose performance of "Kiss My Love" was nearly derailed by some impromptu animal noises by an errant backing vocalist.

(Whilst I remembered these, I also did a bit of research at, which is well worth a look - and if anyone's got a recording of that excellent looking "Now I Got Worry" era Jon Spencer Blues Explosion session, please do get in touch!)

There were contests both real and ridiculous, an intriguingly pretentious section with a featured musician reading poetry or prose (and usually plugging a latest release at the same time), the rising of cinematic curmudgeon and unconvincing greaser Mark Kermode, parody songs by the bucketload, "Fanfare" by Eric Matthews and the show where they had an extra pip for the re-calibration of Greenwich Mean Time, but Lard lost it, which on paper doesn't make any bloody sense at all now I think about it but it's staying in nonetheless.

Success actually did come a-knockin', and the writing was slowly appearing on the wall for the late night wonderland as the unlikely pair gradually, and presumably at least partially accidently, grabbed a heaping handful of the zeitgeist, and as such were sucked in to the Radio 1 Breakfast Show upon Chris Evans' final throwing of toys from pram in 1997. 

This was not a fantastic move - in part as their humour had to be toned down for a pre-watershed audience, in further part due to the musical restrictions placed upon them, and in yet another part due to Evans' gleeful scuttling of the ship - but it did lead them to a more comfortable early afternoon slot, where they gave this now-employed member of society a whole bunch more chuckles at lunchtime, and found time to play the odd graveyard smash, before their tearful break-up in 2004.

SUPER FURRY ANIMALS "Fuzzy Logic" (Creation, 1996)

FOUND: I can't pretend to have been on board since their first release - the "Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (In Space)" EP - but Mark and Lard brought the lead single from this album, "Hometown Unicorn", to my attention.  An extremely short snippet of the video was also shown on The Big Breakfast; Jesus, remember that show?  The hell was that all about?

The album was purchased instead of dinner from Bedford's Our Price, during the wait between Media Studies and Computer Studies lessons and soon after the death of my cat Fizzy, after a typographical mix-up in the NME caused me to think there was a track on the album called "Fizzy Birds".  Well, "I" is next to "U" on the keyboard, so I suppose it's forgivable.

THE SELL: "Britpop" was a bit of a misnomer, referring as it usually did to English bands making their traditional regional music, usually split into Northern and Southern camps.  Very few interlopers were allowed at the party; arguably, more Swedish bands got swept up in the palaver than did the other British countries.

Super Furry Animals were one of two medium-profile Welsh bands (the other being Gorky's Zygotic Mynci) who were co-opted into the empty party, despite making psychedelic-flavoured music with lyrics written in Welsh, rather than the English used the country's last alternative export, the Manic Street Preachers.  For this, their first album on the uber-cool Creation Records, they did deign to sing in English, inarguably bringing them more crossover appeal.

THREE KINGS: Otherworldly and with a hint of sinister overtones, first single "Hometown Unicorn" sounded like nothing else that was being done at the time.  Three more singles were released from the album, most of which were great, but I remember the noisy mayhem of "Frisbee" and the extended chug of "Hangin' With Howard Marks" more fondly.

WORST TRACK: I was never keen on "Something For The Weekend", though apparently I am simply wrong about that, as a rerecorded version was issued as a single and promptly broke the band into the top twenty for the first time.

ALSO TRY: Follow-up album "Radiator" lacked pace, though that wasn't necessarily a bad thing (though "Demons" went on for about ten hours), which leads me to prefer third album "Guerilla", which expands the instrumentation and use of electronics to produce a hugely inventive album.  However, SFA achieved perfection with the "Ice Hockey Hair" EP; there is no greater crystallisation of their range of styles than said four-track artefact.  Go and get it.  Now.

BUT AVOID: Every album since their return to the Welsh language on "Mwng" has left me cold, with "Rings Around The World" being the last I bought.  It would be improper of me not to add that the odd good single has still been produced since, so I am always open-minded with regards to their new material.

MAGIC MOMENT: Not so much a moment, but this was THE album to have amongst my peer group towards the end of 1996, and 'twas I who cottoned to it first.  On such things the world once revolved.