Monday, October 31, 2005

Jukebox Juicebox #4

The Go-Betweens “Oceans Apart”
I had the unfortunately bad timing to pick up on The Go-Betweens with the “1978-1990” compilation... which turned out to be a posthumous release. Although I enjoyed what I heard of Robert Forster and Grant McLennan’s subsequent solo output, there was something missing, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Oddly enough, even though I was overjoyed to hear that The Go-Betweens had reformed in 2000, I didn’t actually go out and buy their new records. I guess I was nervous that the partnership responsible for so many instantly classic songs – “People Say”, “The House Jack Kerouac Built”, “Secondhand Furniture”, “Draining The Pool For You” – would find it almost impossible to recreate that synergy, that magic. Like the closing song on “1978-1990” warned, “You Won’t Find It Again”. So, “Oceans Apart”, released in April this year, was the album to draw me back into the fold. Even then, it took six months and numerous glowing reviews to convince me to put my reservations to one side and give it a try. And I’ve been kicking myself for being such an idiot ever since… Energetic opening track, “Here Comes A City”, immediately puts any fears to rest. Taking the listener on a train journey, which name checks Etterzhausen and Frankfurt but contains universally recognisable visual references, Forster’s capacity for wry observation is unchecked. ‘Why do people who read Dostoevsky always look like Dostoevsky?’ he muses, as ‘passing stations’ and ‘cloud scratchers’ flash by. McLennan’s ability to craft heartfelt, timeless songs is equally strong. It’s folk in the sense that you can imagine these songs being passed from one generation to the next. “Finding You”, “Boundary Rider” and “This Night’s For You” are great examples of this. That’s not to say that McLennan has more straightforward approach to his lyrics. “No Reason To Cry” contains some typically sharp lines: ‘For days we fought across the globe / You bit my tongue on a Lisbon road’; ‘Been fifteen years since we last spoke / The wounds have healed on my throat’. McLennan’s plaintive and repeated chorus of the song’s title is wonderfully complemented by Forster’s backing vocal. “Darlinghurst Nights” takes Forster on a (possibly autobiographical?) nostalgia trip, recalling ‘gut rot rock ‘n’ rock through the eyes of Frank Brunetti’ (an Australian music writer and former keyboard player with Died Pretty). Drily, Forster’s narrator claims ‘I’m going to change my appearance everyday’ as he lists people ‘who we never ever saw again’ and the music sweeps forward to it’s climax. Closing track, “The Mountains Near Dellray” offers simple advice: ‘And when you make the wish. / And when you get the wish. / Never let it go, it’s no struggle.’ “Oceans Apart” is 10 songs and 40 minutes of musical beauty. Buy it, love it and never let it go.

Julian Cope “Live Japan ‘91”

Live albums are a dodgy proposition, often seeming like contractural obligations and rarely capturing the excitement of ‘being there’. That said, Julian Cope never fails to disappoint in concert and, aurally, this 1991 set translates well to record, finding the Arch Drude at the top of his game. A remastered official 2004 release of an infamous bootleg, featuring original sleeve artwork (typos and all) the sound quality is excellent. Largely drawing on triumphant comeback - and magnum opus - “Peggy Suicide”, there are invigorating versions of “East Easy Rider”, “Pristeen” and “Beautiful Love”. Typically, Cope is not afraid to dig deeper into the past, unearthing “Bill Drummond Said” and the mighty “Sunspots” from his 2nd solo album “Fried”, and resurrecting The Teardrop Explodes’ “Sleeping Gas” as a 9-minute behemoth. ‘Lost’ albums “Droolian” and “Skellington” also get a look in, with versions of “Yeah Yeah Yeah” and “Out Of My Mind On Dope And Speed” respectively. Appropriately, Cope bows out with the rock monster “World Shut Your Mouth”. Fans will need no argument to visit and pick up a copy of the mail-order only CD. As a taster of Julian Cope’s creative genius and an example of how exciting live albums can sound, this is an ideal introduction.

The Beta Band “Music: The Best Of The Beta Band / Live At The Shepherds Bush Empire”

Discovering The Beta Band early on, through 1998’s “The Patty Patty Sound” and “Los Amigos Del Beta Bandidos”, I was immediately drawn to their strange mix of REM-esque obtuse lyrics, latter period Talk Talk atmospherics, and a dislocated dance sensibility. “The Three EP’s”, which collected these plus first release “Champion Versions”, remains one of my favourite records. For some reason, I never bought the ‘proper’ albums that followed, possibly because the reviews and infrequently heard singles fuelled my suspicion that The Beta Band had set a standard that they could never quite match. And so, does this posthumous collection set the record straight, so to speak? Well… not really. Compiled chronologically by album, unsurprisingly the four selections from “The Three EP’s” excite the most. Opener “Dry The Rain” is a particular standout, exposed to a wider audience through the film “High Fidelity” and sadly not the massive breakthrough for the band that it should have been. 1999’s “It’s Not Too Beautiful”, whilst ambitious, awkwardly shoehorns in admittedly epic-sounding samples from Disney movie “The Black Hole”. There are momentary flashes of inspiration in 2001’s “Squares” and “Human Being”, plus “Easy” and “Troubles” from 2004 swansong “Heroes To Zeros”. However, there’s a sense that The Beta Band were becoming increasingly demotivated by their lack of success, hardly surprising given the consistency of their material. That said, the accompanying live CD recorded on their farewell tour portrays an energised band. Again, “The Three EP’s” is well represented with six songs, including a rousing, uptempo version of “Dr Baker” and closing with “Dog’s Got A Bone” and “The House Song”. I’d still recommend “The Three EP’s” as an ideal primer, but “Music” is a worthy retrospective, especially if you can get hold of the limited 2CD version.

Fad Gadget “Under The Flag”

Originally released in 1982, the third Fad Gadget album is a direct comment on being British during the Falklands War. Re-released in 1991 (coinciding with the first Gulf conflict), I picked this up recently in a second-hand CD shop, to replace my crackling, worn-out vinyl copy. With the protracted British presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, the album’s lyrical content continues to resonate. Despite being tagged as a leftfield electronic artist, there are traces of the folk tradition in Frank Tovey’s songs, notably the processed accapella of “Plainsoing”, which he would exploit more fully in 1989’s “Tyranny And The Hired Hand” and his two subsequent albums with The Pyros. Tovey’s scepticism of the government’s justifications for war is obvious, “For Whom The Bells Toll” cynically responding “If I’ve heard them once, I’ve heard them a thousand times before.” The title track’s dismissal that “the script is so damned obvious” could easily be applied to Margaret Thatcher’s cod-Churchill proclamations at the time. Paraphrasing the familiar World War II slogan in “Cipher”, “Careless talk can cost lives” also implies that criticism of the government’s pro-war stance is seen as unpatriotic, even treasonous, whilst “The Sheep Look Up” is a self-explanatory expose of the ‘go with the flow’ masses, never questioning the information they are supplied with. The tone throughout is sombre, yet surprisingly rich and layered, with unsettlingly muted contributions from Alison Moyet on backing vocals and saxophone. Occasionally the tempo picks up but, as the title of robo-disco stomp “Love Parasite” suggests, this doesn’t represent an escape into hedonistic club culture. “Under The Flag” was the last fully electronic Fad Gadget album: 1984’s “Gag” sought a more organic sound, further developed in Frank Tovey’s ‘solo’ albums. 2001’s “Best Of” reasserted his Fad Gadget persona as an electronic pioneer, and his sole new contribution – a rework of “Swallow It” – promised much, making his premature death the following year all the more tragic. “Under The Flag” is not comfortable listening – and rightly so – but it’s political message is one that’s sorely lacking in this generation’s electronic artists.