Monday, August 27, 2007

Jukebox Juicebox #34

Julian Cope “You Gotta Problem With Me” (2007)
It’s been a couple of years since Julian Cope released a brace of albums – Citizen Cain’d and Dark Orgasm – that signified a return to form of sorts. The Arch Drude has not resting on his laurels in the meantime, finishing the Japrocksampler tome, overseeing the deluxe re-release of Jehovahkill on Island as well no less than four albums on his own Head Heritage label (live compilation Concert Climax, Rite Bastard’s twin slabs of psych-prog, early solo demos collection Christ Versus Warhol and another ballsy rocker from side project Brain Donor). You Gotta Problem With Me follows the template of previous Cope releases, with thirteen songs over two CDs (or “sides”, in a nod to vinyl albums of old). Given Cope’s justified stance against environmental greedheads, and the album’s running time of under an hour, I question the necessity of the album’s 2CD, jewel case plus cardboard slipcase packaging. That said, it looks great and, as ever, the CD booklet is chock-full of photos, lyrics, poems and short articles/essays. But the important thing is the music and whether Cope has delivered another modern classic. Well, it’s fair to say that You Gotta Problem With Me will be no surprise to anyone who has followed Julian Cope’s self-released albums and a disappointment to those praying for a return to the commercial heyday of Saint Julian, Peggy Suicide or even Interpreter.

As with Dark Orgasm, the album opens with a nod to Jehovahkill, Doctor Know’s musical template in this case being Upwards At 45 Degrees, an urgent vocal and downtempo guitar leading to an inevitable three-minute wig-out. It’s a good, if not spectacular, start with Cope’s opening line ‘I may flake out tonight if I cannot get my way’ a warning of things to come. If fact, things kick in as early with track 2, Cope’s unintelligible mumbling (translated in the CD booklet) on the two-minute Beyond Rome coming across like an intro without a song. The equally brief Soon To Forget Ya starts off unpromisingly with a lengthy spoken word piece, a frequently used Cope device that’s never been a personal favourite. Things pick up in the second half with an insistent acoustic-led refrain of 'Don’t fall in love ‘cause you know that I’m sure to forget you', Cope adopting a bizarre early David Bowie cockney accent. Possibly anticipating dissent in the ranks at this point, Cope screams 'Shut the fuck up' at the title track’s start. It’s an unapologetic rock song, though the "parental advisory" lyrics and intentionally annoying interference and screeching permeating You Gotta Problem With Me will inevitably preclude mainstream radio play (as it that matters). The political passions are still burning, most notably on They Gotta Different Way of Doing Things and Can’t Get You Out Of My Country which, oddly enough, are also the album’s grooviest moments. The former’s swinging rhythm questions attitudes to women and homosexuality in the Middle East, with some typically wry observations (‘some guys were holding hands / they said “it’s tradition, we are not gay” / but there were no women out on the streets / and I wondered what Allah would say’). Can’t Get You Out Of My Country has a Doors-sy vibe reminiscent of Cope’s own Reynard The Fox. Again, static interference is laid over the song in great swathes, for no apparent reason. If the album was on a major label, you’d suspect that Cope was attempting to sabotage an obvious single choice; as it’s not, it suggests a need for greater external influence on the production side of things.

It's fair to say that much of Cope’s recent work has suffered from frustratingly inconsistent production and You Gotta Problem With Me is no exception. The intriguingly titled Peggy Suicide Is A Junkie has a bass-heavy sound, with vocals pushed so deep into the mix that they’re almost indecipherable, undermining any potential lyrical value. By contrast, A Child Is Born In Cerrig-Y-Drudion benefits from an unfussy acoustic arrangement, vocals to the fore … and from having full lyrics available in the CD booklet. Subsequent track Woden is even better, with an urgent, repetitive acoustic chord sequence and Cope adopting a faltering falsetto. It sounds like it could have been inspired by 1984’s O King Of Chaos, which wouldn’t be a surprise as a great version was included in Cope’s live set last year. Ballad Sick Love sounds like a rough demo, with rough synth piano, harmonica, deep vocals and climatic squalling guitar, yet for all that it's an effective song. Vampire State Building is built around the funereal elements of Beethoven’s Symphony No.5, casting the USA as the titular Vampire State and George Dubya as Nazi Doodle. Hidden Doorways, on the other hand, is a far more personal reflection on Cope’s role as ‘savant guardian’, noting that ‘it’s the promise of death that keeps me alive’. The song is built on a drum machine backing and a naggingly familiar new wave guitar riff - I’m thinking the bridge from John Cougar Mellencamp’s Jack And Diane, which is an unexpected influence if true. Final track Shame Shame Shame is sadly not a cover of Jimmy Reed’s 1963 smash, but another acoustic song in the same vein as Woden. Another overtly political number (‘[…] genocidal leaders […] rape our heads and feed us pure damn lies, brazen compromise’, ‘let there be instant karma on every battery farmer’) it’s a powerful song, though feels a little out of place as the album closer. The song attempts to address this with a climatic rock out, but even this is undermined by a premature fade out after less than a minute.

On reflection, You Gotta Problem With Me is an frustrating contrast of songwriting genius, self-indulgence and patchy production that will challenge even the most committed Julian Cope fan. "Side Two" is perhaps to best way to approach the album as a first-time listener, as it’s the most immediately accessible clutch of songs, but it's worth sticking with the album as a whole as it will grow on you. Looking ahead, let’s hope the forthcoming re-release of a deluxe edition Peggy Suicide inspires Julian Cope. And a decent producer wouldn’t go amiss either.

[CD1]: 1. Doctor Know 2. Beyond Rome 3. Soon To Forget Ya 4. You Gotta Problem With Me 5. They Gotta Different Way of Doing Things 6. Peggy Suicide Is A Junkie

[CD2]: 1. A Child Is Born In Cerrig-Y-Drudion 2. Woden 3. Sick Love 4. Can’t Get You Out Of My Country 5. Vampire State Building 6. Hidden Doorways 7. Shame Shame Shame

Buy the album on Julian Cope's official website

Previous Julian Cope reviews on Bellyflop:
Citizen Cain'd / Dark Orgasm
Live In Bristol, 20 Feb 2006
Live Japan '91

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Jukebox Juicebox #33

Robert Forster & Grant McLennan “Intermission” (2007)
In the wake of Grant McLennan’s untimely death last year, a reappraisal of his solo career (and that of fellow Go-Between co-founder Robert Forster) is long overdue. A single CD and thirteen tracks apiece seems rather miserly, particularly given McLennan’s prodigious solo output. And ignore the ‘best of’ sub-title - listen to these compilations as primers rather than comprehensive overviews. It’s immediately apparent how effortlessly the songs complement one another: you can shuffle the tracklistings or even compile your own pseudo-Go-Betweens album from these songs; the end results will still sound perfect. A lazy shorthand summary of the music on Intermission could describe Robert Forster’s CD as earnest and intelligent (alt.) country, McLennan’s as simple, acoustic-led folk tales and love songs. The country and western references in the Forster’s songs are easy to spot: liberal use of slide guitar, pedal steel and violin; lyrics that dwell on past relationships and rekindling the fires of lost love; even a C&W cover version in Frisco Depot. Yet, Forster’s songs have always opted for complexity over simplicity and this is obvious after just a single listen. Danger In The Past, the title track from his 1990 debut solo album, is a prime example. The narrator’s account of being drawn back into the life of a friend who has recently been hospitalised (sectioned?) is hauntingly beautiful. The repetition of the title throughout the song emphasises the poignancy of the verses, notably the choice line “…I took your hand and I told you never show your problems in a country town.” I’m reminded of The Modern Lovers’ Hospital and I think it’s fair to draw parallels between Jonathan Richman and Robert Forster. On a different note, Danger In The Past (both the song and album) was produced by Mick Harvey, whose contributions on piano add a melancholy that underpins Forster’s searching lyrics. Forster’s final solo album included here, 1996’s Warm Nights, similarly benefits from an influential producer and guest musician, Edwyn Collins. In keeping with the album’s title, Collins brings a warmth to the three songs included on Intermission, his distinctive guitar enabling high point Cryin’ Love to rock out in an early 1970s style. I feel compelled to offer some criticism and it is that the album is topped and tailed by Falling Star. Despite being a great song, two versions are not required, especially given the limited selection of tracks on offer. Personally, I would have ditched Mick Harvey’s original version from 1990, as the version on 1992’s Calling From A Country Phone benefits from a superior, more spacious re-recorded take. It also seems somewhat out of place to add a cover version though, given that 1994’s I Had A New York Girlfriend featured nothing but covers, inescapable. I’m not heard Mickey Newbury’s 1971 original of Frisco Depot or, for that matter, Waylon Jennings or Scott Walker’s versions from 1972 and 1973 respectively. It’s impossible to guess whether Forster’s languid take observes or ignores any of these though, to a certain extent, it’s a moot point as in my opinion it’s the compilation’s only slight dip in quality.

Unlike Forster’s ‘mix and match’ approach, Grant McLennan’s CD2 follows a strict chronological progression through his four solo albums. Things get off to cracking start with 1991’s Haven’t I Been A Fool and Easy Come Easy Go, their immediacy and accessibility begging the question why both weren’t mainstream radio smashes and blasting out of car windows everywhere that summer. Black Mule, the final selection from debut solo album Watershed and recently featured on last year’s stunning Go-Betweens live DVD/CD That Striped Sunlight Sound, is a great example of McLennan’s lyrical skill. Evoking Australia’s past in the song’s main tale of a prospector, McLennan switches in the final verse to a man “walking down a Beirut Street” who is blown up by a car bomb. This juxtaposition of observations that “life can be cruel” should jar, but somehow works. The similarly wonderful Hot Water, a violin-led ballad, opens with the line “I read about your death in the paper when I was buying tomato seed”. The narrator reflects on a past spent “carrying our flowers to the barricades watching them cops kick down the door” whilst living in a present “seeing my payin’ horses foam” under a “big old sun”. It’s a moving song, McLennan’s economy of lyric and melody understating the true depth of his writing. The closing trio of songs from 1997’s final solo album In Your Bright Ray demonstrate that whilst McLennan’s songs had not evolved in the way that Forster’s arguably had, his basic template had been refined and near as dammit perfected. This is evident in the closing title track, which could just as easily sit on The Go-Betweens’ 2000 comeback album The Friends Of Rachel Worth. And that in essence is why entitling this compilation Intermission is so appropriate. Robert Forster and Grant McLennan’s solo ventures provided an opportunity for the artists with room to breathe outside of The Go-Betweens, to develop and hone their formidable songwriting skills; in retrospect, their reunion seemed inevitable. Another good title for this compilation would be Chrysalis, but Intermission really says it all; the fact that it was chosen by Grant McLennan makes it even more apt. Whether you are familiar with The Go-Betweens or not, you really do need to check out this beautifully packaged compilation. And, once you’ve fallen in love with it – and believe me, you will – then the desire to explore the rest of Robert Forster and Grant McLennan’s back catalogue will be a natural next step.

[Robert Forster CD1]: 1. Falling Star 2. Baby Stones 3. 121 4. I’ve Been Looking For Somebody 5. I’ll Jump 6. Beyond Their Law 7. I Can Do 8. The Circle 9. Cryin’ Love 10. The River People 11. Frisco Depot 12. Danger In The Past 13. Falling Star (Original Version)

[Grant McLennan CD2]: 1. Haven’t I Been A Fool 2. Easy Come Easy Go 3. Black Mule 4. The Dark Side Of Town 5. Lighting Fires 6. Surround Me 7. No Peace In The Palace 8. Hot Water 9. I’ll Call You Wild 10. Horsebreaker Star 11. Malibu 69 12. One Plus One 13. In Your Bright Ray

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