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John Foxx: The Quiet Man (2009) August 16, 2009

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John Foxx: The Quiet Man

John Foxx: The Quiet Man

The remarkably productive John Foxx has now had four CD releases this year, and more are expected. The Quiet Man isn’t a conventional musical release, though; it’s somewhere between an ambient music album and an audiobook.

Since early in his solo career Foxx has been writing short, surreal pieces of fiction about the Quiet Man. He’s reportedly been working them into a book, due possibly this year, but in the meantime, he’s recorded a an album of ambient music with Quiet Man texts read by Justin Barton. Foxx himself read part of the material on a previous CD, but apparently felt the anonymity of the Quiet Man character would be aided by having someone with a London accent, rather than Foxx’s northern accent, reading the material.

The Quiet Man is an odd album to listen to. You can’t just listen to it as music because the focus of the recording is on the spoken words. But the surreal nature of many of the stories, and the quiet ambient music in the background, make it easy at times to drift away and forget to listen closely enough. I’m tempted to listen to it with a printout of the relevant texts available on the Metamatic website, to focus my concentration and see if there are differences between the written and recorded versions.

If there’s an ideal listener out there who hasn’t yet heard of John Foxx, that person would probably be someone who enjoys reading J.G. Ballard’s short stories while listening to Harold Budd. For people who are already fans, buying it shouldn’t take much thought. As I posted on the Metamatic forum, it’s a remarkable work. The Quiet Man isn’t something new; it’s always been there in the background, little excerpts showing up here and there over the years, but this is the most sustained exposure we’ve had to it yet. Foxx’s lyrics, and the track titles of his instrumental pieces, have always been strongly evocative, instantly generating images in the mind’s eye. The Quiet Man draws those words and images together, linking the seemingly disparate grey concrete world of Metamatic and the lush and verdant world of The Garden, among others, while also giving me a lot of flashbacks to reading JG Ballard, walking alone through unfamiliar cities, being lost in movies…

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Buzzcocks: Buzzcocks (2003) August 16, 2009

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Buzzcocks: Buzzcocks

Buzzcocks: Buzzcocks

Many of the first wave UK punk bands tried to make comebacks well after their late ’70s heyday, and for many, the results were mixed at best. They was true to an extent for the Buzzcocks as well. They broke up in 1981 after three albums and a string of singles (many collected on the Singles Going Steady collection).

The band reunited in 1989, though for most of the time since then singer/guitarist/songwriters Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle have been the only constants. I like the albums they’ve done, despite thinking that they recycled a bit too much material and wandered away from the more experimental approach they seemed to be taking on their last album before the breakup, A Different Kind of Tension.

I suppose it’s ironic, then, that for my money the best album they’ve recorded since the 1970s has recycled material and adheres pretty strictly to the punk formula. Their self-titled 2003 album is the reunited version’s strongest and most consistent album, with a lot more energy and aggression than the previous reunion albums. Some of the songs have the catchiness of their pop punk peak, others are just fast, hard, loud in a way they weren’t always. Combined with the fact that the album is named after the band, it feels like a statement of intent. They’re demonstrating just how much energy and power there still is in this band.

Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle both contribute songs to the album, and Diggle, who seems to be considered the lesser light of the band, contributes one of my favourites, the catchy and propulsive “Sick City Sometimes.” As for the recycling, where in the past they’ve sometimes gone back to unexciting Pete Shelley solo singles, both recycled tunes have a connection to former Buzzcock and later Magazine leader Howard Devoto. There’s a redo of “Lester Sands,” once only available on the Time’s Up bootleg by the first Buzzcocks lineup with Devoto on vocals, and a punk take on “Stars,” which appeared in a very different form on the Shelley/Devoto Buzzkunst album a couple years earlier.

It may not be the place to start for someone who’s never heard the Buzzcocks before (try Singles Going Steady), but you could cetainly do worse. It doesn’t show the range the band is capable of but it’s a success nonetheless. It’s not just a damn good album by a band a couple of decades after its glory days, it’s a damn good album, period.

Ultravox!: Ultravox! (1977, reissued 2006) August 16, 2009

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Ultravox!: Ultravox!

Ultravox!: Ultravox!

Punk imagery, an exclamation point swiped from krautrockers Neu!, the presence of ’80s superproducer Steve Lillywhite and experimental/electronic music legend Brian Eno, and, for listeners now, the knowledge that they were to become pioneers of electronic new wave… this should be the sound of yesterday’s tomorrow.

So it’s kind of surprising just how futuristic-sounding this album isn’t.

There’s not a lot of punk energy in the mix yet (though it’s present on their next album, Ha! Ha! Ha! and their single “Young Savage”); instead, there’s a mix of mid-’70s sounds. A bit of prog , some glam, a little funk and disco, and some basic rock and roll. There’s barely a synth to be heard. The opening track, the rocker “Satday Night in the City of the Dead” is just bass, drums, electric guitar, harmonica, and John Foxx’s fast talk-sing vocals.  “Life at Rainbow’s End” and “Wide Boys” vary things a little, but they’re still recognizably rock.

So where are the hints of everything to come? Well, key influence Roxy Music is certainly evident, in the dramatic “Slip Away,” the first song to make use of keyboards on the album, the elegant light funk of “Dangerous Rhythm” (Foxx even imitates Bryan Ferry’s delivery occasionally), and the funk/disco of “Lonely Hunter,” which may also owe a little to David Bowie’s plastic soul period. The sense of drama, the gradual building up of tension, and the prominent use of Billy Currie’s violin in “The Wild, the Beautiful, and the Damned” mark it as something of a precursor to the next lineup’s first big hit, “Vienna.”

The two standout tracks, though, are the songs that close out each side of the original LP. “I Want to Be a Machine” is a suitably Kraftwerkish concept, but ironically, it starts out sounding like an early Bowie song, with acoustic guitar and violin for the verses and the first chorus, before bass, drums, and electric guitar kick in for the second chorus, three minutes into the song. With the changes of style that happen throughout the seven minute long song, and the violin-led crescendo ending that makes up the last minute and a half, it sounds a lot more prog than punk, and musically nothing else they did sounds much like it. But the sense of alienation, and the imagery of the lyrics, have plenty of echoes in later Ultravox and in solo John Foxx music as well.

The last song on side two is the much shorter, quieter rumination “My Sex,” in which Foxx speaks over a sparse backing of piano and synth, with an Enoesque keyboard melody for a chorus. Unlike “I Want to Be a Machine,” this does anticipate a lot of later Ultravox and Foxx music. It retains the former’s alienation and distinctive lyrics, but strips the emotion from the vocals and adds a much more electronic, less rock sound.

The CD reissue adds four bonus tracks: live versions of “Slip Away” and “The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned” that add a little more energy, a live version of “My Sex” that’s a little less sparse, and the appropriately named non-album track “Modern Love,” which starts out with a chugging guitar/bass/drums/keyboard sound similar to the more upbeat tracks on the first Modern Lovers album. By the chorus it sounds a bit more like a fairly generic new wave song, but it’s entertaining to hear a band that later became influential itself pay tribute to another band. (I really can’t imagine it’s just a coincidence.)

It may be hard to hear a lot of connections between this album and, say, Vienna (the first Ultravox album with Midge Ure replacing Foxx) or Metamatic (the first Foxx solo album), but you can hear the progression leading to those albums happen in songs like “My Sex” and in the changes in the Ultravox sound on their next two albums. It’s like comparing William Hartnell’s Doctor Who with David Tennant’s — at first glance they may as well be completely separate entities, but the second wouldn’t have happened without the first, and a lot happened in between that shows evolution in action.

July’s eMusic downloads August 5, 2009

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Riechmann: Wunderbar

Riechmann: Wunderbar

Still no sign that eMusic Canada is going to be getting Sony and the price changes and all that crap in the near future, so I’m still a happy eMusic user. And here’s what I’ve downloaded lately…

Conrad Schnitzler: 00_346+00_380 _ Mixes 1 and 00_346+00_380 _ Mixes 2; Klaus Schulze: Cyborg, Irrlicht, and Mirage. This was inspired by a Simon Reynolds article from 2007, just reposted on his ReynoldsRetro blog, called THE FINAL FRONTIER: The Analogue Synth Gods of the 1970s. The article makes two points: first, that there’s a whole school of electronic music that’s almost forgotten now or at the very least considered dubious and uncool; second, that some of it is actually worth hearing. It’s a look at the spacy, cosmic electronic music by the likes of early Tangerine Dream and others, and Schnitzler and Schulze were both mentioned in the article. So, because I do consider myself an electronic music fan and I did miss out on a lot of that stuff (seeing some of it as dull and pretentious at the time), I’m doing some homework.

Riechmann: Wunderbar. I’d never heard of the artist or the album, but the eMusic blog 17 Dots did a feature on it that intrigued me. I was sold by the comparisons in the first paragraph: “the B-Side of David Bowie’s Low or moodier Kraftwerk or any of Brian Eno’s ambient/electronic works.” It’s a 1978 album by someone who’d worked in the past with members of Neu! and Kraftwerk, a bit influenced by New Wave. One track sounds a lot like Neu! spinoff La Düsseldorf, who sounded at times like an inspiration for Ultravox. So, yeah, this is up my alley.

Subhumans: Death Was Too Kind. Not the UK band, the Vancouver band. For some reason, their music hasn’t been well represented on CD. I’d love to just get a CD with the Death Was Too Kind EP and the Canadian Incorrect Thoughts LP, both of which I have on vinyl, but instead I have a compilation album called Pissed Off… With Good Reason!, which has a few of those songs, and crap mp3s from a long out of print US CD version of Incorrect Thoughts, with a different selection of songs. I downloaded several tracks from this compilation to fill in some gaps, so at least I have the digital equivalent of the EP, but I still need a proper release of the album.

Various artists: Ragga Jungle Dubs. Continuing my slow but steady exploration of post-reggae music, this is a collection of ragga jungle, the reggae-influenced, pre-drum & bass sound that was briefly popular in the UK. I’m still not crazy about ragga vocals, but the “dubs” part of the title means that there aren’t as many vocals as there might normally be.

Beat Pharmacy: Wikkid Times Remixes. I really liked the dub techno/reggae crossover sound of the original Wikkid Times album, and I like these remixes, many from well-known dubstep producers, too.

2562: Love in Outer Space/Third Wave. New dubstep/techno crossover single.

 

Sonic Youth: The Eternal

Michael Rother: Flammende Herzen. Rother was one of the two key members of Neu!, and this is an early solo album of his. This is like a prettier, more accessible Neu!, and may prove to be a better listen, longterm, than Klaus Dinger’s post-Neu! project La Düsseldorf.

Joe Gibbs and the Professionals: African Dub All-Mighty Chapter 3. I like dub reggae but don’t actually have all that much. This is supposed to be classic stuff, and certainly sounds good enough on first listen.

Higuma: Haze Valley. Sort of psychedelic/drone/ambient, though the epic first track gets pretty loud.

Nadja/Black Boned Angel: Nadja/Black Boned Angel. Speaking of loud, this Canada/New Zealand collaboration starts out as layers of ambient drone before somewhat more recognizably metal influences pound their way in, not that a lot of metal fans would necessarily recognize it as such.

Metric: Fantasies. More good new wavy indie rock from Toronto, not a major departure at all from their past albums.

Various artists: Kill Rock Stars Sampler 2009. Forgot I downloaded this. It’s a free sampler of random tracks released over the years on the Kill Rock Stars label, including songs by Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Elliott Smith, the Decemberists, and others.

Sonic Youth: The Eternal. New Sonic Youth albums don’t always get the amount of play around here that they should get, because there are so many great old ones. But there’s good stuff on this album; I just have to make a point of remembering to listen to it.