Category Archives: music

Beauty School – Happiness (album review)

I caught this Leeds-based 5-piece supporting The Dangerous Summer at Thekla in Bristol recently, and was so impressed I went back to my hotel and downloaded their album that very evening. Beer may have been involved. What I ended up with was this 13-track stonker, their first after a clutch of singles, on the recently re-launched label Slam Dunk Records, which is run by the same people behind the festival so you might have a decent idea of what to expect.

A consistent, solid album of authentic-sounding emo anthems infused with pop punk hooks, Happiness, produced by James Kenosha (Dinosaur Pile-Up / Pulled Apart by Horses) is bookended by two of its strongest tracks, the riotous feelgood sing-along Take it Slow and the soaring, slightly slower-paced and more reflective Junior, a song about paying your dues.

The singles Oak, Nightwalker, Drysocket and Pawn Shop Jewels, a mid-tempo rocker showcasing singer Joe Cabrera’s impressive vocal range, also stand out. It might not have spent 16 weeks at number one (does that even mean anything any more) but almost 45k plays on YouTube alone ina few short months is nothing to be sneezed at. Whoever chose those singles chose well, each one offering a pure, perfect slice of modern alt rock that wouldn’t sound out of place on any playlist. The musicianship is precise and textured, the twin guitars and wistful lyrics, more often than not referencing growing up and working class life, sit proudly atop a surging rhythm section. Also of note is Monster, the jaunty chorus striking a tense duality with the dark, intensely personal subject matter. It’s expertly done, and guaranteed to send a shiver down your spine. Cool video, too.

The members of Beauty School have been fixtures on the northern rock scene for years, playing in different bands with varying levels of success. Consequently, this is the sound of a band with direction, who have done their time, put in the graft, and now have a clear idea about their sound and what they want to achieve as a band. Best of all, they clearly don’t take themselves too seriously, which is refreshing to see. As the marketing bumph says: “Beauty School have interpreted sounds from pop-punk, alt-rock, and indie-rock and forged a record that finds a home in each genre without feeling out of place or over-indulgent.”

The influences aren’t hard to spot. The Wonder Years, Neck Deep, and A Day to Remember shine through, and there are tuneful touches of Funeral for a Friend, Feeder and even vintage New Found Glory. Hearing this album for the first time was like listening to the result of all my favourite bands getting together for an impromptu jamming session. I’ve spunked money on many worse things when drunk.

I wasn’t the only one who was impressed, Beauty School have been making a lot of friends recently and picked up a bit of airplay. Beauty School are out on tour again this month supporting The Wonder Years, another great band. See you down the front.


Gig review – The Dangerous Summer @ Thekla, Bristol, 29/09/2022

A year in China, Covid restrictions, and being old as fuck meant I hadn’t seen any live music for almost four years. That’s a long time, and it was always going to take something special to get me off my ass and down the front again. That ‘something special’ turned out to be a UK tour by The Dangerous Summer, one of my favourite bands of the past decade.

First, a word about the venue, Thekla. I love spaces with character, and being a converted cargo ship moored in Bristol’s Floating Harbour, Thekla has plenty of that. Built in Germany in 1958, it carried various cargoes between European ports until running aground off the coast of Northern England. And there it stayed, for seven years, until being bought, patched up, and sailed to Bristol by American novelist Ki Longfellow-Stanshall (who died earlier this year), her husband Vivian, and a small crew of volunteers, where it has played host to gigs, shows, and club nights since 1984. What a story.

TDS have to be one of the most underrated bands there is. I’ve been a fan since the Absolute Punk days (if you know, you know) and I reviewed both their 2019 album Mother Nature and their 2020 EP All That is Left of the Blue Sky right here on this blog. For all intents and purposes they are the definition of a cult band, and no doubt they’ll maintain that status long after they’ve gone. People will still be discovering them in 50 years time. Their fans know this. Musically, if you imagine a cross between Jimmy Eat World and Joshua Tree-era U2, with maybe a touch of My Chemical Romance or Alkaline Trio, you’d be half way there. Rather than try to make sense of my inadequate description it’s probably easier to just look them up on YouTube.

But first the support, Beauty School. I must admit I knew nothing about these guys. One of the joys of going to gigs, especially on the club circuit, is the opportunity to be blown away by bands you’d never heard of before. Granted, it doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it is a thing of beauty (school).

As I watched the Leeds-based five-piece plug in and tune up I must have looked like a curious spectator examining an especially interesting museum exhibit. They went about everything with gusto, and just seemed happy to be there. While most bands are preoccupied with image, one of these guys looked like Eddie the Eagle wearing a Leeds United shirt. I was curious to see what kind of noise a two-guitar set up would make, yet intensely wary of getting earfucked by a bunch of talentless northern reprobates. The tiny stage barely seemed big enough, especially when a man mountain with blue hair came bounding into sight holding a mic. I had barely finished asking myself who the fuck this might be when I realized it was the lead singer. Although a new band who have just released their first album, appropriately called Happiness, singer Joe Cabrera confessed mid-set that all the members were veterans of other bands and had presumably been on the circuit for years. This shines through in their playing, which is smooth, polished and full of energy. The highlight for me was Take it Slow and set closer Junior. They were so good I even forgave them for the Leeds United shirt.

I won’t waste time going over the history of a band with a lot of history. Let’s just say Maryland band TDS are out in support of their latest album, Coming Home. It’s been a long road. Soon after forming in 2006, they signed to Hopeless Records and put out a steady stream of quality material until 2013 when they took a 5-year hiatus. Since regrouping, you get the feeling they’re trying to make up for lost time. Long-time members AJ Perdomo (vocals and bass) and Matt Kennedy (guitars) have been supplemented by ex-Every Avenue guitarist Josh Withenshaw and demon drummer Christian Zawacki, who hits those things like a man possessed. The band’s entire chemistry is a thing to behold. They look like they’ve been playing together all their lives, and have no trouble replicating their studio sound in a live environment. If anything, the songs carry more weight, the musicianship even more impressively precise, and the lyrics even more impactful and emotive.

They start their set with Prologue from the aforementioned Mother Nature album, which isn’t a song at all but an intro fashioned from a genuine voice mail Perdomo received from a friend which became ‘It’s own piece of art’. This builds then segues effortlessly into Blind Ambition and the soaring title track from the new album, which judging by the reaction it received is already a crowd favourite. It can be tricky working new material into a set, but there were no such problems here. A lot of thought had gone into what was played when, and the newer material like Someday, which took its time to grow on me but now ranks in my top five, slotted in neatly with the more established crowd pleasers.

I’m in this pic if you look closely

Way Down was every bit as powerful as you might expect, the crowd noise regularly drowning out Perdomo’s vocals, and Where I Want to Be, the first track from their 2009 debut album, almost brought the house down. For Bring me Back to Life Perdomo left his bass behind and got in the crowd. These kinds of antics usually come across as contrived, but on this occasion the sentiments seemed genuine. These are big songs, not just in stature, but scope and sheer presence. The only issue was the set having to be cut short because of an imminent club night, which smacks of either bad planning or simple greed, but was no fault of the band’s. They didn’t play my favourite song, either, but you can’t have everything. By the time we arrived at a euphoric closing one-two of Fuck Them All (which is nowhere near as aggressive as it sounds) and signature tune The Permanent Rain. I actually met a guy from Cardiff who said he’d named his own band after that song. There can be few greater compliments.

By the end of the set I felt like I’d been on a journey. I wasn’t quite the same person I’d been at the start. TDS have a back catalogue that puts most of their contemporaries to shame, and as they embark on this new chapter in their career having left Hopeless, gone indie, and then signed to Rude Records all in the space of a couple of years, they are destined to go from strength to strength. Don’t let them pass you by, or you’ll live to regret it. Come back soon, guys.


Where’s my F***ing Sweatband?

I really like Dire Straits. You could say they are my guilty pleasure. I don’t think they are as respected or as widely known these days as they probably should be. Most of the people who do know them are left with that eighties caricature image of Mark Knopfler in the Money for Nothing video, wearing a jacket with shoulder pads and the sleeves rolled up, and a fucking neon headband. That’s more a representation of the eighties as a whole than the band.

The first DS record I ever bought was Brothers in Arms, which I sought out largely as a consequence of the copious amounts of TV advertising that went into promoting it. I mean, when it was £5.99 in Woolworths (which would probably amount to around £15 in ‘today’s money.’) you fucking knew about it. I only found out years later that most of the songs had been horribly edited down to fit on the vinyl.

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Released over 35 years ago, Brothers in Arms, their fourth and most successful studio album, was a bit of a double-edged sword for Dire Straits. It was their Born in the USA. Actually, a lot of parallels can be drawn between Dire Straits (essentially singer/songwriter/lead guitarist Mark Knopfler with some other blokes) and The Boss, not least that both have working class roots and traded off the same kind of ‘everyman’ image. Of the two, Knopfler is without the doubt the better guitarist. He has a distinctive style, as do many of the greats from Jimmy Page to Brian May, in this case developed through ‘picking’ at the strings with his fingertips rather than using a plectrum. You wouldn’t even have to know the song to know who was playing guitar on it. On the flipside, The Boss is by far the better showman and probably the more consistent (and prolific) songwriter.

Another common denominator is that in effect, the Born in the USA and Brothers in Arms juggernauts alienated huge swathes of the respective artists’ existing audiences and attracted the ‘pop crowd.’ In the eighties, much like today, the Pop Crowd brought money, but no loyalty. They weren’t going to stick around. You’d be lucky to keep them interested for two albums, after that they’ll be into Fergal Sharkey or the Blow Monkeys for six months. The vast majority of bands don’t even get that two albums worth of grace.

It’s not enough to have talent and great songs. To attract the Pop Crowd and plug into the mainstream you need something else, some X Factor. In the case of Dire Straits, Brothers in Arms arrived within the eye of a perfect storm. It was released just as ground-breaking new tech was emerging in the form of CDs and CGI graphics, and MTV was just taking off. It soon became one of the bestselling albums of the era.

Dire Straits ended up paying a price for that success. By the time grunge hit a few years later they were typecast as a bunch of try-hard dad rockers and became a virtual laughing stock. Grunge, well, mostly Nirvana who spearheaded the whole thing, had a seismic effect on rock and metal. It almost killed off hair metal on its own, like a nuclear blast. Overnight, bands like Poison, Ratt, Cinderella, Motley Crue, Warrant, and approximately seven million others, all became irrelevant and then turned into shocked-looking parodies of themselves as they were reduced to playing 250-capacity rock clubs again instead of 20,000-capacity arenas they’d been used to. Def Leppard tried to fit in by recording Slang, for fuck’s sake. It was ugly.

Most of the artists who were left retreated into themselves. To use Springsteen as a yardstick again, he fired the E Street Band and released the limp one-two punch of Human Touch and the only-marginally better Lucky Town on the same day, just to try to stay relevant, and in 1991 Dire Straits put out On Every Street, their last studio offering. It’s not a bad album, just a bit tired-sounding in places. At best it was comfy and warm, at worst vapid and unrewarding. It was the sound of Dire Straits desperately trying to tread that middle ground between being true to themselves and pleasing their new legion of fans. The result was a big long sigh. Afterwards, the band fell into live archive releases and odd compilation territory and Mark Knopfler went solo.

Bloated and overlong, On Every Street was made for the CD market and it may be no accident that my top two Dire Straits studio albums, 1980’s Making Movies and 1982’s Love Over Gold would both fit on a single CD with room to spare. Although for the most part typically restrained (only Industrial Disease, Expresso Love and Solid Rock attempt to lift the mood a bit), those albums are focused and precise, a lot of the music dark and brooding yet filled with restrained passion. The musicianship is exemplary. I must have played those albums thousands of times. Earlier albums 1978’s self-titled and the following year’s Communique both had their moments, there were just fewer of them. Probably my favourite DS track of all time is Telegraph Road. At over 14-minutes long, it’s a stroke of genius. It takes a lot to keep me interested in anything for that long. I’ve had shorter relationships. I prefer the version found on Alchemy Live. I love the narrative, and how the song builds from little more than an understated whimper to a furious scream. Those power chords.

Alchemy, recorded at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1983 on the Love Over Gold tour, is pretty much the perfect live album if you can overlook the weak opening. Once Upon a time in the West to open a show when you have ready-made firecrackers like Tunnel of Love in your repertoire? Really?

Dire Straits are the consummate live band. But more the kind of band you’d like to see in a smoky club, or at a push, a theatre. They were a bit lost in those stadiums. the bigger the venue, the bigger the entourage and when you have a touring band numbering in double figures, it all gets a bit dramatic. If you’re interested, and you should be, there are also a few excellent bootleg recordings floating around. Koln ’79 is recommended (notable because they play Sultans of Swing twice having fucked the first one up), as is On Location – Live in Wiesbaden 1981 and Live in Sydney 1985. Recorded on the Brothers in Arms tour, that one is worth seeking out if only to hear the band wowing audiences at their commercial peak. For a while there, nowhere was safe from the Knopfler shoulder pads and sweatband.

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If you enjoyed reading this, you might also enjoy my recent tribute to London Calling or one of my several Springsteen posts.  I’ve also written about my personal musical odyssey and various other related shit.


Bruce Blogs #3 – My Top 10 Live Recordings

Any Springsteen aficionado will tell you that his official studio output only tells half the story. The Boss has been touring for over 45 years and played many thousands of shows, most of which have been meticulously logged and recorded by his fervent fanbase. Make no mistake, venturing into Springsteen live recording land is a daunting prospect, and no place for the faint-hearted. For that reason, I’ve decided to make this list to help you navigate. This isn’t supposed to be a definitive list of the best Springsteen live recordings available, because I haven’t heard them all. Instead, think of it as my personal Top 10. Like any list, it’s subjective, but hopefully it will give you a starting point.

Five or six years ago, this would’ve been a list of bootlegs. But then The Boss, or more likely one of his management team, saw a huge opportunity and started selling professionally-produced and packaged live concert recordings on a variety of formats virtually as and when they happen. This had the simultaneous effect of virtually wiping out the bootleggers overnight and creating another considerable revenue stream in one fell swoop. They are even opening up the archives and releasing classic concerts remastered and, where necessary, restored. Genius. It’s a winner for me, because now I instantly download bunches of MP3 files which cost less than £8 for over three hours of music instead of paying £60-plus for a bootleg which sounded like it had been recorded in the back of a van and took seven months to arrive by post. You can check out the existing archive of live recordings HERE.

  1. Brooklyn, New York, April 25th 2016

Let’s start proceedings with a show from The 2016 River tour, and I think the first I ever acquired from the (then) new-fangled Springsteen Live Archive site when it first went up. Having listened to so many sketchy boots over the years I was dubious at first, but blown away by the sound and overall production quality. During this leg of the tour, Bruce and the E Street band were playing the seminal River album (which Bruce refers to here as his ‘coming of age’ record) in its entirety from start to finish, with a few hits and deep cuts tacked onto the end. A bit predictable perhaps, even though many of the tracks are arranged differently and extended far beyond their studio limitations, and Bruce himself evidently soon got bored and started mixing things up. This show is notable for being the last with that rigid format. Oh, and a primo Prince tribute in the form of a storming version of Purple Rain.

  1. The Schottenstein Centre, Ohio, 31st July 2005

One from leftfield. Devils & Dust was a weird tour. The stripped-down album had a lot in common with its predecessors Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad, but the tour, mostly played in intimate theatres, was something else entirely. It was virtually a one-man show, apart from a few guest appearances, with Bruce re-imagining songs from his expansive backlist and playing every instrument needed to bring them to life. Some were almost changed beyond recognition (Reason to Believe) while other interpretations veered off into experimental territory. As a spectacle, it was okay. I understand the need to shake things up from time to time. But as a document, the Devils & Dust tour is little more than a WTF side-note. When the distortion fed into the recordings that surfaced afterwards, it was sometimes difficult to tell what was deliberate and what wasn’t. Still, this effort, with its rarities in the form of Lift me Up (never played before) Cynthia, and a trio of Tunnel of Love tracks (One Step Up, When You’re Alone and Valentine’s Day) is well worth looking up.

  1. First Union Centre, Philadelphia, September 20th 1999

I could’ve picked any show from the Reunion tour, especially the first half, as most were epic and the setlists didn’t alter much. The E Streeters were just glad to be back, and the crowds fed off the energy. I settled on this one, released on bootleg as Backstreets of Philadelphia (Polar Bear Records) for the simple reason that I was in the crowd that night, so it has a special kind of resonance with me. It’s a long way from south Wales to Philadelphia. Plus, the Boss opened with Candy’s Room, which he doesn’t do often, if ever. In fact, the entire set was heavily reliant on material from Darkness on the Edge of Town, with five of the first dozen tracks lifted from that album, which I personally consider his best. On this tour, the newly-reformed and re-focused E Street Band were at the top of their game and they absolutely kille dit every night.

  1. Olympic Stadium, Helsinki, Finland, 31st July 2012. Released on Vigorous Records as The Finnish Finish

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Lauded as the night ‘the myth became reality’ this show is included not only on the basis that it is Bruce’s longest gig to date (well over four hours, not including the five-track mini acoustic set he performed in the afternoon) but because the set-list fucking rocks. Kicking off with a cover of Rockin’ all Over the World, we are treated to a riotous opening section culminating with the ’78 intro version of Prove it all Night. Deep cuts like Be True, Loose Ends and Back in Your Arms also make rare appearances, sitting well alongside material from then then-current Wrecking Ball album. There was just something special about that night, which Bruce himself alludes to before We Are Alive. That’s one of the truly great things about Bruce gigs; the spontaneity. Literaly anything can happen, at any time. No disrespect to Helsinki, but if this was contrived at all, he would have undoubtedly chosen to play his longest ever show at a more prestigious venue, maybe in London, Milan or New York. That’s worthy of another tip of the hat.

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  1. Berlin Night, 19th April 1996

The Boss didn’t tour the Nebraska album. The closest he came was performing nightly mini-acoustic sets as part of the main show on 1984-85 Born in the USA tour. Taking the stage alone must be a daunting experience, especially for an artist so accustomed to having a full backing band behind him, but Bruce rose to the occasion. Of course he did. This show, partially broadcast on the radio in some countries before being released in its entirety by famed bootleg label Crystal Cat, is perhaps the pick of the Tom Joad shows. Less experimental and more folksy than the Devils & Dust recordings, as you would expect, the setlist is dominated by tracks from the ‘solo acoustic’ albums. However, Bruce still manages to throw a few spanners in the works, as he always does, stripping down Murder Incorporated, Bobby Jean and Adam Raised a Cain, to name but a few. He also deserves some kudos for trying to speak German.

  1. The Spectrum, Philadelphia, September 17th 1984

This might be sacrilegious to some fans, but the Born in the USA tour is probably my least favourite. Most of his concerts are timeless. You could listen to one from 1976 and another from 2016 and have difficulty telling which is which. But the Born in the USA shows (like the album) are instantly recognisable as a product of their era. All elevated keyboards swirling around vast stadiums and tinny production values, they couldn’t be more eighties if you wedged them into a pastel-coloured tank top with shoulder pads . It doesn’t help that not much quality material emerged from that tour, with most examples being audience recordings taken on those old cassette recorders. This show, the penultimate night of a mammoth six-date residency at the Spectrum, is a rare exception. It was released on bootleg as Tramps Like Us, and then in a remixed form as Perfection At Last. It’s not quite perfect, but it’s not far off. Opener Born in the USA segueing into Out in the Streets is simply breathtaking.

  1. Hammersmith Odeon ‘75

And now we’re going back. Way back. The Hammersmith Odeon now goes by the less auspicious name the Eventim Apollo, but this still stands as one of Springsteen’s legendary gigs. This is the sound of a band captured just as they are hitting their stride. After a low-key Thunder Road, you can feel the bristling intensity during the intro to Tenth Avenue Freeze Out. Shows from this era were generally shorter, barely scraping the two-hour mark, because more often than not the band would play two a night. Boasting definitive versions of It’s Backstreets and Jungleland along with a killer 17-minute rendition of Kitty’s Back (featuring an improv section and a few bars of Van Morrison’s Moondance) this gig was so good it became one of the few to be granted a long-overdue official release.

  1. Coliseum Night (29 December 1980)

Before the pomp and extravagance of the Born in the USA tour, many would argue that Bruce & the E Street Band peaked on the 1980/81 River tour. The shows in general were more geared toward blasting out a succession of 3-minute crowd pleasers (as was the album) than the more indulgent focus of past tours. No 17-minute versions of Kitty’s Back here. Of those currently in circulation, most people would probably choose the famous NYE bootleg, recorded a couple of nights later at the same venue (these shows collectively make up a significant proportion of the Live 1975/85 box set), but a combination of the quality of recording and a slightly superior set-list takes this one for me. Over the span of a 37-song performance Bruce expertly moves the audience through the gears, from openers Night and Out in the Street to the sombre Factory and Independence Day a few songs later. It’s like being on an emotional rollercoaster.

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  1. Washington, 26th September 2016

Despite the band missing some big hitters in Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici, the second half of the River tour of 2016 is probably my favourite run of Bruce shows ever. I love the way the band sounds, and the quality of the recordings on these later sets is incredible. Listening to them is like having Bruce and the E Street Band perform in your living room. Most stateside shows kicked off with a jaw-dropping 13-minute orchestral version of New York City Serenade and generally favoured older material, mostly taken from the first two albums, giving the whole thing a glorious retro summer vibe. Some of those tracks, in particular Kitty’s Back and Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street? feature a lot of lyrics and chord changes. They must be a nightmare to play live, which would explain Bruce’s apparent reluctance to do so over the years. Why set yourself up for failure? The 34 track set list performed here also borrows heavily from Born in the USA (six tracks), and throws up the odd surprise like Because the Night, Trapped and Secret Garden. Sublime.

  1. Capitol Theatre, Passaic, NJ

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The one and only. Released on various bootlegs, most famously as Piece de Resistance, this is a near-perfect recording of the second in a trilogy of triumphant shows running from 19-21 September at the Capitol Theatre, New Jersey, again on the Darkness tour. For many years, this was considered the king of bootlegs. The show has recently been given the archive treatment so it’s now available in better sound quality. During my ‘research’ for this articles, I listened seven or eight Darkness shows virtually back-to-back, and apart from varying sound quality (dependent on sources) there is very little to choose between them. I very nearly went for perennial favourite Winterland recorded in San Francisco a few months later, but this one takes top spot firstly due to the near-mythical status it has deservedly earned in the intervening years, and on the strength of a scorching Incident on 57th Street, which surprisingly enough wasn’t played too often on this tour. It comes at the expense of Streets of Fire, but everything has a price. The only thing I dislike about this show is the inclusion of Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Why. WTF? It was September.

If you enjoyed reading this, you might appreciate my previous Boss blogs about my experiences following the Boss around the world and a more detailed account of my first Bruce gig.


The Dangerous Summer – All That is Left of the Blue Sky EP (Review)

It’s been a difficult year for most of us. In fact, 2020 has been a total fucking washout. It’s been a time of change and upheaval, uncertainty and angst, and with their sweeping melodies and emotive lyrics The Dangerous Summer make the perfect soundtrack to it all.

Earlier this year, they left Hopeless Records when their contract expired and, despite being offered new terms, took the opportunity to turn officially ‘indie’. As lead singer and lyricist AJ Perdomo explains, “It got to a point where I was getting all of these calls and having these conversations and I just felt miserable. I hate talking about this sort of shit. This is what makes me fucking hate music. So out of anger I just said, ‘Let’s release this stuff ourselves. Screw all this shit’. Then we can go at our pace, release things whenever we want and do whatever the fuck we want. I just didn’t want to be owned any more.”

You can read my review of their last album for Hopeless, Mother Nature, here. The Dangerous Summer’s first independent release was the soaring single, Fuck them All, which sounds as if it might be a not-so-subtle message to the music industry as a whole. These lyrics speak for themselves.

Fuck them all
They want me like a light bulb
Blurred out with the sun
Swept under the rug again
Am I insane?
I think this is my moment
Yeah, nothing’s standing here in my way

Fuck them All kicks off this six-track EP in style before things are brought down a notch, a touch prematurely you could argue, for the piano-based slow-burner Come Down. Latest single I’m Alive follows, which sounds less like a departure and more like a cut from the aforementioned Mother Nature album. That’s not a criticism, by the way. As much as you have to admire any artist having the courage to branch out, try new things and develop their sound, all this has to be anchored in something tangible, solid and relatable. There has to be a thread of familiarity running through anybody’s body of work to tie it all together. Take Prince, for example. He would jump from hip-hop to dance to r n’ b to glam rock, often over the space of six tracks on the same album, but everything he did was still unmistakably Prince. That’s very much the case with TDS, who over the years have matured and fleshed out their signature sound while remaining true to their roots, flying their own flag and resisting the temptation to chase fashions or fads.

LA in a Cop Car keeps things ticking over in much the same vein, calling to mind classic Yellowcard or Something Corporate. TDS often get tagged with the pop-punk label, which isn’t a bad thing, but not entirely warranted. They may have the energy and vitality so prevalent in pop-punk, especially during it’s early-naughties climax, but for me that’s where the similarities end. This music is much more textured, and the lyrics have more of a soul-searching emo vibe. The EP is rounded off with Come Along, another epic-sounding chunk of polished power pop featuring Aaron Gillespie who now plays drums with TDS, having made his name with Paramore and Underoath.

In summary, All That is Left of the Blue Sky is bold and fearless, the sound of a band finding their feet after finally being set free. The songwriting and musicianship is, as always, immaculate, and the layered production adds a sheen. TDS are one of the artists eager to capitalize on an ever-evolving music industry and seem very well-placed to do so. They can only move forward from here and I can’t wait to see how it pans out.

You can listen to this modern masterpiece here.


Bouncing Souls – Vol II (review)

One of the few bright spots in this shittest of years is provided by Bouncing Souls, who never disappoint. They may be mellowing slightly as the New Jersey punks advance in years, but the spark is still there. Volume II comes hot on the heels of last year’s stonking Crucial Moments EP, rather than coming hot on the heels of Volume I. In fact, there is no Volume I. There’s a 20th Anniversary Series of EPs which ran to four volumes, but that’s a different thing entirely.

So what do we ave ‘ere, then?

Ten re-imagined and re-recorded classics and one new track, that’s what.

On some level, it does resemble the greatest hits compilation the BS catalogue is lacking in that some of their best songs like Ghosts on the Boardwalk, Kids and Heroes, Simple Man and Hopeless Romantic are included, alongside some deeper cuts like Highway Kings and Say Anything. But as I alluded to before, they may be here, just not as you know them. It seems to be in-vogue now for artists to go back and revisit their back catalogue. While not strictly a fan of the approach, I’m not against it either. Mike Peters of the Alarm does it to great effect.

I think one reason why it’s become so popular, apart from becoming an ideal way to resolve various contract disputes, is the rate at which technology is developing. When some of these tracks were originally recorded they sounded like they’d been bashed out in someone’s garage, which was kinda the point. But now, we have orchestras, drum machines (not as horrible it sounds) and the kind of polished production values that would make Def Leppard jealous making this largely minimalistic set essential listening.

As guitarist Pete Steinkopf said in a recent interview, “We initially wanted to recreate some of the stripped-down vibe of the acoustic sets, but if anything, these versions are much more involved than the original versions. The first day we got to the studio Will said something like ‘we’re not gonna just make an acoustic record, right guys?’ We were like ‘hell no’ and then we were off to the races.”

I must admit, I was a bit wary of hearing the new version of Gone. It’s one of my favourite songs of all time, and I didn’t want my memories tainted by some jazzed-up abomination. Happily, my fears were unfounded. Sure, Gone is the driving riff to be replaced with understated acoustics reminiscent in places, bizarrely enough, of mid-period Cure. Quite a few of these tracks have that feeling, harking back to a much simpler time. Another example is the only new song here, World on Fire, which was released as a single earlier this year and sees the band exploring their lighter, janglier side.

While this may not be a definitive work, or even properly representative of BS as a band, it rounds out their body of work nicely and adds another dimension to some great tunes. If I have one criticism, it’s that they could’ve gone bigger. Volume II only features eleven tracks from a repertoire of hundreds and has a running time of around 36 minutes. But the BS ethos has always been ‘less is more,’ and I guess this paves the way nicely for Volume I.

Volume II is out now on Pure Noise records.


The Facebook Album Cover Challenge

I usually try to avoid these things. They are a drain on my time and resources, and more often than not completely pointless. This challenge, though, caught my attention. So much so, that I want to share it here. My Facebook page is a shit show. Things get buried and I often delete stuff without warning – usually when two or more of my acquaintances start arguing on one of my threads about Bigfoot or something. But this is my permanent record. It’s where things are kept for posterity, which is why you will find a near-complete record of everything I’ve ever had published here.

I was nominated by Douglas Sutherland (a madcap Canadian I first met when I worked at Southampton FC a lifetime ago – we later became house mates) to share one album per day for 10 consecutive days that influenced my taste in music – no explanations, no reviews, only the covers. It was pretty hard not to explain myself sometimes. I found the first few albums came easily, but the less choices I had left the harder it became and by day 10 there were five or six albums vying for a mention. 

So here they are for your perusal, in the order I posted them (which wasn’t in order of preference).

dark

word

once upon a time

whitesnake 87

ad2

astoria

enema

 

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The Alarm – Stream (Hurricane of Change) (review)

The Alarm were bothering the charts long before the triumphant one-two combination of Equals and Sigma. Between 1987 and 1989 they released a trio of seminal albums beginning with Eye of the Hurricane and ending with Change, with the live mini-album Electric Folklore sandwiched in between. The late eighties were turbulent times, not just for the band, who despite arguably being at their commercial and creative peak were beginning to be torn apart by internal politics and squabbling, but also in a wider social context. This was the aftermath of the Miner’s strikes, and when the Berlin Wall fell shortly afterwards it catapulted Europe and the rest of the world into a period of seismic change. While all this was going on, lead singer Mike Peters travelled extensively through his homeland of Wales in a bid to rediscover his roots. During that period of intense retrospection he wrote extensively, many of the lyrics eventually being incorporated into the songs which appeared on the original albums while others fell by the wayside and still others remained unfinished or in some cases even unwritten.

Though it was their third official release (fourth if you count the debut EP) the original Eye of the Hurricane was the first Alarm record I ever bought, and I soon busied myself filling out my collection. The fact that I ended up with some of that collection on vinyl, some on cassette, and some on CD was perhaps indicative of the uncertainty of the times. The thing that resonated with me most wasn’t the anthemic, fist-pumping choruses or impassioned musicianship, though those things definitely played a part, but more the lyrics. In a landscape consisting mostly of Bon Jovi and Guns N Roses clones, it was refreshing to hear someone singing about the place where I was from, and about the things that mattered to me, especially at that stage in my life. I was 13 or 14, and things are especially confusing then. You begin to ask questions and seek meaning, and it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that the Alarm’s music helped me find answers to some of those questions.

Thirty years later, Peters has revisited that period and put all the material in a modern context, recently commenting:

I have always thought of these three albums as an Alarm trilogy. A lot happened to the band and the world, during the writing and recording sessions from 1987-1990. As one decade bled into another, the themes of response and resolve to contend with uncertain times are running through the core of each and every album. Played together, these songs tell their own story and, with the tumultuous times Europe and the USA can expect to face in the coming months and years, are still as relevant today as when they were first written.”

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The original tracks have been re-recorded or even re-imagined, those unfinished or unwritten songs have finally been laid down, and the whole thing adapted into a sprawling double album called Hurricane of Change tied together with segments of poetry and spoken-word narratives. Mike Peters has adopted a similar approach in recent years with re-recordings of earlier Alarm albums Declaration and Strength which, though critically and commercially well received, split much of the fanbase with some appreciating the new interpretations and others maintaining that the original recordings should be left as they are. My stance has always been firmly in the former camp. I enjoy hearing different versions of my favourite songs. Always have. Remixes, remasters, covers, demos, acoustic or live versions, bring them on. Music, like life, is always progressing and evolving whether we like it or not. If your favourite flavour ice cream is strawberry, it doesn’t mean you can’t also enjoy the occasional scoop of mint choc chip as well. Besides, the hardcore traditionalists will always have the original recordings by the original line-up. It’s not like anyone is forcing them to surrender their record collection at gunpoint.

This is an ambitious project, told in chronological order with the emotive autobiographical spoken-word parts delivered by Peters, with a supporting cast of members including his wife Jules, and other members of the band, all adding depth and a theatrical quality that was missing from the originals. Most of the re-imagined songs, slower-paced and piano-heavy, bear little relation to the original versions. Rain in the Summertime and Rescue Me, two of the band’s biggest hits, are virtually unrecognisable. Of the new songs, for me Ghosts of Rebecca and The Ballad of Randolph Turpin stand out both lyrically and sonically dealing, as they do, with folk heroes and uprisings, and really do sound at home in this setting. The first disc (dubbed Downstream) presents the Eye of the Hurricane album, where the new songs serve as missing pieces. The second disc (Upstream) is comprised of tracks originally found on the Change album, including Where a Town Once Stood which I tactfully re-purposed as the title of one of my stories recently, as well as a few b-sides recorded around the same time and another new song, A New Day. The whole package makes a worthy addition to any Alarm fan’s collection, serving to put the original albums in context and take the songs down a different, lyrically-focused route where there is more of an impetus on mood, atmosphere, and storytelling rather than eighties radio-friendly pomp.

Watch the official trailer for Hurricane of Change HERE.

Peters describes the recording process thus:

“By looking at the lyrics afresh, I have now been able to fully realise what I was grasping for as a songwriter and lyricist in 1987-1989. Back then, my confidence had been blunted by a difficult creative process, and I had always privately felt that there was a lot more left to be discovered within the original body of music. With these new recordings, I have been able to realise a torrent of new possibilities and emotions and, in turn, draw them out of the very same songs. By recording Hurricane of Change in this new way, I feel that I have been able to liberate my original lyrical vision and re-present the music in a way that I believe, is just as relevant, if not more vital than ever before.”

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Go HERE for merchandise, tickets, and Alarm/Mike Peters recordings.

 


Brothers in Arms at 35

“Carefully crafted instead of raucous, pretty rather than booming, and occasionally affecting, the record is beautifully produced, with Mark Knopfler’s terrific guitar work catching the best light.”

Rolling Stone

F

Brothers in Arms, the fifth studio album by English rock royalty Dire Straits was released 35 years ago this week, which probably makes it older than most of the people reading this. If you do remember it, you are no doubt feeling old as fuck right now.

You’re welcome.

Brothers in Arms was an instant phenomena, hitting number one in 12 countries (though weirdly, it didn’t even crack the top 100 in France) and holding the top slot in the UK for an incredible 14 consecutive weeks, where it became the first album to ever be certified 10 x platinum. It also became the first CD to sell over a million copies, and is still the eighth best-selling album in British chart history. Even considering how the music industry has evolved, you just don’t get numbers like that these days. The album not only represented the pinnacle of the band’s career, but is now recognized as one of the defining albums of the era.

For his guest appearance on the single Money for Nothing, Sting recycled the vocal harmony from The Police’s hit Don’t Stand so Close to Me. Despite containing what is often referred to as homophobic lyrics (based primarily around the use of the wrd ‘faggot’) the song became the band’s signature tune and biggest ever hit, reaching the top 40 in 15 countries, even France. Money for Nothing was one of five singles released from the album in the UK, along with the title track, So Far Away, Your Latest Trick, and the disco-enthused Walk of Life, which peaked at number two and became the band’s fourth gold single. While the singles were strong, and carried Brothers in Arms a long way, it has to be said that the rest of the album is filler at best. Only the melancholy Why Worry is worth repeated listens. It’s a mystery to me that with so many great songs in their arsenal, Dire Straits chose to start most of the gigs on that tour with Ride Across the River, a nondescript mid-tempo plodder buried on side two. This suggests that far from being a truly classic album, Brothers in Arms was more a happy coincidence, benefiting enormously from a convergence of outside factors like the emergence of MTV, the arrival of the compact disc, and the implementation of CGI technology. In my opinion, previous albums Making Movies (1980) and Love Over Gold (1982) outstrip Brothers in Arms both in terms of songwriting and musicianship, if not commercial success.

Many of the songs on Brothers in Arms had to be edited to enable them to fit on vinyl, which can only comfortably accommodate 23-minutes or so per side before the sound quality is severely compromised. Hence the total running time of the original vinyl version is 47:21, while the full length of the album as heard on CD, cassette and later double-vinyl versions, was a much more indulgent 55:07. When I heard the album again on MP3 years later, it was like discovering a whole new set of songs.

However, despite the album’s epic achievements which will forever guarantee it a place in rock history, there was a considerable downside.

Not only was its runaway success impossible to replicate, but it transformed Dire Straits into a different beast. No longer were they considered the rootsy, innovative, blues-based outfit that gave us Sultans of Swing, Lady Writer and Private Investigations. Despite being suddenly elevated to Springsteen and Madonna-esque heights of megastardom, after ’85, the very name Dire Straits became a by-word for boring, middle-of-the-road dad rock, epitomized by Mark Knopfler himself. Never really what you would call a looker, the reluctant frontman was nudging forty by then, and trying desperately to keep abreast of the fast-moving MTV generation by literally rolling up his sleeves and sporting a wacky neon headband. Cringe. Still, it was the eighties, and the whole decade was one big fashion crime.

There were also other, less obvious difficulties during the recording process which suggest that all was not well within the camp even before mainstream success came knocking. According to a later interview with producer Neil Dorfsman, the performance of drummer Terry Williams was deemed unsuitable, and his parts later re-recorded by a session musician though Williams retains a credit on the album liner notes and played on the resulting world tour. Interestingly, the recording process was carried out against a backdrop of conflict in a wider context with many of the lyrics influenced by the Falklands War. The emotive title itself came from something Knopfler’s father said about Russian and Argentinian soldiers having similar ideologies and hence being, “brothers in arms.”

Yeah, Dire Straits were never the same after Brothers in Arms. Apart from the customary slew of compilations, they didn’t release anything of note until 1991’s sub-par On Every Street, which proved to be the final nail in the coffin. That particular opus is now only talked about in hushed tones.

Maybe they were never really cut out for superstardom.

B


Green Day – Father of All (review)

Or Father of all Motherfuckers, to use its full, needlessly sweary title. This review, like the album itself, is going to be short. With its ten tracks amounting to a total of less than 26 minutes running time, in my view it barely qualifies as an album. And that’s not the only mildly confusing thing about this release. The truth is, after the swaggering pomp of Revolution Radio (2016) and the epic God’s Favourite Band compilation (2017), I expected more. With Father of All, Green Day appear to be going backwards, or at best treading water while they channel the spirit of nineties-era Prince. There are some decent tunes here, the best among them probably being the singles Oh Yeah, and Meet me on the Roof and there’s an impressive array of musical styles on show ranging from glam all the way over to motown.

Possibly the closest things to classic-era GD are I was a Teenage Teenager and Sugar Youth, and Junkies on a High also deserves a mention if only for the poignant lyrics which hint at much-loved rockers not with us anymore. But sadly, most of the other cuts fall flat, the most cringeworthy being Stab You in the Heart which is a blatant rip-off of Hippy Hippy Shake. For me, the whole thing lacks depth and substance. It’s no Dookie, or even an American Idiot. In an interview with the Sun newspaper to promote the album, Billy Joe Armstrong explains, “This record represents the time we are in now. It’s got the shortest attention span and there’s a lot of chaos.”

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In that context, the album makes a bit more sense but you can’t help feeling a bit sorry for Green Day. There can be no denying they are in a weird place right now. In a concerted effort to avoid being pigeonholed, in their storied career they’ve gone from snot-nosed punk upstarts to angry political activists to pop rock icons brandishing saccharine sweet sing-alongs. I’m not sure where Father of All fits into this. It’s not exactly a new direction, but it’s surprising enough to have you scratching your head on the first listen. Both Kerrang! And The Telegraph gave it four out of five stars, while the Independent gave it a measly two, saying, “The onslaught of frenzied energy comes at the expense of innovation.”

It’s difficult to argue with that verdict. While Green Day deserve credit for always doing what they want, rather than taking the easy route and doing what was expected of them, it’s unlikely that their 13th album will be the one that defines them or even stands out amongst their now considerable body of work. If you’re on the hunt for new music you’d be better off checking out the recent releases by Bouncing Souls or Dangerous Summer.  All that said, Father of All does get better on repeated listens and GD might still prove me wrong.

It wouldn’t be the first time.


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