Category Archives: music

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

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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 his band The Police’s hit Don’t Stand so Close to Me. Despite containing what is often referred to as homophobic lyrics, 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, they 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 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 1985, 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 the sleeves of his jacket and sporting a neon-coloured headband. Cringe. Still, it was the eighties, and the entire 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. According to a later interview with producer Neil Dorfsman, the performance of Welsh drummer and permanent band member 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 and sacrifice 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 offering is now only talked about in hushed tones.

Maybe they were never really cut out for superstardom.

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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.


Bouncing Souls – Crucial Moments EP (review)

2019 was a good year for music. Who would have thunk it? In one calendar year we were blessed with new releases from The Dangerous Summer, Feeder, Bruce Springsteen, Stereophonics, The Who, Coldplay and Senses Fail, to name but a few.

I’m a massive Bouncing Souls fan, and have been for fifteen years or so, ever since I stumbled across Gone, still one of my favourite songs, on a punk site. Earlier this year, BS (ironic for such a non-BS band) dropped their first new material in three years and I didn’t even fucking know about it. Living in China has its downside. Still, I would’ve thought one of the newsletters I am subscribed to would’ve said something. Not even BS’ own newsletter said anything. Or maybe it did and I missed it. That’s a possibility. Sigh. Life, eh?

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Anyway, the six-track EP Crucial Moments, the long-awaited follow-up (kinda) to their 2016 album Simplicity released to mark the New Jersey punks’ 30th anniversary was issued on Rise Records back in March 2019. I finally found out about it about six months later, got excited as fuck, and immediately head over to Amazon where, in my enthused state, paid a quid more than I had to for it because I accidentally downloaded the title track twice. Motherfucker.

So was Crucial Moments worth the inconvenience, the wait, and the extra quid?

In a word, abso-fucking-lutely.

The aforementioned title track kicks things off, and is a pretty fair representation of the place the band is at this point in their career. More introspective, tuneful and melodic than most things pre-Hopeless Romantic, yet still filled with simmering energy and an ominous undertow you feel could erupt into some serious hardcore thrashings at any (crucial?) moment. Watch the nostalgic yet still rocking video HERE. And erupt it does on the second track, 1989, so fast and furious it harks back to the rampaging, take-no-prisoners BS of the early-nineties. 4th Avenue Sunrise also falls into this bracket. Oh, to be young again. But like most of us, BS have chilled out a bit since then, as infectious sing-along Favourite Everything illustrates perfectly. The hard-edged blue-collar rocker Here’s to Us would sit pretty well on any recent BS album, but for me the highlight of this EP is the closer, Home. It’s slightly more mellow and emotive than the bulk of this EP but it’s with this kind of positive, life-affirming, fist-pumping, rabble-rousing anthem that, for me, BS truly excel.

This might be an unpopular opinion, but personally I like the approach to music the newly-matured BS take now. I love the occasional 1.5-minute hardcore speed ride as much as the next ageing punk, but a whole album full is usually too much for my delicate sensibilities. BC are at their sublime best when mixing it up, going through the gears from moshpit to bar stool and back again in the blink of an eye, and they do it very well on Crucial Moments. My only criticism is a predictable one; while not opposed to EPs per se, I just wish this was longer. As it stands, Crucial Moments is a welcome stop-gap between albums, and ready to take its rightful place amongst the best releases BS have ever put out. It’s a minor gripe, and I am very conscious of looking a gift horse in the mouth, but I just wish there was more substance here. Half an album’s worth in three years? Come on, lads. Call me greedy, but I sincerely hope more material emerges from these recording sessions, and that we don’t have to wait too long to hear it. Oh, and when it comes out, someone please give a nudge.

Ta.

Crucial Moments is out now.


London Calling at 40

Not many bands have made such a lasting impression on the musical landscape as The Clash. Even looking at their career retrospectively, it’s difficult to summarize their impact, influence and enduring legacy. Within the space of five albums spread over eight years (six if you include Cut the Crap, which most people don’t), they went from snarling punk underdogs to the ‘most important band in the world.’ Everyone has a favourite Clash album, but when pushed into a corner, most people settle on their third, London Calling, released forty years ago this week.

Following their incendiary self-titled debut and the slightly more melodic Give ‘Em Enough Rope, London Calling tried to be all things to all people. By then they were beginning to stray from their punk roots and experiment with reggae, ska, dub, soul, rockabilly and even early rap elements. There has probably never been a more diverse album. With this much going on, London Calling was in perpetual danger of becoming an indulgent, unfocused mix-tape of an album, but nothing could be further from the truth. Somehow, it comes across as a strong, cohesive, well-balanced set. Though the musical styles jump from genre to genre, the constant threads running through it all are the band’s distinctive musicianship, and insightful, socially aware lyrics tackling topics like rising unemployment, terrorism, racial conflict, the nuclear threat and political reform.

The mere act of releasing an industry-screwing double album at that point in their career was a bold move (even if, at 65 minutes, by today’s standards it would comfortably be considered a single album). Refusing to be sucked into the PR machine, even at the height of their fame the band were fiercely dedicated to giving fans VFM (Value For Money) by offering gig tickets and merchandise at reasonable prices. This philosophy extended to London Calling, and even the later triple album Sandinista! both of which retailed for the price of a single album. This meant that The Clash were in debt to CBS for most of their career. Not that they gave much of a shit. Even the cover is iconic, capturing Paul Simonon in the act of smashing up his bass at the New York palladium in frustration at the comparatively restrained crowd.

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The album kicks off with the title track, which was also the lead single giving them their seventh UK Top 40 hit back when that meant something. I always thought London Calling sounded kind of ominous, that spiky guitar and low, rumbling bass reminiscent of the seminal Dead Kennedy’s Holiday in Cambodia. Always fond of throwing spanners in works, the politicised, semi-apocalyptic rant effortlessly gives way to ‘Brand New Cadillac,’ a light and jangly rockabilly cover originally written and recorded by Vince Taylor who, ironically enough, was really called Brian and came from Middlesex.  The only complaint I have about London Calling is the sequencing, which sees the rest of ‘Side One’ pass in much the same jazzy vein. It isn’t until we get to ‘Side Two’ (I’m talking vinyl here, kids) that shit gets real. Spanish Bombs, about ETA’s activities and the Spanish civil war of the 1930’s is, despite the weighty source material, one of the finest pop songs ever written. Clampdown, written in response to growing political tension in the late 70’s and Lost in the Supermarket, about, er, getting lost in a supermarket, aren’t far behind. The first record in the set closes out with the reggae-infused Guns of Brixton, written and sung by Paul Simonon, who grew up in Brixton and captures the mood perfectly.

Back to my sequencing complaint, and it has to be said Wrong ‘em Boyo (a cover of an old Rulers tune from the sixties) is completely a bizarre choice to start ‘Side Three.’ Switching that with Clampdown would have made much more sense, in almost every way. Happily, things get back on track pretty soon with a pair of underrated classics Death or Glory (later covered by Social Distortion) and the lyric-heavy Koka Kola, a cynical take on advertising and corporate shenanigans. The next few tracks are noticeably more restrained, featuring doo-wap and jazz influences and even some (apparent) improv, the pick of which being The Card Cheat. In later interviews, Strummer said he wrote the song after reading a lot of Sylvia Plath, which perhaps explains why the lyrics are so dark and mournful.

The Four Horsemen is a bit more direct and punk-sounding, and could easily have landed on the previous album. The same can be said of I’m not Down, a supposedly semi-autobiographical Mick Jones composition outlining his struggles with depression. If you have to tell yourself you’re not down, you probably are. The last track, Train in Vain, is another interesting one. It was a late addition to the album, having originally been intended as a free flexi-disc giveaway with the music bible NME, but when the deal fell through the band decided it was just too good to shelve. And they were right. It’s like the final piece of the jigsaw, coming right after Revolution Rock, ensuring the album ends on an uplifting note.

London Calling is very much a London album. Just like the city it is complex, wide-ranging and diverse, fiercely proud, defiant and filled with hope and optimism. It is rooted in the past, but has its eyes fixed firmly on the future comprising of a million different, sometimes competing elements, all of which come together to form something unique. It is worth noting that most of the tracks on London Calling were recorded in just one or two takes at Wessex Sound Studios by producer Guy Stevens, a notorious hell raiser who would be dead in less than two years at the age of 38. Ironically, the cause of death was an overdose of prescription drugs he was taking to combat alcohol dependency. He has consistently been credited as a key factor in London Calling’s quality and popularity, which as seen it become widely acknowledged as one of the best albums ever made.  Joe Strummer copped a lot of flak for being born middle class, but there was nothing contrived about his music, least of all London Calling. Listening to the album now, four decades later, it’s like going on a journey. Everything came together at the right time – the song writing, the energy, the creativity, the ambition and a relentless desire to make their mark. Something they certainly achieved.

 


Feeder – Tallulah (review)

My introduction to Feeder came on 31st December 1999 at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, at an event headlined by the Manic Street Preachers. Coming at the height of both the Britpop and Cool Cymru movements, it was billed as Manic Millennium and at the time was the biggest indoor music event ever. It was also Y2K, the night the world was supposed to end. It didn’t. In fact, nothing happened. But we didn’t know that at the time, and the tension-edged excitement and we really did party like it was 1999. There were several other bands on the bill that night; Shack, Super Furry Animals, as well as a spoken-word slot from Nicky Wire’s poet brother Patrick Jones, but even though they played a severely truncated set, Feeder stole the show for me. The energy they emitted during Insomnia and the raw emotion of High were definite highlights. I was hooked. Most of the material came from then-current album Yesterday Went Too Soon, but they didn’t really make it big until a couple of years later when Buck Rogers became a massive hit and exposed them to a whole new fanbase. Then came the usual array of ups and downs experienced by most bands who stick around for twenty-plus years, before their current resurgence saw them claim their rightful spot near the top of the rock tree, and near the top of the charts.

So, here we are.

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Always prolific, Tallulah is Feeder’s tenth album proper, not including compilations, EPs and Arrow, the album of new material released as part of 2017’s ‘Best Of’ collection. Their longevity is impressive, despite never being on a major label and benefiting from the associated financial clout. First single Fear of Flying, written through the eyes of a female rock star waiting for the bubble to burst, could almost be autobiographical. As you might expect, Fear of Flying is one of the standout tracks on what is undoubtedly a very strong album. Elsewhere, the lyrics touch on such themes as living in the social media age, nostalgia, growing old and the constant pursuit of happiness. In interviews, songwriter, guitarist and frontman Grant Nicholas has said opener and second single Youth deals, in part, with mental health and the 2002 suicide of former drummer Jon Lee which reduced the trio to a duo, something he is still coming to terms with. These sentiments might seem slightly at odds with the jangly, upbeat tempo, but the weighty lyrics tell the story. Elsewhere, as with the title track, Kite, and especially Guillotine, things are a bit more introspective and subdued. Truth be told, Feeder are at their best when treading the middle ground, as they do on Blue Sky Blue (which was reputedly written for Liam Gallacher because let’s be honest, he needs the help) and the radio-friendly Shapes and Sounds. The weirdest and downright heaviest track (and, conversely, the longest) here is the crunching Kyoto, which sounds as if the band are trying to recapture their Swim/Polythene period.

Like most albums, there are a few tracks on Tallulah which pass by without saying or doing much, but to offset this there are several hidden gems. Rodeo calls to mind earlier single Idaho, and the utterly brilliant Windmills could grace any Feeder album. For the traditionalists, all the usual influences are there (Smashing Pumpkins, Pixies, Husker Du) and in that sense Feeder stay loyal to their roots and the spiky indie guitar sound that made them famous. However, some tracks are more Foo Fighters or Tom Petty, and there is very a progressive feel to many of the tracks. All in all, this is a great collection, and a definite contender for album of the year, even if it the title makes it sound like a homage to a Thai ladyboy.

Tallulah is available now, and is an absolute bargain at £5 for the digital download.


The Dangerous Summer – Mother Nature (review)

It amazes me that The Dangerous Summer, named after the book by Ernest Hemingway, are still one of the current alt-rock scene’s best kept secrets. For those unfamiliar with the Maryland trio, a good approximation would be to take one part Jimmy Eat World, one part mid-era U2, one part Lifehouse and add a pinch of Maroon 5 or Savage Garden. The result is a sleek, tight unit producing tuneful, agreeable rock spearheaded by vocalist, songwriter and bassist AJ Perdomo, lone survivor from the original line-up. If it’s dense, multi-layered soundscapes with soaring melodies and wistful lyrics you’re after, look no further.

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Mother Nature, The Dangerous Summer’s sixth album if you include the 2011 acoustic re-working of their debut Reach for the Sun (and I definitely do) was released via Hopeless Records with little fanfare back on June 19th. It follows last year’s patchy self-titled album, their first release after a near-five year hiatus during which they surely must have thought about throwing in the towel. This band has experienced more tumultuous drama and difficulties than most.

The album opens with a moody spoken-word piece entitled, imaginatively enough, Prologue. I’m not adverse to these kinds of openings. They certainly help set the mood. But the timing is important. Anything over ninety seconds or so is pushing it. Luckily, Prologue just about fits the criteria and soon bursts into the first track proper, Blind Ambition, a fine mid-tempo anthem that sets the tone for the rest of the album. It’s quickly followed by Bring me Back to Life, another understated slow-burner, which gives way to Way Down, the first track of the album which could conceivably be granted ‘classic’ status. Perdomo’s raspy vocals have never sounded so fresh and emotive. The next two tracks, Virginia and the near-six minute Starting Over/Slow Down are decent filler but offer nothing new. However, after the mid-album mini-slump, the pace picks up for the single Where were you when the Sky opened Up and the pop-infused Is it Real. The rest of the album is a slightly uneven affair. While certainly not mere filler, Violent Red and the title track again tread some familiar territory, while Better Light is a mood piece that sounds more like an unfinished afterthought. This minor indiscretion is soon forgotten when closer Consequence of Living kicks in, which has to be one of the strongest tracks in the band’s repertoire.

While not as immediate as some of their peers or indeed, some of their own earlier material, on repeated listens, Mother Nature proves beyond reasonable doubt that The Dangerous Summer remain a band of enormous scope and power as well as limitless potential, bursting at the seams with the kind of visceral, raw emotion that is so sadly lacking in most contemporary music. Their power and intensity are both impressive and contagious. Perhaps an argument could be made for the band attempting to push the boat out a little more and getting a little more experimental on future releases but if that didn’t happen, I wouldn’t complain. If something isn’t broke, why try to fix it?

 


Boss Blogs #2: I’m 27 Years Burnin’ Down the Road

Anyone who knows me will tell you how much of a Springsteen fanatic I am. This is a guy who dragged his then-girlfriend all the way from south Wales to Philadelphia for a gig on the E Street Band reunion tour that ended up being cancelled because of a hurricane. Anyway, the first time I ever saw him live in concert was a few years before that, at Wembley Arena on July 10th 1992 – 27 years ago this week. By the way, I also have a weird fascination with the number 27, and I absolutely love it when things come together like this. Sometimes, life could almost be scripted.

I was eighteen at the time, and a friend and I decided to travel up to London by coach to catch one of the dates on the Boss’s four (or maybe it was five) night stand on the Human Touch/Lucky Town tour. You know the one, it was when he fired most of the E Street Band and hired a bunch of session musicians to play their parts. Bruce has always been a bit funny like that. He was and is very wary of people sticking labels on his music and is always trying new things, or at least trying old things new ways. After a brief spell in the very early seventies pretending to be the next Bob Dylan at the behest of his record company, he spent the next decade or so playing straight-up rock shows. Hundreds of them. Maybe even thousands. After the mammoth Born in the USA run, he was burned out. He decided he’d gone as far as he could in that direction and brought in a horn section for his next tour in support of tunnel of Love in 1988, which was full of bombast and theatrics. His next tour would be stripped down to solo acoustic (Ghost of Tom Joad, 1996/97), and in between those two extreme states of being we had… this.

A lot of people didn’t like the Human Touch/Lucky Town albums when they first came out. Personally, I loved them. I loved Human Touch, with its slick production and pure pop hooks slightly more than the more rootsy and raw Lucky Town. But weirdly, over time that situation has been reversed and it’s now the latter which is remembered with more fondness. With a couple of patchy albums to promote and no E Street Band, I suspected it was going to be a slightly surreal evening in London.

And so it proved.

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Not to take anything away from the band, who were about as polished and tight as you could hope for. The thing that struck me most was how charismatic the Boss was in the flesh. The moment he strutted onto the stage, greeted the crowd, and counted down into Better Days, he was captivating. For the first few songs I simply stood there with my mouth hanging open. I was in awe. The stripped down version of dancing in the Dark segueing into Darkness on the Edge of Town which appeared a couple of songs in still stands as one of my all-time greatest in-concert moments. All this was helped by the fact that without even trying, my friend and I had somehow managed to blag a couple of amazing seats. Centre stage, about half a dozen rows back with a completely unobstructed view. I would remember those seats over a decade later when my seat at the San Siro in Milan turned out to be on the wrong side of a massive concrete pillar.

The spell Springsteen was weaving was all ruined shortly after when he launched into an extended version of 57 Channels and Nothin’ On. I mean, the 2:57 album version is bad enough. He may have had good intentions when he wrote that song but man, it’s a stinker. It’s one of life’s great mysteries why some A&R clown at Columbia Records saw fit to release it as a single. In fact, I came to realize years later that Springsteen chose this particular night to play all my least-favourite songs. Right after 57 Channels came The River, which always struck me as a overlong and sombre (sacrilege, I know) and a bit later came Cover Me, possibly THE worst track on Born in the USA. Predictably, the set was littered with unremarkable deep cuts from the two new albums: Man’s Job, Roll of the Dice, With Every Wish, Leap of Faith, Local Hero, Real World. All these came at the expense of some bona fide classics that were dropped from the set-list. There was no Tenth Avenue Freeze Out, no Rosalita, not a single track from Nebraska, and not even a Badlands. He did, however, play Living Proof, in my opinion one of the most underrated songs in his extensive repertoire. Granted, it’s another one from Lucky Town, but not one he pulls out often. Certainly not often enough. Brilliant Disguise and Souls of the Departed also stood out. However, the absolute highlight for me was an epic version of Light of Day, complete with audience call and response. This was a track he’d given to Joan Jett for the movie of the same name five or six years earlier, and I didn’t even know he’d written it until that night. Jobbing session musos or not, by this point he had that band (along with every member of the 12,500-strong crowd) dangling on a piece of string.

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After that came the obligatory gut-busting, crowd-pleasing, booty-shaking, six-track, 40-minute extended encore starting with a breathless one-two of Glory Days and Bobby Jean and culminating in an electrified Born to Run (he’d performed it acoustically on the previous tour)and poignant show-closer My Beautiful Reward. In its entirety the show ran for over three hours, pretty standard for Springsteen. It was exhausting just watching him. The man himself was drenched in sweat, and I was so close I’m pretty sure some of it landed on me at one point. Or maybe my fading memory has embellished that little detail. It’s been 27 years, after all.

For full set list see here.

Boss Blogs #1: Meet me in the City Tonight.

 


Allister – 20 Years and Counting (review)

Allister are one of the great forgotten pop punk bands. They had all the tools – cool image, solid musicianship, a great attitude, killer tunes, witty lyrics, tattoos – yet somehow got lost in the shuffle. Don’t get me wrong, they achieved modest commercial success, especially with their Last Stop Suburbia album in 2002, and cemented their place in pop punk folklore long ago (lest we forget they were one of the first bands signed to legendary label Drive-Thru records, also home to Senses Fail, Something Corporate, Newfound Glory, Halifax and Finch, to name just a few) but the big time always eluded them. In most places, anyway. Allister, and in particular bassist and singer Scott Murphy who for a long time sustained a solo career (I think he still does), was absolutely huge in Japan. No doubt a talented individual, Murphy’s charisma and boundless enthusiasm is admirable. I met him at a gig in London a few years back, and he was awesome.

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This album comes through necessity more than anything. They haven’t released anything since 2012 and wanted to mark what is essentially their 25th anniversary as a band, and 20 years since the release of their debut album which, incidentally, was recorded on a purported production budget of $700 and featured a cover of the Fraggle Rock theme. Kudos. Someone somewhere suggested a ‘greatest hits’ style compilation, but that proved problematic as it turned out Allister didn’t actually own the recording licenses for any of the tracks on their first few releases but owned the rights to the songs themselves. Hence, the solution was to re-record, and in some cases, ‘re-imagine’ them, and pad the thing out with a few new tracks. The pick of these is probably the high-octane Peremptory Challenge, ran a close second by the slightly more restrained opener Stay with Me.

As for the re-recorded tracks, most have been updated only in the sense that they’ve lost a lot of that energetic immediacy so prevalent in pop punk circles. The guitars are choppier, the bass section slightly higher in the mix, and most tracks have been brought down an octave or two in an effort, you feel, to ingratiate them with a mainstream audience who are rapidly forgetting what drums and guitars sound like, let alone pop punk. Some, like Moper and Flypaper benefit from this treatment, but others like Scratch and A Study in Economics seem to lose a little something. Or maybe I’m just too attached to the original versions and resistant to change. Dunno. Regardless, even at 50% capacity Scratch is approximately 50% better than 90% of other songs.

One of the biggest missteps is a wholly unnecessary remake of the ska-infused Stuck Powered On from the 2012 album Life Behind Machines. In my humble opinion it was one of the band’s weakest tracks anyway, and the 2019 version adds nothing to the original. Meh. All things considered, 20 Years and Counting is a somewhat patchy affair, but has enough quality to carry it through. Beyond the new material seasoned fans are unlikely to be overly impressed, but if this release exposes Allister to a new generation, it will have done its job.

To promote the release the band have made a cool new video for Somewhere Down on Fullerton, which you can catch HERE.


Northshore – For What It’s Worth EP

Northshore are a new five-piece from North East England. One would imagine, somewhere on the coast. Their genre is difficult to pin down, but on this evidence generally leans toward melodic rock, a place where a traditional meaty twin-guitar and proper drum sound is tempered by some well-aimed pop sensibilities and held together with some classic hooks, big choruses and soaring vocals. Think Amber Pacific on steroids.

This is Northshore’s second EP, following 2017’s well-received Alternative Futures. Since that release they’ve been busy touring with everyone from Safeguard to Mallory Knox, which is what every self-respecting rock band should be doing, now more than ever. They are doing it the hard way, and for that alone they deserve all the plaudits they get. The accompanying press release says the entire EP was recorded in the singer’s flat, not that you’d realize as the whole thing is immaculately-produced and covered in a slick, professional sheen.

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Released on 15th February and available for pre-order now, For What It’s Worth is a strong 6-track affair kicking off with the sublime Be Heard, a catchy song with crushing riff and a deep social message about mental health. Dependence, which seems to me to be more about love than bad habits, chugs along nicely but unremarkably, until the midway point when a rhythm guitar and cymbal breakdown gives it a whole new dimension. That’s a hallmark of a band maturing, as are the lyrics which don’t simply focus on lightweight party anthems but tackle a range of real-world problems from depression to relationship break-ups and the struggle to find one’s identity in an ever-shifting climate. The second single from the EP, Shedding Skin, a duet with YouTube sensation Christina Rotondo, is a decent tune but just doesn’t work for me. It treads some familiar ground but the main problem is that all-too often, the guest vocalist performs in an almost identical range to regular singer Ben Vickers. The two voices aim to complement each other rather than contrast, which probably would have been both more conventional and effective. Track three, which is the title track, lead single, and centrepiece of the EP, keep up the pace (check out the accompanying video here), before everything slows down a tad for Summer. In the beginning, anyway. The EP’s longest track clocking in at 5.28 is held back for last. Conspiracy is a definite slow-burner, but on repeated listens proves to be one of the highlights. All in all, this is another step in the right direction from a young band making all the right noises.

If you’re looking to discover some new rock, you could do a lot worse than give Northshore a shot. They deserve it.

Thanks to Helen Marvell @ Haulix for the preview.

 


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