Listening notes

The Waterboys Out of All This Blue

One of the best gigs I've seen over the last few years was the Waterboys here at the Paramount in Austin when they were promoting Modern Blues. Having seen the band 25 years ago, it was a joy to be reminded of the power of Mike Scott live. Of late, he seems to be on a creative roll so I was happy to learn of a new album, Out of all this Blue, and duly signed up for the deluxe edition. As is the way of the music industry, one could order versions and I got the 3-LP collection that has the basic album (as if 'basic' can be applied here) and various extras including outake versions and live tracks. If nothing else, for the price it is good value.

With Mike and the 'Boys (though it really feels it's just Mike these days with a few musicians backing him up), you might imagine you know what you're getting but you never can be sure. Certainly he will always be lyrically inventive, personal, thoughtful and philosophical. Mike is a writer of anthems, a crafter of inspirational messages, and not beyond adding in a quick ditty if the mood takes him. But he's also capable of being biting, dismissive and critical of a world he holds in disdain. It will be no surprise, therefore, to a seasoned listener to hear these shades in the latest release.

What might surprise you however, is the musical sounds on offer. If you associate the Waterboys with either 'big' music (electric guitars, pounding drums and roaring vocals) matched sometimes with folky textures (acoustic strumming, soft singing, fiddles) then brace yourself for a sideways move into synthesized beats, hip-hop rhythms, and a sonic landscape that sounds both dated and curiously modern at the same time. In effect, it sounds as if Mike Scott is having fun messing around with new toys and for long-term fans, the initial impressions are likely to be colored by the superficial differences the sonic presentation highlights.

That said, and one reason I've had to sit on this review for a bit, is that despite this intentional move into new sonic territory, this is without doubt a real Waterboys album. The hooks are here, (oh boy, are they just) the lyrics are worth hearing repeatedly, and the vibe is one of cool enlightenment -- you know, just like every other Waterboys album.  You just have to give the album a more than cursory listen to let its qualities come through.

Opener 'Do we chose who we love?' sets the tone with a swinging, funky hook that would be at home on any number of previous releases, and by the time the backing vocals kick in over the chorus you'll be tapping your feet along and finding the song worming its way into your brain. And speaking of catchiness, how about "If the answer is yeah" is about as pure perfect pop as you'll hear this year, and impossible not to find yourself singing when you least expect it. Though in true Mike Scott fashion, I doubt too many pop songs these days contain lyrics such as "can you remember the last six books you read?"

A dominant theme throughout is love, and the finding of it perhaps later than hoped for but found fo sure, inevitably and gratefully. Mike Scott's songs tell us he is in love now and has no desire to keep that quiet. And it's not just a woman; he loves New York, he loves music, and he drags you willingly along for the ride across multiple tracks expressing his enthusiasms. But light and love are never the sole thematic drivers of a Waterboys album and we have the almost obligatory dig at some. In this case, Kinky Friedman  gets it in the neck with a sharp dig over a comment made, all set to a cod-country tune. If there's a non-needed track on the album, this might get my nod, though Girl in a Kayak is a couple of minutes of filler on the start of side 4 also. There's a nod to Pink Floyd and the Beatles in a couple of the songs which might be intentional in the latter case, perhaps less so in Payo Payo Chin's opening resemblance to Learning to Fly (just listen, and tell me you don't hear that!). But it's Mike Scott, this is the terrain of a creative artist who does what pleases him and you take it or leave it as you see fit. In the scheme of the double album's worth of new material, I certainly choode to take it.

The deluxe version has some interesting extras that will appeal more to hardcore fans only. Alternative takes of a couple of songs, plus some fairly poor sounding live tracks add another slice of vinyl to the 3-LP package (though getting a live recording of a track  from the same day it was written is a sort of perfect addition). While I'm happy to have these, they are curiosities, not essentials. As an album, Out of all this Blue took me by surprise at first with the low-fi retro sonics and manufactured beats. You'll not find this one used to showcase any rig at an audio show for sure.  But fear not, it's a true Waterboys album. In fact, after hearing it repeatedly, I am of the view that it's actually one of Mike Scott's best efforts. Give it time, the journey is worth the destination.

Gretechen Menn Abandon all Hope

Gretchen Menn can play guitar. She's young, photogenic as hell and can do note for note renditions of classic Blackmore and Django solos, as evinced on YouTube. This makes her talented but maybe not sufficiently interesting to the music business of 2017. What does set this artist apart though is readily apparent on her new release Abandon All Hope.  Where most flashy young metal guitarists can dazzle you with fingerwork flourishes, lightening speed runs and classical-flavored solos to the point of boredom, it's a far rarer player that can compose and deliver an instrumental rock album of sufficient musical depth to keep a jaundiced listener like me engaged for more than a few tracks.

Certainly the music here mines a relatively narrow range of moods and textures. Forget the pretentious Dante's Inferno inspiration of the marketing materials, this music is fast and furious rock guitar offset with airy, etherial touches of strings; piledriver rhythms and choir-like background vocals, the sort of fantasy rock world  teenage air guitarists dream of creating. But to sum it up so is to do a disservice to what's on offer. For sure there's a few rock cliches, but  I hear a modernism and classicism in tunes like Shadows and Weights that take me back to early 20th century works in another canon. Riffs like Hounds of Hades (yep, the titles sort of sum up the vibe) are derivative but within these constraints she solos with a lyricism that catches your ear and tells you something different is on offer.

Bloodshed and Rise bring the violin to the fore, revealing Menn's compositional skills.  Throughout the record vague celtic edges and even middle-Eastern vibes conjure up early Rainbow, particularly in tracks like Limbo and the modal Tempest. This creates a mood throughout that elevates the music above the simple 'look at what I can do' of typical rock instrumentalists and gives you a connection to a deeper well of music making that had me thankful that in 2017 some emerging guitarists are committed to pushing the form forward.

Obviously a guitarist has to make a living and the photos and imagery of an obviously beautiful woman are used to catch the audience's eye here,  but Menn is too talented to be limited by this or being reduced to a Zeppelin cover band. Her compositional skills and playing ability confirm a talent that warrants a creative career in music making and I hope she can garner the support to enable this.   Movie soundtracks? This woman's guitar would be a perfect accompaniment to many a modern thriller.  If you cut beneath the surface,  her form's more of a jazz musician than a metal guitarist, improvising within a strict structure, but this album kicks rather than swings. I suspect there's better to come from her in the years ahead.

Sound quality and production on the download are not great, the music is disappointingly compressed, lacking resolution and air (I downloaded an AIFF version for my Mac and played via USB through my PS Audio PWDII, improved noticeably by employing Audirvarna, and better again on the CD version she was kind enough to provide me when I mentioned this) but no matter -- the music warrants listening through the full, near double-album length work without pause, and that's more than I can say for many rock instrumental albums of recent years. Enjoy the ride.

Find out more about her here

Roger Waters - Is this the life we really want?

A much anticipated new album from old master Roger Waters finds him mining familiar disgruntled territory. It's been a long time since we had a fresh set of songs and its somewhat reassuring that Roger remains as cranky and critical of the world as always. He holds a place in my heart that few other songwriters can reach. What doesn't hang too well me here is the lack of subtlety or even careful lyrical wordplay, replaced with foul-mouth rants about a shithole and leader with 'no fucking brains'.  He might be speaking to the converted,  but the visceral pleasure of swearing is fleeting, and on repeated listens one wishes for a little more from a man whose lyrical contributions over the years have been poetic. 

As a record, the album requires start to finish listening, the typical extended narrative rendering the songs part of a story, and fans can also play a 'spot the connection' game as old sounds, effects, lyrical allusions and atmospherics of previous albums appear throughout (to me, this is more Radio KAOS than I care to hear). Noticeably, the absence of any real guitar playing to serve as a melodic counterpoint to the somewhat flat vocals is a real break with the past, and to my ears, it's not obviously an improvement. Albums like this require multiple listens to reveal their depths, so ask me again in a year, but at the risk of reaching judgement too quickly,  I can't help feel a little disappointment here given the standards of Waters' full repertoire.

Sonically, the LP is dark and dense sounding, with a production that gives little space for the music to breathe.  In fact, while Roger's albums always made the most of studio technology to create a soundscape, this album screams 'produced' more than most, and not in a good way.  I've not tried the digital download, only the vinyl and, again in comparison to the fabulous sounding records we've come to expect from the man, I find myself wanting more.  I'm prepared to give this one many more spins, and while I am glad to have anything new at this stage from Roger, 'Is this the life we really want?' is not really the album I want.

Justin Currie - This is my kingdom now

Songwriting is a craft and in my view, Currie was one of the great (and greatly underrated) songwriters of his generation. He was one of the late 80s wave of young Brits who brought rock sensibilities and lyrical bite back into the mainstream after years of over-produced, stylized and synthesized pap (sorry folks, the 80s were  mostly crap). His main band, Del Amitri produced a string of strong albums from Waking Hours on and could kick-ass live too, as evidenced by the comeback tour shows released two years ago in a small box set. The last decade or so has been a quiet time for Currie the songwriter and it's good to have him back, though this recording is likely to appeal only to hardcore fans. 

The thirteen tracks here are slow, or mid-tempo ballads, recorded in a quality that suggests low-key, domestic technologies, limited accompaniment ( a bit of piano here, some bass there, drums spread about) with the main man musing throughout on life, loneliness and his own various shortcomings. Nothing too stark and nothing too lively here, the album has the feel of hearing an old friend demoing with some tunes while sipping a few drinks and reminiscing of old times. 

Audiophiles will not be impressed with the sound quality and yes, you have to order from the UK as I don't believe there's a US outlet, but for all the challenges, it's hard not to enjoy the work.  And at a total cost of under $20 shipped, you get a digital download immediately with the CD arriving less than 2 weeks later.

Cowboy Junkies - Trinity Session

It took me a while to appreciate this as I've been a long-term lover of the regular CD release (and cassette when it originally came out as that was the only way to get the haunting Blue Moon when originally released in the UK). That said, I decided that spending $50 on another copy was only worth it when bundled under a special discount offer. So yes, it's four sides of those moody, single mic'd digital recordings from back in the day. And yes it's pressed on thick slabs, in a gatefold, with the lavished attention of a QRP release. And while people raved about the sonics for years, I have to say it's the music that gets me, I actually find the limited musicianship to be honest but hardly magical as far as capturing talent in action goes. Yeah, sacrilege, I know. 

All that said - this is a lovely trip down memory lane, a timestamp from the past, and about as intimate as it can get when thinking about amplified rock music. I know it's recorded in a church but it feels to me more like listening to band go through one more set at the end of a night in deserted dive. Spinning it takes me back to hearing it for the first time, so if recordings and playback are the nearest we get to a time machine, this one is the Starship Enterprise. And I'll be honest, I always imagined Margo Timmins was singing in my ear everytime I listened, which made this album something special for me. It's all here. Four sides of memory jolt, beautifully packaged.  I just wonder if they ever felt that the rest of their career was lived in the shadow of this one-off event. Most bands would be so lucky I guess.

Deep Purple - Infinite (2017)

Despite disappearing from view in the US, at least until their recent induction to the somewhat pointless Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame, Purple have actually been going strong for almost 50 years. They are a big draw in most of the world still, even though Ian Paice is the only original member from the bunch of young men who unleashed Hush on the world in 1968. That said, the present line up of said drummer with long-term members Glover and Gillan on bass and vocals, joined by Steve Morse (now longer in the band than Blackmore was in total, though people seem to have a hard time processing this) and relative new boy Don Airey (only there for 10 years now), is probably as stable as the band have ever been. 

This might be their last studio album, if only because they are all getting a bit long in the tooth, but they still rock in a manner that is unmistakably Purple-esque. So yes, bombarding, bass heavy riffs, swirling Hammond organ and fiery guitar solos, with Gillan perhaps showing a bit of age but uniquely recognizable throughout. If the previous effort, Now What?, also produced by Bob Ezrin, was a late life return to form for the band, this is more of the same: dense, heavy, with lots of interplay between Morse and Airey. Surprisingly, perhaps, there's more than a few singable tunes here with melodies that catch the ear, though Gillan is indulged a bit too much I think with spoken parts in two tracks, most annoyingly on side 1's Time for Bedlam which opens with a synthesized voice part that will be tire very quickly.   There's a few other notable tracks here, mixing the more epic style of old Purple in Birds of Prey with the looser, jam style of Johnny's Band, again with a catchy chorus that sort of works its way into your craniumPlenty of solo flourishes from top players here, though Paice's drumming is rarely foregrounded.  Can't help but feel there's a few places where I've heard that riff before but they're fleeting. Oddest moment might be the last track, a cover of the Door's Roadhouse Blues done in a bar-room boogie style that sounds like it was recorded live, with an unusually musical and laid back Morse solo.  Maybe a tip of the hat to the rumor that this is indeed nearly the end of the road for these guys as a touring outfit. 

I have the double 45rpm LP version which is nicely packaged in thick vinyl slabs and picture sleeves but my copy is pretty noisy, even after an ultrasonic clean, and the production is a bit dark sounding, and the layers of sound are dense, lacking some of the space and air that the band possesses live. Comes with a DVD of the making of the album which I have not viewed yet but others tell me is worthy. Glad the boys are still rocking away, this won't replace Machine Head as their definitive statement but it's a solid effort.

The Bowie Box set as individual LPs

Finally got around to listening to the various releases of the Bowie box set that came out as individual LPs earlier this year. I suppose over the years I've owned three copies of some of these, particularly Aladdin Sane, and I decided it was probably a good time to fill in the gaps or to determine if the new pressings were a step up on my old worn copies.

I'll make it brief -- the answer is no. While there's a little more upfront presence and high-end detail on a couple of these, I don't really think the sonics are greatly improved. More, they really do sound quite digital in nature, which in and of itself would not bother me too much if they had the best aspects of good digital reproduction but I don't hear that with these. Aladdin Sane and Ziggy Stardust are both acceptable, and even quite good if you have nothing else but I don't feel I am really being transported into the heart of the music with these recordings. Still, they are great albums and it's nice that people can find copies now that are clean, decently packaged and quiet. And no matter what, Lady Grinning Soul still makes me catch my breath every time I hear Bowie utter the opening phrase "She'll come...she'll go". 

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