Saturday, 12 April 2014

ALBUM REVIEW - Alpha & Omega - The Half That's Never Been Told

Alpha & Omega:
The Half That's Never Been Told:
A&O Records:
CD/LP:
Released: Now:

★★★★★★★★☆☆

Currently commanding 'silly' prices on Discogs et al for their rare vinyl pressings of early albums, British dub-reggae duo Alpha and Omega have carved out a niche by producing steadfast dub that has changed little in the last 20 years, save for a location switch from Plymouth to London. Sure, technology has ensured their sound has toughened up but, on the whole, A&O mine the same reliable seam as they did on earlier self-released albums such as Kings and Queens and Overstanding (later to be re-published via Greensleeves for CD formatting) and trust me, this is no bad thing.

The Half That's Never Been Told is essentially a 'lost' collection originally planned for release sometime in the '90s and features a selection of tracks brimming with goodies galore. An element of remastering and tidying up ensures that A&O remain rooted in the 21st century, despite the age of the material. This Is A Prayer and Stephen Lawrence are the equal of their best cuts - the former could give the pair's trademark Pure and Clean a run for its money while the latter's poignancy and subject-matter is backed up with a ruff riddim primed for maximum sound-system bruising. This HAS to be a Notting Hill Carnival anthem of the future.

Things Getting Hotter and Truth Is Freedom are further highlights that make good use of sampled vocals, dusty Bedouin melodies and speaker-scaring basslines. And even though the source recording is a bit muddy in places, the actual ideas are as a clear as day. There's a cheeky classical-music reference on African Ancestor to keep you guessing and four bonus cuts on the CD edition, all derived from the same era, of which Warrior Queen is particularly worthy of caning at a high volume - it should have been on the main album, I reckon.

Long may they watch, pray and make music.


Thursday, 10 April 2014

ALBUM REVIEW - Section 25 - From The Hip 2xCD 30th Anniversary

Section 25:
From The Hip (Double CD Edition):
Factory Benelux:
2xCD:
Out May 6th:

★★★★★★★★★★

In stark contrast to Factory Records' minimal promotional activity for this album in 1984, the newly-revived Benelux imprint has lined up a double-CD issue to celebrate From The Hip's 30th anniversary, plus a companion orange-vinyl 7" of Reflection (Young Image) (also included here) with a new b-side Chance (not included here) AND a super t-shirt based on the original sleeve to monster club 12", Looking From a Hilltop. It's VERY orange and a potential rival to those expensive hi-viz cycling jerseys (mine's going to Scotland for my charity ride at Easter).

Anyway, I digress. Put simply, From The Hip is perhaps one of the most important electro-rock albums of all time. It's certainly one of Factory's greatest moments and came very close to rivalling the band's chums New Order's then landmark album, Power Corruption & Lies, if not for the music then certainly for the toys used to make it. With NO's Bernard Sumner part of the production helm with ACR's Donald Johnson, it's perhaps not surprising how fresh this all sounded 30 years ago and still does today. It's also not surprising to recall the lazy comparisons to New Order made by a few journos at the time. Hey journos - you can still fuck right off. From The Hip sounded like Section 25, not New Order.

And it still sounds like Section 25 today. From the moment The Process blissfully rolls into view, it's like the fog of a heavy day begins to clear and enlightenment takes its place. This is no hippy shit - think Neu, Eno or Foxx - and before long, you're halfway to reaching the next peak which is the evergreen club-hit Looking From a Hilltop. No matter which of the six versions you pick on this double-disc package, there's something exciting to glean from them all. There's a funky demo instrumental that doffs a respectful cap to Giorgio Moroder and French astro-disco crazies Space, the recent hypnotic (and essential) Stephen Morris remodel known as Another Hilltop (Kraftwerk, LCD Soundsystem, Factory Floor-a-go-go) and the behemoth of black dance clubs and radio, the Megamix. I'd put money on that version being an influence for subsequent acid-house exports (soon to be spun, somewhat ironically, at the Hacienda).

There really isn't a duff track on the main album - even the bullish, priggish Prepare To Live sideswipes its own admittedly pretentious song-title by retaining something of the old punkier S25 and copping a feel of the all-new sounds constructed here. Then there's Program For Light which judders and shudders to a full-throttle instrumental climax all over the start of the ambient Desert, as sorrowful a vocal (from the late Jenny Cassidy then Ross) as you could ever hear. Then the ominous Beneath The Blade grinds its gears for six insistent minutes, paving the way for the out-of-beat introduction of the album highlight, Inspiration. If you fail to be moved by this exemplary slice of pretty electro-wave, you need trapping for sport.

On this explorative anniversary edition (in a grand wrap-around sleeve), you get the by-now familiar period singles Beating Heart (including the acid-squiggle version, pre-dating Chicago House by some two or three years), Back To Wonder (which I think could have fitted onto the original Hip) and a bruising pair of Dirty Disco retakes.

Disc two is the real USP here this time around - lots of hard-to-find demos from 1983, three BBC Session tracks from 1984 and an abandoned vocal version of Program For Light which, to these ears, has a droning bass-synth not unlike early Orbital (who have been known to borrow bits of the Blackpool band's catalogue). Oh and you'll break into a grin when you read about Mr Twatto in Sumner's witty sleevenotes - essays by Jon Savage and various Cassidys also included.

Never mind what Depeche Mode, Human League and even New Order got up to in the mid-'80s and what latter-day comparisons Sohn, Goldfrapp, London Grammar and the like are spending their ticket income on, Section 25's proper post-punk synth-pop groove-of-art is far more deserving of a purchase. From the hip indeed.


Tuesday, 8 April 2014

ALBUM REVIEW - The Blue Nile - Peace At Last 2xCD

The Blue Nile:
Peace At Last:
Virgin/Universal:
2xCD:
Out Now:

★★★★★★★☆☆☆

Scotland's most atmospheric sons were some twelve years into their existence when album number three finally appeared, seven years after the triumphant Hats which in turn arrived five years after the grittier debut, A Walk Across The Rooftops. Both of those short but sweet albums have proven to be pivotal long-players both for the band and their loyal fan-base. Ask most Nileys which album from the band's esteemed catalogue they still get the most pleasure from and most would plump for the first pair, hands down.

In 1996, it was somewhat unfair to expect anything more from Peace At Last, other than business as usual - except that it wasn't. Gone were the chilly glacial electronic ballads of yore and in their place a more (ahem) organic, acoustic, soulful and, in the case of lead-off (and only) single Happiness, neo-gospel feel to proceedings, albeit with a retained drum-machine in attendance, a machine that in places sounds like it had a mind of its own - I do hope they got a refund for it. Listen to the otherwise faultless Tomorrow Morning and you may see what I mean. Check out the clumsy Holy Love and you may find yourself hitting eject and whipping out your copy of Hats again.

But there are plenty of high-points to be had on this third Virgin-branded Blue Nile reissue. It's a decent enough remaster, plus there's the attendant bonus disc of, once again, just six outtakes and unreleased nuggets. Plus you also get two or three more gems aside from Happiness and Tomorrow Morning - Family Life is all swoonsome strings and melancholic Festive homecomings par excellence, Soon broods edgily with typically bold Buchanan trademarks and God Bless You Kid might have been a challenger for one of the first two albums. Sentimental Man reached radio-friendly status in the U.S. (a promo CD did the rounds), but the remainder hasn't dated as well - I won't bore you with details.

And so to those bonuses. Three songs are completely unreleased, a state of affairs that usually means unreleased for a reason. Not so in the case of Turn Yourself Around which is one of Paul Buchanan's best buried treasures and worthy of replacing any one of four lesser album-tracks on Peace At Last. A Certain Kind Of Angel is also a redeeming feature, There Was a Girl sadly isn't. There are also subtle alternate variations of three album tracks that were presumably mixed by the band for possible inclusions as singles or b-sides - the Laurel Canyon mix of Soon is rather pleasing and the pick of the bunch.

As with Virgin's re-releases of the band's first pair of albums, the bonuses aren't decisive. None of the Happiness CD single extras are here, a telling omission being the superior Wish Me Well. But even without these glaring gaps, the completists should find enough to satisfy their hunger until Buchanan turns his hand to newer projects (we live in hope). Or perhaps a reissue of 2004's superior High.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

ALBUM REVIEW - We Cut Corners - Think Nothing

We Cut Corners:
Think Nothing:
CD/Download:
Delphi:
May 2014:

★★★★★★★☆☆☆

Is it me or does the bloke chowing down on a plate of flowers on the sleeve look a tad like Alan Hansen. Oh, it's me.

Unlike my imagination, Irish duo We Cut Corners steer well clear of dryly-humoured but dour football critics on TV for inspiration - they head straight for the heart and soul of classic rock and roll. Well, so it says in the blurb - frankly, name-checking Ryan Adams, Leonard Cohen and The Velvet Underground does them little favour. However, a mention of Radiohead is perhaps a more accurate fit. Musically, there is an element of desolation and despair in places, minus the Thom Yorke masterclass in fragility and technicality.

In fact, We Cut Corners work well together to cover similar bases to Elbow and, an outfit I warmed to last year, The PJP Band from Plymouth and, dare I suggest vocally, Patti Smith - the singer is a bloke, by the way. Melancholia abounds throughout, with an element of the blousy and theatrical plus an ear for epic arrangements and big tunes. The opening Wallflowers is exemplary, a song that slowly germinates, buds, then unfurls to reveal its true colours before blossoming quickly into a fully-grown bloom before coming to an abrupt end. Class.

And it doesn't end there - most of this too-short album is edgy but melodic rock-pop bluster that, in the wrong hands, might have conjured up the very worst Irish stew. Instead, Messrs Duignan and O'Breachain have taken the time to prepare their ingredients properly and lay everything down in under three minutes in most cases. Exceptions include is the haunting Every Thief and the weeping string-laden closer, Hunger, both well-arranged and confident enough to convince any doubters. At times, the songs sound bigger than the two fellas in the credits and that's a compliment.

Think Nothing is certainly an improvement on their 2011 debut album Today I Realised I Could Go Home Backwards, not just for the simpler title but for the consistency on offer. Good album.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

ALBUM REVIEW - Durutti Column - The Return Of (Expanded)

Durutti Column:
The Return Of The Durutti Column:
Factory Benelux:
CD:
Out May 6th:

★★★★★★★★★☆

Timeless music never ages. Despite being 35 years old, there is something magical and refreshing about the first few bars of Vini Reilly's debut album. Perhaps it's the gorgeous melody deftly delivered by the skinny guitarist, or the bass-heavy drum box or the trademark 'tweets' spouted from producer Martin Hannett's boxes of tricks.

And the sleeves - they're the stuff of legend. Original copies came dressed in a harsh sandpaper sleeve designed to antagonise other records in your collection, later copies were tastefully housed in a black textured sleeve with a trio of Dufy paintings. It's the later sleeve that adorns this latest reissue of FACT14, now renumbered with a Factory Benelux catalogue number and correctly correlated with all related tracks from the albums many pressings.

Those magical notes and famous twitterings appear on Sketch For Summer, perhaps one of The Durutti Column's most important pieces of music. After the raggedy early No Communication and Thin Ice on the Factory Sample double-disc a while earlier, Reilly's muse took him and his fingers over and turned him into something of an enigma. Tracks like Katherine and Conduct are just so way ahead of their time, it hurts. The footstep-pulse of Requiem For a Father completes what is one of the most complete sides in recorded history.

But then comes the confusion of side two. Different pressings, different sleeves et all led to different track-listings and a re-order of those tracks. Typical Factory. Here (finally), this Factory Benelux version goes to all the bother of offering both sequences previously issued over three different vinyl pressings, including the hard-to-find off-beat and jazzy Untitled, not included on the first release but presented here amongst other extras such as Lips That Would Kiss and Madeleine plus the two Martin Hannett tracks that originally appeared on the original flexi freebie. These odd little agitations of electronic pulses remain an oddity but compelling nonetheless.

After last year's superb vinyl repressing last year, this CD tidies up the format shortage nicely. Very nicely.