Tuesday, 22 April 2014

ALBUM REVIEW - XTC - Skylarking (Corrected)

Ape Records:
Out Now:


An album as it was intended to sound - how many times have artists tried to recover their treasured work successfully, only to see their previous label guff it up with dull, flat 'remasters' and a chancer's approach to packaging? Probably too many.

In the case of XTC's priceless catalogue, little justice has been done so far. Virgin remastered and expanded all of their albums some 13 years ago with a string of rather tasteful 'Japanese' vinyl replica CD issues (sounded OK) and sub-standard CD versions (no sleevenotes, I mean come ON), but this hardly did justice for what should have been a more respectful treatment of a band who have confounded and delighted in equal measure. And sold a fair few albums in their time, both here and abroad.

After the earlier multi-format extravaganza that was Nonsuch, simplicity surrounds this straightforward re-issue of XTC's pivotal Skylarking, also released through co-founder Andy Partridge's Ape imprint. Well, I say straightforward - back in 1986, recording sessions were fraught with tempers frayed, egos primed and strops stropped but the resultant album should be, to say the least, worthy of being included in the British Music Experience exhibition and music syllabus throughout the UK education system as soon as possible. In short, Skylarking is everything you could want from a band at the height of its game, and then some.

This new transfer corrects a previous sound issue whereby the entire album sounded 'thin and distant', suffering from a reversed polarity glitch that escaped mastering bods both in the UK and US but now comes spruced up by original engineer John Dent with a few simple tweaks and twists, making it sound perkier, brighter, clearer and sparkier than ever before. The original sleeve has been replaced with the intended design that was initially shunned by wavering retailers that baulked at the sight of ginger muffs peeping out from under a chain of innocent daisies.

The original life-in-one-day track order has been re-assembled to include 'controversial' single Dear God, now cleverly tucked in-between smoky lounge lothario The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul and the quietly majestic-cum-morbid Moulding composition Dying. Everything from opening pairing Summer's Cauldron and Grass to the sweeping Wicker Man-esque Sacrificial Bonfire sounds like it was recorded yesterday - timeless quality songwriting that puts most of today's tryouts to shame. Big Day is (almost) co-writer Colin Moulding's most understated observational track ever (apart from Nonsuch's Bungalow) while Partridge's chiming Earn Enough For Us is a single-that-never-was-but-should-have-been-and-if-it-was-it-would-have-been-a-fucking-big-hit-so-there.

There are so many great things going on with Skylarking - the music, the lyrical gymnastics, the production, the playful sequencing - you'd be a fool to miss out this time around. A masterpiece for all seasons.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

ALBUM REVIEW - Select All Delete Save As - Ultra Cultura

Select All Delete Save As:
Ultra Cultura:
SADSA Records:
Out April 21:


Formerly the same selectalldeleteas that spat forth a musical runt of a debut-album some three years ago, this Jersey-based duo-cum-trio have eschewed their student tendencies and written a decent, if a little fragmented and disjointed, follow-up that takes just 31 minutes to cuddle your ears.

Comprised primarily of pastoral folk trillmeister Terry Emm and experimental troubadour and co-founder Antony Walker, SADSA are now joined by sweetly-tonsilled Rachael McVay who adds a new dimension to the left-field rock and pop soundbase. Recent single Modern Life Is War recalls Throwing Muses or Sonic Youth doing their cool bubblegum-pop thing, while the opening title-track has an element of Veruca Salt and Paramore about it, less-so sonically perhaps but certainly energy-wise.

Much of the remainder is a marriage of approachable psychedelic folk-rock with quirky commentary (Nectar of Instruction), slow stoned indie-pop a la Slowcore Puck and clumsy electro beats with even clumsier rap-chat (The Sun and his Sunglasses) - Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip it ain't.

Quite who will buy into this phenomena of Ultra Cultura is impossible to gauge but it's a curious-enough blend of music that might earn them some hip brownie-points. Artwork gets the nod as well.

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:
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:
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:
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.