Archive for July, 2012

Soundtrack to Performance

Despite boasting a rather eclectic hodgepodge of performers, the record was all cut by Nitzsche with a steady session band built on the inimitable guitar of Ry Cooder. Despite star turns by Mick Jagger and Randy Newman, however, it may very well be that it’s the soundtrack’s production that ends up stealing the show. Weird electric hums and echoing tape loops bounce in and out of the songs tying everything together and giving even the straightest material a surreal edge. I actually find that this album is very much in the spirit of two related works cut around the same time: Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Illuminations album and Mick Jagger’s warped and surprisingly uncharacteristic soundtrack to Kenneth Anger’s film Invocation For My Demon Brother.

It’s most likely Jagger’s participation which has kept this album available all these years, seeing as his one song here, “Memo From Turner,” has become something of a Stones classic. It’s a great song, but in no way overshadows the rest of the material. A young Randy Newman kicks off the record with one of his heaviest vocals on “Gone Dead Train,” which Nitzsche would later re-record on Crazy Horse’s self-titled album. Performance’s real gem, though? Merry Clayton turning in an absolute barnstormer with “Poor White Hound Dog.” This cut features my favorite example of Nitzsche’s weird electronic aesthetic, with random bursts of white noise and warbling Moog elevating the otherwise-straightforward R&B piece into something entirely unique. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s appearances here are unfortunately limited to two psychedelic mouth-bow instrumentals which, while enjoyable, aren’t much to write home about. Ry Cooder’s guitar pieces have a little more meat to them, with “Get Away” tuning in the spirit of early Captain Beefheart (on whose records Cooder, of course, contributed in a big way) and “Powis Square” highlighting the panoramic, soulful acoustic bottleneck style that would arguably culminate in his haunting score to Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas.

The oddball here is definitely the inclusion of the Last Poet’s black power anthem “Wake Up, Niggers,” an early political rap by New York’s pioneering street poets. While clearly interrupting the spectral mood of the record, this piece does nevertheless add an interesting new angle to the proceedings and help to break up the music’s intensely Nitzschean framework. The producer’s own compositions, the ethereally orchestrated “Rolls Royce and Acid” and rather beautiful piano piece “Harry Flowers,” shine a little bit of calm and meditation into the claustrophobia and are perhaps the most overtly cinematic recordings here.

Rarely does one find a rock and roll-based soundtrack that so perfectly manages to tie this kind of sweeping, emotional power with uniform listenability, and the fact that so many talented musicians managed to turn in such defining performances on this one thirty-seven minute album is a testament to the producer’s vision as well as the era from which it emerged (as Hunter S. Thompson would so famously put it, the “place where the wave finally broke and rolled back,” i.e. the end of the communal dream that was the sixties). It looks as though Performance is out of print these days in any tangible format, but besides the ever-present vinyl originals floating around out there you can pick up a digital copy without much hassle.

mp3: Gone Dead Train
mp3: Poor White Hound Dog

:) Original | 1970 | Warner Bros | search ebay ]
😀 Reissue | Warner Bros | buy here ]
😎 Spotify link | listen ]

 

The Paupers “Ellis Island”

The Paupers don’t really need any introduction in these pages. Their debut record, Magic People, has already been discussed in an earlier review, and whatever biographical information Jason did not cover there can be found in this beautifully comprehensive history of the band over at Garage Hangover. Their 1968 swan song Ellis Island is such a unique piece of late-sixties psychedelia, however, that I think it more than deserves its own moment in the sun here on the Storm.

The opening cut here was my personal introduction to this band and it’d be hard to ask for a better first impression. “South Down Road” is a semi-orchestrated epic that rests somewhere between the West Coast rock of Quicksilver Messenger Service and early progressive rock. The dramatic arrangement, featuring buzz-saw guitar and sweeping strings, keeps this one from dissolving into monotony during any of its eight and a half minutes. The music here sounds like the hippest 1960s film soundtrack that never was. It’s a risky move to open your album with as ambitious a recording as this, but The Paupers not only make it work, but manage to draw the excitement established by this opening cut through the rest of the album without surrendering a shred of energy.

The majority of the songs on Ellis Island are in step with the sounds laid down on “Road,” featuring a good dose of fuzz-tone guitar and swelling organs. As is often the case, however, those songs which stray furthest from this pattern are some of the most interesting. The weird, affected piano ballad “Ask Her Again” is more than a little reminiscent of Van Dyke Parks’ straighter moments on Song Cycle, while “Another Man’s Hair On My Razor” is an early, tongue-in-cheek stab at country-rock. Few 1960s bands ever succeeded at doing atmospheric balladry like the Paupers do on “Oh, That She Might,” which somehow manages to incorporate delicate strings and a jazzy, night club saxophone without collapsing into affectation or period schmaltz. Perhaps the closest thing to a bum note here is the closing piece, which is in a somewhat earlier rock and roll vein and features a rather uninspired boogie-woogie piano arrangement.

Ellis Island was reissued on compact disc by Lion Records,and though it has since gone out of print, a used copy is not hard to find. In fact, original vinyl copies are surprisingly common, making this one of those rare obscurities that is both as solid as its reputation and accessible to those folks who don’t want to shell out a leg and an arm for a listen.

mp3: South Down Road
mp3: Ask Her Again

:) Original | 1968 | Verve | search ebay ]
😀 Reissue | 2007 | Lion | buy here ]

Fire “The Magic Shoemaker”

For me the most depressing thing about today’s rock music is that so much of it exhibits such a lack of creativity or originality. If something sells, clone it, quickly. What a contrast to the late sixties, when for a brief heady spell the artists rather than the bean-counters had the whip hand and the spirit of experimentation soared over everything. Of course this produced as many heroic failures as acknowledged triumphs; Fire’s The Magic Shoemaker bombed on release, and even such retrospective reviews as it has received have frequently been ambivalent. Ah, what have we got here, then? Former psychedelic outfit moves towards progressive rock with a song-cycle that’s too lightweight plot-wise to be a concept album, too naïve and inconsequential to be a rock opera . . . hmmmm. But what is true is that it certainly represents a brave attempt to be different.

London trio Dave Lambert (vcl, gtr, keys), Dick Dufall (bs, vcl) and Bob Voice (drs, vcl) had impressed the Beatles’ Apple label sufficiently to score a deal that resulted in the classic psych A-side “Father’s Name Is Dad”. The marriage was not a happy one, though, and Fire soon found themselves at odds with the music industry at large. Retiring to the suburbs, Lambert spent a year writing and demo-ing the songs for The Magic Shoemaker, based around a whimsical children’s bedtime story in which a shoemaker cobbles together a pair of shoes that unexpectedly allow the wearer to fly. These are loaned to a king whose country is threatened with war by a neighbouring state; when the king confronts his opposite number from the sky the latter’s army are spooked and a peace treaty is forthcoming. Admittedly, it’s a slender peg to hang your creative coat on, but in its own quirky homespun fashion it works.

The premise of the album is that the narrator (Lambert, in a homely Home Counties accent) tells the story to a group of kids on a coach trip (real kids’ voices, overdubbed travel noises). Short pieces of the narrative occur between and within the songs whose lyrics broadly parallel episodes in the tale, some closely, others in more abstract fashion. Musically the songs follow a basic guitar-driven pop-rock template, varying widely in style and tempo – Tommy would undoubtedly have been an influence – with frequent psychedelic studio enhancement, particularly on the opening “Tell You A Story”, “Only A Dream” and the long instrumental coda of “Reason For Everything”. Pick of the bunch for me is “I Can See The Sky” with its raw freakbeat vibe, but they’re all quite engaging. Lambert’s lead vocal, somewhere between Daltrey and Bowie, is sometimes somewhat over-affected, but the musicianship is excellent throughout with the basic guitar trio being complemented by Lambert’s modest keyboards and plenty of top-drawer lead guitar work from himself and Velvet Opera’s Paul Brett. Future Strawbs partner Dave Cousins makes a cameo appearance on banjo on the superfluous jugband ditty “Happy Man Am I”. The production by Pye’s Ray Hammond is unsophisticated but its contemporary favouring of stereo separation and reverb suits the project and the interleaving of songs and narration is seamless.

Predictably, The Magic Shoemaker tanked well and truly on its release on Pye in 1970, being too late for psych and too lightweight for prog, and subsequently became a much-sought-after rarity until its inevitable reissue on CD. The current Sanctuary edition tailgates the original album with the A’s and B’s of both of Fire’s earlier psych singles including the indispensable “Father’s Name Is Dad” and “Treacle Toffee World”. As an interesting epilogue, after a long and successful association with Cousins in the Strawbs Lambert reformed Fire for a one-off concert in 2007, performing Shoemaker in extended form including the earlier psych sides and other unreleased songs. The gig was recorded for sound and video and subsequently released on CD by Angel Air as The Magic Shoemaker Live, receiving wide acclaim . . . which is more than the original release achieved.

mp3: Reason for Everything
mp3: I Can See the Sky

😀 Reissue | 2009 | Esoteric | buy here ]
:) Original | 1970 | Pye |  search ebay ]
😎 Spotify link | listen ]

Les Fleur De Lys “Reflections”

As Britain’s “other” major Atlantic seaport, Southampton might have been expected to produce a stream of pop and rock successes to rival Liverpool during the Golden Years, but it didn’t happen. Probably the highest-profile outfit to emerge from the south coast seaport during this period was Les Fleur De Lys, certainly the only such with a grammatically-incorrect French name. Like their near-neighbours, Brighton’s Mike Stuart Span, they enjoyed a chequered history involving half–dozen lineups, dabbling in half-a-dozen genres, sporadically releasing a dozen or so singles and finally fragmenting in frustration after half-a-dozen years (1964-1970). Again like the Span, they never contrived to issue an album in their lifetime, but the present CD is a compendium of all their  singles from their earliest Beat Boom days through their freakbeat, blue-eyed soul, harmony-pop, psychedelic and nascent prog-rock phases. Their legacy remains a handful of classic freakbeat and psych A-sides, and their other main claim to fame is as a launch pad for guitarist Bryn Haworth’s subsequent career; he would morph into perhaps Britain’s finest electric slide player and thence become a doyen of Christian rock music in which field he remains very active.

The Fleurs could in fact boast some pretty substantial musicianship throughout their various incarnations. Drummer Keith Guster, the only ever-present member, could hold down a metronomic funky beat whilst bassist Gordon Haskell, who would move on to King Crimson, had formidable rock and soul chops. Haworth’s predecessor Phil Sawyer was also a fine player in a reckless Jeff Beck style, whilst Haworth himself boasted a fluid bluesy technique and a distinctive, piercing Stratocaster/AC30 sound. They were a top live draw around Swinging London, acting as backing band live and on disc for singer Sharon Tandy and supporting such esteemed and varied visiting headliners as the Beach Boys, Isaac Hayes and Aretha Franklin. In an attempt to break through chartwise they also recorded under various pseudonyms including Shyster, Waygood Ellis, Rupert’s People and Chocolate Frog (!). Several of the early singles were produced by one Jimmy Page, no less.

The twenty-four tracks of the present compilation include the A’s and B’s of all seven singles issued under their own name, the Tandy sides and all the sides released under the fake monikers. The early Beat-era stuff and the soul-based tracks are pretty disposable; the Fleurs were no Young Rascals, nor despite the presence of a couple of competent organists in the early lineups were they anyone’s Procul Harum. However the Page-produced freakbeat cover of Pete Townshend’s “Circles” and its follow-up “Mud In Your Eye” forefront Sawyer’s fine manic lead guitar licks, whilst “Gong With The Luminous Nose” and “Liar” are fine examples of Brit psychedia and guitar-led prog respectively with Haworth’s exemplary Hendrixoid fretwork to the fore. The two Sharon Tandy sides “Hold On” and “Daughter Of The Sun” are rip-roaring rockers, with the powerful backings complementing Tandy’s steely vocal and Haskell’s bass work on “Hold On” a revelation. On the rock and pop tracks the instrumentation and vocals are more than competent but the songwriting is passable at best and sometimes mediocre. The result is a fascinating 24-track collection of historical interest to Sixties rock completists, but which would have made a really good “best of” if reduced to sixteen cuts.

Originally issued on CD by Blueprint in 1996, the present Gonzo budget reissue has the same track listing but a different cover photo. The typo-strewn track listing and historical perspective in the booklet notes are not exactly academic masterpieces, but better ones can be found.

mp3: Circles (Instant Party)
mp3: Gong with the Luminous Nose

😀 Compilation | 2010 | Gonzo | buy here ]
😎 Spotify link | listen ]