Wednesday, 24 January 2018

My weird take on Yes

When I mentioned Yes in my post on Progressive Rock I got this tweet. I asked why weird and got no reply so here are some more weird opinions.

Yes, like Elbow and Camel, are so much better live than on record. Rick Wakeman describes their albums as "sterile" and he is often right. The Union album is quite dreadful, but the tour that went with it, eight musicians playing for the music rather than themselves, the convenient doubling of everything except Bass & singer allowed songs like 'Awaken' to expand and evolve. The current state of play is that there are two bands called Yes, with 2 or 3 "proper" members each, and some extras. The whole mess is explained in detail at Henry Potts' site. Personally I could care less.

So why write about them? I joined in with the Drama album in 1980, and only dabbled with their music until the Internet came along. Drama was and is a great album, top drawer songwriting, crisp production, and the best ever examples of Chris Squire's bass as lead instrument style in 'Does It Really Happen' and 'Tempus Fugit'. The new boys brought new vigour to the music. Geoff Downes simpler sound pallette feels more integrated with the rest of the band, particularly Steve Howe's guitar, than Wakeman did on either of the previous two albums. They were unafraid to innovate, Trevor Horn playing bass on Run Through The Light for instance.

So with the advent of the interwebs (in my world) about 1999, I started looking backward, and catching up with what bands were doing. This was the heyday of the email newsletter and information and opinion about new releases and band activities was filtering through as never before. Yes had one and I subscribed, just in time for "The Ladder", another album with a fair bit of innovation, while remaining undeniably Yes. It's the best songs 'Homeworld (The Ladder)', and 'The Messenger' that work best and Bruce Fairbairn's production doesn't pander to their more noodly tendancies. The Ladder songs come properly alive on "House of Yes: Live from House of Blues" the album resulting from the following year's worth of touring. Some of the old stuff is given a makeover and Steve Howe manages to play on Trevor Rabin era songs, although he is far from happy about it.

After the orchestral "Magnification" album which failed mainly due to lack of good material and being released on 10th September 2001, innovation and progress stopped in Yes-World. They retreated to the formula pioneered at the Keys To Ascension shows in 1996, largely ignoring anything after 1979 (ok they did play the title song of Magnification in 2002 and a couple more newer songs in 2004). Innovation having died, and unwilling to wait on Jon Anderson's health the band fractured recruited a couple of Jon-alike singers and set off on tour in 2008. None of the resulting music or numerous live albums sound like anything other than going through the motions. With Chris Squire gone and Alan White using a sub/back up drummer in recent years they increasingly sound like their own tribute band. The "other" band Yes Featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman spreads its net wider, talking in material from all eras (except Drama which none of them played on)

So my weird conclusions are that Yes work best when a producer has a firm hand on the tiller. They thrived on innovation, particularly live. The best Yes music is song based and not about awesome musical technique. They were and probably still are a band ruled by their business decisions, rather than musical ones. Oh and Chris Squire is God's own Bass Player.

This being true I would suggest listening to

Yes (1969) A good bridge between the sixties and seventies, with a few cracking songs
Going For The One (1977) The return to songs after the noodling years
Drama (1980) Something new and different
Talk (1994) The best Rabin years album, with a good balance between his & Jon Anderson's influence
Keys To Ascension (1996) The best look back at the seventies, technology had caught up and the material was fresh after being set aside for a while.
House of Yes (2000) A contrasting look at old material and some new songs

I have to say I'm looking forward to Fly From Here - Return Trip in March 2018, same album with Trevor Horn taking lead vocals, the follow up to both Drama and The Buggles Adventures in Modern Recording which Yes fans should certainly hear. The best Yes album of the last 15 years is Anderson/Stolt's Invention of Knowledge, 

With the blue touch paper lit I'm now retiring to a safe distance. Feel free to disagree with me...

Monday, 8 January 2018

France Gall Est Mort

A while ago I suggested that  Lulu was the nearest British equivalent to France Gall who has died aged 70. I was wrong, the French treat their singers far better than we ever treated Lulu, Dusty or Sandie, they let them grow up.

A quick history...

1964-67: Serge Gainsbourg started writing for her, best song from her Ye!Ye! period is Laisse Tomber les Filles. Won Eurovision and kick started the novelty song era of Eurovision songs.

1967-74: Stopped working with Gainsbourg after unwittingly recording a song Les Sucettes that turned out to be one big Double Entendre (it means Lollipop, she was 19, it was 1967, work it out). Career stalls until she met and ultimately married star songwriter Michel Berger.

1974 - 92: With Berger writing the songs she matured into a mix of all round entertainer, musical Starmania being the highlight here, and albums artist. Eight studio and six live albums over twenty years, all of which did respectable business in France and not a light here.

1992 - 97: Berger dies of a heart attack, and after one more studio and a raft of farewell live albums, with the death of her daughter in 1997 that was it.

Why should you care? Because all through her career she worked with quality songwriters, and always developed and progessed her music, changing arrangements, styles, and hair while remaining uniquely herself. For me she is top of the list of Ye! Ye! singers. To learn more about this fascinating era try Ye-Ye Girls of '60s French Pop by Jean-Emmanuel DeLuxe. and Ace Records Ces't Chic compilations. Later on, while she certainly chased fashions in music, there were some great albums. "Babacar" with her tribute to Ella Fitzgerald is her best album as album, but very few of her later ones are without merit. The conventional wisdom has it that Michel Berger didn't write the quality of songs for Gall that he provided Franciose Hardy or Veronique Sanson. Not so, he just wrote more for his wife. The quality over 20 years of songs is very high. There aren't many double cd compilations you can listen all the way through to without hitting skip sometimes, Gall's "Evidemment" which covers her whole adult career is one I play all through often.

Gall regularly shifted the focus of her music, disco, pop, rock, and used the best French and imported musicians. Her last band featured Prince's New Power Generation rhythm section and David Sancious. Magma bassist Janick Top was a fixture for many years. Compare songs like 'Resiste' from it's slightly insipid pop roots in 82 through to live show anthem in '96. Her voice can be a bit shrill at times on the uptempo numbers, but give her a ballad like 'Ella Elle L'a' or‘√Čvidemment’ and she can do no wrong for me.

I have been pondering a blog about the appeal of French music for a while, why you should hear people like Nolwenn Leroy, and Couer De Pirate. I will get to it soon, but in the meantime I will be playing "√Čvidemment" and her last live album "Concert Prive, Concert Public" and remembering one of my favourite singers.


Saturday, 30 December 2017

It's been a year since...

Time for an end of the year round up, and it's also a year since I started the blog. Thank you for reading, and it seems people are (if I believe Google's figures), so what have I discovered in 2017, in case you care.


Disappointment of the year... 

Elbow - Little Fictions. Has not stood up well to repeated plays, certainly nowhere near the album that "The Take Off and Landing of Everything" was.

Best of the year...

One problem here is that I seem to have bought very little new music in 2017 so this list is almost self selecting.

Sparks - Hippopotamus. There is no such thing as a bad Sparks album, only degrees of wonderfulness. This one is among the best, up there with "Exotic Creatures of the Deep" and "Number One In Heaven" If you don't know Sparks this is the perfect album to try. The combination of good tunes and a sense of humour is irresistable for me.

Black Country Communion - BCCIV The quintessential rock band come back after the quarreling surrounding "Afterglow". This is as good as BCC 2. Glenn Hughes voice is working well, and the simpler arrangements make for an album that wins the best music to sit in a queue on the M6 to award.

Kim Seviour -  Recovery Is Learning Kim's singing was always the best thing about Touchstone. With better material she is now flying. As a fellow ME sufferer I get the title song and the cover. Call To Action is the song to try if you haven't heard the album. John Mitchell provides his signature "modern Prog" production, which means it sounds like the Lonely Robot album, no bad thing. And she is a local.

Bill Nelson - Tripping The Light Fantastic A Bill Nelson live album would be great in itself, but that it documents a show where he played many of my favourites 'I Always Knew You Would Find Me', 'The Raindrop Collector', 'Gloria Mundae' amongst them makes it doubly so.

Nolwenn Leroy - Gemme. A new purchase at the very end of the year. After the diversions in Celtic music this is her best "Pop"album since Histores Naturelles. Nolwenn will be part of a post on French Music that is in development hell at present. Watch this space.

And the rest is old stuff.

I caught up with Lonely Robot's "Please Come Home" through listening to Kim's album. Pop enough to have tunes, Prog enough to challenge the listener.  Seeing Over The Rhine live in April was a highlight and sent me back to the albums yet again. Ozric Tentacles most recent live album appeared on Bandcamp. I love them, but recognise that you might not. More good music for long car journeys though, and I do plenty of them. I found London Grammar's first album "If You Wait" and should really catch up with the next one. 

Oh and 2017 was the year I rediscovered Jazz. You have been warned...

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

eMusic - An Update

I have just published an update on my August rant about eMusic. Find it on Linkedin HERE

Saturday, 16 December 2017

It's just not cricket, no wait it is...

I started listening to radio seriously in about 1978. Lots of things were to blame for moving me on from basic Radio 1. "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy" introduced Radio 4, and a bout of Chickenpox, particularly nasty as a teenager, left me twiddling the dial in May. So I discovered cricket, or more exactly cricket commentary.

I don't do sport really, I have no interest in Football or Rugby, but the lyrical description of this game that seems to seep into whoever is on air at Test Match Special is as enticing as any music. Now I'm not the first to mention this, but it has coloured my radio and podcast listening. Over time I have got a bit more interested in the game, learnt the fielding positions and so on. Quick aside; I was finally put off any real interest in sport by a rainy school games lesson when we were all sat on the floor and shown fielding positions rather than playing. You weren't allowed to wear glasses for games so I couldn't see a thing. I asked to go back for them, was told no put up with it, and decided on the spot to give up on anything "taught" like that.

I do a lot of miles in the course of business and Audiobooks help the motorway slide by easier. I listen to music books, as you may have noticed in previous pieces, but I seem to have a fair few cricket books as well. No surprise that cricket commentators are good Audiobook narrators but it seems that the game is just ideally suited to spoken word. All this was prompted by Henry Blofeld's memoirs appearing on Audible recently. It turns out to be a good listen, and Henry to have a clear sense of his role on air. Jonathan Agnew is far and away the best at the Cricket Audiobook. His anthology of cricket writing is a good place to start, but not all at one sitting at 19 hours long. He has also done an excellent tribute to Brian Johnson which mixes anecdote with history, although I could care less if I never heard their "Leg Over" incident again.

In common with most high paid "professional" sportsmen cricketers have a greatly inflated sense of their own importance. As I write this in December 2017, the England team have all had to be grounded because they can't have a drink without headbutting each other. Consequently I have avoided autobiographies of players, partly because they have a tendancy to be written too close to their careers to have any perspective, be a least a little self serving and frankly pretty dull. I would recommend however Jonny Bairstow's memoir "A Clear Blue Sky", the positive tone of a book that could have turned into a rant about his early tragedies makes for an incisive story.

Cricket podcasts? The BBC's "Stumped" is the best, the rest tend to be attempts to replicate the natural tone of Test Match Special and come across as forced. Someone more interested in the game than the narration may tell you different...

Then there is "The Duckworth Lewis Method". As well as the cricket version of the offside rule, it is a project from Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy and Thomas Walsh of the excellent Pugwash. The history is here and I would say that even if you don't like cricket at all, the mix of gentle whimsical lyrics and E.L.O.pastiches is irresistable. Get the albums, both of them, you won't regret it. They have also been taken to heart by the Cricket world, even appearing on TMS..

I didn't know Pugwash before the DLM albums, but don't wait, their new album "Silverlake" is as good as anything they have done. Also get their compilation A Rose In A Garden Of Weeds as a way into their beguiling catchy songs. Try "What Are You Like" from the new album

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Artist Choice: Karen Lawrence

"It was 1994:'s Karen Lawrence who gave the others the choice of being second best or giving up" (Geoff Barton in Sounds)

Every so often a great album or a truly talented artist spends their entire career toiling away just below the awareness of all but a lucky few who find them. One such is Karen Lawrence. She has produced some good music, one genuinely great album, wrote a platinum hit record and seems to have been on the receiving end of more music industry rubbish than most.

She started out in a band called L.A. Jets. Hard to find much about them online (swamped by the football team), but the one video I can find shows a mid 70s pop rock band with no distinguishing features. After round one of music industry hassles most of the L.A. Jets popped up again as 1994: (the colon is meant to be there) and had money and attention lavished on them, including producer Jack Douglas (Aerosmith), by A&M records. The result in my view is the best hard rock album of the 70's, if you don't believe me, then critic Geoff Barton called it "The best female fronted record of all time". Available as a brilliant expanded edition from Rock Candy Records if you have even a passing interest in loud rock music you need to hear this album. Nine perfectly formed songs with Karen's voice competing with Steve Schiff's soloing and Bill Rhodes inventive solid bass playing for top billing. Still one of my most played albums. I found 1994: thanks to an article in Sounds by Mr Barton highlighting then recent, 1979, US import albums*. He was talking about the follow up 'Please Stand By' but was so fulsome in his praise of the debut that I had to have it. £1.99 in the same cut out bin that I found Bruford's One Of A Kind in, quite a day that!

Later work includes Rip and Tear a cracking solo album still available digitally, and blues band Blue By Nature, and since 2000 silence. Seek her out and wonder why, like Kim Edgar in my recent post you haven't heard her before.

The sleeve notes for the Rock Candy reissues give the 1994: story as well as anywhere, and make an extra reason for buying them.

A very informative interview with Karen is here

* If anyone ever comes across this article online let me know, I discovered the band Storm there as well and would love to re read it as I'm sure other gems are waiting to be unearthed.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Steely Dan - Ultimate Music Guide

From previous posts you will have worked out that I'm quite keen on Steely Dan, so I was pleased to see Uncut add them to their Ultimate Music Guide series. These magazines are a great way of getting started with an artist, I have bought several, The Byrds, Van Morrison, & The Beach Boys issues all sent me off to the record shop.

With the Steely Dan one I have better insider knowledge and while it is very good, certainly making anything I could write to advise you where to start redundant, there are gaps...

The first is that as far as I can see nowhere does the song F.M. get a mention. It won awards and was released in various versions which surely gives it trainspotter appeal.

Number two nit-pick is the Hoops McCann Band. Named after a character in "Glamour Profession" (Steely Dan fans love this stuff) their "Plays the Music Of Steely Dan" album is a Jazz-lite set of covers. Not a musical sensation but part of the lore. And lore is one of the important things about Becker and Fagen. Bard College, Jay & The Americans, Chevy Chase, Muswellbrook... If you don't know what I'm talking about then catch up with Brian Sweet's excellent Biography called "Reelin' In the Years" (what else). If you ever see his other book "Complete Guide to the Music of Steely Dan" for less than ridiculous Amazon prices grab it. As a supplement to the interviews in the Ultimate Music Guide get Barney Hoskyns' "Major Dudes: A Steely Dan Companion". There is a small overlap of interviews, but not enough to matter.

Something else that is of interest to the train spotter in me are Steely Dan covers.

Woody Herman's "Chick, Donald, Walter & Woodrow" marries a suite from Chick Corea with five Steely Dan songs, far more effective big band Dan than Hoops McCann.

Herbie Hancock covered 'Your Gold Teeth II' on "The New Standard", an album by the way that is high up on the list of best Jazz albums of recent years.

"The Nightfly" has attracted its share of easy listening covers. Mel Torme took on 'The Goodbye Look' and 'Walk Between the Raindrops' on his Reunion album with Marty Paich, (whose son David covered Bodhisattva with Toto), and the Four Freshmen had a stab at Maxine and I.G.Y.

Best covers? The Pointer Sisters' take on Dirty Work clearly influenced Steely Dan's own live arrangement of recent years.

 Wilco's version of 'Any Major Dude' is good as is 'King Of The World' from Joe Jackson. Oddly Waylon Jennings managed a not bad rendition of 'Do It Again'..

Buy the Steely Dan Ultimate Music Guide, if you are a fan or not. Becker and Fagen make good copy whatever your opinion of their music. Personally I love it and am patiently waiting for Donald to get his finger out and release some better live albums and proper expanded editions of the albums.


My dwindling opinion of Donald Fagen took another hit this week with the headline "Steely Dan Singer Donald Fagen Sues Bandmate Walter Becker's Estate". While it's hardly the first unseemly scrap for control of a band name, Yes do it every second Thursday after all, the comments in my obituary of Walter Becker stand.