Monday, 29 February 2016

The Kick Inside - Kate Bush (1978) - album review

The mid-to-late Seventies were full of noteworthy debut albums by an array of  artists; Boston, Television and Heart to name but a few. Another outstanding record by a newcomer was The Kick Inside by Kate Bush, which appeared in the year 1978.

There is no doubt that this is an ambitious and mature work, particularly bearing in mind how young the singer-songwriter was when these songs were written and recorded.  She certainly hit the ground running, and this was seemingly the culmination of her youthful endeavours. The thought occurs that her later work failed to match the focus and sharpness of The Kick Inside.  Either she peaked early, or she failed to fulfill her potential.

The timing and context of Kate's arrival on the music scene is intriguing. She didn't conform to any notion of pigeon-holing. She tends to be labelled as "art pop" or "art rock", which to my mind are usually tags attached to artists who otherwise defy precise and easy categorization. By 1978, the singer-songwriter boom was spent, and punk, new wave and disco held sway. Against this backdrop, it is easy to see why she made such an impact. An original talent, with a different, challenging take on things.

One criticism is that too many of the songs on this debut sound alike. This may partly be down to the instrumental backing and the nature of Kate's voice. However, these factors do imbue the record with a certain aura and cohesion.

Her influences are tricky to pinpoint. Clearly the female singer-songwriters of the previous era are here in spirit, if not always overtly in style.  The effect of Laura Nyro is detectable to my mind, in the form of the uncompromising arrangements and lyrics, the prevalence of piano and also the subject matter.

The album exudes a bright and fresh sound, even several decades later. This was the period before everything became submerged by electronics and the urge to experiment with all the shiny new technology coming on stream.

The list of topics tackled by these songs, such as "Strange Phenomena",  was not exactly standard back in 1978,  Indeed, Kate Bush might have been a pioneer in addressing "awkward" issues, a practice which later became so fashionable.

"The Saxophone Song" has a haunting quality to it, and "Kite" is a standout, being both sparky and vibrant. "The Man With The Child In His Eyes" is probably my favourite from this LP, having a dramatic sweep and cinematic flavour. The lyrics are still cryptic and the imagery enigmatic, but the melody is more direct and digestible.

"Wuthering Heights" is one of those tracks which has suffered in my mind from over-exposure, thus making it tricky to evaluate. Despite the literary overtones, it feels a little artificial and sterile, as if the artist was trying too hard to impress.

Of all the pieces on The Kick Inside, the one which most betrays the influence of Laura Nyro is "Feel It".  It reminds me somewhat of the New York Tendaberry-era material in its general atmosphere and style. The concluding song, the title track, might just be the highlight of the whole thing...

The mix sometimes makes it difficult to make out the words clearly.  This might have been intentional; the need to listen attentively in order to understand the songs renders the album a real challenge.  The intensity is unrelenting, with no let-up.  Every song matters, and has something worthwhile to say, demanding our attention. A rare quality in any record, let alone a debut.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Out Of The Blue - Electric Light Orchestra - album review

In the corridors of music history, there is a curious tendency for a consensus to emerge about what is a particular artist's best album, when that artist has produced other work which is far more deserving of that accolade. I put this down in part to lazy "scholarship", and the herd mentality which guides these matters.

I am inclined to think that Electric Light Orchestra's Out Of The Blue does not quite, in the cold light of day, live up to the uncontested glow which has surrounded it since its 1977 release. It does contain some entertaining and enjoyable tunes, and it is overflowing with the craftsmanship for which Jeff Lynne is rightly famous. The Beatles leanings are still clearly evident, with increasing echoes of Roy Orbison in some of the ballads.

The quality of the songs and the level of inspiration are uneven though, even allowing for the quota of filler material which turns up on most double LPs. The production and sound are steadily growing distant from the more earthy and organic character of the group's earlier works, and too many of the tracks are bathed in a certain clinical sheen, which unnecessarily obscures and stifles potential nuances.

Notwithstanding my criticisms, what is good on Out Of The Blue is very good indeed. The curtain-raiser, "Turn To Stone", does not fall victim to the excessive lushness which is evident elsewhere. There is abundant melodic invention and energy here, the latter largely stemming from the bass-synth which propels the piece along, and the "detached" feel of the vocal.  The song has its own persona and dynamism.

A song which has a similarly infectious charm is "Sweet Talkin' Woman", with some pleasingly intricate vocal arrangements, and the song manages to maintain its bite and momentum, a tribute to Lynne's innate pop sensibility.  These qualities are also on display on "Across The Border", one of those interesting and quirky "minor" tracks which pop up throughout ELO's canon.

Many of the tracks betray a genuine effort to convey atmosphere, story and mood - "cinematic" thinking, one might even say.  "Night In The City" is a case in point, although on reflection the song somehow loses its impetus, and never quite lives up to its impressive and evocative opening stages.

The weaker material is largely concentrated in the "middle" of Out Of The Blue, and this may be one of the reasons why it appears better and more consistently strong than it really is.  "Believe Me Now" is a likeable if throwaway vignette.  The "Concerto for A Rainy Day" (side three of the vinyl LP) was a clever idea, but does not really work for me, with the glaring exception of "Mr Blue Sky".

"Mr Blue Sky" has over the years gradually become Electric Light Orchestra's signature tune, and I discern that it is a distant relative of The Beatles' "A Day In The Life", although it is philosophically much less profound or ambitious. It is the song's innocence and kaleidoscopic zest which I find irresistible, rather than its musical complexity.

The double-album format permits the odd bit of experimentation, such as the instrumental "The Whale", as well as excursions like the endearing paean to the band's home town, "Birmingham Blues".

The album's concluding track, "Wild West Hero", harks back to the Eldorado days in its outlook, and is one of the group's forgotten gems, possibly because it is deemed to be less "radio friendly" than some of their other hits. The production becomes excessive towards the end, and this negates some of the melodic charm, although the bombast may have been intended to sign the album off with a grandiose flourish.

So, there we have it. A collection of melodic, lovingly crafted pop/rock songs, and some vague sense of cohesion,  but the sound is becoming overly formulaic even in 1977.  Out Of The Blue is definitely worth checking out, but for a more satisfying and authentic take on Electric Light Orchestra, seek out On The Third Day, Eldorado or A New World Record, or indeed any of their earlier releases.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

John Barleycorn Must Die - Traffic - album review

One of the bands from the 1960s and 1970s which never quite got the recognition it deserved was Traffic. Perhaps they were a little too eclectic for their own good, their repertoire encompassing psychedelia, folk-rock, soul, progressive-rock, jazz-rock and other styles.

In 1970, they released the album John Barleycorn Must Die, which was, it seems, originally planned to be a Steve Winwood solo project. It remains an intriguing and satisfying work to me, even if critical opinion towards it has been somewhat mixed and even lukewarm.

The album contains only six tracks, but relatively little in the way of instrumental noodling or self-indulgence. There is a pronounced blue-eyed soul and jazzy flavour to the majority of the songs, and also an accent on keyboards, which I find most refreshing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the multi-talented Winwood pretty much dominates proceedings, in the absence of Dave Mason.

The opening track, "Glad", is a sprightly instrumental, partly in the style of Booker T and the MGs, with some dreamier passages added.  "Freedom Rider" has a similar sonic palette, and Chris Wood's talents on saxophone and flute are also very much to the fore. As elsewhere on this record, the drum and percussion sounds are well captured and very "live" and three-dimensional.

On "Empty Pages", the glorious Hammond organ sound has more of a showcase, and Winwood's expressive voice is projected with more clarity.  "Stranger To Himself" has more raw and passionate vocals, and it is also more guitar-orientated than some of the other pieces here.

The title track could appear on first acquaintance like an unremarkable folk song, but it has a capacity to draw the listener in, through the conviction of the singing and the playing, and the mystique of the lyrics. Again, the textures supplied by instruments such as the flute play a large part in the song's vitality, this organic but diverse and layered flavour very pleasing to the ear.

As the closer, "Every Mother's Son" definitely has its virtues, with a fine Winwood vocal and some quite stirring melodic parts, but I can't help feeling that it becomes a little over-wrought and ponderous in places, particularly after repeated listening.  All praise imaginable is due to the beautiful organ solo section in the middle, though....

The apparent critical ambivalence towards John Barleycorn Must Die may stem from a perception that the album is understated and "unspectacular", even clinical in places. However, it is superbly crafted and produced, and it is an album that demands to be listened to closely and attentively, as its depth and charm are more readily appreciated and savoured under those conditions.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Bryter Layter - Nick Drake - album review

Following on from his 1969 debut release, Nick Drake's 1971 album Bryter Layter saw him exploring some new territory, at least in a musical sense.

The arrangements and melodies here are more expansive and outgoing than those on Five Leaves Left, but it would be a mistake to assume that there is a correspondingly sizeable shift in the subject matter explored. Some of them are what you might describe as deceptively jolly.

Here and there I have seen some criticism of the addition of brass, backing vocals and the like, but to me this is simply a matter of personal taste. Less prominence is given to Nick Drake's acoustic guitar picking than elsewhere in his catalogue.  For what it's worth, I think that by and large the arrangements tastefully complement or augment the songs rather than tarnishing them. In any event, it would have been surprising if the artist had been content to tread water and serve up a similar dish to that represented by Five Leaves Left.

Following on from the opener "Introduction", "Hazey Jane II" features some delicate but pleasing guitar by Richard Thompson, and a sprightly enough tune.  The enigmatic lyrics may or may not have certain meanings. and like other numbers on the record, they almost lull the listener into a false sense of hope and buoyancy.

"At The Chime Of A City Clock" seems to focus on issues of urban living, the bohemian lifestyle, loneliness and alienation.  The saxophone part is an inspired touch, and one of the most effective of the instrumental contributions which characterize Bryter Layter. 

Existential topics are explored by "One Of These Things First". The piano, like other instrumentation on the LP, makes the song "swing", if such a term is appropriate to be applied to the singer-songwriter/folk genre.

Other offerings which stand out are the title track which, whimsically, is an instrumental piece, although the flute alone makes it worthwhile. Such textures help to make the album seem less dry and dusty, but also add to its wistfulness. John Cale makes unobtrusive but excellent contributions on viola and harpsichord to the song "Fly".

It seems to me that "Poor Boy" has attracted the most adverse comment, because of the bossa-nova flavoured rhythmic pattern and the backing arrangement, especially the piano solo sections.  One interpretation of the song's words is that Nick was utilizing the traits of poverty as a metaphor for a more general emotional malaise.

"Northern Sky" is perhaps one of the better known songs in the Drake canon. I might aver that it lacks the punch of other songs here, and it is less ostentatious melodically, but no worse for that. Like other tracks, this one almost flirts with joy and happiness, but the underlying sentiment is one of pleading and uncertainty. John Cale again features here.

"Sunday" is truly evocative and haunting, and the title is cleverly chosen. Another splendid use of the flute. A reminder that instrumentals can convey just as much as any number of "profound" and earnest lyrical outpourings.

Despite appearances, in the final analysis this album feels like more of a "downer" than Five Leaves Left, partly because of the ambiguity in many of the words.  There is an authenticity and starkness about these songs which sets them apart from much of the "confessional" fare being released by other people in the early Seventies.

A fragility, vulnerability and yearning emerge which are quite disconcerting, and the sense of mild disorientation is heightened by the idiosyncratic arrangements. This all makes for a gripping, entertaining but occasionally unsettling listen.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

The Hammer and The Cross - A New History of the Vikings - Robert Ferguson

Even some well-meaning and authoritative portrayals of the Vikings fail to transcend popular conceptions, and many barely scratch the surface of what they were really like. The Hammer And The Cross, by Robert Ferguson, seeks to address the various elements of the Viking phenomenon.

The author looks at Norse mythology and culture, and some of the economic and sociological factors which might have guided or shaped the course of events.  There is some illuminating information about shipbuilding and navigation, and the Vikings' relations with indigenous peoples. The author quotes from a wide array of sources, and of course invokes archaeological findings.

When a fuller picture is taken, the Vikings often seem no "worse" or "better" than any number of other peoples before them, or even since, just different. They just didn't have contemporary propagandists to plead their case and their merits. This lost ground, public-relations wise, has never been entirely recovered. Even in a 21st century secular setting, they seldom get the benefit of the doubt. This book tends towards an even-handed approach, although of course the occasions when the Vikings employed brutal means are highlighted.

Some of the most intriguing sections of this work are the ones which look at cultural mixing, such as that between the Norse and Celtic peoples, in Ireland for example. We can never know the full story, of course, because of the paucity of unambiguous evidence which is available. Terms such as "syncretism" get some use, though.

A large part of the book deals with the efforts to convert the Vikings to Christianity, and the accompanying interactions with European rulers and churchmen. The usual version which we get in television documentaries for instance, is fleshed out, with room to explore the nuances and intricacies. My impression is that the written record is more voluminous and "complete" than that for Anglo-Saxon England, for example, and this gives studies such as this a greater solidity.

The story of the excursions to the Eastern Baltic and Russia underlines the scope and diversity of Scandinavian exploration across those centuries. It also cautions us not to generalize about "Vikings", The activity was not centrally directed or controlled, and it happened over a long timescale, which can appear or feel compressed when detailed in modern histories.  Some of the diplomacy engaged in by the Vikings and their adversaries may seem odd to 21st century sensibilities, but people back then had a certain shrewdness and realism about them...

The settlement of Iceland is also perhaps neglected by the mainstream. As with other chapters, much time is taken in distilling the truth from myth and legend. Norwegian domestic reasons for the Icelandic adventures are looked at, and though the real story is half-hidden in the literary sources, the fog occasionally clears!

Another central theme of this book is that of the Vikings coming to terms, or not as the case may be, with the social customs, values and attitudes of European Christian peoples. A wide range of archaeological material is referenced, and the volume of such examples gives The Hammer And The Cross  quite a rounded flavour.  The forays into North America make for exciting reading, and are another illustration of the scale of these endeavours.

In examining the reasons for Vikings converting to Christianity in the various territories and "theatres", the author makes some solid and convincing arguments. The case of Iceland is an especially interesting one.

By the very nature of the subject matter, some of this is not that easy to follow, with the jumble of names, dates, succession disputes, identity quandaries and so forth. The story does not flow like some others. However, the reader cannot fail to be impressed, if not always enthused, by the magnitude of the Vikings' efforts, and this book paints them as more "sophisticated" and cultured than is often made out, and may force many to re-appraise their attitudes. The latter certainly applied in my case.

An interesting and stimulating read.

Friday, 5 February 2016

A Brief History Of The Anglo-Saxons - Geoffrey Hindley - book review

The "Anglo-Saxon" period of "British" history I find especially interesting because of the lack of written and documentary records and evidence. What is available is often biased, sparse and hazy. Consequently, this area is subject to almost boundless interpretation, debate and conjecture, even where archaeological findings are to hand.

I sometimes remind myself to be on my guard when being exposed to provocative new theories about the Medieval period. Occasionally, historians go out of their way to be controversial in order to rise above the mass. Often the available evidence lends itself to an equally strident interpretation in an entirely different direction.

Anyway, I recently read Geoffrey Hindley's book A Brief History of The Anglo-Saxons.

The Anglo-Saxons have possibly had a bad press over the centuries. However, I find them fascinating, because of their enigmatic aura, and the period is stimulating, partly because it is so fragmented, nebulous and confusing.

In this book, the author makes allowances for scenarios other than those which have achieved something of a consensus. He often sets the Anglo-Saxon phenomenon in the wider context of Medieval Europe, and the formation of the "post-Roman" landscape. There is necessarily a heavy emphasis on the relations of the new arrivals with the Church, and indeed on how they themselves helped to shape the future of the Church. Some light is also shed on the contributions of Anglo-Saxons to broader European affairs.

From a purely personal viewpoint, I found the passages about Northumbria (and its "golden age") informative and enlightening. This region, certainly in its "English" incarnation, is not always allocated the same amount of popular attention as, say, Wessex, but its importance is underlined here. These sections, as with much of the book, are written in a breezy style, with the occasional slice of humour.

I liked how the notion of an "imperium", or a ruler recognized by the other kingdoms, was developed. Also, people think of "international relations" in those epochs as fuzzy and vague, but Hindley highlights how this was not necessarily so. The way it is documented in "A Brief History...." suggests that it had the appearance of something more coherent and structured.

The role of English clergy in converting the pagans is also explored in some detail, and we are reminded of the sometimes violent means by which the conversion was accomplished. The social structures which linked rulers, warriors and the churchmen have to be understood in order for the nature of the times to be grasped, and this is another area covered by the book.

Needless to say, the years of Alfred The Great are given due prominence, in terms of his role in preserving "England", and the encouragement of the use of the vernacular.  I would have liked more about Athelstan, to be honest.

The dynastic manoeuvrings and intrigues which unfolded prior to the Norman Conquest are examined. I got the impression that the author was not a big fan of the Normans!

I don't think that much of the book's content is startlingly original, but it is told in an entertaining and digestible form. A lot of ground is covered in a limited space, but it is still worth a read.