Sunday, 14 October 2018

Annie Oakley - Words We Mean

Rating: 3/5

OK but nothing special

Words We Mean is OK, but I’m afraid I don’t think it’s anything very special. There have been some terrific albums by female trios recently, most notably Applewood Road and I’m With Her, but this isn’t really in the same league.

The songs are pleasant enough, but the same musical tropes appear an awful lot, to the point when I began to think “modulation to the relative minor coming up...” and it invariably did. Similarly, the lyrics are perfectly OK but not that inspiring, with an awful lot of repetition and by the time I got to four identical repetitions of “Oh-oh-oh-oh” at toward the end of the title track it began to get a bit much.

In fairness, the singing and harmonies are good and the relatively straightforward instrumental work is fine as far as it goes, but it’s all pretty similar throughout and a bit more variety would have helped a lot. There’s nothing wrong with the album and it has its moments, but I don’t think it adds up to all that much in the end.

Lucy Wainwright Roche - Little Beast

Rating: 5/5

An outstanding album

I think Little Beast is an outstanding album. I liked There’s A Last Time For Everything very much, but after a five-year wait, this is even better.

Little Beast is an intimate, often self-revelatory album. It is permeated throughout with heartache, but the combination of excellent songs, thoughtful, intelligent lyrics and fine musicianship means that there is an atmosphere of quiet, austere loveliness and it never becomes turgid or depressing. Her songs deal with all kinds of emotional troubles from the break-up of a loving relationship in Quit With Me to a troubled relationship with drugs in the extraordinary Heroin, which contains the lyrics:
Some things that I want to say
Aren’t survivable, or advisable
Like “Happy birthday, heroin,”
But God, how I loved you
And how I still do.
That stopped me in my tracks on first hearing and the album is full of such pieces of first-class writing. As well as such superbly expressed honesty, it seems to me that Lucy Wainwright Roche has something of Leonard Cohen’s gift for writing sometimes allusive, obscure lyrics which somehow get right to the heart of things. She has a fine, haunting voice and the production is brilliant, I think. It is often minimal but has a terrific feel for the music so that each song is set off to it’s very best.

Lucy Wainwright Roche has been rather overshadowed by her two more flamboyant siblings, but she’s a very fine singer-songwriter who deserves to be much better known. Little Beast is a bit of genuine class and is one of my favourite albums so far this year. Very, very warmly recommended.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Eric Clapton - Happy Xmas

Rating: 3/5

A mixed bag

Well, it could have been worse. I was rather dreading Happy Xmas even though I’ve been a Clapton admirer for over 50 years now, and if it had been by anyone else I wouldn’t have touched this with a tinsel-tipped bargepole. With a very few notable exceptions (Thea Gilmore, Phil Spector and Kate Rusby, for example) Christmas albums are almost invariably frightful. Happy Xmas is frightful in places, but I’m pleased to say that there’s some good stuff on it, too.

The best bits of this album are three very decent blues tracks in different styles: Christmas Tears, Lonesome Christmas and Merry Christmas Baby. There are some sentimental but bearable seasonal songs and some truly dreadful things like Away In A Manger, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas and Jingle Bells, (which is a vacuous techno-dance sort of thing). Given that I was braced for the whole thing to be unspeakably awful, I was mildly pleasantly surprised that at least some of it is good.

Ericophiles like me will certainly want this, but the best I can say of it is that it’s good in places. Your taste may differ from mine, of course, and Eric has earned the right to record whatever he wants, but my advice is to be prepared for a lot of rather grim stuff between the highlights. Even as a believer that EC remains a major deity, I can only give this a lukewarm recommendation.

Saturday, 29 September 2018

Tony Joe White - Bad Mouthin'

Rating: 5/5

Classic blues, classic TJW

Apparently, according to the pre-release blurb, “Bad Mouthin' marks a notable shift in Tony Joe White's musical progression.” Well, perhaps. To me, though, it sounds like the rock-solid TJW we have come to know and love. He’s singing classic blues covers rather than his own material, but it’s unmistakeably TJW – which is just fine by me. The fabulous laid-back vocal delivery and that magical touch on the guitar are all there, plus some great acoustic work which goes perfectly with what he’s performing. There are some quite unusual takes on some of the songs here, too; Boom Boom, for example, sounds utterly different in tone from John Lee Hooker’s original or any cover I’ve ever heard, and it’s terrific, I think.

Put simply, if you like Tony Joe White or if you just like the blues, you’ll like this album – it’s a real master performing at the top of his game. Warmly recommended.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Tudor Lodge - Tudor Lodge

Rating: 3/5

Not a classic

Plainly quite a few reviewers like Tudor Lodge very much, but for me it doesn’t add up to much. They’re aiming for a sort of Pentangle/Trees/Fairport sound in various places but they were nowhere near those great bands in quality. For me, this is much more of an interesting period piece than the “classic” claimed by the reissue blurb.

There are some nice tracks on it and the album begins with some good songs, but overall the material is pretty weak. Help Me Find Myself and Nobody’s Listening, for example, are forgettable pop songs, redeemed to some extent by good production and a fine backing band; I’ll listen to anything that Danny Thompson is playing on but, great though he is, much of this doesn’t merit ore than the occasional outing. Not terrible by any means, but not really recommendable either.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

A Breath Of Fresh Air - A Harvest Anthology 1969-74

Rating: 4/5

A good anthology

This is a good, wide sample of some of the acts on Harvest, EMI’s progressive/experimental subsidiary label from 1969-74. As a compilation it’s excellent, but for me some of the music hasn’t aged well.

There is some great stuff on here: Michael Chapman, Roy Harper, Syd Barrett, Kevin Ayers, Pink Floyd and others show why their names are still well known. To me, though, some – like Third Ear Band, Quatermass and several others – show why their names aren’t. Nonetheless, it’s a very interesting snapshot of a fine, adventurous label which was rightly very well respected at the time. The thing about being adventurous is that some adventures end in success while others don’t. A label which will record both The Edgar Broughton Band and Shirley & Dolly Collins gets my vote, even if I don’t like some of its product.

So, hats off to Harvest and I can recommend this as a rewarding anthology with good sound. My guess is that it’s so eclectic that very few people will like all of it, but it’s well worth hearing for anyone with an interest in some adventurous music of the late 60s and early 70s.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Norman Greenbaum - Spirit In The Sky

Rating: 3/5

Great song, undistinguished album

This is a review of the original 1969 Spirit In The Sky album, not the Best Of compilation.

Spirit In The Sky is an amiable late-60s pop album. However, apart from the title track which is an unarguably monumental piece of pop genius, the rest doesn’t add up to much. There are one or two quite good tracks on it, like Alice Bodine, but nothing much that stands out as a track you’d make an effort to listen to again. It’s a little harsh to say that this shows why Norman Greenbaum was a One Hit Wonder, but as an album it fades into the background sound of the time without leaving much of a trace.

My advice – buy the single, which is superb, and don’t bother with the rest.