Oct 18, 2018

GRAHAM BOND - Solid Bond  (Warner Bros. Records ‎2LS 2555, 1970)

When "Solid Bond" was issued in 1970, it was no surprise that its cover prominently billed Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, John McLaughlin, Jon Hiseman, and Dick Heckstall-Smith in addition to the man who actually led the band who recorded the material. For the leader of the Graham Bond Organisation was, in 1970, less celebrated than any of the afore mentioned musicians, particularly in the United States, where Bruce and Baker (as part of Cream), Hiseman and Heckstall-Smith (as part of Colosseum), and McLaughlin were all far more widely known than keyboardist-singer Bond himself. Yet as serious fans of 1960s British rock know, Bond made a hugely underrated contribution to blues-rock as leader of the group in which these musicians played before moving on to more commercially successful projects. And while "Solid Bond" might have at first glance seemed to be a collection of leftovers issued to exploit the fame of Bond's one-time sidemen, in fact the recordings, some from 1963, when Bond was still playing jazz, and some from 1966, when he'd fully delved into an idiosyncratic mixture of blues, rock, jazz, and soul, were not just of considerable historical interest, but also of substantial musical merit.

The three tracks on "Solid Bond" from 1963 were likely the most hotly anticipated by 1970 rock fans owing to the presence of Bruce, Baker, and McLaughlin, yet at the same time probably not at all like what most such listeners were expecting. Recorded live at London's Klooks Kleek club, these present the Graham Bond Quartet, as the band were then known, as a rather straightforward modern jazz outfit. Bond at this point was concentrating on alto sax rather than keyboards; there were no vocals; and, despite the inclusion of a Jack Bruce number titled "Ho Ho Country Kicking Blues", there was barely a hint of the blues and R&B that would by the following year supersede jazz as the band's main influences. Bond and McLaughlin split the composing credits for "The Grass Is Greener", while the third number, "Doxy", was a cover of an oft-interpreted tune by jazz sax great Sonny Rollins. Still, it's a valuable document of the musicians' little-known (in 1970, at any rate) straightahead jazz roots, though Bond and his group left these behind soon after McLaughlin left and saxophonist Heckstall-Smith joined in late 1963. Over the next couple years the Graham Bond Organisation, as they billed themselves, would record a couple LPs and a few singles that saw them embrace the British R&B boom wholeheartedly, albeit with a jazzier spin than most of the bands on that scene, emphasizing Bond's demonic organ and growling vocals.

The bulk of "Solid Bond", however, comes from a 1966 session recorded not long after Bruce and Baker had teamed with Eric Clapton to form Cream. With Baker replaced by young jazz veteran Jon Hiseman, the group entered the studio to cut nine tracks as a keyboards-sax-drums trio. Just as much as the mid-'60s recordings by the Bruce-Baker lineup, these reveal Bond as an originator of a highly original and invigorating blues-rock-R&B-jazz fusion, though owing to unusual circumstances they wouldn't see the light of day for several years. As Harry Shapiro reports in his 1992 biography Graham Bond: The Mighty Shadow, the material was recorded after the group were given 500 pounds to make a record by Polydor, the session for all nine tracks taking place at London's famed Olympic Studios between midnight and 6am. Graham and Dick were both in worlds of their own, remembers Hiseman today. I negotiated the deal and chose the studio with Eddie Kramer. An engineer most famed for working extensively with Jimi Hendrix shortly afterward, Kramer had already worked with Jon when Hiseman drummed on British jazz pianist Peter Lemer's album Local Colour.

At the time the trio entered the studio, continues Jon, Graham was incensed at what he saw as a betrayal when Ginger forced Jack from the band and then a few months later left it to form Cream with Jack. Partly out of pique and partly because the band was always in such financial trouble, he decided to play the bass with his left hand. This gave everybody a lot of freedom and I was able to develop my two bass drum playing without muddying up the bass parts. As I remember my goal was not to make any concessions to recording (which was very usual then) and to capture the live sound of the band; to that extent I think these tracks were very representative of the live show. I was most pleased with the sound at the time and it was a magical experience for me, and was the start of my real interest in recording and producing that led to me building my own studio in the 1982. Oddly, three of the songs ("Neighbour Neighbour", "Walkin' in the Park" and "Last Night") were re-recordings of tunes Bond had already done with the Bruce-Baker lineup on the Organisation's two mid-'60s LPs, while a fourth, "Long Legged Baby" had been cut by that band on their 1964 debut single. A fifth, "Only Sixteen" (a Bond original, not the famous Sam Cooke hit), had been in Graham's repertoire for some time, as he'd performed it on the BBC in 1965. "Contrary to popular belief there was always a shortage of material," Hiseman explains. "Graham, deep into a serious drug habit, was not very productive. Having talked up the chance to record for months he then had very little material, hence the repeats. Actually he never wrote enough to be able to weed out poor material or to give others a chance to express views. Graham was not critical at all of his own work. If he had managed to write it, it was great."

But Bond did come up with some quality new compositions that he recorded for the first time on this night. "Springtime in the City", "Can't Stand It" and especially "It's Not Goodbye" have the menacing quality unique to Graham in the British R&B/rock world, while "Green Onions" is a liberally jazzy interpretation of the classic Booker T. & the MG's instrumental. "I don't think 'copying' was part of Graham's vocabulary," observes Hiseman. "He considered himself a creative genius and tried always to surround himself with 'originals.' He was bright enough to realize that copies didn't count." Yet while the nine tracks would have provided the foundation for a solid LP, they would stay in the vault for some time. As for the 500 pounds they'd been given by Polydor to make the record, says Hiseman, "at the time both Dick and I were convinced Bond spent the money on heroin. It was the band's money, not just his, and we never saw a penny from those recordings. The personnel changed at Polydor at that time, and the chap who commissioned the recording was replaced. His successor hated the whole idea of Graham's music and his flamboyant outfits. His job was to get hits for the company and Graham's was not hit music, something Graham never came to terms with."

Indeed, the Graham Bond Organisation would not release an LP while Hiseman was in the band from around mid-1966 to late 1967, when he and Heckstall-Smith departed. After playing together briefly in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, the pair soon formed a formidable blues-jazz-rock group of their own, Colosseum. Fittingly, the first track of Colosseum's debut album was a cover of Bond's "Walkin' in the Park", which Hiseman feels is Graham's best song, his classic contribution. Colosseum nearly got it away as a single hit nearly. According to Harry Shapiro's biography, "Solid Bond" was assembled in 1970 when the 1966 tapes, together with the 1963 live recordings, were sold to Warner Brothers for 5000 pounds. "Considering they were recorded in six hours the tapes must have been raw," says Hiseman in retrospect. "But I 'produced' the sound in that I spoke to Eddie Kramer about how I wanted it to sound, very upfront, and he agreed. When we were having trouble getting an upfront sound out of Lansdowne Studios with Colosseum I remember playing these tapes to Colosseum manager Gerry Bron as an example of what I was looking for and he was impressed."

Sadly, Bond never found the success his celebrated sidemen enjoyed in his own post-Organisation career, ending his life by throwing himself in front of a London tube train in 1974. But Hiseman retains fond memories of his one-time bandleader, summarizing, "I had a wonderful adventure with Graham and his madness has always had a place in my heart. It was an honor that he saw something in an amateur drummer and encouraged it by persuading me to turn professional in his band. If nothing else Graham taught me how not to run a band and I've tried not to live up to his example." 

Oct 17, 2018

(Blue Rose Records BLU DP 0617, 2013)

Ever since 2007, a little corner of Edinburgh has resembled Nashville, Tennessee. 2007 was The Wynntown Marshals, Scotland’s most practiced purveyors of country rock were formed. Since then, The Wynntown Marshals, have been fusing poppy hooks and a pedal steel to create their own unique brand of swaggering country rock. Influenced by Gram Parsons, Neil Young, The Jayhawks, Wilco and Glasgow’s very own Teenage Fanclub, The Wynntown Marshals draw inspiration from the past and present. That’s apparent on their sophomore album The Long Haul, which was recently released on Wynntown Recordings. Long Haul describes The Wynntown Marshals six year musical journey, which I’ll tell you about. The Wynntown Marshals’ roots are in Edinburgh, Scotland’s other city. That was where the band were formed. They were brought together by a love of country, rock and alt-country. Originally, the lineup consisted of drummer Kenny McCabe, bassist Murdo MacLeod, guitarist Ian Barbour, keyboardist Richie Noble and lead vocalist Keith Benzie who plays guitar and harmonica. Influenced by Neil Young, Gram Parsons, the Rolling Stones, Wilco and Teenage Fanclub, The Wynntown Marshals started spreading their musical message.

From their early days together, word of The Wynntown Marshals’ unique brand of country rock spread. This was through the release of their eponymous debut E.P. Released in February 2007, The Wynntown Marshals laid down a marker. It  announced the arrival of another Scottish band with a big future. Having released their eponymous E.P, The Wynntown Marshals started spreading their message further afield.  This came through opening for Richmond Fontaine, Marty Stuart, Jason and The Scorchers and in 2008, they supported Chuck Prophet. There were also starring roles at the Kilkenny Rhythm and Roots Festival, where The Wynntown Marshals wowed this discerning audience in 2008 and made a triumphant return in 2009. With two years experience of touring behind them and an ever-growing fan-base, the time was right for The Wynntown Marshals to record their debut album.

For the recording of "Westerner", The Wynntown Marshals brought in experienced producer Graham Deas. He’d produced The Super Furry Animals and K.T. Tundstall. Along with the band, Graham produced the critically acclaimed "Westerner". On its release, "Westerner" earner glowing reviews. Critically acclaimed in Britain, Europe and America, The Wynntown Marshals stock had never been higher. They recorded a session for BBC radio and then headed out on a tour of Holland. This time, they were top of the bill. Interest in the band was huge, with The Wynntown Marshals recording a session for Dutch radio. It seemed The Wynntown Marshals were on the verge of a huge breakthrough. Returning home from their Dutch tour, The Wynntown Marshals released a seven-track live E.P. One of the highlights is a cover of Neil Young’s "Powderfinger2. Then in February 2011, just as the band were about to head out on tour with Dolly Varden and Magnolia Summer, there was a change of lineup. Iain Barbour left the band, to be replaced by Owen Richardson. That was the lineup who, in June 2011, recorded a live session for BBC Scotland. For the rest of 2011, The Wynntown Marshals were practicing their time management.

From June 2011, right through to winter 2012, The Wynntown Marshals found themselves dividing their time. Much of their time was writing their sophomore album, "The Long Haul". Then there was the preproduction work on The Long Haul. However, they couldn’t let their profile drop. In the midst of working on "The Long Haul", The Wynntown Marshals toured Britain, Germany and Holland. They did this both as a band and with just lead vocalist Keith Benzie and guitarist Ian Sloan. On their return home, work began on "The Long Haul"When recording of "The Long Haul" began, there was another change in the lineup. Guitarist and pedal steel player Iain Sloan joined a rhythm section of drummer Kenny McCabe and bassist Murdo MacLeod. Richie Noble plays keyboards lead vocalist Keith Benzie who plays acoustic guitar and harmonica. Other changes are the addition of a banjo, mandolin, melletron and multilayered harmonies. These changes bring a new side to the The Wynntown Marshals’ music on "The Long Haul", which I’ll tell you about.

"Driveaway", which opens "The Long Haul", is the story of an adolescent road trip. A 3000 mile adventure and coming of age, you can imagine it unfolding before your eyes. Keith Benzie’s lyrics paint pictures. As he delivers them, it’s as if he’s reliving every minute. This he does against a swaggering country rock arrangement. So this means, crystalline and scorching guitars, pounding drums and a wash of Hammond organ. They provide a dramatic backdrop to roller coaster of a road trip. Canada sees The Wynntown Marshals draw inspiration from everyone from Wilco, The Jayhawks and Teenage Fanclub. With jangling guitars and driving drums for company Keith’s vocal is tinged with loneliness and regret. Heartfelt harmonies accompany him, as seamlessly, thanks to a couple of slick chord changes The Wynntown Marshals move through the gears. Stabs of piano and searing guitars are joined by pounding drums as emotion and drama. Add to that slick, poppy hooks and the result is heart-wrenching example of authentic Americana.

"Low Country Comedown" could just as easily be a track from any of the giants of alt-country. It’s not. Instead, it’s from Edinburgh’s purveyors of country rock. Here, they’re are at their best. That’s no surprise. Keith draws upon their experience for the lyrics, describing their trips to Europe. The song has a much more understated sound. A weeping pedal steel and harmonies accompany Keith’s wistful vocal. Then as the song progresses, there’s even a Beatles’ influence as alt-country, classic pop and country rock combine to create a melancholy tale of a Band On The Run. Understated. That describes "Whatever It Takes". Just an acoustic guitar accompanies Keith’s melancholy vocal as drums mark time. Chiming guitars and harmonies sweep in as Keith realizes his relationship’s all but over. The big clue was when she was more interested in her book than him. Not a good sign. He’s not going to be beaten, and will do "Whatever It Takes" to keep her. As his vocal drops out Hammond organ and crystalline guitars add to the sense of melancholia and sadness on this beautiful tale of love that’s all but lost.

"Tide" features lyrics written by Murdo MacLeod. It’s very different from anything that’s gone before. Think seventies west coast rock and alt-country combine with Neil Young and Crazy Horse. The song allows The Wynntown Marshals to stretch their legs and showcase their considerable talents. None more so than Iain Sloan. whose reborn as Neil Young. Holding things together are drummer Kenny McCabe and bassist Murdo. Keith adds a languid vocal as the rest of the band add cooing harmonies, while The Wynntown Marshals pay a fitting homage to Neil Young and Crazy Horse in their prime. With just acoustic guitars accompanying Keith’s pensive vocal "The Submariner" unfolds. Its understated sound is replaced by a bass driven arrangement where weeping, chiming guitars accompany Keith, who sounds not unlike Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy or The Jayhawks’ Mark Olson. That’s how good Keith’s vocal is. He breathes life and meaning into his lyrics. So much so, you can imagine the tragedy unfolding, and "The Submariner" panicking, struggling for breath and realizing what fate held for him. Moving, emotive and harrowing, it’s a showcase for Keith’s songwriting skills and vocal prowess.

Straight away, "Crashing (Like the Reds)" has an anthemic sound. That’s apparent from the opening bars. Drums pound, guitars chime and subtle chord changes introduce Keith’s impassioned vocal. As guitars soar and sear, drums pound and the evocative sound of a Hammond organ adds to this anthemic, hook-laden slice of alt-country. It’s the type of song that’s perfect for an encore. "Curtain Call" sees The Wynntown Marshals unplug and Keith take on the guise of an old-fashioned story teller. It’s a song with a Nashville-esque pedigree. Keith’s throaty, wistful vocal tells the tale of a down at heel magician, whose life took a wrong turn, when a trick went wrong. He’d been warned about the bullet trick, but knew better. Now he’s ashamed and alone, a shadow of his former self. All he’s got are a needle and his memories for company. He uses one to blot out the memory of the other, which reminds him who far he’s fallen. Then as the song heads to a close, Keith sings the line: "I never thought I’d pick up this revolver again, maybe soon I’ll be with you again, it’s over". A heartbreaking take full of hurt and heartache, it’s one of the highlights of "The Long Haul".

As if determined to lighten the atmosphere, "North Atlantic Soul" bursts hopefully and joyously into life. Featuring lyrics from Murdo MacLeod, seventies west coast rock and alt-country combine. Listen carefully and The Eagles, Wilco, The Jayhawks and even Teenage Fanclub can be heard. Poppy hooks, pounding drums, chiming, crystalline guitars and multi-tracked harmonies accompany Keith’s heartfelt, husky vocal as The Wynntown Marshals prove to be the keeper of alt-country’s flame, on this slice of pop perfection. "Change Of Heart", which closes "The Long Haul" sounds as if it’s a long-lost track from Neil Young. The only difference is Keith’s vocal. No wonder. Nobody sings quite like Neil Young. Keith’s vocal is heartfelt and impassioned. Apart from that, The Wynntown Marshals could easily be Crazy Horse. That’s how good they are. From Iain Sloan’s weeping guitars, drummer Kenny McCabe and bassist Murdo MacLeod, a glorious slide of country rock unfolds. Adding the finishing touch are soul-baring harmonies and lush strings. This results in the perfect way to close "The Long Haul", the long awaited sophomore album from The Wynntown Marshals.

Three years after the release of their debut album "Westerner", The Wynntown Marshals were back and better than ever. During the past three years, they’ve honed their sound within an inch of perfection. They were tighter than ever before, playing with confidence and often, a gallus swagger. That makes them unmistakably Scottish. In some ways, that’s the only Scottish thing about The Wynntown Marshals. They don’t sound like a band from Edinburgh, a city that’s hardly famous for its musical heritage. No. For its size, Edinburgh has underperformed when it comes to producing top class bands. It hasn’t produced as many big bands as it should. Granted there’s The Proclaimers and some years ago, The Fire Engines, but that’s it. Maybe that’s about to change. The Wynntown Marshals are leading the charge for Edinburgh bands, while The Holy Ghosts are following in their footsteps. Ironically, The Wynntown Marshals music has more in common with America. It’s almost an accident of birth that The Wynntown Marshals are an Edinburgh band. They sound as if they’re Nashville born and bred. Other times, they sound not unlike Neil Young and Crazy Horse in their prime. Even lead vocalist Keith Benzie’s doesn’t sound Scottish. The same was said of Teenage Fanclub in the nineties and noughties. So this isn’t a new phenomenon. Let’s just hope The Wynntown Marshals enjoy the same success as Teenage Fanclub enjoyed.

With their slick, poppy hooks and unique brand of swaggering country rock, The Wynntown Marshals look to be on the right road. No ifs and no buts. They’re in it for "The Long Haul", and since 2007, have been Scotland’s most practiced purveyors of country rock. The last few years have been time well spend for The Wynntown Marshals, whose gallus, swaggering brand of country rock is guaranteed to find favor with fans of Americana far and wide. Standout Tracks here are "Whatever It Takes", "Curtain Call", "North Atlantic Soul" and "Change Of Heart".

Oct 16, 2018

WEB - I Spider (Polydor Records 2383 024, 1970)

Like many others I became acquainted with the music of keyboardist and vocalist Dave Lawson with the release of the debut Greenslade album in 1973. A dual keyboard led quartet, the band also included Dave Greenslade, Tony Reeves and Andrew McCulloch. Whilst I was aware of his colleague’s pedigree having come by way of bands like Colosseum and King Crimson, I was unfamiliar with Lawson’s background. Thanks to Esoteric and the re-release of this 1970 album from Web and the 1971 Samurai set (see review below) which followed, my education is now complete in that department. As with all of Esoteric’s retrospective releases this album has been lovingly remastered, on this occasion by Lawson himself.

When Lawson joined Web, a then soul influenced band, they already had several recordings under their belt but this proved to be their last. Up to that point he had been a member of Episode Six, a band best known for once having Ian Gillan and Roger Glover amongst its ranks before they found fame and fortune with Deep Purple. Taking over sole song writing duties he transformed Web into a jazz-rock outfit with progressive rock and blues leanings. What attracted Lawson to the band in the first place was the dual drumming of Kenny Beveridge and Lennie Wright. Completing the line-up for the recording was Tom Harris (saxophones and flutes), Tony Edwards (electric and acoustic guitars) and John Eaton (bass guitar).

They nail their new colours to the mast by opening the album with Concerto For Bedsprings, a ten minute opus in five contrasting parts. I Can’t Sleep is a suitably strident and atmospheric introduction with heavy sax and organ underpinning the imposing vocal which is unmistakably Lawson. A spooky repeated organ motif rather like the vintage Twilight Zone TV theme leads into Sack Song a melodic jazzy instrumental with buoyant piano and sax. In keeping with its title Peaceful Sleep finds the band in gentle mode with a plaintive vocal resting on a light piano, flute and sax backing. In contrast the up-tempo You Can Keep The Good Life has an aggressive edge aided by a pounding piano riff. During the stark chorus Lawson’s voice it at its most strained and in my opinion least appealing. A strong sax solo continues the mood although it’s a tad overlong and begins to drag long before it ends. Loner returns briefly to the earlier mood to provide a peaceful close.

The title track I Spider is another lengthy piece although with less contrast in mood than its predecessor. Slow and moody for the most part it has a thoughtful vocal with a delicate organ backing and a spiralling sax motif. The edgy guitar punctuations sound very Peter Banks ala Yes’ version of Everydays from Time And A Word released the same year. A soaring sax break proves to be the most uplifting part. Love You opens with the rare use (for Lawson) of Mellotron with acoustic guitar and a reflective vocal which is Lawson sounding at his best. The mood and tempo abruptly changes as menacing sounding sax and guitar erupt. Mellotron and tympani are used to good effect here to sustain an air of tension and the whole thing reminded me of Van Der Graaf Generator. A heavy and bluesy guitar solo rounds off what is thus far for me the albums best song.

The curiously titled Ymphasomniac is an urgent sax led instrumental with a thumping piano backing. The eerie underscoring of Mellotron and the busy drum work is strongly reminiscent of early King Crimson. A lengthy percussion only section gives both drummers a chance to hit everything in sight before building into a bombastic piano, organ and sax coda driven by monumental drumming. Although the coda feels somewhat over extended it’s a cracking instrumental nonetheless. Always I Wait is an OK closer but is about three minutes longer than it needs to be. The trebly staccato guitar punctuations have a Hendrix influence whilst Lawson sings impossibly high joined by restless sax and organ. A fuzzed organ solo brought back memories of Tony Kaye’s work in Yes mark 1 whilst the vocals here sound very like Andy Tillison at times.

With the original album clocking in at less than forty minutes, which was about average for the time, two bonus tracks have been included. Both were recorded live in 1971 in Sweden, a country where the band seemed to find particular favour. As live recordings go they are both excellent in terms of clarity and musicianship. Here the instruments seem more pronounced in Concerto For Bedsprings. This is especially true of bass and organ which when combined with sax recalls the Mike Ratledge and Elton Dean partnership from Soft Machine. Love You skips the mellow intro of the studio version and compensates with an extended and excellent guitar solo. It’s supported by animated organ playing and together they build to a potent climax. Superb stuff making both tracks an essential addition.

Following the albums release and a string of live dates supporting the likes of Yes, Hawkwind and Manfred Mann, Web decided to call it a day. This was prompted by a lack of finance and also frustration over their name constantly being misspelt on billings. They didn’t so much disband however as evolve into the band Samurai. With I Spider they have left behind a worthy legacy and it’s not hard to see why Esoteric decided to give it a new lease of life. If you’re familiar with Greenslade then you will appreciate that Lawson’s vocals are an acquired taste, sitting somewhere between Andy Tillison and Patrik Lundstrom. Stylistically the music occupies the same area as Soft Machine, Colosseum, King Crimson and Van Der Graaf Generator from the same era with overtones of the Canterbury style. Well worth a dabble especially for those that recall early 70’s UK prog-jazz with affection. 

Oct 15, 2018

TALES OF JUSTINE - Petals From A Sunflower (Complete Recordings 1967-69)
(Grapefruit Records WCRSEG034, 2016)

Tales Of Justine were one of those bands that came along at the outset of UK Psychedelia in the mid to late 60s but their pop dabbling soon lost them the “head” audience as the fashion went more towards heavy, experimental jamming rather than their snappy but trippy songs. Though they (and bands like them), never quite cut the mustard with the hip crowd back then, time on the whole has been kind to them and the type of “caught between two stools” late 60s Psych-Pop that they turned out has subsequently found favour with people all over the world that were too young to experience the Summer Of Love themselves, but wise to the value of a good tune well performed. That’s the odd thing about Psychedelia in broad terms – it worked as expansive, highly experimental underground music but somehow also as an intricate, “instant-nostalgia” pop art format. Justine clearly fitted comfortably into the later group. With a past that dated back to Potters Bar beat band the Sound Of Silence, Tales Of Justine were spearheaded by the talented David Daltrey, singer, guitarist and yes, relative of the ‘orrible ‘Oo’s Roger. After a brief time as the Court Jesters, they assumed the Tales Of Justine name and hit the early 60s Psychedelic scene that was taking off in clubs such as Middle Earth and the Electric Garden, in the hope that they could become leading lights in the mode of emerging stars Pink Floyd. They were in truth far more traditional in their approach, very pop-orientated indeed and as the evidence here displays, far the better for it.

During the summer of 67 they were espied in concert by Tim Rice, who quickly came to realise their potential. Rice, who along with his partner the awful Andrew Lloyd Webber would of course go on to write some highly lucrative and bafflingly successful musicals, was at this time keeping a keen eye on the pop scene for any rising talent in his role at EMI A&R.Daltrey and Co clearly fitted the bill. He quickly signed them up to a management contract and also got their monikers on the dotted line with his record company overlords too. Success only looked a short step away for Tales Of Justine, but it didn’t quite turn out that way. Sharing some common ground with fellow Psych-Pop would-be wunderkinds Muswell Hill’s Turquoise (the makers of “Tales Of Flossie Fillett”, who benefited from some association with their near neighbours the Kinks), TOJ specialised in a whimsical and stately version of Psychedelia, but they were not adverse to throwing in the odd mind-melting Freakbeat-esque effort when it pleased them (the stop-start “Sunday School” and the rough version of “Evil Woman” are both somewhat in that mode, some cracking fuzz guitar included in both). 

Though the Rice/Lloyd Weber patronage got them into Abbey Road to record (which explains the high sound quality on this lovingly-realised collection) it couldn’t even get them more than one record released. In truth the A side “Arthur” was far from being their best material, being a merely ok bit of nursery rhyme of Psychedelia, which does not display them in their best light at all. It is hardly suprising that it did not make an impact in the winter of 67 when the charts were awash with this kind of thing (Rice admits on the sleeve-notes that they should have flipped the sides with “Monday Morning”, a nifty piece of Mod guitar pop with way more appeal, being far the better of the two recordings on the single).

What is harder to understand is why no-one at EMI thought that anything else they set down at Abbey Road over the two year period documented here other than those two tracks warranted any further exposure ? But of course the single flopped and that was the end of Tales Of Justine, as far as officially released material was concerned anyway. Despite that they recorded repeatedly over the next year or so and those recordings that never saw the light of day at the time make up the bulk of this compilation. The sad thing though is that the potential of the band is clear to see. A case in point is the goofy but wonderful “Come To Me Softly” (actually a David Daltrey solo) – nonsense female vocals, parping horns and a crashing guitar which prefigures cousin Rog’s “We Won’t Get Fooled Again”, all adding up to an attractive and totally adorable novelty. The “Victorian Music-Box” sound of “Sitting On A Blunestone” is another joy to the ears and “Pathway” has the kind of melodramatic, highly orchestrated and well-arranged (probably down to Lloyd Weber I suppose, I’ll give him that) feel that gave the Walker Brothers so much success in the same period. Very well sung too. The “bad trip” story of “Eleventh Obsolete Incident” is also outstanding and would have made a fine single, like most of the tracks here (which again makes you wonder why they plumped for “Arthur” ?).

In an alternate world, they would have been a hit machine. This collection contains everything that Tales Of Justine laid down on tape at the time, along with a couple of solo David Daltrey recordings, all which glisten with the hope and heady atmosphere of that moment nearly 50 years back now. You also get the full, convoluted story in David Wells’ excellent sleeve-notes in the booklet (Wells’ release of the same name on his Tenth Plant imprint nearly 20 years ago presented more Tales Of Justine material for the first time and forms the backbone of what is presented here) to accompany the jaw-dropping beauty on show here amongst the songs. Tales Of Justine never made more than a ripple at the time but this set does deserves much more – the 60s flower children missed out on some great tunes. A combination of bad luck, bad timings and bad advice contributed to their eventual fate, but we can be thankful that what has endured in the dank vaults at EMI for all those years has finally seen the light of day. They were brilliant at times were Tales Of Justine and now we can finally tell.

Oct 14, 2018

FUNK FACTORY - Funk Factory (Atco Records SD 33-116, 1975)

Known for housing a famous Beastie Boys sample, the reissue of this 1975 funk and fusion classic brings peerless Polish and American players together for a groovy, eccentric journey. or Polish jazz great Michael Urbaniak, pinpointing a phase in his career as noteworthy is basically an act of omission. Hone in on his work as a composer, and it overlooks his genre-bending work as a player, particularly a violinist. Play up his time as a bandleader, and you understate his work as a sideman piercing through the gloss of Miles Davis’ electro-dub "Tutu" oddity "Don’t Lose Your Mind". Emphasize his ’70s-and-onward contributions to fusion, and you downplay his role in helping give European jazz its own distinct style, including his time spent in the early ’60s playing saxophone for Krzysztof Komeda’s Quintet. But hailing Urbaniak would also be impossible without mentioning his collaborator and wife Urszula Dudziak, whose voice could go from the most velvety thing you’ve ever heard to a vocal run more warped than any analog synthesizer could make.

Urbaniak and Dudziak’s stretch of albums in the ’70s and early ’80s, especially once they moved from Poland to New York in 1973, remain favorites among the more adventurous jazz heads and beat-diggers haunting the vinyl depths. (Urbaniak’s 1974 "Fusion" and Dudziak’s 1979 "Future Talk" are good places for the uninitiated to start.) But it was an album cut from a one-off LP that captured a particular corner of the music-geek imagination for more than 40 years: "Rien Ne Va Plus" from the self-titled 1975 album by a sextet Urbaniak called Funk Factory, had its reckoning with the canon when the Dust Brothers sampled major chunks of it for Beastie Boys’ "Car Thief". Even separated from that hip-hop context, where it clicked seamlessly with a guitar loop from the Jackson 5’s version of Funkadelic’s "I’ll Bet You", "Rien Ne Va Plus" is a banger, all post-Head Hunters springy synth-bass and Dudziak lending her range to a sweet and untethered performance.

As for the rest of the album, the Soul Jazz label tries to make a case for its place in the Urbaniak/Dudziak discography. 'As Sampled By' can make a record popular, but the rest of the album is far more eccentric than its most notorious cut could hint at. There’s a certain push-pull between the fusion of Urbaniak and his Poland-sourced players, including Bernard Kafka of the Komeda-contemporary vocal ensemble Novi Singers, along with synth player Wlodek Gulgowski and the rotating American session-player rhythm section. Calling that latter contingent a who’s who of studio workhorses is an understatement: Anthony Jackson was at that point best known for the bassline to the O’Jays' "For the Love of Money", Steve Gadd’s other notable circa-1975 gigs include the rhythms for Van McCoy’s "The Hustle" and Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” Gerry Brown would be the drummer on Stanley Clarke’s electric jazz-bass-redefining "School Days", and Tony Levin would Chapman-Stick his way into prominent roles in Peter Gabriel’s band and the early ’80s post-hiatus King Crimson.

But while the rhythm section holds it down - unobtrusively on ballads like the slightly too saccharine "The Music in Me", or with flare on the uptempo "Horsing Around" and "Sinkin’ Low" - it’s the compositional flourishes of the Polish contingent that both mess with and build on fusion’s more upbeat side. The melodies push songs close to the fusion equivalent of sunshine pop, especially on cuts like "Watusi Dance" and "Next Please" where Dudziak and Kafka trade mostly-wordless voices, at which point they’re subsumed into Urbaniak’s electric violin and Gulgowski’s synths to create some spectacular mutant harmonies.

Funk Factory can stray pretty far into the cheerier excesses of prog-jazz, but in a year where Thundercat can find sincere beauty in Fisher-Price Steely Dan, it’s hardly a dealbreaker. It emphasizes the alluring strangeness of its more experimental moments, like the hallucinogenic haunted-house tour of "Lilliput" or the banshee James Brown vocal riffs on "Horsing Around". "Rien Ne Va Plus" remains the top highlight, every bit the equal as the best cut on any contemporaneous LaBelle album. But Funk Factory is more than just a notch in the belt of Paul’s Boutique - it’s proof that a core of musicians schooled in jazz but culturally steeped in the folk and classical traditions of Eastern Europe could, at least once, put out something that fit well with the crossover sound of the times while being unafraid to dive into freeform weirdness.

Oct 13, 2018

MILT MATTHEWS INC. - For The People (Catalyst Records CAS-1111, 1971)

Some old recordings are rare for a reason. When I was a kid in the 70s, like lots of other boys my age, I collected beer cans. And we quickly learned some basic tenets of the hobby. An old Busch can wasn’t usually worth much, even though it had a fairly nice full-color Alpine chalet painting on the can. Aesthetics aside, the fact remained that since those suds were cheap and popular, the cans could be found everywhere. They simply weren’t highly sought after by collectors. Something like Hop’n Gator Tropical Flavored Malt Liquor, on the other hand, was a popular can among collectors. This concoction was, I believe (I never tried it!) an admixture of a Gatorade-like product and some beer from the people who brought you Iron City Beer. In all likelihood it was as awful as it sounds. It didn’t last long, having what we might tactfully characterize as limited appeal. Thus finding a can for one’s collection was a big deal. (I have one, but it’s not in great condition.)

Music is sometimes the same. Unless one is an aficionado of the Incredibly Strange, there are some items that simply aren’t worth tracking down. But there are other cases. To further riff on the beer can metaphor, some regional products were quite good, but failed due to distribution problems. Which, finally, brings me to an album by Milt Matthews Inc. called For the People. Originally released on the tiny Catalyst label in the USA, this second album by the group sank in the marketplace with nary a trace. For reasons having mostly to do with the uniqueness and quality of the sides therein, UK label Ember licensed the album for re-release in England. They slapped new cover artwork on it, nothing special, but superior to the original, and put it out in 1971. It sank without a trace. Again. Which was a shame, since it’s a pretty solid album. The period from around 1965 to the early 70s was filled with so much of value, so much groundbreaking and worthwhile music, that there simply wasn’t any practical way to assimilate it all. The mind boggles at how much quality music never got a hearing. The archive-minded folks at Fantastic Voyage think so, too: they’ve reissued the album so that modern-day listeners can avail themselves of Milt Matthews Inc.’s music, a prime example of how-did-we-miss-this.

So, to the music. At its core, the music on "For The People" is soul of the turn-of-the-decade variety, but the arrangements are richly informed by the best trends of the era. While that funk-jangle-chunka-chunk so popular on soul albums of the day is omnipresent, there is also an awful lot of fuzz guitar on the album. In fact there’s as much fuzz as you’d hear on a record by, say, Blue Cheer or the Electric Prunes. And said fuzz is well-integrated. Milt Matthews wrote some strong tunes, but in some ways the most interesting numbers on the disc are the covers. Matthews actually went to the trouble to enlist the services of arranger Bert DeCoteaux for the strings on his cover of BB King‘s "The Thrill is Gone" (DeCoteaux did the arrangement for BB as well). But the vacuum-tone leads all over the song owe more to acid-rock and psychedelia than to the Beale Street Blues Boy. Matthews leads the band through the song with ad-libs like 'I believe I’ll sing that verse again', suggesting that (a) the band performed live in the studio or (b) he wanted to give listeners that impression. This reviewer votes for the former. The strings and the lead guitar fills play effectively off one another, creating a head-nodding groove.

A cover of the Beatles' "A Hard Day’s Night" reinterprets the song in a manner stylistically related to some of what was coming out of Stax (track down the 2008 compilation Stax Does the Beatles for more in this vein). The fuzz is laid on more thickly than was the wont of, say, Steve Cropper. A string chart adds a lot here as well: there aren’t all that many successful examples of melding of soul and psych. Matthews’ original tunes are good, too. "Can’t See Myself Doing You Wrong" features hypnotic riffing seemingly influenced by both Traffic and Led Zeppelin. But a soulful female chorus moves the song closer to the sort of thing Isaac Hayes did so well. "O Lord (You Gotta Help Me)" is sort of a soul corollary to what George Harrison was doing at roughly the same time on "All Things Must Pass". The riffy "Runaway People" features lots of wah-wah guitar and piano, striking a note redolent of Sly and the Family Stone. The gospel/soul slow-jam "That’s the Way I Feel (Like a Burning Fire)" would merely be a good tune of its type were it not for the searing fuzz leads, did I mention there’s fuzz all over this record ?, that catapult it into something greater. "Disaster Area" is good, too; it was via that track’s inclusion on Fantastic Voyages' "Looking Toward the Sky" compilation of Ember tracks that this reviewer discovered Milt Mathews Inc.

In 1971 there was still a lot of cross-fertilization going on in music. It wasn’t unheard of to dig both Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell. A singer in the Otis Redding style like Milt Mathews could imbibe the best influences of acts like Blind Faith and apply those influences to his own sound. Which is exactly what Matthews and his band do on the cover of "Presence of the Lord", the album closer. Matthews brings the song’s gospel feel, already clear, even more to the fore. Fuzz and wah add to the festivities with a long, searing solo.

Oct 12, 2018

SADE - Diamond Life (Epic Records 26044, 1984)

As you start digging deeper into every musical style, no matter how bland or boring or dumb it may seem, you're pretty much bound to discover at least a few gems in each and every one of them. "Diamond Life" defines "adult contemporary" if there ever was a definition of the term, yet it's a minor masterpiece of the genre, which can totally change your mind on it in general - a little bit of goodwill included, that is. Before we get to the songs and the sound, let's remember that Sade, initially at least, was a band, not just a gal - and one person in that band at least is almost as much (or even more) responsible for that sound than Sade Adu herself; that is guitar and sax player Stuart Matthewman, who, indeed, played all the guitars and saxes on the album (a pretty rare combination), and also co-wrote most of the songs with Sade. Together, they got this sound which at first seems extremely ordinary. You know - kind of a soft jazz thingie, with lulling Paul Simon-like keyboards, saxes, soft chuckling percussion, and suchlike. Sting and Kenny G and Phil Collins come to mind immediately. But it's pretty dumb when you realize that, but this sound did not really exist until 1984. Well, okay, I know of one band that did it before 1984, and that's Steely Dan. Steely Dan are obviously a big influence on here.

But Steely Dan were history in 1984, and pop-writing people were mostly concentrating on electronics at the time. In dire contrast, most of the instrumentation on "Diamond Life" is non-electronic; apart from the keyboards (where actual pianos are used just as often as synths, and they never ever resort to using these generic Casio monsters), you got your basic drum-bass-guitar-sax arrangements, nothing else. The instrumental melodies themselves aren't much to think of, but that's pretty much in the Steely Dan tradition as well; they're there to establish a decent, or occasionally, haunting backdrop to the vocals, and given that the band is tight, well oiled, and always eager to establish a strong groove (after all, most of them had already played for years in the "funk congregation" Pride), I have no problem with that. Which leaves us with the vocals, and they're impeccable.

Almost every song on here is crafted carefully enough to provide you with an unforgettable hook, even if some of these hooks might be way too repetitive to seem truly outstanding; and Sade's vocal delivery is smooth, slick, and unnerving, but quite unique - even considering that she can be firmly categorized as one of those "cold" singerines as opposed to the "hot" ones. I've once encountered a review of this album which accused Sade of sounding too 'phoney' - nothing could be more ridiculous than that, because in order to come across as 'phoney' you have to have at the very least an overexaggerated 'emotional' delivery, and Sade gets on by sounding as emotionally-detached as possible, never too loud, never too quiet, never too trebly, never too "mumbly", yet with an unmistakable profound charm of her own that prevents her from seeming bland.

Back in the summer 1984, it seemed that everywhere you went, this album was being played. From the release of "Your Love Is King" as a single in February 1984, and then the album "Diamond Life", in late July this was the soundtrack to 1984. It seemed that wherever you went, Sade was playing. Her voice streamed out of the radio, it was played in shops and every passing car seemed to be playing "Diamond Life". Seemingly out of nowhere, Sade was not just flavor of the month, but flavor of the year. Her smooth and soulful voice, was everywhere. This was a much more sophisticated sound than much of the music that was around back then, and quickly, her star was very much in the ascendency. In the following few months, "Diamond Life" sold over six million copies, making Sade one of the most successful singers of the decade. Since then, she has released five further albums over a twenty-six year period. In this article, I’l tell you about Sade’s career, and then just why "Diamond Life" was such a hugely successful album. Before forming Sade, Sade Adu, Staurt Matthewman and Paul Spencer Denham, had been members of Latin soul band Pride. In 1982, those three members of Pride decided to form their own band. They were joined by Paul Anthony Cook. The group was named Sade, after lead singer Sade Adu. Together, they started writing their own material. In 1983, Andrew Hale joined the band, but Cook left in 1984. 

Their first live show was at Ronnie Scott’s Club in London, in December 1982, supporting former band Pride. May 1983, saw Sade play their debut American show, at the legendary Danceteria, in New York. By now, Sade were attracting interest from both the media and record companies. Eventually, in October 1983, Sade signed a record contract with Portrait Records, a subsidiary of Epic Records. Having headed to the recording studio, Sade released their debut single "Your Love Is King" in February 1984. "Your Love Is King" was a huge hit, reaching number six in the UK singles chart. It’s still Sade’s highest UK single chart position. All was looking well for the release of debut album, "Diamond Life" in July 1984. Like their debut single, "Diamond Life" was a huge hit. It reached number two in the UK album charts, and eventually, sold over six million copies. Suddenly, Sade were huge stars. Three further singles, "When Am I Going To Make A Living", "Smooth Operator" and "Hang On To Your Love" were released. The following year, 1985, Sade won a Brit Awards for best album.

November 1985, saw Sade release the follow-up to "Diamond Life". Although not as huge a seller as "Diamond Life", "Promise" was well received by critics, and became their first album to be number one in both the UK and US. Three singles, "The Sweetest Taboo", "Never As Good As the First Time" and "Is It A Crime" were released. Sade had hits in the US with "Sweetest Taboo" and "Never As Good As the First Time". Nearly three years would pass, before Sade released another album. May 1988 saw the release of "Stronger Than Pride". Again, Sade had another successful album on their hands, and "Stronger Than Pride" reached number three in the UK album charts. This lead to the album being certified platinum status. Four singles were released from "Stronger Than Pride", with the first single, "Paradise" reaching the top twenty in the US and top thirty in the UK. A further three years would pass before their next album "Love Deluxe" was released in November 1992. It too, was a huge success, reaching number three in the US and number six in the UK. It was eventually certified gold in the UK, and four times platinum in the US. Like "Stronger Than Pride", four singles were released from "Love Deluxe". The following year, Sade recorded a cover of "Please Send me Someone To Love", the old Percy Mayfield classic, for the film Philadelphia. 1994 saw Sade awarded a Grammy for "No Ordinary Love", which had featured in the film Indecent Proposal. Sade received a Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Group or Duo. Later that year, In November, Sade released a compilation album "The Best of Sade". It reached number six in the UK and nine in the US and was a huge seller. In the UK it went platinum, selling over 300,000 copies and in the US went platinum four times over, selling over four million copies. 

After an absence of eight years, a new album was released by Sade. "Lovers Rock" was released in November 2000. Unlike their previous album, "Lovers Rock" failed to break into the top ten. It stalled at number eighteen. However, it still sold over 500,000 copies and was certified gold by the BPI. In the US, the album fared much better, reaching number three and winning Sade a Grammy Award for Best Pop Album in 2002. Having thought that eight years between albums was a long time, fans of Sade had to wait ten years until the release of "Soldier of Love", in February 2010. The album’s release was welcomed by critics, who thought the album was a welcome return to form from Sade. On its release, the album was huge commercial success, entering the UK album charts at number four, giving Sade their highest chart position since "Promise" in 1986. In the US, the album sold 502,000 copies in its first week of release, and debuted at number one, selling over 1.1 million copies. Even though Sade had been away for ten years, they hadn’t lost their magic touch. Let’s hope it isn’t another ten years until their next album. Having told you about Sade’s career, I’ll now tell you just what made their debut album "Diamond Life", such a special album. "Diamond Life" opens with "Smooth Operator". Percussion plays gently, a saxophone blows, the tempo is low, the atmosphere laid back, as Sade Adu’s smooth and dulcet tones emerge for the first time. Straight away, you’re enthralled, transfixed by the sheer beauty of her voice. Her phrasing is perfection, she leaves space in her delivery and a jazz influence can be heard in her voice. As she sings, the rest of the band play subtly behind her vocal. Occasionally, Stuart Mathhewman’s saxophone rasps, but he too, ensures he doesn’t do anything to overpower Sade’s vocal. Already, it’s hard to believe that you’re listening to a debut album, such is the maturity of the performance on the opening track. You’re left marveling at such a brilliant opening track, wondering whether the rest of the album will be just as good.

As "Your Love Is King" opens, a saxophone plays, setting the scene. The scene is sultry and seductive, as Sade sings. Her voice has a maturity, she never once loses control, always sings within herself. As she takes a break, Mathhewman’s saxophone takes over. His solo is stunning, it soars towards the heavens, and is a fitting substitute for Sade’s soulful voice. It’s one of the highlights of the song. Then, as Sade returns, the saxophone reappears, playing much quieter, gently interjecting, sometimes just filling spaces left by Sade. Overall, the arrangement is perfect, it’s understated. Nothing is added by producer Robin Millar, he just allows the band to play naturally, lets them shine. What he ends up with, is a stunning track, one that has a timeless quality that many great songs possess. After two slower tracks, the tempo increases with "Hang On To Your Love". Drums, keyboards and percussion play at the start. Andrew Hale leaves plenty space between the notes on keyboards, this is highly effective adding almost a sense of drama. Around him, the drums and percussion are quicker. Hale’s playing is a nice contrast. When Sade sings, her vocal is quicker, but still, that soulful voice delivers the song clearly. Here her voice is slightly higher. Behind her, the rest of the band, have their opportunity to shine, as they almost jam. A piano plays a great solo, while the drums provide a steady backdrop. Everyone gets in on the act, and when Sade rejoins, she too, joins in, into what is a much looser arrangement. Her vocal becomes much more free, almost improvising. Not everyone can carry this of, but Sade does, and demonstrates how versatile and talented a singer she is. Although quite different from the previous two songs, in that there is much more of a jazz influence present, "Hang On To Your Love" maintains the high standard already set by Sade. To me, the variation in style is welcome, and with a much longer song, Sade and the rest of the band can experiment more, showing just how talented a band they are.

"Frankie’s First Affair" starts with one of the sultriest saxophone solos that will ever caress your ears. Straight away, this sets the mood, even before Sade sings. When the does sing, her voice starts quietly and then gradually, veers higher. She’s accompanied by the saxophone which softly plays, interjecting subtly. As the track progresses, and Sade’s voice soars, the saxophone starts to soar. They accompany each other during the track, one the perfect foil for the other. Having said all that, it took more than two people to make this track. However, it’s Sade and Mathhewman on saxophone that are the main players in what is a tale of love gone wrong. As the track ends, you’ve been drawn into the drama described by Sade, you wonder who was Frankie and exactly what went wrong. The preceding four and half minutes of dramatic and heartfelt music, have allowed you to. "When Am I Going To Make A Living" begins with keyboards, drums and percussion uniting, until Sade makes an appearance. As she joins, her voice is quieter, slightly more subdued. Here, the rest of the band seem louder, they’re much more prominent in this arrangement. They seem further forward in the mix. Sade still sings in front of them. Thankfully, they don’t overpower Sade, but later in the track, as she sings, they’re almost competing to be heard. It becomes an impressive competition, a great voice versus a great band. In the end, it’s honors even, no winner, no loser. The arrangement has been quite different. Previously, the band took care never to overpower Sade. This seemed to change here. However the arrangement worked, the drums were louder, the saxophone blew harder, reaching previously unattained heights. Overall, the sound was louder and fuller, and this impressive sound resulted in another triumph for Sade.

A bass plays, plodding sedentary, subtly, notes seemingly picked out carefully. Drums played equally subtly join in, at the start of "Cherry Pie". The tempo is much slower here, the arrangement is much more understated. Sade’s vocal sits unchallenged at the front on the mix. Behind her the band play a slight funky sound sometimes emerging. Mostly they play it straight, allowing Sade’s vocal to shine. She refuses to play it straight, and sometimes her vocal soars, she scats, then leaves space in her vocal. Straight away, the band fill the spaces, and more and more, we get a glimpse of some funky licks from the band. "Cherry Pie" sees the return of a looser vocal from Sade, and she veers into a much more jazzy influenced vocal. This she does well, and "Cherry Pie" ends granting us a preview of another side of Sade Adu, one I’d like to see much more of. "Sally" sees Sade sing in a much jazzier style. When you hear the song, it brings to mind dimly lit, smokey jazz clubs. A saxophone blows, rasping as the song opens, firmly establishing the dramatic atmosphere. When Sade joins in, this dramatic atmosphere continues. Quite simply, you’re transfixed. You almost hold your breath as Sade Adu sings the lyrics, which are bathed in pathos, and have the effect of tugging at your heartstrings. The arrangement is perfect for the song, saxophone, piano and drums combining masterfully to further increase an already dramatic atmosphere. Here, Sade surpasses herself, it’s as if she’s reserved such a stunning performance for such a tragically sad song, one that’s among the album’s highlights.

"When I Will Be Your Friend" begins, Sade’s voice is lighter, she sounds much happier. Gone is the intensity present on Sally. Here she sings the song quicker, her vocal still as good, veering between soft and low to much higher. She manages to hit the higher notes with ease. During the track drums and percussion play, a saxophone blows as the song moves smoothly along. The same soulfulness is present in Sade’s voice as usual, and here, her voice suits the arrangement, which ambles brightly and happily along. This song might lack the emotional intensity of the previous track, but it’s still a good song, albeit a much more lightweight song than "Sally". "Diamond Life" ends with "Why Can’t We Live Together". It begins with percussion playing, accompanied by a bass, then keyboards play, the solo beautiful, familiar like an old friend. Gradually, out of the percussion, emerges one of the most beautiful tracks on "Diamond Life". The introduction is long, dramatic, building up the tension. You find yourself anticipating Sade’s vocal, hoping that it’s worth the wait. When it arrives after two minutes, it’s well worth the wait. Her voice is questioning, it’s high, she pleads for an end to war. This plea is sincere, heartfelt. Then her vocal takes a break, and the band take over. As she reappears, if possible, her voice is better. Again, she decides to improvise, and as she does, guitar and keyboards join her. After improvising, her voice strengthens and soars, then just as you enjoy a vocal masterclass from Sade, the song suddenly ends. Thankfully, you memory of this masterful song is forever with you. Should that not be enough, all you need do is press play again, and luxuriate in the dulcet tones of the wonderful Sade Adu.

Earlier in this article, when reviewing this album, after the opening track "Smooth Operator", I posed the question whether, the rest of the album would be as good. I knew then, what the answer would be, and now, you know as well, that the answer is yes. There may only be nine tracks on "Diamond Life", it may only last forty-five minutes, but these are among some of the finest songs that you’ll ever hear on a debut album. "Diamond Life" was one of the most mature debut albums I’ve heard. Each of the nine songs featured some stunning vocals and really talented musicians. The lyrics were intelligent, thoughtful and sometimes, heartfelt. These songs tugged at your emotions, made you feel happy, sad and thoughtful. Various styles of music emerged on the album. There were jazz, soul and even funk influences throughout the album. Sade Adu for me, was the real star of "Diamond Life". She is one of the most talented vocalists of the past thirty years. Her voice is stunning, she can captivate an audience, transform a song and sing various styles of music. Not only is she a talented singer, she is a talented songwriter who cowrote eight of the songs on "Diamond Life". Anyone reading this review who hasn’t heard "Diamond Life", are missing hearing some wonderful music. It’s an album that deserves to be part of any record collection, and is a good introduction to Sade’s music. There are five further studio albums available, plus a Best of Sade compilation, each of which contains some marvelous music, music that once you’ve heard, you’ll always love, and always treasure. Standout Tracks: "Smooth Operator", "Your Love Is King", "Sally" and "Why Can’t We Live Together".

Oct 11, 2018

MIKI CURTIS - Mimi The Fast Ear (Vertigo Records FX-8602, 1973)

Miki Curtis made his musical debut in 1958. Back then, the twenty year old was a rockabilly singer. This was just the beginning of Miki Curtis’ musical journey. By 1970, Miki was a member of Samurai. They released their debut eponymous album in 1970. It was well received upon its release. Nowadays, "Samurai" is considered a minor classic. However, there was no followup to "Samurai" released. Instead, the band Samurai split-up. For Miki Curtis, another chapter in his career was about to unfold. This was life as a solo artist. Miki Curtis signed to the Vertigo label, and began work on his debut solo album "Mimi The Fast Ear". For his debut album, Miki Curtis collaborated with lyricist Michio Yamagami on nine tracks. The were a potent partnership, who together, penned the majority of "Mimi The Fast Ear". Miki wrote the music and Michio the lyrics. Their collaborations were "Duel Under The Setting Sun", "The Sun Goes Down Again", "The Love of Duke R’s Wife", "Ruined Kingdom", "World Of Mojo", "Golgita The Pirate", "Children On A Hilltop" and "The Wounded Swan and This Measure of Happiness". The lyrics to another track on "Mimi The Fast Ear", "Forty Days On A Stoned Out Camel" came courtesy of John Redfearn and Mike Davis of Samurai. Again, Miki provided the music. With ten tracks written, now it was a case of recording them. So, Miki and his band made the journey to Victor Studio.

Recording of "Mimi The Fast Ear" began in October 1971. Miki had put together some top musicians for what was a hugely ambitious album. Joining the rhythm section were a horn and string section. Then there joined by banks of keyboards and synths, plus a myriad of exotic instruments. Some of the musicians played on most of the tracks. This included Yujin Harada, the drummer from Samurai, Miki’s previous band. Other musicians featured on just a few tracks. All of them however, were playing their part in what was a hugely ambitious and groundbreaking album, "Mimi The Fast Ear". It was produced by Muki and Masaharu Honjo, and completed in January 1972. After recording of "Mimi The Fast Ear" was complete, the album was mixed by Norio Yoshiawa. He had been part of the project since day one, and was responsible for recording "Mimi The Fast Ear". Once Norio had mixed "Mimi The Fast Ear", the release date was scheduled for April 1972. That wasn’t far away. Before that, critics and cultural commentators had their say on "Mimi The Fast Ear". They hailed the album one of the most ambitious and innovative Japanese albums of the early seventies. This genre hopping album was the latest chapter in the Miki Curtis story. The former rockabilly singer had created a career defining album, one that was variously progressive, psychedelic and sometimes, otherworldly. That was all very well, but would the record buying public get "Mimi The Fast Ear" ?

When "Mimi The Fast Ear" was released in April 1972, it didn’t sell in vast quantities. Fans of Samurai were keen to hear what Miki was doing now. Other record buyers were curious when they saw "Mimi The Fast Ear" distinctive ear. Its psychedelic cover offered a myriad of musical mysteries. So, they too tried "Mimi The Fast Ear". Since then, "Mimi The Fast Ear" has become something of a cult album, which I’ll tell you about. Opening "Mimi The Fast Ear" is "Duel Under The Setting Sun". A frenzied strummed guitar is joined by stabs of piano. They’re panned left. Meanwhile, strings are panned right, bells ring out and a trumpet sounds. It’s as if a psychedelic Spaghetti Western is unfolding, and Miki is about to ride out into the desert for a "Duel Under The Setting Sun". As the strings dance and rhythm section provide the heartbeat Miki delivers a dramatic vocal. Later, a quivering guitar cuts through the arrangement. Just like the other instruments, it’s dropped in at the right time. This results in a genre melting, cinematic track where Miki draws inspiration from psychedelia, soundtrack rock and pop. A crystalline guitar creates a mellow introduction to "The Sun Goes Down Again". Meanwhile a bass plays subtle and a piano adds a wistful sound. Miki’s vocal is tender and heartfelt. Nothing is allowed to overpower his vocal. It takes centre-stage as he offers hope, hope for the future. Miki optimistically sings; “if things are tough today, tomorrow will soon be here, on this beautiful track.

The arrangement to "The Love of Duke R’s Wife" quivers, before a horn sounds. This is the signal for Miki’s vocal to enter. He’s accompanied by the rhythm section and piano. Occasionally, a horn interjects as Miki tells the story of a short-lived relationship between Duke Renard’s wife and a young aristocrat. As the arrangement almost waltzes along, the story unfolds. Wistfully, Miki sings of that the young aristocrat: “fell in a battle, dying on a distant field.” He brings the lyrics to life, while an organ and melancholy drive the arrangement to its dramatic and heart wrenching crescendo. "Ruined Kingdom" is very different from the previous track. It has a mellow, feel good sound. That’s down to the choice of instruments. A piano, ARP synths and steel guitar join the rhythm section and acoustic guitar. This seems to inspire Miki, as he delivers one of his most effective and emotive vocals. Against an atmospheric, dreamy and almost otherworldly arrangement he tells the story of the "Ruined Kingdom". Just like the previous track, "World of Mojo" has a spacious track. However, the arrangement is much more understated. Mostly, it’s just  an acoustic guitar that accompanies Miki’s wistful vocal. Later, a flute and then dulcimer interject. Adding a psychedelic twist, is Mojo The Cat, who snores gently. However, mostly, it’s just Miki and the acoustic guitar that play starring roles on this quite beautiful track.

The sound of waves breaking opens "Golgita The Pirate". Soon, the rhythm section, piano, organ and bursts of horns combine. They set the scene for Miki, who sings of the hunt for "Golgita The Pirate". As the ARP synthesizer buzzes, the piano is panned left and the rhythm section right. Later, an organ is panned hard left as the jaunty arrangement takes shape. By then, the hunt for Golgita is in full flight. A battle takes place, and Golgita is shot. There’s a twist in  the tale. When Golgita’s hat is taken off, they discover a beautiful woman, they all prayed and tenderly laid her to rest. So vivid is the imagery, that "Golgita The Pirate" is like a short story put to music. "Children On A Hilltop" sees another change of style. Much of that is down to the choice of instruments. An ARP synthesizer is deployed while the drums, bass and piano play more prominent roles. Similarly, Miki’s impassioned vocal is louder and joyous. It’s as if he’s based the "Children On A Hilltop" on his own childhood, and is happily reminiscing. Wistful and beautiful. That’s the word that springs to mind when one first hears "The Wounded Swan". It’s a slow, string drenched ballad. Just the rhythm section, piano and acoustic guitar accompany Miki. Gradually, the story takes shape of the "The Wounded Swan" that’s shot and left behind. It’s unable to make the journey back to its birthplace. So effective is Miki’s delivery of the lyrics, that "The Wounded Swan" takes on a cinematic quality. One can imagine "The Wounded Swan" watching as its friends vanish into the distance.

From the opening bars of "This Measure of Happiness", it’s apparent that something special is unfolding. With just a piano and the rhythm section for company Miki delivers a truly heartfelt vocal. He seems to have reserved his best vocal for this beautiful paean. The cosmic sounding "Forty Days On A Stoned-Out Camel" closes "Mimi The Fast Ear". For many people this experimental fusion of psychedelia, avant-garde, experimental and free jazz is the high point of "Mimi The Fast Ear". It’s certainly unlike the rest of the album. A droning, spacey sound sits above the arrangement. Meanwhile, the rhythm section play slowly. Miki’s vocal is deliberate and dramatic. So are the harmonies. When they drop out a blistering guitar solo replaces it. Along with the droning, otherworldly sound, they take centre-stage. Then the rest of the band set the scene for Miki and the harmonies. When they drop out the final forty seconds feature a myriad of bubbling, gurgling sounds. This ensures that "Mimi The Fast Ear" ends on a surreal, psychedelic and progressive high.

All these years after the the original release of "Mimi The Fast Ear", Miki Curtis’ debut album is now a cult classic. It’s much more appreciated than it was in April 1972. Back then, this genre-defying album passed most people by. Many of the people that heard "Mimi The Fast Ear", didn’t know what to make of it. Partly, that was because its such a varied, and eclectic album. Miki Curtis flits between genres on "Mimi The Fast Ear". There’s everything from sixties pop, psychedelia, progressive rock,  jazz and rock, to elements of avant garde, experimental, free jazz. The use of synths, especially the ARP show that Miki Curtis was an innovator. He brought musicians onboard who were pioneers, and knew what instruments like the ARP were capable of. They created a myriad of disparate sound, including some that can only be described as otherworldly. It seemed that Miki Curtis was determined to challenge musical norms. Other times, he seemed quite conservative. That’s the case on "Mimi The Fast Ear" ballads. Mostly, Miki is accompanied by an understated and traditional arrangements. This allows him to breath life, meaning and emotion into Michio Yamagami’s lyrics. Ballads like "The Sun Goes Down Again", "Wounded Swan" and "This Measure Of Happiness" are among "Mimi The Fast Ear" highlights. Then on other tracks, Miki lets his imagination run riot.

None more so than "Forty Days On A Stoned-Out Camel". It must have sounded truly innovative when "Mimi The Fast Ear" was released in 1972. With its myriad of otherworldly sounds, it’s still a captivating track. So, is Ruined Kingdom, with its lysergic sheen. Then there’s the cinematic sounding "Duel Under The Sun" and "Golgita The Pirate". Both are rich in imagery, and transport the listener to another time and place. This is just another reason why "Mimi The Fast Ear" is a cult classic. That’s despite the unorthodox use of panning. Listen carefully to "Mimi The Fast Ear", and the listener will hear that instruments are arranged very differently to most albums. On one track the drums were panned to the right. Usually, the drums take centre-stage. Then on other tracks, the use of panning results in what’s almost an unbalanced sounding arrangement. It takes a bit of getting used to, but adds to "Mimi The Fast Ear" inherent charm. The occasional unbalance mix can be forgiven. Especially, since in 1972, the technology available wasn’t as advanced as it is today.  This meant that recording an album as ambitious and innovative as "Mimi The Fast Ear" was quite an undertaking. Somehow,  recordist and mixer Norio Yoshiawa, plus producers  Miki and Masaharu Honjo managed to do so. They, and everyone involved with Miki Curtis’ genre-hopping debut album "Mimi The Fast Ear" should be proud of an album that’s variously ambitious, innovative, progressive, psychedelic and often, beautiful. That’s why "Mimi The Fast Ear", this cult classic, is finally being appreciated.