Wednesday, 26 October 2016

October #1 - Meat Loaf & Jim Steinman

1. Meat Loaf - Going All The Way (Is Just The Start)

First up, if you don't like Meat Loaf, you can skip along to the next blog right now. You've made up your mind about that a long time ago and neither this record - nor anything I write about it - will change that opinion. But if you've ever given Meat the time of day, stick around with open ears... and an open mind. 

To say I've been looking forward to this record, the reunion between Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman, is something of an understatement. It's been 23 years since they last did a full album together, and that was 12 years since the previous one and 16 since their first. At risk of irking the musos even more than I usually do, this is as big as Morrissey and Marr recording together again (not as The Smiths, obviously)... or Billy Joel releasing a new album. (Hahahaha: I'm equally serious about both those comparisons, and somewhere a muso just stabbed my voodoo doll with a rusty stylus.)  

But you can build something like this up way too much, and let's face it, the Moz-Marr reunion would probably be as damp a squib as the Stone Roses comeback (though I'd grin and bear it and play it to death all the same) while Billy would struggle to match We Didn't Start The Fire these days, let alone his classic 70s output. So I've been fully prepared for Braver Than We Are to be a disappointment, ever since it was announced as "Coming Spring 2015"...

When it finally "dropped"*, 18 months later, I followed the link to the first single,  and was predictably bummed. At 11 1/2 minutes of full-on bombast, this operatic "Song in 6 Movements" felt like Steinman finally falling victim to self-parody. I sat back and waited for the album with a heavy feeling in my gut, and the first reviews did little to offer any relief. "Meat's voice is a wreck," they whinged. "It's not a new album of Steinman material at all," they carped, "just cobbled together leftovers with the occasional 'new song' thrown in!" One reviewer even swore he was the biggest Bat Out of Hell fan ever before calling Braver Than We Are the worst album he'd ever heard, saying he'd had to force himself to listen to it again just to write the review. Wow, First World Problems of Irked Musos... doesn't your heart just bleed?

On finally encountering the beast then, I was prepared for the worst, and the first few times I listened to it, I did wonder if my lack of outrage was just a brave face forced upon me by decades of hero worship (for Steinman primarily, Meat to a lesser degree). And then something weird happened. I fell in love with the freak... and that love affair began with the very song I'd rejected at the start.

Going All The Way Is Just The Start may well be the ultimate Jim Steinman song. No, it's not better than Bat, Paradise, Dead Ringer, Total Eclipse, More Than You Deserve or Objects In The Rearview Mirror. It's not up there with the classics. But it does do everything you want from a Jim Steinman song, and then some. It's 12 minutes of roaring guitars, Roy Bittan-esque piano, ridiculous, overblown imagery, layer upon layer upon layer of melodramatic tosh like the very best rock 'n' roll has to offer. It grows and builds and crescendos like it's the very last song at the end of the world, like if it just keeps on going, maybe we won't have to turn out the lights after all. If this is, as widely assumed and reported, the very last Meat Loaf record and the last will and testament of Jim Steinman, then it does the job just fine.

Yes, there are problems. Meat's voice, first and foremost. There's no denying it's long past its best. I saw an interview with him where he claimed Steinman had insisted he sang every song in the lower register, and that was probably Jim just being kind. He even struggles a bit with that. There are hundreds of vocalists who could have done a better job on this album, but none would have made the same emotional connection to Steinman's last full batch of songs. This had to be a Meat Loaf album, even if he sang it with his dying croak. Steinman describes Meat's performance as "heroic", and I honestly believe there's a truth to that: it's more than just the usual JS-BS. Plus, Jim has a back-up plan to help out the biggest song, dragging both Ellen Foley AND Karla De Vito back from Hell to pitch in: what should have been a duet becomes a grand ménage à trois. Together again for the very first time, these three really are Crusaders of the Heart.

So ignore the musos. If you ever loved Meat 'n' Jim, give this album a try. Be brave: persevere with it as it I did and you will come to love it. 

(*I'll discuss that word another time, suffice it to say I'm using it ironically.)

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

October #2 - The Browns

2. The Browns - The Three Bells

If I were to get to the end of 2016 and not mention this song, I'd be doing my listening habits a grave misjustice. Frankly, I've been rather obsessed with it over the last 6 months or so... which is rather odd considering that it was recorded in 1959 (well, this version, at least: the original French song, recorded by Edith Piaf, is older still). Although I may have encountered it prior to this year, my love affair began when John Grant opened his first 6Music show with it earlier this year. To be honest, much as I love John Grant's own music, our tastes are quite different: much of the rest of his show was made up of 80s electronica (he has a particular soft spot for Vangelis), which only floats my boat in small doses. The Three Bells was unlike anything else he played, although I do seem to remember he said it was the first pop song that had stuck in his head as a child.

I love everything about this song, from the conceit (a life told in three verses, symbolised by church bells proclaiming Jimmy Brown's birth, marriage and death) to the blissful harmonies of Jim Ed Brown and his sisters Maxine and Bonnie. I have sung along to it in the car more than any other song I've listened to this year: it's even been a hit with the rest of the family. I can't promise you'll enjoy it as much as I do, but to paraphrase Mark Radcliffe (and probably a bunch of other people): if you don't appreciate this even the slightest little bit, you don't like music.

Monday, 24 October 2016

October #3 - Paul Simon

A couple of months ago, Paul Simon released a new album. The record company hype proclaimed it his best since Graceland. That album is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, but it certainly marked the zenith of his (solo) career back in 1986 (for all the controversy that surrounded it). Simon has only released 6 albums since, and with the exception of his ill-fated 1997 musical The Capeman, I've enjoyed every one of them. With that in mind, I took the hype with a pinch of salt...

But, you know what? The hype might be true for once. Don't get me wrong: Stranger To Stranger is not in the same league as Graceland, but it is his most coherent set of songs since... well, certainly since Graceland's successor, Rhythm of the Saints. Which is kind of odd, considering it's a relatively short album and two of its 11 tracks are brief instrumentals (I bought the Deluxe Edition, but you're not missing anything if you go with the standard release, except the rather lovely Dion duet). However, musically, it's his most playful and experimental record since Graceland, largely due to the collaboration with Italian electronic maestro Clap! Clap! (Don't worry, Simon's not gone dance). It also hit Number One in the UK album chart (making him, at 74, the oldest male artist to ever do that) and became his best-selling album since Graceland in the US.

Wristband was the first radio single (do they call them Impact Tracks or summat these days?) and on the surface, it's the somewhat smug tale of a rock musician getting locked out of his own gig who's then refused backstage entry by a security guard because he doesn't have a wristband. As with the best of the Graceland songs, its lyrics are witty and clever... but also have a bit more to say about the state of the world as Simon turns the wristband into a metaphor for privilege, the class system and the growing anger of the "have nots" (those without a wristband) in today's society.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

My Top Ten Supermarket Songs (Volume 2)

Back to the supermarket, but this time we're doing our shopping the generic way. Own brand songs all the way... and one of those topics that (coincidentally) throws up a bunch of my all-time favourite artists...

Special mention to Inbetweener by Sleeper, which doesn't actually mention a supermarket but the video does take place in one (also a laundrette), as well as featuring Dale 'Supermarket Sweep' Winton, shaking his Pringles for all to see. Thanks to Mark for reminding me of that one! And yes, Mark, I'm with you on Louise Wener...

10. Iggy Pop & Green Day - Supermarket

Sounds exactly like you'd imagine a Green Day song fronted by Iggy would sound.
Everybody sells
And everybody buys...

9.  Mull Historical Society - The Supermarket Strikes Back / Barcode Bypass

This week's BOGOF offer, two great Supermarket Songs from Colin MacIntyre.

8. Courtney Barnett - Dead Fox

My favourite from Courtney. Sounds like she goes shopping with Stephen Malkmus...
Jen insists that we buy organic vegetables
And I must admit that I was a little skeptical at first
A little pesticide can't hurt
Never having too much money, I get the cheap stuff at the supermarket
But they're all pumped up with shit
A friend told me that they stick nicotine in the apples...
7. Gene - Supermarket Bombscare

Just a b-side, from their last album, Libertine, in 2001. Bloody gorgeous though. 

6. Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers - Abominable Snowman In The (Super)Market

Because it scans better, Jonathan reduces Supermarket to Market for the majority of this song, but his intro makes it clear the market... just like this song... is Super.

Two weeks running for JR. He's obviously a fan of supermarket songs too.

5. Bruce Springsteen - Queen of the Supermarket

Ah, the critics cried. This is what happened to the Born To Run rebel? Writing love songs to check-out girls? Yes, I've actually heard this called the Worst Song The Boss Ever Wrote.

What an ignorant response to a song that actually showcases the same blue-collar romanticism and heartfelt balladry Bruce built much of his career on. And he's growing old gracefully, guys: no longer chasing the factory girls underneath the boardwalk where they all promise to unsnap their jeans, here he just wants the checkout girl to take off that company cap that hides her beautiful hair. 

This is why the critics know jack. Because they're so obsessed with cool, they forget real world romance.

Also, no-one criticised Billy for sharing similar sentiments as he got older...

4. Billy Bragg - Brickbat
I steal a kiss from you
In the supermarket
I walk you down the aisle
You fill my basket
And through it all
The stick I take
Is worth it with the love we make
And let's not forget: he used to want to plant bombs at The Last Night of the Proms.

3. The Kinks - Come Dancing

Included here purely because it's one of my all-time favourite Kinks records, and probably the first one I loved. (I was a child of the 80s.)
They put a parking lot 
On the piece of land
Where the supermarket used to stand
Before that they put up a bowling alley
On the site that used to be the local palais...
I love the bit where the two silhouettes are "saying goodnight" by the garden gate... only for the girl's mum to shriek out at them: "What are you doing out there? Come on! Are you gonna be out there all night?"

2. The Clash - Lost In The Supermarket

Mick Jones sings this one, but it's a Strummer song. The anti-consumerism lyrics guarantee that.
I'm all lost in the supermarket
I can no longer shop happily
I came in here for that special offer
A guaranteed personality
Have I irked the musos this week? No? How about this...

I prefer the Ben Folds version.


1. Pulp - Common People

Inevitable, really. Arguably the greatest single of the Britpop era (if not the greatest song), and certainly the greatest video, in which tiny Jarvis gets pushed around a supermarket by Sadie Frost...

The bit where Jarvis says, "I'll see what I can do..." makes me laugh every time I watch it. Seems ridiculous that they edited the chorus on youtube to remove "...and screw..." I don't remember them doing that back in the day. Dancing and drinking is fine, boys and girls, but let's not put up any shelves afterwards...
I took her to a supermarket
I don't why but I had to start it somewhere...

Which one do you want to check out?

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

October #4: Blitzen Trapper

4. Blitzen Trapper - Nights Were Made For Love

This is one of those bands who I've heard good things about for a few years now but never really paid much attention to. But two things happened recently which gave me the opportunity...

Firstly, as mentioned previously, I rejoined eMusic. I used to be a member a few years back but belt-tightening and a sense that I'd exhausted all the good music on there caused me to put my membership on hold. I gave the site a trawl again recently and was pleased by how many desirable records I saw... either they've enlisted a bunch of new artists or my tastes have broadened. Although I'd always prefer to have the CD, the fact I can download a full album for under a fiver (half that if they're having one of their booster pack sales) was enough to tempt me back. The belt gets ever tighter (and not only because of middle-aged spread).

Secondly, I heard Bob Harris play a great track from BT's latest effort, All Across This Land on his late night / early morning show a few weeks back. When I saw the album on eMusic, I hit download... and it's quickly turned into one of my favourite albums of the year (although, as with many of my favourite albums this year, it was actually released in 2015).

All Across This Land has a classic American rock sound - a couple of the tracks could well be Tom Petty at his best, while the one I've chosen today is Bob Seger doing Springsteen. I'm at the age now where there's no bigger compliment of a record than to say: you thought they didn't make them like this anymore. Well, think again...
All the boys sit on the fender
As they watch the sun go down
And the lights shine like the end of things
On the darkest side of town
Where we grew up here in Oregon
Raking fields after the rain
And the west was all the world was
Now the west just fades away
Yeah the best of friends
The worst of luck
It never turned our hearts to stone
We were stupid, strange and young at heart
And all we wanted was to rock and roll
Yeah all we wanted was to rock and roll

Sunday, 16 October 2016

October #5 - Dexys

5. Dexys - Grazing In The Grass

One Day I'm Going To Soar, Kevin Rowland's comeback album, was one of my favourite discs of 2012. So I was very excited to hear of a new release from the band who no longer Run at Midnight, even though the idea of a covers album focussing on "Irish and Country Soul" (whatever that means) set alarm bells ringing for many.

Covers have long been a part of Rowland's act: from forgotten soul acts like Chuck Wood and Johnny Johnson to Van Morrison's big Jackie Wilson tribute... or was that Jockey?

However, the real reason some might have feared a Dexys' covers album goes back to Rowland's infamous 1999 solo album, My Beauty (his second: sadly, I've never been able to track down an affordable copy of his 1988 solo record, The Wanderer). Here, Rowland abandoned his usual sartorial elegance in favour of this little ensemble...

...a move which led to the critics ripping him a new one and the pissed-up revellers at Reading Festival sharing the contents of their beer bottles with him (i.e. after they'd drunk the beer and then refilled them).

The thing is - and I've never been ashamed to admit this - I like My Beauty. It's a cracking set of interpretations: defiant, personal and wilfully anti-muso (the covers include Mama Cass, The Monkees and Whitney Houston... or George Benson, if you remember the original). So I was actually very excited by a similar project from the rejuvenated Dexys... perhaps a little too much.

Dexys Do Irish & Country Soul is a curious record, and though the critics have been far kinder to it, I haven't warmed to it as I did My Beauty 17 years ago. The title's a little misleading, for a start: yes, you'd expect I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen and Curragh of Kildare... but how Irish are Jerome Kern, Barry Gibb, Diane Warren, Joni Mitchell or Red Stewart? The selection of songs is even more wilfully obtuse than on My Beauty, but though the arrangements are gorgeous and Rowland's voice rarely better, there are times it still feels a little karaoke for me: particularly on You Wear It Well and Warren's How Do I Live? (made famous by LeAnn Rimes). There's less re-interpretation than I'd expected, less of Rowland's usual originality. I don't now, maybe it'll grow on me.

All that said, this one track's an absolute belter. Originally by 60s soulsters The Friends of Distinction... but Rowland makes it a true Dexys classic. Can you dig it, baby?

Friday, 14 October 2016

My Top Ten Supermarket Songs (Volume 1)

This week, I thought we'd pop down the supermarket. This is Volume 1 because it's about specific supermarket chains. More generic supermarket songs will follow...

Sadly, I couldn't find any songs about Morrisons, Waitrose or Ocado...

10. FINE FAIR: Toy Dolls - Nowt Can Compare To Sunderland Fine Fair

After Jason Donovan, I have no more shame...

9. TRADER JOE'S: Tristan Prettyman - The Rebound

Tristan Prettyman cruises her local Trader Joe's supermarket looking for guys who are on the rebound. Watch out with that banana.

8. ALDI: Fat White Family - Breaking Into Aldi

In with a bullet, this brand new track from the FWF, with a little help from my second favourite Lennon child...

Heard this on 6music the other day and thought it sounded great.

I understand Marmite is still available in Aldi. No need to break in.

7. SAFEWAY: Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Safeway Cart

Neil Young has written so many songs, there will come a time when he runs out of subject matter. Here's one about a shopping trolley... from the same album on which he wrote a song about a Piece of Crap. Great album though.

6. ASDA: Suede - Asda Town

B-side of The Wild Ones, one of my favourite Suede singles; this actually sounds like the stuff Brett would release when he went solo a few years later. I saw him play live during that tour and it was a very special, slightly rakish, king of night.
And like the birds we'll fly tomorrow
And like the birds we'll fly
From your Asda Town
Never coming down
'Cos they're take, taking it away
I'd like to see Asda use this in their Christmas TV ad this year. Sod Take That.

See also Millionaire by The Puppini Sisters, which is rather nice too.

5. WAL-MART: PJ Harvey - The Hope Street Demolition Project

Brought to you by the owners of Asda...

Possibly stretching the idea of a concept album beyond its natural elasticity, but when Polly Jane kicks out on her latest album, she's as good as ever.
They're gonna put a Wal-Mart hereeeeee...
See also sunrise in a Wal-Mart Parking Lot by Clem Snide... it can be so beautiful.

4. STOP 'N' SHOP: Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers - Roadrunner

Yes, it is a real supermarket chain. Jonathan didn't make it up.

3. SAINSBURY'S: Saint Etienne - Teenage Winter / Amanda Palmer - Leeds United

This one was a tie.

Teenage Winter is possibly my favourite Saint Etienne track. Sarah Cracknell could read a shopping list and make it sound amazing. Plus, Bob Stanley really does love old records... as much as we do. This song is about the death of pop music as a physical object for teenagers to cherish. Once you get that, it's one of the most heartbreaking songs you'll ever hear...
Mums with pushchairs outside Sainsbury's
Tears in their eyes
They'll never buy a Gibb Brothers record again
Their old 45s gathering dust
The birthday cards they couldn't face throwing away
Teenage winter coming down
Teenage winter coming down
Still in Sainsbury's, we find Mrs. Gaiman flashing back to the time she was dating Ricky Wilson from the Kaiser Chiefs. He gave her a Leeds Utd. jersey as a pressie. She lost it.
But who needs love when there's Law and Order?
And who needs love when there's Dukes of Hazard?
And who needs love
When the sandwiches are wicked
And they know you at the Mac store?
No, the Mac store is not a supermarket. But I can't mention this song without quoting that chorus, because I love it. As for the supermarket...
Sure, I admire you
Sure, you inspire me, but you've been not getting back so
I'll wait at the Sainbury's
Countin' my change, making bank on the upcoming roster
I'm guessing maybe Ricky took her down the Leeds Sainsbury's one time too. He knows how to spoil a girl, that Wilson lad...

2. THE CO-OP: The Jam - A Town Called Malice

I give Weller a hard time on this blog occasionally... but when he's on form, no one can touch him...
A whole street's belief in Sunday's roast beef
Gets dashed against The Co-Op
To either cut down on beer or the kids' new gear
It's a big decision in a town called Malice
See also Saturday's Kids: Saturday's girls work in Tesco's and Woolworths! (Not anymore, sadly.)

1. TESCO: Half Man Half Biscuit - L’Enfer C’Est Les Autres

I had to give this One to Nigel Blackwell because not only does he use that gloriously misinterpreted quote from Sartre as his title (sadly, Jean-Paul wasn't quite being as misanthropic as Nigel and I might wish), but also because this track contains (among various other hilarious ramblings) perhaps the best Half Man Half Biscuit line ever... via Johnny Cash, of course.
I shot a man in Tesco, just to watch him die
From the top HMHB album 90 Bisodol. What else do you need to know? 

Some people don’t know how to walk on the pavement these days
Well it’s not that difficult, there’s hardly a whole host of waysHere they come, love’s young dream, arm in arm, approaching me 
Now, I’m not looking for your smile
I’m just asking for some single file 
But it’s not forthcoming so I have to assume 
That this narrow path belongs to you 
And therefore you must beThe Duke of Westminster and his good lady wife 
So, I tell you what, I’ll just walk in the road
How about I just walk in the road?
You stay as you are, and I’ll just walk in the road

How about that first verse? Is it just me...?

Other Top Tesco songs (I could have done a Top Ten, but I'm waiting for the sponsorship deal to kick in) came from Lily Allen (LDN), The Pogues (Rain Street*), King Krule (Easy Easy) and Glass Animals (Life Itself).

*Careful, that one's a bit rude.

Which one gets your custom? Whichever you pick, it's still 5p for a carrier bag...