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I’ll Tell You One Thing, He’s Not Building A Playhouse For The Children

Tom Waits was 70 at the end of last week. On the one hand this was quite surprising. Tom Waits?! 70?! No way! On the other though, Waits has looked at least 103 since the first time I set eyes and ears on him, round about the time they played a clip of In The Neighbourhood or some suchlike off of Swordfishtrombones on Whistle Test, or perhaps even the Oxford Road Show. This was back in the mid 80s when pop was shiny and bright with clean hair and cleaner teeth and here was Waits, crumpled and tramp-like with an electric shock of hair that even Keith Richards might’ve taken a comb to, his rough hewn chin and sharp cheekbones giving him the look of a werewolf on the verge of an asthma attack, attacking, not playing his upright piano. Cool as the proverbial fuck.

 

Waits really perfected that beatnik bum look, looking like the hobo in a Rockwell painting that had managed to peel himself free from the canvas and flop onto the nearest flat surface. It was in place for Closing Time, his first album, and he sort of grew into it with each subsequent release.

Delivered with a voice that’s equal parts gravel and gasoline, Waits sings bourbon-soaked mini operas of loving and losing, of romance and heart-break – Grapefruit Moon, for example, or Martha, or the astonishingly brilliant and Desolation Row-like Kentucky Avenue, yet he can be laugh-out-loud-funny when the mood needs lifting. Seek out All My Friends Are Married on Nighthawks At The Diner for a prime slice of all-bases-covered Waits’ melancholic pathos. In fact, listen to the whole album, it might just change your life. That’s an instruction, by the way, not a recommendation.

Tom WaitsMartha

As his back catalogue grew to be as wild and varied as the bottle selection behind a Bowery bar, so too did his approach to music. Waits’ anything goes attitude meant that accordions played polkas while bits of metal clanged rudimentary rhythms, skewed blues flipped and flopped underneath funereal Salvation Army band dirges, spoken word sections fought for your attention with ambient jazz….fantastically unpigeonholeable, that’s yer Waits.

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Regardless of the style, the substance is always there. Taken as music-free words on a page, a Tom Waits’ lyric is a work of art in its own right, as essential a read as Bukowski or Kerouac, wonderful beat-influenced poetry that will be subjected to wonky actual beats once inside a recording studio. On 1999’s Mule Variations – 20 years ago – jeez! – you’ll find two of Waits’ most incredible tracks.

Tom Waits What’s He Building?

On What’s He Building?, Waits snarls a fantastic spoken word account of a mysteriously sinister neighbour who’s piqued the irk of the singer. Static squelches its way across the band waves. Heavy tools clank. Bandsaws whine and whir. The menace creeps as Waits lays out his problems with his neighbour. Or should that be neighbor?

What’s he building in there?
What the hell is he building in there?
He has subscriptions to those magazines
He never waves when he goes by
And he’s hiding something from the rest of us
He’s all to himself, I think I know why
He took down the tire-swing from the pepper tree
He has no children of his own, you see
He has no dog, he has no friends
And his lawn is dying
And what about those packages he sends?
What’s he building in there?
With that hook light on the stairs
What’s he building in there?
I’ll tell you one thing, he’s not building a playhouse for the children
What’s he building in there?
Now what’s that sound from underneath the door?
He’s pounding nails into a hardwood floor
And I swear to God I heard someone moaning low
And I keep seeing the blue light of a TV show
He has a router and a table saw
And you won’t believe what Mr. Sticha saw
There’s poison underneath the sink, of course
There’s also enough formaldehyde to choke a horse
What’s he building in there?
What the hell is he building in there?
I heard he has an ex-wife in some place called Mayor’s Income, Tennessee
And he used to have a consulting business in Indonesia
But what’s he building in there?
He has no friends but he gets a lot of mail
I bet he spent a little time in jail
I heard he was up on the roof last night, signalling with a flashlight
And what’s that tune he’s always whistling?
What’s he building in there?
What’s he building in there?
We have a right to know

It’s the perfect soundtrack to a still-to-be-written Stephen King short story, a modern-day gothic horror tale of untold holy terrors behind suburban curtains. I wonder if Stephen King has heard it?

Rubbing uncomfortable shoulders with the creeping menace of What’s He Building? is the plaintive Take It With Me, a song so small and sad you wouldn’t believe it was the same artist who’d done both.

Tom WaitsTake It With Me

It’s a sweeping-up song, end of the night barroom jazz, a long look back on a love lost. We’ve all been there but, as usual, Waits puts it best.

Oceans as blue as your eyes,” “We lived in Coney Is-land,” “It felt just like the old days….

The memories linger, like the tendrils of tobacco and whiskey curling around the mouth of the piano player, playing to no-one but you in the corner of the bar.

In a land there’s a town, and in that town there’s a house
And in that house there’s a woman
And in that woman there’s a heart I love
I’m gonna take it with me when I go

This isn’t one of Tom Waits’ best-known songs, but it should be. Listen. Repeat. Share. Thanks.

Cover Versions, Get This!, Gone but not forgotten

Sledgehammers

There are many great sounds in music; that jazz-inflected major 6th “Yeah!” at the tail end of The Beatles’ She Loves You for one. The vibrating air as Miles Davis leans into So What on Kind Of Blue. Johnny Greenwood’s stuttering pre-chorus crunch as he tries to mess with Creep. John Lydon’s phlegmy Fagin-by-way-of-Steptoe “‘Allo? ‘Allo! ‘Allo!! Heurgh-heurgh-heurgh!” announcement on PIL’s eponymous debut single. The eerie slide guitar that punctuates the juddering How Soon Is Now?…the Cuban-heeled stomp of London Calling… Adam & the Ants Burundi beat…Clarence’ Clemons’ honey-coated sax….. You’ll have your own no doubt, hearing them in your head right now as you read this. Those sounds are what separates you, me and the rest of us from other people who consider music no more than background colour, something that happens to be on as the dishes are washed or the ironing tackled. Obsessives like us listen to music and revel in the small stuff. The minutae. The little bits that you miss when the iron is hissing steam at you while you press next week’s workwear. The important stuff.

Just about my favourite sound in music is the sound of Nile Rodgers‘ guitar interlocking with Bernard Edwards‘ bass. When they hit their stride and find the groove, they’re unbeatable. Like a pair of old ladies clacking away at the bingo, the combined sound is instantly recognisable, totally danceable and, while often copied, it’s a sound that’s never been bettered. When Nile and Bernard formed Chic, the idea was to write songs for different groups. Chic themselves were modelled on Roxy Music’s basic vision of style; smart dress and street-smart females, elements that were to them as important as the songs they were selling.

Chic employed female vocalists and had success on their own terms – you know all the hits – but as the Chic Organization, Bernard and Nile penned hits for others. Diana Ross, Sister Sledge, Carly Simon, Madonna, Bowie….all benefitted, and all came gift-wrapped in the same smoothly-clattering funk that coloured Chic’s biggest hits. Bowie’s Let’s Dance was a 12 string skifflish blues until Nile added those familiar massive rattling chords. Like A Virgin, with its keyboard and up the neck guitar stabs could’ve been a Chic hit rather than the smash that elevated Madonna into the conscience of half the world.

I’ve always had a thing for Carly Simon‘s Why. Hearing it out of context on Ibiza as an impressionable 18 year old perhaps helped. Here, it was no longer AOR radio fodder, it was late night/early morning comedown music, long, loping and lightly toasted reggae. In the right context, it made a whole lotta sense.

It’s what Nile and Bernard did for Sister Sledge on Thinking Of You that tops the lot. The chord progression is fantastic, an itchy and scratchy four chord progression from minor 7th to major 7th and back again, played between the 10th and 5th frets while the bassline bounces with fluid funk below. The staccato riffing as Kathy Sledge sings, “Everybody, let me tell you ’bout my love…” (the perfect opening line for the song, by the way – it really sets it up the anticipation for what’s to follow) “...brought to you by an angel from above,” is god-like. Nile takes the basic chords, ignores his bass strings then builds hook upon hook upon hook with just the top 3 strings. Your man-in-the-street’s idea of what might constitute a Guitar ‘Great’ could never comprehend why Nile is such a brilliant player. He’s the perfect example of less is more, a fat-free, lean and mustard-keen guitarist.

Behind all of this the strings sweep and swell. Brass parps in all the right places. Unfussy drums maintain the beat. And that’s about it. You can identify every instrument on Thinking Of You. The perfect example, again, of less is more.

Sister SledgeThinking Of You (Dimitri From Paris mix)

Dimitri From Paris took the original and, unsurprisingly, saw the beauty in what was already there and stayed faithful to it. No need for this remixer to strip a good song of its basic components and twist it out of all recognition. Dimitri’s mix is twice as long, allowing space for the breathy vocals to take centre stage before giving way to Rodgers’ incessant Strat, until he drops out and Edwards’ bassline is allowed to buckle and bend in the middle of the track. It’s a showcase not for Dimitri but for Chic, six and a half minutes long and not a moment wasted.

In 2004 Paul Weller took his stripped back, tastefully scrubbed acoustic version of Thinking Of You into the charts, proof, if it were needed, that Rodgers and Edwards songs transfer to all styles. It’s not a patch on the original, but the newly in love Weller’s vocal is pretty soulful and genuine and, given he was spare of decent self-penned material at the time, it was the perfect song to tide him over until his next visit from the song gods.

Paul WellerThinking Of You

Get This!, Kraut-y

Whole Lotta Rossi

Chugga chugga chugga goes the 12 bar space age (bachelor pad) blues. In the same way a pot of your granny’s soup comes to be more than the sum of its secretive parts, the far-out music bubbles and squelches and fizzes and farts in all the right places, all gnarly, knotted wood Fender fuzz bass and pigshit-thick hairshakin’ drums. The lost half-sister of the Super Furry’s Guacamole, Stereolab‘s Heavy Denim is a heads down, no nonsense, rumbling, tumbling, Moog boogie….. and utterly fantastic.

StereloabHeavy Denim

Surfing the crest of this noo wave nonsense is an ever-spiralling Marxist call to arms, a 25 year-old lyric that could’ve been written very much for these times….

We’re not here to get bored
We are here to disrupt
To disrupt, to disrupt, to disrupt, to disrupt
To have the time of our lives

….but by the time you get to the kiss-off line you’ll very much realise that Stereolab, uber cool Anglo-French upstarts with a fascination for library music and the more outre elements of Brian Wilson’s back catalogue have ripped off Status Quo’s Caroline, lock, stock and double denimed barrel. Which makes the whole thing even more fantastic, of course.

It’s there in the 12 bar boogie…..and the gear change as the chord drops midway through the verse….and the ‘Come on sweet Caroline/Have the time of our lives‘ high melodic chorus. Status Quo’s Caroline runs through Heavy Denim like the lettering on a stick of Blackpool rock and Stereolab are guilty as charged, m’lud.

Originally released on the b-side of 1994’s Wow And Flutter EP – a ridiculously elusive 10″ to track down, and one that would have you parting with serious cash should you find a copy – Heavy Denim – surely another head-nod to the originators – has since appeared on the Oscillons From The Anti-Sun compilation, bang in the middle of disc 3 and as under-the-radar as the band might’ve hoped for. Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. And everyone knows that the early Quo is where it’s at – not the really early hippy shit Quo, but the heads down, no nonsense mid 70’s three chord boogie Quo.

Francis Rossi! Parfitt Estate! If you’re reading, I’d be contacting a lawyer tout de suite.

I jest, Stereloab. When the world went lad rock and Beatles-bore crazy, you turned your attentions to the kosmische sounds of mid 70’s East Germany, and for that I owe you. Through your music I discovered the other-worldly meanderings of Can and Neu! I was made aware of the high majesty of the High Llamas and I marvelled as you rocked The Word playing a single that had already been deleted by the time I’d ping-ponged my way down to Our Price the very next day. Pretentious and obtuse, you plough a distinctly groovy furrow. Long may you run (and continue to lift from the unlikeliest of sources.)

 

Get This!, Kraut-y, New! Now!

Symmetry Gates

It’s not quite Hallowe’en yet, Brexit has been given some sort of stay of execution and the tapers have yet to be lit at arm’s length on yer roman candles and squibs and firecrackers, yet magazine feature editors employed by the more switched-on music publications will already be compiling their Best Of 2019 lists. While it’s far too early for me to think of such things, a prime contender will surely be Incidental Music by camera-shy Mancunians W.H. Lung.

I’ve written about the band a couple of times before, from their debut offering being whizzed in the direction of Plain Or Pan via email, to the debut album released without fanfare or fuss in April. Back then I was taken by its clattering juxtaposition of LCD Soundsystem mid-paced grooviness and clean, chiming Public Service Broadcasting guitars. These days, it still sounds fantastic…even better, to be truthful. Best heard as a whole, Incidental Music ebbs and flows and dives and soars in the way all great albums do. That it was hatched in Manchester will only cement its status as a future classic. It sits perfectly well in a lineage that includes Unknown Pleasures, Power, Corruption And Lies and Bummed, a trio of electronically-treated albums that rocked at the core. If it fails to make the upper echelons of those much pored-over lists come Christmas time, I’ll eat my original copy of PC&L in protest. You can hold me to that.

In the unassuming way that W.H. Lung do, I arrived home from work today to an email from the band. Would I make a feature of their new track, they wanted to know. Before I had my jacket off, the familiar whooshing, metallic guitars and linear groove were spilling their tiny, tinny guts from my phone. Music on a phone sounds totally rubbish, as you know already, so it was soon booming from the speakers wired up to my PC; a fantastic, skyscraping and soaring metallic clatter totally in keeping with the album material but, more importantly for Lung-watchers, a new track.

Snippets of lyrics sung by a falsetto voice with a social conscience unravelled and revealed themselves over repeated plays in the troughs between the peaks in the propulsive soundtrack. “A body curled around a lamp-post like a cigarette in light rain….Daddy, why is there a man asleep there? Should I wake him?” And was that something too about Alan Turing, WWII code cracker and thorn in the government’s side? Turns out it was.

As singer Joseph E explains, “There’s a statue of Alan Turing in a small park just off canal street in Manchester city centre. The statue has always struck me as odd, the face is quite childishly done and Turing seems to be offering his fruit to passers-by. People often sit with him and take pictures. The park is also regularly attended by the homeless community of Manchester, as visible a presence on the streets now as the statues of the great and famous.”

In a nod to the city’s homelessness problem, the band will donate all profits from the sale of the single to Mustard Tree and Booth Centre, two local charities dedicated to the issue of homelessness in the city.

If you like the track above, use it as your gateway to the wonder of W.H. Lung. Buy the track and help the homeless. Buy the album and help the band. Go and see them on tour in November. And look out for Incidental Music topping those Best Of The Year polls come Christmas time. Amazingly, you read it here first.

 

Tour Dates:
22/11 – Riverside, Newcastle
23/11 – Moles, Bath
24/11 – Patterns, Brighton
25/11 – Rich Mix, London
26/11 – Academy 3, Manchester

Alternative Version, Get This!, Live!

We Are Stoned Immaculate

Much as my alternate weekends are never far from Rugby Park, so too at Plain Or Pan are you never far from a few words on the Trashcan Sinatras. Their rusty yet trusty engine cranked back to life at the end of last week, not only in preparation for a 30 date acoustic tour of the States that, as you read, is a couple of shows to the good, but also with the welcome announcement that a mere 16 years after first releasing it, they’d finally be releasing Weightlifting on vinyl.

Oft-considered the jewel in a particularly sparkly crown, the news of the band’s 4th album’s arrival on the format it truly deserves has Trashcans fans all in a lather. In typically awkward Trashcans’ style, it’s only available at the US gigs or via the band themselves, where postage from America to Scotland will cost almost as much as the record itself and might take as long as November until it lands at your door. Quite which November it can be expected wasn’t specified by the band, but, y’know, very good things come to those who wait. It’s been ordered, of course…

 

Another surprising announcement was the news that a new rarities and outtakes compilation was available. A companion to the long-released (2003) and out of print Zebra Of the Family collection, this new 2nd volume gathers demos and sketches from the Weightlifting and In The Music eras. Generally, a time of chaos and uncertainty in the band’s history, the demos nonetheless reveal the Trashcans’ ability to write majestically in the face of disaster.

The Weightlifting material in particular reveals a band demoing songs that are fully formed and requiring little in the way of tinkering and tweaking come the time to record them properly. Are they superior to the released Weightlifting versions? Of course not, but there’s a raggedy-arsed beauty to tracks viewed in the half light of completeness.

There are a couple of goes at Leave Me Alone, the first featuring slightly altered lyrics and titled, tellingly, Leave Us Alone. Recorded in the middle of bankruptcy claims and enforced studio sales, it’s a well-named, world-weary tune that sighs the collective sighs of a band on the very edge of disintegration.

Yet, somehow, as they always do, the Trashcans pulled through. Finding themselves in Hartford, Massachusetts, they set about writing the bulk of the Weightlifting material. There’s a terrific version of What Women Do To Men, all delicate keyboard stabs and atmospheric up-the-frets bass, where the released version’s slide-into-the-stratosphere six-string trickery is replaced by feral distorted guitar and a bucketful of reverb, the pathos of the lyrics matched by the howling intensity of the band cutting loose behind. God knows exactly what those women did to these men, but it’s a cracker. Magic, even.

Trashcan SinatrasWhat Women Do To Men (Hartford sessions)

Elsewhere, there are spy through the keyhole takes on the wonderfully lush Usually, a track that’ll forever be in most Trashcans fans’ top 5, the plaintive and perfect Country Air and Astronomy, a rarity previously available only as an extra track on the Japanese release of In The Music. A welcome addition, it may well be the first time some long-time fans have heard a studio version of a track that was something of a live favourite back in the day. Sadly, frustratingly, the band has missed a trick here. I’m sure I have on tape a version of the track from many moons ago that featured Frank and not John on vocals. Maybe I’m wrong though. Or, maybe, in typical Trashcans’ fashion, it’s just lost to the ether. A minor quibble, and one that’s instantly forgiven when you hear what’s just around the corner…

Best of all is new track The Dirge.

Normally, you might approach a song with such a title with mild trepidation, expecting funereal, mournful music, a wade through sonic treacle wearing iron boots. This Dirge is anything but.

Trashcan SinatrasThe Dirge (Hartford sessions)

It’s beautiful.

Long, slow and elegant, it creeps up on you with guitarist Paul Livingston’s low key, low register vocals before unravelling into the kind of track you’ve come to expect of Super Furry Animals at their most melodious and Wilson-worshipping best.

There’s chiming electric guitars, tinkling percussion, unexpected chord changes and textures. Wah wahs waft around the chorus while melodies and counter melodies weave their magic. It lifts, it drops, it soars. Is that a brass part playing low in the mix midway through? And a female vocal? It might be. It should be. Normally when bands throw the kitchen sink at songs, the results are a cluttered and unpalatable dog’s dinner. But this? This is stoned immaculate.

From first listen to current, I’ve heard it in my head sung only by Gruff Rhys. Nowt wrong with that of course. If you’re going to write slow burning songs of beauty, who better to channel whilst in the middle of the creative process? Quite how The Dirge never made it out of the studio is beyond me. Weightlifting is a perfect album, but it wouldn’t have been out of place on it in the slightest. It pays to stick with the Trashcans if they’re going to throw out wee gems like this once in a while.

Catch the Trashcans on tour right now. And head over to the shop at trashcansinatras.com to order your copies of Weightlifting and Zebra Of The Family 2.

 

Get This!, Kraut-y

Electra Glide In Blue

Back in the mid 70s I was kept awake by the sound of the machinery that was thumping and bumping together the bypass that, 40 years later, continues to act as an artery between north and south Ayrshire. Despite my shut windows and curtains, I could hear the rumbles of heavy plant, as loud as it might have been had they been digging up our front garden and, if I lifted my head from the pillow, I could see between the gaps and swirls in the curtains a faint orange glow from half a mile in the distance, on the other side of the River Annick, beyond the field where the helicopter would land in a couple of years time in its vain search for the still-missing Sandy Davidson. They were building something  – a new road, my Dad had told me – and it was keeping me awake. The work seemed to last forever and, given the pace of work wherever roadworks and the likes are concerned, it probably did, but I can also remember hearing the distant whoosh of traffic afterwards, when the road was complete and commuters went about their business in a faster and straighter fashion than before. We lived on the outskirts of the town. The sound of speeding traffic was a new thing, but you got used to it fairly quickly.

At the same time, somewhere beyond Ayrshire, far beyond the musical and literal backwaters of the UK, a brave new world was opening up. In West Germany’s Dusseldorf, Kraftwerk was barely 4 years old yet they were pioneering the sort of music that would influence a whole raft of acts in the way The Beatles had a decade previously. Embracing the future with Minimoogs, ARP synths and home-made electronic drums, they set about reconstructing their sound. Their fourth album, 1974’s Autobahn, album was the result. A five track LP that featured the 22 minute title track on the entirety of the first side, it was quite unlike anything that had come before it. Listening to it currently, you can hear where Bowie nicked ideas for the second side of Low. You can ‘feel’ the embryonic glow of Joy Division’s glacial isolation. And you can begin to appreciate the unique importance of it.

Autobahn, the title track, is terrific; futuristic and ground-breaking and happy and sad all at once. Opening with the clunk of a closing door, a revving engine and a parping keyboard, its modus operandi is to replicate the monotony of a long car journey on the motorway.

KraftwerkAutobahn (single eversion)

Elastic bass vies with vocodered vocal. Fahren, Fahren, Fahren auf der Autobahn, it goes, in a knowing, sarcastic nod to the sun, sun , sun, fun, fun, fun Beach Boys. Drive, drive, drive on the autobahn. There’s nothing fun about driving in a straight line for hours on end though, and Kraftwerk knows it. Propulsive, linear and never-ending, the entire 22 minutes (or 3 and a bit above) is driven purposefully by a pulsing electro bass and the same steam-powered drums that Stephen Morris would go on to replicate to great effect a few short years later on Unknown PleasuresShe’s Lost Control. Stop for a moment and consider just how influential Stephen Morris’s band was. Without Kraftwerk, it’s arguable whether Joy Division would’ve sounded quite as they did. No Kraftwerk, no JD, no post-punk discipline as we know it. Autobahn is, then, an important record.

That chiming keyboard motif, melodic yet melancholic, synthesised yet soulful is the tune that quietly worms its way into your head. Driving Kraftwerk forward into a new future where they’d eventually be considered kings, Autobahn endures to this day. Those unexpected airy whooshes – motorcars by Moog – that punctuate the repetitiveness transport me straight back to that bedroom in the mid 70s, the unforgiving sounds of Vauxhall Victors and Ford Cortinas keeping me half awake for hours at a time.

Get This!, Live!

Sun Electric, Outta Sight

It’s common consensus that R.E.M. post Bill Berry were poor, three quarters of the important band they had once been but far less than the sum of those parts on record. After his on-stage collapse from a brain aneurysm, you can’t blame the drummer for wanting to slow things down and call it quits (he’s now a hay farmer in Athens, Georgia), and nor can you blame the other 3 for deciding to continue.

Left-field enough to maintain credibility yet popular enough to sell out stadiums the world over, it would have taken a brave Buck (or Mills or Stipe) to suggest winding things up, but their recorded output from albums 11-15 demonstrates a band limping along like a dog on three legs, one of them cocked and ready to piss their entire legacy up the wall. If you’ve the time and inclination, you could definitely put together a decent compilation of hidden gems from a run of albums that have garnered less plays collectively in this house than Maxinquaye (has anyone listened to Tricky since 1995?) Airport Man from Up, for example, would feature. As would Daysleeper from the same album and perhaps (off the top of my head) Imitation Of Life, Leaving New York, The Lifting, The Great Beyond, Summer Turns To High, Suspicion…. There’s been a few then, but none of those tracks, none of them, would’ve made the cut for 1996’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi, the final R.E.M. album featuring Bill Berry’s essential contributions, the album that has quietly wormed its way into the Top 3 of the band’s back catalogue.

Yer man in the street may well point to the twin globe-straddlers Out Of Time and Automatic For the People, but the more switched on have other ideas. In a three-way tie with Murmur and Life’s Rich Pageant, New Adventures In Hi-Fi jostles with these ears for pole position. Michael “It’s R.E.M. at its peak” Stipe and Mike Mills are of a similar opinion.

It usually takes a good few years for me to decide where an album stands in the pantheon of recorded work we’ve done. This one may be third behind Murmur and Automatic for the People,” said Mills to Mojo at the time of release. He knew. As Oasis et al went about their boorish business of climbing up the charts and dumbing down the nation, R.E.M. were quietly writing and recording the best album of the era, on the hoof and totally as they went.

Wrapped in a fold-out sleeve that features blurry, arty black and white shots of landscapes, lakes and long-lost diners taken by Stipe from the tour bus as they whizz past on the way to the next show on the Monster tour, it’s a terrific collection, a proper ‘road’ album.

Continuing a theme started by previous support act Radiohead, who recorded many of the backing tracks for The Bends in soundchecks and downtime, R.E.M. set about recording everything as they toured. It was a pre-determined move, the band keen to capture spontaneity with the thrill of capturing a one-take beauty fuelling their focus. From dressing room writing sessions in Philly to soundcheck workouts in Phoenix, the whole lot was committed to tape and analysed while the band’s tour bus zig-zagged its way across America. A lot of the lyrics and a few of the song titles – Departure, Leave, Low Desert – reflect the notion of travel and the end result was the longest-running R.E.M. album to date, a road-worn pick ‘n’ mix of Monster-era rock, pastoral pop and cameos from Patti Smith.

The understated opener, the slowly creeping and crawling How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us is a cracker and unlike anything the band had released to date. The 5 note piano refrain and the spy theme guitars carry it, but peer underneath and you’ll spot the shoots of electronica that came into full bloom on the next album, Up.

R.E.M.How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us

Departure carries on spectacularly where Monster left off, grooving on a turned-up-to-11 Les Paul riff reminiscent of Green‘s Pop Song ’89. Mike Mills’ harmonies soar like they haven’t since Out Of Time‘s Belong while Stipe fires off a rapid, alliterative opening line about just arriving in Singapore, San Sebastian, Spain and Salt Lake City’s salt flats after a 26-hour trip. Travel again.

R.E.M.Departure

Elsewhere, Stipe crowbars in obscure references to fuck-ups, fighters, and motorcycle riders and, man!, I could listen to him sing the words ‘motorcycle rider’ all day long. Departure is almost R.E.M. by numbers, but more importantly, it’s one of the last truly fantastic rock tracks the band would release.

The last words should go to the closing track. Electrolite may well be the jewel in the album’s crown. The product of a Phoenix soundcheck, wonky start ‘n all, it’s classic R.E.M., the track to turn to when you need to remind yourself what a great band they once were. Michael Stipe’s lyric, a reflection of his life in L.A. and the people watching he did on Mulholland Drive, sat untouched for two years until the right tune came along. It duly did in Phoenix, with Mike Mills offering up the piano-led track that provided the scaffolding for the finished article.

R.E.M.Electrolite

Stipe’s Martin Sheen, Steve McQueen, Jimmy Dean refrain is the clincher, a lyric harking back to the glory days of Hollywood, an unintentional metaphor as it would turn out, for his own band’s golden era.

Alternative Version, Get This!, Live!, New! Now!

Sunshine From Leith

Ross Wilson has had a colourful life, growing up in difficult surroundings on a Leith housing estate, opting out of school from a very early age – “abandoning my education, I’m embarrassed to say,” – and finding himself in situations that none of us would wish to be in. Despite (or because of) this, he’s quiet, unassuming and completely humble.

His song ‘Grateful’ that opens Blue Rose Code’s 2016 album ‘And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing’ distils perfectly his life so far.

When I wake in the morning now, I try to be thankful,” he sings, in an effortless East Coast croon. “Did you know that I almost died? I’ll never be cool….I’ll never be good looking….I’ll never be rich, but Lord I am grateful.” It’s a simple song; short, direct and enhanced at the very end by a terrific gospel-tinged choir that competes with the Staple Singers for uplifting joyfulness.

Ross’s audience is grateful too. I watched him perform live over two extraordinary evenings in Irvine’s Harbour Arts Centre last weekend. A super-intimate venue that holds just 100 folk, the HAC is possibly our country’s greatest hidden secret. Audiences and performers alike have really taken to its ‘gig-in-your-living-room’ feel. The front row is a decent arm’s stretch from the headliners’ fretboards, the back row closer to the action than the front of all other ‘intimate’ venues and the performers there really respond to the cosiness of it all.

Blue Rose Code is Ross Wilson. Depending on the gig, he can have 3, 4, 5 or indeed, as when he’s fronting his amazing Caledonian Soul project, dozens of musicians on stage with him. He’s been in the HAC before as a 3 piece. On Friday and Saturday his band appeared as a duo, the sum of the parts a fraction of the greatness on display. Playing two different sets, Ross took us by the collective hand and led us through the whole gamut of human emotions. Accompanied by the fabulous Andy Lucas on keys, the duo whipped up a quiet storm of intensity.

Wilson doesn’t so much play his guitar as attack it; pinged harmonics zing across the room while back of the hand percussive beats provide rudimentary four to the floor rhythm. Listening to him play, it’s as if a tap has been turned on, a slow drip at first before gushing and overflowing, unable to be held back. Melodies cascade and tumble from his fingers, complicated arpeggios formed from open-tuned guitars and a handspan as wide as the Clyde. Jazz chords give way to ancient folk melodies that in turn part their way for minor key melancholy. It’s rhythmic, tuneful and breathtaking.

When he sings, it goes up a whole other level. Anyone can sing, but no-one can sing like Ross Wilson. It’s all in the phrasing, y’see. He stretches words beyond all recognition, he st-st-st-stops suddenly, breaking into spontaneous scatting, he barks, yelps and laughs off-mike and he takes these brilliant long run ups from the back stage to the microphone, using the dynamics of an amped-up voice like no-one I’ve ever seen. Any singers in the room over the weekend must’ve gone home with a few pointers on how to get the best from their voice in the live setting.

Behind him, strapped in for the ride of his life, Andy Lucas riffs behind the guitar on his keys; piano one minute, Fender Rhodes the next, forever on a mission to incorporate a lost blue note or a major 7th flourish. It’s a beautiful sound, incredibly nuanced yet totally spontaneous. On Friday the duo sound-checked with recent new track Red Kites. By the time it appeared in the show, it was twice as long, Andy had added a second vocal and Ross was off on some freeform guitar odyssey. For the entire weekend, Lucas never takes his eyes from Wilson’s fretboard. He knows when to cut in, when to take over and when to play softer, allowing the spotlight to shine on Wilson’s unique talent. It’s incredible stuff.

Blue Rose CodeBluebell

The music on offer is superb. Recorded, it’s quite the thing, the perfect soundtrack for a Saturday night in or a Sunday morning sudoku. In the live setting though, the songs soar, a scorching cross-pollination of Chet Baker’s stoned jazz, the voodoo folk-blues of John Martyn and the meandering twilight ambience of the Blue Nile. You really should investigate if these reference points are your kinda thing. It’s led to Ross being offered tours of Canada, the west coast of America and Australia. With 4 studio albums to his name alongside a handful of live albums and non-album EP releases, Ross Wilson has quietly built a mightily impressive back catalogue. A cottage industry with no financial help from anyone other than his supporters, it deserves a wider audience and greater recognition. He’s easily one of Scotland’s greatest talents, a real hidden gem of a songwriter and a peerless performer.

All photographs courtesy of Chris Colvin

Get This!, New! Now!

Berry Good

Known to his mum as Alex Stephens, Strawberry Guy is one quarter of The Orielles and one wholly great artist in his own right.

Part of a thriving scene that until now I’d been totally oblivious to, his first demo release last year – demo, note – has clocked almost 2 million hits on YouTube to date.

Now signed to the excellent Melodic Records, home of the pulsating WH Lung and the soon-to-be ubiquitous Working Men’s Club, Strawberry Guy has taken his passion for analogue synths and melodies blown in on a summer breeze and created one of the stand-out tracks of the year.

Mrs Magic is one of 6 tracks on his debut release, the mini LP? maxi EP? Taking My Time To Be. If the released-to-stream track above is anything to go by, it looks like being an essential purchase. Bringing to mind another side project with endless possibilities, it sounds not unlike something from Super Furry Animals’ Cian Ciaran’s long-lost Outside In album. There, keys and soft rock vocals make space for late-era Beach Boys harmonies and gossamer-thin melodies.

Floating along on a woozy bed of 21st century psychedelia, Mrs Magic continues on a similar path. Cocooned in cotton wool and sung in an effortless amalgamation of Nilsson and Mac DeMarco, its minor key piano and liquid mercury airy synths would find it sitting happily alongside your Air and Beach House and Tame Impala and Lightships records. It’s that good. And remarkably, recorded in his bedroom and self-produced, it hints at even greater things to come.

Here’s that YouTube video that’s whipped up quite the quiet storm amongst the streamers and playlisters in the underground.

Strawberry Guy‘s Taking My Time To Be can be pre-ordered direct from Melodic Records, here. Look out for tour dates in the future….and the inevitable clash when he and his parent band The Orielles clash over headline rights at next year’s summer festivals.

Get This!, Gone but not forgotten

Winging It

Like many folk in this part of the world, I made it along to Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum to see the Linda McCartney photography exhibition.

It’s an interesting curation loosely split into three sections; family, music and nature. It’s the music related shots that brought me there and they did not disappoint. Alongside the numerous Beatles and McCartney images – there’s enough previously unseen stuff to sate the mind of the most anal of Beatles bores – there are fantastic portraits of Hendrix, Jim Morrison, The Yardbirds, the Stones…. all the main players of the era.

A strict ‘No Photography’ notice meant that my own shots were taken on the hoof, with one eye over my shoulder, sweaty fingers trying to shoot silently and swiftly. Like a real action snapper, I suppose.

A combination of being well-connected and being in the right place at the right time, Linda shot much of the counterculture in the States, landing the role of in-house photographer at the Fillmore East in New York before blagging a job in London to photograph the Sgt Pepper’s press launch. Famously self-taught, she aligned herself to the greats of 60s music – Lennon, McCartney and Dylan, “none of whom could read music….it’s the innocence that’s important to them,” by saying that her lack of training, her lack of knowledge on what was ‘right’, helped her capture the perfect shot.

Her photographs are generally fantastic. One such shot was of Beatles fans taken from the passenger side of the car as it sped out of Abbey Road. There’s another, possibly from the same day, of Paul reflected in the rear view mirror, a London bus coming in the opposite direction. Much of it is rapid fire, in the moment stuff and as a result, far more interesting than a carefully-planned photo session.

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If ever the phrase ‘winging it’ applied to anyone, it was to Linda McCartney. And once ensconced in Paul’s band, she took it to a whole new level. Paul wasn’t about to take heed of what anyone thought though. He trusted Linda with keyboard duties and occasional vocals and she gamely met the challenge. After heavy criticism of his first two albums, Paul assembled a band that he could write with and take on the road – get back to where he once belonged, ‘n all that. The result was Wings and Wild Life, an odd album in many ways, but one which has enough McCartney magic that it deserves reappraisal.

You’ll need to wait until side 2 before hitting the good stuff, mind you. There’s a theory that the running order for Wild Life album is quite deliberate, that it reflects the ebbing and flowing of a just put-together band getting to grips with one another’s quirks and foibles, seeing what one another is capable of before knuckling down to the serious stuff on the second side.

Side 1 kicks off with a throwaway one-two, a leather lunged McCartney shouting “Take it Tony!” before leading his new bandmates through Mumbo (as in mumbo jumbo no doubt, on account of the nonsense words and sounds McCartney screams with feeling throughout); four minutes of bad boy boogie; groovy rockin’ guitar, occasional “oooh!” backing vocals and Hammond interludes, all underpinned by pounding piano and McCartney’s driving bass. It’s immediately followed by the shuffling Bip Bop, another mainly instrumental track where the band lay down a groove and take it as far is can go. Which isn’t all that far at all. McCartney was embarrassed by the finished results, claiming it to be the worst song he’d ever written. The groove continues though with a quirky cover of Mickey & Sylvia’s Love Is Strange. Reimagined as skifflish tropical lite-reggae, Paul duets with Linda, mirroring the Everly Brothers’ version that he would have been familiar with.

Warm-up out the way, the band begin to knuckle down to the good stuff. The title track closes side 1, a lilting, waltzing, slow-burner of a song, all descending chords and ahead of their time eco-friendly lyrics. McCartney slides effortlessly into that Little Richard impression he’d worked on on all those early Beatles records as Linda and Denny Laine provide the harmonies in the chorus. Signs of promise then for the rest of the album.

Side 2 opener Some People Never Know may well be my favourite solo McCartney track.

WingsSome People Never Know

It’s got all the essential McCartney ingredients; great chord progression, compressed drums, loose and funky acoustic guitar playing – those subtle string bends are what sets him apart – and a melody that apparently tumbled from the gods. A love song to Linda, it’s a critic-bashing fuck you to the haters who still can’t get over the fact Paul split The Beatles and chose instead to make records with his wife.

No one else will ever see 

How much faith you have in me

Only fools would disagree that it’s so

Some people never know

It’s simple stuff. Enhanced by piano, occasional sleigh-bell and percussive handclaps it’s the sort of track that would’ve slotted effortlessly onto one of those late era Beatles albums. There’s even a weeping slide guitar part that George could’ve played beautifully straight off of the fretboard and out into the ether. Those handclaps and sleigh-bells towards the end bring to mind a busker’s version of Hello Goodbye‘s “He-llo, hey hello-ah!” outro. McCartney’s current touring band could do a really great version of it, although I’m not sure if Paul’s voice could handle the highs and lows of the scales he goes through. If you discover one McCartney back catalogue gem this week, make it Some People Never Know. I guarantee you’ll play it to death.

If Paul McCartney had a signature move during those solo years it was that he’d revisit a track towards the end of the album (Ram/Ram On etc) and on Wild Life, a short mid side reprise of Bip Bop, this time played as a downhome White Album 12 string acoustic instrumental gives way to Tomorrow, another cracker packed full of Beatlish harmonies, unexpected chord changes and the sort of sparkling guitar that last turned up on Abbey Road. Indeed, it wouldn’t sound out of place on that album at all.

The side concludes with the downbeat but beautiful Dear Friend, a piano ballad that addresses his relationship with John Lennon. On Ram, Too Many People hinted at Yoko’s unwanted involvement in all things Beatles. Lennon replied with the biting How Do You Sleep (‘the only thing you done was yesterday, and since you’re gone you’re just another day‘) and the pair tittle-tattled back and forth. Dear Friend was written during the Ram sessions and had he chose to include it on that album, it may have had a different effect on the acerbic Lennon. As it was, by the time of Wild Life, enough public sparring had gone on for McCartney to release the heartfelt tribute to his old pal and former band mate. It’s stark, skeletal and carried by a sympathetic string section as far removed from Spector’s disastrous Long And Winding Road score as possible. A fine closer to a fine album. Get on that there Spotify or whatever and pleasantly surprise yourself. And then get yourself along to Kelvingrove at some point if you can. The exhibition runs until the middle of January next year. No excuses, really.