Album Review – Siouxsie and the Banshees (re-issues)

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Above, Siouxsie Sioux with producer John Cale, circa 1994.

Siouxsie and the Banshees -’Through The Looking Glass’/'Peepshow’/'Superstition’/'The Rapture’ (Polydor)

These four re-issues mark the final four Siouxsie and the Banshees albums (eighth, ninth, tenth and eleventh studio albums, if you’re counting). Released between 1987 and 1995, they came more than a decade after what was intended to be a one-off performance at the 100 Club in 1976. (Their line-up that night included Sid Vicious on drums and future Ant Marco Pirroni on guitar.) Bassist Steve Severin and Siouxsie Sioux would be the only constant members during the band’s lifetime, though drummer Budgie joined the group permanently in late 1979. They would become one of the most vital groups of the next few decades.

Through The Looking Glass was an album of cover versions released in 1987, with the band paying tribute to but also arranging the songs within in a striking way, that means that this album (coincidentally, one of the first records I ever owned, aged ten) has dated extremely well. Sioux and Severin had met at a Roxy Music concert in the mid-seventies, and so it’s fitting that Roxy’s ‘Sea Breezes’ appears here. The big hit was their cover of Dylan’s ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’ which had been popularised by Julie Driscoll. Perhaps most striking, even now, are the arrangements of Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’, with its New Orleans’ Jazz feel, and the brass added to their interpretation of Iggy Pop’s ‘The Passenger’ which took the song to some place entirely different. Amongst the bonus tracks included here are a version of The Modern Lovers’ ‘She Cracked (Which makes you wonder what other songs may have been recorded for the project) and the longtime missing in action single ‘From The Edge Of The World’ which was released before the band started work on their next album. I do have fond memories of my Parents banging on the wall early one morning when I first put the version of ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us’ rather too loudly. (****)

The following year saw the release of Peepshow. The line-up had changed again, with John Valentine Carruthers being replaced by guitarist Jon Klein and the addition of multi-instrumentalist Martin McCarrick, who had played on Through The Looking Glass, and would later join Therapy?. For my money, this is actually the finest album that the Banshees ever released. Kicking off with the top twenty single ‘Peek-A-Boo’ the album gives free reign to utterly brilliant songs and arrangements which show that ten years after their first single and album, the band were firing on all cylinders. If the aim of Through The Looking Glass had been to rejuvenate them, then it more than succeeded. As well as the two other singles taken from the album ‘The Killing Jar’ and ‘The Last Beat Of My Heart’ the album featured album tracks amongst the finest of their career, including ‘Scarecrow’ ‘Ornaments Of Gold’ and ‘Scarecrow.’ Amongst the b-sides here is a beautiful version of ‘Last Beat Of My Heart’ recorded at the inaugural Lollapalooza tour in 1991. If you only own one Siouxsie and the Banshees studio album (Which is a pretty odd decision to make in my book), it really should be this one. (*****)

1991′s Superstition again opens with one of the band’s best known singles ‘Kiss Them For Me.’ It was a proper chart hit in both the US and UK, and featured a then unknown Tabla player named Talvin Singh. It was a great start to the album, but what dates this album – one of the lesser-rated albums in the Banshees canon, is the production work of Stephen Hague. Hague had worked with the likes of the Pet Shop Boys and New Order and so whilst able to bring leftfield acts to daytime radio, it really doesn’t seem to work well over the course of an entire album. That said, Sioux’s voice still sounded as good as ever, the line-up had held strong for another album, and the songs remain strong. It just feels a little more muted than a Siouxsie and the Banshees album really should. This re-issue features ‘Face To Face’ as one of the bonus tracks, yet another UK Top 40 single, which featured on the soundtrack to Tim Burton’s Batman Returns at Burton’s personal request. (***1/2).

The band’s final album, The Rapture was released in 1995. Mostly produced by the band, with production by John Cale on a handful of tracks it showed the band, nearly twenty years since their inception were still able to combine the ability to experiment with writing excellent songs. Though ‘O Baby’ sounds most unlike a Banshees song as anyone knew them, they’d proved by this time that they were still capable of surprising and challenging people with whatever it was they thought the Banshees were supposed to sound like. It’s not typical of the album as a whole, which features sublime title track clocking in at over eleven minutes long. Whilst it seems unlikely that the band conceived it as their swansong, it was not a bad place to finish a career that had begun almost by accident nearly twenty years previously. (****)

Within a few months, the band called it a day. They were dropped by Polydor who they’d been signed to the entirety of their career, and ex-Psychedelic Furs guitarist Knox Chandler replaced Jon Klein for the tour. Their split in 1996 coincided with the Sex Pistols announcing they were reforming. Whether this was chance or design, the Banshees gave the impression that they’d done it all on their own term from start to finish. Even their brief reformation tour in 2002 was not a rehash of the greatest hits but rather, the opportunity to revisit what they chose. Sioux remains one of the most strikingly individual performers ever, influencing artists as diverse as Morrissey, Tricky, PJ Harvey and Ana Matronic. There are those who would tell you that the period covered by these re-issues was a time when the band had long ceased to be relevant.

Ignore them. One listen to each of these re-issues (though I sincerely hope you’ll take many more) shows just how compelling Siouxsie and the Banshees remained from start to finish.

Through The Looking Glass, Peepshow, Superstition and The Rapture are re-issued by Polydor/UMC on October 27.

The performance that truly got me into the band as a ten year old – Top Of The Pops, January 1987.

18 months later, the band (with revised line-up) are back on Top Of The Pops, for a performance of ‘Peek-A-Boo’ that also mixes in the video (this wasn’t actually uncommon).

Mid 1991, the band appear on Top Of The Pops with a young Talvin Singh for yet another hit with ‘Kiss Them For Me.’

Their final top 40 hit ‘O Baby.’ This video is quite typical of what ‘Alternative’ music videos looked like circa 1995…

Album Review – Madness (re-issue)

Madness One Step Beyond

Madness -’One Step Beyond.’ (Salvo)

‘Hey You! Don’t Watch That Watch This!’

1979 is a serious contender for the greatest year in pop music EVER.

Frankly, it had to be. The world was going to hell in a handbasket. What with Russian invasions, hijackings, bombings, the winter of discontent and then the election of the Thatcher government in Britain, the rise of the far right… it was not a good time to be alive (thankfully, much of this bypassed me as a three year old. Others were not so lucky).

The soundtrack however was utterly fantastic. And Madness’ debut was part of the brilliance of that year (the list of great records for that year really is too long, but to single out three others, let’s say Talking Heads, Marianne Faithfull and PIL). Formed in London in 1976, the band’s debut kicks off with the fantastic sound of the call to arms that is the title track, with that quote, and a number of singles that hyave truly stood the test of time, such as their debut ‘The Prince’ (re-recorded here, it had originally appeared on The Specials’ 2-Tone label, and the band saw themselves in competition with Coventry’s finest), ‘Night Boat To Cairo’ and ‘My Girl.’ The latter truly ranks only behind Squeeze’s ‘Up the Junction’ as contender for ultimate British Bittersweet Lovesong.

It’s not just the singles that make the album such an essential piece of British pop. Those who saw them as being heirs to The Kinks were right on the money – with the creepy protagonist of ‘Mummy’s Boy’ with seriously impure thoughts or the newspaper with a penchant for stealing lingerie ‘In The Middle Of the Night.’

The reality is that this is a classic debut album, which holds its own among the list of the best ever debuts, and was a fantastic introduction to the band. Interestingly, it was the first time that producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley worked together (they would later work with Morrissey, Elvis Costello and the great lost Scottish band Digs Die In Hot Cars). The second part of the first disc also features a rehearsal tape from 1979 before the band were signed. Not surprisingly, sound quality is uh, ‘variable’ but it’s a fascinating document of how the band evolved. Added to the package is a DVD with music videos, live performances from The Old Grey Whistle Test and Top Of The Pops, and the 2000 BBC documentary Young Guns.

All in all, a great debt album and a re-issue package that should serve as a reminder for how these projects should be approached.

****1/2

One Step Beyond is re-released by Salvo on October 13.

Album Review – Hozier

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Hozier -’Hozier.’ (Rubyworks/Island)

Oh, great. Another week, another singer-songwriter. Do we really need this one as well?

…Actually, in the case of the debut album from Ireland’s Andrew Hozier-Byrne, we most definitely do. His debut album is a warm, fantastic mix of folk, blues and gospel, a fantastic singing voice and a lyricist who knows how to use language. In a landscape dripping with cut-price David Grays and sub-James Blunts, here is someone who draws on his influences – and the highest praise I can offer is that he is the true successor to Van Morrison.

The album opens with the single ‘Take Me To Church’ that was a hit last year in Ireland, and has proved a slow-burning hit on the other side of the Irish Sea, too. Dealing with his views of the Catholic Church in Ireland (though it’s telling that when Sinead O’Connor dared to speak up she was vilified) we hear:

“If the heavens ever did speak
She’s the last true mouthpiece
Every Sunday’s getting more bleak
A fresh poison each week…

Take me to church
I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies
I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife.”

Each successive play of the song reveals more of his talents, yet it’s far from being the only excellent song on this LP. ‘In Eden’ another track that’s been a single, we get his guitar playing, a gospel choir and the feel of classic sixties soul:

“Honey you’re familiar like my mirror years ago
Idealism sits prison, chivalry fell on it’s sword
Innocence died screaming, honey ask me I should know
I slithered here from Eden just to sit outside your door.”

The duet with fellow Irish singer Karen Cowley ‘In A Week’ is starkly simple in its delivery and utterly beautiful. I have no idea whether the hipsters will permit Hozier to be accepted as cool or not. Frankly, I couldn’t care. If they can’t see the strength of this record, it’s their loss.

****

Hozier is out now on Rubyworks/Island

Album Review – Vashti Bunyan

Vashti Bunyan -’Heartleap.’ (FatCat)

The story of how Vashti Bunyan went from Andrew Loog Oldham protegee to cult folkie to highly regarded singer has been told many times. But it’s worth reflecting that without the substance of the music to back it up – or indeed that voice – the rebirth that saw a mere thirty five years between her debut and sophomore albums would not have happened.

This time round, it’s just been nine years since Lookaftering. Now nearly seventy, the voice is still a thing of wonder in itself, as seemingly untouched by the years as many artists younger than hers find themselves struggling to keep theirs. It’s delicate, angelic and yet not fragile. Arguably she sounds even better than on the sides she cut in the sixties, now nearly fifty years ago (and gathered on the compilation Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind). And on tracks as opener ‘Across The Water’ or ‘Mother’ it’s the deceptive simplicity of the arrangements that highlight her talent, not seeking to smother or bolster, but simply to show the beauty of these songs.

There may be those who argue that this is not a wildly different album to her previous two. This is to miss the point spectacularly. It’s a continuation of her musical journey. And with the likes of Leonard Cohen showing that you can still be recording in your eighties, let us hope that Vashti Bunyan will see fit to share more music with us. In her own time…

****

Heartleap is out now on Fat Cat.

Album Review – We Were Promised Jetpacks

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We Were Promised Jetpacks -’Unravelling.’ (Fat Cat)

Often linked to both Frightened Rabbit and The Twilight Sad (they’re all Scottish, at one time shared the same label and all three toured the US together many moons ago), We Were Promised Jetpacks have long ploghed their own furrow. It’s that of a gorgeously moody indie rock, with a beautiful sadness at its core, which also nods to other Scottish indie acts like Idlewild, Biffy Clyro (the Beggars Banquet years) and Mogwai. Following on from their first two albums, These Four Walls and In The Pit Of The Stomach, they’ve added a fifth member, multi-instrumentalist Stuart McGachan.

And having listened to this album several times, it’s clear that their newest member has wasted no time in making his presence felt. There’s piano and keyboards here now, not drowning out the guitars but adding a newer, exciting atmosphere to the mix. This was clear from the first track to do the rounds, album opener ‘Safety In Numbers’ but also on ‘Night Terror’ and ‘Peace Sign’ both of them amongst the highlights on this album.

Of course they’ve always been guitar-driven too, and there’s an exciting intensity that’s still at work here. This is a much more rewarding and worthwhile listen than much of the run of the mill indie guitar rock topping the charts and getting serious column inches of late. Far from unravelling, Jetpacks’ third album is their most accomplished yet. If there’s any justice, this will be the album that sees them leap into mainstream acceptance.

****

Unravelling is out on Fat Cat on October 6.

Album Review – The Vaselines

Vaselines – ‘V For Vaselines.’ (Rosary Music)

Like a lot of people, I discovered the Vaselines through Nirvana. Whilst it would have been great to think that people would have come to the Vaselines’ music anyway, the connection certainly did them no harm. Having broken up at the end of the eighties with one album and two EPS to their name, they started performing together again in the last decade and both as a support band and headliner. Their second album together as The Vaselines and first in two decades Sex With An X was them showing that they could still most definitely cut it.

So, four years on, can The Vaselines still cut it? Well…yes…but several listens in this is not as strong as their other material. It’s not to say that it’s a weak or average album, it’s good and solid enough, just not as spectacular as their other records. Too much of this album just feels a bit like a band influenced by The Vaselines.

There are, however, some excellent moments here which are worth checking out. Album opener and single ‘High Tide Low Tide’ provides an excellent entrance to the LP, ‘Single Spies’ is softer and country-inflected and ‘Earth Is Speeding’ sees them chanelling the still on hiatus* Sonic Youth.

Still worth hearing, though.

***

V For Vaselines is out now on Rosary Music.

*I’m kidding myself, aren’t I?

Does there have to be a reason?

Well, yes, it’s the 1st of October, so two songs with the title, erm ‘October.’

First up, A-ha. Their Scoundrel Days was one of the first albums I ever owned, given to me as tenth birthday present, on cassette. Rather like The Bangles’ Different Light, it’s an album that reminds me of being ten and getting into music and buying it. Both are albums I eventually bought on vinyl.

Next: U2. It’s so easy to slag U2 off, but they made some great records. I’ve always had a soft spot for October the album, even though it seems to be way down on the list of most people’s favourite U2 albums. This, the title track is a beautiful piece of music – and it should come as no surprise on hearing this that they went on to work with Brian Eno many times.

Meanwhile, my review of the Alt-J album can be found over at God Is In The TV

New single and video from The Last Battle

Long time favourites The Last Battle release the latest single from their stunning sophomore album Lay your Burden Down. It’s the album’s opener ‘None Of That’ which is backed with another version and a cover of Joe Esposito’s ‘You’re The Best’ from The Karate Kid. It’s out tomorrow and you can stream the tracks above and buy it from tomorrow.

There’s also a rather fine video for the song, featuring Scott and Caroline:

Album Review – Marianne Faithfull

Marianne Faithfull

Marianne Faithfull -’Give My Love To London.’ (Dramatico)

This year marks fifty years since the 17-year old Marianne Faithfull was spotted at a party by Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham and a mere three months later found herself having a hit with a cover of the Stones’ ‘As Tears Go By.’ The ups and downs and fictionalisations of the following fifty years have been well-documented, but it’s not just the fact that she’s had an impressive biography, she’s released some damn fine records, too.

Unless you’re one of those cynics constantly snarling ‘so what?’ at absolutely bloody everything, the list of collaborators involved with the making of her twentieth studio album is nothing less than staggering, even before you’ve heard a note of the music. Lyrical collaborators include Nick Cave, Roger Waters, Steve Earle, and Anna Calvi, while musical contributors include Portishead’s Adrian Utley, Brian Eno, Ed Harcourt, and the Bad Seeds’ Warren Ellis and Jim Sclavunos.

Of course, the best ingredients in the world won’t necessarily add up to make a fine meal if it’s done badly. The good news is that the main star here is Ms Faithfull herself and this is a fine, fine album. If you’ve ever heard ‘Why D’Ya Do It?’ from her undisputed masterpiece, 1979′s Broken English, you know that she can do anger – and that’s shown here again on ‘Sparrows Will Sing’ and ‘Mother Wolf’ with her railing against the state of the world. The title track is ambiguous – ‘paradise to hell’ with a love of the city and yet it’s a city lit by the light of the moon and riot fire.

The involvement of no less than three of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds here casts a spell over the album, and to these ears, the finest tracks are the beautiful ‘Deep Water’ which they co-wrote and Cave’s song ‘Late Victorian Holocaust’ which he wrote for her. And the final, closing cover of ‘I Get Along Without you Very Well’ is simply heartbreaking (I can’t find any record of her having recorded ‘If You Go Away (Ne Me Quitte Pas)’ but I’d love to hear her do it).

And the mark of any fine album is the fact that a) I started to listen to it again as soon as I had finished playing it and b) even though I was sent this, I’d be happy to spend my own money on this album.

****

Give My Love To London is released by Dramatico on September 29.

Album Review – Aphex Twin

Aphex

Aphex Twin – ‘Syro’ (Warp)

This record has been a long time coming, to say the least. Apart from a series of 12″ singles nearly ten years ago, the last album from Richard D. James was 2001′s Drukqs. Such is the mystique and legend surrounding the man, that there has been much excitement over the past few months with every little tease across the internet picked up and analysed by fans. The fact that as I write this album is heading for the the album top three should come as no surprise, rather a reflection of the quality and the legend.

Album opener ‘minipops 67 [120.2][source field mix]‘was the first track to do the rounds. It was unmistakeably Aphex Twin, not as mental as ‘Come To Daddy’ or as draw-dropping as ‘Windowlicker’ but a) reassuring to have him back and b) a sign that his muse hadn’t deserted him. It wasn’t particularly groundbreaking either – but looking at the work he has done over the last few decades, he’s in the fortunate position of being able to do whatever he likes and know that people will pick up on it.

What strikes me on listening to the album is that how James has always worked in so many fields of dance. He’s more than dipped his toe into ambient, but also experimented with acid house, techno and drum’n'bass. What makes Syro such an exciting listen is the way that he takes on board what appears to be almost forty years of dance, often working in a pretty leftfield milieu – yet at the same time , for the most part, a balanced mix of sunsettling and listenable. Hell, I’m sure there’s even a hint of disco at times.

And yet, album closer evokes Drukqs‘ ‘Avril 14′ with its Satie meets Eno soundscape. It’s a sign that one of the few things we can expect from him is the unexpected. While this album may not be as much of a OhmyGodwhatthebloodyfuckwasthat as Drukqs was, it’s still a welcome return and for those who have not encountered his work before (tut tut), perhaps a good place to start.

****

Syro is out now on Warp.