Category Archives: Album Reviews

Andy Frasco & The UN: Happy Bastards – album review

Album Cover
Andy Frasco & The UN

Happy Bastards (Ruf Records)

If I was organising a party and I wanted to make it a really good party I’d get Andy Frasco & The UN round to play a few tunes. I’m not sure that they’d all fit in my living room, (alongside core members Andrew Frasco (lead vocals & keys), Shawn Eckels (guitar & vocals), Ernie Chang (sax), Andee Avila (drums) and Supaman (bass), they have a large and eclectic rotating membership) but I’d put a few in the kitchen maybe and a couple on the stairs and people could just dance round them.

That’s what they are really, a fabulous band for dancing round.

Frasco’s style is a mixture of dirty blues and retro funk and soul, all given a modern makeover with plenty of horn thrown in. That’s an essential part of the mix. It’s almost impossible to imagine Andy Frasco and the UN without horn. Their music is all about happiness, sex, good times, sex, love, and being a free spirit. And horn.

And if at this point I’m giving you the impression that this album is the product of a one track mind, well let’s settle on two track. Because there’s a lot of great music in there as well. And music and lasciviousness have a long and honourable shared history. Frasco’s music is fun music. And who doesn’t like fun? Frasco calls it an adrenalin shot of pure escapism.

“We want people to be happy,” is his musical mission statement. “To smile at their faults, love life for what it is, and follow the beat of their own drum. We’re just trying to throw a party and get people to turn off their phones, leave their stress and complications at the door, live in the moment and just celebrate life for a few hours. If by the end of the night I see 90 per cent of the room laughing and smiling, then I know I did my job.”

Andy Travelling Light!

It’s also music that reconnects with that era before rock and soul split apart, when musicians of all races could share a stage without anyone even commenting. Frasco cites Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye, Buddy Guy, The Band, Samantha Fish and Houndmouth as blues players who inspire him and while it’s an unusual list, it’s a good one. This week of all weeks maybe we should add Prince and Beyonce in there too, people who can transcend artistic and cultural barriers as if they weren’t there, making music that speaks to everyone.

The band have spent the past few years living in vans and playing 250+ shows a year and according to Frasco this is the first of their CDs to really capture their unique live style. (Which is not to say that the others are bad by any means – check out 2007’s Half A Man for confirmation).

Album opener, Tie You Up, kicks off with a burst of deeply funky, loping bass that can’t help reminding you of Amy Winehouse (maybe she should be in that list too) and it’s almost a surprise when Frasco’s vocal kicks in rather than hers, but he’s got that same sly, knowing vocal thing going on, and the track builds into a great little rocker as does the second track You’re The Kind Of Crazy That I Like, a tribute to the manifold joys of being involved with mad women.

The scene once set the album keeps up a breakneck pace with tracks that range from 1970s slap bass funk on Doin’ It, evocations of Motown’s golden age on the snappily titled Blame It On the Pussy (seewhat they did there?), the Zutonesque (neologism alert) Good Ride, a madcap blues stomp on the superb Mature As Fuck, some whistling reggae on Here’s To Letting You Down and even a smutty Hawaiian torch ballad called Let’s Get Down To Business.

It’s certainly an album that lets the band show their versatility and there isn’t a track on there that would make you even think about skipping it. A fine thing for keeping in the CD player in the car, although probably not child friendly enough for the school run – parental advisory and all that you know.

~

Andy Frasco & The UN: Website | Facebook | Twitter

Marcella Detroit: Gray Matterz – album review

MI0003944606

Marcella Detroit
Gray Matterz (Make Zee Records)
Available April 22nd 2016

To many of us she’s best known as the edgy half of Shakepear’s Sister but Marcella Detroit has a enjoyed a distinguished career, working with the likes of Eric Clapton and Elton John and producing a series of fine soul/pop albums since the break up of the bardic sorority, including 1996’s Feeler which is my favourite of her works under the Detroit moniker.

She has also had success as a blues singer with the Marcy Levy Band (that’s her birth name) and been a star of reality TV. She’s a fine guitarist who is clearly happy in many genres but it’s the extraordinary quality of her voice, strong yet fragile, soaring but always threatening to break with emotion that marks her out as something really special and she’s at her best when she allows herself the freedom to really lean into the vocal and showcase her remarkable range and power.

Detroit’s new album is Gray Matterz and it’s a step back from the blues towards classic 80’s style synth pop, recorded by Detroit in her home studio and featuring the lady herself on vocals, computers and real instruments too, and remixed by Paul Drew of DWB Music. In a nutshell it’s electro dance music with proper songs and it’s an album which, given the current resurgence in interest in 80s music and if it gets enough traction, could easily generate some buzz on the retro club scene.

Turn Up The Volume On The Positive may not be the catchiest title ever but with its rapped verses and vocoded chorus, (and electronic hand claps – everbody say yay for electronic hndclaps), it could be a real dance floor filler. Home, an a uptempo tribute to domesticity is another dancer as is Not Just A Number which has the irresisible beat of an piece of early SAW HiNRG.
Lighthouse, a song about depression and being there for people, is the track which gives Detroit’s voice it’s best workout, and What’s The Time In Tokyo is another which gives her the opportunity to show how good she sounds. According to interviews Detroit herself is of the opinion that her voice has improved and got stronger over the last several years, and on this showing no-one is going to argue.

The first single from the album is Drag Queen – which has already proved to be a club favourite, so here it is ….

~

Marcella Detroit: Website | Facebook | Twitter

Bill Callahan: Dream River – album review

Bill Callahan: Dream River (Drag City)
CD/LP/DL
Available now

Dream River, the new album from Bill Callahan, the artist formerly known as Smog, is a fascinating patchwork of whispers of joy, intimations of mortality and rumours of trouble scattered through eight spare, wistful, meditative songs that sometimes sound more like notes for future works read into a voice recorder than completed compositions. idp listens to a fine new work from one of the best song writers in the world today.

All the songs on Dream River are delivered in Callahan’s wise young uncle baritone, conversational almost, seldom straying close to anything that would usually be considered singing. Daniel Durchholz famously described Tom Wait’s voice as sounding “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.” Bill Callahan‘s voice doesn’t sound as thoroughly abused as Waits’ but it does sound as though it’s been polished nicely and then forgotten about and left in the garden for a few nights.

Although it’s not as upbeat and musically liberated as some of its predecessors the album features some nice splashes of violin, accordion, flute and guitar, (sometimes evoking memories of Mitchell and Pastorius) but they’re just for colour; this is very much a solo vocal album with incidental music. The songs are often fragmentary and opaque and at times it feels almost like listening in on private thoughts spoken accidentally aloud. When applied to song writing the adjective ‘personal’ is often code for ‘not the artist’s best work’ but these are songs where the personal nature of the lyric is what raises them above the mundane and into the realm of the exceptional. It’s tempting to label them poetry but that’s too glib. The truth is that these are songs – just very complex and subtle songs that take a lot of teasing apart.

The whole album is heavy with a restrained emotion (restraint is one of the things Callahan excels at) that sounds at first like guilt or grief but gradually reveals itself to be passion. Despite the veneer of calm these are deeply carnal songs.

“All I really want to do is make love to you

In the fertile dirt with a careless mind”

…. he sings on Spring which feels like the centre piece of the album. Spring is not a good time of the year – Callahan is with Elliott on this one – breeding lilacs and looking like death warmed over.

So constantly present is carnality, or the promise of carnality, or the recollection of carnality this may well be Callahan’s refractory period album. A large measure of transient tristesse colours the lyrics – these are not songs of the sadness of a man who cannot find anyone to love, rather they are the songs of a man who having found a transcendent other is consumed with the fear of their loss or of his own failure to match up. One sometimes hears of suicides who take their lives because they are so happy they cannot bear the thought that anything might change. This album is probably how they feel. It can be hard work always seeing the skull beneath the skin.

On Javelin Unlanding he says of a sleeping lover –

“You looked so peaceful you scared me.

Don’t die just yet

And leave me alone on this journey.”

And Ride My Arrow opens with the straightforward – “I don’t ever want to die.”

These are the songs of a man who knows that happiness is not permanent, that good things come to an end, loves or lovers die, Summer turns to Autumn. In The Summer Painter a hurricane descends suddenly on a coastal town, marking the end of an idyll. Callahan is frequently an acute observer of the natural world and here he summons what is probably the album’s best line –

“The rain ripped the lips of the mouth of the bay.”

Certain motifs recur throughout. The weather, wind especially, silence, alcohol served in bars, travel. Flying is ever present. It’s a frequent subject for Callahan, but on this album it’s not just birds that fly. On Small Plane a pilot muses on his own good fortune to be flying home with his sleeping wife beside him, navigating without instruments and following the course of the river. Later, on Ride My Arrow an eagle uses the same river as it’s own map, while beavers build dams and seagulls fly.

It’s an album that repays frequent listening to get the best from the layers of imagery and the stories it has to tell. Album opener The Sing could easily be mistaken for a generic drinking song, narrated by an intermittently conscious hotel bar customer –

“The only words I’ve said today are beer and thank you.

Beer.

Thank you.

Beer.

Thank you.”

And yet the speaker feels that he is somehow “Giving praise in a quiet way” as a storm brews outside and the wind arrives back to ‘ping’ the fabric of the building. No explanation of the drinker’s decision to drink themselves in to oblivion other than a cryptic

“Mortal joy can be that way.”

The songs are so effortless it is easy to overlook the subtlety of their construction. There can’t be many rhyme patterns that have never been used before in popular song but the following is probably unique –

“The silence returns, high as scaffolding,

Until the wind comes back looking for something to ping,

All we’re looking for is a body. Or the way to make one sing.”

And that’s about the size of it. How to make a body sing. It’s tempting to think that perhaps on the evidence of this album Callahan spends too much time thinking about the answer and not enough taking practical steps to find it. Introspection like this is seldom the path to the careless mind.

But he does know how dangerous the search can be and he knows that even when one has found something truly beautiful that does not mean that one has reached the end of one’s journey or the end of the pain that beauty can bring. Human vulnerability is never far from his thoughts – described poignantly in Javelin Unlanding which dwells on the quiet moments in the night when his lover is asleep and they are “laying all twisted together and exposed like roots on a river bank. Bam bam bam! The earth off its axis.”

In Winter Road a truck driver meditates on the beauty and danger of the snow covered highway –

“Oh I have learned when things are beautiful

To just keep on, just keep on

The blinding lights of the kingdom can make you weep

When things are beautiful, just keep on.”

It’s probably good advice.

~

Bill Callahan can be found at his record company’s website. He doesn’t use Facebook or Twittle. He just makes great music. This makes a refreshing change.

China Rats: Don’t Play With Fire – ep review

China-Rats-001

china rats

China Rats: Don’t Play With Fire (Once Upon A Time)
CD/DL
Available September 30th 2013

Brash, cocky, likeable and loud, China Rats have taken the festival circuit by storm and now they have a new ep out and it’s well worth a listen.

With gigs at Leeds and Reading (and Bingley where I had the good fortune to hear them and where the nice pictures below were taken), a trip to SXSW and a surprise headline spot at Benicassim, Leeds based China Rats have had a good year and this new EP seems likely to cement their position as one of the best up and coming bands in the country. Although it’s only 5 songs long the rats manage to pack in a wide range of styles that show a wide range of influences as you’d expect from a band who have been compared to The Enemy, The Vaccines and The Arctic Monkeys to name but a few.

China Rats aren’t big on subtlety and this isn’t music for discussing politely or for debating meanings – this is big, riffy, noise pop with great hooks, made to be turned up really loud to annoy the neighbours, kicking off with N.O.M.O.N.E.Y., which has already received some mainstream radio airplay – a proper little rocker about just the things proper little rockers should be about – girls, being skint, girls, dancing and girls. It’s a big sound, fast and noisey and a bit Undertonesish and echoey as the bottom of a very big bucket – but the distortion suits the song so no problems there.

Deadbeat is full of Ramones style energy, Get Loose sound a bit like an early Kinks song and is an all together poppier proposition that could easily be an indie disco favourite. Reeperbahn opens the sound up until it resembles classic 60’s psych rock, great harmonies and I’ve not heard a tambourine that high in the mix for a long time and winding things up is Green Tears, whose vocal harmonies come straight from the Beatles but with a big ringing fuzz guitar solo laid over the top and drums that threaten to come out of the speakers at you.

Great fun.

China Rats can be found at their website and at their Facebook, Twitter and SoundCloud pages. Images from their set at Bingley 2013 are in the gallery below and further images from that set can be found here.

Elvis Costello & The Roots: Wise Up Ghost – album review

elvis31f-1-web

news_444-1374499787

Elvis Costello & The Roots: Wise Up Ghost (Blue Note)
CD/LP/DL
Available now

Another Elvis Costello album another collaboration. But this one is with alt hip hop outfit The Roots. That’s got to be something special right? Right.

What’s the first thought that crosses your mind when you hear there’s a new Elvis Costello album out? There’s a good chance that it’s ‘Oh yeah, Elvis Costello. Who’s he with now?’ He’s a serial collaborator is Elvis. The Brodsky Quartet, Alain Toussaint, Sophie von Otter, Burt Bacharach – no one can accuse him of musical narrow mindedness. He’s one of those people who is clearly in love with all kinds of music and with all kinds of musicians.

But while the results of this promiscuity are always interesting they’re not always his best work, sometimes it can seem like he’s trying just that little bit too hard. The really good stuff tends to come when he’s with a group of musicians he knows and trusts, typically The Attractions or Imposters or whatever they’re called nowadays. His last stone cold masterpiece was 2002’s angular, bitter When I Was Cruel; albums since then have included the distinctly dull piano ballads of North and the very ordinary roots of The Delivery Man. Momofuku was good though.

So who’s he with now? None other than alternative hip hop pioneers The Roots with whose leader ?uestlove or Questlove he struck up a friendship after they had worked together on the Late Night With Jimmy Fallon Show. Jam sessions followed and then a plan for an album revisiting Costello’s back catalogue which gradually developed into Wise Up Ghost, a mix old new and reworked material. Clearly it’s a work that its authors want us to take seriously – it’s released on the prestigious Blue Note jazz label and arrives with a black and white text only jacket design in homage to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights poetry covers. Is there a message here? Is this Costello’s Howl? Certainly these songs are populated by enough grotesques and snapshots of urban despair to make the connection tenable even if there are no saintly motorcyclists or screams of joy.

It’s not a surprise of course that Elvis Costello should choose to cut a soul album – his first arrival in that territory was 1980’s Get Happy – an affectionate homage to the Stax sound – and he has revisited frequently. Questlove himself has a long history of collaboration having contributed to albums by D’Angelo, Fiona Apple, John Mayer, Christine Aguilera and Joss Stone to name only a few. From that point of view it’s a dream pairing but we know from past experience that dream pairings don’t necessarily produce baby pandas so it’s an album to approach with a degree of trepidation but from the opening bars of the first track it’s pretty clear that this collaboration is one of the success stories.

elvis31f-1-web

A rhythm picked out on what sounds like an early digital telephone dialling system, some bleeps of computer noise, a Doppler shifted train horn followed by an urgent keyboard riff and we’re off, immediately drawn into a soundscape that’s urban and timeless, polite but always slightly threatening, with The Roots providing a tight and respectful 1970’s soul backing to Costello, who leans into the vocal with his trademark sly vehemence and who for once is happy to sound, well, just like Elvis Costello. Which is how we want him to sound. We never quite get the full on contemptuous sneering Elvis Costello but for most of the album he sounds thoroughly mardy, supercilious and rather unpleasant – just right then.

And contrary to rumour this is definitely not Costello’s rap album – the musical equivalent of Dad dancing – this is distinctively and recognisably a mainstream Elvis Costello album; for the most part Questlove and his boys seem content to take a deferential back seat and fulfil the role of backing group. And what a backing group it is. The drums always rock solid but capable of distinctly skittish asides along the way, some fine loping bass and then blasts of brass and keyboards which serve as punctuation to the lyric, Costello’s muse has seldom been so well served by a band.

There’s some archaeology to be done among the lyrics – whole chunks of earlier songs are incorporated into the new work – possibly this sampling and reworking is where the hip hop tradition shows it’s influence most clearly, although Costello has always been a bit of a magpie himself. Refuse To Be Saved is a new take on Invasion Hit Parade from Mighty Like A Rose, Wake Me Up runs together elements of Bedlam from The Delivery Man and The River In Reverse (from the album of the same name), (She Might Be A) Grenade takes it’s lyric from She’s Pulling Out The Pin (also from The Delivery Man) and anti Thatcher favourite Pills And Soap gets a lick of paint and a new identity as Stick Out Your Tongue. Do they all benefit from the radical revisioning? In most case the answer is yes, especially in the case of Bedlam, whose lyric, when pushed to the front of the mix and not smothered with percussion like the original, reveals itself to be one of Costello’s better later works. It’s not just his own back catalogue that Costello samples – snippets from songs as diverse as The Red Flag and We Wish You A Merry Christmas manage to insinuate themselves into the mix and I’ve no doubt that a diligent listen would yield even more borrowings. This is a knowing album that takes great pleasure in being just a little bit obscure. It has no intention of giving up its meanings easily.

header

There are some good things among the originals too. Viceroy’s Row is a lyrically dense homage to places where they’re selling postcards of the hanging, Walk Us Uptown is a song to be sung on twenty first century protest marches until the guns open fire, Sugar Won’t Work offers a welcome to the end times and provides a catalogue of unnatural portents of doom straight out of Macbeth (Act 2 Scene 4), Tripwire drips with not entirely convincing compassion that sounds like a veiled threat and If I Could Believe (the album’s only ballad) is a world weary two fingered salute to credulousness. Only Cinqo Minutos Con Vos with its latin jazz stylings seems not to hit the mark.

The album’s highlight, and the song which will doubtless appear on several future Greatest Hits compilations is the title track Wise Up Ghost, which starts slow, the distant vocal accompanied only by strings, but gradually the vocal comes closer and the band arrive one by one as dystopic visions are piled high one on top of the other until the whole structure threatens to topple but never quite does. Here and on Tripwire are the signs that Costello’s verbose and cryptic lyricism and sure fire ear for a hook are both functioning at full power.

‘An old woman living in a cardboard shoe,

Lost so many souls she don’t know what to do.

So say your prayers

Cos down the stairs

It’s 1932.

Wise Up And Rise Up Ghost.”

Highly recommended.

Elvis Costello’s music is available through his his website and on his Facebook, Twitter and MySpace pages.

The Roots’ website is here. They are also on Facebook, Twitter and MySpace.