Listening notes

Roger Waters - Is this the life we really want?

A much anticipated new album from old master Roger Waters finds him mining familiar disgruntled territory. It's been a long time since we had a fresh set of songs and its somewhat reassuring that Roger remains as cranky and critical of the world as always. He holds a place in my heart that few other songwriters can reach. What doesn't hang too well me here is the lack of subtlety or even careful lyrical wordplay, replaced with foul-mouth rants about a shithole and leader with 'no fucking brains'.  He might be speaking to the converted,  but the visceral pleasure of swearing is fleeting, and on repeated listens one wishes for a little more from a man whose lyrical contributions over the years have been poetic. 

As a record, the album requires start to finish listening, the typical extended narrative rendering the songs part of a story, and fans can also play a 'spot the connection' game as old sounds, effects, lyrical allusions and atmospherics of previous albums appear throughout (to me, this is more Radio KAOS than I care to hear). Noticeably, the absence of any real guitar playing to serve as a melodic counterpoint to the somewhat flat vocals is a real break with the past, and to my ears, it's not obviously an improvement. Albums like this require multiple listens to reveal their depths, so ask me again in a year, but at the risk of reaching judgement too quickly,  I can't help feel a little disappointment here given the standards of Waters' full repertoire.

Sonically, the LP is dark and dense sounding, with a production that gives little space for the music to breathe.  In fact, while Roger's albums always made the most of studio technology to create a soundscape, this album screams 'produced' more than most, and not in a good way.  I've not tried the digital download, only the vinyl and, again in comparison to the fabulous sounding records we've come to expect from the man, I find myself wanting more.  I'm prepared to give this one many more spins, and while I am glad to have anything new at this stage from Roger, 'Is this the life we really want?' is not really the album I want.

Justin Currie - This is my kingdom now

Songwriting is a craft and in my view, Currie was one of the great (and greatly underrated) songwriters of his generation. He was one of the late 80s wave of young Brits who brought rock sensibilities and lyrical bite back into the mainstream after years of over-produced, stylized and synthesized pap (sorry folks, the 80s were  mostly crap). His main band, Del Amitri produced a string of strong albums from Waking Hours on and could kick-ass live too, as evidenced by the comeback tour shows released two years ago in a small box set. The last decade or so has been a quiet time for Currie the songwriter and it's good to have him back, though this recording is likely to appeal only to hardcore fans. 

The thirteen tracks here are slow, or mid-tempo ballads, recorded in a quality that suggests low-key, domestic technologies, limited accompaniment ( a bit of piano here, some bass there, drums spread about) with the main man musing throughout on life, loneliness and his own various shortcomings. Nothing too stark and nothing too lively here, the album has the feel of hearing an old friend demoing with some tunes while sipping a few drinks and reminiscing of old times. 

Audiophiles will not be impressed with the sound quality and yes, you have to order from the UK as I don't believe there's a US outlet, but for all the challenges, it's hard not to enjoy the work.  And at a total cost of under $20 shipped, you get a digital download immediately with the CD arriving less than 2 weeks later.

Cowboy Junkies - Trinity Session

It took me a while to appreciate this as I've been a long-term lover of the regular CD release (and cassette when it originally came out as that was the only way to get the haunting Blue Moon when originally released in the UK). That said, I decided that spending $50 on another copy was only worth it when bundled under a special discount offer. So yes, it's four sides of those moody, single mic'd digital recordings from back in the day. And yes it's pressed on thick slabs, in a gatefold, with the lavished attention of a QRP release. And while people raved about the sonics for years, I have to say it's the music that gets me, I actually find the limited musicianship to be honest but hardly magical as far as capturing talent in action goes. Yeah, sacrilege, I know. 

All that said - this is a lovely trip down memory lane, a timestamp from the past, and about as intimate as it can get when thinking about amplified rock music. I know it's recorded in a church but it feels to me more like listening to band go through one more set at the end of a night in deserted dive. Spinning it takes me back to hearing it for the first time, so if recordings and playback are the nearest we get to a time machine, this one is the Starship Enterprise. And I'll be honest, I always imagined Margo Timmins was singing in my ear everytime I listened, which made this album something special for me. It's all here. Four sides of memory jolt, beautifully packaged.  I just wonder if they ever felt that the rest of their career was lived in the shadow of this one-off event. Most bands would be so lucky I guess.

Deep Purple - Infinite (2017)

Despite disappearing from view in the US, at least until their recent induction to the somewhat pointless Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame, Purple have actually been going strong for almost 50 years. They are a big draw in most of the world still, even though Ian Paice is the only original member from the bunch of young men who unleashed Hush on the world in 1968. That said, the present line up of said drummer with long-term members Glover and Gillan on bass and vocals, joined by Steve Morse (now longer in the band than Blackmore was in total, though people seem to have a hard time processing this) and relative new boy Don Airey (only there for 10 years now), is probably as stable as the band have ever been. 

This might be their last studio album, if only because they are all getting a bit long in the tooth, but they still rock in a manner that is unmistakably Purple-esque. So yes, bombarding, bass heavy riffs, swirling Hammond organ and fiery guitar solos, with Gillan perhaps showing a bit of age but uniquely recognizable throughout. If the previous effort, Now What?, also produced by Bob Ezrin, was a late life return to form for the band, this is more of the same: dense, heavy, with lots of interplay between Morse and Airey. Surprisingly, perhaps, there's more than a few singable tunes here with melodies that catch the ear, though Gillan is indulged a bit too much I think with spoken parts in two tracks, most annoyingly on side 1's Time for Bedlam which opens with a synthesized voice part that will be tire very quickly.   There's a few other notable tracks here, mixing the more epic style of old Purple in Birds of Prey with the looser, jam style of Johnny's Band, again with a catchy chorus that sort of works its way into your craniumPlenty of solo flourishes from top players here, though Paice's drumming is rarely foregrounded.  Can't help but feel there's a few places where I've heard that riff before but they're fleeting. Oddest moment might be the last track, a cover of the Door's Roadhouse Blues done in a bar-room boogie style that sounds like it was recorded live, with an unusually musical and laid back Morse solo.  Maybe a tip of the hat to the rumor that this is indeed nearly the end of the road for these guys as a touring outfit. 

I have the double 45rpm LP version which is nicely packaged in thick vinyl slabs and picture sleeves but my copy is pretty noisy, even after an ultrasonic clean, and the production is a bit dark sounding, and the layers of sound are dense, lacking some of the space and air that the band possesses live. Comes with a DVD of the making of the album which I have not viewed yet but others tell me is worthy. Glad the boys are still rocking away, this won't replace Machine Head as their definitive statement but it's a solid effort.

The Bowie Box set as individual LPs


Finally got around to listening to the various releases of the Bowie box set that came out as individual LPs earlier this year. I suppose over the years I've owned three copies of some of these, particularly Aladdin Sane, and I decided it was probably a good time to fill in the gaps or to determine if the new pressings were a step up on my old worn copies.

I'll make it brief -- the answer is no. While there's a little more upfront presence and high-end detail on a couple of these, I don't really think the sonics are greatly improved. More, they really do sound quite digital in nature, which in and of itself would not bother me too much if they had the best aspects of good digital reproduction but I don't hear that with these. Aladdin Sane and Ziggy Stardust are both acceptable, and even quite good if you have nothing else but I don't feel I am really being transported into the heart of the music with these recordings. Still, they are great albums and it's nice that people can find copies now that are clean, decently packaged and quiet. And no matter what, Lady Grinning Soul still makes me catch my breath every time I hear Bowie utter the opening phrase "She'll come...she'll go". 

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