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Broken Record #6

Broken Record
Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Ultrasound don’t do things by halves, their debut album was released as a double CD and crammed in around 100 minutes of music, it divided critics at the time but has since become cherished as an eccentric cult classic. That was back in 1999, and now a mere 13 years later they are back with a new single “Beautiful Sadness” and an excellent second album Play For Today (both released by Fierce Panda on 24th September). As we anticipate this new chapter in Ultrasound’s colourful history, we got front man Andrew "Tiny" Wood to write a few words about his record collection (note – with Tiny being the passionate musical oracle that he is, this is an extended version Broken Record, the double-vinyl of Broken Records if you like...I warned you that they don’t do things by halves).

Ultrasound play an album launch gig on 4th October at the London Scala

Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid
Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid

Well what would you expect from something that has been sold as a new emerging female R’n’B singer signed to Puff Daddy’s label – Nicky Minaj? Rita Ora? Rihanna? Certainly not this uncategorisable conceptual melange, which at times borders on genius. She kind of came out of nowhere with this conceptual science fiction story about a female android who falls in love with a human, and faces disassembly before going on the run to avoid detection, and eventually becomes a heroine to the underclass. Based on Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” the imagery and musical styles in this record are mind boggling and mesmerising, starting with an orchestral overture reminding me of William Sheller, but the problem with this album is that it’s so very difficult to describe what you’re hearing except in terms of references ranging from popular to obscure – Outkast, Santana, Can, Missy Elliott, James Brown, Dusty Springfield, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Flaming Lips, Judy Garland etc. At times chintzy retro like Pizzicato 5, and at others futuristic urban like Outkast, taking in references from Django Reinhardt and Yma Sumac to funky 60’s beats to 70’s jazz fusion like Parliament/Funkadelic, sometimes in the grooves of one song. There are even styles like Polynesian hula music thrown in to the mix on songs such as “Sir Greendown”, with its shimmering Hollywood style swooning and space organ. From the upbeat R’n’B of “Cold War” and “Dance Or Die” to the lively funk of “Tightrope” and “Faster” it remains playful and theatrical whilst also being sophisticated and schizophrenic. Just listen to “Mushrooms & Roses” and try to define just what it is you’re hearing, like “Hey Jude” blasted down from space light years ahead – it’s no surprise she believes in time travel. “Suite III Overture” is all 20’s Hollywood fantasy made real – you can imagine all those expressionist images come flooding in directly from George Melies films, which populate the more modern take of “Neon Valley Street”, with its extended guitar solo fading into “Make The Bus” with its schizoid chops and changes (from modern Zappa-esque funk to indie tunes with Giorgio Moroder style sequencers), and the perfect swoonsome pop of “Wondaland” which sounds like Donna Summer and The Doopees in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory! Honestly! Simon & Garfunkel doing a spaghetti western with the Fleet Foxes springs to mind when listening to “57821” – see what I mean? “Say You’ll Go” sounds like a Stevie Wonder ballad from “Songs In The Key Of Life”, sailing on strings and low key samba grooves, with a beautiful piano/vocal refrain at the end floating from a future past. “BaBopByeYa” ends the album sounding all John Barry and Henry Mancini with a touch of Yma Sumac’s weird mondo tiki-easy listening, like Martin Denny does Star Trek! I’m so glad that an album like this exists, especially considering it comes straight out of the R’n’B world of Sean Diddyman Coombes et al, which is usually so normally straight and money making.

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band – Tomorrow Belongs To Me
The Sensational Alex Harvey Band – Tomorrow Belongs To Me

I find this a most difficult topic because I don’t tend to equate albums with a moment in time or event from the past. If the album is good it stays with you over the years and speaks of different things at different times, but I remember certain records from the moment when I became aware of music as a greater force in my life than mere pop, and set me on my voyage of discovery. Albums include “Led Zeppelin II”, “Moving Waves” by Focus, “Close To The Edge” by Yes, and “Aladdin Sane” by David Bowie, but I chose this as it represents the moment when I realised that music has the power to directly affect the way I chose to live and see myself within the context of the outside world. Heavily influenced by the world of Marvel comics Alex Harvey put together a glam-inspired rock band with cartoon elements, taking bits of fantasy and superhero and creating a simplified science fiction world of us and them which was easy to relate to as a 12 year old boy. The first concert I went to see at Leicester De Montfort Hall had a profound effect on me. I felt he was talking directly to me, showing me colours and feelings in a most direct way, theatrical and emotional and powerful. Alex Harvey became my hero, because with those twinkly eyes and cracked tenor voice and ability to reach out to the inner child in us all, he was easy to relate to and yet feel otherworldly, like he’d been beamed down from the planet Vibrania for one night only. This was exciting stuff with rich grooves and science fiction stories set to music to fire the imagination. From the driving rock of “Action Strasse”, with its eastern inspired breaks and fluid Moog, to the jazz surf of “Shark’s Teeth” it was musically eclectic yet driven together with inspired energy by the comic, knowing pen of Alex Harvey. He was different in that he was much older than your average rock star, and looked like a too long in the tooth Glaswegian alcoholic. He’d been around in some form or other since the 50’s having had a notorious life from his poverty stricken Gorbals upbringing to his experiences in Hamburg, his ravaged stubbled face only lightened by his eyes which were almost angelic but with a flash of sheer mischief. The music is a kind of funky riff driven glam rock with stories of German bordello’s, adultery, drunken street fights, sleaze and all the things that he had probably experienced in his life. But coupled with this were songs that were almost hymnal and heavenly, reminding me of the Oscar Wilde phrase about lying in the gutter looking at the stars – this seems to sum up Alex Harvey very well. The standout songs from this album are the epic “The Tale of the Giant Stoneater” a Jackanory style story of a post-apocalyptic future when metal dinosaurs roam the earth, all delivered in the Glasgow accent of a seasoned narrator, and “Give My Compliments to the Chef”, a psychedelic fantasy populated by innocents struggling with poverty. There is also the inclusion of a cover version of the old time classic “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”, considered controversial as this song was adopted by the Nazi party of Germany as an inspirational ode to a “perfect” future, but here it sounds like a Scottish ode to beauty, replete with brass band and massed choir.

Cardiacs - Sing To God
Cardiacs - Sing To God

Not that all Cardiacs albums aren’t under-appreciated, but even I didn’t regard this for a time, after reeling over their 'difficult' third album “Heaven Born And Ever Bright” (which I loved at first but went off, and have since grown to appreciate more), which saw them shedding the skins of their previous incarnation as a manic childlike dysfunctional family unit into a mature mania, heavily layered other worldly psychedelic pop band. It sprawls over two discs like a many-tendrilled beast, taking in influences from Krautrock to the Kinks in a lysergic soup like a scorpion sting to the head, sharp yet soporific, making me dizzy with intense spins and swirls of sound and colour. Coming in on a waft of King Crimson style percussion and a keyboard sound not unlike Jon Anderson’s “Olias Of Sunhillow” album, “Eden On The Air” sounds like spin-off acoustic project The Sea Nymphs, whose album is dreamy and beautiful and also under-rated. The lyrics state that people like things safe and in order, preferring even and dry, when odd and wet are fine. This song floats like a boat on a calm sea before the short blast of classic frenetic Cardiacs with “Eat It Up Worms Hero” followed by the skewed pop of “Dog Like Sparky” in which Tim Smith states that “crawling is my world” and the classic line “put your hands on the Holy Bible and scream wank”. Next up the big slice of pop pie that is “Fiery Gun Hand” which moves with a furious pace and contains one of the best guitar solos ever. The song seems to capture the story of the crucifixion as done by Terry Gilliam! At least that’s my take on it. “Insect Hoofs On Lassie” contains some weird lyrics and a wonderful bass line, which soars like John Entwistle. It seems to be re-telling the story of creation through Lassie as if Tim Smith has become God (whom he refers to as Daddy Long-Leg). “Fairy Mary Mag” is hymnal, again with some inspirational bass playing from Jim Smith, and some heavenly choir, sounding not unlike the Sea Nymphs again. A classic rock riff begins “Bellyeye”, a song of salvation. “Horse’s Tail” sounds like older Cardiacs like something from “A Little Man”, but with extra thick layers of heavenly cherubs. The lyrics contain the words “Bletching” and “Swankledged”! Although Tim Smith has previously said that this album isn’t about God, there is a spiritual theme throughout most of Cardiacs material, certainly a “joyful noise unto the Lord” does often spring to mind. “Manhoo” is a classic pop tune with snatches of Kinks, Madness and Beatles but sounding somehow very mid-90’s indie. “Wireless” has a scissor percussion taken directly from Faust, and sounding very Sea Nymphs again with the cracked little girl voice from Sarah Smith telling the story of Jenny who dies while listening to the radio. Towards the end Tim Smith seems to be telling a story using streams of consciousness about a ship, which fades into an orchestral seascape of vast proportions. “Dirty Boy” is the centrepiece of the album. A song that builds and builds in slow grace and seems to be a dirge for a dead boy. A lamentation about the boy’s passing, and a celebration of his life, and hope for his after-life – wherever that may be. “Billion”, although such a short and quiet song, was apparently written by a very young Tim Smith, the first song he wrote, and speaks of separation and sadness, which is taken further into “Odd Even”, a title referring to the theme of “Eden On The Air”, sounding not unlike their cover of Dave Davies’ “Susannah’s Still Alive”, strange and twee. “Bell Stinks” and “Bell Clinks” were both written by guitarist Jon Poole, the first a short frenetic guitar instrumental not dissimilar to Captain Beefheart, the second more like an outtake from “Heaven Born” in feel, which seems to be about a man scared of himself. “Flap Off You Beak” states “there is no God” and birds see no life from on high and are sad. “Quiet As A mouse” is a very strange piece that is spoken by different voices, featuring Tim Smith’s mum, and seemingly about killing drummer Bob Leith making him quiet as a mouse and therefore much prettier! “Angleworm Angel” is about the striving for perfection through generations of cross breeding. It is fast and heavy. There is a wonderful orchestral flavour to “Red Fire Comes Out Of His Gills”, almost a musical mixed up with a torpedo of a song, which sails across the red seas with drums crashing all around it. “No Gold” takes us right back into Sea Nymphs territory, with wonderful backwards effects floating us into a dark psychedelic dream. “Nurses Whispering Verses” has surfaced from time to time in different forms before, but this is an attempt at the definitive version, with its manic riff kicking into an epic of anthemic proportions, twisted askew with a sense of lurking evil – delicious. We’re treated to a long fade-out before the final treat “Foundling”, almost a gothic wedding ceremony song with a wonderful deep synthesizer refrain washing us with deep waves of sonic sound. “Sing To God” was released in 1995, right in the middle of the so called Britpop thing, and if anyone can lay claim to the Britpop crown it is the Cardiacs, largely ignored in a period which was desperately in need of a nostalgia for something that never really happened in the first place, instead of a celebration of what we Brits can achieve when we really put our minds and imaginations to it. The Cardiacs were probably the greatest band ever to come out of Britain, and one day they will be recognised.

Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid
Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid

There were an awful lot of albums in this list, but most of them, like The Strokes “Is This It” or Badly Drawn Boy’s “Hour of the Bewilderbeast” or “Everything Must Go” by the Manic Street Preachers, I’ve never actually listened to, nor can even bring myself to listen to for fear I might be corrupted. Only 2 albums on my list I have actually heard and they are Oasis’ “What’s The Story Morning Glory” and this one, and I hate them both for the same reason, apart from the fact that they are both rubbish. It’s the fact that both of these albums came from bands that had previously released far superior material, but for some reason these were the ones that were celebrated. Oasis released one album and two EPs and then it was all over bar the shouting, the last good thing they released being “Some Might Say” in April 1995. I loved Elbow and saw them on a couple of occasions live and they were inspirational and musically and lyrically interesting, and on the back of the previous offering “Leaders Of The Free World” I was really looking forward to this record coming out. When I first heard it I was underwhelmed. It seemed so disappointingly lacking in all the things I had previously loved about them. Where were the uplifting tunes and the Talk Talk inspired experimentalism, and washes of colour? Where were the heartfelt, heartbroken and tongue-in-cheek lyrics? Where was the fire and the passion that made me fall in love with them? This sounded like a band treading water and losing its way. Oh well I thought, one can’t expect a band to be always on form. Perhaps they are bored or have lost momentum. I can forgive that. But then something strange happened – they won the Mercury Music Prize and then they started getting into the charts and playing stadiums, and it seemed to the general population that this was their first and only album and they hadn’t even existed before. But this wasn’t the Elbow I knew and loved, and their next release “Build A Rocket Boys” was even worse. I want the old Elbow back please and I still hold out hope that they will return.

Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band - Trout Mask Replica
Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band - Trout Mask Replica

Issuing from every groove, out of every ringing chiming note, and especially from the great man’s mouth, is an inexhaustible unfettered sense of freedom. They have taken the free flights of fancy of John Coltrane’s meandering and married it to a psychedelic delta blues beat, with the free flowing beat poetry of Ginsberg, and the experimental classics such as John Cage and Steve Reich. And it’s all done with such perverse glee. Many stories abound about the recording of this album with most of the musicians cooped up in a house in the hills around LA and brainwashed like the Manson cult, with threats of violence and incarceration, with no heat and very little food. Shoplifting to survive and with intense 14 hour rehearsals some members even made escape attempts! Apparently all written by Beefheart on piano, and recorded by Frank Zappa in 5 hours, it was initially, and for a long period regarded as too weird by press and public, but by the sheer force of its presence has slowly seeped into the consciousness of mass acceptance. It eschews the trappings of the psychedelic underground – there are very few effects utilised, not even reverb, which gives all the instruments a fresh, raw feel, sometimes sounding like the field recordings made by John Lomax in the 30’s – music which comes directly from life and reflects the experiences and history of indigenous populations. This is further reinforced by the use of recordings actually made “in the field” – snippets of conversation which give you a sense of place and time. The drum patterns are not snare led like they are in most rock music, and are played more like dance bands or jazz music with the accent on the swing rather than the big beat. The guitars play off each other, often using slide and modern atonal jazz-style counterpoint. The saxophones and clarinet are played completely free form and often go beyond music into what Matt Groening described as “sloppy cacophony”. John Lydon says that when he first listened to it he laughed all the way through, and there is a sense of hysteria throughout, especially on songs such as “Ella Guru”, “Moonlight On Vermont”, “My Human Gets Me Blues” and “Pena”, where the instruments clash and collide and frolic along like a runaway train gusting through the dust bowl. Sometimes Don Van Vliet sings, sometimes screams and sometimes raps his improvised poetry telling stories of the American “outback” and it’s ethnic population around the Mojave desert where he was raised. One can almost see the screen doors and the cactus pot plants. It’s no surprise that it remains David Lynch’s favourite album.

Lana Del Ray – Lana Del Ray A.K.A. Lizzy Grant
Lana Del Ray – Lana Del Ray A.K.A. Lizzy Grant

I don’t find many albums “sinful” because I’m not ashamed to like anything if I think it’s good. I’m happy to listen to music of all kinds, but I guess I can tell what music I “shouldn’t” like and this falls into that category. I didn’t know much about her when I first listened to this album. I didn’t know she looked like one of those skinny models with the pouty-trouty top lip when I heard this, and I loved it. It is very David Lynch, with songs about a small town girl longing to escape to the bright lights and meeting boys from the wrong side of town who mess with her, and being exploited by older men etc, but it’s all done with a sick sense of knowing, and an incredible jaded maturity. Starting with that '50s stratocaster tremolo chord reminiscent of much of David Lynch’s soundtrack work, in “Kill Kill” and “Queen Of The Gas Station” Ray is pathetically cute and deathly melancholy. She sounds like she’s telling you she loves you while holding a gun behind her back as she tells the story of a desperate gold digger, hanging out by the slurpee machines at the gas station. This album was recorded before her discovery and re-packaging with her first “proper” album “Born To Die”, and is much more musically inventive, with a fresher production and generally more progressive, with floating keys, accordion and clavinet bass as in “Gramma”, as she whispers her intention to belong to the world. “For K Part Two” smoulders seductively but has a sense of unease and genuine strangeness running through it. “Jump” descends into a drug-induced haze, strung out. “Mermaid Hotel” has a strange orchestra hit randomly interspersed with other assorted effects – the sort of samples you find on cheap keyboards that you’d never dare use, while Lana/Lizzy talks huskily about exploitation, reminding me of Pulp’s “This Is Hardcore” in theme. A theme which continues in “Brite Lites”, where she is waving on the silver screen of a fading film, over a pulsing disco beat while sirens sing, and in “Put Me In A Movie” which tells the story of the starlet casting couch where old men exploit young girls with the promise of fame. “Smarty” seems to go round and round in the head like an illness, and “Yayo” wouldn’t be out of place on the soundtrack to “Wild At Heart” with its sultry obsessions and its love-is-a-drug themes. As an album it works better than “Born To Die” simply because it’s bigger in scope, but nevertheless hers is still a burgeoning talent, and, unless she succumbs to the pop treatment and overground exposure she is currently experiencing, could become a rare talent.

David Essex – David Essex
David Essex – David Essex

The album that spawned the hit “Gonna Make You A Star” and launched him into pop superstardom for a brief period, the poster boy for a million teeny boppers. But this was no mere manufactured bog standard pop mill stuff. Okay, so we do have the standard session musicians from the '70s (Herbie Flowers – check, Stuart Elliott – check, Chris Spedding and Ray Cooper – all present and correct) and employing Jeff Wayne to produce probably wasn’t his idea, but don’t forget we’d already had two sublime artistically experimental singles in “Rock On” and “Lamplight”, which had done pretty well for him, so maybe at this time there was a desire to push beyond mere pop superstardom – there was precious little of that from his contemporaries Donny, Cassidy, and Sayer et al. I first became aware of David Essex through the films “That’ll Be The Day” and “Stardust”, a worthy attempt to trace the rise and fall of fictional pop star Jim Maclaine, cataloguing his early rise from working class no-hoper to drug induced megalomaniac recluse. One song from the album features on the soundtrack and that’s the wonderful “Stardust” which comes on like a Bowie/Ziggy song with heartbeat, strings and mellotron flutes – genuinely and compellingly strange. Throughout the album there is a heavy use of Moog synths and that trademark Jeff Wayne sound which he used to great effect later on with his concept album “War Of The Worlds”, which of course features the man himself (“thousands of miles of drains”). “Gonna Make You A Star” segues into one of the scariest and strangest songs I’ve ever heard, and this on a “pop” album. “Window” is genuinely frightening, nay, malevolent – what were they thinking? Putting it on a record that will be heard by impressionable young girls and boys. It certainly gave me nightmares. Not to worry, there are a couple of “nice” songs like “I Know” and “There’s Something About You Baby” a schmaltzy song that contains the first use I ever heard of the Coral Sitar (used on Rolling Stones “Paint It Black”), which was later used to similar effect by Paul Young on his hit “Every Time You Go Away”. “Good Ol’ Rock & Roll” and “America” have a similar feel to “Rock On” with some swampy rockabilly guitar playing courtesy of Chris Spedding, and of course the obligatory '50s slap-back echo. “Dance Little Girl” has these strange reverb drenched string stabs and atonal sax breaks reminiscent of Ian Dury’s “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick”, and very effective vocal double tracks. “Ooh Darling” is pretty throwaway rubbish and “Miss Sweetness” betrays his roots in musical theatre, but “Stardust” really is a stand-out song which has stood the test of time – I only wish they hadn’t faded in a naff singalong of the hit at the end.