Album Review: Popularity Pending – 20 Years Of Pugwash (Japanese Import)

I almost feel envious of people who have yet to discover the blissful, melodic sounds of Pugwash. They have a very loyal following in their native Ireland, in small pockets of the USA and around the United Kingdom, but they still aren’t a band you could describe as being a household name and their success has been a very modest one and, indeed, at the time of writing, only around six thousand people “like” the band on Facebook. Pugwash, as a band, have had an evolving line-up over the years, with frontman, main songwriter and music obsessive Thomas Walsh beginning his musical life recording demos in his garden shed, trying to emulate Andy Partridge, and ended up having his work recognised by Irish magazine “Hot Press”. This led to other opportunities and, with the help of Keith and Stephen Farrell, Walsh released his remarkable début, “Almond Tea” (1999) to critical acclaim. The Farrell brothers continued to work with Walsh on “Almanac” (2002) and the highly rated “Jollity” (2006) up to and including “Eleven Modern Antiquities” (2008), after which the Pugwash nucleus changed, recording and touring two albums “The Olympus Sound” (2010) and “Play This Intimately (As If Among Friends)” (2015) with Walsh (vocals and guitar), Tosh Flood (guitar and harmony vocals), Shaun McGee (bass and harmony vocals) and Joe Fitzgerald (drums). Unfortunately, heath issues and the stresses and strains of touring on a shoestring to small but very appreciative audiences took its toll and Pugwash reverted back to the one man operation of Walsh himself, who wrote and recorded his last album (to date) “Silverlake” (2017) with Jason Falkner in Los Angeles, with its unfussy and punchy production bringing to mind the early days of the band, taking Walsh’s music almost full circle… albeit with a little more wisdom and gravitas.

Thomas Walsh doesn’t like the term “powerpop” and has said that he considers Beatles comparisons to be “lazy”, but it would be difficult to imagine that people who dig the powerpop genre or are aficionados of the Fab Four wouldn’t be the ideal audience for Pugwash. However, the band’s whole output is much more diverse and all-encompassing for them to be simply typecast as another bunch inspired by The Beatles. Walsh is a man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of music; on social media you’ll often see him enthusing about The Move, Left Banke, Kinks, Honeybus and other timeless bands who place great importance on melody and arrangement. On your journey throughout this compilation, there will be more influences worn on their sleeves than you will be able to keep track of and I would hope that the listener will come to the same conclusion that I have; Thomas Walsh simply writes music that he would enjoy listening to. The uplifting “Take Me Away” soars like mid-nineties Teenage Fanclub with a Beach Boys interlude, the whimsical and probably Simpsons-inspired “Monorail” has a vaudeville Divine Comedy feel , “Keep Movin’ On” channels upbeat Elvis Costello & The Attractions whilst incorporating a Harrison-esque guitar solo and “Finer Things In Life” is a heartbreakingly beautiful ballad that sounds like it could have been written by Jeff Lynne (whose favourite Pugwash song, by the way, is the sublime “Be My Friend Awhile”). The two albums that Tosh Flood co-produced with Thomas (Olympus Sound & Play This Intimately) have such a beautifully textured feel and “Hung Myself Out To Dry” is a particular favourite from the latter; it’s as close as the band ever got to emulating the ELO sound.

The creative wonders come thick and fast on this record. The gorgeous reverb-soaked guitar of “Two Wrongs” is reminiscent of early nineties classic indie, “It’s Nice To Be Nice” is almost pure Beach Boys and Andy Partridge’s influence can be distinctly heard on “At The Sea”, a deliciously quirky but catchy tune which could easily have come from XTC’s own catalogue. “Fall Down” is a devastatingly brilliant track with harmonies, it seems, specifically designed to melt the soul whereas “Answers On A Postcard” is an eminently likeable, jaunty track with an apt seaside holiday feel to it and if you can get through the kazoo solo without grinning like a fool, I’d be surprised. “Here”, an absolute shimmering pearl of a song with its sumptuous string section, is one of the best classic ballads the vast majority of the world hasn’t heard. Another slice of utter pop perfection is the jangly “Apples”, with that irresistible Byrds-like guitar sound and a wonderful combination of a verse hook every bit as good as the chorus. I could go on, as every single track here is fantastic. They’re all my favourites, every single one of them. The real strength of the work here is the fact that whether it is a catchy, indie burst of sunshine such as “The Perfect Summer” or “What Are You Like” or a magnificent rolling ballad like “Anchor” or “To The Warmth Of You”, it’s all melodically and lyrically rich; regardless of style or genre, these songs are the work of a true craftsman.

I personally find it astonishing that more people haven’t discovered Pugwash, given the fact that over their history they have worked with Neil Hannon (Divine Comedy), Dave Gregory and Andy Partridge (XTC), Ben Folds, Ray Davies, Michael Penn and Eric Matthews. Indeed, Walsh’s hero Jeff Lynne even makes a cameo appearance on “Kicking And Screaming”. Notwithstanding the fact that Thomas’ song writing is so strong and relatable. Selecting the cream of seven studio albums to best represent his twenty year musical history couldn’t have been easy. I won’t go into the omissions, because there is only so much music you can fit on to a single CD, but I can quite honestly say that I could compile another twenty track CD full of songs from the Pugwash catalogue which would be just as strong. Still, it is difficult to argue with the choices made as this is an excellent representation of Pugwash’s output over the years’ and, as a single disc, the self-deprecatingly-titled “Popularity Pending” provides overwhelmingly compelling evidence that Pugwash are, indeed, one of the most criminally underrated acts that ever walked the Earth. Truly, one of the best things about being able to heartily recommend this introduction to Pugwash’s catalogue is that there is so much left to discover after you have heard and (inevitably) loved this. It’s not just for the Pugwash newbies, of course; for the Pugwash obsessive, such as myself, this is an essential purchase if only for the exclusive re-recorded 2019 version of “It’s Nice To Be Nice” which is wonderfully arranged and also features a new, slightly more weathered, vocal by Thomas… plus, of course, you get another timely reminder of exactly how wonderful Pugwash were and still are.

Classic Album Review: Tim Wheeler – Lost Domain (2014)

Ash songwriter, guitarist and frontman Tim Wheeler’s first solo album, “Lost Domain”, was made as a deeply personal elegy to his late father, George, who had spent the last two and a half years of his life suffering from Alzheimer’s, with the last six months spent in a dementia ward. Such is the depth of emotional involvement here, Tim was undecided whether it should ever be released, so it could almost be described as a privilege to be able to listen to an album which is part-tribute, part-therapy. I can forgive anybody reading this for imagining that “Lost Domain” would be quite self-involved and bleak, but that simply isn’t the case. Although the intensity of this work is self-evident, Wheeler’s solo début is mostly uplifting and genuinely life-affirming throughout. It is also markedly different from his Ash punk/power-pop leanings, although Tim’s talent for composition and melody are in no way diminished and, although there are a couple of tracks which are immediately enjoyable, it is the kind of more mature, subtle album you will need to listen to a few times to fully appreciate all of the musical themes and lyrical content. Tim’s voice, also, whilst sometimes criticised as not being strong enough to lead a group with as much power as Ash (personally speaking, I believe that writing those songs gives him the right to sing them) is perfectly suited for a collection of songs with such an emotional pull.

Wheeler performs the majority of the instruments on this album, with the exception of drums, strings and saxophone and his level of musicianship is certainly impressive. Instrumental “Snow In Nara” opens the album with a gentle, yet expansive, expressive feel, followed by “End Of An Era”, a beautiful track detailing the emotional remains of a failed relationship, assisted by some powerful, soaring strings. Continuing with the same theme, “Do You Ever Think Of Me” juxtaposes bitterness and hurt with an uplifting, bright string section, successfully masking the dark, brooding nature of the lyrics. “Hospital” is one of the most important and poignant compositions on the album, documenting and detailing Tim’s visits to his dementia patient father, with the pain and devastation so very apparent in every verse and, yet, the new dimension of love described gives the song a beautifully bittersweet feel. It is followed by a truly astonishing piece of songwriting, “Medicine”, written from the perspective of his father (“Please be brave if I forget your name, though it hurts, my childhood friend”). Some of the words are harrowing and difficult to hear (“Nothing left, they ignore my every plea, I am scared, oh, why have you abandoned me? I don’t know who to believe”) and it is almost impossible listen to this remarkable song without being profoundly affected by the emotional content.

“Vigil”, as the title suggests, describes remaining at his father’s bedside as he lives his final days, but the music is powerful, insistent and remarkably uplifting, seeming to portray the inner strength Wheeler drew upon during this time. “First Sign Of Spring” is a sparse piece, touching on the annual rebirth and renewal of the world which becomes even more profound when faced with death. This is followed by a swirling, interesting 5/4 time instrumental called “Vapour” and then “Hold”, a delicate piano piece which just emanates with hurt and vulnerability. One of the most enjoyable songs on the album is the title track, which has the musical characteristics and appeal of a big, classy hit from the eighties and portrays Tim’s emotional reawakening after the numbness of losing such an important and influential person from his life. The album comes to a conclusion with “Monsoon”, a gentle, musically understated piece which sadly tells of how his experience has changed him and the things he feels he needs from life. Altogether, “Lost Domain” is quite an emotionally draining and yet oddly fulfilling experience. The bonus disc on the deluxe edition (which also boasts a beautifully designed booklet) is divided into two; “Sheltered Youth” and “Keeping Vigil”. The first half contains four studio originals, “Ariadna”, “Riad”, “Sheltered Youth” and “One Last Song”; they’re all quite good, but “Ariadna”, with Johnny Marr on guitars, and the genuinely brilliant “One Last Song” are certainly the pick of the four. The second half of the bonus disc has alterative acoustic versions of “Vigil” and “Do You Ever Think Of Me?”, as well as two gorgeous piano and vocal versions of Ash’s “Shining Light” and “Sometimes” which are well worth owning.

I cannot claim to understand exactly what Tim Wheeler has been through, the emotional trauma he has experienced which has resulted in him being able to write and perform a work of such magnitude. My Grandfather suffered and died from Alzheimer’s, but, despite visiting him a few times and being upset (and in some way relieved for him and the constant confusion he lived in) when he passed away, I was quite young and cannot claim to have been close enough to him to have experienced or understood a fraction of what Tim has. If seeing my Grandfather like that was traumatic and uncomfortable enough for me in my mid-teens and gave me a small window into understanding the disease, Wheeler’s “Lost Domain”, through his art, expresses the full emotional impact and mental strain on both the sufferer and the close family. It’s not easy to listen to at times and it pulls very few punches, but there is a truly beautiful undertone to the subject matter; the love, the journey, the enlightenment and discovery of inner strength and the things that are fundamentally important in life. Losing a parent changes a person forever and, losing a parent in such a prolonged, heart-breaking manner such as Alzheimer’s is something that never leaves you. As someone who lost a father, slowly, to cancer, that is something I can empathise with. This album is not only a beautiful tribute to George Wheeler, but also magnificent work of art as a whole. The artistic depth within Tim which had been hinted at in his Ash lyrics has grown, flourished and matured beyond any reasonable expectations. As solo débuts go, “Lost Domain” is as good as they get.

This review was written by Andy Sweeney and originally published on http://www.sonicabuse.com in November 2014.

Album Review: Passenger – Songs For The Drunk And Broken Hearted

Songs For The Drunk And Broken Hearted is one of Mike Rosenberg’s finest albums and, let’s face it, if you’re a fan you already know that he has made many wonderful albums to date. It’s like he has taken his very strongest characteristics and distilled it into into ten perfect songs, with the theme of loss and longing prevailing throughout. If you’re currently suffering heartbreak, this album may be almost unbearable to listen to, such is the intensity of the emotion and how relatable so many of the lyrics are. If you’re not, then this album will take you back to a time in your life when that special somebody shattered your heart to pieces; it’s the quintessential break-up album.

The beautiful brass section on Remember To Forget combined with the aching, melancholy lyrics is surely one of the album’s most poignant moments, as is the sublime trumpet solo at the conclusion of the haunting, Latin-influenced Sandstorm. There are so many lump-in-the-throat, immaculately observed moments on the album, mostly presented in a honest, acoustic form with Mike’s weary voice at the fore, like a friend confessing his deepest feelings across the table in a quiet pub. Perhaps the odd track out is What You’re Waiting For, which has a guitar riff that wouldn’t be out of place on a Smiths composition.

There is not one piece of filler here, not a single misstep or faltering moment; it’s all immaculately arranged, performed and recorded. Songs For The Drunk And Broken Hearted is truthful, emotive and gently magnificent, although it does make me want to give Mike a big hug and tell him that everything is going to be alright. Not that the album is a complete downer or at all depressing, but the theme of this album is all-too relatable and, man, can you tell that he knows what he’s singing about. There aren’t going to be too many albums better than this one in 2021.

Classic Album Review: David Ford – The Arrangement (2014)

Seven songs. So, does that make this a short album or an EP? I’ve decided, personally, that, in the same spirit of The Divine Comedy’s “A Short Album About Love”, a piece of work that was written and recorded with equal intricate care and attention, it qualifies as a short album, but does it really matter? What is actually important is that, whatever you want to call it, we have seven newly recorded songs by Eastbourne songsmith David Ford and they’re all top notch. Fulfilling something that had been on his wish-list for a while, David has recorded “The Arrangement” with a string quartet, working with cellist Nicole Robson to compose interesting and inventive scores for the four string instruments to complement and colour the songs. Those fans who have attended David’s shows over the past couple of years will perhaps recognise quite a few of the songs on this release and, if they share my opinion of them, will be extremely pleased to see them available to own and enjoy, time and time again… and presented in such a beautiful way. There are six Ford originals and a cover version of Oscar Brown Jr.’s sixties soul gem “The Snake” (popular on the UK Northern Soul scene in the seventies), which David makes his own with a typically expressive and delicious vocal performance.

“The Arrangement” features a nice balanced mix of songs and people who have particularly enjoyed the bittersweet compositions David excelled in during the early days of his solo career will love “This Will All Count For Nothing”, “Fireworks”, “One Of These Days” and “Morning Is Broken”; you could almost call these songs classic Ford. “This Will All Count For Nothing” is a beauteous piece, more than a little weary and jaded, with a reserved, understated vocal line and an interesting choice for the album opener. “Fireworks” is a more bright, straight-forward sunny ballad, but it’s a corker, brimming with uplifting chord changes, chiming tubular bells, and the kind of romantic realism that David can’t seem to help but express; the sentiment and the song are gratifyingly heart-warming. “One Of These Days” is a song I have wanted to hear recorded, ever since I heard David perform it with dizzyingly talented New Jersey singer-songwriter Emily Grove almost a couple of years ago. It is an achingly gorgeous piece and the studio recording has captured the pain and vulnerability of a broken love impeccably, providing the same emotional punch that caused a moistening of my eyes during their live performances. There is a hint of the songwriting style Leonard Cohen, or perhaps even Neil Diamond at his most introspective, on “Morning Is Broken”, with a piano performance reminiscent of seventies Elton John; irrespective of any discernible influence, it’s a great piece.

The final track, “O’Sullivan’s Jukebox” sees David imagining himself in a parallel universe as a barfly in an Eastbourne pub which closed down shortly after he started frequenting it as a young man. Imagining that the pub had stayed open and he had spent all his time and money in the place instead of living the life that he has, it’s a funny and entertaining listen, with a characteristic swipe at the investment bankers who play with others’ money. On an album full of excellent songs, it’s excruciatingly difficult to pick a favourite, but if I was pressed, I would probably choose “Devil Come Take This Town”; with its thumping percussion, choppy, frantic violin riff, chanting refrain and bluesy guitar, it sounds like the kind of soul-stirring music that emanates from the southern states of the USA, not the southern counties of England. At just over twenty-three minutes long, it is possible that Ford fans will be left wanting more by the end, which comes all too soon, but each one of the seven songs is superb and would be stand-out tracks on any of David’s previous long players. Quality, not quantity, is on offer here, all delivered by some excellent musicians; it’s the kind of arrangement I really can’t argue with.

This review was written by Andy Sweeney and originally published on http://www.sonicabuse.com in 2014.

Classic Album Review: The Fiction Aisle – Heart Map Rubric (2015)

The past becomes a chain, hanging down around my neck.” (Blue)
As tears roll down… and wash away the blood and the dirt.” (Outskirts)
One by one, every one you’ve ever known is going to go, nothing is sure.” (Each & Every One)

As break-up albums go, if you can fit as complex an album this is into such a category, this one deserves to join classics such as Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours as examples of near-perfect art that encapsulates the hurt, the complexity and bewilderingly wide range of emotions that poor souls who have experienced the wounding body-blows of a nasty split from a once-in-a-lifetime love affair. The Fiction Aisle’s début, Heart Map Rubric, not only documents one of the roughest emotional tribulations we can face as human beings, but this group of musicians do it with such style and feeling that the resulting music is nothing less than devastatingly beautiful. Although songwriter Thomas White is no stranger to releasing remarkable music (as part of The Electric Soft Parade and Brakes, as well as a handful of fine solo albums and his many other projects), realising this particular musical vision, this unique edgy, sophisticated indie-lounge act, resplendent with clarinets, trumpet, jazz-influenced piano solos and more chords in one song than an average indie band manages in a whole career, has to be his crowning accomplishment in his musical career so far, a career that has shown us more than a few flashes of his compositional genius. Yes, genius. A vastly overused word in the artistic world, but if you listen to Heart Map Rubric, then by the end of the third or fourth repeat play, I’m willing to bet that you’re going to have agree with me, because these dozen songs are exceptional, every single one of them.

All I ask is a kiss, what’s a kiss between the two of us?” (The Colour Of Morning)
All the love in heaven is nothing without you.” (The Sea Rolls On Forever)

This is music for the mind, heart and soul. Lyrics that are deeply personal, brutally honest, like reading diary entries that you feel almost guilty discovering; hearing Thomas take ownership of mistakes, revealing the still fresh wounds of love gone wrong and his overwhelming urge to find peace and understanding, there are so many themes throughout this album that many of us will understand and recognise. Touching, romantic sentiments are thoughtfully dispersed throughout the songs, but they are always steeped in reality, without any vague hint of mawkish cliché or possible perceived lack of sincerity; you believe he means every single word. As for the music, it’s the perfect marriage of word and sound; a masterclass in melody, timing and dynamics. Craig Chapman’s glorious trumpet punctuates, consoles and persuades, Alan Grice’s piano colours between the lines, weaves paths and takes us to a higher plane and Thomas’ voice has the perfect balance of power, conviction and fragility to hold us hanging on his every word. Alex White’s drumming demonstrates the near-telepathic musical link he holds with his brother by turning in a beautifully measured performance, while Louis MacGillivray and Jordan Duggie glue it all together with their rhythm guitar and bass, leaving Adam Kidd to conjure up some weird and wonderful ambient guitar noises to further enhance each track.

I’m wide-eyed, I’m still wide-eyed, oh, at the wonder of us.” (New Year’s Day)
It seems strange how a love can swiftly change/All at once harmony re-arranged” (What’s A Man To Do?)

I’m not going to walk through the songs, dissecting and describing every track for you, sorry. Heart Map Rubric is a journey you should take on your own, without interruption, in a linear fashion. Start at the very beginning, shut yourself in somewhere, preferably a darkened room with a glass of something warming and just listen until you get to the very end. Appreciate every single note. It’s a masterpiece. It literally makes me weep in places with both heavy-hearted sorrow and sheer pleasure; sometimes both, at the same time. I can’t easily give you my personal picks on the album, because the entirety of the hour spent listening to The Fiction Aisle is one I’m entirely emotionally invested in. I can, however, say that there aren’t many songs written that can hold a candle to What’s A Man To Do?, The Colour Of Morning or Soon Enough The Morning Comes and that Blue, Love Come Save Me, Each & Every One, Fears, Major Seventh (previously released as A Promise Kept), Outskirts and The Sea Rolls On Forever are all substantially better than the vast majority of music I’ve heard this year. Don’t get me wrong, there have been many excellent albums released in 2015, but none of them come close to the sheer emotional impact Heart Map Rubric has had on me. It’s not just my favourite album of this year, it has become one of my very favourite records of all time, certainly on a par with Electric Soft Parade’s “Idiots” (2013), if not very slightly eclipsing it with the sheer emotional punch Heart Map Rubric leaves me woozily reeling from. If I were to do something as crass as giving this album marks out of ten, it’d have to be a full double figured answer and, as music fans know, there aren’t that many genuine ten out of ten albums out there, but this is one of them. If you don’t believe me, there’s only one way to find out.

Best Tracks: What’s A Man To Do?, The Colour Of Morning, Soon Enough The Morning Comes, Blue, Love Come Save Me, Each & Every One, Fears, Major Seventh, Outskirts, The Sea Rolls On Forever.

Classic Album Review: Queen – Greatest Hits

Queen’s Greatest Hits was first released on 26th October, 1981, nearly forty years ago, and with worldwide sales of over 25 million copies, it went on to be one of the best selling albums of all time. My first copy was a cassette version which I bought, if I remember correctly, at the age of fourteen, and it was the start of a life-long fandom of one of the greatest rock bands the United Kingdom (and Zanzibar) have ever produced. It covered the first seven years of the band’s output and remains an incredible statement of the group’s talent. Now, in 2021, it receives a re-release with all digitally remastered tracks partly to celebrate its 40th anniversary and also, I assume, to generate some more money for the band after their recent resurgence that happened with the release of their 2018 Freddie Mercury-centred biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.

Queen are a bit of a “love them or hate them” type of band, most likely because of their tendency towards pomp and flamboyance. It was that personality, along with the members’ incredible musicianship, that first attracted me to them. Once I’d bought Queen’s Greatest Hits, it led to an almost obsessive need to buy everything they’d ever done, so I think it’s fair to say that Greatest Hits is a gateway drug to the much harder stuff. Hardcore Queen fans, such as myself, will probably argue that Greatest Hits doesn’t delve deep enough into their material from that era to be a true representation of their output and talent between 1973 and 1980, but will mostly ultimately concede that it is also an utterly perfect listening experience from start to finish and that there were very few bands who could boast such an immaculate hits compilation, let alone from only the first third of their entire catalogue. They were also unique in having four songwriters in the band, all of whom scored huge hits with their individual compositions, although it has to be noted that Queen’s Greatest Hits is very much dominated by Mercury and May’s songs. Also, while Queen also featured one world-class singer and frontman, they also had two very good singers in Brian May and Roger Taylor, with Taylor able to reach higher notes than Freddie himself; together they created amazing harmonies that were an important part of the Queen sound.

Queen are an iconic band and, most fittingly, it is their most iconic song that introduces the compilation, Bohemian Rhapsody. Even as a kid, I thought it was quite brave to begin a Greatest Hits compilation with the definitive Queen track, but thankfully Greatest Hits is full of sheer quality that, while never quite repeating the inspired genius of Mercury’s six minute rock opera, it never feels as if the standard of songwriting dips below the high bar set by their most famous song. I imagine there must have been quite a few conversations about how the album was going to be sequenced, but I think they got it spot on. John Deacon’s funk-stomper, Another One Bites The Dust, immediately transports the listener to another frame of mind entirely and while the emotions have barely recovered from Bohemian Rhapsody, already the heart is thumping and your feet are tapping along to the insisting groove while Freddie gives one of his trademark impassioned performances. Killer Queen, one of Freddie’s finest compositions, with its grandiose lyrics and the unique tones of Brian May’s intricate and magical guitar work is utterly winning; a song that never fails to put a wide smile across my face.

The single version of Fat Bottomed Girls, from 1978’s Jazz album, is Brian May’s first contribution to Greatest Hits and, perhaps, just perhaps, this track hasn’t aged as well as some of the others. While it boasts some cracking guitar work and riffs, it feels more like a pastiche that a band such as Steel Panther would enthusiastically perform, rather than one of Queen’s top tracks. Do I still like it? Sure, of course, naturally. However, how much of that is familiarity and nostalgia rather than an objective viewpoint? Perhaps it’s best not to overthink these things; it was the seventies, after all. The same argument could apply to the next track, Bicycle Race. Personally, I think it’s a fun, funky track that really shouldn’t be taken too seriously, but the amount of people that cite this particular song as the reason they can’t stand Queen can’t be ignored.

John Deacon’s second track on the compilation is the tender, heartfelt You’re My Best Friend, which he wrote for his wife. It’s just such a beautiful feel-good song that walks the line of emotion and sentimentality perfectly. Following on from such a touching track is the exuberant hedonistic anthem, Don’t Stop Me Now. This is a sublime example of Freddie Mercury at his very best, a piano-driven rock classic that is, I think, one of the most catchy, irresistible songs ever written. Almost the polar opposite, and finishing what used to be side one on records and cassettes, is Brian May’s Save Me, a dramatic ballad of lost love and vulnerability, one of the highlights of their 1980 album, The Game. Side two opens with the maddeningly-catchy, Elvis-aping three chord wonder that Freddie famously wrote in the bath, Crazy Little Thing Called Love. Interestingly, as a tribute to the Elvis feel of the recording, it’s one of the very few tracks that Brian May doesn’t play his trademark hand-built Red Special guitar, instead opting for a Fender Esquire to try to capture that authentic sound.

Such is the eclectic nature of the band, we transition from rockabilly to gospel immediately with one of Freddie’s seminal compositions, Somebody To Love. This song, for me, is an example of Queen at their finest; melodies that make your heart soar, committed vocal and instrumental performances that add to the conviction of the piece, and earworm refrains that you can’t help but sing along with. After such a rousing piece, we’re treated to Now I’m Here, a Brian May-penned guitar extravaganza from 1974’s Sheer Heart Attack that was surely purposely written to perform live, name-checking Mott The Hoople who Queen once toured with. Next up is a complete change of pace, with the delightfully camp Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy, a carefree piano led romp featuring gorgeous harmonies and an inspired solo from Brian. Play The Game, written by Freddie, is a more serious study of love and relationships, and a magnificent song that I feel is perhaps underrated in their catalogue.

Flash is the newest song that features on Greatest Hits; a single version of the theme tune from the hit 1980 sci-fi film, Flash Gordon, which Queen provided the soundtrack for. Typically dramatic and flamboyant, while being a minor footnote in Queen’s career, it’s still one of those tracks that stays in your mind for days after you’ve heard it, whether you want it to or not. Perhaps purposely done, we go from the most recent to the oldest track on the compilation, Seven Seas Of Rhye, the fans’ favourite from 1974’s Queen II album (interestingly, there is nothing on Greatest Hits from Queen’s eponymous 1973 debut album). To finish the album, there are the two almost intrinsically-linked songs which are almost as iconic as Bohemian Rhapsody; they are, of course, We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions, both from the 1977 album News Of The World. Brian May’s We Will Rock You was specifically written for live performance, to encourage interaction between the band and the fans and became one of the band’s most recognisable anthems. Also written with audience sing-alongs in mind, Mercury’s We Are The Champions is one of their most uplifting, rousing moments and finishes the Greatest Hits album as strongly as it started.

In 2014 the Telegraph stated that one in three British households own a copy of Queen’s Greatest Hits (it remains the top selling album of all time in the United Kingdom), so there are a huge amount of people out there well acquainted with this album. Realistically speaking, the vast majority of people, especially the younger generation, tend to stream music these days and don’t even own a CD player, so I’m not sure what the sales of this newly re-released version of Greatest Hits are going to look like. However, this isn’t just an album, this is the soundtrack to millions of lives over the past forty years. People will have worn their copies out, be they original vinyl or cassette; some people will have the original CD release which, believe me, doesn’t sound as good as these digital remasters (remastered in 2011 along with the rest of the Queen catalogue), so this is a great opportunity to pick up a brand spanking new copy of Greatest Hits which will not only bring all those memories flooding back, but will also sound better than ever. Just a warning, though: if this is your very first Queen album, I can guarantee you that it won’t be your last… but as addictions go, this is one of the better ones.

Classic Album Review: The Electric Light Orchestra (and Olivia Newton-John) – “Xanadu – Original Soundtrack” (1980)

ELO XanaduFull disclosure here: I’m writing this review because of my interest in The Electric Light Orchestra and have to admit that I feel utterly indifferent to Olivia Newton-John’s music; it is not something that has ever interested nor offended me (although I do think “Physical” is rather awful). Honestly, I am not writing these words to upset fans of the film or of Olivia, Cliff or anyone else to do with the project. Sadly, I do think it’s a shame that Jeff Lynne and the Electric Light Orchestra had anything to do with the 1980 film “Xanadu”, such was the negative critical response. It was named amongst the worst films of the year by critics and was even an inspiration for the Golden Raspberry Awards, formed specifically to ‘honour’ bad motion pictures. However, the silver lining to this cloud is the handful of excellent Lynne-penned songs which appear in the film and, subsequently, on the soundtrack. Being completely objective, I can’t say that there is much on side one of the album to interest me and the fact that ELO share a soundtrack with Cliff Richard is one that causes an uncomfortable shifting in my seat. Unfortunately, these songs comprise half of the record, so it would be wrong to ignore them and just pretend they weren’t there… as much as I would like to.

Each of the five songs on the first half of the album are written by John Farrar, a successful songwriter and long-time collaborator with Olivia Newton-John (he wrote “Have You Never Been Mellow”, as well as “Hopelessly Devoted To You” and “You’re The One That I Want” on the “Grease” soundtrack), so his track record is impressive. Indeed, opening song “Magic” was a number one single in the USA, so he worked his magic (sorry) on this soundtrack too, but I’m going to have to disagree with millions of record buying Americans, because I find it inoffensive, but really rather bland. The duet with Cliff Richard, “Suddenly”, is a well-written, melodic song with a chorus that will have pleased many ears at the time, but it’s way too slushy and sugary for my taste. “Dancin’” features San Francisco rock band The Tubes and is a rather strange track that splices a peppy Andrews Sisters-type vocal harmony song with a rather straight forward (and very eighties-sounding) rock track. Oddly enough, it’s so strange that it’s probably my favourite out of the first five tracks. Sadly, with the ballad “Suspended In Time”, we’re back to pop so sugary, they had to put warnings for diabetics on the front cover and the big band jazz of “Whenever You’re Away From Me”, performed with Gene Kelly, is pleasant but way too light, lacking the kind of punch the song and style calls for. On the whole, Farrar’s side isn’t absolutely terrible, but I have to admit to being relieved when it is over and very rarely revisit those five songs.

So, onto side two of the album, which is completely comprised of Jeff Lynne compositions. If you’re anything like me, these five songs will be the only reason to consider adding it to your collection. Luckily, there are just enough Jeff Lynne gems on offer here to make the whole soundtrack a worthwhile purchase. “I’m Alive” is the first track on the ELO portion of the album and is a cracker just for the melody line alone, never mind the sweeping Louis Clark strings and joyful, life-affirming character. The lesser of the five songs is “The Fall”, which almost sounds like a re-written “I’m Alive” but the haunting “Don’t Walk Away” sees Jeff making the very most of a classic chord progression by delivering a beautiful, emotionally effecting vocal performance. The catchy “All Over The World” has enough energy and musical nous to overcome the slightly clichéd lyrics before the album ends with Olivia Newton-John and ELO’s version of the UK number one hit, “Xanadu”. It remains Jeff Lynne’s only ever number one hit, but it’s such a beautifully written and arranged song, it’s definitely a worthy chart-topper (I do, however, prefer the slightly more unfussy Jeff Lynne version which first appeared on the box set “Flashback”, but you can’t deny Olivia’s excellent vocals on this original).

The Electric Light Orchestra were down to a four-piece band at this moment in time (Jeff, Bev, Richard and Kelly) and their work for this soundtrack very much sounds like an extension of the same kind of danceable pop style that 1979’s “Discovery” was centred around, especially “All Over The World” and “I’m Alive”, whereas “Don’t Walk Away”, with those sparkling synthesisers, could easily have been an album track on their previous record. Everything on this record is good, catchy pop music, but, objectively, there isn’t a composition on this soundtrack, with the exception of “Xanadu” itself that measures up to the vast majority of songs on either “A New World Record” or “Out Of The Blue”. ELO fans will certainly want a copy of this soundtrack to complete their collection, but this is most definitely the least essential purchase out of all of their albums, especially given the fact that they don’t appear on half of it. Unless, of course, you love Olivia Newton-John or, even less likely, the film itself (which I attempted to watch once and couldn’t sit through), in which case, you probably own this already and disagree with most of what I’ve had to say. In my defence, the current score on the Internet Movie Database (imdb) for this film, according to users, is a lowly five out of ten. If you go purely by professional critics, that average drops to three and a half. It’s a cult classic, but I’m happy to not be part of that particular cult, other than enjoying Jeff Lynne’s contributions. Sorry.

***

Classic Album Review: The Electric Light Orchestra – “Discovery” (1979)

ELO Discovery

Disco? Very. 1979 was the year when Jeff Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra embraced the smooth, slick sounds of disco that dominated the charts at the time, making one of the most noticeable changes of direction they’d embarked on for a while. Although commercially successful (it stayed at number one in the album charts for five weeks), a large proportion of ELO fans were rather unimpressed by Jeff’s follow-up to the magnificent “Out Of The Blue” and, to many, was a step in the wrong direction. The fact that violinist Mik Kaminski and cellists Hugh McDowell and Melvyn Gale do not appear on the album (and were subsequently dismissed for being surplus to requirements after the promo videos for the album were made) is indicative that Lynne wanted to dramatically change things. Still, in terms of sales and popularity, Lynne’s band were still riding high and the collection of radio-friendly pop songs, “Discovery”, contains many tracks that would be considered stalwarts of ELO greatest hits compilations. Whether you believe that this album measures up to any of the band’s other albums made during their most commercially successful era is simply a matter of taste.

The stomping disco vibes of “Shine A Little Love” provide a classy start to the album and the joyful, uplifting “Confusion” is one of the instant highlights, resplendent with dramatic kettle drum fills. The longing, tender “Need Her Love” is a rather lovely song, although I’m really not sure about the wince-inducing line “she tries to sing”, and “The Diary Of Horace Wimp” is a flamboyant slice of excellent songwriting, arguably marred by the rather excessive Vocoder use, that boasts a beautifully Beatlesque ending. “Last Train To London” is a superb song with both an irresistible bassline and an infectious chorus and is probably Jeff’s best disco-inspired composition. “Midnight Blue” is utterly gorgeous, although I’d have much preferred it with the kind of instrumentation and arrangement it would have received on, for example, “A New World Record”, rather than being so synthesiser-heavy. The high energy “On The Run”, with its bouncy, catchy melody could easily have been a single whereas “Wishing”, a perfectly likeable but ordinary offering, is probably the only track which really couldn’t have been. The album finishes with the monster hit, “Don’t Bring Me Down”, a bass-heavy track with a thumping beat and memorable chorus. From a compositional point of view, it’s a simplistic, rather formulaic track, but Jeff proves once again his knack of transforming it into something that sounds so much more accomplished.

“Discovery” leaves me conflicted more than any other album in the Electric Light Orchestra catalogue. Conflicted because, although I really like and enjoy every song on the record and there are some undeniably brilliant tracks, there’s something about the whole project that doesn’t quite match up to much of Jeff’s previous work. It is a hugely commercial collection of songs and nearly every song a potential single, but if you compare it with the most ambitious and grandiose moments of “Out Of The Blue”, the polished pop sheen of “Discovery” with the contemporary soul/disco influences Jeff incorporated into the style of the music feels a little superficial, in comparison. It is, therefore, almost annoying that the songs are this good; it’s very difficult to seriously criticise a meticulously crafted, thoroughly enjoyable album where over half of the tracks were hit singles. Regardless of the obviously quality and commercial appeal of “Discovery”, it remains one of the very few ELO albums I hardly listen to. If I’m completely honest, as an entire album it leaves me a little cold and even the most emotionally engaging songs on the album (“Confusion”, “Need Her Love”, “Midnight Blue”) struggle to touch the heartstrings through the synthesisers and pop sheen. Although this is an exceedingly listenable record, this really isn’t the Electric Light Orchestra I fell in love with and, as catchy as much of this material is, it will never be one of my favourite ELO releases. A great cover of Del Shannon’s “Little Town Flirt” as a bonus track on the 2001 remastered version sweetens the deal a little, however.

****

Classic Album Review: The Electric Light Orchestra – “Out Of The Blue” (1977)

ELO Out Of The Blue

The Electric Light Orchestra’s “Out Of The Blue” is the kind of record that many ELO fans never name as their favourite; like The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper”, it’s the kind of legendary album that is just so obviously good, people will automatically choose another title to champion as their personal pick. It almost goes without saying that it’s one of the best pieces of work Jeff Lynne has written, performed and produced, but I’m not going to just assume people know that and, for the record, would like to happily state that I believe “Out Of The Blue” to be a work of genius. You only have to scan the titles of the songs to recognise more than a handful of massively popular hits (“Turn To Stone”, “Sweet Talkin’ Woman”, “Mr. Blue Sky”, “Wild West Hero”), but, as this is a double album, you’d probably expect the vast majority of the album to be excellent if anyone declared it a work of genius, right? Well, “Out Of The Blue” meets all of these expectations in so many ways and, although there are a handful of tracks which perhaps fall short of greatness, the overall character of this work is one of overwhelming, remarkable prolific creativity. Indeed, although I believe “A New World Record” (1976) to be Jeff’s most flawless work, “Out Of The Blue” is his magnum opus, his greatest achievement. He made excellent albums before and after this one, but his one and only double album has a worthy place in history as his most commercially and critically successful.

At the start of the album are two of the most radio-friendly hits, the shimmering, catchy “Turn To Stone” and the gloriously overblown “Sweet Talkin’ Woman”, with the grandiose piano ballad “It’s Over” (also a single, but not a very successful one) sandwiched in between. The dramatic Richard Tandy piano on it is breathtakingly beautiful and, such is the emotional nature of the track, the fact it shares its title with a Roy Orbison song doesn’t appear at all coincidental. With its driving tempo and energy-packed string section, “Across The Border” is an terrific rocker whereas the brilliant “Night In The City” has a trapped, intense feel to it, frenetic, edgy strings giving the track a wonderfully paranoid quality; both tracks could easily have been singles. The dreamy, lush “Starlight” evokes memories of those big American orchestral numbers from the thirties and forties (with a discernible ELO character, naturally) and “Jungle” is utterly charming, with an excellent percussion section and a ridiculously catchy hook. It’s wonderfully silly, of course, but so much detail has been packed into four minutes, it’s almost impossible to not love it.

Jeff’s love of dramatic, big, emotional music is evident on “Believe Me Now”, a reverb-drenched mostly instrumental track which serves as in introduction to “Steppin’ Out”, one of the greatest moments on “Out Of The Blue”, being one of Lynne’s heart-wrenching tear-jerkers, a remarkably beautiful composition full of both sadness and hope, masterfully augmented by Louis Clark’s magnificent string arrangements. Arguably, the most artistically ambitious moment of the album comes on what was side three of the original vinyl double album, the “Concerto For A Rainy Day”, four songs that run together consecutively, starting with the adrenaline fuelled “Standin’ In The Rain” and culminating in perhaps ELO’s most loved song, “Mr. Blue Sky”. Inspired by Jeff writing music in a Swiss chalet and being interrupted by torrential rain beating on the door, it’s actually difficult to hear this sequence of four songs without becoming rather awestruck at the sheer genius and accomplishment of Lynne’s compositional ability. “Big Wheels”, for example, the second song in this concerto, is one of the most magnificent pieces of music on the album, arguably of of Jeff Lynne’s greatest songs, and yet a casual listener owning only a greatest hits would never have heard it. The exuberant “Summer and Lightning” is no weak link either, with the breezy, summery melody drifting over blissful harmonies and sublime strings.

What can be said about “Mr. Blue Sky” to do it justice? This irrepressible five minutes of wistful, sentimental, optimistic loveliness bounces along and makes the listener feel, for just a short while, that everything is right with the world. The chorus, the orchestra, the superb performance by Bev Bevan, adding little flourishes on ride cymbal… are there many moments in popular music more perfect than this one? It would be perfectly understandable if any track following “Mr. Blue Sky” on an album felt flat by comparison, but it is to Lynne’s credit that the airy, romantic “Sweet Is The Night” is anything but and the close-knit backing vocals as well as Kelly Groucutt’s crystal-clear lines all result in a swooning, caressing jewel of a song. “The Whale” is a pleasant, listenable, expansive instrumental, but it and “Birmingham Blues”, a likeable song about being on the road and missing home, both suffer from being on an album with so many better compositions and, so, give the double album the impression of tiring a little towards the end. Thankfully, the last track, the magical “Wild West Hero”, conjuring up childhood memories of watching westerns and dreaming of being the courageous, capable lead in such fantastical tales, finishes the album with a last piece of Jeff Lynne genius, featuring a superb vocal performance from the man himself and a dizzying honky-tonk piano solo from Tandy.

Although “Out Of The Blue”, complete with its iconic artwork, isn’t exactly perfect (some may disagree), it hit creative heights that Lynne had yet to reach before and, arguably, has never managed to repeat since. If you were asked to be completely objective and ruthless, you could trim down the album a bit and remove the slightly novelty aspects (“Jungle” and “Birmingham Blues”) and perhaps even decide that the track listing would have an altogether greater impact without “Starlight” and “The Whale”. However, it wouldn’t surprise me if the majority of ELO fans would be horrified at such a suggestion; the supposedly lesser songs on “Out Of The Blue” are every bit as much a part of the charm of the album as the big pop songs and ballads. They provide character, texture and variety and even a little bit of comic relief to a piece of work dominated by grandiose strings and big, beautiful ballads. However, the price paid for this texture is that other albums in the Electric Light Orchestra catalogue have the appearance of being trimmer, punchier and perhaps even easier to listen to as a whole. That is the risk of double albums, of course. Even The Beatles’ “White Album” provokes discussion by fans as to whether it would have been better off as a single disc. Needless to say, I believe “Out Of The Blue” to be perfectly imperfect, very much like the Fab Four’s sprawling double album, but when you consider that the songs on The Electric Light Orchestra’s 1977 album were written by just one person, the bearded bard of Birmingham, it makes Jeff’s accomplishment here that much more impressive.

*****

Classic Album Review: The Electric Light Orchestra – “The Night The Light Went On (In Long Beach)” (1974)

ELO Long Beach

For years, “The Night The Light Went On (In Long Beach)” was the only officially released live album available from The Electric Light Orchestra. Naturally, like any other popular band, there were (and still are) unofficial albums and bootlegs available, but, rather strangely, despite a hugely successful concert captured on film and subsequently released on video (“Live At Wembley 1978”), Jeff shied away from any further live releases. This gig, recorded in Long Beach, California, USA on 12th May, 1974 (not long after the band had started to record their fourth studio album, “Eldorado”), received an initial, limited release at the time in Germany and a few other countries, but the poor sound, which came from an unfinished rough mix being used on the master, meant that a wider release was shelved for a number of years. It was only in 1985 when Epic were looking at re-releasing the long-deleted album on vinyl and cassette did they discover and use the originally intended mix and a version worthy of the original performance finally saw the light of day. Subsequently, when it was remastered for CD for a 1998 release, ELO fans were finally able to own a great-sounding digital representation of that electrifying night in Long Beach. The re-issues also saw a more professional looking, brighter cover replacing a rather ugly design which wouldn’t have seemed out of place advertising a horror B-movie.

The original Long Beach gig showcased ELO’s third studio album, “On The Third Day”, but the concert was heavily edited for the live record. Whether this was done for running time, sound quality, technical or performance issues really isn’t clear, but, with the exception of “Dreaming Of 4000”, their entire third album was played that evening and, sadly, many of those live versions are missing from “The Night The Light Went On”. However, I think it is important to concentrate on what is on the record, rather than what isn’t. Long Beach is the sound of a young, creative, energised band playing completely live (without the backing tapes which became a controversial feature of their gigs in the late seventies), having fun with arrangements, incorporating their classical leanings and coming across as the kind of flamboyant ELO it would have been an absolute pleasure to catch live. The lively prog-rock instrumental, “Daybreaker”, opens the show, followed by their, then, recent hit single, “Showdown” which ends up melding into a long improvised instrumental. A storming sub-seven minute version of The Beatles’ “Daytripper” sees Lynne finally complete the “prick teaser” lyric The Beatles only hinted at.

“Long Beach” boasts a lively rendition of début single “10538 Overture” which also sees a cameo of the distinctive chord riff from The Move’s “Do Ya” (at that point still yet to be re-recorded by The Electric Light Orchestra) incorporated into the ending. Mik gets to take the spotlight for a couple of minutes, performing “Mik’s Solo/Orange Blossom Special”, a fiddle hoe-down with which the rest of the band enthusiastically join in, before a full band performance of Grieg’s “In The Hall Of The Mountain King” which, bizarrely, turns into Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls Of Fire”. The finale of the show is “Roll Over Beethoven” and it’s a rip-roaring rendition, with a blistering solo by Lynne on guitar. The band sound completely on form during this whole (albeing edited) performance. Richard Tandy’s piano and keyboard work, including his Handel and Mozart classical interludes in “Daytripper”, makes him one of the stars of the show, Bev Bevan’s powerful drumming and de Alberquerque’s unfussy bass-work are the formidable backbone of the band and Jeff Lynne proves himself to not only be a thoroughly convincing frontman, but a superb lead guitarist. The string section (Mik Kaminski, Mike Edwards and Hugh McDowell) sounds beautifully vibrant, with their amplified violin and cellos a very strong presence, fleshing out the live sound superbly.

Despite not knowing exactly why the particular track listing was chosen, it is a little frustrating having live versions of “In The Hall Of The Mountain King” as well as Mik’s solo instead of some of the other songs which were performed on that night in Long Beach. As enjoyable as all of the tracks are, when you look at the original set list from the gig, there aren’t going to be many ELO fans who would choose such songs over live renditions of, for example, the four song opening suite from “On The Third Day” which were part of the show that evening, as well as “Ma Ma Ma Belle”, one of Lynne’s rawest rockers. There were documented recording problems as well as the aforementioned production errors, so perhaps good enough quality versions of other songs weren’t captured, but it would have been good to have this album re-released along with all of the other ELO titles in the early 21st Century, together with the missing material, warts and all. Ultimately, “The Night The Light Went On (In Long Beach)” is an excellent snapshot of The Electric Light Orchestra during a highly creative period of their career and a time during their history when they were still playfully mixing things up and mischievously tinkering with arrangements; quite a profound contrast to their more measured, orchestrated live character which revealed itself just a few years later. Whilst I have slight reservations regarding the choice of material that ended up on “Long Beach”, there is no denying just how enjoyable it is to listen to and will delight any ELO fan, especially those who enjoy the early era of the band.

ELO Long Beach Original

Track listing:

1. Daybreaker
2. Showdown
3. Daytripper
4. 10538 Overture
5. Mik’s Solo/Orange Blossom Special
6. In The Hall Of The Mountain King/Great Balls Of Fire
7. Roll Over Beethoven

Original set list from 12th May, 1974 (source: http://www.setlist.fm, verified by http://www.jefflynnesongs.com):

1. Daybreaker
2. Showdown
3. Daytripper
4. Ocean Breakup/King Of The Universe
5. Bluebird Is Dead
6. Oh No, Not Susan
7. New World Rising/Ocean Breakup (reprise)
8. 10538 Overture
9. Mik’s Solo/Orange Blossom Special
10. Ma Ma Ma Belle
11. In The Hall Of The Mountain King/Great Balls Of Fire
12. Roll Over Beethoven

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