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.

Album Review: Jake Hardman – Describe Yourself In 50 Words

Manchester-based musician and songwriter Jake Hardman’s debut album is the joyous sound of an open-minded individual who appears to have absorbed the very best of British music from the last forty years and channelled it all into thirteen excellent predominantly upbeat compositions that radiate freshness, talent, intelligence and humour. Listening to this immensely enjoyable record from start to finish is like an aural lightning tour of some of the finest songwriters to have graced the British Isles, such as Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford and, most notably, The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, all of them very familiar with Hardman’s storytelling, self-deprecation and tongue-in-cheek turn of verse. There also seems to be plenty of eighties electronic influence here, with some of Hardman’s more synth-pop tracks giving a nod to artists such as Pet Shop Boys, Soft Cell, and Human League. The arrangements are ambitious, fun and are comfortable drawing from pretty much any genre of music; simply put, this is intelligent pop music with a dramatic flourish that doesn’t seem to give a damn about coolness, instead concentrating on the lost art of writing relatable lyrics, a bloody good melody and, of course, remembering to include plenty of catchy choruses.

I first became aware of Jake’s work when he popped up on a Divine Comedy Facebook group doing a bit of shameless self-promotion (and why not?), plugging his latest single, Soldiers And Cowards, which he described as very Divine Comedy influenced. Indeed it was, and I’m sure Mr. Hannon himself would have been proud of the superb instrumental arrangement on this undeniably foot-tapping brass-infused song. It was enough to draw me in and leave me wanting to hear more, but I quite honestly wasn’t expecting an album of such quality, flair and aplomb. It’s not often I play a new album three times in a row for the sheer pleasure of it, but Describe Yourself In 50 Words has well and truly hooked me. Highlights, for me, include the Hannonesque “How The Other Half Live”, “The Deadly Pursuit Of Annie Benson”, which sounds like Squeeze at their most exuberant, whereas “I’m Yours And You Are Mine” shares the same compositional values that made Ben Kweller’s “Sha Sha” so irresistible. Conversely, “The World Is Testing My Patience” has the electro-pomp characteristics of the Mael brothers’ art-pop outfit Sparks and “Cone Of Shame” is another sublime synth-fest that wouldn’t have been out of place on Teleman’s 2016’s corker, “Brilliant Sanity”. The final track on the album is the piano-driven “Enough”, a beautifully written and performed ballad reminiscent of Joe Jackson at his best, which brings the record to a close in a sublime manner. The fact that this album is so varied, so eclectic, whilst still retaining a strong overall character is one of its many strengths.

Is it perfect? Perhaps not. “It’s No Fun Dancing On Your Own”, for example, has an excellent electric guitar lead in it, but the whole mix is rather messy with synths falling over each other in the mid range. However, the slightly sonically unpolished nature of some of the songs give the record the kind of charm that Mull Historical Society’s debut radiated, rather than serving as any kind of distraction. Realistically, you can sometimes tell that this album hasn’t enjoyed the benefit of the largest budget, but what has been achieved in spades throughout is showcasing twenty-one year old Hardman’s impressive, rich songwriting talent and his exceptional ear for a hook. Describe Yourself In 50 Words is full of earworms, but also has the richness of composition that will draw you in again and again, with lines you may have missed the first couple of times popping up to draw a wry smile. The very fact that there has been a physical CD release is indicative of Jake’s self-belief and, in these lean days of newer artists sticking with digital only releases, that is very much to be admired, as, indeed, is this accomplished debut. I can’t help feeling, however, that the best has yet to come.

Jake Hardman’s “Describe Yourself In 50 Words” was recorded by Chris Hughes at Oscillate Studios in Knutsford, near Manchester, and features Jake Hardman, accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Joe Cockx and drummer/percussionist Tom Wildgust. It was released on Friday 25th June, 2021 and is available now from jakehardman.bandcamp.com as well as other streaming services. This review was written by Andy Sweeney and originally published on Sunday 27th June, 2021 on the excellent Manchester music ‘blog: https://www.eventhestars.co.uk/

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.

andrewdsweeney’s 50 Favourite Albums of 2015

Hello, and thanks for clicking on this link.  If you don’t know me, I’m Andy and I’m not only a fan of (what I’d call) good music, but I’m a big advocate of the album, a true contemporary art form which is constantly under threat by the pick ‘n’ mix culture of instantly accessible, downloadable digital music and the fact that, basically, there’s not much money in making albums for the vast majority of artists these days, unless you have sold your soul to Simon Cowell or your name is Adele.  The fact that I can still buy, listen to and enjoy so much new music these days is testament to the creative spirit and determination of hundreds of brilliant, determined musicians who still want to make albums.  I thank them and extend my sincere gratitude for their work and for keeping the album alive, even if they don’t appear on my “end of year” list.

 

I’ve listened to over a hundred new studio albums this year.  When I say listened, I mean bought the album and given each one my undivided attention from start to finish, like I believe an album is meant to be heard.  I’ve then uploaded those albums onto my portable music player and hit the random button so that I’ve been able to listen to individual songs, without the context of the album.  In short, I’ve listened to a stack load of music this year, some of it great, some not so great.  However, out of the hundred plus albums I bought this year, I created a shortlist of seventy-five and have now ruthlessly whittled it down to fifty albums.  Fifty albums I think represent the best of the year and certainly fifty that I can call my absolute favourites.  So, here they are…

 

50.  Mr. Hyde’s Wild Ride – Piney Gir

Piney

 

49.  Dream Soda – Demob Happy

Demob Happy

48.  Rattle That Lock – David Gilmour

David Gilmour

47.  The Light In You – Mercury Rev

Mercury Rev

46.  Better Than Home – Beth Hart

Beth Hart

45.  What Green Feels Like – Eaves

Eaves

44.  Poison Season – Destroyer

Destroyer Poison Season

43.  Architect – C Duncan

C Duncan

42.  Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit – Courtney Barnett

Courtney

41.  Look Out Machines! – Duke Special

Duke Special

40.  Sea Of Brass – British Sea Power

BSP

39.  Outsiders – Jessie Malin

Jesse Malin Outsiders

38.  Highest Point In Cliff Town – Hooton Tennis Club

Hooton Tennis Club Highest Point

37.  Courting The Squall – Guy Garvey

Guy Garvey

36.  Saturn’s Pattern – Paul Weller

Paul Weller Saturn

35.  Krugerrands – Ian McNabb

ian mcnabb k

34.  Limit Of Love – Boy and Bear

Boy and Bear

33.  Blur – The Magic Whip

Blur Magic

32.  The Fine Art Of Hanging On  – The Leisure Society

Leisure Society Fine Art

31.  Primrose Green – Ryley Walker

Ryley Walker

30.  Ripe – Slug

Slug Ripe

29.  Songs Of Absolution – The Citizens

R-6914070-1429393600-7398.jpeg

28.  Constant Bop – Bop English

Bop English Constant Bop

27.  Hand. Cannot. Erase. – Steven Wilson

Steven Wilson Hand

26.  The Artful Execution Of Macho Bimbo – Clowwns

Clowwns Macho Bimbo

25.  Ash – Kablammo!

Ash Kablammo

24.  Yours, Dreamily – The Arcs

Arcs

23.  Blackbirds – Gretchen Peters

Gretchen Peters Blackbirds

22.  Hollow Meadows – Richard Hawley

Richard Hawley Hollow

21.  Anthems For Doomed Youth – The Libertines

Libs

20.  Carousel One – Ron Sexsmith

Ron Sexsmith Carousel

19.  Sermon On The Rocks – Josh Ritter

Josh Ritter Sermon

18.  Eyes Wide, Tongue Tied – The Fratellis

 

Fratellis

17.  Sun Leads Me On – Half Moon Run

Half Moon Run

16.  Whispers II – Passenger

Passenger Whispers II

15.  Wisdom, Laughter & Lines – Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott

Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott

14.  Still Got That Hunger – The Zombies

Zombies

13.  Let’s Hear It For The Dogs – The Proclaimers

Proclaimers Dogs

12.  FFS – FFS

FFS

11.  A Comfortable Man – Cathal Smyth

Cathal Smyth

10.  Soroky – Andrew Wasylyk

Andrew Wasylyk Soroky

9.  So There – Ben Folds

Ben Folds So There

8.  Still – Richard Thompson

516MCSniKfL

7.  Fast Forward – Joe Jackson

Joe Jackson Fast Forward

6.  Alone In The Universe – Jeff Lynne’s ELO

JLELO

5.  Perpetual Motion People – Ezra Furman

Ezra Furman PMP

4.  I Love You, Honeybear – Father John Misty

Father John Misty Honeybear

3.  Play This Intimately (As If Among Friends) – Pugwash

Pugwash Play

2.  Cradle To The Grave – Squeeze

Squeeze Cradle

1.  Heart Map Rubric – The Fiction Aisle

Fiction Aisle Heart Map Rubric

…and that’s it.  My personal picks for 2015.  Thanks for reading and, hopefully, this will inspire a few people to check out some of the favourites listed here.  If you want the music to continue, make sure you support the artists!

Wishing you all a happy, music-filled 2016!

 

The Best 50 Albums Of 2014 (according to andrewdsweeney)

Welcome – and thanks for reading!  Without further ado, here is my annual round up my favourite albums of 2014… it hasn’t been a bad year for music at all.  The death of the album has definitely been exaggerated.

Paul and Jacqui

andrewdsweeney’s Top 50 Favourite Albums Of 2014

1. Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott – What Have We Become 2. GOASTT – Midnight Sun 3. Roddy Frame – Seven Dials 4. Manic Street Preachers – Futurology 5. The Burning Hell – People 6. David J Roch – A Cynic, A Realist, An Undertaker 7. Weezer – Everything Will Be Alright In The End 8. Eels – The Cautionary Tales Of Mark Oliver Everett 9. David Ford – The Arrangement 10. John Fullbright – Songs 11. Mark Chadwick – Moment 12. The Hazey Janes – Language Of Faint Theory 13. Gruff Rhys – American Interior 14. Emily Grove – The Life Of A Commoner 15. Nick Mulvey – First Mind 16. Tim Wheeler – Lost Domain 17. Passenger – Whispers 18. Nicole Atkins – Slow Phaser 19. Mark Morriss – A Flash Of Darkness 20. Roger Daltrey & Wilko Johnson – Going Back Home 21. Martin Carr – The Breaks 22. Jack White – Lazaretto 23. Gary Page – The Age Of Constant Pressure 24. Rival Sons – Great Western Valkyrie 25. Band Of Skulls – Himalayan 26. Boy & Bear – Harlequin Dream 27. Eddi Reader – Vagabond 28. First We Take Manhattan – Stitch 29. Beck – Morning Phase 30. Morrissey – World Peace Is None Of Your Business 31. Matt Berry – Music For Insomniacs 32. Elbow – The Take Off And Landing Of Everything 33. Tony Wright – Thoughts ‘n’ All 34. Joe Bonamassa – Different Shades Of Blue 35. Walter Trout – The Blues Came Callin’ 36. Ed Harcourt – Time Of Dust 37. James – La Petite Mort 38. The Both – The Both 39. Findlay Napier – VIP: Very Interesting Persons 40. Glenn Tilbrook – Happy Ending 41. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – Hypnotic Eye 42. Johnny Marr – Playland 43. Space – Attack Of The Mutant 50ft Kebab 44. The Black Keys – Turn Blue 45. The Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band – Goin’ Home 46. Yusuf – Tell ‘Em I’m Gone 47. Imelda May – Tribal 48. Ray LaMontagne – Supernova 49. John Hiatt – Terms Of My Surrender 50. Thompson – Family

All albums I have personally written a review for have a clickable link to my thoughts about the album.  In the unlikely event that I manage to get round to reviewing the others, I will update the list with the links.

GOASTT Midnight Sun

So, no room for the worthy releases by Foo Fighters, Damien Rice, Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Jenny Lewis, Royal Blood, Tori Amos, Live, Henry Priestman and Robert Plant, who all just missed out on the Top 50.

If I had to pick one disappointment, it would be Embrace’s effort.  I don’t see the point of making an album where you give up your own sound just to sound like every other generic contemporary ‘indie’ band, personally.

Once again, thanks for reading and here’s to a great year of music in 2015.  Best wishes to you all!

Andy Sweeney, 6th December, 2014.

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.

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