Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

Tony Banks Still (1991)


It is peculiar: Every new Genesis album with Phil Collins as a singer sold better than its predecessor, but exactly the opposite is true for the solo records of the man who is considered the creative head of the band. Tony Banks has never managed to even come near the solo success his band mates have enjoyed. Shortly before Genesis would conquer the world again in 1991 Tony released another solo album, Still.

Still could mean: “I still try”, or that he wants to make an impression. It can be understood in many ways. Still was underrated, it had to have become a hit in the early 90s. For Still is a formidable pop rock album that is direct but still rather deep – and it cannot hide the fact that Tony Banks was the driving force behind it.

When you listen to the album you will notice four singers besides Tony: Jayney Klimek, who has already sung on Bankstatement, Nik Kershaw, Andy Taylor and none other than Fish with whom Tony recorded Shortcut To Nowhere. You can criticize these multi-vocalist tactics for it does make the album less coherent, but it adds brilliancy. Using a female voice in particular adds a special air.

Tony sings one song on the album. Many consider Hero For An Hour the flippant weak point of the album. It seems it was not thought through, perhaps as a kind of filler. So much for the weaknesses of the album.

Fish sings two songs on the album. The first one, Angel Face, is the kind of ballad that is not so rare in the prog rock scene. What makes the slow song special are Fish’s voice and the fact that Tony has developed a talent for writing great pop songs. Angel Face was a potential hit in the U.S., but then it was only released as a promo and not put out as a single.

Another Murder Of A Day is one of the songs which has Genesis fans in raptures when they play Tony’s solo records. It is sung and co-written by Fish. Another Murder Of A Day leaves the pattern of the album in that it does not use catchy melodies. It is also more difficult to get into than, say, Domino or Burning Rope.

Nik Kershaw was an icon of the 80s and enjoyed world-wide success with hits like The Riddle and Wouldn’t It Be Good. Later he withdrew from the pop business. The songs he wrote continued to become hits, e.g. The One And Only, which was sung by Chesney Hawkes. Nik sings three songs on Still: Red Day On Blue Street is the opening song and perhaps a tad long for this kind of pop song. Tony has often called it his favourite on the album. Nik actually also co-wrote it. I Wanna Change The Score is another song Nik sang and co-wrote. The song was released as a single and even rose into no-man’s land of the German single charts. On the last song on the album, The Final Curtain, Nik’s voice helps to provide a worthy end for the album.

Andy Taylor, ex-guitarist with Duran Duran, also sings on Still. He performs the entertaining pop song The Gift that was released as a single. He also sings what is probably the best song on the album, Still It Takes Me By Surprise. The lyrics are roughly about aging, a new element in Tony’s oeuvre. The ballad becomes very intensive through Tony’s piano and particularly the long solo he plays in the middle. Still It Takes Me By Surprise is a worthy eponym for the album.

Jayney Klimek has a similar combination of songs. Her intense voice carries the ballad Water Out Of Vine. She also sings an uptempo pop song called Back To Back, which is not the strongest of the songs on the album.

Not just the singers on the album are well-known. Many other famous musicians perform on the album: The usual suspects like Daryl Stuermer (guitar) are accompanied by Vinnie Colaiuta and Graham Broad on drums, Luis Jardim on percussion, Martin Robinson on saxophone and Pino Palladino on bass. The album was produced by Nick Davis.

As far as the sound is concerned the album has a new, fresh sound that is only occasionally stuck in the 80s, but nevertheless has not much to do with the 90s either.

The album had immense potential. A remarkable set of highly respected musicians recorded it, the songs are catchy, no less than three singles were released, but nothing happened. Still is the perfect starting point for newcomers to the world of Tony Banks before they progress to albums like A Curious Feeling.

January 10, 2014 Posted by | Tony Banks Still | | Leave a comment

Wishbone Ash Argus (1972)


While the self-titled debut and Pilgrimage each contained some excellent songs and especially outstanding musicianship, they also suggested that the band could do even better if they turned their strengths into advantage and didn’t rely as much on the mid-tempo boogies many of their contemporaries focused on as well.

On Argus, they finally manage to fulfil the promise, leaving out the less interesting material almost altogether and doing what they were best at: combining lush English folk with melodic, guitar-dominated hard rock. Well, maybe ‘hard rock’ is a bit of an exaggeration, as they rarely turned in dirty or heavy performances like Led Zeppelin, but they had a twin guitar attack that must’ve influenced dozens and dozens of hard rock bands. Now that I mentioned Led Zeppelin… the people in that band were arguably even better musicians and (if they wanted) songwriters than those of Wishbone Ash. On top of that, they were also more eclectic, incorporating folk, hard rock, blues, pop, eastern-tinged stuff and funk in their music.

Yet, I do enjoy Argus as much as any Led Zeppelin album. It doesn’t contain a track as superbly well-crafted as “Stairway to Heaven,” one as hard-rocking as “Heartbreaker,” or as intense as “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” but it’s more consistent and smarter. Led Zeppelin was absolutely one of the best bands of its era – they had enough talent for three bands – but with that came also a talent for messiness and self-indulgence. Though it’s hard to make a case for the statement that any of their first three or four albums contains a truly bad song, there were always songs that didn’t manage to live up to the incredible high standard of the winners. Wishbone Ash didn’t have these extremes, and on Argus, you basically get one successful track after another, and while they’re not all stellar (“Blowin’ Free” employs that thumping mid-tempo boogie – but to fine results), they’re still quite amazing 32 years later.

With its peculiar cover (I’ve rarely seen one that fits the music it conceals this good) and lyrical stress on themes such as war and love and the place of mankind throughout the ages, it’s often regarded as progressive rock (a seven-song conceptual album! YEAH!), and while that’s not far-fetched, the band basically follows the course that was already hinted at before. The key elements – the folk-influence and the melodic nature of the songs and the playing – are intact and even highlighted. More than anything, this is an album for guitar aficionados (or basically, musicians) who’ll drool over the immaculately produced instrumental passages (and the liner notes tell you who’s playing which solo – nifty!) and interplay.

The album opens with delicate, acoustic finger-picking and harmonies that would’ve fit on, say, Led Zeppelin III, but after three minutes (yes, this song takes up nearly ten minutes of your precious time) develops into a swift rocker that’s lighter than anything Led Zeppelin ever did, and that’s also the biggest difference with most of their contemporaries. Even though they – like all hard rock bands – dug in the blues history for inspiration, they turned as much to folk. While most guitarists out there seemed to deliver variations on Clapton’s work with Cream, Turner and Powell – like Richard Thompson, for instance – nearly boasted as much virtuosity, but this was devoid of the overpowering dominance of the blues. Instead of the gut-targeting misery of the black music, they managed to infuse many of their songs with a more lyrical, ethereal style that almost seems the lush, direct opposite of raw and dirty emotion. “Leaf and Stream,” written by bass player Martin Turner is also an enchantingly gentle folk number, with lovely guitar parts and suitably fragile vocals.

These guys weren’t the greatest of vocalists, but their harmonies fit perfectly in the folk tradition and, come to think of it, these songs really wouldn’t have been any better if they’d been sung by a more powerful, “soulful” voice. These enigmatic slices evoke the moist dreariness of a desolate English landscape, and that’s why these wimpy voices are perfect. Anyway, there’s more great stuff to be found: “The King Will Come” with its rumbling rhythm, does a great job at creating the musical equivalent of its lyrical content (just like the ruffling drums rolls of “Throw Down the Sword”), the extended guitar solo of course being the icing on the cake, just like in “Warrior,” which contains some spectacular guitar playing during its first minute before growing into something more folk-oriented.

The album’s unquestionable highlight, however, is “Sometime World,” a simply beautiful song that contains some of the nicest melodies and guitar solos in ‘70s rock. Again, it starts of on a calm note, with a fluent key motif, before reaching a climax after two and a half minutes and then launching into a fantastic section containing a melodic bass solo, vocal harmonies and some of the most majestic solos Turner and Powell (or anyone else, for that matter) ever laid down, several minutes of sheer brilliance. Had the entire album been like this, it would’ve been one of the best albums I’d ever heard, now it’s “merely” the cherry on a delicious cake, an album that lives up to a promise and does so with style and grace, because if there’s one word that’s applied to this album at my place, it must be class.

Note: As a bonus, the remastered edition of Argus also includes the rare promotional EP Live from Memphis, which was recorded around the release date of the album, and contains three tracks that lengthen the album to 77 minutes: the boogie “Jail Bait” and “The Pilgrim” from their second album, as well as a mind-baffling, 17-minute version of the grandiose “Phoenix,” from their debut. Pretty essential.

January 10, 2014 Posted by | Wishbone Ash Argus | | Leave a comment

Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi Rome (2011)


Back in 2006, right around the genesis of Gnarls Barkley, producer Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) was queried by Chuck Klosterman as to who his biggest influences were as an artist. His very telling response? Woody Allen. For nearly a decade now, Burton’s music has — like Allen’s films — defied any manner of simple explanation, collaborating with everyone from left-field hip-hop luminary MF Doom and alterna-rock hero Damon Albarn on Demon Days and The Good, the Bad & the Queen, to the Shins’ James Mercer in Broken Bells and producing the Black Keys’ last couple of records. Things aren’t exactly slowing down for Burton either; he’s in the studio producing U2′s forthcoming 13th studio record.

Even as his work manages to avoid classification, just about anything with Danger Mouse’s name in the production credits shares a singular, idiosyncratic vision, a compelling midpoint between retro nostalgia and hyper-futurism perhaps best captured on his much-lauded 2004 mash-up, the Grey Album, which saw him seamlessly combine the Beatles’ White Album instrumentals with Jay-Z’s Black Album a capella tracks. Burton’s love of Italian film scores is well-documented; his Gnarls Barkley outfit’s ubiquitous smash hit “Crazy” samples liberally from the soundtrack to a 1968 spaghetti western, Viva! Django, while many of the groups other tracks (like the Odd Couple‘s “Surprise”) rely heavily on the genre’s typically sweeping strings, choir sections, and steady percussion.

Enter noted Italian film score composer/arranger/producer Daniele Luppi, whose lengthy rap-sheet includes collaborations with Broken Bells, John Legend, Mike Patton and work on the Sex and the City movie. Luppi and his arrangements figure heavily into Burton’s aforementioned fixation on spaghetti western soundtracks (he also conducted strings on both Gnarls Barkley records). Together, the two spent several years rounding up the legendary orchestra and choir who recorded on some of the genre’s most seminal albums: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. Recorded in the same hallowed studio where those albums and many more were cut decades ago, Rome manages to somehow toe the fine line between a reverently vintage soundtrack and a sprawling, post-modern Western concept album. But with its sweeping choral and orchestral parts, interludes and evocative instrumental pieces rendered in widescreen, much of the record ends up sounding more like a movie soundtrack without the sort of visual accompaniment that often makes even the best film scores even better.

Enter Jack White and Norah Jones to fill in said gap. Each of the two voice a nameless character on three songs a piece (think: Clint Eastwood’s lead role as the Man with No Name in the Good, the Bad and the Ugly). Half-crooning over the psychedelic twang of “The Rose with a Broken Neck” and carrying the splendid album closer “The World” through to its strutting conclusion, White plays the lead with archetypal cowboy swagger. Even on the limp, schizophrenic “Two Against One”, the icon seems more comfortable than he has in a while, reveling in the dimmed spotlight. Jones is a revelation, lending a hushed, sultry air to the moody overtones of “Problem Queen” and “Black” and finally proving to be much more than just a pretty voice. While she might at first seem an odd choice for the part alongside musicians as renowned as Danger Mouse and Jack White, Jones certainly holds her own on Rome, often stealing the show completely, as she does on the tense, steamy number “Season’s Trees”.

Perhaps the best thing about Rome is how open-ended it is. Is Danger Mouse shopping his soundtracking skills to Hollywood studios? Will this splendid production, orchestra and all, hit the road for an extensive tour? For all of its glorious string flourishes, vivid visual allusions, and bursts of choral splendor, the best parts of Rome are truly left to the imagination. While it easily could’ve been little more than a tribute to a (regrettably) bygone Golden Age in cinema or a soundtrack to an imaginary movie, Rome succeeds at much more: It’s a fantastic album in its own right.

January 10, 2014 Posted by | Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi Rome | | Leave a comment

Mumford & Sons Sigh No More (2010)


It’s not often you stumble across a band that wins your heart within the first few chords. I was looking for a different band, and stumbled across Mumford & Sons instead. I heard The Cave and I loved it before the song had even made it to the minute mark. Then the banjo starts just after a minute and I knew I was going to like this band very, very much.

Mumford & Sons are something to talk about, in my opinion. It’s not often you get a bluegrass country folky sort of band that actually makes it to mainstream radio. And they are successful for good reason! They write unforgettable melodies that beg you to hit repeat and infuse a whole bunch of styles to create something amazing. I find it a very likeable cross between Kings of Leon and The Fray, but with a banjo.

Track by Track:

Sigh No More – I must admit, this is a skip-able track for me. It’s good, but by no means the best on the album. It’s a good intro track and slowly lets you get into the mood. It introduces you to the style that will follow throughout most of the album, that is slowly building until it explodes at the end. But I think the reason it is skip-able is because I’m rushing to get to the next… 4/5

The Cave – This is simply an amazing song. Love at first listen, for sure. It starts off with Marcus’s gravelly voice before building up to the banjo and then settling down again. The melody is infectious, as is the lyrics. I can guarantee you’ll be singing along to the chorus at the top of your lungs in no time. 5/5

Winter Winds – The second single off the album that for some reason didn’t do nearly as well as Little Lion Man, but in my opinion, just as good. It flows along like a river and is a hard one to skip. 5/5

Roll Away Your Stone – This one is particularly folky. It’s one of the more upbeat, bluegrass infused songs and is sure to get your foot tapping. It’s a great track, though not one my favourites. There are better melodies on the album than this and I find it a little disjointed. 4.5/5

White Blank Page – Definitely a standout track! This song is so achingly beautiful. Marcus’s voice is simply stunning in it, you can actually feel the despair in his voice. It picks up just after the minute mark and the song soars into a powerful ballad with a whole lot of angst. 5/5

I Gave You All – A beautiful song. It is another that follows their style and builds from a quiet, soft ballad into powerful, angst-ridden track. 5/5

Little Lion Man – The first single! It was highly successful for very good reason. It is simply an amazing song. This is the one where the Kings of Leon comparisons come in… but with banjo. The banjo is definitely a highlight in this and as soon as it started, I was won. Also another chorus singalong track, extremely catchy! 5/5

Timshel – The harmonies at the beginning of this track draw you in and never really let go. It’s one of the slowest on the album, and very beautiful. 4.5/5

Thistle & Weeds – This track is a little different, a little darker than the rest. It also has more of an appearance of piano in it, which works really well. It’s a great track, but not my favourite. It lacks the melody of the others, in my opinion. 4/5

Awake My Soul – It’s about this point in the album where I start to realise I’m liking almost every song. This is another catchy, beautiful track. Great intrumentalisation. 4.5/5

Dust Bowl Dance – This is quite likely the best written track on the album. The start is incredible. The banjo riff is so soft and melodious it makes your spine tingle. After this, it changes direction quite a bit and simply explodes into a wild, violent and angry piece. It is the best story-telling song of the whole album. The only problem is, I like the beginning much more the end and they’re so different it feels like two different songs sometimes. I’ve got into this habit of flicking back to the start halfway through just to hear the banjo riff again… 5/5

After The Storm – A slow, beautiful, melodious track. It’s one to listen to late at night, in the dark with your headphones on. Just close your eyes and listen. It is one the standout tracks, for sure. Amazing. It has some of my favourite lyrics on the album: “There will come a time you’ll see/With no more tears and love will not break your heart/But dismiss your fears.” 5/5

This is one of those albums that is going to get a lot of spins in my player, and will be a feature in my car for years to come I expect! Get it. It’s awesome.

January 10, 2014 Posted by | Mumford & Sons Sigh No More | | Leave a comment

The Who Live In Texas ’75


It was a transitional yea, for The Who and for rock music. On the precipice of the punk-led detonation, it was increasingly fashionable to kick sand on arena acts that dominated the early years of the decade. Certainly progressive rock bands like Yes and ELP were falling out of favour (and starting to fall apart, of their own accord), but old-school giants like The Rolling Stones and The Who were still alpha dogs in the industry.

In hindsight, it’s easy—and accurate—to suggest that The Who were entering the early stages of decline, but in truth, all was well, relatively speaking, in 1975. When they hit the road to promote their seventh studio album, The Who By Numbers, it was a Top 10 seller. If their previous tour (behind their masterpiece, Quadrophenia) was at times shaky, epitomized by Keith Moon nodding off behind his kit during one gig, the band was still fit and full of fury.

So as 2012 winds down (with surviving members Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey taking Quadrophenia for a premium-priced victory lap) one might wonder: why this tour, from this year? Questions like those, however legitimate, require a reiteration of what many of us already know. We live in a time where every member of any audience is capable of capturing raw footage in real time, making it available, instantly, online. This is, for the most part, a good and welcome advancement.

It’s also a simple reminder that this combination of accessibility and ubiquity is a very recent phenomenon. When it comes to classic acts from the great old days, footage is all too frequently rare, spotty or redundant. Any tape, therefore, of any worthwhile act is precious and should be acknowledged as such. In short, to have The Who, still the reigning champs of live transmission, is a considerable blessing.

The Who Live In Texas ‘75 is footage taken from a concert in Houston, the opening night of their US tour. As incredible as it is to realize, the band had “only” been around for ten years at this point. While they established—and embellished—their reputation early on by destroying their instruments and being as flashy as possible, practically any recorded video from 1965 on confirms that no matter what they were wearing or doing, the music came first and The Who acquitted themselves admirably at all times. By the time they got to Texas, they had nothing to prove except the undeniable impact they could still make, any place, any time.

There is no fanfare, no introduction: the band comes out, plugs in and away they go. For newbies it should be a revelation while for diehards it must be a… revelation to actually see these guys in action. Yes, Daltrey with his hippie curls and bell bottoms, swinging his microphone like a bear having a seizure, is magical. Sure, Pete Townshend’s never-static stage presence, merging an ideal mixture of frenzy and control, remains the gold standard (his shoulder already had more mileage courtesy of those ceaseless windmills than most retired Cy Young winners).

But it’s seeing the glorious studies in contrast of the rhythm section that still does the trick, all these years later; naturally the fact that they are no longer with us adds considerable import. Rock’s ultimate yin-yang: Moon, the excitable sprite behind the drum set and John Entwistle—The Ox—mute and still like the Tin Man in need of oil. The eyes will smile but the ears never lie: the sounds these four men make is full, focused and a synthesis of style and substance that has never been equalled in rock.

The show commences with muscular and meaty (the beaty, big and bouncy would come later) versions of “Substitute” and “I Can’t Explain”. Then, from 1965 to 1975, they launch into a spirited take on the big hit from the new album, “Squeeze Box”. The band then alternates old and new to nice effect, mixing in obscure pieces like “Boris the Spider” with selections off The Who By Numbers such as “However Much I Booze” and “Dreaming from the Waist”.

A particular highlight is Moon heckling Entwistle during the introduction of “Boris the Spider”, illustrating what a hilarious and endearing figure he was. For a band that could not help taking themselves too seriously at times, Moon always managed to lighten everyone—and everything—up, and it was his persona as much as his musicality that the band could never compensate for or replace. And let the record be clear: Moon was not in any way diminished at this point in time; he is on point at all times, never sloppy or uncertain.

The remainder of the two-hour set list covers their catalogue, including an extended suite from Tommy which features a scorching rendition of “Amazing Journey/Sparks” and tiny surprises like “Fiddle About” and “Tommy’s Holiday Camp”. During the encore (after obligatory show-stopper “Won’t Get Fooled Again”) they turn “Magic Bus” into a chugging blues romp. Throughout the proceedings they manage to be almost surprisingly supple, convincing and fresh, proving that The Who was far from a spent force in the mid-‘70s.

The band’s sprawl toward near-oblivion came fast and hard, but there is utterly no evidence of it, here. Anyone who needs additional evidence should see, feel and hear this worthy addition to an already remarkable canon.

January 10, 2014 Posted by | The Who Live In Texas '75 | | Leave a comment