JILL TRACY – Diabolical Streak (1999)

Review by: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Album assigned by: Alex Alex

The ambience is smoke-filled cabaret
And the cliches are all present.
The vocals: breathy, seductive — 
Yer typical sultry Femme Fatale —
Nightclub bass and cocktail piano,
All wrapped up in an indulgent hush.

Lucky Old Jill Tracy
Trapped forever in an old film noir 
I think I’ll pour myself a bourbon
And join her.

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A YEAR IN MUSIC: ENO – Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974)

A YEAR IN MUSIC: 1974
Review by: Andreas Georgi

Eno’s next album “Another Green World” is most often cited as his best and most influential, and it certainly is a great one, but “Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy” is my personal favorite. The combination of experimentation, humor, and plenty of pop hooks make this a classic, though a decidedly odd one.

Eno handles all the vocals and, while he certainly is no great singer technically (he’s referred to himself as a “non-musician), he does have a unique. mannered style that grows on you. I don’t know if you can call it a “concept” album, but there are some threads that run through the songs – travel, conspiracy, China. Each song has a unique sound texture to it, resulting from unorthodox instrumentation (one song has a typewriter solo) and Eno’s trademark and groundbreaking sound treatments. The album starts of with a very melodic pop ditty called “Burning Airlines Give You So Much More”. That incongruity sets the tone for the rest of the album. “Third Uncle”s scratchy, staccato guitars foreshadow Gang of Four and Wire, among others. The most challenging listen on the album is definitely “Put a Straw Under Baby”, which is a deranged, deliberately out-of-tune lullaby with surreal lyrics, and features the Portsmouth Sinfonia. The Sinfonia, of which Eno was a member, has only two requirements – that members honestly try to play well, and that they show up for rehearsals. You need to hear this to believe it! Quite honestly it’s a bit of an “Excedrin Moment”, but very creative. The closing title track is a pretty, airy, melodic piece that presages the ambient direction that he would take, starting with his next album (A.G.W.).

 This album was released in 1974 and was ahead of its time. Eno had a huge influence on all sorts of new wave and post-punk bands that came on the scene some years later, starting with Talking Heads. I first heard the album in the late 70’s and even then I remember how odd the album sounded. It’s a cliché, but one of Eno’s talents is his ability to “think outside the box”. In an interview David Bowie, who worked with Eno in the late 70’s on some groundbreaking albums, said they deliberately threw away the instruction manuals for the synthesizers, to see what kind of “bleeps and farts” they could come up with. Eno took (and further developed) elements from the avant-garde and applied them to pop music. Many of these innovations have since become part of the mainstream (sampling, incorporation of non-musical elements), and the electronics sounds decidedly retro now, but the creativity and quirkiness still makes it sound like nothing else. Historical significance aside, this is also a very enjoyable album. Highly recommended.

This review is also posted on Amazon here.

Roland and Nina’s DECADES IN MUSIC: 1983 – SAGA – Heads or Tales

Review by Roland Bruynesteyn
Album assigned by Nina A

 

 

I recently reviewed a pop rock album by an obscure Bulgarian group (Tangra) from 1982, called Our Town. As this is roughly from the same time and sounds somewhat similar, it may be interesting to compare them. The one thing you immediately notice is the (way) bigger budget, resulting in better production techniques, better positioned instruments, a much cleaner sound. Big arena sound, roaring guitars, good low end, solid drum sound and clean guitar sound. Sadly, there the differences end, as this album is not a whole lot better, if at all. Let us proceed with caution…
The Flyer opens the album energetically, Phil Collins in hard rock mode (imagine Easy Lover on cocaine). But it’s a lot worse. Apparently this was the single; I’m immediately getting worried.
Cat Walk has a somewhat interesting (guitar? keyboard?) sound at the beginning and goes down within a minute. Think of the worst possible 80’s power pop hit and you end somewhere here. The title is repeated ad nauseam, without making you want to know why.
The sound of strangers could have been improved with a more organic drum sound, and perhaps Jon Anderson on vocals, but not by much.
 
The Writing, ah, the ballad. No it’s not, it’s Toto jamming with Survivor, on a bad day.
 
Intermission; this must surely be the ballad! If you want to know how horrible a string synthesizer and a drum computer can sound, listen to this. The voice is OK though and may actually be the best part of the song. It sounds somewhat processed (although this recording predates autotune by decades). The guitar sound around the 4 minute mark is nice as well, but gets drowned in the tacky, cheesy keyboard.
 
Social Orphan (nice title) sounds like Starship, fronted by the singer of Alphaville (of Big in Japan fame). Not a good idea. The Vendetta has the same singer fronting Depeche Mode. Doesn’t work either.
 
Scratching the Surface is musically the worst song (especially the drums) and possibly the best, as there are some nice guitar lines. The fact that they combine these sounds really reflects badly on Saga.
 
The Pitchman, Jesus, does this ever stop? “Hey, I cannot really sing? Will you sing with me?” “Well, I can’t sing either…”. “That should work then; let’s do this…”. “I have an even better idea! We put some meaningful background voices in the instrumental break!”
And we end with another version of Cat Walk, twice as long. I really, really listened to it once, but I have no relevant comment to make.
This falls into what I propose to call the Asia/Styx/Foreigner/Boston/Starship genre of professionally recorded but loveless performed power pop music that was all the rage in the first half of the 80’s. Not interested then, not interested now. In retrospect, if you’re into this, for reasons I couldn’t possibly want to understand, go listen to Tangra, a low budget and altogether more sympathetic version of this type of music…

Roland and Nina’s DECADES IN MUSIC: 1982 – ТАНГРА (TANGRA) – Нашият град (Our Town)

Review by Roland Bruynesteyn
Album assigned by Nina A

 

Tangra is another famous Bulgarian band, at least in Bulgaria. Funny Wikipedia fact: after 1989, an interesting time to be an eastern European band, they actually lived and performed in Finland for a few years. I do not know the mechanics or background of that. Far be it from me to suggest this was some self-imposed exile, perhaps they moved to a place where they were internationally successful or thought they could conquer the world.
Anyway, the title song starts the album off on a bad note: it sounds like a desperate entry in the Eurovision song contest. Generic power pop, not unlike Van Halen or Bon Jovi. When the second song, Boriana, starts along the same lines: 80’s production, silly synthesizer lines, generic guitar sounds, simple bass playing and drumming (well, with the cymbal work being OK), I’m getting worried: I recently had the chance to review a few obscure eastern European bands, Shtourcite and FSB, and they were very interesting, a lot of fun and on a good day simply good albums. This sounds nothing like it.
Third song, Panelen rock, a 50’s rock song parody (or cover). Guitar is fine, background vocals are OK, but this is somewhat difficult to take seriously. The Love We Cannot Do Without is the ballad. Although it’s very bad, I’m starting to feel some sympathy.
Must be difficult, considering the political situation, to get a recording contract at all, give the guys some credit. No pop culture, hardly any international exposure, there are a lot of mitigating circumstances. But I remind myself that other artists could break through this. It doesn’t have to be like this.
A Girl From the Other Class is Panelen rock – the sequel. Again, not really bad per se. Perhaps it’s the way Bulgaria got in touch with western civilization. But I think a carbon copy of any musical genre is not the best way to position yourself as an artist. There is no unique sound, no character (national or individual), nothing. Then again, this is not unlike some albums by Johnny Hallyday in France in the 60’s, which DID establish him as a force in French rock music.
Wealth is a little more country and western, with some CCR thrown in. OK. Meetings is the second ballad, piano based this time. Starts somewhat promising, with drums and bass joining in. The singing drags it down, being overly theatrical. Rhythmically, the chorus (which is when they go in power ballad mode) doesn’t really work for me, but I have to acknowledge that they may have something here.
Friends is their nervous pop song. I guess you had to be there. In fact, I recognize this type of music as very much of its time, in the Netherlands and Germany as well, for instance. The simple piano motif at the start evolves to become something of a Won’t Get Fooled Again sound when the song gets heavier, but the guitar doesn’t really get to rock out hard (also because the keyboard strangely sounds like some weird accordion…).
Saturday, well I could almost imagine it being played by Pink Floyd for the Wall. Also because David Gilmour could help a lot to improve the song. It’s still nothing too special, but it’s also not too bad.
Homecoming starts with some acoustic guitars, it’s the campfire song! Is that Neil Young singing in the background? I do like the electric guitar tone: well played, and well recorded.
What to make of it? Did the album really get quite a lot better as it went on, or did I lower my standards? I’m afraid I have to confirm that I most likely lowered my standards. Ultimately, it’s not the utter disaster it sounded like at first, but I do not feel the need to give it another listen, which in itself says a lot. Ordinary, quite competent band, nice for local weddings and larger parties, but not a very rewarding listen in the end for me. No great compositions, no amazing instrumental skills, ordinary singing (with a rather nasal sounding voice) and really nothing that stands out.

Roland and Nina’s DECADES IN MUSIC: 1981 – THE REELS – Quasimodo’s Dream

Review by Roland Bruynesteyn
Album assigned by Nina A

If you like the second song on this album, Shout & Deliver, I don’t like you. The song shows that not only established artists (the rock dinosaurs) tended to fail miserably in producing their records in the 80’s but that it trickled down to minor artists such as the Reels. An automated keyboard figure repeated ad infinitum, synthetic drums and group singing of slogans. Come to mention it, the third song, After the News, runs into the same problem, crashing into the ground by itself. The reggae-ish rhythm (played by the keyboard) doesn’t help either. It somewhat resembles Fraction Too Much Friction by Tim Finn (ex-Split Enz, future Crowded house, who is from ‘basically’ the same region).
According to my Heart has a nice enough doo wop feeling and a nice melody but again the production ruins it: plastic drums, silly bass synthesizer and singing on automatic pilot. Yes, it can be nice to sing this in the shower, or with a group of friends in the car, but unfortunately it’s not nice to listen to by yourself.
Depression is sort of Clash-light, around the time of Sandinista, but then taken to its simple extreme. Embarrassingly so, really. And so is Colourful Clothes. For all we know starts somewhat differently, but they can’t keep it up, it does not stand out, the singer lacks any charisma (more like singing by committee). Media Themes has a nice shuffle rhythm (in the first theme) and vaguely sounds like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark because of it. Because there’s no singing involved, it’s the best track on here, although that doesn’t say a lot (and the third theme basically ruins it, if only because there’s singing).
Cancer is slower than most of the others and shouting Cancer cancer! comes across as an early version of Weens HIV (the AIDS song), but that’s probably not their intention. Apart from this chanting vamp, nothing much happens, just some jungle noises and some silly voices.
Dubbo Go Go thinks it can equal ‘pretentiousness and ambition’ with ‘ability’, and fails painfully in doing so so. Slowing down does give you a chance to marvel at the singer: how can you be so non-descript and sing professionally? Also, suddenly this song lasts more than 5 minutes, where 3 would suffice to develop the ‘themes’ such as they are. Kitchen Man is another long (5,5 minutes) song that overstays its welcome.
And what about the title track, the hit single, the first song on the album? It’s a bit different, but not really better: more beeps and synthetic gamelan sounds, somewhat more emotion in the singing (that is really OK for this type of pop music), and perhaps a hit single that fits the time. But again, over 4 minutes is way too long and listening 35 years later this music has become completely irrelevant.
I really tried to look for New wave cleverness (i.e. Talking heads) or some interesting musical stylings in the instrumental parts, some great riffs or nice melodies, but that’s sadly impossible. On the whole, if you like this happy, westernized party music ska or reggae, go for something like El Rayo X by David Lyndley, or the Clash if you’re more (left wing) politically inclined and have a lot of fun. Stay away from this, as it’s definitely not comparable to INXS, Crowded House, Split Enz and the like.

Roland and Nina’s DECADES IN MUSIC: 1980 – KATE BUSH – Never for Ever

Review by Roland Bruynesteyn
Album assigned by Nina A

 

If you have a past in pantomime (so you know how to move elegantly), and you write your own material and you possess a very distinctive voice, you must be David Bowie. Oh no, you’re an 18 year old in 1978 and you’re an intelligent nice looking girl: you must be Kate Bush!
And so she is. A few years before a second wave of successful female singers (from Madonna to Cyndi Lauper) started to manifest itself, Kate Bush hit the world with a bang. Some say she never recovered from the instant success of Wuthering Heights. I say she knew how to create and follow her own path. Like Peter Gabriel or Robert Fripp, Kate Bush is ‘ready, willing and able’ to change course for artistic reasons, and to not repeat a successful formula if she feels she might get stuck. So from her somewhat humble folky singer songwriting beginnings (albeit with some symphonic stuff, such as Wuthering Heights), in a few years’ time she moved in a prog rock and avant garde direction. She would top this on The Dreaming (before moving on to an easier sound with some great video clips) but on this album already we hear the singles Babooshka and Army Dreamers (and other songs, like All We Ever Look For) getting progressive touches and weird sound effects. Getting out of the mainstream is the goal here. But ultimately it’s all still very listenable.
It’s difficult to understand how a 20, 21 year old can make this music and succeed. She has found her sound and performs in a convincing way. All the songs have something to offer: Egypt sounds more Asian to me than middle eastern, just like Delius (in parts), and they’re both nice songs. The Wedding List sounds even better, starting slowly and gaining in intensity considerably. Violin is her Nina Hagen song, not really my favourite. The Infant Kiss is sort of The Man with the Child in His Eyes, part 2. Breathing is truly epic, using the in – out chanting to great effect. And Pino Palladino on fretless bass (I assume it’s him, don’t want to look it up) sounds great.
This is simply an amazing record and an early highlight in the career of a very interesting artist.

Roland and Nina’s DECADES IN MUSIC: 1979 – FSB – FSB II

Review by Roland Bruynesteyn
Album assigned by Nina A

FSB, in case you did not know (I know I didn’t) stands for Formation Studio Balkanton, suggesting a studio project. However, this project has lasted for over 40 years now, so it’s proven to be quite sustainable (or unfinishable) for a project. Listening on youtube, I may have gotten some of the song titles (or the actual number of songs) wrong, but it was a pleasant listening experience.
The first track (Dawn) has the tranquillity of very quiet progressive music, not unlike Popol Vuh soundtracks of the 70’s, or EROC’s Wolkenreise II. The second song (Morning) is more up tempo and sounds like some kind of fusion or space jazz: busy bass playing, lots of percussion, electric piano and a sax(?) cruising on top of it. The third track (Three) starts as a quiet keyboard based track (Fender Rhodes, I think), with some female singing. It could be vocalizing for all I know, as I do not speak Bulgarian. When the rest of the band kicks in, it sounds a bit like Genesis, around Wind and Wuthering: slick, but still highly symphonic. Fourth track (Harmonies) is a fusion piece, this time with some flute added. This song is quite adequate, but somehow doesn’t grab me much. Luckily it’s very short.
Playing the Gamut is up next, it’s the start of the original side 2, I think. In its commercial appeal this could almost be Level 42 circa Love games (whose breakthrough would come a few years later, actually). Gold has a somewhat Brazilian feel, but that may be my language problem. It’s no Portuguese she’s singing after all. Rhythmically this works, but it’s no longer very proggy or fusion, that is, until the sax and later the piano kick in. Reminds me of Spyro gyra a little as well. A nice song, but more than before you can hear that the singer has to force herself to hit the right notes with sufficient power.
Song is a very contemplative piece of music again: several keyboards or synthesizers at the same time, creating a nice mood. The choral singing turns it into something more religious, but it may in fact be better than singing lyrics. There is not much development to speak off, but it floats along nicely.
For goodbye starts with frantic piano work, some mix of Firth of fifth and John Cage, almost. It moves to more neo-classical melodies, while retaining some jazzy notions. Very nice. When the synths start, it gets proggy again. I would have liked a trumpet part here, instead of one of the synths, but hey, what you’re gonna do? There is nice crescendo building and it’s by far the most epic track on the album.
Another pleasant Bulgarian surprise. I prefer their slow tracks over the fusion-ish ones, and I may prefer the instrumental tracks (or vocalizing ones) over the actual singing, but there’s quite a lot of variation here.
 
[Note of the assigner: There is actually no vocalizing on this album – it is all lyrics even if somewhat minimal, and the vocalist is a man as opposed to a lady, but he has a characteristic high voice.]