THE STRATFORD 4 – The Revolt Against Tired Noises (2002)

Review by: Eric Pember
Album assigned by: Dominic Linde

This album is very much old-school indie rock, in the good way.

While old-school indie rock is generally middle of the road sounding, it nevertheless is at the core of my musical DNA. In fact, it actually is part my DNA more than the kind of indie music that is usually popular these days, despite me being of the age where I should prefer the latter to the former, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Consequently, this was a very pleasing listen for me. I did detect a sort of hooklessness, although that could well remedy itself with additional listens. After all, I didn’t get Yo La Tengo for the first couple of listens either. Regardless, it’s always nice to discover more music of this type.

Apparently, one of the members in this band played with the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, which might explain the hooklessness, because I detected a hooklessness in Howl too. However, this sounds a good deal more sonically interesting than Howl did to me. I’m aware intellectually it’s not THAT much more sonically interesting, but again, this sort of indie rock guitar sound really speaks to me beyond the level of common sense.

I also really dug the last track, since I dig long jams in general, particularly long rock jams.

I’ll definitely revisit this album at some point in the future. For now, I think I’d rather get to some more of this band’s better contemporaries, since I haven’t listened to enough of them yet.

DJ SPRINKLES – Midtown 120 Blues (2014)

Review by: Roland Bruynesteyn
Album assigned by: Michael Strait

I’m completely at a loss with this music (if it can be called that). I spent some time looking for reviews and interpretations to help me make something of it and I found this one that is well written and positive in an understanding way:

After listening, all I can do is be negative in a non-understanding way:
  • this music can be successful in a trendy (or retro) restaurant, where you go for a hip dinner (music somewhat subdued in the background)
  • it can also succeed in a nightclub for an afterparty (substantially louder, making conversation difficult but still making chilling out possible)
  • this music can be appreciated by other generations and indeed, other people, as a kind of background music for studying or reading or entertaining guests in your house
  • some people may listen to it concentratedly as there are some semi profound lyrics (voice overs, really), and sometimes certain themes sort of develop, not unlike some minimal piano music (think Reich or Ten Holt).
To me it fails. Funny thing is, there is no nasty or aggressive sound or amateurish sequence to be found on the entire record, and it’s definitely trance inducing. But in the end it’s all much too repetitive for my taste, this music could go on for ever and really tries to. I like me some drony stuff at times (whether it’s classical minimal music or some Krautrock), but apparently not so much if it’s this synthetic deep house stuff. The proposition of drony, trance inducing music in reality appears to be a lack of ideas; repeating themes and grooves ad infinitum is presented as an artistic choice, but it really is evidence of a total lack of creative inspiration.

It’s a bit like Steely dan-lite (or Gorillaz-lite): no biting lyrics, rather simple and repetitive rhythm charts, no real musical instruments to speak of and no solo’s. A song like Sisters, I Don’t Know What This World Is Coming To with the title being repeated for 11 minutes overstays its welcome by 8 minutes. To me the instrumental tracks are muzak, to be played in the background of time sharing and real estate commercials, travel programs or ‘win compilations’ of people water skiing, parasailing, reaching tops of mountains at sunsets and the like. But then a track like Grand Central, Pt. II (72 Hrs. By Rail From Missouri) wouldn’t be out of place on The Division Bell either, and is actually my favorite track, probably because it does not have the annoying rhythm machines.

Ultimately it’s an acquired taste I have no interest in acquiring, but then I have no intention of trying. To come back to the positive review found elsewhere: if this type of music (deep house, apparently) is anything for you, this artist might be one to check out. 

RAY BARRETTO – Acid (1968)

Review by: Ali Ghoneim
Album assigned by: Alejandro Muñoz G

When a Latin jazz musician releases an album called Acid — in 1968 no less — you would be forgiven for assuming it combines latin music with psychedelic rock. You would be forgiven, but you’d still be wrong. Not a hint, lick or indeed dab of psychedelia is on the entire thing (the eight minute long improvisation of Espiritu Libre comes close, but when the improv is this dry, it’s just called jazz). The only psychedelic thing about the album isn’t even on the album, it’s on the cover. What a waste of psychedelic font.

Not that Acid is a straightforward latin jazz record. It does draw influence from 60s soul/rock and tries to give them a latin spin, but the end result doesn’t really transform these genres in any significant way. A Deeper Shade of Soul sounds like a medley of covers rather than anything truly transcending typical soul. In fact, its melodies seem to be snatched from Twist and Shout and Summer Nights. The Soul Drummers is a bit of a slog except for that section near the end when the horns kick into high gear. And while Mercy, Mercy, Baby is a pretty good song, everything cool about it has nothing to do with the fact that Ray is belting your stock 60s soul/rock lyrics over latin percussion. Finally, Teacher of Love is Ray’s unconvincing attempt at hippy rock lyrics, not that actual hippy rock lyrics are all that convincing in the first place. Here’s a sampling:

I come to my class tonight
Don’t be late or you’ll be left behind
Cause I’m the loving loving man
I’m the teacher of love
(teacher won’t you teach me tonight!)

Stupendous. (That means it’s stupid, right?)

Where the album really shines is on its more straightforward latin tracks. All of the songs were written by Ray Barretto, a percussionist, but the real stars on display here are in the horn section. Just listen to the explosive horn riff that opens the first and best track, El Nuevo Barretto. It is the definition of a pick-me-up. Once that groove kicks, it’s hard to not let yourself be transported to a more pleasant state of mind. Think this is the kind of music George Clinton meant when he coined the term “mood control”. 

Strait to the Point: JAPAN – Gentlemen Take Polaroids (1980)

Review by: Michael Strait

Rated: 4.5/5
Aww yeah, this is the shiet! New romantic located firmly in the uncanny valley. Proper good stuff.

Rob Dean left after the release of this album, and it’s easy to see why. He’s got about as much presence on this record as Jason Newsted got on …And Justice For All, except that there’s more reason to complain here because Dean is, you know, actually good. I always found his solos a tad hit or miss, but he could turn in some really good ones when called for, and his riffs were pretty uniformly awesome. So, I should be bitter – but I’m not, ‘cos truth is by now Japan just didn’t need the guy anymore. Guitars are nice, but by this point in their career they were getting more artistic mileage out of their synths, and Dean, good as he is, just wasn’t all that compatible with the thoroughly non-rock styles explored on this album. So he is, effectively, out, and replacing him is the great Ryuichi Sakamoto of the Yellow Magic Orchestra on additional synths. Say – the band were fuggin’ called Japan, how did it take ’em this long to get an actual Japanese person in the band?

His presence is definitely felt, anyway. You can hear bits that are redolent of YMO in a few places, like the burbling generator-synths in the background on the title track and “Methods of Dance”, or the big, atmospheric synth riffs on “Burning Bridges” and “Taking Islands in Africa”. I’m not too big on the latter two, actually – the former is just kind of a mediocre new age song with a fairly bad smooth jazz sax solo (apparently courtesy of Mick Karn – stick to the bass, friendo!) and the latter is about the only thing on the album that really does sound unpleasantly dated. Some of those synth sounds really wouldn’t fly today, even if the riffs they’re playing are totally super catchy. Those (aside from an irritating reappearance by the bad sax on “Methods of Dance”) are the only weak moments on the album, though – the rest of it’s all fucking awesome, and I love it. I love it all so much, in fact, that I’m not sure I can even pick a favourite track outright; instead, I’ll just run through my shortlist.

Fer a start, we have the title track, which is a) the first good Japan album opener since their debut and b) one of the best songs they ever made. It’s got this crazy-ass, woozy bassline from Karn that sets the whole thing at an edge, and a drawn-out, almost druggy hook that sounds like it was sung with an unsettling rictus grin. That’s Sylvian on the whole record, actually – he is a fascinating beast on this album. He’s a gentleman, sure, but he’s a gentleman who sounds like he might bare fangs and sink into your throat if you waltz with him for too long under the moonlight. His croon is so affected and over-the-top that it ends up sounding like a face-mask that doesn’t quite fit right, or a smile that doesn’t quite reach the eyes in the right way; it’s off, and it’s one of the things that makes the album feel so uncanny. Anyway, the title track is also the only song on the album where Dean actually is noticeably present, albeit barely – he gets a bare, soft chiming riff to play with for the first half, and a few rhythm pinpricks in an instrumental break he’d normally be allowed to fill with a guitar solo. Instead, the band let the synths breathe while Sylvian quietly indulges in some wordless vocal noodling – very pleasant stuff, for sure.

Then there’s “Nightporter”, which has a fair economy of moving parts and is all the more lovely for it. Karn’s not present on this one – it’s just a lovely classical piano waltz from Richard Barbieri (damn – I think this might be the first time I’ve mentioned their keyboardist by name this whole series! How’d I get away with that?) over which Sylvian tenderly and softly croons a love song into the ear of a soon-to-be victim, with some light accompaniment from a couple of strings (or, perhaps, string-imitating synths) and a really well-structured, cathartic hook. It’s utterly gorgeous, divine stuff, and the seven minutes blow by almost too quickly – I could listen to this forever. Say – didn’t progressive rock spend its entire lifespan trying to figure out ways to put classical influences in the pop/rock format? And did Japan just blow ’em all out the water in seven minutes – without even a single showy time signature change? Bloody ‘ell, I think they did! I’ve nothing against prog rock, of course, but it can move aside – synthpop was better.

Anyway, there’s also “Ain’t That Peculiar”, which turns out to be a Marvin Gaye cover. Sylvian sounds positively delighted on this track (uh oh – better start looking for drained bodies!) and the way he draws out the word “PecUUU-lyaaar” is wonderful, as is Karn’s unsteadily climbing bassline. Karn’s best work, though, is probably on “Swing”, where his bassline stumbles and lurches about in an asymmetrical fashion like some blind beast from another plane of existence as Sylvian and Barbieri (and, perhaps, Sakamoto) patiently set about building up to one of the most satisfyingly-structured hooks I think I’ve ever heard. It doesn’t soar or hit catharsis, exactly, but it also doesn’t lose any energy – it sort of goes sideways, peppering these (possibly synthesised) saxophone bursts around Sylvian before sliding out into a full-on jazz sax orgasm for a tantalising few seconds, and then landing seamlessly back in the verse like it was nothing! It’s about the only time the sax actually, properly works on the album, and does it ever work. This song is gorgeous, velvety twilight joy for six and a half minutes; listening to it is like draping myself in an exquisitely-stitched warm blanket in the English winter. I love it deeply.

There’s also “My New Career”, in which Karn’s bass climbs up the walls like a spider or Thom Yorke while synths suck away all the light and Sylvian sadistically, sensuously sings sweet nothings into the dark. “I could never hurt anyone/ Least of all you”, he assures us as he beckons us towards him, and I don’t believe a word of it – but I follow like a lamb. It’s a spiderweb, and Sylvian is the widow sitting patiently in the middle; it’s a dark, alluring, opalescent stone cathedral containing a grinning devil. Man, this album is amazing – couple of not-so-hot tracks, sure, but when the rest is this good what does it matter? Listen to it, I urge ya – just stay in the lit areas! ‘Cos if you give those pale white jaws the chance to close ’round your hot flesh, they ain’t never opening again. New romantic had barely begun, and already Japan were madly deconstructing and reconstructing it into gothic and otherworldly shapes; their appetite for the new and unusual was insatiable, it seems, and that is the truest indicator of artistic excellence I think you’re ever likely to find. Japan were restless and relentless innovators, true carriers of the avant-garde flame within the realm of pop music, and if I had my way they’d all be canonised national treasures by now. 

Well, maybe all except Rob. Poor guy!

KETIL BJØRNSTAD – Seafarer’s Song (2004)

Review by: Dinar Khayrutdinov
Album assigned by: Roland Bruynesteyn

Ketil Bjørnstad is a classically trained Norwegian pianist and composer who is one of those artists who recorded most of their output on the well-known ECM label which basically means it’s going to be some middle ground between jazz, modern classical and new-age. Interestingly enough, the album in question – Seafarer’s Song – was released on a different label (EmArcy) but it is still an ECM album in essence.

Due to the shortage of time I’m experiencing at this point of my life I’ll have to keep this review brief and basically break it down to certain thoughts that came to my mind when I heard this record:

1) It definitely requires the listener to be in a certain mood that is pretty nicely summed up by the album cover art – that of a vast and fairly peaceful sea expanse, but with heavy clouds above it and a slight rain falling on its surface. It’s a seafarer’s song indeed, mostly elegiac and longing but occasionally changing to more energetic and resolute.

2) To properly enjoy Seafarer’s Song you’d have to appreciate Kristin Asbjørnsen’s slightly gruff vocals which I do not. In fact I think that this album would be truly great if it were purely instrumental. The unique combination of the piano, cello, electric guitar and occasional mournful trumpet is pretty amazing and creates a very specific mood (see p. 1). The vocals do nothing for me though, unfortunately.

3) The album is labeled jazz, but in fact it has little to do with jazz – it does not sound like it was improvised and does not feature many dissonant chords, saxophone solos or anything like that. Some instrumental passages do feel jazzy, but saying that this is a jazz album means missing the point of the record entirely. In fact, here is a nominally “highbrow” record that can be perfectly enjoyed by classic rock lovers. It actually consists of rather conventional songs (most of them slow and melancholic), which is its strength and weakness at the same time. If you’re in the mood for this you’ll probably enjoy it, but if you’re not this can get boring as hell.

4) It slightly grew on me after repeated listens (I even got used to the vocals) and I actually wouldn’t be surprised if I felt an urge to return to this sometime in the future. No regrets on hearing this overall, good stuff.  

THE AEROVONS – Resurrection (1969, recorded in 2003)

Review by: Avery Campbell
Album assigned by: Charly Saenz

The Aerovons were an American psychedelic pop band who really liked The Beatles. No, I mean REALLY liked The Beatles. They liked The Beatles so much that they turned down a recording offer from Capitol Records because they wanted to be able to record in London. Somewhat miraculously, this stubbornly starry-eyed hero worship actually did eventually land them in Abbey Road to record their album, although it’d go unreleased until 2003.

Sound-wise, the album is pretty standard baroque psychedelic 60s pop. Nice harmonies, swirly string arrangements, piano, etc. In fact, standard might not be a strong enough word – some of this stuff is really derivative. Resurrection and Say Georgia make this clear almost immediately, borrowing heavily from Across the Universe and Oh Darling respectively, but the feeling of a band really excited by music but without much new to say permeates most of these tracks. They take a stab at the “ballad with stinging electric guitar” on Quotes and Photos, “doofy British music hall” on Bessy Goodheart, “lightly psychedelic hippie strummer” on The Years, and so on. All of these songs are competently written and performed, but they have trouble distinguishing themselves as more than a band writing songs in particular styles because those are the styles their favorite bands wrote in.

On the positive side, though, this album is certainly an enjoyable one. It’s a very pleasant listen, the production is excellent, and there are a few songs that manage to be pretty striking. My personal favorite is the opening “World of You”, a wonderfully orchestrated ballad and the major keeper here. Bessy Goodheart sounds quite a lot like both The Kinks and Lady Madonna, but is probably the catchiest song on the album, and She’s Not Dead also has a pretty solid chorus. The closing bonus track Here is quite lovely as well, despite being a little too obvious of a stab at a McCartney ballad.

So, while Resurrection is certainly an enjoyable album, I wouldn’t rate it as one those “lost 60s masterpieces” like Odessey and Oracle, Forever Changes, or Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina. More than anything, Resurrection makes me wish this band had stuck around long enough to put out more albums. There’s all the signs of a potentially excellent songwriting outfit once they’d matured a bit. After all, at the time our main songwriter here was 17, and what 17-year-old doesn’t want to be his hero? File this with the early Bee Gees albums, and that sort of thing, though the melodies are weaker here. Still, not a bad grab for lovers of obscure 60s pop.

ROY WOOD – Boulders (1973)

Review by: Andreas Georgi
Album assigned by: Ali Ghoneim

I’ve read interesting things about Roy Wood, as well as his bands Wizard & the Move, though I’ve never actually heard any of his work until now. Part of the reason that I’ve never been motivated enough to check it out is that I am not at all a fan of ELO, the most famous band associated with him. I am also not familiar with the ELO stuff featuring him, but it’s possible to see a connection between the ELO I do know and this stuff. I must say I like this a lot better, though.

As far as the music goes, it’s hard to describe, but I will try. It’s vaguely Beatle-esque pop with strong folk influence. There are also touches of Beach Boys harmonies and 50’s rock ‘n’ roll. He plays almost all the instruments on the album himself. All the songs are very strong melodically. A couple of them have quirky qualities to them, most notably “Ms. Clarke and the Computer”, which sounds like a children’s song sung by a 70’s computer voice, which in the middle inexplicably turns into jazz for a couple of measures before resuming. “When Grandma Plays the Banjo” sounds just like you think it would. Amusing but not one I’ll likely go back to again. This one, “Rock Medley” and “Rock Down Low” don’t work for me much, but all the other ones are very good.

Thumbs up on this one.

This review is also posted on Amazon here.