JOHN COLTRANE – Om (1968)

Review by: Joseph Middleton-Welling
Album assigned by: Syd Spence

“Coltrane for tryhards”- Blob Nayld, PhD

Like a door creaking. Not in a good way. Sounds like fucking ass. This is a bad album. Right i like some free jazz but this is a load of wank (“its pretty wank”). Oh Coltrane was apparently on LSD during the sessions, probably thought his saxophone was a snake or something. Honk honk honk. Like elvin jones sounds like he has no idea whats going on. The best bits on this record are the chants. Sounds a bit like magma. It’s a fucking horrible album. 
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STORMY SIX – Un biglietto del tram (1975)

Review by: Francelino Prazeres de Azevedo Filho
Album assigned by: Joseph Middleton-Welling

Italian prog and communism! The best combination since guava and cheese! In the foreboding acoustic opener, Stormy Six already show what they came for: “on its frozen path, the Swastika knows / that from now on, Stalingrad awaits in every city”. Lovely lyrics! Lovely strings! And the rest of the songs just keep up with the style. Too bad I’ve only been able to find translations for the lyrics to three of these, because this blood-pumping leftist themes are exactly what I need to help me face these grim times of neo-fascism. I could at least understand a bit from every track. Have I mentioned the strings? They’re not attempting to be “classical” like those common progressive acts, no sir. They incarnate Italian / Mediterranean folk music, instead, and I welcome this. Instrumentation is folky throughout the record; I don’t think I’ve listened to anything electric save for the bass, which is pretty good. On the other hand, a large diversity of acoustic guitar-like instruments brings variety, always exchanging the spotlight with violins, always catching my attention. The voice is just as good, a strong baritone that brings the right amounts of intonation and feeling. The album is emotional, alternating between ominously melancholic and sombrely blood-pumping. There’s a preponderance of the former, however, so the songs where the latter appears, for example the opener “Stalingrado” and the homage to Italian anti-fascist partisan Gianfranco Mattei, are the strongest. The other tracks sort of blend with each other, but are very pleasant nonetheless. This review was made on-the-go on my first listen of this record, so maybe further listens might show me hidden depths. I don’t need any more, though, to say that this is excellent, and stands on its own amongst all the greats of Italian prog.

ROBERT WYATT – Rock Bottom (1974)

Review by: Dinar Khayrutdinov
Album assigned by: Joseph Middleton-Welling

I have to start this review with a confession. I tried to crack this album for years and was never really able to get into it. I forever memorized Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom as an absolutely murky, depressing, tuneless and joyless experience, made even worse by some really pretentious atonal experimental instrumentation and very weird singing. God knows I had tried my best to appreciate this music – for instance, I read up on it, learned the background. You probably all know that story: former Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt fell from a third-floor window and was rendered paraplegic by the incident. When he almost gave up on life while staying in hospital, he decided to write and record this album. And I thought the album felt… exactly like something recorded by a man who just gave up on life. It felt hopeless to me. It literally was rock bottom. I could find no pleasure or aesthetic satisfaction found from listening to it. That was what I felt about this record some time ago.
 
But then I was assigned it in the reviewing game. That meant I had to listen to it again (oh God! no! fuck! not again! please!), but it also meant I could try and look at it from a different angle. Which I did. And maybe I could also try to re-evaluate this album and finally find good things in it. Which, can you believe it, I also did.
 
Rock Bottom is indeed a difficult listening experience but everything kind of comes together when you understand that murky, depressing and uneasy is exactly what this album is supposed to sound like. The title and the water-themed album sleeve are not coincidental either – the record does feel like drowning under water with next to no hope of coming to the surface. This IS an album about pain and suffering – and very genuine pain and suffering at that. But I also discovered one more thing when revisiting Rock Bottom: there IS hope amidst all this depressing stuff. And when you finally notice these glimpses (or even flashes) of hope, you also start noticing that this album does have place for some love poetry (some of the songs are dedicated to Wyatt’s wife), some cool jazzy sax solos, some legitimately great musicianship and even some humourous and silly moments (I have learnt to especially enjoy Ivor Cutler’s nonsensical poem recital with a funny exaggerated accent in Little Red Robin Hood Hit the Road)! At some point I simply understood that, even if still I don’t really enjoy this record that much, at least it’s nothing like anything else I have ever heard. It’s absolutely unique, and that probably is where its brilliance lies. As for the musical enjoyment part, well… I guess it is a matter of taste.
 
It is also highly possible that all music is purely a matter of taste and our appreciation of it depends on our background, current mood and other insubstantial factors. So try and listen to Rock Bottom. Maybe you’ll love it at once and it’ll become one of your favourite albums. Or maybe you’ll hate it at once, turn it off and forget about it forever. Or maybe you’ll just feel indifferent. But I still urge you to give this record a chance. It might take a lot of patience, but with some effort you can learn to at least respect this music, like I did.

THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS – Flood (1990)

Review by: Joseph Middleton-Welling
Album assigned by: Eric Pember

This is a record about the small things but the things that are also perversely the most important things in the world-like particles!
First a bit of background, ‘They Might be Giants’ (TMBG), ‘Flood’ is their third album and their first for a major label, it’s also probably their most well known and, full admission, the only album of theirs that I’ve heard all the way through. There were only two guys in TMBG at this point John Linsell and John Flansburgh, and they split most of the instruments between them with a few parts played by session musicians. Notably all the percussion on this album is provided by various drum machines. The sound picture is coloured by various synths and organs which combined with the drum machine, lends some of album the feel of an early Magnetic Fields LP or a less frantic Devo. Not that the album is monochromatic, some songs such as ‘Your Racist Friend’ and the closing track ‘Road Movie to Berlin’ tip the balance more strongly towards guitars. A lot of the tracks feature prominent accordion melodies and this combined with the tight songwriting lends the album a good sense of diversity. Binding together the various musical threads on this album is an atmosphere of DIY experimentation. It doesn’t necessarily feel like a band record, more like, perhaps, a group of intelligent (but emotional) scientists piecing together songs together using diagrams, test tubes and a wide range of slightly archaic instruments.
What stops the album turning into a piece of experimental art musik like Throbbing Gristle or Coil is that musically this album also harks back to simpler forms of American music from the 50’s, 60’s and in some cases even earlier. Songs by Carol King and the various Rogers, Hammersteins and Schopenhauers who seemingly wrote all the songs back in this halcyon era are often brought to mind when listening to many of these tracks. By that I mean the songs have simple and catchy melodies that nevertheless bound to formally conservative structures. Verses, choruses and middle eights are all well in evidence here. TMBG even include a 50’s cover ‘Istanbul’ that makes the connection to older forms of music explicit. This combination of high quality songwriting in the ‘classic’ mould combined with somewhat modernistic and unorthodox arrangements helps create a quirky but overall charming aesthetic that draws you in even as it surprises you. Much of this surprise is conveyed by the lyrics.
Lyrically, the songs on this album address potentially trivial subjects but these themes mask deeper and more essential emotions that come to the fore after repeated listens. ‘Birdhouse in Your Soul’ is both about a night light and sung from the perspective of the object itself. Other songs on the album are about being reincarnated as a bag of groceries and the need to wear prosthetic foreheads. When first listening to this album (at least for me) I didn’t pay too much attention to the lyrics but I really enjoyed the melodies and the arrangements. After listening a few times I came to notice the quirky subject matter and I was amused. However the problem with ‘funny lyrics’ is that they often they are only funny or interesting in the short term and after that rapidly become tedious (Weird Al et. al.). With these lyrics it’s the fact that they’re often used as cover to talk about some deeper emotional stuff. For example ‘Birdhouse’ is really a plea for companionship and ‘Dead’ is a song about deep regret. Obviously the songs are also funny and quirky but if you scratch through the surface there’s often real emotional resonance buried inside.
Take for instance ‘Particle Man’, which might be the signature song on this record. On first listen it’s easy to get caught up in the bouncy accordion and child like references to a cast of characters that wouldn’t be out of place on a Nickleodeon Cartoon. But have a read of this verse:

Person man, person man
Hit on the head with a frying pan
Lives his life in a garbage can
Person man
Is he depressed or is he a mess?
Does he feel totally worthless?
Who came up with person man?
Degraded man, person man

The song is actually about the vacuity of existence in modern late capitalist society and how it leads an unsatisfyible sense of longing and questioning within people at the bottom of the economic pile. Adorno would be proud.

In conclusion this album will worm its way into your head like a tiny particle and then beat you over the head like an angry triangle.

MOSS AND JOE’S BIG REGGAE ADVENTURE: THE PARAGONS – On the Beach (1967)

Review by: Joseph Middleton-Welling and Jonathan Moss


First some background. Despite the fact that the name of this column is ‘Moss and Joe’s Big Reggae Adventure’ the Paragons are not technically a reggae band – except in a loose sense. The bands formation actually predates the beginnings of reggae by about several years. So what genre is this music? This is rocksteady. What is rocksteady? Well basically Rocksteady is what happens when you take Ska- slow it right down and add heartbreak. Lots and lots of heartbreak. These guys sound like they’ve women have left them more times than your average bluesmen and they’d be much more at home crying into their Red Stripe than smoking a joint. We’ve all been there. Rocksteady as a genre only lasted about two years before it evolved into reggae itself.

To put it bluntly this album is quite ‘lo-fi.’ Not that it sounds horrible or anything, but compared with Aswad last time, the music on this platter is much more sparse, with less horns and layering than most reggae I’ve heard before. It’s basically just guitar, bass and drums throughout most of the songs, with horns and other instruments occasionally popping up in a supporting role. Straight out of the gate you’re going to notice that this music is vocally dominated, there’s often a lot of harmonies and counter melodies going on and these call to mind a lot of early RnB singing, think doo-wop and early Beach Boys. The singing on this album sounds like a bunch of talented guys standing around one mic in a studio and singing their hearts out. Not exactly soulful because that’s not quite the right word in this context- think heartfelt and you’re probably closer to the mark. The bass on this album is quite quiet but whoever is playing is doing some really nice melodies- I just wish it was louder.

Here is where we run into a slight problem. You may have noticed that I’ve not mentioned any individual tracks yet. There is a reason for this. THE ALBUM IS VERY SAMEY. It’s all songs about love in some way but it’s all delivered by similar arrangements and at similar tempos. This means the record can get quite monotonous, especially if you let it blend into the background. But, if you listen closely, little elements start to float up out of the rocksteady soup to keep you interested. The key to this record is the atmosphere, the almost lo-fi production combines with the heartfelt but rough singing and makes a warm and inviting feeling, even when most of the songs are about difficult emotions- like losing someone you love. The record manages to project the illusion of a kind of homespun charm, like a bunch of friends jamming on the beach and this makes for a warm listening experience if you’re prepared to listen closely and absorb it. Of course the band playing the songs on this LP is actually a bunch of tight as fuck session men, but the important part is that they don’t let that aspect become too prominent that it stops you from feeling welcome in the music.

Plus this record has the original version of ‘The Tide is High’ on it! This version is obviously much more rough and ready than Blondie’s cover but what it loses in gloss it makes up for in that fantastic sense of innocence that 50s and 60s pop has in spades. In terms of other standouts the title track is an amazing encapsulation of all of the good elements of this record, the vocals arrangement is simple but emotionally resonant when combined with the lyrics and the arrangement is really effective at supporting the vocals in an economical way. I’d encourage you to listen to this track at least once. Everything else is nearly as good, but the record works much better as a collective experience than a group of singles, at least if you want it’s full magic to work.

I would recommend this record in two contexts. This is a great party album, it’s got a lot of relaxed reggae grooves and the singing is emotional but natural. And if you do give this album a close listen and but if you’re in the right mood for blissed out heartbreak this record will embrace you like a bunch of old friends sitting on the beach and drinking beer. I probably find it sadder than is intentional but hey ho…

Next ‘week’ it’s Beenie man!

MOSS AND JOE’S BIG REGGAE ADVENTURE: ASWAD – New Chapter (1981)

Review by: Joseph Middleton-Welling and Jonathan Moss

 

I don’t know what I expected really from Aswad, I’d heard their fairly terrible late 80’s material but not any of their earlier stuff. I looked at a compilation of theirs recently in FOPP. According to this compilation they’re Britain’s “favourite Reggae band” (not true, that’s obviously The Police). There were no songs from this album included, so that gives it mad hipster cred. This is their third album and it’s damn good. It’s also quite commercial, and it’s not difficult to see how the stuff on this album could have been part of a larger trend towards selling out. But hey this album is still great. 
 

This album is pretty diverse and hooky to be honest. There are nice vocal harmonies throughout and a lot of horns that provide the hooks when there’s an instrumental break. I’m a big fan of horns and they’re splattered all over these songs. There’s also some nice almost bluesy guitar playing at points that dribbles into your ears in a pleasant way. The bass is also really prominent especially on some of the more dubby tracks. This is of course a good thing

There’s also some goofy synth sounds on this album which are of course horribly dated but they are fun. I think that’s a my general perception of this album is just that-fun. Even on some of the more serious tracks like “Natural Progression”, there’s a really odd synth powering away under the rhythm like a demented slide whistle. It can’t fail to raise a smile really. The same with some really low pitched mumbling at the start of ‘I will keep on loving you’ it’s like Reuben and the Jets level schlock but that probably wasn’t intended.

In terms of songs the opener “African Children” is pretty good. The lyrics sounded political but I was too busy paying attention to the neat drum sound and laidback, almost eerie sound of the song. It’s got those funny dated synth sounds, but they add so much character to the album. Also they make me think of video games so perhaps if you like video games but want a new hobby you can sublimate your love of video games into this album. The other absolute bangers on this album are “Natural Progression”, “Tuff we Tuff” and “Love Fire”, which closes the album with the sort of bass line that sounds like an enormous brontosaurus lumbering through some antediluvian swamp.

Also a couple of the ballads on this album are horribly cheesy but I can imagine after a few bottles of claret they’ll probably do the job. “I Will Keep on Loving You” is probably on the right side of the fence in terms of cheese factor, ‘Didn’t Know at the Time’ falls on the wrong side at least for me. I’ve heard too many sappy reggae ballads already. Bleugh.  

If all the records on this list are as fun as this one, we’ll be in for a good time. 

Moss and Joe’s Big Reggae Adventure

Introduction

Word up chums, in me and Joe’s column here we’re going to be reviewing the 50 top reggae album’s as selected by Mojo Magazine (http://www.mojo4music.com/15098/50-greatest-reggae-albums/), because it was the first one to show up on Google.

The reason we are doing this is because we are both two white men who are not overly familiar with reggae, so we can show our ignorance and provide entertainment and eventually, enlightenment.

On with the reviews, and apologies in advance!