FOREIGNER – Unusual Heat (1991)

Review by: Julien Mansencal
Album assigned by: Nina Anatchkova

Unusual Heat is the proverbial album with no reason to exist. Then again, how could it have one? When third-rate bands like Foreigner lose a key member, they rarely follow the wise path of disbanding and turning to more fitting jobs, like, I don’t know, driving trucks or something. No, when third-rate bands lose a key member, nine times out of ten they’ll go for the cheapest replacement available and soldier on. Granted, when you compare departed Lou Gramm with stand-in Johnny Edwards, the quality gap is not that noticeable, but still, they should have heeded the call. Especially since the time was 1991 and the world really had no longer any use for a band like Foreigner.

That’s not to say that they don’t try to follow the trends. Unusual Heat largely discards the cheesy 80s synthesizers that were so dominant on Inside Information in favour of a sound that’s more guitar-based but less distinctive. And Foreigner never were that distinctive to begin with, so that’s saying something. Apart from that, the band goes through the motions, ticking all the boxes on their grocery list of How to Make a Record: half-assed crunchy rockers, check. Sappy power ballads, check. Unmemorable, run-of-the-mill guitar solos, check. Lyrics ranging from the useless to the abysmal, check. Cheap, ugly cover art, check. About a dozen songs, check. And since this is the beginning of the CD era, all of them are four to five minutes long, because why the hell not? Foreigner want to waste as much as your time as they can. And now they’ve made me their accomplice, since I’ve wasted YOUR time by writing two paragraphs about this nothing. 

Even a perfect sphere has more of a point than this. I won’t say “avoid it at all costs,” since I can’t imagine how anyone would face the possibility of listening to this record that has justly fallen into oblivion. It would take an absurd situation, like a reviewing contest about bad records or something.

STARSHIP – No Protection (1987)

Review by: Alex Alex
Album assigned by: Julien Mansencal

Most surely, people do not like the 80s music for the same reasons they do not usually like abstract art – they do not understand what to make out of it or, simpler, being egotistic and self-centered as people are, they do not understand how to enjoy.

When Genesis boldly, if somewhat idiotically (both attitudes are courtesy of the Gabriel legacy), put some not-so-good abstract art on their album covers (“Genesis”, “Abacab”, even “Duke” as an early-period painting of the same master) then people somewhat realize the connection and, if not really start appreciating the albums, at least start the endless discussions about “eras” as if none of the Tarantino movies have ever happened.

When the album cover is executed in a most realistic manner, as is the case with Starship’s No Protection then people start judging the songs according to the laws of the reality they currently experience which is the same as to say Mondrian could not paint anything but squares in three colors.

Mondrian could, however, same as could Starship when it still was Airplane. Indeed, comparing Mondrian early period with his golden one is much the same as comparing Airplane to Starship or, more importantly, comparing airplanes and starships in general.

Airplanes are killed by stewardesses. Starships are erotic by themselves, the Cosmos demand females to be either fully naked or dressed ridiculously. This is so in order not to distract people from the beauty of the Starship itself.

The beauty and the freedom of Starship as opposed to all the bankrupt private airlines is immense. When people say the 80s music is dead, those people are often the same ones who say “when I die I fly to God, I fly to the center of the Universe, I fly among the brightest stars”. And how do you fly there, dear sirs? By way of the Starship of the Dead for there are no airplanes that can do this long flight.

And why is it you can travel to God who sits in the center of the Universe, listening to Shpongle, by Starship with a big big generator? This is because of the beauty of the engine. The engine is not visible and yet it is the engine, not fancy dressed stewardesses, who provides the power and guarantees you to be taken to God in the blinking of an eye.

And if your starship is broken, it’s not the same as with a new Nick Cave album. There will always be problems with any new Nick Cave album because it’s new for no reasons. The only problem with Starship engine is it has become obsolete, other engines have replaced it but it still, theoretically, can fly, if in our nostalgic dreams only.

There are strict regulations on board. There is a beat of the machine and the patrol to keep the beat. There is a world going on underground as we have been informed by Mr. Waits in strict confidence. The error of the auteurs, however, is that there is nothing confidential about that anymore.

Confidential are the pieces of broken glass and the diaries you bury under the tree in your childhood garden. If, however, you keep your Walkman in secret then there is no chance it will evolve into an Ipod. And if it does not happen soon, then you are going to be deeply sorry about that.

Most Alas! As a stubborn teenager you are still insisting there is a menace in you being welcomed to the machine and so you are rejecting your journey to the center of the Earth on the inverted airplane, the inmost starship of the Cthulhian business, shining brightly.

VIRGINIA ASTLEY – From Gardens Where We Feel Secure (1983)

Review by: A.A
Album assigned by: Julien Mansencal

 

This is an ambient album that evokes nostalgia, and does it better than some but not all similar albums. Mostly pianos and soundscapes and samples/field-recordings comprise the sound. I do not have a lot to say about it, but I’m somewhere between appreciating it and liking it. On the whole, I think most people would be positive toward it than negative.

DAFT PUNK – Random Access Memories (2013)

Review by: Julien Mansencal
Album assigned by: Dinar Khayrutdinov

Despite being French, I had never listened to anything by Daft Punk up to this point. I tend to shy away from massively popular stuff, including but not limited to music, and they were no exception. Still, Random Access Memories was already lurking on the fringes of my list of things to discover, if only because it features Paul Williams on one track and I love this guy. (And it makes me realize just now that his own “Just an Old-Fashioned Love Song” would have fitted the nostalgia theme to a tee. Shame I didn’t think about that before.)

Anyway, it was a bit of a lie to say that I had never listened to Daft Punk before. Of course it was completely impossible to avoid “Get Lucky” in 2013, and deservedly so: it is a brilliant slice of disco and hearing it once is enough to remember it for years to come. I knew I should expect more of the same retro vibe throughout the record, and it was indeed there: lots of crisp funky bass and vibrant piano lines; an aural paradise. The songs themselves are rather more complex than I’d expected, many of them have several parts and sometimes they don’t fit together extremely well. “Touch” suffers a bit from that, but Paul Williams’ vocal helps giving it a sense of unity. On the other hand, “Giorgio by Moroder” does not seem as well-constructed to me, and listening to Moroder’s life story may be interesting once, but it gets boring after a while. The only part I’m not too fond of is in fact the vocals: apart from the featurings, they are Vocoderized all the way and it just kills the mood for me.

However, that’s not the main downside of the album. Its main problem is that everything goes on for too long: my attention keeps drifting away within some songs and I have trouble listening to the whole thing in one continuous sitting. Most of the time, once “Get Lucky” is done I could just as well turn off the sound; especially since the following track opens with a bombasting violin intro that’s so ridiculously over-the-top that even Jeff Lynne would think twice before putting it on an ELO record. Actually, that’s too bad since the following following track, “Motherboard”, is a gorgeous instrumental featuring an instrument called “Crystal Baschet” that sounds marvellous. The entire record is peppered with ideas that are just as interesting, but it’s just not enough to keep my attention focused for 75 minutes.

Still, overall Random Access Memories deserves a thumbs up, I think. The whole “funk revival” thing works quite well, apart from the robotic vocals. I don’t think I’ll put it on too often, but I won’t say no to one song from time to time. If I want to get my mojo working, I’ll still rather put on Sexuality by Sébastien Tellier; I think he channels better the Sleazy Seventies than Daft Punk do.

A YEAR IN MUSIC: ULTRAVOX – Quartet (1982)

A YEAR IN MUSIC: 1982
Review by: Julien Mansencal

1982 belongs to the vast category of years that came before my birth, and Quartet belongs to the vast category of albums I discovered a long while after their release. Actually, my discovery of Ultravox’s “classic four,” from Vienna to Lament, happened across a short period of time, so much so that I still have trouble distinguishing them: to me, they are more like four consecutive chapters in a novel, and I would be hard pressed to choose a favourite among them.

Of course, I can hear the way George Martin (yes, *that* George Martin) gave a different twist to their sound here when compared with Conny Plank’s production on Vienna and Rage in Eden, but I do not feel the result is substantially weaker: more accessible and “poppy,” that’s undeniable, but the songs are just as interesting.

On my first listen, I spent an entire evening replaying “Reap the Wild Wind” again and again, always getting the same kicks from the crashing opening. A brilliant first track, maybe too much: nothing else on the album comes close to it. A few songs actually leave me cold, especially “Visions in Blue,” which aims too hard for Beauty with a capital B and fails. But I usually have an easy time resonating with Midge Ure’s passionate delivery and Quartet is no exception, be it the nervousness of “Cut and Run,” the grandiose faith of “Hymn” (what an apt title) or the vibrant nostalgia of “Reap the Wild Wind.” When the whistle fades away at the end of “The Song (We Go)”, I am always left wanting for more, so I usually follow it up with Lament. (As far as final chapters go, this is a really bleak one, but that’s a story for another round of reviews.)

So, maybe Quartet is the weaker chapter in the Ultravox novel. Still, it fits so well the overall narrative that skipping it would be a shame. “Hear the words of the syncopated rhythms; welcome to the song.”

IT’S IMMATERIAL – Life’s Hard and Then You Die (1986)

Review by: Andreas Georgi
Album assigned by: Julien Mansencal

When I was asked to review this album, I realized that I remember seeing the cover in record stores in the late ‘80’s, but I had no recollection of the music. The first thing that struck me is the incongruity between the expectations that the title and the “evil clown” album cover create, and the actual music coming out of the speakers.  Far from the sinister first impression, what you get is very melodic fairly laid back pop rock with a highly eclectic mix of influences ranging from folk to Celtic to country meshed into a coherent whole with some dark undertones.   I’m having a hard time making comparisons to any similar groups, frankly.  It is very much of its time (mid-80’s), but does not suffer for it.

The first song “Driving Away From Home”, evidently was a hit single in the UK. I must admit that my initial reaction was not positive, but by the end of the first listening I got to appreciate what these guys are doing – kind of Kerouac in Lancashire or Yorkshire. The singer does have a propensity to “talk sing” in a way that comes off a bit corny at times. The band seems to hail from Manchester, in northern England’s industrial rustbelt, and a lot of the lyrics reflect a theme of a difficult life in struggling post-industrial towns. “Happy Talk”, “The Sweet Life” and “Rope” reflect on this theme in various ways. The mood is gentle with a melancholic touch, but not morose.  Two songs, “Space” and “Ed’s Funky Diner” don’t work for me.  The latter was also a hit of sorts.  I appreciate what they’re doing – a kind of Waits – like cast of characters – but I just don’t care for it.  The slower songs work better.  “Festival Time” starts off sounding like it’s going to turn into Talking Heads’ “Cross-eyed and Painless” and ends up sounding like the carnival it describes – good one.  “Washing the Air” is a mostly instrumental piece with a James Bond guitar, and is another highlight.  The CD version, at least, ends with remixes of “Diner” (alluding to artist Edward Keinholz in the subtitle) and “Driving..”.

This one is one album that I didn’t immediately like, but definitely grew on me over a couple of listenings. I’m glad I gave it time. This not your average mid 80’s pop. There’s a lot of substance that rewards repeated listenings. THUMBS UP

JORGE BEN – A Tábua de Esmeralda (1974)

Review by: Julien Mansencal
Album assigned by: Francelino Prazeres de Azevedo Filho


When I subscribed to the reviewing chain, I certainly did not expect to be assigned a Portuguese-language concept album about alchemy from a Brazilian musician. It is rather difficult for me to comment on albums when I do not know the first thing about the context of their release, the subject of their lyrics or even the guys and gals who made them: I need something to hang onto when throwing myself into it. Here, I got nothing, and I simply do not have enough time to learn Portuguese (there is actually one track in English on this record, but it’s the worst in my opinion), delve into Nicholas Flamel’s arcane manuscripts or immerse myself into the South American pop/rock/whatever scene of the 70s and the career of the estimated Jorge Duilio Lima Menezes. This only leaves the music and me, a frightened parachutist without a parachute.

So, what did I think of A Tábua de Esmeralda? Well, I quite liked it. The overall sound is really enjoyable, with LOTS of tasty acoustic guitar (the intro to “Menina Mulher da Pele Preta” reminds me an awful lot of Lindsey Buckingham’s acoustic work on some Fleetwood Mac tracks, especially the live versions of “Big Love”), and nice vocals from the female chorists or Jorge Ben’s himself. He has a really sweet voice, and the way it blends with those of the chorists gives a very down-to-earth feel to the entire proceedings, as if everyone was sitting around Ben next to a fire camp, just singing and having a good time together. There is a tinge of Latin percussion here and there which works quite well, and a bit of orchestration in other places which works just as well; that’s a melting pot quite unlike anything I’ve ever listened to seriously so far. My pickout track would be the last one, “Cinco Minutos”, despite the false advertising (it only lasts 2:57), where everything falls together and culminates in a gorgeous finale.

This winter of 2015 is cold here, but A Tábua de Esmeralda keeps me warm when I put it on after a harrowing day outside; and isn’t that what music should be all about?