Friday, 28 January 2011

The Return of Dubstar

Let’s face it; life can be a bit humdrum sometimes so when a tiny bit of excitement comes along, it’s worth making a great big fuss of it. A bit like when your birthday falls at the weekend or you accidentally get given two free vouchers instead of one. It’s the small coincidences that count. In this case two of my favourite musical things have coincidentally collided creating a small, yet beautifully formed nebula in my universe.

In 1981, riding on the crest of the New Wave, a band called The Passions released a single entitled ‘I’m in Love With a German Film Star’, as a precursor to their album, ‘Thirty Thousand Feet Over China’. It was to be a sizable hit and regrettably, their only hit but it remains a monumental slice of minimalist dream-pop, all echo-y guitar figures, pumping bass and Barbara Gogan’s cool vocal waffling on about posing Germans drifting in and out of the aural architecture. I loved it at the time and I love it today. It and the subsequent album have places permanently reserved in my all time Hall of Fame.

Fast forward to a little over 10 years later, and a band called Dubstar was being formed by DJ Steve Hillier and guitarist Chris Wilkie. Realising that they needed a proper singer, they recruited northern lass, Sarah Blackwood and struck gold with their first single, ‘Stars’ - a dizzy mix of DJ dance and electro-pop but with a proper melody and real guitars. Three albums followed which highlighted their flair for a good tune, a deft arrangement and Sarah’s dour Halifax vowels. Interestingly, she has since put on record that she always found Dubstar’s interval-jumping melodies difficult to sing, but they always sounded fine to me. So much so that at least two of the three albums have pride of place in my collection.

Nevertheless, by 2000 after disappointing sales of the third album and a kiss-of-death ‘Best Of’ had appeared, it was clear that they had run their course and eventually Sarah left to become half of a new duo, Client (of whom I have posted previously) with Kate Holmes. A series of industrial electro-pop albums ensued but they never rose above cult status.

And so we arrive at the present where finally these two strands of musical history cross and a new star is born. I hear with unbounded joy that Dubstar have reformed and as a sign of intent have recorded a song for ‘Peace’, an Amnesty International benefit compilation. Guess what it is? Yes, it’s a cover of ‘I’m in Love With a German Film Star’. And it’s not half bad. Not tremendously different from the original but it still conveys the original dream-pop ambience beautifully. Only with north-country vowels. Bliss.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Paul McCartney

Christmas this year, or should that be last year, furnished me with a few additional CDs for my collection, one of which was the recent three disc reissue of Wings’ ‘Band On The Run’. This, at last, replaces my worn out vinyl copy that spent much time on my turntable from the day I bought it in early 1974.

From the split of The Beatles, I was always a McCartney fan and amongst the first albums I ever bought in those musically formative years, were ‘McCartney’, ‘Ram’ and ‘Band on the Run’. Despite being a Paul-o-phile and hence rather inexplicably, I passed on ‘Wildlife’ and ‘Red Rose Speedway’ and never bought another McCartney album after BOTR. In retrospect my instincts were entirely correct as to me, only the former three albums are essential from his entire solo catalogue to date. Certainly after BOTR and having listened to ‘Venus and Mars’, I lost interest in his work altogether. Listening to all three of these early albums again two aspects have struck me.

The first is how adept McCartney is at musical arrangement. All these albums are bursting to overflowing with clever uses of instruments, unusual backing vocal harmonies and little guitar and synth figures. Every song has its own atmosphere derived from combinations of these devices. In addition, the mixing and production of the albums enhances these features. ‘Band On The Run’ in particular has some very complex arrangements yet each piece of the multi-layered jigsaw is presented in an uncluttered way. This is a real skill and one which makes these songs such a pleasure to listen to.

The second aspect is Linda McCartney. Universally derided by fans for being untalented, she nevertheless has a towering presence on these works. Yes, she was a lousy lead vocalist and yes, she wasn’t much cop as a musician either, but her backing vocals are really quite wonderful. They lend an element to the sound that is instantly identifiable and all her own. Have a listen to McCartney albums that feature her and contrast them with those that don’t. There is a huge difference and the ones with her backing vocals as part of the overall sound stage are strangely familiar and enticingly attractive. Perhaps it just nostalgia, but yes, Paul, I miss her too.

Whilst the BOTR reissue has been nicely remastered, the playing is immaculate and the production is first rate, I can’t shake the feeling that the album is a bit of a style-over-content work. The songs are OK, but it is the clever arrangements and presentation that ratchets up their appeal. Left to my own devices I’d always go back to ‘Ram’ and the homemade ‘McCartney’ which contain much better and more quirky material and seem to have more soul than the ultra-polished BOTR. The unbridled passion of Paul’s yelling, ‘Oh-Oh! We believe that we can’t be wrong!/ Yeah Yeah Yeah!’ at the end of ‘Backseat of my Car’ is a spine tingling moment of pure abandon. You won’t find anything like it on BOTR.

Here's Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey' from 'Ram'.  It has everything:- a whole montage of tunes, complex arrangement, humour and Linda's patent backing sound.  Wonderful.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Blog Awards 2010

It must be about time to hand out some awards, don’t you think? But not music awards, blogging awards. I feel that the time has come to give a modicum of recognition to those blogs that have held me enthralled over the past year. The trouble is, there are quite a few of them but I am going to limit myself to five. So without further ado and in no particular order, they are:

YourZenMine – This blog, written by an Aussie husband and wife team, set out to review 365 randomly chosen albums from their collection – thus two individual views per album - everyday for the year of 2010. Despite the enormity of the task, they succeeded in style. Frankly, I can only goggle at their tenacity in completing this challenge as I know what it takes out of you writing informative, yet appealing reviews, especially if the day’s choice was a bit disappointing. And to crank out a review a day for the entire year deserves some acclaim. The sometimes conflicting views, the opinions, the husband/wife banter, the insight into past lives have all been fascinating as well as vastly entertaining and I am rather sad that it has now come to an end. Whilst the blog takes a bit of a rest, I understand that it will continue in 2011 but in a new format. Let’s hope so! This blog gets my ‘Against All Odds’ award!

Luminous Muse – When I cast around for new blogs to follow, I am often appalled at how shallow and badly written some sites are. However, this does not apply in any way to Luminous Muse which is quite the reverse. This blog is a relatively new discovery for me and is written by an American composer and all round music nut. The subjects cover all areas of music from classical to modern and whilst the writing is undisputedly superb, it is the insight from a musician’s perspective that keeps me returning for more. This is not a blog for the faint hearted as the posts are often quite long and the analysis deep, yet like all good teachers, he always manages to make the text understandable to the layman without dumbing down. This blog gets my ‘We Can Work It Out’ award!

A Novice Novelist – This is one of the first blogs I stumbled across when I started out in the blogosphere over three years ago and it is the one that I still return to now. What better recommendation? It records the trials and tribulations of a would-be novelist and her attempts to become a published author and is written by the endearingly dotty, London based, Jayne. Jayne has the talent that all good writers possess, that of observation. Her posts are chock full with wry observations and self deprecating humour in the best English style. She never fails to make me smile and has done so for many years. This blog gets my ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ award!

One for the Dads – I can’t ignore this one despite the fact that there is very little text in it but comprises a collection of video clips of all those Dancing Queens from the 1970s; Pan’s People, Legs & Co, Ruby Flipper, Zoo, Hills Angels and others. In the days before music videos, these ladies populated TV music programmes to the delight of the Dads. Congratulations to its host, Young Mr Grace, who has done very well indeed in amassing all these clips and collecting followers who now include daughters of some of the dancers featured. This blog gets my ‘Music To Watch Girls By’ award.

Music and More – Finally a mention for this freshly minted blog by a young British woman who has clearly caught the music bug. Early days yet, but this blog looks very promising. It is upfront and opinionated. Love it! This blog gets my ‘New Kid In Town’ award!

My thanks to these and all the other blogs that I follow. Happy New Year!

Friday, 7 January 2011

iPod Start To The New Year

Aargh! What a start to 2011 - it looks like Apple has finally got me. After many years of studiously avoiding iTunes like the plague by use of my trusty Creative Zen, I have now relented and replaced it with the unfeasibly tiny iPod Nano. I’d like to think that there are several compelling reasons for this so I’m going to state them here just to reassure myself that I’ve done the right thing:

1. My 20Gb Zen was feeling its age and was beginning to have all sorts of disc start-up and shut-down problems making me spend hours rebuilding libraries and trying to hard reset the thing in an effort to make it work at all.

2. Having changed my computer, I have found that Windows 7 does not support the software associated with my old Zen, so I cannot add or manage the music files any longer. Well, there’s a surprise. And the Creative website offers no upgrade either so I’ve been made obsolete. There’s an even bigger surprise.

3. My daughter already has an iPod so iTunes has become a way of life for her and vicariously for me. I’ve learned that it is possible to keep multiple music libraries in a single install of iTunes. By holding down ‘Shift’ when you fire it up, it allows you to choose which library you wish to see and thus sync to. This is not generally advertised on the iTunes website – I discovered it on a user’s forum. That probably means it will be withdrawn when the software next updates, leaving me high and dry.

4. I don’t actually like the new generation of Creative products – hence I have been enticed by the undoubted style (over content?) of the iPod.

My only other consideration was which iPod. Up until now, my Zen has housed a large proportion of my music collection but I’ve come to realise that now the novelty of having access to most of my LPs and CDs on tap has worn off, I don’t really need them all. So instead of a bulky, disc driven device that makes holes in my pockets, I’ve gone for a lighter, solid state 16Gb model with the intention of only carrying around stuff I am currently listening to and changing the playlist every so often. It means that I pay less and can therefore afford to replace it when it, again, becomes obsolete - as it will. It has no camera or other useless gimmicks and just plays music - perfect. Whether all this works in the long term or has me hankering for a larger capacity model remains to be seen but for the moment the experiment continues.

Watch this space!

PS - I've just discovered that the damn thing has no on/off switch.  You can only put it into standby which eats the battery - great!