Friday, 27 May 2011

Lady Gaga - Born This Way

So after all the hype and leaked snippets, Lady Gaga’s new opus, ‘Born This Way’ has arrived.  Let me declare my interest up front – I like Lady G a lot and feel she has brought some much needed colour to a bland corporate musical landscape.  And she does have a talent, which is always a bonus.  So what of ‘Born This Way’?

First up, at 15 tracks and over an hour in length, it is too long in the way that many CD albums are too long these days.  I was brought up in a time when albums were limited to about 40 minutes so my attention span is pre-conditioned to this span.  As a consequence, BTW plays like a short double album and like most double albums would benefit from some pruning.  Nevertheless there are some cracking songs here, not least the title track, the Queen inspired ‘You and I’ and the finale, ‘The Edge of Glory’ which would give the Boss himself a run for his money.  When Gaga is on form, there is no one to touch her, but in places this album feels a bit forced and sledge-hammer-like as if the pressure is beginning to tell and the only solution is to over-produce everything.  When she calms down a bit, like on the sublime semi-ballad, ‘Bloody Mary’ her efforts have so much more soul.  Cut this album by about 3 or 4 songs and I’d have no hesitation in recommending it unreservedly.  But in the wider world, it is not just criticism of her work that she has to contend with, but comparison with past musical icons.

Many commentators have compared both this album and Gaga herself with the life and works of Bruce Springsteen and Madonna and suggest that she falls short.  The comparison with Springsteen is the more relevant as they are both writers and performers and it is probably true to say that Gaga has some way to go to match the esteem in which Springsteen is held in both categories.  Funnily enough, the track, ‘Hair’ is a curiously Bruce-like rocker – imagine a disco version of any of the boss’s stadium anthems and you get the idea – although I can’t quite see her competing at this genre.

However, I get a little irritated with the Gaga/Madonna comparison as I feel that we are looking at two quite different entities.  Madonna is primarily an astute business woman who happens to work in the music industry.  She is supremely adept at surrounding herself with the right people at the right time and manipulating business contacts to get the best for herself, be it songs written by others especially for her or marketing effort.  Whilst she has a passable voice and musical awareness, she is not a musician per se but the ultimate corporate money-making machine.  Lady Gaga, on the other hand, is primarily a musician who is most at home writing songs at her piano, an assertion she has alluded to on several occasions.  And there is no doubt in my mind that when she does this, she excels.

It is interesting to note that during her live performance at Radio 1’s Big Weekend recently, her best work was when she sat at her piano with her live band around her and sang her heart out.  Consequently, I can’t help feeling that with ‘Born This Way’, she is trying too hard and that the burden of creating her own music and maintaining her undoubted fashion consciousness is weighing heavily upon her.  Perhaps she should take a step back next time out, relax, play to her strengths and just concentrate on her writing?

If she were really bold, she would shut herself away with a piano and a portastudio and create her own ‘Nebraska’.  It would finally set her apart, as it is something Madonna could never do.  Put Your Paws Up!

Here's an emotional Lady G doing 'The Edge of Glory' at the Radio 1 Big Weekend.  If you want to skip the preamble, go to about 1:10 where the song starts proper.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Argent - Original Album Classics

I love a good bargain, me!  And if it involves one of my favourite bands of the early 1970s then so much the better.  Browsing through Amazon, like you do, I chanced upon a series of reissue box sets rejoicing under the inspired title of ‘Original Album Classics’, each collating five albums from a set artist and retailing for about £12!  Artists included in the list so far are largely from the US, so the likes of Poco, Ted Nugent, J Geils and so on get the treatment.

So when I discovered that one of these sets was UK band, Argent and comprised their first five Epic albums (‘Argent’, ‘Ring of Hands’, ‘All Together Now’, ‘In Deep’ and ‘Nexus’) 4/5 of which I have on well worn and crackly vinyl, my finger was on the ‘Buy’ button before you could hum ‘Hold Your Head Up’.  Of course, the value quality of 5 albums for £12 has its drawbacks, one of which is that the box cover photo depicts the band including John Verity and John Grimaldi, both of whom joined after the first five albums and leaves out Russ Ballard who was definitely an integral part of the band through the whole series.  Still, you can’t have everything.  Indeed, each of the five re-mastered CDs comes in a nice cardboard sleeve with the original artwork – except ‘Nexus’ which depicts the US version of the cover, not the UK one.  Hmm.

I suppose I became an Argent fan because they were a local band, springing from suburban St Albans, my home town and you couldn’t really miss them.  It meant that they played the St Albans Civic Hall seemingly every other week and in those joyful days you could pitch up at the door on the day in question and get in without any trouble at all.  None of this selling out within 5 seconds on the internet stuff then.

Despite being a fan, I never owned their debut and listening to it now, it is apparent that it forms the missing link between Rod’s former band, The Zombies and the more progressive band that Argent would become.  Each of the subsequent albums charts this journey to Full Prog Status mixing the ethereal churchlike keyboards of Rod Argent with the down-to-earth blues/rock of Russ Ballard until finally at ‘Nexus’ it was all too much for Russ who left to pursue a solo career and write proper rock songs for the likes of Rainbow.

I still love ‘In Deep’ which was always my preferred choice with its magnificent ‘It’s Only Money (parts 1 & 2)’, but have now developed a fondness for ‘Ring of Hands’ which I hardly ever played at the time.  Funny how distance alters your perception of some albums and you start hearing things you missed the first time – like Jim Rodford’s awesome bass playing on the looser instrumental sections.  Let’s hope this reissue series extends to a few more UK bands in the future.  My breath is suitably bated.

Here is the original line up of Argent, still rockin' in their sixties, doing 'It's Only Money pts I & II', at a festival gig in Victoria Park, London, 2010 (no hair dye then, Russ...).

Friday, 13 May 2011

The Year of 1971

In the writings of one N Molesworth (the curse of st custards as any fule kno), there are described a number of patent daydreams designed for bored schoolboys to utilise during double maths – mainly space adventures with wizard whams, bonks and xplosions.  But what of grown ups?  Are we not entitled to a bit of downtime when life gets a bit lethargic?  Can we not let our imagination drift for a minute or two during that Health and Safety presentation?  One of my usual standbys is to imagine that my entire music collection has been held to ransom and I am allowed to save one particular year’s worth.  What will it be eh?

After deliberating for longer than I care to admit, a few candidates start to emerge.  For starters, 1982 was quite a good year encompassing some great stuff from Kate Bush, Siouxsie and Michael Jackson but then so was 1992 (Tori Amos, REM, Lush etc) and even 2006.  But eventually I incline towards 1971.  This is probably not surprising as I gave the game away here.  It is the year that I began to buy albums in earnest and not having many of them, tended to play them all to destruction.  It was a time of great discovery and great music.  Let’s see the evidence.

These are the LPs I bought during the year in question as they were released:
Chicago – Chicago III
Curved Air – Second Album
The Doors – LA Woman
The Faces – A Nod’s As Good As A Wink…To A Blind Horse
Focus – Moving Waves
John Lennon – Imagine
Paul McCartney – Ram
Don McLean – American Pie
Pink Floyd – Relics
Yes – Fragile

These I taped from friends (so sue me – I’ve bought them since):
Jethro Tull – Aqualung
Lesley Duncan – Sing Children Sing
It’s A Beautiful Day – Choice Quality Stuff

 And lastly, these I bought a year or two later but belong in 1971:
Beach Boys – Surfs Up
Caravan – In the Land of Grey and Pink
Deep Purple – Machine Head
Fanny – Charity Ball
Genesis – Nursery Cryme
Carole King – Tapestry
Joni Mitchell – Blue
Pink Floyd – Meddle
The Who – Who’s Next

The more I look at this list the more I am convinced that, if forced into giving up the rest of my entire collection, I could live happily with every one of these discs.  Each is so well known to me in a way that most of the albums I have bought since are not.  As the years went by, I bought more and more albums but with the exception of a chosen few, didn’t really listen to them much and some perhaps only once.  These albums represent a time when I was seized by music and spent hours listening to it.  Time and experience deadens this initial enthusiasm to a point where today, only one album in say, 10, really grabs me.

So, on my desert island, I shall sneak in all 22 of these albums and be blissfully happy playing them repeatedly like those heady days in 1971 when I was doing it for real.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Traffic - Paper Sun

In a previous post, I ranted on about the falling fortunes of HMV, the high street music retailer, in the face of competition from the cheaper, leaner on-line sellers.  Anyone reading that post might suspect that this is a modern phenomenon, but not so.

Back in 1973, I was already a fully fledged LP buyer limited only by a paper-round income and whilst the high street was my main source of music, there was an alternative.  In the spring of that year, an advert in the music press caught my attention.  It had been placed by a small mail-order company operating out of premises (probably someone’s spare room) somewhere in Essex and promised newly released albums at reduced prices in direct competition to the high street traders.  Shock horror!  In those days there really wasn’t such an animal as a ‘reduced price’.  By and large, stuff that you bought was the same price wherever you went unless it was a dog-eared sale item.

It just so happened that there were two releases that I had my eye on at the time, ‘Mother’s Pride’ by all-girl combo Fanny and ‘Air Cut’ by a newly re-vamped Curved Air.  The prices for these two discs were mouth-wateringly low when compared to standard shop prices and even with the added burden of postage; the deal looked a good one.  Of course the Wait was a bit of a problem.  Whilst I could waltz into any of the three music stores in St Albans and snap up these LPs instantly, mail order had attached to it the words of doom, ‘allow 28 days for delivery’. 

Twenty eight days!  I could die of old age.  But life was more leisurely then.  Postal orders had to be bought, sent by post and cashed at Post Offices, goods had to be packaged and put back into the Royal Mail system.  You begin to realise how ‘instant’ ordering from Amazon really is these days.  But dangling in front of the punter was a hook with bait – the deal involved the addition of a ‘free single’.  This crude marketing device had the desired effect and I went for the Wait.

And it came to pass that after about a fortnight, better than the expected 28 days, two pristine LPs arrived by parcel post together with the free single.  In truth, even I knew then that the freebie would probably be something I’d never heard of from about 1961 (and ex-jukebox, no doubt), but no, it turned out to be a brand new copy of Traffic’s debut single, ‘Paper Sun’ from 1967 and on the classic lurid pink Island label.  Result!

There are many singles that are undoubtedly a product of their time and this is one of them.  Summer of Love Indian instruments?  Check.  Weird psychedelic lyrics (man)?  Check.  Catchy 1960s melody?  Definitely.  This is probably one of the best freebies I’ve ever received but even this didn’t tempt me back for a second stab at mail order.  From then on it was back to the record store for a good browse and instant gratification.  Until Amazon, that is.