Tuesday, March 3, 2015

'European skies, European desires'

Manic Street Preachers - 'Futurology' (2014)

"I am the sturm und drang / I am the schadenfreude"

In unprecedented haste for a band of its age, the twelfth studio album from Manic Street Preachers was released around six months after its companion, Rewind the Film. Both albums complement one another, and yet are intended to be opposites, Rewind the introspective middle-aged Holy Bible, while Futurology, while not exactly future-looking, is an optimistic, outward-looking work. Its predecessor is no slouch, but fed on Krautrock, and presenting electronic soundscapes and a peculiarly Welsh view of modern European history, the Manics' latest album is one of their strongest and most complete.

"Working class skeletons / lie scattered in museums" 

Like Rewind the Film, Futurology was recorded at Hansa by the Wall, in Berlin. The British artist or group retreating to Berlin for reinvigouration and reinvention has past form, of course: Bowie (Low and "Heroes") and U2 (Achtung Baby) both did it, and while Manics eschewed Eno and parted with Visconti five albums previously, there is a sense of hat-doffing to the former. But this isn't pastiche as Achtung Baby pretended towards (and Zooropa achieved) but a logical transition. Doubled with Rewind the Film, its studio companion, the two albums converse and share ideas, sounds and influences.

Futurology is a confident album - still equipped with the doubts of Rewind, but seated in a continental context, and an historical one. Its Europe is a Europe of ghosts both living and dead: - 'The Next Jet to leave Moscow's' "old jaded Commie walking in Red Square", while bonus track 'The Last Time I Saw Paris' has its protagonist wander the French capital looking for 'the boxer' (Sartre) and 'the goalkeeper' (Camus), Grieg's 'In the Hall of the Mountain King' is sampled in 'Let's Go To War', Munch's painting in 'Between the Clock and the Bed', and more personally, the shimmering 'Divine Youth' sparks from Wire's catching an image of himself and Richey Edwards in their younger heyday on a bootleg t-shirt.

"To understand your country you must first understand yourself"

So while U2's European experience is largely as travellers and impressioned observers, Manics draw on European political history, Welsh history as European history ('Dreaming a City (Hugheskova)' and 'The View from Stowe Hill'), and their own politics to create part-essay, part travelogue. Far from the cut-up soundbite approach of the Richey era, there are easier entry points in thee songs, and what seems to be an attempt to demystify the lyrics, maybe Wire's past-affirmed "attempt at mass communication." And so alongside the possible survivor-guilt of 'Walk Me to the Bridge' and eflection of 'Between the Clock', there are songs about Wire's dwindling Socialist values ('Moscow') and a self-referencing of the band's more notorious history: "so you played in Cuba did you like it brother? / I bet you felt proud, you silly little f*cker."

My overriding impression of this album however is one of generosity. There are songs loosely about the band and its primary lyricist, but these seem small ingredients alongside the wealth of ideas, the inclusion of fellow Welsh vocalists Georgia Ruth and Green Gartside (duets being another element shared with Futurology), and the impressive soundscape from Bradfield and Moore - hinted at in the previous album's closer, but fully formed here. It echoes not only the Krautrock of Can, Neu and Kraftwerk ('Black Square', to my ears, and also 'Misguided Missile'), but more domestic influences - PiL, Simple Minds, a dash of The Skids. I don't think manics have ever not worn their influences on their sleeves, but here the influences seem broader and more accommodating. And I'm very happy to have it in my collection.

Cover story: It's allegedly a good sign because the band logo and lettering has the reversed letters back! fans would therefore expect a call-back to similarly-typed albums The Holy Bible, Send Away the Tigers and Journal for Plague Lovers, and, perhaps third album excepted, it's not a bad comparison. The photo: a blonde fraulein standing on a block of ice in brittle, beautiful midwinter sunlight. Gorgeous. And futurist Berlin architecture forms the backdrop to the band portraits inside. Job done.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Friday Night Local: David Kilgour - 'You Forget' (1992)

Ah, summer’s lease is nearly at an end here in New Zealand, and already with the mornings growing darker and the breeze cooling by the day the early sun-bleached weeks of 2015 are becoming a memory. We’ve not had a lot of rainfall over the country – worryingly little, in fact, with several areas including North Otago and South Canterbury (locations of the Simian ancestral pile) declared drought zones – so the image of your New Zealand summer and its blue sparkling waters and blessed friendly sun seem a little far removed at present. Let’s get them back for a bit – all the way from 1992.

David Kilgour’s solo debut was an album remarkable for its lateness. For the best part of the previous decade Kilgour had spent his career alternately providing signature riffs and hooks for The Clean, The Great Unwashed and latterly his own trio Stephen. By the late 80s he was a quiet member of the alternative music establishment, while the reunion and resurgence of The Clean with brother Hamish and Robert Scott providing a new lease of life and to my generation of students at least, a new generation audience. When it arrived Here Come the Cars with its faux-Dylan cover portrait was like the proverbial beam of golden sun, jangly, poppy, melodic and upbeat.

David Kilgour’s part in The Clean was always the most significant to me, his guitar riding over sometimes weedy vocals or leaden one-two drum falls, the eccentric dancer in a very Dunedin drunken reel. I adore the Clean, but Kilgour’s solo showing in Cars, as well as the likes of Sugarmouth and The Far Now broaden his talents even farther, with some lovely piano and sensitive production pushing his more melodic songs further forward. For a while it seemed Flying Nun finally had its first real solo star, and 'You Forget' is probably when Kilgour shone brightest. It's one of my favourite summer songs, from one of my favourite guitarists, and it takes me immediately back to the summer of 1992 and 1993, which was a very good summer indeed.

Here he is, with surfer car, a sparkling Auckland Harbour and Rangitoto, and an enviable collection of colourful footwear, to send summer on its way.

'This side of the truth where no sun shines'

Manic Street Preachers - 'Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of Manic Street Preachers' (2002)

What to make of an album of B-sides? What to make of an album of cover versions? Can you tell much about an artist or a band from either? Of course you can; whole careers have been jeopardised on cover albums alone (*cough!DuranDurancough!*), but B-Sides are quite a different kettle of fish.
There exist some bands for whom the B-Side is a serious attraction. If an act is large or popular enough, fans will follow them to the ends of all second-tier 45 fillers, but for the most part, it seems to me the best-regarded B-Sides come from bands who simply haven't treated their non-A-Side works as lesser cast-offs. The Smiths, for example, command a discography in which many Bs and album tracks at east are not so much indistinguishable, but equals, and Oasis, apparently, did the business with their own collection Stop the Clocks (of which I must admit I’ve only heard one B-Side, the highly commendable 'Acquiesce'. On the other hand, from my own collections Blur and Iron Maiden are largely the less on the flip-side, while The Darkness vary depending on how silly they felt on the day of recording. It’s a broad church.

Lipstick Traces, a Secret History of Manic Street Preachers attempts to have a go at both tacks, presenting two discs of B-sides, one entirely original compositions and one entirely cover versions. It’s a lot of songs – long enough to rival National Treasures, and at $6.00 (I think) from our local JB Hi-Fi I definitely felt I was getting more than my money’s worth.

The original songs are pretty well chosen, though omit some fan favourites such as Are Mothers Saints. Nevertheless the spread of singles and years presented here offers as much a potted history of the band as this set’s contemporary best of. Here’s 'Desolation Alley' from the Manics’ very early days, through to the titular 'Forever Delayed' (oddly left off the Best Of that bears its name – I find it more interesting and engaging than 'Door to the River') and This Is My Truth drop-out 'Prologue to History', perhaps the best B-Side of the band in its second generation. Certainly, the first half of this disc is well worth your time, with some great variety of style and composition thrown in.

Highlights are many – the aforementioned tracks of course, plus would-be Judge Dredd track 'Judge Yrself', the Radiohead-esque 'Donkeys' and rabble rouser 'Socialist Serenade'. For the expected Richey tribute track there’s 'Sepia', another sound piece. What comes out of this collection is not so much a secret history as an alternative history of Manic Street Preachers; indicative of the band in its various guises, but arranged in such a way as to keep you guessing what might be around the corner next. Fans would (and did) complain that there’s a lot left off this anthology, and perhaps the missing tracks and remixes will be visited in time by the band or label, but in the mean-time this is tidy, still luxurious in length, and varied enough to not get samey.

And so to the covers. This blog has already nodded in the direction of Manics covers a couple of times (here and here and also here), so we’re traversing familiar territory. But something should be said of the choice of covers here – from the obvious early influences (The Clash’s 'Train in Vain', GnR’s 'It’s So Easy') to the more obscure, like Campervan Beethoven and, yes, Mike Batt/Art Garfunkel. That the likes of Strummer and Slash speak across both discs though cover and pastiche is one thing, but adding the likes of Bacharach and Linden ('Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head') to that list – informing to my ears original B-Sides like the lovely instrumental 'Horses Under Starlight', says to me that these are genuine influences, and not throwaway dress-ups. There’s a bawling enthusiasm in 'Rock and Roll Music', and even 'Can’t Take My Eyes Off You' that would surely beckon audience participation, and may well speak for their origins here as set-fillers . More recently Manics have covered contemporary songs with a straight face, giving their own interpretation to the likes of Rihanna’s 'Umbrella', while on here there’s a similar gravity to an old Robeson standard:

So on reflection it’s an interesting set of cover versions, and in places a strong one. Worthwhile, even.

As mentioned above, there’s easily space for a Lipstick Traces vol 2, though I suspect this will be more in the hands of fans than the group itself, and fair enough. For the most part, such histories are an intimate thing, a matter between artist and enthusiast, and something removed from the initiation of a singles collection. This is a set I visit infrequently, and only once entirely in one sitting, but on pretty much every hearing there’s been a new discovery, and that’s no bad thing at all.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

There's Nothing Like a Dane, etc.

Here it is, Barbarian, from The Darkness' forthcoming Last of Our Kind, due late May/early June.

As if I didn't already have one album to look forward to this year.

Truly, if this had been around twenty two years ago, Anglo-Saxon history might have been an entirely different prospect for me.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

'Success is an Ugly Word'

Manic Street Preachers 'Forever Delayed' (2002) / 'National Treasures' (2011)

By fluke of blogging FreakyTrigger recently covered Manics' The Masses Against The Classes on their Popular feed - mileage varies, but the fan support in the feedback is strong and not at all scary (they breed them polite and articulate over there.) So that's now fifteen years almost to the month since Manic Street Preachers' last number one single. The top selling singles are an interesting thing -  If You Tolerate This is Manics at their most stadium-friendly and gracefully earnest - probably the closest to Nicky Wire's later-voiced "attempt at mass communication";  Masses strikes me as an attempt to mollify departed fans - and they're just the number ones. The breakthrough could be Manics' NME benefit album cover of Suicide is Painless (Theme from M*A*S*H) - I'll come to cover versions in the next post, but it's an intriguing entry alongside Design for Life (being caught up in a New Lad misunderstanding earned it a Number Two position) and Everything Must Go the survivor anthem. From the unloved Lifeblood are two Number Two singles, while 'comeback' Send Away the Tigers yields a further couple, and the last top ten single the band has achieved since.

But Masses informs the title of this post and features on both of Manic Street Preachers' singles collections, both separated by roughly ten years and covering respectively ten and twenty years of the band's existence in the popular eye. A good band compilation can be met in different ways, the two most popular routes being the Best Of selection, and the more complete Singles Collection route. Alternatively, you might find yourself buying a collection edited and presented out of sequence for maximum playability (Queen’s Greatest Hits being an easy example), or something straight-down-the line, the chronological story. Manic Street Preachers, being somewhat a warts-and-all act, have had a bite of both, and the result is more or less a comprehensive history of the band in its early life and midlife.

Forever Delayed is their first Best Of – out of sequence ordering, fresh off the boat post-Know Your Enemy and the earlier Masses single. It’s a singles set with some exclusions, while the stand-alone tracks There By the Grace of God (a fitting taste of what was to come with the next album Lifeblood) and the dour Door to the River fill out the roster. Being the mid-era release it’s strong on the recent singles and an effective early history, but it only tells half the story. For some that may be enough.

 There are thirty-eight singles on National Treasures, twenty-four of which are UK top twenty hits. The collection is more generous to the early years than Forever Delayed (Slash and Burn is reinstated for one), and it seems to take an age to get through the first two albums alone. Of course Treasures continues where the previous collection left off, including tracks from Lifeblood through to Postcards From a Young Man. Also, unlike Forever Delayed, it's in chronological order, which adds to the storytelling aspect - I can see why some singles collections go out of release order, but prefer this approach. Also, as my friend David pints out, if you’re not a fan of a band’s earlier or later work, the track ordering enables easier entry and exit points!  Door to the River is dropped, but the stand-alone track, a cover of The The's This is the Day, is the feature, and I must admit to preferring it over the original for its urgency and build! A noteable omission is anything from Journal For Plague Lovers; the band never released a single from this, though there could have easily been two or three contenders, and I miss those songs for it.

In conclusion, both collections are worthwhile, and both did the business in sales, but it's hard to go past National Treasures simply because the story of the band continues and is still interesting. I've argued before that my following of Manics is a post-Richey Edwards thing, and that they are a band who I have aged with, so my appreciation is always going to be contextual. If you could argue that collections mark transition points in band histories, then I would agree that from the two albums which follow this latest Best Of a new direction has indeed been forged, and Manic Street Preachers are into another phase again - once again, to be covered in an upcoming and final post. With less of an eye toward the charts, and more of an eye towards creating an on-going narrative of self-reflection and maturity, I think this latest phase is their most rewarding yet.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Whip It Good!

So, Blur are putting out a new album? Blur are touring? Blur are back together again?

I can’t keep up. Earlier this morning I was reading about Bruce Dickinson’s rather alarming cancer scare (and a speedy recovery to you, sir!), but this is a bit of a curve ball. However, it’s all true – Blur’s eighth studio album The Magic Whip comes out in April, and I’m getting rather stupidly excited at the news. 

It’s the first full album from the band in twelve years (their last being Think Tank), and the first full album from the band in full including guitarist Graham Coxon in sixteen years (his last with Blur being 13.) I’ve been a big fan over the years, and have followed them post-band really as far as Gorillaz… I have one of Coxon’s albums, which has been played a little… but I appreciate the band the most as one unit, really. The important thing is that Blur now are something of a re-set, no longer the US-shy Britpop combo but older, more world-weary, well-seasoned travellers with a few more musical influences up their sleeve. The last album came out after Damon Albarn’s Mali Music collaborations, and The Magic Whip was recorded on tour in Hong Kong: I wonder what that will bring?

So now I/we wait. The first single ‘Go Out’ is already streaming on the Web. It’s definitely Blur – there are Albarn’s sleepwalker vocals over the top of Coxon’s Fripp-ish stabs, with James and Rowntree providing the chugging rhythm at the back of the room; I’m pretty happy. It’s a bit skewed, but has a nice lop-sided refrain that stayed with me over this afternoon, similar to how my ears and brain first received the equally weird but ultimately-loved 'Beetlebum' eighteen years ago (yes, really). The album’s been described by Damon Albarn as reminiscent of Bowie’s Berlin set… I’m suspicious about that. Albarn and Coxon have shown in the past they’re not averse to mining Bowie’s back catalogue for ideas – some very obviously ('M.O.R'/'Boys Keep Swinging', 'Bugman'/'Suffragette City' – I could add Elastica’s 'Line Up'/'It’s No Game', but least said about Albarn’s ex and her influences the better); I’ve heard this sort of comparison before, and the result is usually bad pastiche or something quite off the mark. We’ll see.

Mind you, the last album I bought that summoned the ghost of Hansa Studios was… well lookee – Manic Street Preachers’ Futurology! Now there’s a hint if ever I had one.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

RIP Brett Ewins

Strange Days - Ewins channels Tenniel
I was very much saddened to hear of the passing of UK comics artists Brett Ewins earlier this week.

Ewins was at his height in the pages of 2000AD just as I began to take notice of it and started collecting. Through the middle era of Rogue Trooper and then on to memorable stints on Judge Dredd and its spin-off Anderson PSI Division, Ewins’ work was rarely out of the mag for long, and in time he’d notch up another well-loved series to his belt, the quite brilliant Bad Company.

His work made an immediate impression on me, for various reasons. It was recognisable, reliable, and easy on the eye – you could admire the brilliance of artists like Mick McMahon or Carlos Ezquerra, the robust meatiness of Cam Kennedy’s brushwork or the precise lines of Brian Bolland, but Ewins seemed more accessible to the illustrator in training. This isn’t to say his work was the less, or not as sophisticated than his stable mates, but to a degree – and in particular in Ewins’ middle era of the mid-Eighties in 2000AD, there’s the ability to anatomise his work; he paints with a heavy brush, all elements on the page readily-identifiable components; his work, while dynamic and obviously influenced by US comics artists, had a layered arrangement which was easier for me to pick apart and see how he’d put everything together. To this day McMahon at his height, and Kevin O’Neill with him, seem to defy compositional analysis on my part – some panels are brilliant messes – orgies of limbs and skewed planes, but Ewins’ work, which became crisper and more stylised over time, was a great lead-in to the world of illustration. I’d say that his work, alongside his colleague and friend Steve Dillon, was the style I most frequently looked to in developing my own meagre talents.

Judge Gellar, one of three Ewins covers for HoSH9
Personal favourites of mine seem to echo those of a lot of others from Ewins' portfolio – the psionic thriller The Haunting of Sector House 9 is regarded as a bit of a throwaway Dredd story, but it introduced some great characters in PSI Chief Judge Omar, and my favourite male PSI Judge the never-seen-again Judge Gellar, whose half-head of hair standing on end made for such an attractive prog cover. Maybe it was the fact that for such a short story Ewins provided no fewer than three covers for Sector House, but it with its spectral terrors, heavy line work and fun script, it was an early highlight in my collection.
The Possessed - Ewins channels Polanski!
Ewins also seemed the natural successor to Bolland in depicting Judge Anderson – other reliable hands like Cliff Robinson and Robin Smith had drawn her, too, but Ewins’ outing on the classic The Possessed cements the Eighties Anderson entirely – all bubblegum curves and Debbie Harry hair combined. Added to that his off-the-leash body horror panels and quirky design choices (Exorcist Judges!) made for a really fun strip. That same approach to the phantasmagorical led to Ewins and past co-creators Jim McCarthy and Pete Milligan working on the mad and memorable Bad Company, a SF Vietnam allegory on a heaving alien jungle world detailing the descent of a band of misfit soldiers into hell, led by their Karloffian sergeant Kano.
Looking back, I think Bad Company was Brett Ewins' peak at The Galaxy's Greatest Comic; despite being the first artist to draw ABC Warriors' Deadlock in strip form, despite Ewins' involvement in Dredd's The Day the Law Died, and visualising the Wally Squad, perhaps it's the unity of having one artistic team in  Ewins and McCarthy that makes the later series the most visually memorable.

After Bad Company came Deadline, Ewins' own title with Steve Dillon which introduced readers to Jamie Hewitt and combined Ewins' two loves of music and comics, being the mature readers' pop culture magazine that 2000AD couldn't yet manage to be. Though short-lived and seemingly doomed by the fate of its greatest character's movie adaptation, Deadline gave the world Tank Girl, and arguably in Ewins and Dillon Tank Girl has two godfathers.
Unfortunately the pressure of real-life deadlines and multiple commitments seem to have had a deleterious effect on Ewins' mental health, and as commissions suffered and dried up, the artist went into a long period of illness against which he fought to the endwhich contributed to his all-but disappearing from the industry. I remember seeing his work in 2000AD around 1992 - pretty much the last work he did for the title, and how it had diminished, becoming even more stylised, less textured, relying on tricks like duplicate panels and close ups, seemingly to cut corners - the whole effect was only increased by the early, flat computer colouring of the time. Not knowing the story behind the pictures, I was perhaps too dismissive. 
Like a blue Wendy O Williams: Venus Bluegenes
There's still a huge amount I love about Ewins' work for 2000AD. Much of it is of its time, a sort of Eighties Noir with Dutch angles and swimming in shadow. Also, it was a rare thing to see in the early years of 2000AD, but Ewins was  an artist unafraid to embrace the, er, 'cheesecake', and I'd be lying if I didn't say that his Anderson and Rogue Trooper's femme fatale Venus Bluegenes made a discreet impact on my flowering adolescence. I still reckon Ewins drew Venus best.

I hope we'll see a decent Ewins collection from Rebellion Publishing in time. For me, he is the epitome of the comic in the Eighties.