Amanda Palmer And The Grand Theft Orchestra – Theatre Is Evil (2013)

Over on my “industry” blog Channel Nowhere, I used occasionally to post a “Top 10 albums of the year” type thing. 2013 was a decent year for music with releases from the old guard leading the field – ZZ Top, The Cult, Van Halen, Neil Young and so on. The top spot, however, went to Amanda Palmer’s Theatre is Evil, of which I had the deluxe download version, having been a cheapskate-level Kickstarter backer.

In the years since, Palmer’s output has been hard to keep up with. Via the Patreon crowd-funding platform, she regularly issues individual songs, EPs and so forth. There have been Bowie and Prince tributes and more besides, including an album of duets (recorded with her dad), a book – and a baby. There’s even been a solo vocal/piano version of Theatre is Evil in its entirety, Piano is Evil. Coming up is a new studio album recorded in collaboration with Edward Ka-Spel of The Legendary Pink Dots. I haven’t heard half of that lot, but I’ll catch up in time.

In the meantime, I’ve been revisiting Theatre is Evil, having recently picked up a copy on CD – it’s a handsome object, a slip-cased three-panel digi-pack with a lavish lyrics-and-art booklet.  What follows here is an updated version of the original review I posted as part of that “Top 10” piece from 2013, which began: Much heralded due to a remarkable Kickstarter campaign, it would be too easy, amongst all the stats and admittedly startling figures, to lose sight of the fact that this is a superb album

Out-with being only slightly familiar with the music of her punk cabaret duo, Dresden Dolls, I first became aware of Amanda (Fucking) Palmer a few years ago, when doing some industry research regarding sales and distribution models (sorry to break it to you folks, but it ain’t all glamour, this business we call show).  It was about the time that Palmer had ditched her previous label, Roadrunner, and released what was for me the song of 2010 (Do You Swear To Tell The Truth The Whole Truth And Nothing But The Truth So Help Your Black Ass).  This led me to check out her sole Roadrunner release, Who Killed Amanda Palmer? which turned out to be an apparently effortless fusion of rock, cabaret, prog, electronica and more; great songs, all backed with a bunch of cool videos.  I was sold.  Then there was an excellent 2011 EP, Nighty Night, as part of art-rock supergroup project 8in8 which was, you guessed it, one of my favourite releases of that year (although I gave her ukelele-led Radiohead covers album a miss, what with not being a fan of either Radiohead or the ukulele).

Palmer’s second ‘full-on’ solo album, Theatre Is Evil – actually her first with impressive new band The Grand Theft Orchestra – builds on everything that came before it.  There are kitchen-sink arrangements, the sound is huge, and the influences are much as described before – cabaret, prog, art rock, electronica, with hints of straight-up rock, pop and punk.  There are echoes of Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, Lou Reed, Pink Floyd and David Bowie which are largely subtle, part of the musical palette. Other references are made more knowingly with a pair of back-to-back tracks – Massachusetts Avenue and Melody Dean – giving nods to the same Prince song (I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man) while still managing to sound entirely distinct from each other (Melody Dean also quotes My Sharona both musically and lyrically), and on Bottomfeeder, guitarist Chad Raines stylistically quotes Count Ian Blair’s work from The Rocky Horror Picture Show to great effect.

Most importantly though, underneath all the ambitious instrumentation and clever intertextuality lies a set of great songs, brilliantly performed.  Palmer delivers like Patti Smith meets Debby Harry by way of the theatricality of Tim Curry or Freddie Mercury, with the latter’s penchant for a piano flourish. As a lyricist she combines the raw poeticism of Smith or Lou Reed with the verbal dextrousness of Ani DiFranco and the unsettling frankness of Loudon Wainwright III, crafting pieces that are at once funny and moving.  This is best illustrated by The Bed Song, the only solo piano/vocal performance on the album, telling the story of the core of a relationship unravelling from the beginning to the very end, as melancholy as it sounds but still taking time out to name-check Van Halen and Slayer. Scoring huge “album of the year” points right there, obviously. Meanwhile Do It With a Rock Star comes on like a hard-edged party anthem spin on Wainwright’s plaintive Motel Blues.

So there you have it.  In a year in which I took great joy in the on-form output of the hoary rock gods of my youth, Amanda Palmer knocked me out by outdoing them all. I said in that original Channel Nowhere piece, “Theatre Is Evil is a stunning album – maybe the first Great Album of the decade”. I stand by that – four years on it’s just as commanding. 

Theatre is Evil - ritualobjectsofsightandsound.wordpress.com

Check out Amanda Palmer’s website: www.amandapalmer.net

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The Obligatory “Top Ten of 2016” Post

The obligatory Top Ten of 2016 post – it is what it is. And what it is, more or less, is split into halves: 2016 releases and older stuff I picked up throughout the year.  There’ll likely be full reviews of a lot of these titles to follow over the next wee while.

Top 10 of 2016

Albums

Some 2016 releases I haven’t been able to check out or pick up yet including at least a couple of heavy hitters, most obviously David Bowie’s Blackstar and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree.  There are undoubtedly others.  I was sadly underwhelmed by Iggy Pop’s Post Pop Depression, ZZ Top’s Live Greatest Hits From Around The World (as perfunctory as its title) and The Cult’s latest but I’ll give them all a second chance at some point.  The same can’t be said for Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.  It’s had its second chances.

Albums: Top 5 2016 releases

5.  The Claypool Lennon Delirium – Monolith of Phobos
Endlessly entertaining psych-prog.
4.  The Monkees – Good Times!
Their first new album since 1996’s Justus and it’s rather good.
3.  Jeff Beck – Loud Hailer
Beck hooks up with London duo Bones to make what is easily his most compelling album since Guitar Shop.
=1.  Tedeschi Trucks Band – Let Me Get By
A lush, soulful, roots-rock diamond of an album.
=1.  The Rolling Stones – Blue and Lonesome
A covers album, no less; a wonderfully jagged-edge contemporary take on Chicago blues (reviewed HERE).

Albums: Top 5 “finds” of 2016

5.  Dave Arcari & the Helsinki Hellraisers – Whisky In My Blood (2013)
Yer raucous, rootsy alt.blues.
4.  Donovan – Barabajagal (1969)
Properly groovy psych-folk (with contributions from Jeff Beck).
3.  Prince and 3rdEyeGirl – Plectrumelectrum (2014)
One of Prince’s best latter-day releases, much of it straight-ahead heavy rock.
2.  James Gang – Rides Again (1970)
No matter how much music you listen to over the years, there’s always a stone classic that’s passed you by.  Damn!
1.  Eli Radish – I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier (1969)
Outlaw Country forerunner, a set of covers of wartime songs (from the American Civil War through to Vietnam) given the Woodstock-generation treatment.  I’d been ages looking for this one and it was worth it.

Movies.  

I didn’t get to see half of what I might have wanted to; cinema is a too-expensive night out these days.  I’ll no doubt catch up on home releases (anyway, this blog is meant to be about physical formats, right?).

I’m sick to death of superhero movies, though.  I made the mistake of double-billing Batman v Superman and Captain America: The Winter Soldier in one seemingly endless night; watched through heavy eyes, it turns out they’re exactly the same film.

Movies: Top 5 2016 releases

5. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Underrated comedy drama based on a true story starring Tina Fey as a TV reporter in Afghanistan.
4. 10 Cloverfield Lane
A tense and enjoyable wee sci-fi suspense thriller (even if the basic set up was pillaged from the pages of Métal Hurlant).
3. Hail, Caesar!
Brash, bright and loud – the Coen brothers at their least subtle with a very funny send up of McCarthy-era Hollywood.
2. The Nice Guys
A quality addition to Shane Black’s long list of quality buddy-comedy /thrillers.
1. The Lobster
Mental, though eh.

Movies: Top 5 “finds” of 2016

5. The Vanishing (1988)
Superior Dutch/French thriller which takes some surprising turns.  Until the dodgy ending, right enough, which unfolds as if from a rejected script for Tales of the Unexpected.
4. Empire Records (1995)
Hollywood knock-off of Clerks is way more entertaining than it has any right to be; a throwback to old rock’n’roll movies and ’70s fare like FM.
3. Bread (1971)
Obscure British movie trying to appeal to that elusive “hippies who are big Robin Askwith fans” demographic.  Lots of great footage of little-known rock bands of the day.
2. St. Ives (1976)
J. Lee Thompson directing Charles Bronson as a writer-cum-private-eye, with Jaqueline Bisset being all sexy-like. Can’t go wrong.
1. Calvary (2014)
Bleakly funny, if ultimately just bleak.  Brendan Gleason, though.  Wow.

Iggy Pop: Blah-Blah-Blah (1986) & Instinct (1988)

Blah-Blah-Blah marked a turn in Iggy Pop’s career, going from cult figure to telly regular and everybody’s favourite godfather of punk.  I was about seventeen then, and although I’m sure I was aware of the name, really it was this album that served as my main introduction to the man.

Massively over-produced by David Bowie and recorded at Queen’s studio in Montreux, the synth-heavy Blah-Blah-Blah has more in common with Bowie’s then-recent output and Roger Taylor’s solo material than The Stooges.  Given that Taylor receives a thanks in the sleeve-notes “for loan of his Linn” and the album is engineered and co-produced by Taylor/Queen collaborator David Richards, that shouldn’t be too big a surprise.  Clearly, the idea was to take Iggy out of the underground with a sonic makeover inviting comparisons with the likes of Japan and Simple Minds et al, and with rock’n’roll cover Real Wild Child giving him his first major UK hit single, the formula clearly worked.  It also provided opportunity for a couple of contributions from the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones, who would take a more central role on Instinct.  However, as producer and with co-writing credits on seven of the ten songs here, it’s Bowie’s influence that is all pervading.

Side one is solid if pretty underwhelming.  Real Wild Child kicks it off and it still holds up as a fun pop record (insert your own pun apology here), if some of the synth stylings now seem gimmicky.  Baby, It Can’t Fall is more of a Bowie-type thing and Shades is archetypal 80s pop with an alternative bent.  Fire Girl however is a Europop misstep, like Erasure with marginally less rubberwear, so it’s a welcome return to the Bowie-lite for Isolation.

The album really lifts its game for side two.  Cry of Love is a good driving post-punk rocker, more Iggy than Bowie, it mixes up the guitars and strings nicely and there’s a Steve Jones solo to boot.  It’s probably true to say that the title track’s use of sampling now sounds naive and overdone – again, gimmicky – but all-in, it’s a welcome burst of energy with some fine lyrical flourishes (“following my nose, I’m a bull mongrel – that’s me”). Hide Away sounds like it could be an outtake from Roger Taylor’s 1985 Strange Frontier (also co-produced by David Richards).  No bad thing, mind.  Winners and Losers, though, is the album highlight for me by a distance.  Steve Jones co-writes (he also co-wrote Fire Girl, but let’s not dwell) and it’s a lengthy, aggressive and fittingly guitar-heavy piece of Big Rock Drama.  Little Miss Emperor again sounds like a Strange Frontier outtake this time with an Arcadia twist.  It’s a good track but after the pomp of Winners and Losers it feels like a bit of an afterthought.

Following Blah-Blah-Blah’s success with the meat-and-potatoes rock of Instinct couldn’t have been an obvious move at the time.  Bill Laswell takes over as superstar producer and Steve Jones is promoted to sole guitarist, co-writing three of the ten songs.  Tellingly, the remaining seven are Iggy Pop sole-credits. Much of the album seems to take its lead from The Cult’s throwback rock outing of the previous year, Electric – retro riffing on a straight-ahead rock template.  Cold Metal and Strong Girl especially hit the spot while the more aggressive Easy Rider works a treat.  Tuff Baby is pure Eliminator-era ZZ Top and it’s kinda great.

Instinct does allow itself a couple of very slight left-turns.  Lowdown, with its cheesy keyboard augmentation, is a near pure-pop track which could have been a fit for Blah-Blah-Blah, as could High on You which sounds more than a little like Billy Idol’s White Wedding and suffers for it. Instinct and Squarehead are conspicuously punkier than anything else here.  Both great tracks, it’s Squarehead that provides a quality closer for what remains a very solid rock album.

I caught the tours for both Blah-Blah-Blah and Instinct and Iggy was brilliant on both.  The first time, to me he was still a bit of an unknown quantity with a relatively characterless band.  The Edinburgh Playhouse was stowed and the bouncers were being prize fannies.  Still great.  Second time was rockier, heavier, with a band to match.  Giving Iggy a bit of competition in the rock mentalist stakes, Andy McCoy was the guitarist (which suited me – I liked Hanoi Rocks and loved the Cherry Bombz).  Glasgow’s Barras was the perfect venue as well.  One of my favourite gigs, that one.  Iggy remains one of the greatest performers I’ve witnessed, though oddly I’ve never seen him live since.  Blah-Blah-Blah and Instinct began a strong run of releases along with the superior Brick By Brick and American Caesar, cementing Iggy’s position as an international treasure.  Quite right too.

As to these tapes they were both internet finds, a couple of quid each.  Obviously well played, mind, with the occasional drop-out to attest. ritualobjectsofsightandsound.wordpress.com - Iggy Pop Instinct Blah Blah Blah

Hindu Love Gods: Hindu Love Gods (1990)

Imagine a world in which REM replaced Michael Stipe with Warren Zevon before going into the studio to record a bunch of covers that would end up forming one of the great alt.blues albums.  Can’t picture it?  Well, try harder.  Back in 1990, it totally happened.

I always find it at the very least weird just how few people remember this album.  Including me; I’d forgotten all about it, more or less, until I was working on Jim Dead’s Ten Fires album a few years ago and we were discussing what kind of studio sounds to aim for.  I kept coming back to Crazyhorse and this.  Perfect live-in-the-studio vibe, good and raw.

Ten tracks, all covers, drawing deep from the well of real Americana – classic blues (Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters etc.), folk (Woody Guthrie) and a couple of contemporary gems too.  Recorded for fun during a few drunken “off nights” while working on a ‘proper’ Zevon album, it flows perfectly.

The album kicks off with two Johnson numbers (Walking Blues and Travelling Riverside Blues) before blindsiding us with a stripped down, ragged take on Prince’s psych-pop classic Raspberry Beret.  Later Howlin’ Wolf’s Willie Dixon-penned Wang Dang Doodle is followed by a note-perfect Battleship Chains (known to me and most folks, I’d imagine, as a Georgia Satellites number).  The feel throughout is just what you’d expect from an REM-related project, bearing in mind this is before they were the mild-mannered mandolin botherers of Losing My Religion et al, and Peter Buck steps up for a few surprisingly Stonesy Americana-infused blues leads.  Guthrie’s Vigilante Man rounds things off, and it’s a perfect fit.

This album’s relative obscurity remains a mystery to me, particularly given the pedigree of its participants.  I picked up a copy of the tape in excellent nick for £3 (happily, by 1990 cassette packaging was competing on a more even playing field with other formats than previously, so it’s a long fold-out inlay with credits, photos and so on).  It looks like, out-with the used market, current availability is download only but second hand copies are easy to come by. 

However you can get your hands on it, you just should.  What a fucking album.

ritualobjectsofsightandsound.wordpress.com - Hindu Love Gods

The Cult: Ceremony (1991)

This is the USA/Sire version of the Beggar’s Banquet release, nice condition all round, a quid off the internet.  Good.

A mate of mine once summed this release up thusly:  “An utter B-side of an album”.  At the time I could only agree.  It was certainly my least favourite Cult album from their original run but has the passage of time done it any favours?  Mostly, yes.  For a start, it’s a great sounding record – produced by Richie Zito with Billy Duffy and Ian Astbury, it’s huge and organic.

Side One starts strong with the pairing of the beefy title track and quintessential Cult rocker Wild Hearted Son.  At the time of release these seemed like little more than offcuts from previous album Sonic Temple, with Wild Hearted Son in particular a ringer for that album’s superior Sun King.  Now though, without weight of expectation they sound pretty damn good.  Earth Mofo follows and is an okay rock number but definitely from the “B-side” school, and the vibe is kept at “underwhelming” with side closer If – a trite ballad which is a clear contender for the band’s career-worst.  In between those is White, an unexpectedly weighty and worthwhile piece of psych-gothery, its impact weakened by the poor song sequencing.

Side two kicks off with Full Tilt, a fun if inessential return to the Stones-meets-AC/DC riffalong of the Electric album.  A great opening lyric (“Gunfire ricochets off my halo”) balanced out somewhat later on when Jim-Bob Sessionguy supplies the least groovy bass break in history while Astbury intones, “Superfat.  Funky.”  It’s straight back to the B-sides with Heart of Soul, coming on like a record company-led power ballad cash grab.  It isn’t all bad, with Duffy’s Ronsonesque lead flourishes lending it some class, but come on.  It’s a fine line between this and Every Rose Has Its fucking Thorn.  Bangkok Rain displays a little more grunt and Indian is pleasantly mellow, all cellos and that, with the album showing signs of rallying on Sweet Salvation.  Still in dodgy pseudo-ballad territory but with a good 70s vibe replete with Hammond organ and soulfully belted backing vocals recalling Merry Clayton or Clare Torry (or at least trying to) – but by this stage it’s a symphony in so-so.

Happily the album’s closer is also its standout track, among the band’s very best: Wonderland.  A heavy atmospheric epic building from a trippy spoken word intro (“… and this hip young dude stood passionately succumbing to the he-dog sound of the mystifying beat combo that breaks down your door …”) via quality riffage and soloing until everybody’s chanting, “Earth God Mother!  He-dog Brother!”

So, all-in, hardly a classic but better than I remembered.  Some great stuff on there and while it has its rough patches, you’re left feeling the world just can’t be an entirely awful place when The Cult is chanting “Earth God Mother!  He-dog Brother!” at you.

ritualobjectsofsightandsound.wordpress.com - The Cult Ceremony