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.

Richard Thompson: Daring Adventures (1986)

Not long after its initial release, this – on tape, yes – was my introduction to Richard Thompson. Nearly thirty years later (good lord!) it remains my favourite album of his, and one of my all time preferred “go to” albums.

This was Thompson’s first collaboration with producer Mitchell Froom, who specialises in roots rock (Thompson, Bonnie Raitt, Los Lobos etc), going for a big, clear sound with in-your-face percussion and lo-fi guitars. A perfect match for Thompson then, and it’s a testament to the success of their work together that this album, a major label release from slap bang in the middle of the 80s, doesn’t suffer from any of the pitfalls of Big 80s Production and still sounds fresh.

Some of Thompson’s old school Aran jumper-wearing fans, and a few of his peers, had some public digs at him for this one, dismissing it as an overtly commercial sell-out. Which is absurd. Certainly, there is a greater diversity of influences and styles on display than previously but that’s part of what makes this considerably less of a commercial “safe bet” than its predecessors. I suspect the fan’s barbs were rooted in dismay over the comparative dearth of straight forward Fairport-style folk rock, and those of his peers in professional jealousy.

In truth, Daring Adventures provides ample evidence of Thompson’s oft-touted genius for both songwriting and guitar playing.  Also on display is a willingness to stretch himself artistically in ways he hadn’t quite done before which, when talking about Richard Thompson, is really saying something.

First track, A Bone Through Her Nose is a harsh-vibed culture clash of a tune, with middle eastern themes, electric guitars and bass stuttering funkily along over a humorously off-kilter lyric. Valerie is a roots rocker about a challenging relationship (“I can’t afford her on my salary …”) with a cool celtic rock breakdown and some jagged soloing.

More in keeping with Thompson’s folk rock roots are ballad Missie How You Let Me Down and uptempo Dead Man’s Handle while Long Dead Love is a roots rock ballad with hints of blues, powerfully executed with a snarling guitar solo on the outro that could have done without the premature fadeout. Side One closes with the downright unsettling Lover’s Lane, an eerie mood piece highlighting the backing vocals of Christine Collister and Clive Gregson.

Side Two leads with more folk-rock, the downright cheerful Nearly In Love, a missed opportunity for a hit single I’d have thought, followed by the album’s weakest moment, Jennie, a capable but overlong ballad. It’s a four song strong sprint to the finish from there though; Baby Talk is lyrically tongue-in-cheek Cajun rock’n’roll contrasting perfectly with the angry recession-era commentary Cash Down Never Never. The big finish comes from the gorgeous acoustic ballad How Will I Ever Be Simple Again, which could bring a tear to a glass eye, and Al Bowlly’s In Heaven. This final track, telling the sorry story of the post-war struggles of a WWII veteran is, unusually for Thompson, a jazz-blues number featuring a great and surprisingly conventional acoustic solo in that style.

This tape (purchased online for three quid all-in) is a 1992 BGO remastered reissue. The packaging is a lyric-heavy foldout which is nice, more expansive if I remember correctly than the Polydor original. There’s nothing particularly notable about the remastering except that it perhaps sounded a tad flat, which in fairness was likely due to the deck I was using. The tape itself sounded okay on first play but on this listen it unravelled as comprehensively as a reality TV star in sudden career decline. The evil dirty bastard of a thing.

ritualobjectsofsightandsound.wordpress.com - Richard Thompson Daring Adventures

Steve Earle: some albums (1986-1990)

I was mostly working in record shops when the ‘New Country’ thing (or was it ‘nu-country’?) was almost big in the mid-to-late ’80s, so I got to hear a lot more of those albums than I otherwise might have as a music-starved teenager in central Scotland.  Dwight Yoakam, Lone Justice/Maria McKee, Lyle Lovett, k.d. lang and, of course, Steve Earle were heavily marketed as alternatives to the sanitised, glossy mainstream country of the day.  There were ‘New Country’-branded stickers on the album covers, as if saying “Look!  it’s not all John Denver and Kenny Rogers!” – serving as a reminder that in the ’80s a lot of the apparent counter-culture figures were still on major labels, chasing airplay and MTV exposure right alongside Def Leppard and Madonna (which goes some way to explaining the horrendous over-production that plagued some of the recordings).

Anyway, I’ve picked up a few of those titles on tape recently.  Here are some thoughts on the Steve Earle ones.

Guitar Town (1986)

Earle’s first full-length album.  He was presumably being pushed as a Springsteen-type at the time, going by the small-town-working-class-gotta-get-outta-here chest-beating nature of the likes of Good Ol’ Boy and Someday (in which Steve’s Chevy is a ’67, as opposed to Bruce’s ’69 from Racing In The Streets).  There are some undoubted gems here though – the title track and Hillbilly Highway are standouts with a pleasing rockabilly touch throughout and some Luther Perkins-influenced guitar here and there.  Then there’s My Old Friend The Blues, as good as a song can be and more than making up for the mawkish Little Rock ‘n’Roller.

Copperhead Road (1988)

On its release this seemed to be a marked change of direction for Earle after Guitar Town and its follow up Exit O.  In retrospect, not so much.  Side one is a terrific collection of roots rock which I guess at the time just seemed to hit harder.  Now, it seems that most of this material could have been at home on either of the preceding albums.  There’s everything on here from barrelhouse piano to The Pogues, with legitimate classics including Johnny Come Lately, Devils Right Hand and of course Copperhead Road itself.  The tale of the son of a Vietnam vet carrying on a family tradition is the ‘rockiest’ item here, Celtic-flavoured country rock with a hint of Led Zeppelin.

Side two is a bit of a let down, though listenable enough.  MTV fodder throughout, assorted balladry and uptempo love songs, suffering horribly from Big ’80s Production (cheesy keyboards, oddly out-of-place programming and absurdly big “g’deesh!” drums – production here is by Steve Earle and Tony Brown) with Waiting On You transparently vying for the ‘New Springsteen’ title.  Not even the considerable talents of Maria McKee and Jerry Donahue can entirely save Nothing But A Child.  Maybe I have a particularly low sentimentality threshold but going out on a xmas song?  Odd choice.  Still a hell of an album, at least throughout its first side.

The Hard Way (1990)

Back in The Day, this was by far my favourite Steve Earle album.  Much to my surprise on doing a little Googlpedia reading I find it’s not highly regarded.  Oh well.

Apparently recording it was a bastard, as Earle’s addiction demons were getting the better of him.  Certainly it’s overlong (at not far shy of an hour) and overproduced (it may be from 1990 but Big ’80s Production gaffes abound.  Unwelcome, ill-fitting keyboards and absurdly gunshot-like percussion, all courtesy once again of the production skills of Earle himself, this time with Joe Hardy) and there is still some Springsteen chasing.  However, there are moments here that couldn’t be bettered as well as some fine songs in desperate need of a sympathetic arrangement.  Billy Austin, for instance is a powerful piece of songwriting hampered by a progressively intrusive keyboard-heavy arrangement and Have Mercy is robbed of what might have been an engaging fragility by the excesses of the production.  A close cousin to Copperhead Road, Justice In Ontario is an album highlight but those Big ’80s Drums – ooft!  “Can we have more reverb?” “No, Steve, there is no more reverb.  In the world.  We’ve used it all.”

I don’t know why I’m dwelling on the negatives here when the positives far outweigh them.  Check out the two, excellent, writing collaborations with Maria McKee – the straight-ahead country of Promise You Anything and the epic roots rock of Esmerelda’s Hollywood.  Great stuff.  When The People Find Out, Country Girl and Regular Guy are country rock done to perfection while This Highway’s Mine (Roadmaster) and West Nashville Boogie simply rock properly. Close Your Eyes is a tender track dressed up in more bombast but it works and serves as an effective album closer.

All in, the production and arrangement issues are problems endemic to their time but the quality of the material is more than good enough to compensate.  It might even still be my favourite Steve Earle album, as impressive as his output has been since then.

The tapes themselves I got for a couple of quid or so each online.  Copperhead Road has seen better days, The Hard Way is near mint and Guitar Town slowly died while I was listening to it (bloody thing).  Easy enough to source in the format of your choice, each is well worth checking out.

ritualobjectsofsightandsound.wordpress.com - Steve Earle

Bob Dylan: Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)

I’ve never been much of a Bob Dylan acolyte.  There’s a type of Mojo-reader (also Mojo editor, Mojo writer…) that worships at the Altar of His Bobness, throwing praise at his every croaky utterance, undeterred by mere accusations of plagiarism.  That’s not really me.

Bringing It All Back Home?  Wonderful. Highway 61 Revisited?  Oh yes.  Blonde on Blonde?  Fantastic.  Desire?  Good stuff.  Blood On The Tracks?  Aye, okay.  Other than that, there’s more quality material of course but he’s trotted out out mediocrity and shite in fairly equal measures.  He also popularised the rack harmonica, which is hard to forgive. Whatever; some of my favourite records are covers of Dylan songs (Jimi Hendrix’s comprehensive retooling of All Along The Watchtower and Johnny Winter’s immaculate Highway 61 Revisited are obvious examples, Roger Taylor’s odd, proggy/electronica take on Masters of War less so) and he gets points for the fact that he was actually in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.  Of course, he was also in that Hearts of Fire with Rupert Everett and Fiona but theres no need to get bitchy.

So then, the album (Dylan’s soundtrack for the great Sam Peckinpah film).  Regardless of his stellar reputation as a lyricist, I shouldn’t imagine many would rate Dylan as a particularly accomplished music composer and this is all too apparent on the opening pair of instrumentals (Main Title Theme and Cantina Theme) which drift by unremarkably.  They’re not even particularly well recorded, with one of the acoustic guitars overloading the mic noticeably throughout.  Still, the other instrumental on this side, Bunkhouse Theme is sweet enough.

The actual songs here, though, are very good.  There are three “Billy” songs on the album, entitled Billy 1, Billy 4 and Billy 7 respectively.  Just because.  1 and 4 are on side one and they’re both reminiscent of Kris Kristofferson.  Never a bad thing.  Perhaps Dylan was influenced by Kristofferson’s involvement in the film itself (he plays Billy – hardly a “kid” himself at the time but excellent in the role).  Regardless they’re nice pieces of country balladry.

Side two begins with Turkey Chase, a natty wee uptempo bluegrass instrumental replete with banjo and fiddle.  The other instrumentals on this side are Final Theme – there’s a flute on that one – and River Theme which serves as a short and sweet outro.  Song-wise there’s the third and final “Billy” – Billy 7, which drops the Kristoffersonisms and is perhaps surprisingly none the worse for it.  The album’s jewel, buried as the second song on side two, is Knocking On Heaven’s Door.  It would be perfect but for its brevity, barely clocking in at two and a half minutes where we could listen to it all night.  Over-familiarity with its multitudinous cover versions in no way overshadows the sheer beauty of the original, making it easy to cast Axl Rose’s strained warblings to the back of your mind and to mentally tell Eric Clapton’s cloying cod-reggae arse-gravy to fuck right off.

A first for Tapes For My Walkman – it’s only the sixth review overall, mind – this is an album I hadn’t heard before, at least not that I remember.  An interesting if slight listen, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is a pleasant enough affair, peppered with glimpses of Dylan’s much vaunted genius and worth a purchase for Knocking On Heaven’s Door alone. 

The tape itself, picked up for a lucky £1.99 online, is an old one and in pretty decent playable order considering.  A couple of wee dropouts but that’s as bad as it gets.  Paper labels, pre-bar code with a surprisingly decent inlay which folds out to a nice wee Bob-centric still from the movie.  Still no musician or production credits but that was par for the course in the ’70s.  The track running order has been slightly re-jigged too (something that used to drive me nuts about tapes back in the day), to save all that pesky fast-forwarding between unevenly long sides.

ritualobjectsofsightandsound.wordpress.com - Bob Dylan Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid

ritualobjectsofsightandsound.wordpress.com - Bob Dylan Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid