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

The Pyjama Girl Case (1977)

A grim, if nicely shot, Italian/Spanish giallo filmed in Australia, featuring a couple of Hollywood stars of a certain vintage and lots of dodgy post-synch dubbing.

The Pyjama Girl Case

Loosely based on a real Australian murder case from the 1930s (though set when it was made, in the mid ’70s), the film consists of two stories told in parallel, one a murder mystery, one a melodrama.  How or indeed whether these narratives connect is not made at all clear until late in the film and while this is an adventurous stylistic move from director Flavio Mogherini, it does lead to a muddled feel.

The murder mystery follows the discovery of the mutilated body of a young woman in yellow pyjamas.  The victim can’t be identified and the body is put on public display in the hope that witnesses will come forward.  Ray Milland leads impressively as a grumpy old-school cop brought out of retirement to help with the case.  The melodramatic narrative is a psycho-sexual drama played out over a few years, following the restless, unhappy Glenda, sympathetically portrayed by Dalila Di Lazzaro, through a tangle of affairs including a lovesick waiter (Michele Placido) and a wealthy middle aged amoral lothario (Mel Ferrer).

At times the film feels like a construction of contradictions.  The characters are universally unlikeable but the principal cast is excellent.  One plot point in particular – the idea of the police putting the victim’s preserved body on public display in a glass case – could read as fetishistic sensationalism, yet it actually happened during the original investigation.  Then there’s Riz Ortolani’s pseudo-disco electronic score, highlighted by two songs performed in a lightweight Nico-meets-Grace Jones style by Amanda Lear, Look at Her Dancing and Your Yellow Pyjama. They’re either awful or brilliant, I can’t make up my mind (also, note the use there of “pyjama” as a singular noun – for strictly disco purposes, obviously).  One even scores the opening scene of the body being discovered; it’s quite bizarre.

With its handsome cinematography, ambitious structure and a plaintive quality rooted in its real-life origins, I expect I’ll revisit The Pyjama Girl Case at some point.  This time round I watched the Salvation widescreen VHS which I picked up for a couple of quid online.  Luckily I didn’t pay too much attention to the cover image before watching the film as it’s actually a huge spoiler, so beware of that if seeking the tape out.

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.

The Rolling Stones: Blue & Lonesome (2016)

So.  Actual rock gods The Rolling Stones are in the studio recording new material when they get stuck.  They break into an off-the-cuff version of Little Walter’s Blue and Lonesome (luckily the engineer, unbidden, hits “record”) and have such a dashed good time with it that they decide to carry on in that vein and record a blues album.  This they do, without the luxury of overdubs, in three days.

Since 1989’s Steel Wheels you’d hear of each new Rolling Stones album that it’s “their best in years” (usually qualified with that old chestnut: “their best since Exile on Main Street“).  Well, it’s a no brainer this time that it is indeed their best in years – compilations aside, they haven’t released a studio album since the mostly-excellent A Bigger Bang twelve years ago.

Blue & Lonesome is an outstanding album of raucous, unpolished takes on various Chicago blues numbers.  They make no attempt to ape the originals – why would they?  They’re the fucking Rolling Stones.  Pioneers of the British Blues Boom, as important to British blues as Howlin’ Wolf et al. were to Chicago’s.  Honest to goodness legends and the grand old men of the scene – older by a distance than the originators of these songs were at the time of the original recordings.

Long past the stage as musicians where their idiosyncrasies first coalesced into their signature styles, the aural nastiness that seemed to have entered the band’s DNA by the mid-’70s is on full display here, most obviously in Keith Richard’s loose-limbed rhythm and gnarly as-and-when leads but also the aggressive snarl and sneer of Mick Jagger’s lead-guitaresque harmonica. His vocals too, tempered by age, are better here than ever, so much so that you don’t even miss what is usually a Stones album highlight – Keith doesn’t take a lead vocal on this one.  Ronnie Wood’s playing, always more conventional than Keith’s, still has a “broken bottle” edge to it while Charlie Watt’s drumming, of course, remains the bedrock.  Stalwarts of the Stones’ touring band, Darryl Jones and Chuck Leavell add a little session player sheen (though even that’s been scuffed up over the last few decades on the road), while Eric Clapton is press-ganged from his own sessions in an adjoining studio to supply some pleasingly rough-and-ready slide on Everybody Knows About My Good Thing and more expectedly fluid leads on I Can’t Quit You Baby.

The Stones always had more of an affinity with the likes of the Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters bands than most of the British Blues Boomers who followed.  The Mayall and Yardbirds schools were all about extended soloing and Freddie King worship but the Stones were more akin to that Willie Johnson/Hubert Sumlin approach.  Nowadays I think it’s the “alt.” side of blues that has more in common with those players and the Stones today are closer in attitude and execution to that than the “purists” (thankfully), here filtering the spirit of the original performances through post-British blues, post-rock’n’roll and over half a century of living the life.  Of course, I’m sure in time we’ll see a few pelters aimed at this album from the blues-nazis … oh well.  Mangy old corgis nipping at the ankles of an oblivious silverback gorilla.

The twelve songs here are well chosen, culled from the the catalogues of Wolf, Waters, Eddie Taylor and others.  Only two really qualify as obvious blues standards – quality renditions of Wolf’s Commit a Crime (memorably covered already by the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan and The Groundhogs) and Otis Rush’s I Can’t Quit You Baby (probably best known in its Led Zeppelin incarnation though I sneakily prefer John Mayall’s version and the belting, late-career Gary Moore take). The remaining ten cuts will likely be new territory for the casual listener.  There’s at least a couple I was only dimly aware of (not being the biggest fan of, say, Magic Sam or Little Walter) and I was completely unfamiliar with one of the album’s highlights, Everybody Knows About My Good Thing and its originator, Little Johnny Taylor.  I look forward to rectifying that.  The album really is almost uniformly cracking but other highlights, if I had to choose, include Lightnin’ Slim’s Hoodoo Blues and Blue and Lonesome – that surreptitiously recorded one-take catalyst left here untouched. It’s got a bruised grandeur all its own while threatening to fall apart at any second.

Jagger/Richards is among the great songwriting teams and although it’s been a long time since they last reached the social significance of their late ’60s/early ’70s heyday, they have continued to write excellent songs, most recently with the 2012’s Doom and Gloom.  Also, they do rootsy ballads like no-one else and I might have hoped for some of that on Blue & Lonesome.  So it’s hard to entirely ignore the fact that this is a covers album and, time will tell, but I’m not sure it will be regarded as a truly great Stones album with that lack of original material.  After all, I can’t imagine that too many serious “best of the Stones” lists would include their first couple of covers-heavy releases.  They were significant in that they were the starting point for the British Blues Boom, but not great albums in the way that Let It Bleed, or Beggars Banquet or … yeah, okay, Exile were.  Not even close.  The obvious comparison to the new one is their debut, The Rolling Stones, as it’s arguably their only other all-blues release and features just a handful of (unremarkable) originals.  It’s a more than worthy listen – and it would be tough work to ignore the pleasures of Route 66, Carol etc. but for me Blue & Lonesome is the better bet.  I’d rather be listening to old masters with those gloriously idiosyncratic styles and nothing to prove than to an ambitious, inexperienced young band finding its feet.  Plus the sound of Blue & Lonesome is grittier, with a much harder edge than on the early mono recordings – a near-perfect piece of production by Don Was & the Glimmer Twins.

At forty-three minutes or so, the album seems to have been recorded with vinyl in mind (the band having been guilty in the past of over-egging their latter day CD releases with bloated running times).  Unfortunately the mystifying decision was made to split it over two records, making the vinyl release unnecessarily expensive. There’s also a deluxe version of the CD, boxed with a book and so on, which is more expensive still.  So, standard CD it is.  Disappointing cover design aside, it’s a nice piece of kit, coming in a three-panel digipak with a booklet featuring sleeve notes in the form of an interview with Don Was and quotes from the band with some cool photographs.  Crucially, it also contains background information on each song, giving the listener a jump start on checking out the originals.

Worse case scenario, history will view Blue & Lonesome as an engaging footnote to an illustrious career.  Best case?  It could just prove to be the Stones’ American Recordings.

stonesbl

ZZ Top: Tres Hombres (1973)

By 1973, ZZ Top already had two albums under their belts,  ZZ Top’s First Album and Rio Grande Mud, both more-than-decent slabs of blues and hard rock with the promise of something more.  Third album Tres Hombres easily delivered on that promise and proved to be the band’s first major breakthrough.  With the band hitting a career-best as songwriters and performers, the end result is for many their finest moment, both a near-perfect rock album and a definitive contemporary Texas blues album.

Classic cuts abound:  Waitin’ For the Bus and Jesus Just Left Chicago sit so well together here that they’ve stayed that way on compilations and in live sets ever since.  Both are Texas blues anthems, with Jesus… in particular a standout featuring a stunning guitar turn from Billy Gibbons. In contrast, Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers is, as you might imagine, as “straight ahead rock” as it gets.  La Grange, celebrating a famous Texas brothel, starts out as a ringer for The Rolling Stones’ version of Slim Harpo’s Shake Your Hips before owning that arrangement’s John Lee Hooker heritage and taking it down a rocked-up road all its own.

That Stones influence is apparent too on Move It On Down the Line, a sort of lightweight second cousin to Street Fighting Man. Master of Sparks and Precious and Grace are great funky hard rock tracks while Sheik is a step or two further towards hard-edged funk, quoting the riff from Curtis Mayfield’s Freddy’s Dead and likely influencing Prince and the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the process (that Chili Peppers connection is most apparent in the ending, for which the intro to Aeroplane from One Hot Minute is a near soundalike).

There’s a religious element to the lyrics here and there but the themes are not shoved down your throat.  Have You Heard is a gospel number which preaches its damnation-or-salvation message softly: ‘Which way are you comin’ from?  Goin’ up or gettin’ down?”  Countryfied blues Hot, Blue and Righteous employs a similarly light touch while Jesus Just Left Chicago flat-out delights with its mix of Delta and Biblical imagery (“… muddy water turned to wine”).

Everyone here is at the top of their game – Dusty Hill’s gritty bass, Frank Beard’s tough and deceptively intricate drumming, Bill Ham’s pitch-perfect production, the mix of Gibbons’ and Hill’s contrasting vocals – but really this is Gibbons’ masterpiece as a guitarist.  Mixing fat Les Paul and wiry Strat tones, he even pioneers two-handed tapping, both with pick (or rather peso) and fingers, clearly planting the seeds for the likes of Edward Van Halen and Joe Satriani.  His slide playing is masterful too, while the bluesier leads are a clear influence on Stevie Ray Vaughan.

ZZ Top have continued to produce genre-stretching recordings of sheer class over a further four decades (okay, there was a bit of a fallow period in the ’80s when Gibbon’s commendable tendencies towards sonic experimentation led them down a synth-and-drum machine cul-de-sac, and now a new album from them is like chicken’s teeth, but still).  However, they never sounded better than on Tres Hombres.  One of the Great Albums.

ZZ Top Tres Hombres

Original Warner’s tape, paper labels and all that, decent playback, about four quid online.

 

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

Prince and The Revolution: Parade (1986)

Picture if you will: it’s 1986 and a teenage me has a cinema entirely to himself while watching a brand new release.  This remains the only time in my life this has ever happened.  The film in question? Under The Cherry Moon, starring and directed by Prince.  His first film since Purple Rain, co-starring Jerome out of The Time, Kristen Scott Thomas and Steven Berkoff, it’s a black and white romantic comic tragedy set in a curiously timeless south of France (It’s the Eighties!  No, it’s the Thirties!).  My solo-viewing experience is apparently repeated the world over: the film dies on its arse and is now largely forgotten.

Happily the soundtrack album is something else entirely.  While the music that makes up Parade is indeed drawn from the movie’s soundtrack, lyrically and thematically the connection is at best oblique.  The character name Christopher Tracy is held over from the film but there’s no obvious link to the narrative.

In my youth I was all about the guitar and Prince didn’t disappoint, quickly becoming one of my very favourite players and it was largely his harder rocking output that drew me in.  Parade, then, should have put me off – after the guitar-heavy double whammy of Purple Rain and Around The World In A Day, suddenly there’s hardly any evidence of the man himself playing lead guitar with the album’s principal flavours being jazz, pop, psychedelia and even folk.  Of course I loved it.

The production is a massive, kitchen sink affair, bossed by dense percussion melding human (Prince, Bobby Z., Sheila E.) and machine, while horns, acoustic guitars, keyboards, strings and voices all have at it without ever sounding cramped.  Inevitably all of this is based on a foundation of multi-tracked instrumental backing by Prince on his tod. Nevertheless, The Revolution is in full flight here, with Wendy (Melvoin) handling much of the guitar work and Eric Leeds and Atlanta Bliss shining on “horn” and trumpet respectively.  And the songs – damn!  There’s no obvious bowing to commercialism here, the tracks fading through each other, opening with the summery Christopher Tracy’s Parade, lyrically ambiguous psych-pop at its best before giving way to the funkier New Position which in turn gives way to the almost unsettlingly odd I Wonder U, percussive and moody.  There is balladry here too but it never descends into the syrupy soul gloop Prince could be guilty of from time-to-time.  The album’s pervading quirkiness and a strong European sensibility seems to lift the balladic material – Under The Cherry Moon is effectively old-school Charles Aznavour crooning given a falsetto twist and Venus de Milo an unexpected and lush instrumental, while Prince channels his inner Serge Gainsbourg for Do U Lie?, which leaves no accordion unturned in its bid to evoke a Parisian cafe vibe.

Elsewhere there is one of the great track pairings, with the deeply funky hit Girls and Boys exploding into the thunderous Life Can Be So Nice.  Great stuff.  Mountains, kicking off side two (or, “End”, side one being “Intro”), is power pop on a Phil Spector level and Anotherloverholenyohead is surprisingly intense funk rock.  Kiss is the biggest hit here, and it holds up perfectly, the stripped down David Z. arrangement recalling When Doves Cry and Wendy’s enviable rhythm chops coupled with her classic wah-guitar break making everything just so.

The album closes with a long (near seven minutes) and genuinely affecting acoustic ballad, Sometimes It Snows In April:

Tracy died soon after a long fought civil war, just after I’d wiped away his last tear
I guess he’s better off than he was before, a whole lot better off than the fools he left here
I used to cry for Tracy because he was my only friend – those kind of cars don’t pass you every day
I used to cry for Tracy because I wanted to see him again but sometimes, sometimes life ain’t always the way”

Something of a left turn, Sometimes It Snows In April is a sparsely arranged live-in-the-studio performance by Prince, Wendy and Lisa (Coleman) which wears its Joni Mitchell influences with pride.  Still, it somehow manages to organically round out what really is a perfectly sequenced album.  The temptation is just to flip the tape and listen over – which I did.

Like most of Prince’s material, Parade is readily available on CD or download.  Although not in the commercial league of Purple Rain, it did sell in its millions, enough certainly to ensure that relatively inexpensive vinyl and cassette copies can be had online or from your local second-hand wreckastow.  I got my copy of the tape – in good order complete with nice fold out inner to accommodate the notes and artwork from the gatefold LP package – for just a couple of quid online.

ritualobjectsofsightandsound.wordpress.com - Prince and the Revolution Parade