Thursday, 26 February 2015

Funkadelic - "First Ya Gotta Shake The Gate" Review

So what do you expect from your favourite iconoclastic band, when they reform after decades to produce a comeback album?

Do you expect them to pick up where they left off, and produce an album that sounds exactly like they did decades ago?

Or, do you expect them to embrace technology and produce something thoroughly contemporary and modern to reflect the sound and the era they now find themselves in?

Or, do you approach it with no pre-conceptions at all from the outset and take the new music as you find it?

Any fan of any band in the situation that Funkadelic find themselves in right now is going to find the third option extremely difficult. We're always going to carry baggage of expectation to the party. We all want a record to be something to be proudly displayed next to their classic works. But is it fair to expect a new album made 33 years after the group's last one to sound like the one they finished with?

If you think it is fair they should sound like something released decades ago, you really haven't considered the nature of the ever-wandering musical troubadour that is George Clinton.

Throughout the entire dual careers of Parliament and Funkadelic, and then his solo career, his sound hasn't been static - it has always changed with the times. Therefore it would be reasonable to expect that the new record would sound quite contemporary, right?

Well, in truth, what you get when you commit to the mammoth 33-track 3-hour plus triple album from Funkadelic is a little of both.

On first listen it is a confused mess of vintage and modern sounds, fused with the characteristic strangeness that marked the classic Funkadelic sound. It borrows heavily on modern hip-hop, with many of the tracks on the first disc sounding like offcuts from a lost Snoop Dog or Dr Dre album. That may not be a bad thing for some - there is nothing inherently wrong with hip-hop in this writer's view. However they seem to take the very worst aspects of hip-hop and ride them into town - leaden grooves that don't swing, reducing women to mere sex objects, horribly pointless usage of the dreaded Autotune function, and a gratuitous overuse of both the n-word and the f-word.

The irony is that Funkadelic heavily influenced Snoop and Dre, and yet Clinton seems to find it a wise thing to compete with them at their level.

There is still a bit of the old school P-Funk groove here, as on "Radio Friendly", but in this instance it appears to use the sound as a way of dismissing its validity; as if to highlight that that the preceding B-Boy/Gangsta style is somehow more artistically legitimate.

It's been mooted that the album has 33 tracks to represent every one of the 33 years that has passed since the release of "The Electric Spanking of War Babies" in 1981. It could also be inspired by the monumental multi-disc studio sets by Prince, such as "Emancipation". Either way, it is like most multi-disc albums and needs an editor. One third of the tracks fall into the 7-minute- plus category, and while P-Funk at their best could hold attention for long stretches in years gone by, most of the long form jams meander in one spot and never develop. The stilted groove the opener "Baby Likes Fonkin' It Up" would be more effective at half its 9:37 length. "Roller Rink" finds a smooth groove but never actually develops or progresses anywhere in the 12 minutes it lasts for. There really isn't any way to justify the inclusion of an irredeemable track like "F****d Up", whose lyrics amount to little more than a repeating of the title for the entirely of its 7:43 running time. "The Mathematics of Love" mines a more gospel-soul feel for an over-long 12-minutes length while churning out some occasionally questionable mathematical metaphors for sex.

George Clinton, throughout his solo career, has always changed his sound in an attempt to remain contemporary. A canny move, favoured by jazz legends like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, it is a clever way to shore up your audience with younger, hipper people as older fans drift off. In some cases he's been successful (see: "If Anybody Gets Funked Up") The difference is that where Miles and Coltrane were ahead of the curve and gaining new fans as they went, "First Ya Gotta Shake The Gate" in parts sounds like a conscious effort not to appease long time Funkadelic fans but to capture a segment of the lucrative hip-hop audience, They're no longer setting the trends, as they were in the 1970s, but rather pandering to existing ones. There is a lot of music to digest here, but like an album such as "Stadium Arcadium" by Red Hot Chili Peppers, itself an overlong multi-disc set, it works for the iPod generation where playlists can be made instantly or an occasional random track played at will. By dropping some tracks and re-sequencing whats left, you can make your own perfect album.

Taken as a whole, it paints a messy picture of some of the worst aspects of modern pop while framed in a classic P-Funk context. It might break new ground for P-Funk, but next to recent releases by other artists, it doesn't sound all that groundbreaking at all.

As per usual, don't just take my word for it, take a listen yourself below. There is a strong language warning for most of the album, however. Headphones are recommended.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Curious Phenomenon of the EP

With physical audio formats seemingly disappearing and then reappearing again these days, it can be confusing to work out what exactly is the product an artist is really trying to sell.

It's pretty easy to work out what an album is, or a single, but an EP (extended play) is a format that is ambiguous at best. especially when you introduce the Mini-LP into the mix.

In the earliest part of the 20th century, up until 1948, the single was the dominant format. Two sided 10-inch diameter shellac records, playing at 78 rpm, with one song on each side. At that speed, it confined the playing time to little over 4 minutes per side. Longer pieces, such as classical music needed to be split across multiple records, and as such they would be bundled into large books that resembled a photo album, and they would be called an "album". In the early 1950s these were superceded by a 7-inch 45rpm single.

In 1948 the Long Playing record emerged. 12 inches in diametre, playing at 33rpm and allowing for an average of 20 minutes per side. In America the RIAA stipulated that the maximum amount of material on an LP was 35 minutes (it was revised and expanded later on). It took a while but it soon became the dominant recorded music format.

However, as the LP was considered an artisan product, a luxury item with the price tag to match, record labels came up with cheaper alternatives to shore up their revenue base. They introduced the 10-inch LP, a mini-LP usually carrying 8 songs (4 a side) and a maximum playing time of around 13-15 minutes a side. By the 1960s these were all but obsolete, but during the 1950s these were hugely popular, with Frank Sinatra being one of the most popular selling artists with albums like "Songs for Young Lovers".

With the rock and roll boom, it was originally thought that teenagers only bought singles and not albums, but despite Elvis and the Beatles selling large amounts of albums, they were still expensive, so in Britain they came up with a mid-range product that would be a little more collectable and valuable than the single, but not as expensive as the LP. The Extended Play, or EP for short, was a four song 7-inch record that featured similar style packaging to the LP but at a fraction of the cost. They were given unique titles, similar to albums.

The EP was the same size and speed as the single and compressed the grooves on each side to allow for up to 7.5 minutes a side playing time These were massive selling items in the 1960s but fell out of favour with major labels in the 1970s. Independent labels and punk bands took to the EP in the 1970s and beyond, but the majors confused the issue by starting to release 12-inch equivalents of an EP in the late 1970s and 1980s. These usually contained 5 tracks and ran at around 20 minutes.

Major labels also introduced a new format in the 1980s, the 12-inch "Mini-LP" which was longer than an EP but shorter than an LP, but that also confused the classification of certain albums. For example, Alice In Chains compiled two EPs together in one package on two discs as "Jar of Flies/Sap". "Sap" had 5 tracks (4 listed on the sleeve and label) and ran at less that 20 minutes, while "Jar of Flies" has 7 tracks at lasts for almost 30 minutes. Is one an EP and the other a mini-LP? "Jar of Flies" topped the Billboard Album Chart. Is it regarded as a short LP?

Elvis Presley's first LP had 12 tracks and lasted 25 minutes while Pink Floyd's "Animals" has 5 tracks and has a 40+ minute duration. Is one a mini-LP?

Not exactly. The British Recording Industry classifies the EP as "any record with more than four distinct tracks or with a playing time of more than 25 minutes is classified as an album for sales-chart purposes. If priced as a single, they will not qualify for the main album chart..." as described by the Official Chart Company.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) defines an EP as "3-5 songs OR under 30 minutes, whereas a single is allowed to contain up to 4 songs."

In this modern age of downloads, the EP still exists in the form of a short release of just 4-5 songs lasting less than 20 minutes, and it still a common release format for young artists who don't yet want to create a longer form piece, and to attract all the scrutiny and analysis that goes with it.

This probably doesn't simplify the matter, however it is not a simple matter to begin with. In my own mind, if the release has 4-6 distinct tracks, lasts around 20-25 minutes and as a unit it has a title unto itself, it is an EP. A single has a lead track that gives the unit its name plus a number of b-sides or bonus songs (sometimes up to 4 or 5, not counting remixes). A mini-LP has 6-7 tracks and lasts up to 30 minutes. An Album has a duration of over 30 minutes and, unless they are long songs, 8 songs or more.

Using this criteria, I don't consider "For The Working Class Man" by Jimmy Barnes as an album, but rather a double 12-inch EP. It is billed on the sleeve as a having 5 new tracks and a "bonus disc" of seven remixes. Both discs total 45 minutes and is a single CD. It charted at #1 on the Australian album chart in spite of this.

Do you have a favourite EP? Tell us below in the comments.

Punk Night at the Duck's Nuts: The Sequel

And everyone loves a sequel, right?

Well, maybe not in the case of Police Academy XI. However, in this case we'll make an exception.

After my previous post about Attila The Stockbroker and his adventures in Newcastle at a "testicular themed pub" as chronicled in "Punk Night At The Duck's Nuts", he has been in touch with us here at the Sound and The Fury HQ and he has supplied us with a follow-up story about Newcastle, where he returned to play a gig in the city in 2011.

I mentioned in the previous post about seeing an Attila show advertised in Newcastle that I thought about attending...and ultimately didn't. It turns out that this story describes what happened at that very gig...

NEWCASTLE – THE REPLAY, by Attila The Stockbroker.
It’s a Saturday night in Newcastle, New South Wales, eleven years later.

News has filtered through to me that The Duck’s Nuts has apparently changed its name to The Silk Bar.

But far worse news is that the mural of the duck on a surfboard with his testicles hanging out has apparently been painted over.

Robina says, with a twinkle in her eye, ‘Thank God it’s gone!’

I think ‘I’ve brought you on an epic, romantic journey to a town on the other side of the world to show you a mural of a duck on a surfboard with his testicles hanging out - and it’s been painted over. Surely you could be more appreciative of my efforts and sympathetic to my anguish!’

But I don’t actually say that.

I’m playing at the Cambridge Hotel: an enormous venue in a run down area three miles from the city centre.

According to the board outside (the only visible publicity anywhere) there are four bands on the bill.

Actually, there are three bands and a poet.

My friends the Go Set are headlining, then me, then the Sydney Girls’ Choir then the Havelocks.

At the appointed hour for the first band the paying audience is zero.

Even the twenty elderly alcoholics from the Duck’s Nuts would be welcome in this cavernous void.

The Havelocks don’t have locks. (They may well have some on their guitar cases and I’m sure they do on their front doors, but they don’t have any on their heads).

They take to the stage to a combined audience of myself, Robina, and two members of the Sydney Girls’ Choir.

The Havelocks appear to be in their early thirties and sound to me a bit like Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Their friendly singer tells me he is originally from Staines in the UK. I want to ask him why anybody, even someone from Staines, especially someone who presumably loves music,
would emigrate to Newcastle, New South Wales, but I don’t. I think it would seem insensitive.

The Havelocks finish their set. By this time the paying audience has risen to five.

As the next band take the stage I can see a pattern developing. The Havelocks don’t have locks: The Sydney Girls’ Choir aren’t from Sydney, aren’t girls and aren’t a choir. They are four blokes from Woolongong in their early twenties and are an excellent kick-ass rock n roll band in a Kings of Leon meet Dr Feelgood kind of way.

The first thing the singer says is that he is pleased to see so many people there because they played in Newcastle last week and nobody turned up at all. I admire his dedication to the cause.

I join the three-strong moshpit. I have a lovely time. Then it’s my turn.

By this time the audience has soared to about twenty including three Attila fans, one of whom is from Canada. I don’t think either of the other two are from Newcastle.

The void in front of me is aching. It’s monumental. It’s like being at a Crystal Palace home game.

Needless to say, I start with ‘Punk Night at the Duck’s Nuts’ and the sound of surreal irony echoes across the tiled savannah.

One twentieth of the audience suddenly shouts at me. What he shouts is ‘Yabba Yabba’.

I am confused by this at first but soon realize that this is his way of conveying the fact that he is unfamiliar with the concept of the unaccompanied spoken word as a form of live entertainment.

I berate him, gently. He shuts up.

In the middle of my performance The Go Set arrive. They’ve been doing another gig at a birthday party round the corner. I finish with a flourish to the sound of nineteen pairs of hands clapping in a wind tunnel and ask my friends how their gig went. Shithouse, I am informed. There were 200 people there. When the Go Set started playing most of the guests went outside and began dancing to techno. The rest sat in front of them eating and chatting.

Given this, I wonder why they were booked to do the gig in the first place. The people who booked them have promised to turn up here. I hope they will, so I can ask them. But they don’t.

The Go Set play I join them on fiddle and it must be said that the twenty-five people in the audience have a lovely time and are most receptive.

Afterwards, someone apologises for the turnout and says we would have had a better crowd if we had played somewhere else. I agree. They mean somewhere else in Newcastle. I don’t.

The next day as we head out of town we drive past what used to be the Duck’s Nuts and is now the Silk Bar.

The mural of a duck on a surfboard with his testicles hanging out has indeed gone. In his stead there is a grubby silver banner draped on the wall with ‘The Silk Bar’ written on it. The place is now a shabby backpackers’ hostel and poking out of an upstairs window there is something which looks worryingly like the Antipodean equivalent of Joseph Porter’s Sleeping Bag.

Then I notice that one of the pub signs still says ‘The Duck’s Nuts Hotel’. My heart sings.

I ask Robina to take a photo. The angle is wrong, she says. It won’t come out. My heart sinks.

We drive away. Back in Melbourne I recount this tale to my musician friend Rory. ‘John’ he says, earnestly, ‘Newcastle is the rectum of the Australian music scene’.

‘Rory, my old mate’ I say ‘I think you may be right.’

Reprinted with permission from Attila The Stockbroker, with thanks.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Punk Night at the Duck's Nuts

image source: Punky Gibbon

John Blaine is a performer who goes by the rather unusual name of Attila The Stockbroker.

He is a British punk poet, taking his inspiration from the strident political stance of UK punk rockers The Clash. He has made a career from his potent topical ranting for 35 years on the 8th September this year.

He is a frequent visitor to Australia it would seem. I'd only heard of him through the Canonical List of Weird Band Names, a piece of essential reading for those with a twisted sense of humour.

A few years ago, on one of my infrequent visits back to my hometown of Newcastle in New South Wales, I saw a poster advertising a local gig of his, on his 30th Anniversary tour. Intrigued, I thought that if someone or some thing could exist and survive for 30 years on the back of such a ridiculous name, I need to do some research and find out all about it.

Upon further investigation, I found Attila's work to be highly engaging and thought provoking. I began to regret missing that gig in Newcastle.

Attila actually wrote a monologue about my home town, inspired by his first visit there to play a gig at the University, supporting Sydney band The Whitlams (His description of them in this piece is hilarious). The piece is called "Punk Night at the Duck's Nuts". It's a story about a place in a foreign land in strange environs, that just happened to have a pub on a street corner so named for a body part on a male duck.

image source: The Herald

The Duck's Nuts Hotel on the corner of Hunter Street and Steel Street, was known as the Family Hotel for many years before under going a name change to the now famous moniker in the year 2000. As recently as 2013 it has been renamed again to The Silk Hotel. When it was known as The Family, I saw many a lively gig there. It was always a great gig venue, with the tiny front bar packed out regularly. It had a great vibe and the music was usually great.

Although, after I'd left town and the venue changed names, gigs weren't all that flash, according to our man Mr Stockbroker. This tale of a sordid Wednesday night listening to a covers band in this now dodgy little pub is a fascinating and dead-on representation of a city that was all but devastated by the relocation of its main industry - steelmaking - to other parts of the country. This piece (I think) dates back to around the year 2000-1 which was roughly when the BHP Steelworks had shut down and the unemployment rate rocketed. The town was quickly becoming a shadow of its former self when Attila made these observations. Newcastle has slowly regenerated into a more gentrified and welcoming place, but it is lacking the rogue charm it had in years gone by.

Here below is a reading of "Punk Night At The Ducks Nuts", a requiem of sorts for Novacastrians,(i.e. Newcastle people) like myself, everywhere by Attila The Stockbroker.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

100 LPs Shortlist #45: Big Brother and the Holding Company - "Cheap Thrills"

It's a rare album whose legend exists as much for the music as it does for its album cover. The second album by San Francisco's psych-rock legends Big Brother and the Holding Company features an iconic cover that is so rich in detail and so fascinating to look at that it almost eclipses the music.

How on earth did I ever find an album that was so far outside of my "time"? As a 90s teenager I found an out-of-print book chronicling the artwork of the album cover from the birth of rock and roll up until the late 1970s called "The Face of Rock and Roll" by Bruce Pollock and John Wagman. It was an LP album sized full colour illustrated book with a stack of fascinating looking album covers that one day I'd hoped to own or at least listen to the contents of.

All these years later I still haven't listened to them all. I haven't even found half of them to purchase yet. But I did find "Cheap Thrills". And it is an album for the ages.

After discovering Janis Joplin some 20-odd years after she'd died, via the "Pearl" LP, it was only natural that sooner or later I'd bump into Big Brother and the Holding Company. And of course, Janis' vocals in this record are the stuff of legend. They solidified her status as the most powerful vocalist of her generation.

Not bad for a record that ended up completely differently to the way it was supposed to be.

After releasing a very tame sounding LP on a tiny independent Jazz label Mainstream, after the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 major label A&R men started swarming around San Francisco looking for hip new bands. Columbia/CBS scored Big Brother, and they were quickly tasked with the job of making an album.

The original plan was supposed to be to release a compilation of tracks recorded during two nights of concerts at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit, but the producer wasn't too fond of the sound of the tapes. They then tried working in the studio, but that didn't work out either. This was one of the most anticipated releases of 1968 and the media, the fans and the label were getting impatient so they released a mix of the best bits of the two - some studio, some live. From the seven tracks on the original LP, four were live, two were studio tracks and the remaining one was a studio track with a rowdy invited audience.

Columbia's then CEO Clive Davis wasn't overly happy with the album, but felt vindicated in his signing when the album hit the top of the US Billboard album charts, He especially singled out the cover of George Gershwin's "Summertime" as being a great way to get the "kids" interested in Gershwin's music again. Clive played it for Richard Rogers (one half of Rogers and Hammerstein) and he hated it. Go figure.

The long version of "Ball And Chain" is probably the one track that turned Janis into an immortal. If she never recorded another thing after this album, she would be forever regarded as one of the best. This live version is one of the most chilling and powerful performances on record. She gives 110% in this and every note comes from the core of her broken soul. Her pain is real on this: this is the most honest performance I've ever heard. I've seen it reduce people to tears, such is its power.

It could be debated how long Janis' voice would have lasted if she had lived. She sang above and beyond her physical capabilities every night, leaving no-one watching in any doubt that she had given everything of herself on stage that night. But how long would she last doing that?

One of the greatest albums of any era, and not just of its time. Great music is ageless and timeless and this album proves it - it sounds great almost 50 years after being recorded.

Take a listen below:

Vale Sam Andrew and Lesley Gore

In quick succession we have lost a couple of great musicians from the 1960s.

Sam Andrew, one time Janis Joplin sideman and founding member of San Francisco psychedelic pioneers Big Brother and the Holding Company has died at age 71 of complications following surgery for a heart attack.

He was one of the two guitarists in Big Brother and he was one of the main songwriters in the band, he left in 1969 when Janis left to start her own band. Once Janis' Kozmik Blues Band morphed into the Full Tilt Boogie band, Sam decamped back to Big Brother. The Big Brother imploded in 1972 and he continued to perform sporadically until a few months before his heart attach in late 2014.

His unique guitar style and contribution to rock music will be remembered, and he will be missed. Vale Sam.

Also today, 60s pop singer Lesley Gore passed on from Lung Cancer.

She was discovered at age 16 by none other than Quincy Jones, signed to Mercury records and then proceeded to make some of the more memorable singles in the early 1960s, such as "It's My Party", "Sunshine, Lollypops and Rainbows" and the early feminist anthem "You Don't Own Me".

Later in her career she wrote songs for other people and contributed songs to films such as "Fame", as well as making many television appearances.

Vale Lesley.

Bargain Bin Review #4: JD McPherson - "Signs and Signifiers"

This one seems to be an odd album to be in a bargain bin, as it doesn't feel like it's been available for all that long. However, when you consider it was recorded and first issued independently in 2010, and reissued by Universal Music in 2012, then yeah, it has been a while.

I don't imagine an album with such an authentic retro sound would have found much of an audience in 2012. It is a faithful reproduction of the kind of sound that was created in small studios in places like Chicago and Memphis for labels like Sun and Chess during the 1950s. Heavy on the rockabilly feel, recorded on analog reel-to-reel tape with roof suspended microphones, with double bass and analog tremolo effects on the guitars, this album sounds simultaneously out of step with modern music and yet so fresh.

Former Art student JD McPherson has created a record that is so enticingly great that it is irresistible. The problem is that this album was so off the radar that it wouldn't have scored much radio play. But since when is that important when the music is this good?

"Signs and Signifiers" possesses a sound that would make Brian Setzer and the Stray Cats green with envy. JD McPherson nails the retro feel of the songs perfectly while the Stray Cats are still looking for the hammer. The title track sounds like a lost Bo Diddley number, while the lead single "North Side Gal" has a sound that is reminiscent of the sides Ike Turner made for Sun in the early 1950s (under the moniker of Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats).

A rare album is this that is recorded all analog and yet sounds warm and inviting in the digital sharpness of compact disc. It deserved to find a wider audience, considering that this is music for people who think that "they don't make music like they used to".

Take a listen for yourself below. Enjoy.