Soundtrack of Our Lives
South San Gabriel
Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Superunknown (1994, 70.11) ***½/½
|Let Me Drown
Fell on Black Days
Black Hole Sun
The Day I Tried to Live
4th of July
In many ways, Soundgarden were the perfect 'grunge' band, whatever you ever took that nomenclature to mean; just the right balance between the new and the old, with decent songs to boot. To be honest with you, it sounds like good ol' fashioned hard rock to me, albeit with a more contemporary, downtuned edge; a world away from the horrors of '80s hair metal, anyway, which has to be good. Their third album, 1991's Badmotorfinger, was tipped to be their breakthrough record, but they actually had to wait until its belated follow-up, '94's Superunknown, which sold massively on the back of its hit, the superb Black Hole Sun. The rest of the album isn't bad, but not quite the second coming various online reviews had led me to expect.
Only one 'Tron track, the grinding Mailman, credited to drummer Matt Cameron, although producer Michael Beinhorn is reputed to have had some input as well. In fact, all you get is a brief strings part with a nice pitchbend at the end, so it seems rather unlikely that it took two people to play it. So; good at what it does, but not one for progheads, unsurprisingly.
See: Hater | Truly
Welcome to the Infant Freebase (1996, 70.10) ***½/T
Firmament Vacation (A
Soundtrack of Our Lives)
Instant Repeater '99
|Four Ages (Part II)
Blow My Cool
|The Homo Habilis Blues
Rest in Piece
Theme from Hållö
Legend in His Own Mind
Behind the Music (2002, 57.35) ****/T½
In Someone Else's Mind
Mind the Gap
Broken Imaginary Time
21st Century Rip Off
Keep the Line Movin'
Ten Years Ahead
In Your Veins
Into the Next Sun
Origin Vol.I (2004, 60.38) ***½/T
|Believe I've Found
Heading for a Breakdown
Mother One Track Mind
Lone Summer Dream
Royal Explosion (Part II)
|Wheels of Boredom
Song for the Others
Age of No Reply
To Somewhere Else
I'm not entirely sure how to describe Soundtrack of Our Lives. Indie/psych? Progressive pop? They seem to be influenced by both '60s/'70s stuff, but have an undeniably current edge to their sound, too. Their debut, the strangely-titled Welcome to the Infant Freebase, sets out their stall from the off, being a mixture of '60s psych and '90s indie, with the emphasis on the former. Good material all round, though better was to come, and it's not all what you'd call entirely original; the lascivious Bendover Babies rips off Waterloo Sunset something rotten, but we'll forgive them, 'cos the album's really rather good. Mellotron (real?) on one track only, with some Strawberry Fields-style flutes and a nice upfront string part on Embryonic Rendezvous, but that would appear to be it.
Behind the Music is their third album, after the 'Tron-free Extended Revelation, and seems to be the most advanced on the songwriting front; there's certainly some excellent material on it, particularly Mind The Gap and the excellent Nevermore. Martin Hederos plays Mellotron on three tracks that I can hear; Mind The Gap and The Flood have string parts buried in the mix, but Tonight, a piano ballad, has some great upfront strings, though 1½ 'Tron tracks probably isn't enough to make purchase worthwhile on that front. However, Behind the Music's actually a damn' good album, especially if you like your pop intelligent and retro; don't let the 'death masks' sleeve put you off - it's certainly a striking design, if a little macabre.
While perfectly good, to my ears, Origin Vol.I doesn't quite reach the heady songwriting heights of its predecessor, not helped by opening the album with a track that sounds a lot like Oasis. It's beginning to look like Behind the Music is going to be their classic, although they may well pull another rabbit out of the hat in the future. Two 'Tron tracks again, with some fairly standard flutes on Midnight Children, and strings on Lone Summer Dream, with an unidentified sound on one of the 'bonus' tracks, World Bank (what's 'bonus' about it, anyway?), which may or may not be 'Tron strings.
So; a good band, with one real career highlight so far. Somewhat ordinary Mellotron use across all three of these albums, so don't bother on account of that, but buy Behind the Music if you reckon they could be your thang.
From Here on in (2001, 70.12) ***/TTT½
|Broken Head I
Paint the Silence
I Know What You're Like
All in for Nothing (reprise)
Here on in
Run on Time
Broken Head II
|Sight of Me
By the Time You Catch Your Heart
Live Between the Lines (Back Again)
By the Time You Catch Your Heart (reprise)
All in for Nothing
Broken Head III
With the Tides (2003, 42.45) **½/T
Colours in Waves
Loosen Your Hold
Same Old Story
Mend These Trends
Straight Lines to Badlands
What I Find
To quote from South's website: "Rock, dance, electronica, folksy acoustics, orchestral soundscapes, South have always been impossible to pin down". Y'reckon? Going by their 2001 album, From Here on in, I'd say 'indie-schmindie' covers it fairly well. OK, it's not a bad album, as such, but it does nothing new or exciting, at least to my ears. Maybe I'm the wrong generation to appreciate it. It's also overlong; I mean, what is this obsession with filling a CD, just because you can? 70 minutes is ridiculous; once upon a time this would've been called a 'double album', and a band may have (just possibly) made one in their entire career. OK, so bands don't spit albums out one a year any more, so it could easily be argued that they're actually producing less material by releasing a long CD every two or three years. That doesn't make these behemoths any easier to listen to, though...
Anyway, there's loads of Mellotron on offer here, which is one bonus, played by any or all of the trio: Joel Cadbury, Brett Shaw or Jamie McDonald. The album opens with the huge fuck-off strings of Broken Head I, with a flute melody riding over the top, with strings and cellos on Paint The Silence, cellos on Keep Close, strings on All In For Nothing (Reprise), flutes on Here On In... Basically, it's all over the place, although only a handful of tracks use it to any great effect, to be honest, chiefly the first and third versions of Broken Head that bookend the album. For what it's worth, that's a real, credited cello on By The Time You Catch Your Heart and Southern Climbs.
In direct contrast, there's very little 'Tron (credited, this time) on With the Tides, two years later. The album's even less interesting than its predecessor, wussing along like a good'un for most of its length, making listening to it a most joyous experience. It's almost as if the band have no idea how to write a song. Er... OK, Silver Sun's not bad, but it's pretty much on its own here. Anyway, producer Dave Eringa allegedly plays Mellotron on Colours In Waves, but the distant, high strings on the track could come from anywhere, frankly, although the uncredited strings and cellos in Straight Lines To Badlands are rather more obvious.
The problem with all of this is the same problem I have with so many 'Mellotron' albums since the mid-'90s: is it real? You may ask, of course, does it matter? Out there in the real world, no; on Planet Mellotron, yes. OK, so the sound is (loosely) the same, but without the vagaries of a tape-replay system, the sounds become sterile, and just like any other sample. You could well argue that, in the mix, you're not going to notice, but bands have a bad habit of trying to make the samples stand up on their own, which is where it all falls down. Saying that, South could well have used a real Mellotron; it's hard to say. Something about it sounds fake, though; the flutes in the left channel on Here On In are just too 'regular' for their own good - none of the grit you'd expect from a real 'Tron. In absolute fairness, nowhere on the sleeve are Mellotrons mentioned, which puts them well above many other acts I could name, who seem to think that 'Mellotron samples' is actually equivalent to 'Mellotron'. It isn't. Anyway, under UK law, one is innocent until proven guilty, which is where I'll leave this particular case.
So; average UK indie, loads of Mellotron, although it may very well be sampled. Your choice.
Welcome, Convalescence (2003, 44.15) ***/TNew Brookland
Like a Madman
The Splinter Angelic
South San Gabriel (helmed by Will Johnson) are the alter-egos of Texan outfit Centro-matic, formed to play their quieter material, leaving their noisier stuff for the parent band. 2003's Welcome, Convalescence was their debut album, following a split single with Okkervil River and begins by fooling the listener into thinking it's going to be straightforward Americana. It's not long, however, before the weird electronica kicks in, juxtaposed neatly with the downbeat, country-influenced material that actually constitutes the band's raison d'être.
Joe Butcher plays Mellotron, amongst other things, though not that much, with what I take to be high-end cellos on Everglades and definite flutes on Evangeline, both sounds nicely enhancing the windblown, eerie feel of the record. This is an album of understated, quiet material that manages to be haunted and ominous without going all goth on us, although even forty-odd minutes of it can prove a bit much if you're not in the mood. Two OK 'Tron tracks, but you probably won't want this for that alone.
See: Will Johnson
Don't it Make You Want to Go Home? (1969, 38.16) ***/TTT
|Clock Up on the Wall
What Makes Lovers Hurt One Another?
Before it's Too Late
Walk a Mile in My Shoes
Be a Believer
|A Million Miles Away
Don't it Make You Want to Go Home?
Although Joe South (born Souter) is best known as a songwriter (Hush, I Never Promised You A Rose Garden), he had a briefly successful career as a performer, in an early country/soul style. I believe there were problems surrounding his debut, 1968's Introspect, leading to him re-recording some its tracks the following year for Games People Play; alleged tape-replay work on the album, but a close listen doesn't reveal anything.
He followed up quickly with Don't it Make You Want to Go Home?, full of more homilies to his dislike of the modern world along the lines of Clock Up On The Wall, with its innovative 'ticking clock' percussion, and major hits Walk A Mile In My Shoes and the early eco-warning of the title track. Just when you think you've got the album licked, though, A Million Miles Away comes along and shatters your expectations with its found dialogue and heavily echoed guitar, so maybe it's not that clear-cut after all. Barbara South (wife of his brother and drummer, Tommy) plays Chamberlin on the album, and how... Every highlighted track above contains strings, most have brass as well, with flutes on Children and the title track, although the strings on the latter are real.
After another few albums in quick succession, Tommy South committed suicide, plunging Joe into a deep depression, leading him to escape to Hawaii and effectively ending his career. His name in the history books is assured, but it's a tragedy he didn't go on to write for the biggest names of the '80s and earn a mint in the process. This album's unlikely to appeal to anyone raised on '70s rock, but perfectly good at what it does and stuffed with Chamberlin to boot.
Otherworld (2007, 62.01) ***/T
Ritual of the Ravaged Earth
Arrival in Utopia
Notes From a Cold Planet
Space Ritual? Rings a bell? It's the name ex-Hawk (and alleged band namer) Nik Turner has used for his own outfit since the drawn-out legal shenanigans with the litigious Dave Brock some years back. Although they've existed for over a decade at the time of writing, 2007's Otherworld is their first full-length studio release, a bit of a hodge-podge of styles, to be honest, veering between the excellent, mid-paced title track with its sax-led chorus riff, ambient material (Black Corridor, ASDF), 'tribal' rhythms (Communique II) and the expected synth-driven biker rock (much of the rest). Unsurprisingly, the lyrical content concentrates on the expected themes, largely space flight, dystopian societies and ecological disaster, the last notably on Notes From A Cold Planet.
Dave Anderson, studio owner and bassist on the album, assures me that they used a real Mellotron that had been hired in for another session, "Because it was there". John Greves plays it, with polyphonic flutes on the title track and Atomik, although the latter sound sampled; a possibility, as I get the impression that a sample set was also present during the sessions. This is probably a little too long for its own good, but contains enough good material to keep the typical old-school Hawkwind fan happy. In fact, it's probably the best Hawks album since the '80s.
The End of Imagining (2003, 34.35) ***/T
|Rust Colored Sun
Rings of Saturn
There's Always Tomorrow
Nothing for Love
Running Out of Time
|Louder Than Lies
Can't You See?
Birds in the Street
The Space Twins were a Weezer side-project, led by Brian Bell, originally intended as no more than a joke. After they became more serious, they released three single during the '90s, their only album, The End of Imagining, appearing in 2003, after which the band slowly dissolved. It contains a combination of regulation powerpop (Nothing For Love, Trudy Truelove), lightweight psych (opener Rust Colored Sun) and even sort-of hard rock (Yellow Camaro), although, despite its short length, there are too many 'so-so' efforts to gain it more than three stars.
Jason Falkner (Jellyfish, Grays) plays Chamberlin on Rust Colored Sun, with strings all over the track, including a few seconds of solo Chamby at the end. Overall, a decent enough album, without being particularly startling. Recommended to powerpop fans for a handful of tracks, while those wishing to hear the Chamberlin in all its glory should try to track down Rust Colored Sun.
The Hogyssey (2001, 51.29) **½/T
This is America
I Want to Live
A Real Waste of Food
Dancing on My Own
And it is
The Strangest Dream
At Least I Got Laid
I Can't Hear You
Spacehog were (actually are, since they've recently reformed) Britpop johnny-come-latelys, their glammy take on the style sounding like a low-budget Suede. 2001's The Hogyssey (originally, before a threatened injunction, 2001: A Space Hogyssey. Ho ho) is a patchy effort, better tracks including Earthquake, Perpetual Drag (largely for its explicitly Bowie-esque guitar line) and, against all the odds, the title track, a bizarre, funk take on Richard Strauss' Also Sprach (Thus Spake) Zarathustra, better known, of course, as the title music to 2001: A Space Odyssey. As I said, ho. And ho again.
An uncredited musician (producer Paul Ebersold?) plays Mellotron flutes, cellos and strings on Dancing On My Own, not only sounding pretty real, but also being the three sounds found on the M400's original 'standard' frame. But why does our mystery man play the German national anthem on the strings over the end of the track? Another Strauss reference? Overall, then, a slightly confused release, with moments of brightness shining through the general murk, with one decent Mellotron track. Hmmm. Incidentally, the timing above is for the actual music, ignoring over ten minutes of silence between the last two tracks.
Balance of Power (1993, 54.04) ***½/TBalance of Power
The Sun Song
The Final Act
Tony Spada was the guitarist and main move and shaker behind early-'80s US proggers Holding Pattern, whose sole release was an eponymous mini-album in 1981. It took Spada over a decade to follow it with his first solo release, and I think it's fair to say his style has changed considerably in the interim. Balance of Power's base is as much fusion as prog, although without the frenetic energy of a typical fusion outfit. I also hear hints of Steve Hackett, particularly on the opening title track, and I believe there's a large slice of Steve Morse, too. Much of the (mostly instrumental) material is good without being in any way outstanding, although the album's one vocal track (and its longest), closer The Final Act, is really quite excellent.
Although ex-Holding Pattern keys man Mark Tannenbaum plays on several tracks, all the 'Tron parts are played by bassist Tony Castellano, although it has to be said that it's utterly inaudible on the title track. Touch Sensitive fares a little better, with a fairly upfront strings part that sounds shaky enough to be 'real', although The Sun Song is, again, pretty minimal. I can, however, hear what sounds like 'Tron choir on The Final Act, so I do wonder slightly about the veracity of the detailed credits. Hmmm.
So, not bad, but a long way from outstanding. Not really worth it for the 'Tron, either.
Official Holding Pattern site
See: Holding Pattern
Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot (1995, 47.30) ****/½
850 Double Pumper Holley
Tears on Fresh Fruit
|Little Bastard Choo Choo
Hammering the Cramps
Most Beautiful Widow in Town
Heart of Darkness
Ballad of a Cold Lost Marble
Someday I Will Treat You Good
Sad & Beautiful World
It's a Wonderful Life (2001, 60.33) ****/TTT
|It's a Wonderful Life
Sea of Teeth
King of Nails
|More Yellow Birds
Little Fat Baby
Babies on The Sun
Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain (2006, 53.10) ***½/T
|Don't Take My Sunshine Away
Getting it Wrong
Shade and Honey
See the Light
Return to Me
Some Sweet Day
Ghost in the Sky
It's Not So Hard
Knives of Summertime
Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain
Sparklehorse is essentially Mark Linkous plus friends, who play a melancholy kind of fucked-up Americana/alt.country/whatyouwannacallit. They debuted with '95's Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot (no, I don't know), and you know what? It's really rather excellent. Mix equal parts ('real') country, indie guitar-thrash, American folk and probably a few other things, and the end result is a very listenable blend of Linkous' influences, with some damn' good songwriting into the bargain. Although not that long, the album probably outstays its welcome slightly towards the end, but the first half is something I can see myself playing repeatedly if I let myself. Linkous plays Mellotron on a couple of tracks, notably the weird little FX-laden Little Bastard Choo Choo, where a cheap chord organ vies with 'Tron strings (and flutes?), and possibly even FX tapes, although the flutes (?) on Heart Of Darkness are next to inaudible.
There's no 'Tron on '98's Good Morning Spider, but it's on several tracks on 2001's It's a Wonderful Life, along with a Chamberlin. To confuse the issue, Dave Fridmann from Mercury Rev plays on the latter, and he's known for his not-entirely-honest approach to what constitutes a 'Mellotron'. Clue: you can't play one from a MIDI keyboard. Then there's a quote from Linkous about 'the only decent Mellotron's the new Mark VI', so who knows if any of it's real? Anyway, the album is beautiful in its melancholy, downbeat without being miserable for the sake of it; this is what Americana should sound like. Mind you, Dog Door channels Tom Waits, with a truly bonkers vocal, so it's not all 3 m.p.h. stuff [n.b. Upon checking the liner notes, it becomes apparent that it IS Tom Waits. That explains that one, then...). As for the tape-replay (assuming it's real), Linkous plays ghostly Chamby flutes and cellos on the opening title track, with more overt versions of both on Gold Day. He's on 'Tron flutes on Sea Of Teeth, with drummer Scott Minor on Chamby, then nothing until Alan Weatherhead's distant 'Tron and Chamby strings and woodwinds (oboe?) on More Yellow Birds. Dave Fridmann plays Chamby flutes and choir on Comfort Me (sample alert! Sample alert!), and finally, some very wobbly strings on closer Babies On The Sun, with Fridmann on 'Chamby' and Linkous on 'Tron.
It took Linkous five years to release another Sparklehorse album, 2006's (deep breath) Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain. And it's... another Sparklehorse album, you'll probably be pleased to hear. Nothing startling, nothing particularly new, but a solid, dependable Linkous record, despite difficult-to-ignore clunkers like the flat top guitar string on Return To Me. Said track is the first of a mere two credited tape-replay efforts here, with distant Chamberlin flutes from Linkous. The other is the lengthy closing title track, with Linkous on Chamby again and Dave Fridmann on Chamby and 'Tron, although none are that obvious, with (Mellotron?) flute melodies and (presumably Chamby) strings throughout.
So; all albums are well worth a listen, though only It's a Wonderful Life for the 'Tron/Chamby, assuming they're real...
See: Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse
Kimono My House (1974, 36.38) ****/T½
|This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us
Falling in Love With Myself Again
Here in Heaven
Thank God it's Not Christmas
Hasta Mañana, Monsieur
Talent is an Asset
|In My Family
Propaganda (1974, 33.50) ***½/½
At Home, at Work, at Play
Thanks But No Thanks
Don't Leave Me alone With Her
Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth
Something for the Girl With Everything
Who Don't Like Kids
Indiscreet (1975, 41.36) ****/T
|Hospitality on Parade
Happy Hunting Ground
Without Using Hands
Get in the Swing
Under the Table With Her
How Are You Getting Home?
|It Ain't 1918
The Lady is Lingering
In the Future
Looks, Looks, Looks
Miss the Start, Miss the End
Ron and Russell Mael's infamous duo will always be remembered for the insane brilliance of This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both Of Us (no 'the', thanks!), but if there was any justice in this world, they'd be known for a string of witty and urbane albums, not 'just' a string of hits. The combination of Ron's songs and Russell's brilliantly camp delivery brought them success in the UK, although it took their native States a while to catch up (if it ever really did); Kimono My House was their third album, following their self-titled debut (originally being released under the name Halfnelson) and A Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing.
Kimono opens with Ron's staccato electric piano and Russell's edgy, manic vocal callisthenics on the aforementioned This Town, which surely has to be one of the greatest singles ever, following it with the almost-as-good Amateur Hour. I mean, try these for lyrics, on the subject of... well, work it out for yourself:
|'It's a lot like playing the violin,
You cannot start off and be Yehudi Menuhin'.
Sheer, utter, unbridled brilliance. All of which has nothing to do with Mellotrons. The only reason I know there's any on these albums is that, sick of listening to stuff purely for its Mellotronic content (hey, I like music for its own sake, OK?!), I resolved to play something else for a break. And heard a Mellotron. Typical... Yup, there it is; strings on Thank God It's Not Christmas, with a sustained note at the end featuring that distinctive 'Mellotron quaver', flutes and strings on the lyrically sublime Hasta Mañana, Monsieur and (according to this excellent page) a Mellotron sax solo on Equator. No idea where the 'Tron came from; the album was recorded in the UK, so I suspect it was a machine that was just lying around the studio. As they do. Or did. So, not the greatest use ever, but an abnormally cool album, so buy it anyway.
Propaganda isn't as consistent as Kimono, but as their second release of '74, they were probably spreading themselves a little thinly by this point. It opens brilliantly, with the a capella title track and the rocking At Home, At Work, At Play, but then it slackens off a bit, although the two singles, Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth and Something For The Girl With Everything are pretty cool. Most of the strings on the album are provided by an unnamed string synth, so the album's only Mellotronic interjection is on Never Turn Your Back..., with a few seconds of heavily phased strings halfway through. The following year's Indiscreet picks up somewhat and is probably their most diverse album yet, with the likes of the string quartet-led Under The Table With Her or the (again) excellent singles, Get In The Swing and Looks, Looks, Looks. Mellotron on one track only, with a few volume-pedalled choir chords on Without Using Hands, so barely any more use than on its predecessor, really. Bloody good album, though.
So, Sparks: one of the best pop groups ever? Discuss. Depends on your definition, I suppose, but it sounds like pop to me, even when it rocks. They're still making intelligent pop records to this day, consistently flying fearlessly in the face of fashion, which can't be bad. None of these three albums are exactly worth it on the 'Tron front, but they're all well worth hearing in their own right. Excellent.
Jalopy Pop!!! (2005, 58.35) ***½/TT½
In Your Lovin' Arms
Ready for the Day
Where She Ought to Be
|Wishing You Well
Glimpse of Hope
Sparkwood are a Texan powerpop outfit, as much ELO and Queen as The Byrds and The Beatles. Actually, and as sick as you must be of my using the comparison, Jellyfish would definitely have a lot to answer for here, if there were anything to answer for at all. Sparkwood's second album, 2005's Jalopy Pop!!!, is a glorious technicolo(u)r riot of summery pop with clever twists and turns, allied to a slightly Beach Boys-ish melancholy on the lyric front; in fact, there are distinct hints of that outfit in some of the arrangements, notably the occasional woodwind interjections, although the overall level of compositional complexity is unsurprisingly lower. After the silly, forty-second synth parameter checklist, er, Checklist (did I say the album's stuffed with analogue synth parts?), top tracks include opener proper Miles Away, Past Experience and Wishing You Well, and although the half-arsed rock'n'roll of Where She Ought To Be is slightly unnecessary, it really doesn't diminish the overall listening experience.
Band mainman Bart Padar plays seemingly uncredited Mellotron, although its 'realness' doesn't appear to be in question, given the wobbly state of the strings on Cruel World, wavering to a halt at the end. Thankfully, it doesn't stop there, with raucous strings, cellos and flutes on Ready For The Day, flutes on Nichole's Overture and Glimpse Of Hope and a final string part on 3 Words, some 'featuring' more of those M400 wobblies. I almost feel I should've given this four stars; it sits right on the cusp, and maybe another couple of plays would tip it over, although bright'n'breezy listening fatigue could also set in. It could go either way. Generally speaking, though, a great little album, although I think they could've trimmed a bit from its length, not least the general messing about between 3 Words and unlisted extra track Train Song. Plenty of clearly genuine Mellotron, too, making this a bit of an all-round winner, I think.
Songs for Bright Street (2006, 53.41) ***/T½
|Step Out of the Shade
Not the Heartless Kind
Shed This Skin
The Real Thing
Make Me Lonely Again
Right Through to Me
Row Row Row
Can't Find a Reason
Listening to the first few tracks of Amy Speace's third album, 2006's Songs for Bright Street, you'd be forgiven for thinking she inhabits the rockier end of the Americana spectrum, but before you know it, it quietens down into a relatively 'trad' country effort, albeit one vastly better than the average. Her humour shines through on the lyric front, notably on Double Wide; actually, the lyrics are where this album shines, as with so much country, although for once, the music doesn't offend either.
Speace plays the Mellotron herself, with a very real-sounding string part on Water Landing and string and cello parts on closer Home that come in slowly then go stratospheric. So; two good 'Tron tracks on a decent-for-country record, which can be taken as a recommendation if you like.
Spectrum Road (2012, 55.56) ****/TTT
There Comes a Time
Coming Back Home
An T-eilan Muileach
Blues for Tillmon
|Allah Be Praised
Consisting of full- or part-time fusionists Vernon Reid (Living Colour's wunderkind guitarist), drummer Cindy Blackman, Jack Bruce and John Medeski, Spectrum Road are something of a supergroup, formed as a tribute to The Tony Williams Lifetime (Williams died in 1997). Having not heard their source material, I can't say whether they've changed anything very much from the originals (mostly Lifetime, with a handful of Williams solo pieces), although I suspect some of Reid's more out-there guitar work goes further than John McLaughlin ever dared forty years earlier. Or not? The best way of approaching this is to realise that subtlety isn't really an option, after which you can't go too far wrong. Best tracks? I prefer the instrumental workouts, so I'll nominate fiery opener Vuelta Abajo, the lengthy Where and closer Wild Life.
Medeski plays Mellotron, of course, with typically fragmented string lines on Vuelta Abajo, phased cellos on Coming Back Home, more skronky strings on Where, wobbly cello on Blues For Tillmon, amusingly out-of-place strings on boogie workout Allah Be Praised and (slightly) more sedate ones on Wild Life. All in all, a fine album that makes me want to track down the originals, despite not being a fusion fan, although, having heard these versions, I may pine for Reid's combustible guitar work.
See: Jack Bruce | John Medeski
Spektakel (1996, recorded 1974, 62.13) ****/TTTT½The Eternal Question
Big Boss Eyes
7 Pounds Tommy
No No Not You (live)
Spektakel are one of those long-lost bands whose material suddenly pokes its head up above the parapet decades later. The main reason this CD, recorded in 1974, is of note is that two of the band's four members, Eduard Schicke and Heinz Fröhling went on to become two thirds of legendary German synth/prog outfit SFF, or Schicke Führs Fröhling. You can hear a similarity between the two bands in places, although Spektakel are best described as symphonic progressive with improvisational overtones, sometimes with vocals, with less of the electronic influence of the later band. It's powerful stuff, though, standing up well against better-known bands of the era; in fact, I'd go as far as to say that they were potentially one of the best German symphonic bands, beating Novalis, Eloy et al. at their own game. SFF's recently-released Live in Papenburg, Autumn 1975 quite effectively displays the crossover period between the two bands, with longer workouts than those recorded by SFF, though still tightly arranged, fairly reminiscent of much of the material on Spektakel.
There's a shedload of Mellotron on offer here, played by both Fröhling and full-time keyboardist Detlef Wiedecke. All four tracks (the last, No No Not You is listed as a 'bonus live track') have large helpings of strings, with a several minute 'Tron flute solo section plus extra added cellos in the aforementioned live track, which I suspect has been culled from a longer improv piece. It's noticeable how well all the tracks have been recorded, given a total lack of record company support at the time, not to mention the quality of the band's equipment; was somebody bankrolling them, possibly?
Anyway, this is a pretty damn' good prog album, and a minor Mellotron classic. Top marks to US prog reissue specialists The Laser's Edge for exhuming this and making it available in such superb quality. Buy.
See: Schicke Führs Fröhling | Führs and Fröhling
Damage (2004, 40.49) ***½/T
Burn it Off
You Been My Baby
|Help These Blues
Fed Up and Low Down
Blowing My Mind
After leaving noted noiseniks Pussy Galore, Jon Spencer formed his Blues Explosion in 1991, fusing rockabilly, punk, garage rock and a host of other related styles into a heady stew of sweaty rock'n'roll. 2004's Damage is something like their seventh official full release, although some confusion surrounds their early discography due to a plethora of, at best, semi-officially released compilations of tracks from their first two recording sessions. While every track here fits the loose description 'rock'n'roll', they all take a separate approach to the style, from the almost-hard rock of Burn It Off, through the mutated country blues of Spoiled to the punk/psych of Mars, Arizona.
Chris Shaw plays Chamberlin on Crunchy, with strings, flutes and female voices; shame they didn't use it a bit more, but there you go. If you like the Blues Explosion, you'll already own this, if you don't, it sounds to me to be a fine place to start. One Chamby track helps in its appreciation 'round these parts, but probably means little in the grand scheme of things.
Out-of-date official site
The Spent Poets (1992, 64.27) **½/TT½
My Useless Heart
Your Existential Past
You Can't Kill Michael Malloy
Walt Whitman's Beard
|He's Living With His Mother Now
Ali Ali Ackbar
The Rocks in Virginia's Dress
You Don't Know Me
Why Are You Sleeping With Mr. Brown?
A Bad Case of Melancholy
The Spent Poets were an early '90s pop/rock crew from San Francisco who released one, eponymous album, pilfering the then-current charts for inspiration, coming up with an album that sounds rather dated, 17 years on. Don't get me wrong; there's plenty of variety here, but their constant Beatles references have worn to paper thinness, especially since every two-bit Britpop act and their brothers (you know who I mean) jumped on the bandwagon.
In those presumably pre-easily available sample days, no fewer than three of the band are credited with Mellotron: Matthew Winegar, John Berg and Derek Greenberg, although I've no idea who played what and where. anyway, we get faint flutes on opener Mr. Einstein, cellos on My Useless Heart, strings and more obvious flutes on Special, strings towards the end of Dogtown and on Ali Ali Ackbar and Why Are You Sleeping With Mr. Brown?, although I doubt whether the strings on Walt Whitman's Beard have anything to do with Mellotrons.
All in all, then, a rather unexciting album, already sounding a bit old-fashioned, although I suppose saying 'a bit' means that it hasn't dated half as badly as a lot of stuff from that period. A surprising amount of Mellotron, anyway, although none of it's particularly inventive.
Comeuppance (2002, 52.57) ****½/TTT
|A Good Example of Arbitrary Presumption
Eat First, Ask Questions Later
An Unusual January
Sphere³ (originally just Sphere) have a long and (dis)honourable history on the UK prog scene (such as it is), having been around since the early '90s in one form or another. Their ridiculous flyers (for gigs or just for the hell of it) are legendary, as is their inability to get their shit together and release an album. They've put out a couple of cassette demos; an early, rather formative one and a far more commendable effort from the late '90s, which saw them moving towards the area they now inhabit. Since drummer Jamie Fisher's return from foreign climes (well, Australia) in '99, they've moved into warpspeed on the activity front, playing at least six times a year and constantly being sighted at all the wrong gigs.
Anyway, it's out at last. Apparently the earliest recording on it dates from 1997 and after their frenetic activities of late, it's understandable how the boys haven't had time to complete their slightly overdue debut. In fact, it's been an amusing spectator sport watching the esteemed Malcolm Parker's Cyclops label catalogue with its increasingly desperate 'Sphere³: due soon' entry over the last few years. All right, I'll stop taking the piss. The truth of the matter is, Comeuppance has been well worth the wait. It's not every day (/year/decade) that a British instrumental fusion-driven progressive band comes along; now they have, I sincerely hope the international progressive community takes them to their hearts. Of course, one advantage of spending so long 'getting it together (man)' is that the band have honed their material to perfection, pruning any dead wood that may have existed and ending up leaving off great material like Lights Coming Down.
So; Comeuppance: Sphere³ cover various bases within their chosen area, from the epic prog of Paralysis (originally released as a single in 2001) to the 'Jazz Club' sounds of An Unusual January. Nice. Most of the material is nearer prog than jazz and to be honest, there's nary a duff track to be heard throughout. Keyboard man Neil Durant bought his Mellotron in the late '90s, fitting it out with an unusual M300 strings/8 choir/church organ tape set, although he only seems to have used choirs on the album, usually to good effect, particularly on the aforementioned Paralysis, their standard set opener. It has to be said at this point that the musicianship is superb right across the board; Steve Anderson's guitar work is exemplary, and Bill Burnett's bass playing, while occasionally slightly too 'muso', is excellent, slapping or no slapping. Don't let the 'jazz' comments put you off, by the way; I'm no jazzer, but I love this album. Definitely more of a 'prog with jazz inflections' record than vice versa.
So; buy this album, The band need your support, it's a great record and there's some nice 'Tron work. Sphere³ would go down a storm at the international prog festivals - book 'em now! Oh - and buy this album.
We Are All Flower People [a.k.a. The Incredible Flight of Icarus P. Anybody] (1968/69) **/TTTTT
|We Are All Flower People
Get Me Away From the Ground
I am Flight
The strangest thing about Spïnal Tap (don't forget the umlaut!) is that for a band with so much history, their albums are next to impossible to find. They come from London (Squatney, to be precise), roughly twelve miles from where I live (although, strangely, I've never been able to track the area down precisely), but have I EVER seen any of their original albums in a London second-hand shop? Have I hell (hole). Before 1984's This is Spïnal Tap soundtrack album, they released thirteen (count 'em) albums, including the triple-live Jap Habit, originally on Japanese import only, but I have never, EVER seen hide nor hair of 'em, and to this day, the only Tap records I've ever seen are the soundtrack and 1992's excellent reformation effort, Break Like the Wind.
By a weird coincidence, just after reading the revised edition of Peter Occhiogrosso's 'Inside Spinal Tap' (Abacus, 1992), I spotted a copy of The Incredible Flight of Icarus P. Anybody on someone's trade list, appended 'PQ': Poor Quality. They weren't kidding. My tape (not even CD-R) of this legendarily rare album is almost unlistenable, and that's before you get to its actual content. It sounds like about an eighth-generation recording of a scratched, warped copy of the LP, overlaid with a horrible distortion that may or may not be present on the original recording (nothing would surprise me in the World Of Tap). What little I can hear of the actual music is, frankly, terrible; the very worst kind of pompous, pretentious, 'rock opera' psych you can imagine, making The Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow look like the classic it is. The only reason I know anything about it at all is due to an interview with then-new boy bassist Derek Smalls right at the end of the book, where he goes into (slight) detail about the album. As you can see, I don't even have a proper tracklisting for the record, so what you see above is what I've been able to pick out from Smalls' description and the little you can hear of the lyrics.
Originally released in 1968 as We Are All Flower People, in a grotesque (and very Tap-like) cash-in on the previous year's mega-smash (yet still strangely unobtainable), Listen To The Flower People, most of the album consists of a series of linked tracks under the banner The Incredible Flight Of Icarus P. Anybody, under which title the album was reissued the following year, minus its title track, this being the version I've managed to obtain. The concept, such as it is, involves (according to Smalls), "A man who decided, like Icarus, that he would put on wings and fly - but that he would be a jet airliner and sell seats on himself to pay for the project". He describes it as "very acid-influenced", and he ain't kidding. It's also very Tap: its ineptitude is absolutely par for the course, as is its thorough idiocy, not to mention David St Hubbins' ridiculous lyrics and Nigel Tufnel's third-rate guitar histrionics.
So why am I reviewing this pile of junk? Why d'you think? Back to Smalls: "It was probably the heaviest use of Mellotron up until that time on a rock'n'roll album, which idea was stolen from us by you-know-who - by you-know-Moody-who. But we did it first, and I think we got some sort of award from the Mellotron people for it, because it was really thick with Mellotron, it was all the way through. It just covered everything, like a Mellotron soup - which gave the album a distinctive kind of murk. A lot of it was that we were doing some bass work on the Mellotron, just some bass chords - because that was describing the ground that Icarus was trying to escape from. So there was this brooding sense of the ground that was in these heavy, thick fifths being played down in the bass range of the Mellotron. It was very, very dark". Derek, my friend, you're not wrong. Black, even. None more black. Pedantically, I feel the need to take issue with some of his points, however; the Moodies beat the Tap to it by a good year, although I'll give them credit for beating The Who to the concept album post. As for the aforementioned 'award', if dear old Les Bradley was still alive, I might be able to confirm the story one way or the other, but as it is... Basically, apart from two short tracks, the album is, indeed, stuffed with Mellotron, with loads of muffled low-end brass, clearly recorded via the MkII's speakers, rather than its perfectly good quarter-inch jack output. There's strings in there too, adding to the general murk, but it's hard to tell what else might be lurking about in the mix. I've no idea who played it, though I suspect a composite of St Hubbins and Smalls, as I doubt whether Tufnel was capable of making any sort of coherent sound on a keyboard at all. Let's face it; he has enough trouble on guitar... Suffice to say, despite the album's overall quality, it's a full five-T effort on the 'Tron front.
So; do you buy this? I think the question is actually, how do you buy this? And even if you could, should you? If you find a copy, you may find that you've purchased something both extremely rare, and simultaneously almost worthless; even hardened psych collectors shy away from this album, I'm told, and after hearing a copy, I can see why. Saying that, it's almost certainly better than their early-'70s hard rock period, with 'classics' such as Nerve Damage and Intravenus de Milo, and as for their, er, 'late-period glam' (read: uselessly after-the-event bandwagon-jumping) Bent for the Rent, the less said the better, I suspect. I am intrigued to hear their attempt at prog, though, with 1975's The Sun Never Sweats, also allegedly containing Mellotron, mainly M400 choirs, in a heavy-handed attempt to ape Genesis, no doubt. It also contains possibly their finest moment, in the deathless Stonehenge, which, although I've heard its original version described as 'side-long', is more likely to be a twelve-or-so-minute effort, edited down for later live versions. As indeed was the monolith itself, but maybe we just shouldn't go there. Anyway, your chances of finding any original Tap albums are rock bottom to zero, and given the torpor that ...Icarus induced in me, that's probably a very good thing. Unusual 'Tron use, but otherwise, avoid.
Strand (1996, 53.27) **½/T
Lines and Lines
Punch Line Loser
|Winter on Ice
For No One Else
Arches & Aisles (1998, 43.10) **/T
|Kid in Candy
Greetings From the Sugar Lick
Love, the Lazee
Slide Your Ass
Reach v. Speed
The Spinanes seem to have considerable critical caché, but going by their second album, '96's Strand, their particular brand of 'slowcore', or whatever you wish to call it, is nowhere near as melancholic of tuneful as, say, Low's, although I can sort of see why other people like them so much. A duo of guitarist/vocalist Rebecca Gates and drummer Scott Plouf, they, like the White Stripes, don't seem to miss having a bassist - something to do with the guitar tone in both cases, I suspect. I can't really pick out anything startling to say about the album, as it left me completely cold, but some of you may like it. One 'Tron track (from Gates), with a passable if inessential strings part on Winter On Ice, but that's yer lot.
Two years on, The Spinanes released their second and last 'Tron album, Arches & Aisles. Musically, it's almost indistinguishable from its predecessor; even more insipid, if that's possible. At least it doesn't go on for too long. Gates plays Mellotron flutes and cellos on the brief Slide Your Ass, but too little overall effect, sadly. You're not going to like either of these albums, I suspect, unless you're a SubPop fan, and with this little Mellotron, I'd really go elsewhere, if I were you.
See: Rebecca Gates
Spinnerette (2009, 53.00) ***/0
All Babes Are Wolves
Baptized By Fire
A Spectral Suspension
Distorting a Code
The Walking Dead
A Prescription for Mankind
Bree Leslie "Brody Dalle" Pucilowski (is that her on the cover?) was a founding member of The Distillers after moving to the States from Australia, forming Spinnerette in 2007 following the dissolution of her original band. Their eponymous 2009 debut is a modern punk album, I suppose, although it bears little relation to the class of '77, or, apparently, Dalle's earlier work. It sounds like Queens of the Stone Age in places (turns out Dalle is married to Josh Homme), with the occasional burst of programmed pop making itself heard, but its overriding influence has to be Nirvana, a touchstone for many of her generation. The album's chief fault is its length; this is the kind of music best heard in short, amphetamine-fuelled bursts, not records the better part of an hour long.
Alain Johannes allegedly plays Mellotron, but I'd love to know where, as it's entirely inaudible. Overall, Spinnerette does what it does and doesn't obviously care whether you like it or not. If you're already a fan of Ms Dalle's work, you'll probably like it, although anyone else should probably approach with caution.
Paper Cuts EP (2007, 22.07) **½/½The Liar
Mads Brøbech "Mani Spinx" Jørgensen had only released one album when his Paper Cuts EP appeared in 2007. It's an oddly unfocussed collection, shifting between more acoustic material (opener The Liar, closer No God), brassy pop/rock (Allright) and rock'n'roll (er, Rock'n'Roll Ransom), amongst others, although that's clearly Spinx' intention.
Spinx plays Mellotron on Lara May, with muted string and cello parts that may or may not be real, although the Mellotronesque strings on Allright are real. I'm not sure whom, outside his (probably mostly Danish) fanbase will really go for this; it's extremely competent, but just not that exciting. Or perhaps I'm simply not 'getting it'. Good enough at what it does, I suppose, but really not worth it for the Mellotron.