Reviews in this issue:
- Muse - HAARP
- King’s X - XV
- Ayreon - Elected [EP]
- The Last People On Earth - Electric Angel
- Greg Sherman – The Road Home
- Mellow Candle - Swaddling Songs
- Claire Hamill - October
- Fair Weather – Beginning From An End
Muse - HAARP
CD [71:48]: Intro (1:45), Knights Of Cydonia (6:38), Hysteria (4:19), Supermassive Black Hole (4:01), Map Of The Problematique (5:23), Butterflies And Hurricanes (5:57), Invincible (6:16), Starlight (4:14), Time Is Running Out (4:24), New Born (8:16), Unintended (4:36), Micro Cuts (3:47), Stockholm Syndrome (7:38), Take A Bow (4:42)
DVD [102:27]: Intro (1:51), Knights Of Cydonia (6:28), Hysteria (4:11), Supermassive Black Hole (4:12), Map Of The Problematique (5:08), Butterflies And Hurricanes (6:13), Hoodoo (3:31), Apocalypse Please (4:45), Feeling Good (3:46), Invincible (5:48), Starlight (4:13), Improvisation (0:52), Time Is Running Out (4:30), New Born (9:15), Soldiers Poem (2:18), Unintended (4:42), Blackout (5:02), Plug In Baby (4:27), Stockholm Syndrome (8:05), Take A Bow (5:24), End Credits [Blackout instrumental] (4:35) Bonus Material: Photo Gallery [Sing For Absolution] (3:01)
On June 16th and 17th Muse played two sell-out shows at the new Wembley stadium in London. They were originally intended to be the first band to play at the new stadium, if it wasn't for George Michael, who was later programmed to appear a week earlier. Muse hold the claim of being the first band to play a sell-out gig at the new stadium though; playing two consecutive nights to a 75,000 crowd.
HAARP is an odd title for a live album, as not many people will know what the term stands for. The meaning of the title can only be guessed, is it a tongue in cheek insinuation that Muse's music has the same effect as H.A.A.R.P., or is it a form of protest against the experiments and are they trying to raise awareness for it? You Google up the term and decide for yourself.
HAARP is a registration of both Wembley gigs, with the CD containing most of the gig of the 16th, and the DVD showing a selection of the the 17th. Following the classic multi-format marketing strategy the CD features one track not featured on the DVD, whereas the longer running time of the DVD gives it six tracks not available on the CD. A limited edition package features a couple of documentaries and backstage footage and then the i-Tunes version features another bonus track not available on either physical format. Unfortunately these days either producers or record companies seem to feel that people have a short attention span (and they may have a point) so five songs were cut from the DVD, to make the running time of the DVD just under 100 minutes (the omitted track Sunburn is even mentioned in the accompanying press release as one of the DVDs highlights!).
Cuts aside, what remains is a very nifty looking DVD. Obviously this is as much a showcase for the new Wembley stadium as it is for Muse, so there are many, many shots of the stadiums and its surroundings and even more of the big audience. The DVD is clearly targeted at the MTV audience with swift editing and more attention to how big the show was, rather than focus on what the band was actually doing onstage. So if you like to know just how those solos are played, you will be disappointed. The fast and frantic editing suits the music though. This may be a prog band, but it is a hip band, and hip bands need hip videos.
Playing in a stadium of course had its effects on the show. One of the major draws of a Muse gig is the elaborate lightshow, and as 80% of this gig is played in daylight there is not much of that lightshow left. This has been resolved by adding some big show extravaganza to keep the audience's attention, like pyrotechnics during a couple of songs, acrobats hanging from giant balloons above the crowd, a huge video screen projecting weird images and several large moving satellite dishes at the sides of the stage.
The DVD will make you appreciate just how good this band is. Frontman Bellamy is the obvious focal point, excelling on guitar, grand piano and of course sings in his distinct high-pitched voice. But the DVD proves that Muse is so much more than the Matthew Bellamy show: Christopher Wolstenholme's imaginative driving bass lines are the power behind every song and the enthusiastic playing of drummer Dominic Howard rivals that of the best in the genre. Touring member Morgan Nicholls is almost entirely ignored and only very occasionally do you get a shot of him. Unjustly so, as he definitely deserves credit for playing keyboards, glockenspiel, percussion, bass guitar and providing backing vocals on most of the songs.
The setlist is a balanced mix of songs from their entire career (with only their debut album a bit under-represented) mixing the sing-along hits like Starlight and Supermassive Black Hole with more complex tracks like Butterflies And Hurricanes, Knights Of Cydonia and New Born, and a remarkably low-key first encore consisting of solely ballads: the Queen-esque Soldier's Poem, the bittersweet Genesis-meets-Queen Unintended and the dreamy Blackout. The latter song is where the show really goes over the top, with acrobats dangling from hot air balloons over the heads of the audience...
Muse is immensely popular in their home country. The same tour where they played these two sell-out gigs at Wembley they played venues with a 5000-8000 capacity in the rest of Europe. And that is odd considering the music Muse makes is essentially progressive rock, and if there is one country in the world that ditches the term prog en masse it is the UK. To see 75,000 people bouncing up and down to the music of Knight Of Cydonia, which is basically Rush on acid, is just fantastic. How on earth is it possible that a nation who is so against prog is so massively embraces this band? This kind of music is not supposed to be so hip!
Anyway, hip or not, this is a highly recommended document of one of the coolest bands of this moment.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
King’s X - XV
Tracklist: Pray (4:15), Blue (4:25), Repeating Myself (4:09), Rocket Ship (2:44), Julie (2:41), Alright (2:51), Broke (3:56), I Just Want To Live (4:21), Move (4:02), I Don’t Know (3:32), Stuck (3:56), Go Tell Somebody (3:17) Bonus Tracks: Love And Rockets [Hell’s Screaming] (4:22), No Lie (5:20)
Where to start with a review of a new King’s X album? Surely embodying the very definition of the term ‘cult band’, their attempt at reaching a wider audience ended with the termination of their contract with Atlantic back in 1996 (and in truth probably went further back than that), and they now have enough fans who simply buy anything they put their name to not to worry too much about critical reaction. That said, even the most diehard of fans patience was surely tested by the inconsistent, possibly overly experimental sets King’s X were putting out in the late 90’s and early 21st century – I know mine was. 2005’s Ogre Tones therefore came as a pleasant surprise, with the band seemingly reborn with a new fire in their bellies and a revived interest in simply writing straightforward songs with strong melodies and plenty of hooks. Thankfully, the band haven’t attempted to alter the formula much with XV (slightly confusingly, their 12th – not 15th – studio album), and equally thankfully it’s if anything an even stronger effort than its predecessor.
King’s X have once again used renowned producer Michael Wagener, and the songs therefore bask in the kind of big, arena ready sound found on seminal Wagener produced albums by the likes of Alice Cooper and Ozzy Osbourne. The promo material stresses that much of the album was recorded in a ‘live atmosphere’ and this comes across, with the songs sounding fresh and immediate – you don’t have to dig far to find the hooks. That’s not to say the subtleties found in some of the band’s best material has been lost however; indeed, its these touches – particularly Ty Tabor’s distinctively melodic guitar lines and the typically well-constructed three part harmonies the band are known for- which stop potentially mundane mid-tempo tracks such as I Just Want To Live and I Don’t Know drifting into filler territory.
A good balance is struck between groove-driven rockers and more emotional, slow to mid-tempo fare, with the highlights perhaps coming from the former category this time out – the effortlessly groovy Prey is a great opener, infused with a seventies funk vibe and with Doug Pinnick’s distinctive voice at its most soulful; Rocket Ship has a chorus that evokes psychedelia-era The Beatles (the fab four being an oft-cited influence on the band’s music); Alright has a euphoric, call-and-response style chorus, whilst Go Tell Somebody is a typical up-tempo groover which recalls the much-loved live favourite Over My Head. Of the slower songs, the mellow Tabor-sung Repeating Myself and the country rock-ish, Byrds flavoured Julie are both strong tracks. Really though, there’s nothing here that will have you reaching for the skip button – the experimentation that was going on even to a small extent on Ogre Tones has been banished here, with the band perhaps finally realising that that’s what side projects are for!
Overall, XV continues the renaissance started on Ogre Tones, with King’s X sounding fresher and hungrier than they have in many years. Now its about time they got themselves back on the road, as these songs will surely sound even better in the live arena.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Ayreon - Elected [EP]
Tracklist: Elected (3:37), E=MC² (3:32), Ride The Comet (3:32), Day Six: Childhood (3:04)
On the same day that Arjen Lucassen released his latest Ayreon album 01011001, Tobias Sammet released his Avantasia album The Scarecrow. Both these artists operate in the similar field of rock operas and both musicians feature several famous musicians participating on each album. However Lucassen's music leans more towards progressive rock, while Sammet chooses the more hard rock approach. When finding out Sammet had contacted Alice Cooper for his latest adventure Lucassen freaked out and reportedly sent a "hate-mail" to Sammet's MySpace page. In his return Sammet replied that he hated being compared to Ayreon, and Lucassen for having Bruce Dickinson on his Flight Of The Migrator album. Despite their mutual "hatred" they decided to join forces and this "Clash of the Titans" resulted in a cover recording of Alice Cooper's hit song Elected. This EP is released under the name of Ayreon Vs. Fantasia which also contains two unplugged recordings and a track from Ayreon's 01011001.
On Elected all instruments are played by Arjen Lucassen and the are vocals by Lucassen and Tobias Sammet combined. The lyrics have been somewhat adapted to spice up the rivalry between the two - the resulting jokes and interactions between the two being very funny. It's more powerful than the original with Arjen trying hard to sound like Alice Cooper. Considering the background of this release you can assume it's not intended to compete with the original, more a statement of two colleagues who have created an entertaining duet which surely they had lot's of fun doing.
The extras on this EP are two acoustic recordings of Ayreon songs with Marjan Welman on vocals. The first one, E=MC² from 01011001, was recorded during the promotion of the album for a radio show. During the acoustic promotional sets Arjen was so impressed by her performance of Day Six: Childhood, from The Human Equation, that he especially re-recorded this song. Joost Van Den Broek rearranged the music and the lyrics were changed mainly because the original was sung by three characters from that album. Both songs are very impressive in the acoustic setting and Marjan Welman's vocals are excellent.
To complete this EP the song Ride The Comet is taken from the album 01011001. I don't think that anyone who is slightly interested in buying this EP wouldn't already have that album. So it seems a very strange idea of Arjen Lucassen to repeat this album version on this Ayreon release. However to make up for that lack of inspiration the EP comes with it's own code that gives access to a download page on the Ayreon website. A semi-acoustic version of The Truth Is In Here as it was performed on the 01011001 release party and an Ayreon medley as recorded at the radio show with Marjan Welman on vocals and Arjen Lucassen on acoustic guitar.
This release shows a nice collaboration between two masters of rock opera's. Elected is a powerful and funny cover and is not really a serious attempt to compete with the original, but more a playful extravaganza. The two acoustic songs are with Marjan Welman are very beautiful but the addition of an album track is immodest to his loyal fans. I can't imagine that he doesn't have some alternative version or a cover tucked away somewhere? In return this release comes with a code which gives access to a websites with video's of acoustic performances done during the album promotion. Nice bonus, but extras on the internet are a bit of a cheap trick to increase the value of this release.
Not the most interesting release by Ayreon - one for the collectors only.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
The Last People On Earth - Electric Angel
Tracklist: Intro (1:03), Birth (3:38), Mother and Father (3:10), On My Way (2:28), School (3:04), The Light In Her Hair (5:01), John’s Car (3:37), Wine & Women (3:28), Breakdown (2:07), Are You Awake (5:00), All Things Come To An End (6:29)
The Last People On Earth, (named after a comic strip), are a relatively new band and at this moment in time there is little information regarding them on the web, barring the scant information I could find on their MySpace site. They hail from Yorkshire (UK) and apparently the band consists of Pad (vocals, bass), Egg (keys, backing vocals), Mike (drums) and Dave (guitar and keys). They have released two downloadable albums (Sounds Like A Tiger and Star Horse), but they were mainly a gig only affair, until Electric Angel which is actually their first official release on the newly formed Teahouse Records. So I can imagine that for both band and label these must be exiting times.
Electric Angels is a concept album set in the near future about a boy who can’t feel and the album follows the boy’s escapades from birth ‘till death. School, work, love, personal difficulties and how - because of his inability of experiencing any feelings - the boy deals with these issues. Even though the story is set in the near future, the music is not trying to give a glimpse into the future at all, in fact the music is firmly set in the late sixties - although there are also major influences of more modern bands such as Flaming Lips, Of Montreal, Super Furry Animals and Elbow. All of the eleven songs nicely flow into each other adding to the whole concept feel of the album.
The album was supposedly recorded in a decaying dockside warehouse in Hull, however this has not had a negative effect on the quality of the recording and the album's sound is good. They also use numerous sound effects which makes it easier to get into the concept of the album. Starting with a spoken word intro, this offers us a glimpse of the near future where “the word hope is now the brand of a washing powder". After this our child is born (on December 24th!) and the aptly titled first song sets the tone for the entire album. An excellent psychedelic rock song with some nice Hammond organ, good vocals and some added brass. The next song, Mother And Father, could have been a Syd Barrett song, but also has a Ray Davies influence which can be found in its vaudeville opening. Halfway through the song changes totally and turns into a ballad with piano and an aching electric guitar - strange but beautiful.
And the album continues in this very pleasant fashion combining a nice mixture of sixties and modern psychedelia - a good tune with a melody or hook that sticks in your head for days takes priority. A good example is the magnificent The Light In Her Hair which has some beautiful harmony vocals and once again halfway through the song opens up with a guitar solo and brass sounds. This song, with also lazy drumming and prominent piano chords reminded me of Elbow. Sadly they do not succeed in maintaining this high level for the entire album, because after the impressive The Light In Her Hair the songs start to get less interesting. John’s Car for example is a rather insipid song and the same goes for Wine And Women, followed by the not very interesting short soundscape Breakdown. However they end the album on a high again with All Things Come To An End. Musically this song refers to the album opener Birth and in that way the (life) cycle closes nicely.
Electric Angel from The Last People On Earth is a very good psychedelic rock album, however this is not a progressive rock album per se and it’s also not trying to be one. Pink Floyd during their Syd Barrett days is as progressive as this album gets. Still, it’s a good album and if you’re into the bands mentioned in this review you should definitely take some time to listen to this album.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Greg Sherman – The Road Home
Tracklist: Seeds Of Faith (3:50), The Journey (4:55), This Hand That’s Mine (4:08), Bohemian Fantasy (3:05), Just To See You Shine (6:01), Out Of The Darkness [For Evelyn] (5:40), Somewhere Along The Road (6:29), Kathy’s Dreams (4:44), Maybe An Angel (3:15), Approaching Dawn (7:37), You Were There (4:38), Empty Sky (5:26), Don’t Look Back (5:41)
This is the kind of album about which I wish I had more to say. But I have essentially only one good thing and one bad thing to say about it, and, since the bad thing is minor, I’m going to elaborate on the good thing so as to give you as complete an idea as possible about what you’ll hear when you get this album (as I hope you will).
A few words of background first. Greg Sherman is of course the keyboardist with the excellent American instrumental progressive-rock trio Glass. On Glass’s albums, he plays all variety of keyboards, including a vintage ARP Odyssey and Mellotron. However, on this solo album, he plays piano – that’s it. Superbly recorded, rich, resonant piano. The music is not what I’d expected, familiar as I am with his multi-layered work with his band, and I daresay other Glass fans will be as surprised as I was by this lovely CD. What we have here are thirteen gorgeous, melodic almost-solo piano compositions. I can’t really give you any comparisons, because I’ve never heard anything quite like this. It’s not easy-listening music, not by a long shot – it’s too thoughtful and heartfelt to be that – but it’s not ambient, either. The best I can do is to say that Musea’s “Dreaming” imprint is the perfect record label for this album.
Before I elaborate on that last statement, I need to say the one small bad thing I have to say. And I’ve hinted at it with my description of the album as consisting of “almost-solo” piano. Greg’s brother Jeff (bassist with Glass) plays acoustic guitar on one track, Just To See You Shine, and that accompaniment is subtle and wholly successful. However, on six of the other twelve tracks, Sherman is accompanied by Paul Black on “hand percussion” (with additional hand percussion by Erik Poulsen on The Journey). What’s hand percussion? I assumed bongo drums and the like, and on a couple of the tracks (notably the rather dark Somewhere Along The Road), that’s clearly what the percussion is, whereas on Bohemian Fantasy, the percussion is a shaker or cabasa or something of that sort. And on Maybe An Angel, I believe we’re hearing a snare played with brushes. On a couple of the other tracks, however, the percussion sounds a bit too much like tapping on shoeboxes. It’s neither so far up in the mix as to drive or propel the tunes nor far enough back as to be unobtrusive; and, with a couple of exceptions, it subtly mars the songs’ quiet beauty. I especially can’t quite understand why it was thought to be needed on such tracks as Seeds Of Faith and Don’t Look Back, the album’s opening and closing tracks; it distracts and detracts from the melody rather than contributing anything to the songs’ overall effects. My only guess would be that Sherman was a bit too modest about his own compositions, worrying that piano alone wouldn’t carry them; but it sure would have, no doubt about it.
But as I say, that small thing is very small indeed, and after a few listenings, I found that the percussion no longer troubled me. The rest of what I have to say is only good. Really, on their own terms, these compositions are practically perfect. If that claim seems extravagant, remember that I’ve qualified it by saying “on their own terms”. What Sherman seems to have set out to do here is to compose and perform powerfully melodic, uplifting and inspiring songs; and both the composition and performance are beyond reproach. He and his brother Jeff, who co-produced the album, have done an excellent job of capturing and reproducing the highs, lows, and mids of Greg’s piano and thus also every nuance of his masterful performances. And the performances are more than technically masterful; they’re tangibly heartfelt, the performances of a musician deeply invested in his art, expressing (if this doesn’t sound too corny) his soul through his music. I can amplify my recommendation of this album by saying that while in general I’m not a fan of solo piano music OR of what I’ve called “uplifting and inspiring” music, I’ve played this CD perhaps two dozen times in the two weeks since I received it, purely for the pleasure of listening to it. It both appeals immediately and continues to grow on you (well, it did on me). And it’ll remain a favourite for some time to come, I’ve no doubt.
What can I add? Aside from my uncertainty about why Sherman didn’t record the whole album solely on piano (because each of the thirteen tracks could stand strongly alone without any percussion), I can’t speak highly enough of this truly beautiful CD, and I can’t imagine other listeners thinking less of it than I do.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Mellow Candle - Swaddling Songs
Tracklist: Heaven Heath (3:01), Sheep Season (5:02), Silversong (4:26), The Poet And The Witch (2:52), Messenger Birds (3:40), Dan The Wing (2:46), Reverend Sisters (4:21), Break Your Token (2:28), Buy Or Beware (3:06), Vile Excesses (3:14), Lonely Man (4:29), Boulders On My Grave (3:28)
As all of you know, the first P in DPRP stands for Progressive. Although the arguments will continue into eternity as what exactly constitutes 'progressive' music these days, I suspect a lot of eyebrows will be raised by the inclusion of a review of the sole album by Ireland's Mellow Candle, an album that has been described as the "single most sought after major label folk rarity of all time". However, disregard any preconceived images of woolly jumpers, fingers in ears, Irish jigs or any other such misconception that prevails amongst the woefully ignorant and terminally lazy that are quick to dismiss whole genres of music without even the most casual of perusal. For Swaddling Songs does not easily fit into any category, suit any label, except for one of outstandingly good music.
The two principal members of Mellow Candle were Clodagh Simmonds, who later went on to sing on albums by Mike Oldfield and Jade Warrior, and Alison Williams who first formed the group whilst still at school in Dublin in the early 1960s. A 1968 single failed to generate any interest although a regrouping several years later resulted in some demos (released in 1994 as The Virgin Prophet and worth grabbing a copy if you can find it!) that set the template for Swaddling Songs. Tours supporting major Irish bands the likes of Skid Row, Horslips and Thin Lizzy resulted in new management and a deal with Deram Records, inked in April 1971. By the time the band came to record the album, some eight months later with David Hitchcock in the producer's chair, the other members of the group were David Williams (guitar), Frank Boylan (bass) and William Murray (drums and percussion).
The album begins with a baroque flavour courtesy of Simmonds' harpsichord on Heaven Heath, a relatively simple song sung by its composer Alison Williams. The true flavour of the group is, however, delayed until Sheep Season with the unfeasibly beauty of Simmonds' voice, the outstanding blend of the female singers on the chorus and the wonderfully extended instrumental coda which combines piano, guitar and (un-credited) flute. More additional and un-credited instrumentation, in the form of a string section, dominates the woefully poignant Silversong, beauty in melody. The tempo is raised on The Poet And The Witch which although folk elements can be identified in the vocals, instrumentally is more of a rock number. In a somewhat incongruous pairing Stephen Malkmus, the mainman behind Pavement, used to play a cover of this number in his early solo years, although quite how he managed the harmonies is anyone's guess! The alternation between ballad and rock numbers continues with Messenger Birds, another of Williams' soft and sparse numbers which is again lifted by the faultless singing, followed by Dan The Wing, a tale of the devil opening the gates of hell and striding forth into Daniel's kingdom. Although under three minutes long, there is a depth and complexity to the song that just has to be heard.
Reverend Sisters is more contemplative and is essentially a Simmonds solo song with just voice and piano, although Williams' harmonies add a bit more colour. It is worth noting that the two female singers don't have defined roles, within a song one may take lead and the other high harmonies, while on the next song the roles are reversed, or the harmony parts are swapped. This achieves a great balance and freshness as it is not immediately obvious where each voice will appear. Break Your Token contains more of the folk vocal styling set against a rockier backdrop with once again impeccable harmony singing and a bright and engaging arrangement that displays the confidence and ability of the young band. The brilliance is continued on Buy Or Beware, the only song not written or co-written by one of the vocalists, instead coming from the pen of guitarist David Williams. As a consequence this track has the only guitar solo on the album! But it is an exceptional song, up there and exceeding anything released by any of the more well known folk rock groups, such as Fairport Convention, Fotheringay or even Renaissance. Vile Excesses is the most musically unambitious on the album and the middle eight is rather too long, but the joyous vocal melody raises the tone and the blending of the female voices is perfect.
The final two tracks end the album with style. Lonely Man, unbelievably written by Simmonds when she was 12-years-old, has a blues tinge to it with some great playing by the band, particularly Williams. However it is Boulders On My Grave that sums up the marvellous contradictions of the album best. A driving, energetic number that is as good as any piano-driven rock song that I can think of is combined with traditional Irish folk vocals (li-de-das and tu-ri-ays aplenty!) surrounding the only lyric of the song: "I know the Dublin pavements will be boulders on my grave". The sheer performance of this song should have made the album a massive seller at the time of its release.
Many albums have acquired the status of great lost albums, but very few actually live up to the hype and high prices that original copies can achieve. But just occasionally, long overlooked masterpieces are unearthed, reappraised and become appreciated for the genius songwriting they contain. The most obvious is Nick Drake who must sell 10x more records a year these days than he ever did when he was alive. But there are others such as Bill Fay whose reissue of his two albums has resulted in the unearthing or further material that has lain too long unheard. Mellow Candle are another of those bands. You can call it folk, folk rock, progressive folk or even psych folk, it really doesn't matter, it is simply bloody great music. Everyone occasionally needs reminding of past musical explorations, they are what has bought us to where we are today. Thankfully, there are labels like Esoteric that are unearthing, remastering and lovingly reissuing such masterpieces. Take a look at their website, listen to some of their samples and if you like something you hear buy a copy, it's the only way these labels can survive. I know for certain that my life would be irredeemably poorer without a copy of Swaddling Songs to fall back on every now and again so we need these labels to continue so that the music can live on.
Conclusion: 9+ out of 10
Claire Hamill - October
Originally released in 1973, this is yet another unearthed gem from the dedicated team at Esoteric Recordings. It’s the second of two albums Claire Hamill recorded for Island Records after she was signed by head honcho Chris Blackwell at the tender age of sixteen. Her 1971 debut One House Left Standing included such luminaries as John Martyn, Simon Kirke, Terry Reid and Gerry Rafferty providing an indication of the high regard in which Claire was held at the time. This particular release was recorded at the legendary Manor in October 1972 shortly before Mike Oldfield began work on Tubular Bells in the same studios. Claire would later work with the likes of King Crimson, Wishbone Ash, Steve Howe and Jon & Vangelis. Yes in particular were big fans and during the mid 70’s I can recall talk of Claire recording an album with the band. It never came to be of course but it was a tantalising prospect nonetheless.
As with her previous release, Claire’s management surrounded her with a group of stellar musicians for the sessions. The line-up included Wayne Perkins (guitars, vocals), Jean Roussel (piano), Tim Smith (guitars, vocal), Stevie Smith (keyboards, vocals), Chris Laurence (bass) and Alan White (drums, percussion). Alan was taking time out from his first ever tour with Yes who he had joined just four months earlier. This name dropping may suggest a rock album with proggy associations but this is anything but. The album is a showcase for Claire’s mellow folk tinged acoustic ballads that often relate stories of (lost) love and loneliness. Sang in the first person, the songs have an autobiographic feel with a lyrical maturity that belies the fact that Claire was still in her teens at the time of recording. Despite the title, the subject of the opening Island isn’t her record label but an obsessive love affair. Lyrical organ playing from Stevie Smith dominates along with Claire’s hauntingly beautiful vocal which has all the purity of a youthful Judy Collins.
Claire has often been compared to Joni Mitchell and with songs like To The Stars it’s not hard to see why. The busy vocal delivery and frantic acoustic guitar is very evocative of the Canadian singer’s Big Yellow Taxi. The style also has a strong air of Cat Stevens about it with a sharp acoustic guitar solo from Wayne Perkins standing out. And speaking of male performers, the wistful Please Stay Tonight put me in mind of Harry Nilsson’s richly arranged love songs with its combined acoustic guitar and piano backdrop. The melancholic Wall To Wall Carpeting has all the hallmarks of Buffy Saint Marie, complete with a quavering vocal, whilst Speedbreaker brings to mind the sultry style of Sheryl Crow. The latter builds to a rousing choral anthem providing Alan White with a real opportunity to demonstrate his metal. I Don't Get Any Older is an achingly beautiful song and Warrior On The Water continues in same vein only with a slightly more upbeat feel. This time it’s the voice of Janis Ian that resonates throughout Claire’s sensuous performance.
Many of the songs here include some masterful lines and The Artist is not without exception ending with the plaintive “If I am the artist who will paint me?” The Jim Reed penned Baby What's Wrong [With You] is a bonus track for this re-mastered version, which explains why it sounds out of step with the rest of the album. It’s an up-tempo country and western rocker with some excellent honky-tonk piano from Jean Roussel that Jools Holland would be proud of. In contrast the slightly eccentric Sidney Gorgeous is a pure piece of English whimsicality that wouldn’t sound out of place from a young Victoria Wood. The brooding Crying Under The Bedclothes finds Claire back in prime Joni Mitchell territory with some moody orchestral flourishes. The reflective Peaceful with its stark piano and string backdrop provides a serene and effective closer.
This jewel of an album is less typical than Esoteric’s more familiar early 70’s prog-rock related output but still very much an essential addition to the growing catalogue. Claire would go on to bigger successes and a change of style but this collection of songs along with its predecessor are arguably some of the finest she would ever pen. And all that from a singer, songwriter that was still three years off her twenty-first birthday.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Fair Weather – Beginning From An End
Tracklist: God Cried Mother (5:32), Don’t Mess With Cupid (3:40), Dead And Past (4:46), Beginning From An End / I Hear You Knocking (4:49), You Ain’t No Friend (5:36), Sit And Think (4:18), Looking For The Red Label (4:12), Poor Man’s Bum-A-Run (4:54) Bonus Tracks: Natural Sinner (4:29), Haven’t I Tried (4:10), Road To Freedom (4:42), Tutti Frutti (3:08), Lay It On Me (4:19), Looking For The Red Label Part 2 (4:11)
Esoteric Recordings (and their previous incarnation as Eclectic Discs) have been responsible for the welcome reissues of some excellent and unfairly neglected Prog rock recordings from the early 1970’s. I’m particularly looking forward to the soon to come reissues of the Daryl Way’s Wolf catalogue, and if you haven’t already got them, I strongly recommend the current batch of Supersister CDs for some terrific Canterbury style lunacy.
Unfortunately, even the presence of a hit in the shape of Natural Sinner is unlikely to generate much interest in this nicely packaged reissue of what is regrettably a rather dull album from Fair Weather. The liner notes inform us that this is the post Amen Corner project of Andy Fairweather Low, with the intent to “Explore their own Progressive path”. They go on to compare the group with Manfred Mann’s Chapter Three, but this record is much less interesting than either of Manfred’s outfit’s two albums. There’s nothing really progressive about the music either. Admittedly, the band had “progressed” from the Corner’s pop to a more rock oriented sound, but surely that’s not what we generally understand the term progressive rock to mean?
OK there are some quite nice attempts at brass rock here (God Cried Mother, Looking For The Red Label) and Sit And Think has a dreamy underground feel to it, but for the most part this is rather mundane bluesy rock and boogie, topped off by Fairweather Low’s rather raspy and grating vocals. Blue Weaver’s keyboards add occasional splashes of colour but fail to lift the material beyond the realms of average.
There’s something about the vocals which puts me in mind of Rod Stewart and The Faces, and occasionally the songs remind me of Man, but sadly without any of that band’s extended guitar jamming. Perhaps it’s just the Welsh accents poking through. Continuing the Welsh connection, Dave Edmunds pops up on a version of I Hear You Knocking, but I much prefer his own hit version to this plodding run-through. Poor Man’s Bum A Run ends the album in enjoyable enough fashion, mixing the brass section with some country style guitar licks to good effect.
For the faithful, the disc also includes 6 tracks taken from the group’s three singles, and Natural Sinner is indeed not a bad little sing along tune, justifying its hit status, if not any progressive rock tag. Haven’t I Tried is a pretty good number too, with a nice organ riff and a catchy chorus – making it undeserving of it’s B-side status. I’ll draw a veil over the version of Tutti Frutti as traditional rock'n'roll leaves me cold.
I am happy to admit that this is an area of music which holds little appeal to me and therefore I hope I have supplied enough information to enabled potential purchasers to decide if this might be something of interest, but it wasn’t very successful back in its day and is unlikely to be any more so now. Perhaps people may be lead here by Fairweather Low’s long service in Roger Waters’ touring band, but if so, don’t expect any Floydian touches here.
I applaud Esoteric’s policy of rescuing lost relics, but this one wasn’t very interesting for me. Sorry.
Conclusion: 4 out of 10