String Cheese Incident
String Driven Thing
Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros
Strawbs (UK) see:
Suicide (1971, 38.33) ****½/T½Son of the Father
Where Do Our Children Belong
Run Mister Run
Do You Miss Me
Move it (1974, 42.55) **½/T½
Somebody Called You
Give it Up
Like a Dream
|Don't Look Back
Right From the Start
Stray were one of the first wave of British hard rock bands, and deserved better than the near-obscurity they achieved. Their first, self-titled album and Suicide are classics of bluesy hard rock with extra added something; think early-'70s Groundhogs but more adventurous. Admittedly, Suicide shows the first inklings of a softer, duller side, although Son Of The Father, the fab Jericho and the raw (if slightly un-PC) title track make the album well worth hearing for fans of the era. Guitarist Del Bromham played Mellotron strings on Son Of The Father to great effect, plus some on the balladic Dearest Eloise, but it's a real shame he didn't make more use of the instrument; Jericho may well have benefitted from its addition, too.
Three albums on, and the rot had well and truly set in. I used to own 1974's Move it on vinyl, back in pre-history, along with most of their other later albums, but upon listening to it again, I can remember why I flogged it. It's boring. Mid-paced, dullsville rock that wasn't going to set anything alight, let alone the world. Somebody Called You's about the best track, meaning it would be a lesser effort on one of their first two, so don't go expecting too much. Bromham plays 'Tron again, with occasional strings on Somebody Called You and Right From The Start, coincidentally probably the album's next best track. No, really.
As a fan, I'd say buy both Stray (****½) and Suicide, but it's up to you whether or not you consider the latter worth the effort solely for its 'Tron content, and I really wouldn't bother with Move it unless you're the completist I used to be. p.s. Thanks to Tony Haynes for pointing out that I'd missed Dearest Eloise. Oops...
Matador (2010, 44.07) ***/½
Make a Wish
Baby Your Time's Here Too
Close Your Eyes
Man of the Hour
|Like a Bird in its Gilded Cage
Bad Example (All Hail the Lost)
I'll Have You Back
San Franciscan Joel Streeter's second solo album, 2010's Matador, has input from several better-knowns, not least Counting Crows' Jim Bogios and Train's Jerry Becker, although, at least to my ears, they serve only to dilute his particular brand of powerpop. It isn't a bad album, not by a long shot, but, possibly due to the contributions from the mainstream guys, it seems to lack either the joie de vivre or the beautiful melancholy I tend to expect of the genre. Better tracks include the opening title track, Drive Away and Man Of The Hour, but little here really stands out in the way I'd like.
Bay Area sessioneer to the stars Matt Henry Cunitz plays his impossibly rare 4-Track Mellotron on Drive Away, adding an 'orchestra' part that, frankly, sounds little like a Mellotron as you or I know it, not helped by the Orchestron sax and cello on the same track. Overall, then, not bad, but could've been so much better. You can hear Streeter's talent in the grooves (micro-pits?), straining to get out. Maybe next time?
...And Other Musical Instruments (1973, 34.37) ***/0
I Got Rhythm
Johnny One Note/One Note Samba
Glad to Be Unhappy
Second Hand Rose
Don't Rain on My Parade
Don't Ever Leave Me
Come Back to Me
I Never Has Seen Snow
Lied: auf dem Wasser zu Singen
The World is a Concerto/Make Your Own Kind of Music
The Sweetest Sounds
Er, Barbra Streisand? Huh? Barbra Streisand ...And Other Musical Instruments is the (partial) soundtrack to her 1973 TV special, and is, quite honestly, one of the oddest records ever made, not merely because it's a bit strange, but it's a bit strange and it's by La Streisand. What was she thinking? It's actually far more entertaining than, oh, the rest of her entire career, but it wasn't too popular at the time, and probably hasn't increased an awful lot in popularity since. Basically, it's possibly the only album ever made in the 'experimental showtunes' bracket - a genre of one? Gershwin, Rogers & Hart, Hammerstein & Kern, er, Schubert, all thrown together with Moogs, sitars, bagpipes, Indian percussion... You name it, it's probably here somewhere, although I suspect it worked an awful lot better visually than audibly, and now the special's finally been released on DVD, you can find out for yourself, 'cos I sure as hell won't be buying a copy.
Without the original sleevenotes to refer to, I can only go by what I've read, which is that there's a Mellotron on here somewhere. Maybe it's visible on the DVD? It's allegedly on The World Is A Concerto/Make Your Own Kind of Music, alongside various kitchen implements (!), but I'll be buggered if I can hear it, so that's a bit fat zero on the 'T's, then. Are you going to buy this? Depends on how sick you are, I think; if the thought of the queen of the divas making one of the most bizarre 'mainstream' albums ever appeals to your sense of humour, then yes, you probably will. As for the rest of us... I have to say that Streisand's in superb voice throughout, and I can now see what all the fuss is about re. her voice, but do I give a shit? No. I don't. Three stars anyway.
Misunderstood (1974, 40.18) ****/TTOpen Your Eyes
Seems So Easy
Take it or Leave it
Searching the Clouds
Strider were one of those second-division UK acts who only managed one really good album; I searched for their first, Exposed (**), for years, only to find that it was disappointingly average. Misunderstood, on the other hand, is well worth the effort; hard rock without being overbearingly heavy, it's got great songs, all-round good musicianship and superb dynamics (listen to opener Open Your Eyes for proof). There's a couple of tracks on side two with some 'Tron strings from Ian Kewley, but they're not exactly classics of the genre; Wing Tips is excellent, a bit of a mini-epic, in fact, and Take It Or Leave It is more of a rocker, with a quick burst of 'Tron in the slow middle-eight and its reprise. There may just possibly be some sustained notes (overdubbed?) on closer Searching The Clouds, but it's hard to tell, to be honest.
So, buy the album 'cos it's good, but don't bother for the 'Tron or, indeed, the crap sleeve notes (though not as crap as on their debut). Oh, and talking of which, avoid Exposed like the plague.
Untying the Not (2003, 54.24) ***½/TT
Lonesome Road Blues
Valley of the Jig
Just Passin' Through
Who am I?
On My Way
The String Cheese Incident are one of that peculiar brand of US acts that have sprung up in the '90s in the wake of the Grateful Dead: 'Jam Bands'. If you're not au fait with the genre, it seems to consist of bands who might otherwise have little in common with each other, but who have become intertwined due to their love of, well, jamming. Clearly, this is hardly a new phenomenon, and even the jamband culture is merely a follow-on from the Deadheads, but bands like Phish (spiritual leaders in a post-Dead world), Blues Traveler and (resisting the term strongly) The Dave Matthews Band ride high in the pantheon of Jam Bands, as against the Allman Brothers Band, who pithily describe themselves as a 'band who jams'. Semantics, Schmemantics. Of course, basing your style on your live sound is all well and good, but how do you translate that onto record? The Dead always ran into problems on that front, and so do their successors. The commonest solution seems to be to (like the Dead) write vaguely country rock-ish songs, then embellish them with a little taste of how you'd treat them onstage, presumably more to give your fans an idea of how your jams might start than to have, y'know, hit singles or anything.
The String Cheese Incident's Untying the Not (ho ho) is their seventh album, and fearlessly mixes genres in true jamband style, throwing in a capella (Lonesome Road Blues), dancefloor hoedown (Valley Of The Jig) and a faintly reggae-ish groove (Sirens), with several examples of the vaguely country rock-ish style mentioned above. Plenty of 'psychedelic' spoken-word interludes from various people, not least one from a certain Carolyn Garcia, widow of the late Jerry, with most tracks running into each other in true psych style. Live, this album would last three hours; luckily, a combination of the CD format and common sense has kept it to slightly below one on record, where it doesn't outstay its welcome.
For some reason (availability?), keys man Kyle Hollingsworth has opted to add a Mellotron to his usual organ/piano setup this time round. There are a few background string chords on opener Wake Up, but the album's major 'Tron contribution is on Hollingsworth's piano/violin instrumental Elijah, with string and flute parts weaving in and out of the mix. Faintly 'Strawberry Fields'-style flutes open Who Am I?, carrying on throughout the song, with strings here and there, finishing up with more strings on Time Alive. I have to say, the Mellotron sounds pretty authentic, though it's so hard to tell these days; the strings are wobblier than you'd expect from samples, and lack the squeaky-cleanness of the digital variety, so let's hope, eh?
So; given my lack of knowledge of the genre, this seems to be a decent enough example of jambandmanship, but those of you with little tolerance for what is, essentially, a sub-Grateful Dead experience should probably steer clear. Some nice 'Tron work, though not really enough to make it worth buying for that alone, even though I did.
String Driven Thing (1970, 36.29) **/T
Say What You Like
I Don't Wanna Wake Up
Another Night in This Old City
That's My Lady
|Catch as Catch Can
No More You and I
Lie Back and Let it Happen
One of the Lonely People
Although String Driven Thing are known chiefly for their 1973 classic The Machine That Cried (****½), it's rather less well-known that they began as the folk trio of Chris and Pauline Adams with John Mannion and their first, eponymous album is a dated-for-1970 folk/pop effort, like a low-budget UK Mamas & the Papas, say. In fairness, it's not complete rubbish, but it shows absolutely no sign of the band they were to become (minus Mannion plus violinist Graham Smith), tracks like July Morning, Magic Garden and Lie Back And Let It Happen being fairly typical of its laid-back, West coast-ish vibe.
Despite the appearance of real strings on several tracks, Wonderful Places quite clearly features MkII strings from an unknown player, although it really isn't enough to make it worth hearing this decidedly substandard album. Get the second String Driven Thing from '72 and The Machine That Cried instead.
Rip it Off (2002, 48.13) **½/½
Kick Some Ass
Do it Again
Just Can't Wait
We Were Wrong
Lead the Way
Are Stroke 9 'emo'? I still don't fully understand the term, but a punk-ish bunch who sing heartfelt lyrics about crappy relationships seem to fit the bill. Don't they? Anyway, 2002's Rip it Off is the Bay Area band's fifth (and second major-label) effort, a lengthy howl of pain from mainman Luke Esterkyn that would've been improved by chopping at least ten minutes from its length. The music's much of a muchness across the record, leaving the lyrics as its central core, more memorable examples including 100 Girls and Vacuum Bag.
Patrick Warren plays Chamberlin strings (and flutes?) on Vacuum Bag, to no great effect, to be honest. I think I'm simply the wrong generation for this album; anyone over, say, eighteen upon its release (and I was well over eighteen) really isn't going to get it, it seems to me. Is it good at what it does? Fucked if I know. Incidentally, given the album's 'CD-R copy' artwork, I wonder how many people actually took the band at their word?
First Impressions of Earth (2006, 52.19) ***/T
|You Only Live Once
Heart in a Cage
On the Other Side
Vision of Division
Ask Me Anything
Fear of Sleep
Ize of the World
The Strokes are a band about whom I've read a great deal, but heard very little, or indeed, nothing, which is what happens when you avoid the mainstream media as assiduously as myself. Going by their third album, First Impressions of Earth, their sound is noticeably informed by early-'80s New Wave and the tediously ubiquitous Velvet Underground. OK, the Velvets were good, but am I alone in thinking they're a tad overrated? Anyway, The Strokes manage to cover a fair bit of ground on the album, while toning down the treble assault of their first two releases, which doesn't stop a lot of the material making one reach for the 'next' button.
The album's only real triumph, funnily enough, is the drumless, guitarless Ask Me Anything, which is essentially Julian Casablancas (that name!) singing over guitarist Nick Valensi's complex Mellotron cello part, with another unidentified sound coming in towards the end. Magnificent! Why can't more bands use the mighty 'Tron like this? It sounds genuine, with a low double bass note that many sample sets would probably miss, and is surprisingly well-played for such an awkward instrument.
So; an album that just about scrapes three stars, with a completely essential 'Tron track. What to do? It hasn't been released as a single (yet) - maybe this is what the social evil of paid downloads is for? One great track, not too much money. Obtain, but don't go out of your way for the album. Here's a YouTube clip, complete with M400, doubters.
Strongbow (1975, 39.48) ***½/T½One Armed Bandit
The Only One Around
Move Over Gloom
How Can I Be Loving You
Never let it be said that I don't find utter obscurities for you (as if you would). Strongbow were a mid-'70s US outfit, falling somewhere in between typical Midwest rock and prog-lite, who (to my knowledge) released just the one, eponymous album on the local Southwind label. One Armed Bandit opens with an intriguing sequenced synthesizer part before shifting gear into more mainstream rock, and while Sister Sea has its moments, the excitement factor is rather lacking in places. I had high hopes for The Only One Around, at nearly ten minutes, but it turns out to be a soft-rock epic with a proggy edge. Move Over Gloom and Hazy May are the most dynamic tracks on offer here, but Strongbow sound like a band who weren't quite sure what they wanted to be; to prog or not to prog? Like so many competent bands, especially in the vast hinterlands of the US, I expect they were popular locally, but, like all but the extremely lucky few, they were never going to break out nationally, let alone internationally. As you can see from the enclosed rear-sleeve pic, their fashion sense left a little to be desired, too.
John Stelzer doubled on keys and wind instruments, with vocalist Bill Bendler covering both pianos and electric trombone, apparently. Stelzer's Mellotron work is fairly sparse, with just a few string chords at the end of Sister Sea, although The Only One Around has a little more, scattered throughout the song. Hazy May would definitely have benefitted from its inclusion, but he opted to confine its use to the two tracks on side one, making me think that they almost certainly didn't own a machine, but used the studio's own/hired one in for the session.
So; an OK, so-so sort of album, with a few bright spots, raising it above the 'three star quagmire' of albums about which I can't get even vaguely enthused. I didn't pay that much for my copy, but it was still probably slightly too much. In other words, pick up if you see it cheap.
Streetcore (2003, 41.58) ***½/T½
Get Down Moses
The Long Shadow
Arms Aloft in Aberdeen
Ramshackle Day Parade
All in a Day
Silver & Gold
John "Joe Strummer" Mellor never really lost his status as 'punk icon' after the Clash finally (and messily) dissolved, even during his 'wilderness years' of the '90s. He worked his way through various bands and lineups, finally settling on the Mescaleros in the late '90s; he'd just finished recording their third album, Streetcore, when he tragically died of a heart attack, aged just 50. The album's really very good; from the propulsive Coma Girl through the American folk of The Long Shadow (written for Johnny Cash, where Strummer finally, posthumously earns his '70s nickname, Woody), to his reggae-free take on Bob Marley's Redemption Song.
Martin Slattery plays Mellotron and Chamberlin; I can already hear some wizened old mohawks whinging that those instruments 'aren't very punk' (not that they're likely to read this site, but you know what I mean...). Well, you know what? Not only does none of Strummer's solo work fit into that straitjacket, but neither does most of the Clash's back-catalogue; even their 'none more punk' debut has a six-minute reggae track on it... Anyway, Slattery sticks some cranky-sounding (Mellotron?) strings onto Burnin' Streets, which sounds like a belated answer to the Clash's London's Burning, from 25 years earlier, and what may be Chamberlin strings and 'Tron flutes on the following Midnight Jam, which quotes London Calling this time.
So; if you like the sound of a trawl through much of the 20th century's musical styles, all in 40-odd minutes, by someone whose delivery was never less than heartfelt, you could do an awful lot worse than invest in a copy of Streetcore. Joe was renowned for giving a shit, be it about environmental issues, politics or his fans, so it's good to see his legacy being upheld by a posthumous release this good. I'm really not a fan of his work with the Clash (and I saw them in '78, so I know what I'm talking about), but it would take an unfeasible level of churlishness to knock it, although its tape-replay input is far from a major component of its sound. Worth hearing, whatever.
Can O'Worms (1995, 44.26) ***/½
Home After Dark
Who Needs More
What a Day
Can't Get Through
Dan Stuart was mainman of Paisley Underground ringleaders Green on Red (along with Chuck Prophet), going solo after their dissolution in the early '90s. 1995's Can O'Worms was the first fruit of his solo labour, a decent enough album of (very) slightly psychedelic Americana, highlights including La Passionaria, Expat. Blues and Waterfall, although, if I may level one fault at the album, too much mid-paced material tends to drag after a while.
J.D. Foster plays Mellotron, with distant strings on Waterfall, although I'm sure the flutey sound on Expat. Blues is something else entirely. Saying that, I'm not fully convinced by those strings, but I feel I need to leave this here until I find out otherwise. Good, then, but not classic.
The Serpent is Rising (1973, 40.07) ***½/TT
The Grove of Eglantine
As Bad as This
Winner Takes All
The Serpent is Rising
|7" (1974) ***/TTT
Well, here's proof that some of my firmly (dearly?)-held beliefs re. Mellotron use can be overturned in an instant. I'm utterly convinced that there's not a jot of 'Tron on any of the four major-label Styx albums I own, although I've been told more than once that they used one at some point. And here it is. The Serpent is Rising, their third album for the Chicago-based Wooden Nickel label, is similar to the band's other early albums (Styx, Styx II and Man of Miracles), in having elements of what they were to become (for better or worse), but without the killer songs. There's some reasonably good material, but they're the work of a band still trying to find their feet, with no sign of a Suite Madame Blue or Queen Of Spades. Take that as you will; I really like late-'70s Styx, but they're heavily reviled by many proggers, particularly Americans, who've overdosed on the band via FM radio.
Anyway, although singer/keys man Dennis DeYoung has quite specific instrumental credits ('organ, pipe organ, piano, arp, moog'), there's quite clearly Mellotron to be heard on several tracks. The Grove Of Eglantine, containing the subtlest filthy lyrics I've heard since Fairport Convention's The Bonny Black Hare ('Serpent is Rising'? I expect it is...) has a few string chords, ditto the end of Jonas Psalter, while Young Man goes for the flutes and more strings. As Bad As This has more string use, but blows it completely with its ludicrous 'plexiglas toilet' end-section (no, you don't want to know); I'm sure it was screamingly funny at the time, but has dated appalling badly. Finally, the rather silly Krakatoa may have a rising string chord, but it holds far too long, and is more likely to be synth.
Young Man was released as a single, with Unfinished Song on the flip, which is thankfully nothing of the sort, with a lyric about, er, an unfinished song. Previously available on a later version of Man of Miracles and a compilation, it's now most easily found as the only non-album track on the 2-CD The Complete Wooden Nickel Recordings (right), which is exactly what it says on the tin. A piano-led Dennis de Young ballad, it features slabs of 'Tron strings, confirming its position as a Serpent is Rising outtake.
So; rather formative, but not a bad record. If you don't already hate Styx with a passion, go for '77's The Grand Illusion (****½), or the following year's magnificent Pieces of Eight (*****) instead, although (to my knowledge) The Serpent is Rising is the only place you'll hear Styx use a Mellotron. Saying that, now I'm going to have to play all their other early albums again... [n.b. Nope, nothing else].
Everything Under the Sun [Disc 3] (2006, 69.57) ***/T
|Marley Medley (studio outtake)
Paddle Out (ruff mix)
Caress Me Dub (outtake)
Foolish Fool (unreleased demo)
Westwood One interview
Sweet Little Rosie (studio outtake)
Garden Grove (take 2)
|Just Another Day (studio outtake)
Prince of Sin (studio outtake)
I Love My Dog Dub
At it Again
Wrong Way (acoustic)
New Realization (acoustic)
Boss DJ (alternate version)
Real Situation (acoustic)
|Date Rape (live)
Soundcheck Jam (live)
Doin' Time (Snoop Time remix)
Doin' Time (Tricked Out Life Sentence remix)
It seems that Sublime were one of (or even the?) originators of the Californian ska/punk sound, although I'm not sure we should actually thank them for that. They split in 1996, after frontman Bradley Nowell OD'd on smack, although, in another parallel with Nirvana, they carried on releasing various live and outtake sets for some years. 2006's Everything Under the Sun should be pretty much the last word on the band, collating reams of demo and live material, not to mention several radio interviews of wildly differing lengths. Is it any good? I've no idea. Do you like ska/punk? Then you tell me.
David Kahne plays Mellotron strings on the demo version of Foolish Fool, maybe surprisingly, although it seems to be the only time they used one. Do you bother getting hold of this set for the one track? You do not.
Temporary Psychotic State EP (2004, 17.20) ***½/T½Temporary Psychotic State (a Recollection of Where it All Began)
Observation Through Metamorphosis
Subterranean Masquerade are essentially the duo of Tomer Pink and Jake DePolitte, whose gameplan seems to be the recording of a trilogy of concept albums in a (roughly) progressive metal style, although they incorporate all kinds of other influences. Their 2004 EP, Temporary Psychotic State, is presumably the first release in the trilogy; it's a shame in many ways that it isn't longer, as some of their ideas (not least the heavy use of violin) are well ahead of most of their contemporaries. The disc opens with fairground sounds, morphing into an acoustic guitar passage, before gently picking up the pace, the violin taking the lead, not hitting the 'metal' pedal until the four-minute mark, and then only gently. The second piece carries on in a similar vein, making for one of the more original prog efforts of recent years.
Andy Winter guests on Mellotron, although the caveat as to whether or not it's real applies as usual. Temporary Psychotic State (a Recollection of Where it All Began) features the choirs, while Observation Through Metamorphosis is mainly flutes. It sounds real in places, then not in others, meaning it probably isn't, but I've been caught out before... Anyway, an interesting little progressive release that's well worth investigating further.
Subway (1971, 35.52) ***½/TI am a Child
Song for Sinking Shelters
Warm You Are
All the Good Things
Enturbulaton - Free Form
Rosanna of the Roses
Can I Trade With You My Mind
Subway were the duo of Irv and Malcolm, one American, one British - I'll leave it up to you to work out which was which... Irv was the vocalist/guitarist/composer and Malcolm was the violinist; they met in Paris and busked in the Metro, or subway in Americanese. They recorded just the one eponymous album before disappearing, and it's likely only a couple of hundred copies were ever sold, the remainder probably being destroyed. Irv's songs are a dark, not-very-American blend of folk and psych that would easily pass muster as an obscure British album from the same period, with rock elements added to the duo's sound here and there, not least the bass, drums and keyboards on Enturbulaton - Free Form and Rosanna Of The Roses. Overall, the material ranges from good to excellent, and should have received more attention had they been better known.
Person or persons unknown added Mellotron to a couple of tracks, with powerful but restrained string parts on Song For Sinking Shelters and the 'Free Form' part of Enturbulaton - Free Form, distinct from Malcolm's violin work, although they blend well in a way not heard too often, sadly. Well, you're simply not going to find an original of this, I think it's safe to say, but it's been reissued by Spanish label Guerssen, so that's a definite recommendation to the acid folk brigade, although there's really too little Mellotron to be worth worrying about.
Coming Up (1996, 42.34) **/½
By the Sea
Picnic By the Motorway
|The Chemistry Between Us
A New Morning (2002, 46.15) ***/T
Lost In TV
|One Hit to the Body
When the Rain Falls
You Belong to Me
Suede were much-fêted by all and sundry when they appeared with their eponymous debut in 1993, while music press hysteria reached a peak with their follow-up, Dog Man Star, the following year. People started coming out with stuff like 'the new Bowie', with regard to singer Brett Anderson, although, in hindsight, it has to be said that they were sorely mistaken. The heart of the group seemed to be the working relationship between Anderson and guitarist Bernard Butler, who left in the mid-'90s, leaving the band slightly adrift, and it seems their fortunes have never really recovered from the blow.
Coming Up is their third effort, with guitarist Richard Oakes, who does his best to emulate Butler. While I was never a fan of their sound, I have to say that I found this to be the dullest fag-end of Britpop effort imaginable, desperately dreary, with few songs of any real quality, while Anderson's whiny voice destroys any slight vestiges of quality that may've been present originally. Apart from that, it's fine... Picnic By The Motorway features a brief Mellotron string part (presumably) from keys man Neil Codling, but I wouldn't rush out to buy it on that score if I were you.
A New Morning, however, is a vast improvement, even if the critics preferred Coming Up. OK, when I say 'vast', what I actually mean is, er, 'middling', for want of a better word; several of the album's songs still manage to irritate me, but overall, it's less glam and more singer-songwriter, so to speak, with a particularly good Anderson lyric on Lonely Girls. Credited Mellotron on Astrogirl from Alex Lee, with solo strings on the intro, with a repetition of the part later in the song and other string interjections.
So; if you like mid-'90s UK indie/Britpop, you probably already own everything Suede ever recorded, and aren't going to take any notice of these
vicious put-downs reviews. As for the rest of us, you really don't need to bother. Trust me. Incidentally, rumours of Mellotron use on '94's Stay Together EP, but I can't hear anything other than sustained guitar and real strings, so don't bother x2.
See: Bernard Butler