Bully (2001, 39.40) ****/TTT½
|What a Drag
Mail Order Girlfriend
|Posterchild for Tragedy
Another excellent Jim Rigberg review, ladies'n'gents!
Apparently, as with all excellent - and somewhat unique (sort of like the bastard child of Weezer and Queen) - new bands these days, Sugarbomb managed to last long enough to issue only one full-length release, 2001's Bully. I suppose a potential silver lining exists - vocalist/keyboard man Les Farrington, on the one hand, and vocalist/guitarist David Harville, on the other, are now free to form two good bands. Unfortunately, given the lack of commercial success of Sugarbomb and the prospects these days for any act that doesn't need to rely on those two Swedish guys that supply the tripe for the Justin Aguileras of the world, it would not surprise me in the least if these talented gentlemen blew off music for lucrative careers in web-design, real estate sales, or catering.
Anyway, Bully really is a power-pop gem. Reviews of the CD included comparisons and references to Todd Rundgren, Cheap Trick, XTC, the Beatles, Smashing Pumpkins, Jellyfish, and - of course - Queen, a stated favorite of Mr. Farrington's. Sugarbomb's music echoes all of these bands and, at the same time, carries plenty of complementary modern production finishes, punk energy à la Supergrass, and great, great hooks. Several songs - What A Drag, Bully, Hello, - are radio-ready (but in a good way); it's hard to believe that this CD (which was released on RCA) didn't do a whole lot better. I can't profess to know all the facts, but I suspect that the usual factors (ahem, abandonment of record company financial and advertising support) contributed to the outcome.
Not much Mellotron on the opening track, What A Drag - just some string washes here and there. Mail Order Girlfiend and Motor Mouth, on the other hand, are stuffed with 'Tron. Mail Order Girlfriend sounds like Queen channeling some boy-band (but, I promise, it does not suck) with plenty of creepy-carnival sounding 'Tron and organ figures. However, the 'Tron centerpiece - and the reason an 11-track CD with 'Tron on only four tracks still merits a TTT½ rating - is Posterchild For Tragedy. The verse, chorus, and outro of this piano-based track boast three distinct melodies that would make Paul McCartney proud. The 'Tron strings are up front, come in on the first chorus and, after the second chorus, don't leave. Most importantly, there is that rarest of rarities, a 'Tron solo!
Equally impressive is the 'Tron-less closer After All, the best Queen song not written or performed by Queen. In fact - I hate saying this - the melody of After All is better than most anything Queen ever came up with.
Five of the songs on Bully were apparently re-mastered/re-engineered/re-recorded tunes that appeared on an EP Sugarbomb released in 1999 or 2000. I've not heard the original versions. I have heard a great acoustic version of Killer Queen they performed which is definitely worth down-loading if you can find it. At any rate, if you like any kind of intricate pop music, Bully is a must-buy. Please, Les and Dave - if you are reading this - either get back together or form your two new bands and get us some new stuff!
Sugarloaf (1970, 37.47) ***/½Green-Eyed Lady
The Train Kept-a-Rollin' (Stroll on)
Medley: Bach Doors Man/Chest Fever
West of Tomorrow
Gold and the Blues
Things Gonna Change Some
Sugarloaf were based around the talents of vocalist/organist Jerry Corbetta, so it's hardly surprising that their eponymous 1970 debut is stuffed with his fiery Hammond work. Sugarloaf's a strange album, half mainstream pop/rock of the era (big hit Green-Eyed Lady, West Of Tomorrow), half more eclectic material, including a strange instrumental version of The Train Kept-A-Rollin' (a.k.a. Stroll On), the similarly vocal-free Medley: Bach Doors Man/Chest Fever (Corbetta's organ showcase) and the overlong slow blues of Gold And The Blues.
Corbetta adds Chamberlin flutes to the dying seconds of West Of Tomorrow, although that appears to be it, unless there's anything else hidden in the mix. Why bother? Who knows? Anyway, a decent enough album of its type, if a little unexciting. As a sidenote, Corbetta's been known to say that he used 'the Chamberlin music box sound' on, er, Music Box on their follow-up, 1971's Spaceship Earth, but given that a) I'm completely unaware of any music box sound on the Chamby (which doesn't necessarily mean anything, in fairness) and b) he's credited with celeste on the album, which would produce that sound most satisfactorily, it seems unlikely.
Giant Runk (2015, 44.09) ***½/TBlack Stuff
Stop the Grind
Blue Marine's Blues
Birth of the Runk
Sulphat'Ketamine are a new French psychedelic blues-rock outfit, whose debut full-length release, 2015's Giant Runk, works its way through several variations on a theme over its seven tracks, notably on lengthy opener Black Stuff, which might just be the exemplar of the band's style, an eleven-minute heavy blues-rock jam bookended by stoner-esque vocal sections. Elsewhere, the electric piano-led instrumental Stop The Grind showcases their more laid-back side, Alrightotherapy features female vocals (from Rita Pradinas) and an epic end section, while Blue Marine's Blues is everything you'd expect from its title.
Bassist Sébastien Grammond (once of the excellent 4/3 de Trio) adds the Mellotron (the same one you'll hear on his previous band's albums) to Hendrixesque closer Birth Of The Runk, with some volume-pedalled choir chords and a more full-on part towards the end. Worth it for the Mellotron? Not really, but a fine album in its own right.
See: 4/3 de Trio
Street Faërie (1999, 59.19) ***/T
Life Goes on
Smooth My Heart
Curious White Boy
Cree Summer (Francks) is an actress, mainly known for voicing animated characters, although she's had a fair few 'regular' roles, too. After an unreleased 1993 album, it seems Street Faërie is her only proper release, falling somewhere between R&B, soul and rock, which isn't exactly surprising when you consider it was produced by her friend Lenny Kravitz, whose music is best described as falling somewhere between R&B, soul... you get the picture. As with most of his production efforts, Kravitz is the chief musician on the album, although he seems to have reined in his compositional talents this time round, with a mere single co-writing credit.
Kravitz plays Mellotron on four songs, which is rather more than he manages on his own albums, with rather murky strings on opener Revelation Sunshine and more of the same on Life Goes On. He's credited with 'Mellotron voices' on Smooth My Heart, but if it didn't say, you probably wouldn't know that the faint backing 'aahs' on the track were 'Tron, while Soul Sister has 'Mellotron orchestra', which sounds like it might be a couple of string sounds overdubbed. Overall, very little 'Tron, in true Kravitz style. Why does he bother?
Street Faërie apparently didn't sell very well; maybe it fell between too many stools? It's too laid-back and acoustic to really appeal to the R&B crowd, too rock for the soul fans, too soul... It isn't a bad record, but doesn't really stand out in any noticeable way, and it seems the record-buying public agreed. Ironically, it's immeasurably better than anything by the likes of the horrendous Mariah Carey, or any number of other multi-million-selling 'artistes'; not unoriginal enough? Wouldn't surprise me. Anyway, not worth it on the 'Tron front, despite four credited tracks, and most readers of this site really aren't going to like the music, though I expect you'd worked that one out for yourselves by now.
See: Lenny Kravitz
Technostalgia (2004, 52.24) ****/TTTT
|Angels in the Sky
In Love With Sundae
Frankie & Tronny
The Brummagem Fly
When Beechleaves are Falling
Great Big Homburg Hats
A Different Tide
British Summer Time (2008, 60.18) ***½/TTT
Flight Four India
Let's Go to Germany
London to Shanghai via Chipping Norton
My New Neighbours
Oh Roger Rum
You know when you hear a piece of music and it effortlessly invokes a national or regional characteristic? Oompah bands are forever Bavarian, skirling gypsy violins transport one to Hungary in the blink of an eye, a samba lands you on Copacabana beach; you get the idea. Well, Sundae Club are British. Not a 'rolling green hills and Jane Austen' type of Britishness, more the 'wet bank holiday at Skegness' kind, with the whole family stuffed into your dad's Hillman Hunter, eating fish-paste sandwiches while watching the rain, and hoping your little sister doesn't throw up on the way back to the guest house. But if you think this is starting to sound a little negative, think again...
Technostalgia is a celebration of growing up in the '60s and '70s in Britain, with everything that implies; I keep being reminded of the interval music in the local Odeon, with the cheesy, badly-made adverts for local boutiques and Indian restaurants, and the ubiquitous wobbly Hammond they invariably used as a soundtrack. Nostalgia is the key element here, simultaneously with and without irony; the beautifully-designed CD digipack opens out to reveal the dashboard of an unidentified '70s British car (maybe that Hillman Hunter?) in loving detail, the icing on the cake being the pile of Ladybird books in the glove compartment, the bottom one of which is titled, "How it works: the Mellotron". If you're reading this with non-British bemusement, I apologise; I didn't make the album or design its sleeve, but I'm glad someone did.
I haven't even tried to describe the music yet... Easier said than done, to be honest; think 'British film samples mixed with '60s easy listening over a faint techno beat', or 'weird Mellotron riffs in a chill-out room with extra added diva'. I dunno - it doesn't sound like anything else, which is entirely in its favour, but it may also be too eclectic for the average listener, which will somewhat restrict its audience. Do they care? Shouldn't think so; Technostalgia has all the hallmarks of an album made for the amusement of its creators, although I doubt if they'd complain if it suddenly took off. Some tracks catch my ear more than others, but that's hardly surprising, with the variety on offer here. I can't really warm to the girly warblings on three of the tracks, and the vocal samples (of the title) in When Beechleaves Are Falling got on my nerves after a while, but the spoken-word samples in The Brummagem Fly and Great Big Homburg Hats are spot-on (no, I didn't spot their sources), and all the instrumental work is excellent.
Sundae Club are Dr. C.D. Mille on 'composition, production, Theremin, cello, keyboards, loops, percussion, tools', and the ingeniously-named Hamstall Ridware (haven't I seen that name on my phone bill? Sorry, UK Mellotron-owner's in-joke...) on 'composition, Mellotron, keyboards, percussion, tapes and wireless', and I think it's fair to say that they are both absolutely barking mad - in the nicest possible way, of course. Mille's contribution to their sound is described on their website as 'mainly techno', while Ridware's is 'mainly nostalgic', with a full equipment list on the CD sleeve, which informs us that not only do they own an M400 (I knew that, thanks), but a Bentley Rhythm Ace (see: Arthur Brown's wondrous Journey album), a Rhodes and a Wurly, and a bloody DX7. Oh, and a Theremin, that looms up out of the sonic morass here and there. Almost too many 'Tron highlights to name: the 8-choir that opens the album? the flute solo in Angels In The Sky? The MkI (yes, I) rhythms on Frankie & Tronny (actually recorded onto MiniDisc and imported from there, but it still counts)? I'm sure I've missed some more subtle 'Tron parts, but I couldn't hear a single track with nothing at all, though I'm sure I'll be corrected if I'm wrong (ah, correction: The English Vice).
It's taken the Sundae chaps four years to follow Technostalgia, with British Summer Time appearing as a download in 2008, preparatory to a full CD release, apparently. Opener Good People fools the listener into thinking they're going to get more of the same, although it has more of a mainstream 'full band' vibe about it. Pies sounds like some cockney geezer rapping over an Ian Dury outtake, giving the impression of a lite funk rewrite of Blur's Parklife, while Honey Bee goes completely overground, with a mainstream male vocal rather strongly resembling Jeff Lynne's warblings with ELO. You know, you can take this nostalgia thing too far, chaps... The Doddler's plethora of samples sounds more like what we've come to expect from the Clubsters, as does Let's Go To Germany, although the latter is a little repetitive. Circles is another mainstream pop song, while the last few tracks are more typical. What's with the guitar solos, though? Much less obvious Mellotron than last time round, although a typical string part on Good People might initially make you think otherwise. Strings (MkII moving strings?) and cellos on Pies, a lovely flute part on The Voder and distant, phased choirs on Flight Four India keep things going, but several tracks feature no obvious 'Tron at all, which is, of course, the band's prerogative. Strings on London To Shanghai Via Chipping Norton and faint, effected choirs here and there, and once the band actually pointed it out to me, MkII guitar on The Doddler and MkII brass on Circles, but still well down on last time.
Technostalgia: wow, what an album! It certainly isn't yer run of the mill effort, and it's a million miles away from my more typical listening, but isn't that a good thing? Completely bonkers, rather wonderful, and more Mellotron than you can shake the proverbial stick at. Of course, you don't have to be British and Of A Certain Age to really appreciate this, but it probably helps. Whatever. Buy this album. British Summer Time is a very different record, but its charms may become more apparent if I find the time to give it repeated plays. Not bad, but not great.
Sundance (1976, 41.41) ***/½Yea Yea
How do you find out anything about a Swedish fusion band from the mid-'70s? You don't, is the short answer. All I can tell you is that is was recorded in Gothenburg, on the west coast and something like thirteen people played on 1976's Sundance, probably their only release, although I don't know how many of them were 'proper' band members, assuming I can even make that distinction. It's all accomplished stuff, as you'd expect, although nothing stood out melodically to a non-jazzer.
Carl-Axel Hall played Mellotron, with a couple of brief, yet lush string parts on Aspects, not even managing to scrape a full T. While this isn't available on CD, downloads are out there, but you really aren't going to bother for the minimal Mellotron.
Acid Yantra (1995, 49.21) ***½/T½Red Sky
Are You Supernatural?
Fly Into the Sun
Zen for Sale (2003, 42.11) ****/TT½You're Still Wondering
Open Your Eyes
Believe in the Spaceman
Out of Space Out of Time
Sundial (or Sun Dial) are a fairly rare thing, a modern full-on UK psych outfit; formed in 1990 by mainman Gary Ramon, they went through numerous lineups while managing to release several albums, signing with Beggars Banquet in '93. Acid Yantra was their fifth album in as many years, and features various takes on the whole psych thing, from acoustic whimsy (3,000 Miles, Yantra Jam) to all-out rock (Apollo, Are You Supernatural?), opening with almost the least obvious opener, the lengthy, stoned-out Red Sky. Ramon is credited with Mellotron, and by track 8 I'd given up on hearing any, so I'm pleased to report that Nova, is chock-full of 'Tron strings, played in an endearingly psych-ish manner, with some distant flutes on Yantra Jam to finish off. Acid Yantra is possibly a better concept than an actual album, but it's not at all bad, while making you hope Ramon can hone his skills more finely next time round.
There wasn't actually a next time round until 2003, when a new lineup released Zen for Sale. It's more cohesive than its predecessor, with an even higher late '60s quotient - spot the early Floyd cop on Open Your Eyes - but better songs (listen to closer Reflections) and less aimless jamming, which has to be good. Doesn't it? Anyway, I presume it's Ramon on the 'Tron again, with flutes and cellos on Tumbling Down, heavily reverbed strings and cellos on Supernatural Man, strings on Blue Sugar and flutes and strings on Reflections, making for a healthier Mellotron selection this time round.
So; modern Brit-psych: a small field (Bevis Frond, a few lesser-known acts), but a worthy one. All power to Sundial, then, who have carried on releasing records since their reformation, albeit mostly EPs. I shall report back should I find there to be any Mellotron on them. As far as these two go, I'd rate (and in fact, do rate) Zen for Sale above Acid Yantra, although fans may disagree. It's certainly the better Mellotron album, so get out there a score a copy.
See: Hypnosis | Quad
Sweet Fist (2009, 51.27) ***/T
Another Heavy Word
Thought it Was the End
I Feel the Earth Move
Presumably named for Gibson's hollow-bodied archtop guitar, Super 400 are (or were) a New York State-based trio, taking inspiration from The Who, Cream and other proto-hard rock outfits of the era. I believe Sweet Fist is their fourth album, highlights including opener Needle Down, the quieter FFMN and the country-blues of Thought It Was The End, although the excision of their insidious indie influence would improve the band's sound.
Bassist Lori Friday's Mellotron sounds real to my ears - given that the album was recorded at Memphis' legendary Ardent Studios, is this their old M400, as used by Big Star and others? Anyway, assuming it's genuine (or even if it isn't), we get cello and flute parts on FFMN and flutes on the gentle Devil Song.
Indoor Living (1997, 48.32) ***/TT
Burn Last Sunday
Every Single Instinct
Song for Marion Brown
The Popular Music
|Under Our Feet
Martinis on the Roof
Superchunk formed in the late '80s, which probably puts them at the forefront of modern US indie, for better or worse. Indoor Living is their sixth album, excluding compilations, and pretty much defines the late-'90s American indie scene, being composed of equal parts pop/punk (backings) and modern pop (melodies), Mac McCaughan's vocals being of the 'relatively fey' variety, which you'll either like or you won't, I suspect; probably not too many half-measures here. The music does what it does perfectly well, without touching this listener emotionally in any way, which isn't to actually denigrate it; just because I don't particularly like it doesn't mean it's bad.
The strings on some tracks, particularly Burn Last Sunday and Every Single Instinct are clearly not Mellotron, generic string samples being a more likely source, but McCaughan plays 'Tron on three tracks, with wobbly and very real-sounding cellos on Marquee (you really can't fake that wobble, you know), high flute and string notes on The Popular Music and a brief string part on European Medicine. While there were samples around in '97, all 'Tron parts here sound genuine, which makes a nice change, to be honest. So; American indie; I'd rather leave it than take it, but some of you will like it, and there's the consolation of a few halfway decent 'Tron tracks.