Monthly Archives: September 2013

Rocks In The Attic #280: Shihad – ‘Churn’ (1993)

RITA#280Before I came to New Zealand, there were only two New Zealand bands I had heard of – Crowded House, obviously, and Shihad. In fact, I didn’t even know Shihad were a Kiwi band. I’d heard some of their material and thought they were American, which isn’t a difficult mistake to make. But I had heard of them nevertheless.

Since living in the country, I’ve come to understand that they’re a national institution – a national treasure, if you will – which is odd considering that they started their career as a metal band, and a pretty heavy one too. Churn, their debut album from 1993 is a very heavy album, and doesn’t sound too much like the radio-friendly band that they would evolve into over the next twenty years.

My contact with Shihad in the five years I’ve been living in New Zealand has been with them fulfilling one of their key roles – that of New Zealand’s most prominent support band. It seems if there’s a big hard rock / metal band touring in New Zealand, you can almost bet Shihad will be supporting. I saw them play a radio-friendly set, supporting AC/DC in 2010, and earlier this year I saw them support a reformed Black Sabbath. Their set supporting Sabbath couldn’t have been any more different to the AC/DC slot – they drew heavily from this album, which had been re-released on vinyl for the first time that day – Record Store Day – to celebrate the album’s 20th year; and they were obviously playing to the more hardcore metal fans who had turned out to see Ozzy, Tony and Geezer.

Hit: Stations

Hidden Gem: Factory

Rocks In The Attic #279: Steely Dan – ‘Aja’ (1977)

RITA#279This isn’t my favourite Steely Dan album. That has to be the awesome Pretzel Logic. I guess any of them could be my favourite though – they’re all so consistent. But just like your favourite James Bond actor, or your favourite Doctor (Who), it always comes back to the first one you were exposed to, and for me that was Pretzel Logic.

Aja has to be the best sounding Steely Dan record though. The production on it sounds just perfect, like it was recorded on a computer, but without losing all the soul that pro-tools recordings always seem to do. Obviously it couldn’t have been recorded on a computer back in 1977 – it’s just recorded really well; seven tracks of perfection.

When I saw Steely Dan a couple of years ago on the 2011 Shuffle Diplomacy Tour, they opened with the title track from Aja. I don’t know what the drummer did wrong to deserve that – the drum parts on that song are amazing, with an awesome drum solo mid-song over the saxophone parts. I think I’d like a bit of a warm-up before I tackled that in a setlist. Perhaps it was punishment for his habits on the tour bus or something. Anyway, he nailed it – and he was only a young dude as well. He didn’t even flinch; he just took it all in his stride. Give the drummer some, indeed.

The title-track from Aja is probably the best example of the band being classified as jazz-rock. There are huge portions of the song based around a simple two-note motif, reminiscent of Miles Davis’ So What opener from Kind Of Blue. Like most of Steely Dan’s music though, I have no idea what any of the lyrics mean – but it doesn’t really matter. The music is just so rich, that they could be singing in ancient Hebrew and I’d still dig it.

Thanks to De La Soul heavily sampling Peg (for their song Eye Know), I felt I already knew that song before I heard anything else by Steely Dan at all. It’s a great pop song – probably their most commercial and mainstream-sounding single, but the prominent Michael McDonald backing vocals on the song are the only sour point on the whole album for me.

The master tapes for two of the albums songs – Black Cow and Aja – have gone missing over the years, preventing the record company from being able to bring out a SACD or 5.1 version of the album:

“When we recently sent for the multi-track masters of Aja so as to make new surround-sound mixes of same, we discovered that the two-inch multi-tracks of the songs Aja and Black Cow were nowhere to be found. They had somehow become separated from the other boxes, which the producer had abandoned here and there (studios, storage lockers, etc.) almost twenty years before. Anyone having information about the whereabouts of these missing two inch tapes should contact HK Management at (415) 485-1444. There will be a $600.00 reward for anyone who successfully leads us to the tapes. This is not a joke. Happy hunting.” – Donald Fagen & Walter Becker, 1999.

Really? “$600.00”? That misplaced decimal point sure sounds like a joke to me.

Hit: Peg

Hidden Gem: Aja

Rocks In The Attic #278: Fleetwood Mac – ‘Tango In The Night’ (1987)

RITA#278When I was growing up, I heard a lot of this era of Fleetwood Mac. I’m not sure why, but maybe when Michael Jackson brought Bad out in 1987, I became a little more aware of music because of all the hype surrounding him, and as a result I probably took a little more interest in the Sunday Top 40 countdown on radio 1, and Thursday’s Top Of The Pops. I probably caught the occasional performance from this album, whilst waiting for the latest Michael Jackson video to appear.

For that reason, this album feels very natural to me, like slipping into a warm bath. For this era of Fleetwood Mac, it’s nowhere as good as Rumours, and I think you’d have to be crazy to suggest it’s even close, but it’s still a decent album with a lot of very strong pop songs.

I’ll always prefer the original, Peter Green-led Fleetwood Mac. In my eyes, they’re two very different bands, linked by that strange mid-period of albums after Green left and before Buckingham and Nicks came along. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy this line-up of the band though. It’s just a different prospect.

The three big singles from this album – Little Lies, Everywhere and Big Love – are very, very strong. The album seems to be pinned around them, and some of the lesser album tracks point to a lack of quality overall – something you can’t say about Rumours where every track is a killer. There were a total of six singles lifted from the album, with Seven Wonders, Family Man and Isn’t It Midnight rounding out the six.

My favourite song from the album is opener Big Love – and I love Lindsey Buckingham’s stripped-down live version of the song I heard on Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown soundtrack; but my favourite moment from the album is on side two opener Little Lies. The vocals on this Christine McVie track – Christine leading the chorus, followed by Stevie Nicks and finally by Buckingham sounding other-worldly – sounds just sublime to me. It’s a key moment when the whole band – and most importantly the three vocalists – lock-in so well together.

Hit: Little Lies

Hidden Gem: Caroline

Rocks In The Attic #277: The Bluetones – ‘Return To The Last Chance Saloon’ (1998)

RITA#277The Bluetones are, for me, the epitome of sub-par, late ‘90s Indie / Britpop. I don’t know what I dislike more – Mark Morriss’ overly adenoidal vocals, or their propensity to arpeggiate chord progressions with jangly guitars, as if the Smiths and the Stone Roses invented music and left no other choice. Needless to say, I stayed far away from their anorak-wearing warblings of their first album of 1996.

It was only due to laziness – and the fact that I’d just seen Live play live on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury on a sunny Friday afternoon in 2000 – that I caught their set. I remember a lot of Frisbees flying around – heavy blue-plastic ones that looked like they hurt when they hit the occasional festival goer in the bonce – and beach balls flying around in the crowd at the front of the stage.

I also remember the band playing Solomon Bites The Worm, having never heard the song before, and I’m a sucker for a decent guitar riff. I also like lyrics that follow a set pattern – in this case, the days of the week. The other surprise of their set was a cover of the Minder TV theme, I Could Be So Good For You, complete with fumbled piano parts.

I bought this album on my return to Manchester, on white vinyl, with a nice saloon door pop-out on the inner gatefold. Aside from Solomon Bites The Worm and the infectious If, the rest of the material doesn’t really do anything for me. I struggle to make my way through its mostly boring 62 minutes. Like a lot of albums from the late ‘90s, it’d be much better if it was half as long.

Hit: If

Hidden Gem: Tone Blooze

Rocks In The Attic #276: Bryan Adams – ‘Reckless’ (1984)

RITA#276You can say what you want about Bryan Adams – and I’m sure you will! – but he can write a decent pop tune. I’m not sure how much of that is because of outside writers though. This album was entirely co-written by Jim Vallance – the songwriter behind some of Aerosmith’s late ‘80s / early ‘90s hits (Rag Doll, Hangman Jury, The Other Side, Eat The Rich and Deuces Are Wild), and his other big album, 1991’s Waking Up The Neighbours, was co-written (and co-produced) by Robert John “Mutt” Lange, who had all but ended his world-conquering partnerships with AC/DC and Def Leppard.

Like most successful albums of the early ‘80s, Reckless really is a light and sunny album. There’s an optimism that exists at the start of that decade that you don’t really hear too often in the late ‘80’s, and is virtually non-existent in music once the self-consciousness of grunge swept the boards in the early ‘90s. In hindsight, that optimism now looks misplaced and phony.

I’m unsure as to what kind of rock band Adams was playing in, in the narrative of hit single Summer Of ’69. Judging by his birth-date of 1959, this would have made him ten years old at the time – rock n roll! This small inconsistency really shows how much this album, and Adams’ subsequent career, has all been aimed at earlier baby boomers, five or ten years older than him.

Hit: Summer Of ‘69

Hidden Gem: It’s Only Love

Rocks In The Attic #275: Van Halen – ‘5150’ (1986)

RITA#275Van Hagar’s first album is a ripper. I have a soft spot for it because my first guitar amp was a Peavey EVH 5150 model, and that beast got me through a lot of gigs; but I actually prefer this album to 1984 – usually seen as the peak of the band’s involvement with David Lee Roth. In fact, Diamond Dave’s solo album Eat ‘Em And Smile, released the same year as 5150 and with Steve Vai on guitar, is an overlooked classic – and those three albums together are a great trifecta of mid-‘80s rock.

Unfortunately – whether it be Sammy Hagar’s influence or not – this is also where Van Halen start to drift into the middle of the road (it’s probably also the influence of Foreigner’s Mick Jones in the co-producer’ seat). Until this point, I’d say they were probably one of the most cutting-edge bands of the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s. Now, with soppy ballads like Dreams and Love Walks In, they showed that they were making records for middle-aged people, not teens at keg parties.

I used to play this record over and over when I was at University, and this was probably the time I was most in awe of Eddie’s guitar playing. The guitar intro to Summer Nights is one of my favourite Van Halen moments – a wonderful showcase of his warped ability. Listening now, I can’t quite handle some of the most dated aspects of the album, like the God-awful synth on Dreams and Love Walks In. Eddie used synths masterly on 1984’s Jump, but here he uses them to soundtrack how they might be played in the kind of heaven where Kenny G plays God.

Thankfully there’s only one song on the album – opener Good Enough – where Hagar seems to be doing his best David Lee Roth impression. He wails over the rest of the album more in his own style, which I like much more than the whelps and screams of his predecessor.

My least favourite part of the album is the closing song Inside. This dirge-like song really leaves a sour taste in the mouth after such a sunny and upbeat album.

Hit: Why Can’t This Be Love

Hidden Gem: Summer Nights

Rocks In The Attic #274: The Who – ‘My Generation’ (1965)

RITA#274It’s funny that on most of the debut albums by the ‘60s bands that have endured, there’s not much of a hint of how the band will end up. Here you have the odd bit of feedback across opener Out In The Street, the wig-out of closer The Ox, and of course the rousing and frantic My Generation, but the rest of the album doesn’t sound too much like a band that would go on to be such an important rock band of the late ‘60s and ‘70s.  There are two James Brown covers on this record, and that choice of artist doesn’t fit entirely well with the band that would go on to produce the glorious eight-and-a-half-minutes of Won’t Get Fooled Again.

The same goes for the Beatles – who would have thought the same voice that sang A Taste Of Honey would go on to rip through the lyrics of Helter Skelter. Or the Stones, when you compare the simplicity of their debut’s Route 66 cover, with the rawness and sleeze of later songs like Brown Sugar.

Speaking of the Stones, I was watching the Some Girls Live In Texas show the other day, and it’s such a contrast when the band play an early rock n’ roll cover. They’re a sloppy live band at the best of times, always sounding like they’re playing different songs, especially after Ronnie Wood joined their ranks; but on a cover of Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen, they gel together like a well-rehearsed group of 18-year olds.

The Who’s debut is very similar to a lot of those albums – solid, probably groundbreaking for the time, but quaint and quite dated when you compare it to their later albums.

Hit: My Generation

Hidden Gem: I Don’t Mind