Rocks In The Attic #838: Bill Hicks – ‘Rant In E-Minor: Variations’ (2016)

RITA#838The first thing I ever heard about Bill Hicks was the title of his fourth comedy album, Rant In E-Minor. I was reading one of the music magazines – Mojo or Q, or something like that – back in 1994, and Phil Jupitus was being interviewed about his favourite albums. He chose Rant In E-Minor purely for its superb title (because surely everybody knows that Relentless is Bill’s best from those original four Rykodisc albums). It is a great title; possibly the greatest for a comedy album, especially for one so angry.

This release by Comedy Dynamics, for Record Store Day 2016, represents the very first of Bill’s work to be released on vinyl. It’s an expanded and unedited version of the Rant In E-Minor album, minus Bill’s musical interludes from the original release. Recorded at The Laff Stop in Austin, Texas in October 1993, the performance falls four months after his pancreatic cancer diagnosis, and just four months before his death at the age of 32.

RITA#838aMy only concern is that Bill’s best friend, Kevin Booth, who produced three of Bill’s four original albums, seems to have now been sidelined by the Hicks family (three of which are listed as producers on this release). I hope Kevin still has some skin in the game, and eventually gets to release those original albums on vinyl at some point.

In early 1995 Bill’s family released a brief essay that he had written a week prior to his death:

I was born William Melvin Hicks on December 16, 1961 in Valdosta, Georgia. Ugh. Melvin Hicks from Georgia. Yee Har! I already had gotten off to life on the wrong foot. I was always “awake,” I guess you’d say. Some part of me clamoring for new insights and new ways to make the world a better place. All of this came out years down the line, in my multitude of creative interests that are the tools I now bring to the Party. Writing, acting, music, comedy. A deep love of literature and books. Thank God for all the artists who’ve helped me. I’d read these words and off I went—dreaming my own imaginative dreams. Exercising them at will, eventually to form bands, comedy, more bands, movies, anything creative. This is the coin of the realm I use in my words—Vision. On June 16, 1993 I was diagnosed with having “liver cancer that had spread from the pancreas.” One of life’s weirdest and worst jokes imaginable. I’d been making such progress recently in my attitude, my career and realizing my dreams that it just stood me on my head for a while. “Why me!?” I would cry out, and “Why now!?” Well, I know now there may never be any answers to those particular questions, but maybe in telling a little about myself, we can find some other answers to other questions. That might help our way down our own particular paths, towards realizing my dream of New Hope and New Happiness. Amen. I left in love, in laughter, and in truth and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit.

Hit: Fevered Egos

Hidden Gem: Confession Time (Cops)

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Rocks In The Attic #837: Tame Impala – ‘The Slow Rush’ (2020)

RITA#837Support your local record store, they say. So you do. As much as you can. Until you see New Zealand’s biggest chain-store selling the new 2xLP reissue of James Brown’s Motherlode for just $20, and then all principles go out the window. Take my cash, corporate face of capitalism!

The next logical step is to go one further and purchase directly from the band. Either at the merch table at one of their gigs, or through Bandcamp or the band’s online store. The last time Tame Impala played in New Zealand, I bought a t-shirt from their merch stand. Brilliant. The band get all my money and there’s no middle man.

So, when pre-orders for Tame Impala’s fourth studio album, The Slow Rush, went on sale last year, I jumped at the chance. I could have bought it from my local independent on release day, but I thought that I would continue to support the band by buying from their online store. It was an exclusive colour variant too. Sweet.

RITA#837aValentines Day, the 14th of February 2020, rolls around and the album is released across the globe. In New Zealand, like any other countries, the independent record stores get a push from the band’s label (Universal) who set them up as Tame Impala pop-up stores, with exclusive colour variants of the record, band t-shirts, bags, stickers, etc. A brilliant move, from a band that continues to go from strength to strength.

Almost three weeks later, I receive my LP in the post. Three weeks! That’s a lifetime when you know other people are enjoying it, without going to the steps you did. Grrr. First-world problems and all that, but still… The other possibility is that my delivery was delayed by the postal bottleneck through China as a result of the Coronavirus outbreak. A possibility, yes, but the local record stores all got their stock in advance of release day.

There should be an element of loyalty to those who pre-order from the band’s website, to match the loyalty they’re showing to the band. But still, it’s Universal we’re talking about, who probably operate a hundred other ‘band’ stores, and so I might as well have bought it from my local chain-store in the end. Lesson learned.

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Will I let this affect my thoughts on the album? Possibly. I still rate the Manic Street Preachers’

Know Your Enemy album very poorly on the basis that the record label crammed 75 minutes of music onto just two sides of vinyl. This feels like a similar blunder on the behalf of Tame Impala’s record label. A fuck you to the fans.

On my long awaited first listen to The Slow Rush, Kevin Parker, the man who is Tame Impala in everything from writing, performing, producing and mixing, has continued down the same route as 2015’s Currents. The guitar-oriented sound from his first two albums now seem like a distant memory, and we’re now firmly in a world of drum beats, synths and pianos. If anything, this album sounds like a lot less thought has gone into it than his previous efforts.

Or maybe I’m just bitter.

Hit: Lost In Yesterday

Hidden Gem: Is It True

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Rocks In The Attic #836: The Beatles – ‘Live At The Hollywood Bowl’ (2016)

RITA#836Bravo, James Clarke.

You might never have heard of James, but he’s an unsung hero, a worker bee (or Systems Analyst, to give him his official job title) at London’s Abbey Road Studios. It was James who spent hours developing software to ‘demix’ the original live recordings from the Beatles’ Hollywood Bowl concerts in 1964 and 1965.

If you’ve ever heard the original 1977 album, you’ll know that it isn’t exactly the cleanest recording of the band. George Martin describes the constant screaming of the audience as akin to the high-pitched wail of a jumbo jet engine. And so how the hell do you remaster something like that?

RITA#836aEnter Giles Martin, son of George, and heir to his father’s legacy. Live At The Hollywood Bowl represents the first in a long line of remixes of the band’s output by Martin Jr. and engineer Sam Okell, a series of release which would gather steam with Sgt. Pepper’s in 2017, the White Album in 2018, and Abbey Road in 2019.

James Clarke’s audio-modelling process separated each instrument and vocal track from the din of the aircraft engine audience, to provide Martin and Okell with individual elements to build up a new remix with. ‘It doesn’t exist as a software program that is easy to use,” Clarke says. “There’s no graphical front end where you can just load a piece of audio up, paint a track, and extract the audio. I write manual scripts, which I then put into the engine to process.”

Pulling out the bass guitar and bass drum was simple, with their low frequencies being easy to isolate. The hard part was separating the guitars, vocals, snare drum and cymbals, which commonly share the same frequencies as the screams of the teenage audience. Here, Clarke used the studio recordings of the band to help the software identify what needed to be pulled out of the live recording. “I went back to the studio versions to build the models,” he says. “They’re not as accurate, as there are usually temporal and tuning changes between playing in the studio and playing live, but the Beatles were pretty spot-on between studio and live versions.”

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Even though Clarke achieved ‘nearly full separation’ of the music from the audience, they decided to keep the sound of the audience on the record for the explosive atmosphere it generates. On the finished product, the audience scream is 3 decibels lower than on the original 1977 release. “They could have pushed it a lot further if they wanted to,” Clarke says, “but I think they got it spot on.”

This 2016 reissue is an odd release, given that it’s the companion piece to Ron Howard’s documentary on the band, Eight Days A Week: The Touring Years. In lieu of a traditional soundtrack release, Apple Records decided to pair the film with Giles Martin’s remixing experiment, even though the Hollywood Bowl concerts are only mentioned in passing in Howard’s film.

Although I’m very excited with the new remix, I would rather have had an original release of the band’s 1965 Shea Stadium concert. This remastered concert footage was played in full after Howard’s documentary when it was released in cinemas, and it was just a joyous experience: euphoria, mass hysteria, John, Paul and George’s faces lit from below due to the placing of the stage-lights, military jackets, elbows on keyboards, and fans breaking out from the crowd, tackled midfield by police officers.

Hit: A Hard Day’s Night

Hidden Gem: Things We Said Today

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Rocks In The Attic #835: The Police – ‘Ghost In The Machine’ (1981)

RITA#835Listening to the oddly hypnotic covers album, Juliana Hatfield Sings The Police, over Christmas has reignited my love for Sting, Summers and Copeland. It’s even given me a newfound love for this album, the first of two records that fail to live up to the zest of the first three.

I’ve been trying to learn Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic on guitar. As always with Andy Summers’ guitar parts, it’s not as easy as it looks. Summers has a habit of making intricate guitar lines look effortless, but they’re always doing something different to what you’d expect. The opening of the guitar song has delicately ascending guitar part doubled by a piano, all the while underscored by Sting bowing a fretless bass. Damn then and their genius.

RITA#835aBut what a song, with one of my favourite middle-eights of all time:

I resolved to call her up / A thousand times a day / And ask her if she’ll marry me / In some old fashioned way / But my silent fears have gripped me / Long before I reach the phone / Long before my tongue has tripped me /  Must I always be alone?

While the hit singles illustrate that Sting can still write a decent pop song, the aimless, endless reggae feel of the rest of the album suggests that something had changed in the band. This could be the nature of the recording, at Montserrat’s AIR studios in the Carribean – the first time the band had recorded outside Europe – or simply inter-band tension starting to simmer among the ranks.

Summers later laid the blame at Sting becoming a massive cunt – ‘I have to say I was getting disappointed with the musical direction around the time of Ghost in the Machine. With the horns and synth coming in, the fantastic raw-trio feel – all the really creative and dynamic stuff – was being lost. We were ending up backing a singer doing his pop songs.’

It’s a shame, as each of the three albums that precede Ghost In The Machine feel like the output of a band. Outlandos d’Armour is a fantastic post-punk debut, Regatta de Blanc found them starting to believe in themselves, and Zenyatta Mondatta captures them at the height of their creativity. Ghost In The Machine is something else. It’s also the first of the band’s albums with an English-language title. Something had definitely changed, and not for the better.

Hit: Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic

Hidden Gem: Ωmega Man

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Rocks In The Attic #834: The Shaggs – ‘Philosophy Of The World’ (1969)

RITA#834The answer to that age-old question: What happens if you record an album in 1969 with three teenage sisters who seemingly have no desire to play in the same key – or in the same time – as each other?

My favourite story about the Shaggs and their overbearing ‘softball coach’ father, Austin Wiggin Jr., can be found in the liner notes to this 2016 reissue from Light In The Attic. Russ Hamm, an engineer at Fleetwood Recording Studio, recalls:

‘They start playing and…I mean, it’s not hard to burst out laughing. What is going on here? I turn to Austin, and I said “Look, I’m not a guitar player, but I think I can tune those guitars.” And he looked at me and says, “No, no…those guitars are guaranteed. I bought those guitars from Ted Herbert’s Music Mart in Manchester. They’re the finest guitars, and they’re guaranteed.”’

This contender for ‘worst album ever’ (bless ‘em) is definitely my go-to record whenever I need to get people to leave my house. After a party, or a barbeque, it’s got the magical touch of communicating ‘maybe you should leave now.’

Hit: Philosophy Of The World

Hidden Gem: It’s Halloween

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Rocks In The Attic #833: Thoms Newman – ‘Skyfall (O.S.T.)’ (2012)

RITA#833In the run-up to the release of Bond #25, the unimaginatively titled No Time To Die, it feels like a good opportunity to revisit the gold standard of Daniel Craig’s tenure as 007.

Except, I’m not a fan. I find it massively overrated. It gets by far too much on the serendipity of being released in the same year as London’s golden Olympics, when national pride – and nostalgia for the good old days (represented in the film by the Aston Martin DB5) – was at its highest. It’s not a popular opinion, but I’ll take the thrill of Quantum Of Solace over this, any day.

The film has its moments, like they all do, but some elements are difficult to overlook. The character of M being dragged into the plot (for a second time, after The World Is Not Enough) doesn’t feel right, and criminally under-using Albert Finney is even worse. He would have made a great, cunning ally, in the same vein as From Russia With Love’s Kerim Bey, or For Your Eyes Only’s Columbo, but the writers instead make him a docile caricature, more Groundskeeper Willie than anything else.

RITA#833aThe biggest issue is the goofy Home Alone finale. To be generous, you could say that it’s a homage to Straw Dogs, but most movie-goers are not that cine-literate. They see Judi Dench laying booby traps, they immediately think Kevin McAllister and the Wet Bandits.

Still, it’s not all bad. The theme song by Adele is wonderful, and that whole sequence of Bond falling into the water, and into the credits sequence is just sublime. The cinematography, by the great Roger Deakins, is just fabulous, giving the film a golden sheen that helps to convince everybody that this is the new Goldfinger.

Javier Bardem is another missed opportunity. In No Country For Old Men, he was truly terrifying. Here, he’s a cartoon villain, with a silly CGI facial injury. Ben Whishaw and Ralph Fiennes are brilliant additions to the ensemble cast, as is Naomie Harris (well, up to about five minutes from the end at least).

In the cinema, on opening night, I cringed more than humanly possible when I realised they were about to introduce Harris as Moneypenny. Just a nauseatingly mawkish moment. My wife stared at me in the cinema, dissolving into my seat, thinking I was having a stroke or something.

Thirty minutes into the film, we’ve had at least four uses of the word ‘bloody’. This, I think, is one of the reasons Americans are in love with this film. It confirms their suspicion that London is full of red double-decker buses, Big Ben is visible from every street corner, and everybody walks around saying ‘Bloody this,’ and ‘Bloody that,’ in some broad approximation of Dick Van Dyke’s accent from Mary Poppins.

Of course, I don’t blame the director Sam Mendes for any of this. I was a fan of his work prior to Skyfall, but thought that he was too big a name to direct a Bond film. His work on both Skyfall and SPECTRE is admirable. It’s the writers who are at fault. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to relax while Neal Purvis and Robert Wade are behind the screenplay of a Bond film. They’re the dictionary definition of hit and miss.

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Another reservation I had about the film was the appointment of Thomas Newman as composer. A frequent collaborator of Mendes, he’s more at home with the kooky, ethereal pathos of scores like American Beauty and The Shawshank Redemption. Could he pull off a Bond soundtrack? The answer, it seems, is a resounding yes. The score leans a little too heavily on Hans Zimmer and James Newton-Howard’s work on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight to sound truly original, but it gives a freshness to Bond after the by-the-books David Arnold scores.

This is the second-pressing of Newman’s soundtrack, on beautiful red and white splatter double vinyl, and features a pop-up image of Bond in the inner gatefold.

Hit: Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

Hidden Gem: Voluntary Retirement

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Rocks In The Attic #832: Thundercat – ‘Drunk’ (2017)

RITA#832Every now and then I buy a record purely on the strength of the cover. I didn’t hesitate to pick this up, just for its bat-shit crazy cover shot of Thundercat (Stephen Bruner) emerging from a lake. I knew nothing about Thundercat – I still don’t know a great deal – but I know that I like his groove.

By a stroke of luck, the album fits right up my street, with guest appearances by Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins in some kind of weird yacht-rock revival. And what a great opportunity to point everybody to this great SCTV sketch, featuring Rick Moranis as Michael McDonald rushing from studio to studio to record his backing vocals.

RITA#832aThe album also features contributions from Pharrell Williams, Kendrick Lamar, Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa – all of which is nowhere near as exciting to me as Loggins and McDonald, but it’s a measure of how well respected Thundercat is across the music industry.

The one downside of the album, of course, is the format. Four 10” double-sleeved EPs, housed in a little box, sure looks and feels nice but it’s annoying to change sides every six minutes. In my quest to play the album in the 12” format, I picked up the chopped and screwed remix album Drank, but man, that music doesn’t really fit me. It’s interesting, but comparable to listening to the original album under heavy barbiturates.

Hit: Rabbit Ho / Captain Stupido

Hidden Gem: Them Changes

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Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner