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Jonathan Rowe "deadmarlowe" (UK)

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Ring of Changes
Ring of Changes
Offered by EliteDigital UK
Price: 12.95

16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sumptuous over-produced '80s guilty pleasure? Yes please!, 13 Nov 2007
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Ring of Changes (Audio CD)
I'm not a huge fan of Barclay James Harvest. True fans admire them for their prog-rockin' 70s output - material which always struck me as lacking either the arthouse credibility of Genesis or Yes or the hard-riffing cojones of Rush or Wishbone Ash. The 80s marked a change of direction for the band and, losing their progmeister-in-chief Woolly Woolstenholme, they produced a string of polished pop-rock confections which sold commendably but failed to securely the loyalty or affection of longtime afficionados. Most of these recordings now languish in back catalogue oblivion, which is a great shame because they stand up remarkably well - in some ways better than their more high-concept prog cousins from the 70s. This album in particular is a lost gem and if you can track a copy down, hold on to it tight. It belongs in your CD collection.

The spine of this album lies in three tracks - the opener and closing two. "Fifties Child" features exhilerating orchestrations and clear-voiced innocence. It's a paean to the ideals of the baby-boomer generation, now bloodied but unbowed (at least, according to BJH) in the wasteland of Thatcher's Britain in which the album was composed. In fact, the song functions as a hymnal tribute to childhood dreams and hard-won hopes, regardless of your birth decade. It's a treat.

The final two songs are similarly touching - or sugary-sentimental, depending on your perspective. "Paraiso Des Cavalos" (Paradise of the Horses?) is another celebration of youth - this time a nostalgic anthem to a glorious coming-of-age on a holiday in the Algarve. The details are opaque, but the song still captures something of the intoxication of youth and the giddy but imperdurable bonds of adolescent friendship. "Ring of Changes" itself carries on the theme of time and memory, this time to a darker rhythm of bubbling synths but featuring one of the most liberating anthemic choruses you'll hear - and this from a band whose stock-in-trade was the liberating anthemic chorus.

The rest of the material on this album is uniformly good, though less arresting. "Looking from the Outside", "Teenage Heart" and "Midnight Drug" recall 10CC in the use of lushly harmonised vocals blending incongruously with dark, slightly alienated lyrics. All of the songs have that wave-your-lighter-in-the-air quality that fills stadiums with camaraderie and makes you drive ever so slightly faster than you ought to. In other words, it's the best sort of 80s power-pop in the tradition of bands like Journey, The Cars or Toto. Except it's British and I guess we never felt too comfortable with that sort of thing, which perhaps explains why it's been buried away.

I was struck by this album on its vinyl release and tracked it down on CD. I was amazed to see it as an obscurity when so much ephemeral dross from the 80s clutters the bargain shelves at every supermarket. I felt that this was a true evergreen and worthy of a wider audience. Its successor, "Victims of Circumstance", contained equally catchy tunes but somehow lacked this album's mystique. Okay, okay, I won't pretend I don't understand why this album's been bin-ended: as I hinted earlier, it's an essentially middle-of-the-road collection of over-produced 80s pop-rock numbers that seem to have emerged from a dimension where punk never happened. In other words, it's the sort of record that a great many listeners of a certain age will find no merit in whatsoever. But, to my ears, it has soul and intelligence and the songs sound beautiful. I've never tired of it. Nor should you. If you can find it, buy it.

Endless Wire
Endless Wire
Price: 6.50

21 of 28 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing, maddening... more than the sum of its parts, 31 Aug 2007
This review is from: Endless Wire (Audio CD)
OK, I write this as a non-Who fan, and the true believers may rightly doff aside any criticisms I make, since I'm clearly outside the magic circle with this band. I mean, don't get me wrong, I've got Who's Next and I like that, most of it anyway. Live At Leeds is super. Plenty of other Who songs sound great. They kicked up a storm at Live Aid. Errm...

So, you see, I'm reviewing this album from the outside.

And what a frustrating, maddening album it is. On the plus side, it's an intelligent body of work. "Side One" (in old money) is a collection of songs, while "Side Two" is what Townsend calls a "mini-opera". This basically means its a collection of short ditties that sound like demos of longer songs, with an incomprehensible lyrical conceit running through them. I pretty much use my "skip" button for this lot - except for the sublime, elegaic "Tea & Theatre" at the end. The album wraps up with the extended versions of 'Endless Wire' and 'We Got A Hit', both pleasing pop/rock confections.

Also a plus: there's a real attempt by Townsend and Daltrey here to recapture some energy, some rawness, some sense of spontaneity. The swirling opening synths nod, self-referentially, to 'Baba O'Reilly' while Daltrey's not afraid to rasp and roar in a manner quite commendable for a 62-year-old. Some important topics are wrestled with, such as the hypocrisy of organised religion, the ubiquity of media-glamorised crime, the immortality that art confers, etc etc. Definitely to be filed under "intelligent art rock".

That's the plus. The minus is in the sheer, stupifying pretentiousness of the project. The liner notes would be a hysterical parody of beard-stroking rock maestro excess, if they weren't so dismally po-faced. After listing "Principle Musicians", then "Guest Musicians", Townsend devotes pages to himself under the subtitle "Everything Else". Not to be outdown, Daltrey appends a brief column of staggering vanity: he's "an actor, an interpreter, an alchemist who turns words into emotions". Gag! He socks it to Townsend though in a delightfully disingenuous put-down, with a little "well done Pete!" for the man who finally got round to writing, performing and producing most of this. Calm down, girls!

Of course, no one would damn a dog on mere liner notes, but they're symptomatic of this album's failings. While Townsend bats for high-concept, he's just not _deep_ enough to tackle most of these subjects. Well, frankly, Leonard Cohen excepted, not many people are. But Townsend has always come across sounding more like a Sixth Form Review act, consumed with a sense of being very grown-up because he's, like, satirising grown-up stuff, okay? It's embarrassingly juvenile in places. The insult "prat" hurled at a cardinal particularly jars, but hey: it rhymes with hat, after all!

Now, no one who's a fan of Townsend's output is going to be put off, at this late stage, by accusations that it's pretentious and juvenile. I mean Quadrophenia fergoodnessakes! What's always lifted Townsend's rather silly sloganeering disguised-as-lyrics to the status of rock epic has been the music itself.

And, musically, much of this album doesn't disappoint. 'Fragments' opens things out with a clear statement of intent, 'Purple Dress' ticks the acoustic-rock box, 'Mike Post Theme' stamps and thunders, 'Two Thousand Years' is a hold-your-Zippo-high festival pleaser while 'It's Not Enough' is as uplifting a stadium rocker as Townsend can write - which is to say, it's pretty much as good as that sort of thing gets. Nor does high concept conceit always wrestle a song to the floor: 'Black Widow's Eyes' is an unaffected and heartfelt ode to lost love, married to perfect power ballad contours, while 'You Stand By Me' is a suprisingly humble hymn to the band's perennially loyal fan base.

To say that much doesn't disappoint is to admit that some, alas, does. It is of course churlish to complain that Daltrey's lost his range. And it would be cruel to dredge up more hilarities from his liner notes (he compares himself to Olivier and Gielgud! No, really he does!). But Roger's vocals really don't cut it on some of this stuff. While his contemporaries like Robert Plant or even Neil Diamond are following Johnny Cash down the road of replacing high-octane yelping with a sort of grizzled tenderness, Daltrey seems to think that a bum note can be papered over by making it louder and raspier. Particularly, louder. In fact, he occasionally sounds like Grandpa Simpson, with a megaphone.

I'm struggling, then, with sometime-clownish ideas mishandled with sometime-clownish vocalising. And yet... and yet... it doesn't actually sound too bad. In fact, its very flaws can be part of its charm. The egotism and loftiness and shallow earnestness actually lend it an adolescent grandeur - two old coots rediscovering what it felt like to play the village hall.

I'll cheerfully admit, once again, I'm not a proper Who fan, someone for whom Daltrey's larynx is a national treasure and Townsend's music the soundtrack for a generation. But if, like me, you kinda liked The Who's old stuff, then you could do worse than checking this album out. It'll be time and money well spent and provide you with some food for thought - if not about religion and media and immortality etc, then certainly about what happens to rock gods who've turned sixty. And the liner notes are a hoot!
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 11, 2014 3:35 PM BST

Burn [30th Anniversary Edition]
Burn [30th Anniversary Edition]

12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hugely entertaining slice of Seventies rock-blues, 22 Jun 2007
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What an under-valued band Purple are. I'm guilty of it myself - before picking up this remastered copy of "Burn" I can't say I'd listened to Deep Purple since my college days, though I'd stayed loyal to their contemporaries, Zeppelin and Sabbath. So why are Purple lost in '70s Hell while their stablemates have legend status? Hard to see why. Ritchie Blackmore is every bit as accomplished a guitarist as Jimmy Page and, though less given to pounding bass, Ian Paice is no less worthy than "Bonzo" Bonham - check out the drum fills on the opening track if you want proof. Plus, Purple have a secret weapon in John Lord's swirling keyboards - on this album lock-stepped with Blackmore's guitar to tremendous effect.

Nevertheless, Purple seem to be anchored to Smoke On The Water and associated primarily wih Ian Gillan's caterwauling vocals. A shame really: 'Smoke' has a strong riff but it's not the most exciting of rock numbers, while Gillan is very much the genre-voice: high pitched, androgynous and oddly dispassionate. For my money, Purple really became a distinctive band in their own right with Gillan's departure and this album, which introduced the world to the duelling styles of Glenn Hughes' choirboy tenor and the bourbon-soaked rasp of David Coverdale's bluesy growl.

Yes, Coverdale is a revelation here. Recruited from the club circuit in the north of England, he was overweight and spotty, a far cry from the snake-hipped rock god he would mutate into. Yet his voice, his voice is straight out of the Delta, all wounded masculine snarls, bruised moans and lascivious purring. He was to take this style further on the follow-up album, Stormbringer, but here he straddles every song, especially lifting the woman-done-me-wrong ballad 'Mistreated' to glorious heights. The closing number, an instrumental, seems strangely uninhabited after that, a throwback to Purple's more pretentious and juvenile past and a reminder of just how far they'd come. Definitely what the "skip" button on your CD player was invented for - though the bonus track 'Coronarias Redig' is more tongue in cheek and leaves a much better taste in the mouth for that reason.

Certainly, there's a turning away here from the conventions of "heavy metal" (a label Purple have always distanced themselves from) and "prog rock" - either of which catergory could have come to define them. This music's closer to the Rolling Stones, or US bands like Aerosmith that were taking off at the same time: good natured bluesy-rock with a swagger that never really dates, made distinctive by Purple's trademark intelligence and classical stylings.

Thinking about it, the great virtue of his album, and this Purple line-up - the down-home earthiness, the feel-good energy and simple play-the-blues ethos - is also its albatross and probably the reason why they're now an unexpected treasure rather than a record collection staple. There's no satanism here, no messages recorded backwards, no songs about suicide, dragons or Norse mythology, nothing that later generations of Goths, fantasy roleplayers or neo-pagans could adopt as an anthem. It's just great music, played by consummate musicians, having a great time! Blackmore, of course, would later recant, defecting to Rainbow to produce Tolkienesque pomp-rock with Ronnie James Dio; stuff I find almost unlistenable now. But this album and Stormbringer endure and I'm very glad to have found them again.

So, this isn't an album that's going to change your life, or give musical expression to some altered state of mind that doesn't have a name yet. But it rocks! And you'll play it lots and fall in love with every song. Just like me!

The Historian
The Historian
by Elizabeth Kostova
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

10 of 18 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Stick to historical romances, Miss Kostova, 11 Jun 2007
This review is from: The Historian (Paperback)
A talented young writer (in her own estimation, anyway) sets out to write a novel based around the infamous Vlad Tepes, known to later generations as Dracula. At first, all appears to go well. Nodding to Bram Stoker's classic interpretation, she opts for the slow-reveal of narrative by letters and diary entries. A single tantalising fragment hints at doom for anyone brave enough to read on. Eschewing the cartoonish chauvinist conventions of vampire fiction (virile men of action driving mercy-bearing stakes into the writhing flesh of undead maidens), she adopts a female protagonist and a cast of gentle male academics. The central themes shall be the love that binds families, the rite of passage known as adolescence and the slow alchemy of time to undo evil.

Yet, all is not well in our young novelist's plot. After a compelling sequence of chapters that plunge us back into our heroine's father's past, the disappearance of his university mentor, the introduction of a tantalising mystery woman and a tense chase through the college library, incidents begin to dry up. Moments of excitement sag, strangely lifeless. It is as if some malevolent force, some nemesis soaked in darkness and obscurity, is draining the very lifeblood from her narrative.

Horrified, the young author casts about for rational solutions to this crisis. She seizes upon travel: our heroes must travel! So, to Istanbul they fly, to Budapest, to Oxford and Roumania. For a time all seems well. The young writer has a comprehensive understanding of exotic locations and a keen appreciation of the textures of weather, food and dress. Yet, with the inevitability of nightmare, the same corrupting force takes control of her pen. No matter where her characters are sent in their quest, the same morbid lifelessness grips them. Letters ramble interminably, poignant reflections mutate into horrific parodies of first person narrative.

Our writer now understands the nature of her Enemy. She has brought upon herself a curse from the dawn of fiction writing, the dread power that blighted Cervantes (tedious), Defoe (prolix) and Fielding (repetitive). Not for nothing have uncountable sheaves of ambitious first-person novels fallen into obscurity, unread and forgotten. Yes, Dullness, dark satanic Dullness stands revealed before her, no longer gnawing in the shadows but now revelling in his dread mastery over her prose style.

But the young writer is not defeated yet. She has at her disposal a powerful charm discovered close to the beating heart of epic poetry. Yes, Beowulf was redeemed by it and the Aeniad was steeped in it; even Homer nodded to its potency and wielded it when he dared. The Historical Digression! Is it pretentious? (very!) But she is desperate and only by plunging her reader into the minutiae of the fall of the Byzantine Empire and the convulsions besetting 15th century Bulgaria can she stem the life force haemorrhaging from her pale characters.

For a short while, the fate of the entire novel hangs in the balance. The light of her historical scholarship scorches and burns the drear grey spirit that threatened to overcome her. For the first time in many pages, the young writer allows herself to hope!

Vain hope! Misplaced pride! For the danger that threatens her lies not without, in the world of scholarship, travel and the Fascinating Cross-cultural Tidbit, but much much deeper within. With the staggering shock of recognition, all is laid bare before her in its ghastly simplicity: "I can't do men!!!!" she cries. And falls silent.

Yes, Miss Kostova, you thought that you could capture me in your paltry holiday-reading potboiler, did you? You, who can no more put dialogue into a man's mouth than you could spit a Turk with a damascene rapier! You, who can no more convincingly construct the behaviour of masculine love, hate and decisiveness than you could fortify a city against the onslaught of the Sultan's janissaries! No, Miss Kostova. Do what you will, your effeminate characters remain lifeless zombies stumbling, unseeing, through your implausible little tale. Stick to period drama, Miss Kostovo, to tales of debutantes, princesses and detailed lace shawls with fine filligree patterning. The Prince of Darkness has eluded your slight, womanish imagination. Mwuh-hurr-hurr-hurrr...
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 26, 2008 11:00 PM BST

Afterlife: Series One & Two [DVD]
Afterlife: Series One & Two [DVD]
Dvd ~ Lesley Sharp
Price: 8.30

229 of 231 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dark, disturbing, tragic and beautiful, 9 Jun 2007
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
What a discovery this show was! I missed it on TV, but picked up Disk 1 as a rental option and was so blown away I bought the whole series.

The concept is familiar to anyone who's watched the Patricia Arquette vehicle US show Medium. Lesley Sharp is the clairvoyant Alison Mundy who, like her American counterpart Allison DuBois, sees dead people. There the similarities end. Dubois juggles a family life and a career, but Alison Mundy is traumatised and isolated by her "gift", unable to hold down a job or a relationship and existing in a quirky limbo of kitsch seances and exploitative spiritualist meetings. In place of a husband, Alison forms an odd-couple relationship with parapsychology lecturer Dr Robert Bridge (Andrew Lincoln), who remains convinced that her ghosts have an explanation rooted in the unconscious. It is a strength of the show that, although we are privy to what Alison sees, the reality is left ambiguous: Alison is clearly troubled, obsessive and delusional in many ways and Robert's scepticism is an important theme in the show, going far beyond Dana Scully's token "there-must-be-a-scientific-explanation" rationalism.

The other aspect of "Afterlife" that trumps "Medium" is that Alison's ghosts are actually _scary_. They're not cute phantoms with a message for the living, but disturbed and disturbing forces that mirror that trauma and alienation of the central characters.

Each episode treats a particular haunting, usually with Alison being called in to help a client and Robert tagging along to question and criticise. This structure never becomes formulaic however, unlike the schtick of see-a-ghost-talk-to-the-D.A.-and-solve-the-crime treadmill of "Medium". For one thing, each haunting is a neatly inventive take on conventional ghost stories. Amidst the classic dead-girl-wants-her-murderer-caught stories, we're treated to the ghosts of aborted foetuses, ghosts who don't realise they're ghosts (OK, very The Sixth Sense but effectively handled), ghosts of the future and ghosts being possessed by the living!

If the series stopped at this level, it would be a satisfying sequence of thoughtful horror-thrillers making interesting points about superstition and science, credulity and faith. What we get instead are two beautiful story arcs. In Season 1, the drama focuses on Robert's dead son, the tragedy behind his marital breakdown, and Alison's attempts to break down his defences and get him to face his own grief. This culminates in a seance episode that is genuinely scary, thrilling and emotionally cathartic. Season 2 shifts the focus to Alison's troubled relationship with her mentally-ill mother, now haunting her, while Robert comes to terms with his terminal illness. The final two episodes here are as beautiful, tearful and life-embracing a sequence of TV drama as I have ever watched. Other critics have complained that the series dragged and meandered. I didn't find it so, and the investment we've made in these characters over the preceding dozen stories reaps a powerful, bittersweet reward at the end. A conclusion to make you cry and smile and haunt your dreams. Simply wonderful.

This is really Lesley Sharp's show. She starts strong, as a fiercely feisty but oddly brittle woman, and threatens to overwhelm Andrew Lincoln's more subdued portrayal of Dr Bridge. Nevertheless, he builds his character slowly and matches her line for line. By the end of Season 1, the interplay between them is electrifying and, in Season 2, we're watching these two actors at the absolute top of their game. Thrilling performances.

Make no bones about it, this is emotional and tragic material. The relentless morbidity is leavened not, as one reviewer suggested, by cutesy joke scenes or humorous diversions, but by poignant and beautiful themes of emotional reconciliation. The show has been described as Shakespearean in its scope, but it is the Shakespeare of The Tempest and The Winter's Tale, plays without clowns where the laughter-through-tears comes when precious moments of tenderness emerge, hard-won, through the lowering darkness.

I can't rate this show highly enough as emotional drama or as contemporary ghost story. The Americans do formula prime time, but it's nice to see the Brits still excelling at this sort of quirky, adorable oddity.
Comment Comments (7) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 30, 2014 8:45 PM BST

Grand Passion
Grand Passion
Offered by EliteDigital UK
Price: 14.95

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Doll By Doll's swansong - mostly whimper with beautiful bangs, 5 Jun 2007
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Grand Passion (Audio CD)
The reappearance on CD of Doll By Doll's back catalogue gripped me with that fervour you get when you discover a new band with a body of work to explore, liner notes to read, comparisons and value judgements to make. Every music fan's dream.

So here I am at "Grand Passion" and you can see at once this is more a Jackie Leven solo project than a DBD album proper. For one thing, where are the band? Sacked, apparently. You know that Jo Shaw's delirious guitar will be missed, as will Dave McIntosh's aggressive drumming. Instead, Leven's vocals (strong as ever) are joined in duet by the new female half of the band, girlfriend Helen Turner. Now, whatever their merits or demerits, DBD lived in a man's world of hard drinking, hard drugging and fractured jaws; the feminine input skews the sound far away from the tone of Gypsy Blood. Admittedly, Turner boasts that sort of harsh, mannish 80s voice that complements Leven quite effectively - but it still ain't Doll By Doll. Not really.

So we have Leven, his new partner on keyboards and a host of session men making another futile stab at mainstream pop acceptance. Mercifully, Jackie Leven's muse is as wayward as ever and simply refuses to churn out conveyor-belt pop. The songs are upbeat, romantic and emotional, but retain Leven's dark and subversive perspective; the single was a fine cover of the Stones' 'Under My Thumb', re-interpreted by Leven as a study in fragile male pride. There's a lot here that anticipates the direction of Leven's solo career in the '90s, not least song titles like 'Boxers Hit Harder When Women Are Around'. Catchy opener 'Strong Hands', bruised ballad 'Lonely Kind of Show' and odd pop number 'Grand Passion' all echo the strength of earlier DBD classics, while Mel Collins' squawling saxophone is a welcome addition to the DBD sound. In fact, the poignant romanticism of 'Dawn of the Rain Girls' has the makings of the breakout pop-hit-that-never-happened.

In the quality of songwriting and Leven's inevitably potent delivery, this album would still nudge into 4-star territory, but the final blow falls in production. While Leven decamped to some Irish cottage, the record label smothered the whole recording in tinny early-'80s twiddles and beeps, burying deep the guest musicians (Pink Floyd's Dave Gilmour is in there somewhere) making heroic contributions. Hardly surprising: Robert Plant's '80s productions fared similarly. Anyway, the album sounds more dated than previous DBD outings - my girlfriend prefers its stark melodic style, but DBD loyalists will miss the ferocity and thunder that brought them here in the first place.

A curiousity piece, then, for those wondering "Whatever happened to...?" or Leven fans wanting to track down the missing link between his reflective solo projects and hard-rocking youth. Fans of thoughtful 80s alt-pop will find much to treasure here, such as the wonderful closing track 'So Long Kid' - a soundtrack to the best 80s movie-that-never-was. This is an intelligent and poignant collection of duets musing on love and loss. But it's not Doll By Doll. Not really.

Heavy Horses
Heavy Horses
Price: 4.99

39 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tull's rural idyll still charms 30 years on, 1 Jun 2007
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This review is from: Heavy Horses (Audio CD)
It would be easy to take a negative view of this album. Released in 1978, with punk laying low the titans of prog rock, it emerged to widespread indifference. With the zeitgeist buzzing to songs of urban and suburban alienation, anarchy in the UK and the urgent realpolitik of the street, what were Jethro Tull doing? Living up to their early 70s song title and living in the past. As album concepts go, it just doesn't get any more conservative than this. The folk instrumentation without the protest lyrics of the folk music. Songs that sneer at the spiritual vaccuum of the cities and celebrate the medieval nobility of the shire horse, the farm cat and the field mouse. Even the back cover depicts the band as "squires of the manor". A couple of decades later, John Major's speech about old maids cycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist would come to define just how laughably out-of-touch the Tories had become, but "Heavy Horses" is _full_ of that sort of sentiment. It must have seemed to rock critics back in '78 that Tull were marching to irrelevance and extinction.

Nevertheless, I fell in love to this album in the spring of 1984. While Britain was reeling under the Miners' Strike and every punk dystopia seemed to be coming true, I was on a train travelling through France, watching the Gallic countryside sweep by, listening to "Heavy Horses". And in that moment, as an understanding of just how different, how intriguingly and profoundly alien France was to England, this album soundtracked my gentle culture shock and I understood I was listening to something utterly and unmistakeably English. I've never stopped listening to it since, but where are Arthur Scargill, the N.U.M. and the angry punk movement now? They have become history, while oddly "Heavy Horses" remains, as leaf-crisp and dew-fresh as the day the vinyl was cut.

This is in no small measure due to the outstanding quality of the material here. Ian Anderson's muse has never worked harder. These songs exhibit every Tull virtue, but none of the characteristic vices. Tracks like 'Heavy Horses' itself or the sinister 'No Lullaby' manage to be complex and portentous, without ever sounding smug or pretentious the way Thick As a Brick did. 'One Brown Mouse' and 'The Mouse Police Never Sleeps' are delightfully witty and whimsical, without descending into any childish nonsense about hares losing spectacles. 'Journeyman' casts a satirical eye on the gloomy lot of the evening commuter, but avoids sneering like the anti-God stuff on Aqualung, a genuine affection and compassion breathes forth. And 'Moths'... 'Moths' is quite simply the most beautiful song Jethro Tull ever wrote or performed, my all time Desert Island Disk.

Arguably, this album turned out to be something of a high watermark for Tull. They wisely distanced themselves from English folk motifs hereafter, to revisit them in diluted form in the Scottish and sepulchral Stormwatch, dallying with electronica on Under Wraps, before settling into the percussive prog-rock groove they'd perfected on Aqualung for all their subsequent output. At the time, this album may well have been a regressive step for Anderson & Co, retreating into a bucolic fantasy world in the face of musical and cultural changes that seemed overwhelming and threatening back in the late '70s. Yet, somehow, it drew forth their keenest expression. Like Spenser abandoned in Ireland by his English court or Malory doodling in gaol, to find solace in the timeless mystique of the hedgerow and the field, in a Faerie Queene or Morte D'Arthur, well that might just be the most quintessentially English thing of all.
Comment Comments (6) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 21, 2012 10:53 AM BST

Firefly - The Complete Series [DVD] [2003]
Firefly - The Complete Series [DVD] [2003]
Dvd ~ Nathan Fillion
Price: 11.67

16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A slice of Sci-Fi/Western heaven, 1 Jun 2007
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
As the other reviews make clear, "Firefly" is excellent, its cancellation a tragedy and its ownership on DVD mandatory for any fan of quality adventure-drama.

Oddly, I pretty much missed it on its TV outing. A huge fan of "Buffy" and (especially) "Angel", why didn't I pick up on "Firefly"? I remember watching the first half of the pilot and after that... it just passed me by.

Viewing it again on DVD, the strengths and weaknesses of the show become apparent. The pilot is poor and Fox were right to demand a re-take ("The Train Job") - but the decision to re-insert the pilot episode two thirds of the way through the series run, now that was bizarre. Fortunately, this set restores everything to the correct sequence.

What do I mean by criticising the pilot? Well, it's very talk-y, the characters take a long time to establish themselves, the atmosphere is glum and the outcomes are all downbeat. Don't get me wrong: in the context of a show that's already made a claim on your affections, talkiness, downbeat resolutions and the slow revealing of characters are all laudable assets. But not in a pilot. I suspect some hubris at work here: Joss Whedon believing everything he touched would transmute to gold and trusting too much in the loyalty of a fickle TV fan base. These misjudgements were corrected later on in the series - by the episode "Shindig" you're laughing and crying along with the cast like a reunion of old friends and by the end of this too-too-short series, the closedown feels like a minor bereavement.

So, the weakness was a poor launch and a fumbled high-concept pitch (space drama without aliens, blasters or comedy droids; themes drawn from the American Civil War; characters with immensely complex back stories). Let's talk about the strengths...

It's a space drama without aliens, blasters or comedy droids. All the standard SF motifs are eschewed in favour of some gritty characterisation and very mature consideration (within the constraints of the genre) of sex, religion, politics and ethics. Don't get me wrong, it's often laugh-out-loud funny. But it's the best sort of funny: the sort that comes from finding humour in a situation otherwise treated with full seriousness. For the SF geek, the Firefly 'Verse is intriguing: a single solar system of terraformed planets and moons, no FTL starships, evil megacorporations and shadow governments pitched against pioneers, poker players and prostitutes. It's all familiar, but combined in novel ways - like the hybrid Anglo-Chinese argot the characters curse and swear in or the Guild of Companions who train Jedi-like concubines. The 'Verse manages to become one of the three SF settings you would actually like to go and live in (then other two being the Star Wars Republic and the Star Trek Federation, of course).

Next, the themes are drawn from the American Civil War. The "bad guys" are the Yankee Unionists, the "good guys" are the rag tag Confederates. But of course, there are no absolute good and bad guys. The nod towards historical allegory gives some of the episodes a dignity and resonance not commonly found in SF, certainly not in made-for-TV SF.

Finally, the immensely complex characterisations. Captain Mal Reynolds (portrayed by the redoubtable Nathan Fillion with oodles of self-deprecating charm) is the worthy successor to Han Solo - notably the Han Solo of original edition Star Wars, before Lucas re-cut it to have Greedo shoot first. The banter between Reynolds and his crew sparkles with the understood yet barely-referenced past they share. Heck, it's all so dense that some characters don't even get their stories told - we never find out about Shepherd Book's past and only the "Serenity" movie filled in the mysteries about River and Simon. This is a quality ensemble cast, acting their socks off and loving every minute of it. As well they might, given that the script comes from the team that cut their teeth on "Buffy" - which means that, as comedy-drama-action ensemble dialogue, this is just about as funny/dramatic/exciting as it gets.

Yes, we can dream of a world where Fox didn't axe the show and it went on to tell its charming, idiosyncratic and inventive story in its own time, over an arc of years. But here in the real world we have the DVD set with which to visit old friends, familiar places and endearing scenes. Take me out into the Black 'n' tell 'em I ain't comin' back...

Turn Of The Cards
Turn Of The Cards
Price: 8.25

31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I don't give 5 stars often, but..., 1 Jun 2007
This review is from: Turn Of The Cards (Audio CD)
What _is_ it about this album?

I mean, I like Renaissance a lot, they tick all my prog boxes. Dense, symphonic song structures? Check. Soaring multi-octave feminine vocals? That'll be Annie Haslam then - check! Atmospheric and slightly pretentious lyrical conceits? Let me see: existentialism, the Cold War, mystical mumbo jumbo - check again! Already this album is scoring high. Plus, I like their other stuff: A Song for All Seasons is a delight, with that lovely one-off hit single they had (Northern Lights); Novella sounds great on a sunny Sunday morning; that Carnegie Hall live album works as a sort of Greatest Hits. But this album, "Turn Of The Cards"... this album is in a league of its own.

I came across this disk on vinyl back when I was at school and took a C90 cassette tape to college (with Genesis on the other side, I recall). Long after the cassette had frazzled I hungered after the disquieting arctic tones of this record, so back in 2000 I scoured the internet for a CD release. Slipping it into the disk drive I expected disappointment. It would sound naff, dated, a paean to my adolescence. But no! Out rolled that chilly, driving opener 'Running Hard' with its none-so-Seventies vocal chorus reminding me of the old Pearl & Dean ads in the cinemas. Sit back. Enjoy.

I can see from other reviews that I'm not alone in being won over by the cold, distant quality of the production on this album. It is truly unearthly, something from a far off time or parallel dimension. 'I Think Of You' replaces crashing piano chords with spidery acoustic guitar while 'Things I Don't Understand' builds to an awesome virtuoso performance from Annie, the combined effect of which is to trounce Bohemian Rhapsody in the operatic rock stakes. Then, of course, the Luciferian strangeness that is 'The Black Flame'. Brr-rr. 'Cold Is Being', leaning so heavily on its classical interpretation, is perhaps the weakest song in the collection, but is so dark, Nordic and bitter that it carries itself through on sheer polar intensity. Then the (melo)dramatic closer that is 'Mother Russia', catapulting us into the gulags of the Asian tundra. Somewhere, in the distance, Jim Steinman was taking notes and wondering how it would all sound if a fat bloke sang it to lyrics about girls and motorbikes.

Renaissance don't seem to have realised what they accomplished with this album and certainly never went near this territory again: the rest of their material is clever and sophisticated, frequently pretty, but eschews the sort of tombstone chill this recording gives off.

I've done my best to convey the subtle but compelling ambience of this awesome collection. Sure, it is and remains a Seventies prog output, with lots of "lah-lah-lah" vocal noodlings, part of the musical tradition that didn't so much catalyse punk rock as place an uncocked Uzi in its sweaty little hands. If you like angry little men with bad breath shouting to choppy guitars, you can walk right by this one: nothing to see here.

But if prog rock is among your guilty pleasures... like a bit of Mike Oldfield from time to time ... Clannad, they were good weren't they?... anybody remember Barclay James Harvest?... well look no further. This is an album that will grow old with you. Enjoy.
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Doll By Doll
Doll By Doll

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Their doomed attempt to woo the mainstream, 31 May 2007
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Doll By Doll (Audio CD)
I'm no time-served DBD fan and discovered them only with the recent CD reissues, so this album doesn't represent any missing slice of my childhood or anthem for my lost virginity or anything like that. I'm posting this as an "outsider's" note, which other outsiders might find useful, while the long-confirmed DBD loyalists can cheerfully ignore me.

This, then, is DBD's third album and last, in their original line-up, since it bombed and singer-songwriter Leven ended up sacking the band. But that was all in the future. At this time, DBD tried to shed something of the "mad, bad and dangerous to know" image and produce a mainstream pop hit. Now, even without Jackie Leven's gargantuan appetite for drugs and spirits at this time, I'm guessing DBD would have no more been able to compose disposable pop confections than Cliff Richard could front a death metal band. But, be that as it may, their endeavour was to produce something akin to Blondie's Parallel Lines - right down to Jackie Leven's fascination with European electropop echoing Blondie's reinvention of disco.

This, then, was their mission statement, but in this they were thwarted by two inconvenient factors: (1) at the helm, no Mike Chapman, whose Svengali-like management of Debbie Harry turned a NY punk into a pop princess, and (2) Jackie Leven himself, whose protean talents as a composer and performer simply will _not_ do as they're told.

The net result is a curious hybrid indeed. Electropop anthems like 'Caritas' rub shoulders with folk rock airs like 'Main Travelled Roads'; bruised rockers like 'Perfect Romance' hearken back to the choppy, driving style of Gypsy Blood. Don't get me wrong - it's all _good_... it's just all different _types_ of "good". There are enough ideas here to keep most bands happily employed for three albums, but Leven & Co concertina it all into one. The resulting impression is crowded and a little confused.

Another side effect of this bid for commercial cachet will bring a smile to fans familiar with their other material. On their earlier albums, the band made a virtue of delivering some achingly poignant and romantic songs with the maximum of menace and brawling intensity. Now, trying to sound more like the sort of people that might get a slot on TOTP, they actually come across even more frostily distant, bitter and vehement - the track 'Perfect Romance' contemplates wrist slitting suicide from a sordid toilet cubicle. Which sounds great in hindsight, but was never really going to win over Blondie fans in large numbers. And, indeed, it didn't.

This album, then, lacks the fiery charisma of their earlier releases and dates a little worse (as does Blondie's Parallel Lines, since nothing screams "It's 1978!!!!" like Heart Of Glass). However, the songwriting quality on this album is the equal of and probably superior to anything else in their back catalogue. Newcomers would be advised to head directly to Gypsy Blood to find out what DBD are all about. Once that gem of an album is safely tucked into your CD collection, this one will reward listening. You'll understand why they went under... but you'll find yourself listening to it a lot!

Oh, and such is the tragi-comedy of things, that had DBD endured and followed the muse of Main Travelled Roads, they would in a few short years have taken their seats at the table of "Celtic Rock" alongside U2, Simple Minds and (shudder!) Big Country.

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