A collection of posts from my original weblog...or the inscrutable rantings of a madman...could be both...

Thursday, October 17, 2002

I'm baaaack! Sorry for not posting the past couple of weeks..had some "car troubles" which I needed to address..so it cut down on my "Schizoid Man" time. Sooo....yeah, the new Underworld disc, called A Hundred Days Off, was released domestically roughly three weeks ago--I bought it a few days after it came out and have been listening to it on and off since that time. The good news is that Karl Hyde and Rick Smith haven't reverted back to any Freur "Doot Doot" madness (Freur was their early 80s synth-pop incarnation--which spawned the annoying hit "Doot Doot"--the tune was a hit only in England and the Continent)..they've managed to keep Underworld's cred intact after third member Darren Emerson's departure two years ago for a solo DJ career. The bad news is that "A Hundred.." isn't quite the follow-up to their last studio record (Beaucoup Fish) that I was expecting. Reviews that I have seen so far have been praising it as a return to form after the "wildly un-even" Beaucoup and the live Emerson-era summation Everything Everything (which was one of the first discs I commented on with "Schizoid Man"). While some of the tracks *do* improve on the Beaucoup sound, overall it lacks the experimentation of Beaucoup in favor of a safe, "Underworld-TM" sound..there's no Jumbo or Kittens to liven the record up when you hit a dull patch. I will say that Hyde's vocals are a lot sunnier on "A Hundred.." and it seems like he's even attempting to (*gasp*) sing, instead of his usual monotone "hey-I'm-just-one-of-the-instruments" vocalizing.
"A Hundred Days Off" starts out strong with the first two tracks Mo Move and the first single Two Months Off. "Mo Move" has a burbling keyboard underpinning the bass synths and Hyde's druggy and detached vocal (but he *is* singing)..the track builds with a high-pitched sample that sounds like one of those drums where the skin is rubbed, and a high pitch tone is produced--only this one sounds like it's being played by an amphetamined monkey. Some more drum samples are added on top, along with some keyboard washes. The result is a very catchy tune and worthy of it's addition to Underworld's catalog. "Two Months Off" starts with a synthesized "hand-clap" in one channel and a ricocheting keyboard in the other..then a keyboard phrase slowly builds and becomes the main rhythm of the track, along with a drum track. Hyde steps to the mic and sings "You bring light in"...before singing in his stream-of-conciousness way that we've come to expect..only way more melodious than on Born Slippy or even "Jumbo". Then there's a breakdown section featuring a spoken-word sample of an English woman talking and some keyboard washes in both channels...the main keyboard phrase soon returns along with the beat and Hyde. So far, so good.
The next tune is Twist, and though it's not godawful..it's not really anything that they haven't done better on other albums--a two-note keyboard melody, some bass synth lines and a clubby drum beat. Build up, break down, build back up..easy, peasy, Japanesey. Sola Sistem, the next track, slows things down tempo-wise..with it's languid beat and Hyde's weird, filtered vocal that sounds like he downed some NyQuil before the session. It's mildly interesting, especially when some horn-like keyboard stabs enter the mix a third of the way in and the beat begins to echo like a dub track. Little Speaker returns the club rhythm--and again--pretty good tune, especially the "funky soul Hammond organ" keyboard riff--but Underworld aren't trying anything too daring here...and this track goes for about 9 minutes! About halfway through, a hypnotic gamelan-like sample takes over, which is a nice change..but it just doesn't have the punch that the change in Cups (the opening track on "Beaucoup Fish") has. The next tune, Trim, redeems them somewhat. It's got some twangy bended country guitar notes and Hyde's wobbly vocal sound (at last--that stupid vocoder put to good use!)..and it doesn't wear out it's welcome by being overlong. Good show, lads! Ess Gee is a throwaway guitar instrumental..sorta mellow..sorta drifting...mainly just an exercise for Hyde to practice his picking skills..possibly on a Gibson SG guitar, or so I'm guessing from the title. It's thankfully short..clocking in at a little over 2 minutes. The next track, Dinosaur Adventure 3D, was panned in a lot of reviews..but I actually like it. Despite it's lame and unwieldy title, it's classic Underworld..but with a little sumpin' new also. There's a killer keyboard sample that has that "chopped-up" effect that Orbital uses and it's always cool if used right. Hyde does some nice singing..stretching out the last syllable of each line..they add some vocoder to his vocals..but it's not annoying and enhances the emphasis on certain words. Ballet Lane combines guitar and keys and has a calming feel, especially after "Dinosaur..". It's not even really "electronica" anymore..and perhaps Underworld are feeling a bit strait-jacketed by the "techno" label foisted on them. "Ballet Lane" is a step in another direction..an awkward one, to be sure, but it's not clumsy and sits in just the right place on the record. Luetin closes "A Hundred Days Off". An electro track based around a clubby keyboard phrase and Hyde's almost-buried-in-the-mix vocals..it's a fitting closing tune that could be the soundtrack to the end of a party. It partially begs to be in the background, because the keys get repetitive and Hyde's voice weaves in and out of the forefront of the mix, making it difficult to understand his words. "Luetin" ends with two notes playing..sounding like dripping water..though I don't think it's a metaphor for either the album or Underworld. I'll give this one three stars out of five. Hyde and Smith have proved there *is* life after Emerson..who, being younger than the two, gave them insight into and credibility in, the early-to-mid 90s club scene. Was "A Hundred Days Off" worth the four-year wait? In some respects, yes...but I hope they try a bit harder next time around..provided there *is* a next time...I haven't heard any talk about this being "the final Underworld record", but you never know.
That's all for now..in quick news...Badly Drawn Boy's new full-length is out soon..his third, if you count the About A Boy soundtrack (which I don't own yet--I know, I've been shirkin' my B.D.B. responsibilities)..I'll have to pick up the brand new one. Supergrass, whose self-titled last album was one of my top picks for 2000, also have a new one out soon, called Life On Other Planets--gotta look into that one, too. And lastly..yes, the rumours are flying thick and fast..the remaining members of Led Zeppelin are possibly going on a reunion tour, with the late John Bonham's son Jason filling in the drum chair. It might be interesting to check out--seeing as the last time these guys played together on-stage was at Live Aid in 1985. Robert Plant is looking the worse for wear now and Jimmy Page has yet to live down that embarrassing P. Diddy collaboration (only John Paul Jones has escaped a critical drubbing by staying low-key and doing artsy, indie-type stuff for the most part)..still, Plant can still belt 'em out, even if he can't hit all the high ones now..and Page has always kept his guitar-slinging skills alive. A tour schedule will be announced, if they "seal the deal"..and if you can deal with a crowd of ageing boomers and suburban white guys with girlfriends in tow..and you close your eyes during Misty Mountain Hop..you just might be transported back to 1971 via Zep's time-machine--well, that's if you want to be transported back to 1971. Me, I'm gonna see what ticket prices are like before I sign on to the "Houses Of The Outdoor Physical Presence" tour. Cheerio!

Wednesday, October 02, 2002

Autumn has replaced summer once again..it's already October..though you wouldn't really know it outdoors, 'cause it's been quite balmy the past few days--almost like a nice day in late April or early May. Soon enough it's going to be time for my "High Fidelity"-esque Year End Lists. Bet y'all carn't wait! I know..I know..I can't wait either. On to this week's festivities....
I went to one of the local "art-house" theaters this past weekend because it was showing the new Brit-indie flick 24 Hour Party People. The film is an attempt to show an insider's look into the Manchester, England punk/new-wave scene and later on, the "Madchester" ecstasy/Hacienda/rave scene. The story is mainly told through the observations of Tony Wilson, an "on-location" reporter for Granada Television and part-time hippie/punk/music junkie. Wilson is played as an over-educated but musically curious/upper class wannabe slumming with the artists by Steve Coogan. Coogan is a cult commodity in the States, but pretty well-known in Britain due to several sketch characters that became fixtures on a few BBC comedy shows. In the film, Wilson attends the *first* Sex Pistols gig in Manchester and meets up with members of The Buzzcocks, members of soon-to-be Joy Division and Martin Hannett, a portly biker-looking bloke who will become Wilson's in-house engineer for Factory Records. There's a funny scene afterwards where Wilson's best mate is ripping his Pink Floyd and David Bowie posters from Wilson's flat walls.
Wilson (and his wife Lindsay and the afore-mentioned poster-ripper) finds a run-down club in a desolate section of Manchester and persuades the club's owner to let him have one night a week for all the players in the new scene to congregate and have some of the new Manc bands play. They dub it "Factory", because of a nearby sign that says "Factory Closing"..but Wilson *also* notes the parallel to Andy Warhol's 60s New York artists' collective. Soon, the club is bustling...Vini Reilly (of Durutti Column), The Buzzcocks and a nascent Joy Division are playing. In another funny scene, Wilson makes his acquaintence with J.D.'s charismatic-but-ultimately-doomed lead singer Ian Curtis when Curtis shouts to him "Wilson, yer c**t!", then walks up to him and stands very close to Wilson. Wilson asks "Why did ye call me that?" "'Cos yer a c**t." Curtis replies. The live show scenes in the club are mesmerizing, especially when Joy Division are playing..and they mix in some stock footage that blends in well with the actors portraying the group. Wilson also shows his callous side when the owner of the club presents him with a "gift" of two prostitutes for bringing in business--Wilson manages a feeble protest and indulges..he is caught by Lindsay..who goes off with Howard Devoto of The Buzzcocks for a revenge shag. In a sad-but-funny scene, Wilson finds them shagging in the loo and says "Now I just got a b**wjob, I believe this is full penetration." As he is walking out, the camera pans to an older man, who happens to be *the real* Howard Devoto..who says "It never happened." There are plenty of original Manc scenesters playing cameo roles in the film: Mark E. Smith of The Fall shows up in a line of people waiting to get into the club, Mani, from The Stone Roses and now Primal Scream, is a sound-man for The Happy Mondays, Paul Ryder, of Happy Mondays, is a Manc drug-lord (fitting choice, that)...
The first half of the film centers around Joy Division and Wilson's attempt to turn them into a national act. He starts up Factory Records as a *completely* indie enterprise..even signing a "contract" with J.D. in his own blood. The recording of their first record is rough going because Hannett is a perfectionist, and the group clearly aren't. In one scene, Hannett hears a rattle in the drum kit..he rips the whole kit apart, and reassembles it on the roof of the studio. The rest of the band is seen driving away in Wilson's car, while the drummer is still hammering out licks on the roof. The work pays off, and Joy Division are a bona-fide hit..Wilson plans on taking the band to the U.S.A., which doesn't sit too well with Curtis. There are other problems, skinheads start invading the band's gigs and turning them into National Front riots..and Curtis suffers seizures at a few. In one scene, he is bleeding from his mouth and the band scramble for a doctor..all except Peter Hook, that is..who seems to be busy looking for a cigarette..a none too flattering portrait of the future New Order member. Then, just as things seem to be pointing towards huge success, Ian Curtis hangs himself in his home after talking with Lindsay..the scene isn't played for pathos or drama, just sort-of matter-of-factly. I still was a bit sad, even though I knew it was coming--he was a talented bloke with a lot of potential. Wilson attends Curtis' wake, in one of the most heartfelt scenes of the film. He and Lindsay split soon after...and New Order rise out of the ashes of Joy Division, a near-impossible feat..keeping Factory Records alive with their new version of Blue Monday.
The second half of the film centers around Happy Mondays, the dance/rock band who rose to the top of the heap in 1988/89 and were the figureheads of the "Madchester" rave-n-roll scene during that time. Wilson pours nearly *all* of his Factory Records/Granada money into a sterile, unpleasant-looking club called Hacienda in the mid-80s..and *no-one* shows up. Bands who had a chance to make it big in '79/'80 have devolved into Carribean lounge acts (A Certain Ratio is shown doing this). All of a sudden, Wilson spots a group of local hooligans who are calling themselves Happy Mondays and gets them to play at Hacienda. The Mondays are "led" (if that's the correct word) by a scruffy thug called Shaun Ryder, who also provides the gonzo, off-key vocals. Ryder and his brother Paul are shown earlier in the film poisoning 3,000 pigeons on a Manc rooftop--so that shows you where they're at. Luckily, the rest of the group (especially guitarist Mark Day) have a knack for a melody and also start to fuse rock riffs with dance beats, creating their own sound in the process..which leads to Martin Hannett producing a single called W.F.L. ("Wrote For Luck"), which subsequently becomes a smash hit and energizes a whole *new* scene at the Hacienda..and per his wishes, Wilson is in the thick of it. But, as always, things unravel soon enough..and the Mondays' over-indulgence in drugs (and groupies) get the better of them (esp. Shaun Ryder). Wilson decides to set up Factory Records in a swank office (with a conference table that cost 30,000 English pounds), which leads to internal strife among Factory's principals. Martin Hannett passes away after years of drug and alcohol abuse, and his corpse is so large, the coffin doesn't fit into his grave. The Mondays are sent to Barbados to make a follow-up to their hit album Pills, Thrills and Bellyaches *and* to get Ryder clean of the heroin he had been introduced to. They end up squandering Factory's money on hard drugs (which had replaced the ecstasy and weed and drink) and hours and hours of wasted studio time. The nadir comes when Shaun Ryder *blackmails* Wilson and Factory to *buy back* their own master tapes for drug money--and even then the tapes have *no vocals*. Wilson farms out Factory to London Records, a dreaded major label, thereby selling out on his own indie principles. The Hacienda folds a few years down the road, a victim of changing times and a tide of drug violence that no-one could have predicted just three or four years earlier. The last scene shows Wilson on a rooftop with Ryder, Rob (his old mate and partner in Factory Records) and another close friend. They are all smoking a spliff when Wilson has a vision of God appear in the sky..and natch, God looks just like himself--completely fitting for a philanthropic egotist like Wilson.
I thought the film was well-made, despite a few sort-of "thrown-in" scenes for background continuity--like when Wilson visits his second wife, Hillary, in hospital and spends a few minutes of quality time with his son. The scene is for five minutes and then, no other mention of those two. Maybe it was supposed to show how busy Wilson was that he didn't even have time for his second wife and child..but the scene was placed a bit odd in the film..as it occured *just* before the Hannett funeral scene. Coogan did a commendable job and he kept his portrayal of Wilson interesting...his performance never lagged..and you never got bored watching him, not even for one scene. The actors who played Ian Curtis and Shaun Ryder were good as well, with Curtis getting the edge over Ryder--'cause it seemed they were deliberately making Ryder a walking cartoon, instead of this working-class thug being overwhelmed by all the new choices around him. And, despite what you think or what you've read--he just doesn't seem as out-and-out a buffoon as shown in the film. Sure he's an oaf and lacks any sort of decorum, but I also think he's a bit smarter than portrayed. Some of the Mondays lyrics have some sharp observations, even when couched in Manc sleaze. The minor characters also contributed to the film's authenticity, so it came off as more of an ensemble piece than just a tribute to Wilson's "genius"..he had plenty of help, and those folks show you how they helped. Props out to M.A.D., who wrote a capsule review over at Cheek. I'll be reviewing the new Underworld CD "A Hundred Days Off" next time. See ya then!