Friday, May 29, 2015

'A diamond is only some coal that's stuck to its job'

The Darkness Last of Our Kind

Of all of the new releases in my Unexpected Year of Dad Rock, a new album by The Darkness was the least surprising, but still hotly anticipated. After years of spending time with other projects the Hawkins Brothers' return with 2012's Hot Cakes was itself surprising and very welcome, but its success couldn't be measured much beyond the album's merit as a comeback - and that's a kind of album which can be fraught with options. New direction? New dynamic? Old school styling to win back the lost faithful? In the end Hot Cakes took a turn for 'more of the same, but moved on a little', with the band being in their thirties, family men and with quite a lot of water under the bridge, the return was 'enough' for all concerned. But even in the world of the comeback, you're only as good as your next album - so what of the follow-up?

Time has again moved on, and on either side of Last of Our Kind The Darkness have lost a drummer - first their core stickman Eddie Graham, then not long after LOOK's release, drummer for this album Emily Dolan Davies; but I think it's an element of the band's newer resilience that they've weathered these changes and forged on, aided for the time being by second generation rock royalty, Rufus Taylor, son of Queen's Roger.

For its efforts the album is something newer also - no older compositions dusted off and given a studio polish (a la Hot Cakes' 'Nothing's Gonna Stop Us'), but all new songs, and a new energy. Opener 'Barbarian' is a rip-snorter with a great heavy riff and measured falsetto, and sets the tone for an album about heroes, villains and invasions - see also 'Roaring Waters' which matches 'Barbarian's' story of Edmund the Martyr's fall with the Sack of Baltimore. But that's enough history lessons, because the only history for the remainder of the album is that of 'the rock'. 'Open Fire' is very much Electric-era Cult, and 'Mighty Wings' takes heavy stylistic cues from Queen's Flash Gordon soundtrack with its synths and posturing lyrics. Before you write that one off, though, Dolan Davies' drums in 'Wings' are indeed mighty, and it demands loud volumes to be played at.

I'm less enamoured with the ballads on this album, though Hot cakes' ones weren't hitting the same spots as the band's debut either - but for wat it's worth, I quite enjoyed bassist Frankie Poullain's
 vocals on 'Conquerors'. Not a bad album ender - though if you're a fan and a little more discerning, the Special Edition of this album contains four extra tracks including some belters in 'I Have Always Had the Blues' and the Van Halenesque 'Million Dollar Strong'.

In all, LOOK is a big mark up from The Darkness' previous two albums, and easily reaches the top two of a discography of, er, four. It makes me want to hear more, and that's what albums, debuts or comebcks or mid-career ones, are supposed to do.

And I haven't even mentioned the title track. Oh, hang on - yes, I did.


Friday, May 22, 2015

Friday Night Local: Shona Laing - 'Soviet Snow' (1987)

Let's go back to the Eighties. The mid-Eighties. The Cold War's not yet over, and we don't really trust those Russians, but we also don't want to go to war with them because what would follow would be a Very Bad Thing for the entire world. This dread of brinksmanship and the possibletipping point into nuclear oblivion is seeded throughout a lot of creative works from this era - even music. Even here in little old, Nuclear Free (tm) New Zealand.

Soviet Snow hails from Shona Laing's big comeback album South (1987); this version is a revamp of the earlier one on South's predecessor, Genre. In the time between albums the Cold War has lingered, perhaps a little less worryingly than the early 80s, but other, equally worrying events have unfolded.

At the time of its release I took the song's title literally, being aware of panic across Europe of fallout drifting with weather currents across Europe and as far as Ireland following the catastrophe at Chernobyl. Laing's song of course was composed before the reactor meltdown, but the incident allows a second reading of the song's chorus and, if I might be so bold, grounds it a little:

Now we're wide awake, the world's aware
Radiation over Red Square
Creeping off to cross Roman roads
Fear of freezing in the Soviet snow
One eye on the winter - oh, just a hint of Soviet snow.

So there's that, at least.

The video is pure Eighties - all big caps CG text buzz words and video montages. And of course, there's the Soviet and Russian imagery and iconography, none of it demystifying the Soviet Union of the Eighties, but anchoring it in a jumble of popular associations, a visual word association game. Laing is a far cry from her long-haired, freckled teenaged Seventies self with spiky, cropped hair (the infamous 'femullet' is, as far as I can remember, only a feature of the video of her bigger hit (Glad I'm Not a) Kennedy), her face intruding from angles, like Rodchenko's Lilya Brik. One more single, Drive Baby Drive and Laing's career would shift again, back out of centre stage; but this song at least freezes a moment of Southern Hemisphere pre-Glasnost anxiety, two years before the Wall would fall and the thaw would begin.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Friday, May 1, 2015

Friday Night Local: Neil Finn - She Will Have Her Way (1998)

God I love the Nineties. It's close to being the last decade I ever took notice of the pop charts, regularly watched daily music channels (initially the local Juice TV channel over breakfast, but later MTV in the UK when it had a brief life here in NZ), and when buying a CD happened more than once or twice a year for me. You never think that this sort of thing will leave you, and for some of my friends it hasn't entirely, but for me it has. The Nineties are now for me a golden age of grunge, Britpop, a glam revival, electronica, and ready-access to alternative and local music.  New Zealand music was begining to find its feet in a new way in the Nineties - Flying Nun had become part of the Establishment, and local artists were begining to get international recognition. Were were, in a small way, as it seemed on those music channels at least, in amongst it - part of the conversation.

All of which has little to do with the fortunes of one Neil Finn, whose music career in 1998 was already twenty years old through Split Enz and Crowded House, and for whom a first solo album at forty would seem a curious prospect. I've not heard anything more from its parent album Try Whistling This, but 'She Will Have Her way' is a personal favourite, with reliably enchanting Finn harmonies between chorus and verse, and some lovely production, not to mention a very infectious "to doot doot doo!" vocal refrain that makes this song a winner with Jet Jr at bedtime.   
The video is a hoot, too. A fun play on Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock - both as old as Finn himself, but also somewhat redolant of Nineties pop culture as well, to me. In film andTV weird science and UFOs were making a comeback with a mini Roswell craze, Independence Day and of course the runaway success of The X-Files. I'm drifting, and this is a topic I may return to shortly anyway. In the mean-time here's Finn's goofy unlikely wooing song, slightly delayed from its intended ANZAC eve posting, but better late than never.