Mewificent release; Gorillaz want 'Humanz' to dance

By Tom Von Malder | May 01, 2017
Photo by: Sasha Ryabina/Play It Again Sam Records The Danish Indie-rock group Mew includes, from left, Jonas Bjerre, Silas Utke Graae Jorgensen and Johan Wohlert.

Owls Head — Mew: Visuals (Play It Again Sam CD, 43:51). The Danish Indie-rock band, down to a trio after the 2015 departure of founding guitarist/backing vocalist Bo Madsen, have just issued their seventh and most compact album, with only one track longer than five minutes. Frontman Jonas Bjerre said there was no need for a grand, overarching concept. Each song on" Visuals" represents its own little chapter and story: nothing needed to be overly long.

"Each album is like a collection of thoughts and ideas that fit the time we’re in," Bjerre said in a press release. "They’re like little diary entries, except they’re a little bit more veiled perhaps. To me, albums are memories of times in my life."

The song that led the way was the slow-building euphoria of "Nothingness And No Regrets," the album's lead-off track. According to Bjerre, Mew lyrics often have two or three different meanings, and the opener is a reflection on life and death at the same time as "imagining this team of people trying to accomplish something and ultimately failing." Despite that thought, the track is upbeat and glittery in sound, with ethereal synths. The expansive 80s-style pop of "The Wake Of Your Life" picks up the pace and has a big drum beat on the break. Bjerre said it is about legacy and what is left after you’ve gone. "These are things you think about more and more the older you get.," he said, adding It started out as a synth-pop track with lots of programming, before taking on a different shape when the band added guitars over the top.

The discordant stomp of "Candy Pieces All Smeared Out" came about after Bjerre went back over some demos he had made as a youngster on an Omega 500 synth. Bjerre said, "Some of them were interesting sonically, so I kept some of the programming. We built the song on top of this really weird 8-bit computer track." The song, which starts out sounding like a film soundtrack with an industrial sound, then turns airy with the verses. The track ends in charming fashion with the guitars chiming. It is a prime example of how the album is both nostalgic and contemporary.

The blissful glide of "In A Better Place" recalls the Pet Shop Boys and has a big synthesizer sound on the  break. Bjerre said a drumbeat by Silas Utke Graae Jorgensen inspired him to write a song immediately, while the atmospheric rock of "Ay Ay Ay" was based around a choir part that Bjerre had come up with a few years ago. Bjerre has a sound booth  in his apartment in Copenhagen, so he can sing an inspiration whenever it comes up. That was the source of the vocals on "Ay Ay Ay."

"Twist Quest" has a spare opening and adds jaunty horns, while "Shoulders" is slower, with layered vocals at the start. A synthesizer opens the more raucous "85 Videos," which is a romantic rocker about finding one's angel. The album's closes with the standout "Carry Me To Safety," which is slower, but elegant and builds in density. Bjerre said the song is "a reflection on life and being in a band, what it means to be in a band, dedicating so many years of your life to this thing." The one song that did not do much for me is "Learn Our Crystals," which Bjerre calls "one of our weirdest songs." The band will tour North America in August, with the closest stop being The Sinclair in Boston on Aug. 8. Grade: A-

Gorillaz: Humanz deluxe edition (Warner Bros./Parlophone, 2 CDs, 1:09:14). The world's most successful virtual band is back (long since having passed The Archies in popularity). The press rollout says the pre-election directive to participants from group founder Damon Albarn was to imagine "an apocalyptic event — the election of Donald J. Drumpf — and the possible reactions to it," while imagining the dance floor as a meeting ground for the disenfranchised. This is the group's first album since 2010's "Plastic Beach."

In March, Albarn appeared on MistaJam's BBC 1 radio program and said, "The album kind of came from this dark fantasy, which I suppose came into my head the beginning of last year. Just imagine the weirdest, most unpredictable thing happening that changes everything about the world. How will you feel on that night? How will you kind of go out? Will you go and get drunk? Will you stay home and just watch TV? Will you talk to people? It’s got an interesting atmosphere about it, this record, because it's a party record. It's a club record, but it's got this weird sort of darkness about it."

As usual, there are a slew of collaborators, who skew younger this time: Vince Staples, Popcaan, Benjamin Clementine, D.R.A.M., Zebra Katz, Kilo Kish, Kali Uchis, Kelela, Danny Brown and Savages frontwoman Jehnny Beth. Unfortunately, several of the more seasoned vets are wasted, but they include Mavis Staples, Pusha T, Carly Simon, Grace Jones, Anthony Hamilton, house heroes Jamie Principal and Peven Everett, and Gorillaz emeritus Posdnous of De La Soul. Albarn's old pop nemesis Noel Gallagher turns up to sing a little on "We Got the Power," along with Jehnny Beth. Back in the day, Albarn fronted Blur, while Gallagher fronted Oasis.

The album is one of mixed results, but with 14 songs and six interludes on the regular album, one is not mired in the missteps for too long. That said, De La Soul is wasted on the quirky "Momentz" and Grace Jones gets to sing hardly any lyrics on "Charger," which opens with a two-note guitar lick.

One of the best tracks features Vince Staples on "Ascension." The lyric goes: "This the land of the free/Where you can get a glock and a gram for the cheap/Where you can live your dreams long as you don't look like me/Be a puppet on a string hangin' from a f***in' tree." "Let Me Out" is another bit of future shock, with Pusha T preaching, "Together we mourn, I'm praying for my neighbors" through a censor's bleeps, while Mavis Staples sings, "Change is coming/Best be ready for it."

Other highlights are deep house stalwart Everett on the soulful "Strobelite"; Popcaan doing reggae rap on "Saturnz Barz"; Albarn singing lead on "Bested and Blue," a dreamy piece of melancholy and resignation (Albarn also sings the preceding "Andromeda," an upbeat track named after an old soul club in the depressed area where he grew up); the nice beat of "She's My Collar," sung by Uchis; and the closing "We Got the Power," which is upbeat and optimistic. The disc also includes Benjamin Clementine's "Hallelujah Money," a gospel-style paean to capitalism, power, wall-building and moral relativism.

The deluxe edition adds a second disc with five more songs and a longer, more musical interlude. The best of the songs is "The Apprentice," whose second half has a rap about a "new black king." Everett is featured on "Halfway to the Halfway House," a spacey synth track. "Ticker Tape" meanders until it turns rocker; the track features old vinyl pops. Grade: B

Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen: Live From Ebbets Field Aug. 11, 1973 (RockBeat CD, 67:43). Neither Ebbets Field In Brooklyn (former home of the Brooklyn Dodgers Major League Baseball team), the inspiration for the same-named Denver club (misspelled on the CD jacket) where this concert took place, nor the Lost Planet Airman band exist anymore. The Brooklyn stadium was demolished in 1960 and George Frayne IV (alias Commander Cody) disbanded the group in 1976. Heck, even the small Ebbets Field club -- it only seated 238 in bleacher-style seating  -- closed in the late 1970s.

Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen was basically a popular country-rock dance band in the first half of the 1970s. The band mixed country, boogie, rock, western swing, rockabilly and jump blues. At the time of this recording, the band had a hit record in "Hot Rod Lincoln," although Frayne chose not to perform it on this night. The band was touring in support of its third album, "Country Casanova," from which came the song, "Rock That Boogie." The band's debut LP was the classic "Lost in the Ozone." The group’s core lineup was Frayne, Billy C. Farlow, Bill Kirchen, John Tichy, Lance Dickerson, Andy Stein and Bruce Barlow and they evolved in San Francisco Bay Area clubs.

Here, the band weaves together a handful of originals with some solid covers, including sad trucking songs, rocking rave-ups, Cajun and swing dance numbers, novelty tunes and a cowboy closer in the lullaby, "Sunset on the Sage." The stereo recording is very decent, although there are major dropouts  during "All I Have to Offer You (Is Me)" and "Diggy Liggy." The straight-ahead rockers include highlights "Good Rockin'," "Ain't Nothin' Shakin'," "Rave On," "Rock That Boogie," "Jailhouse Rock" and "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," the latter is part of the six-song encore. Upbeat country includes "Truck Drivin' Man" and "Diggy Liggy." A fun Frayne showcase is "Smoke That Cigarette," while "Truckin' and F***in'" probably would never get airplay. Bob Wills' Texas swing is represented by "4 or 5 Times." Grade: B+

Flamin' Groovies: Live1971 San Francisco (RockBeat CD, 53:50). From 1968 through 1992, the Flamin' Groovies were a San Francisco rock band that heavily influenced power pop. The band had three influential albums through 1971, including the outstanding "Teenage Head," but then did not release another album for five years. This live show was one of a series of shows that closed Bill Graham's Fillmore West venue. Yet, despite it being a showcase, the band mostly played covers this night. Only three songs were from the recent album: the title cut; their definitive cover of Randy Newman’s "Have You Seen My Baby" and "Doctor Boogie." They also play "Road House" (11 minutes, including a drum solo) from their "Flamingo" album and preview "Slow Death," a future single that features slide guitar and is the best song of the night. The sound quality is not the best, as it fades in and out.

The show opens with a cover of The Who's "I Can't Explain." Other covers include "Have You Seen My Baby," "Shakin' All Over," "Louie Louie" and "Walkin' the Dog." There are mini-drum solos in both "Teenage Head" and "Louie Louie." One reason for the long gap between albums is that this was leader Roy Loney's last gig with the band. (The band also had record label problems after Loney left. Loney resurfaced with a solo album in 1979.) Frustrated by the arrest of second lead guitarist Tim Lynch and the fact that their manager had run off with all their money, posters and so on, Loney quit the band. The CD notes are written by founding guitarist Cyril Jordan, who recalls he was electrocuted twice during the sound check ... and then once more during the show. Grade: B

The Supremes: A' Go-Go expanded edition (Motown, 2 CDs, 2:37:51). Released in August 1966 (just as I was starting my freshman year at Northwestern University outside of Chicago), the original version of the album marked two historic firsts: It was the first Motown album release to top the Billboard charts and it was the first female vocal group album to top the charts. Overall, it was the singing trio's 10th album, following by six months the adult contemporary-flavored "I Hear a Symphony" LP. While label head Berry Gordy chose Diana Ross to showcase due to her "star quality," both Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard were outstanding singers as well. On "Come and Get These Memories," Wilson had her first complete lead vocal since 1962.

The original album, presented here on disc one in both the mono and stereo versions, was a combination of new songs and covers, with most of the covers having been singles for other Motown acts. In all, eight of the tracks were written by the team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr., the writers of so many Motown hits, particularly for the Supremes (10 of their 12 No. 1 singles) and the Four Tops. They wrote the two hit singles off the album, "Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart" (No.9) and "You Can't Hurry Love" (No. 1, with one of the most famous intro bass lines). My other favorites from the album are "This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)" (H-D-H), with its wonderful melody and slightly honky horns, "Baby I Need Your Loving" (H-D-H; Four Tops in 1964) and their cover of "Get Ready" (a Smokey Robinson song originally recorded by The Temptations). Other covers include Lee Hazlewood's "These Boots Are Made for Walking" (a hit for Nancy Sinatra), "Shake Me, Wake Me (When It's Over)" (Four Tops), "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)" (H-D-H, Four Tops 1965), "Money, That's What I Want" (w. Janie Bradford and Berry Gordy Jr.; Barrett Strong in 1959; The Beatles in 1963) and "Hang On Sloopy" (The McCoys in 1965).

Disc one comes with five bonus tracks, including H-D-H's "Mickey's Monkey" (a hit for Smokey Robinson and The Miracles), a cover of "It's Not Unusual" (a hit for Tom Jones in 1965), the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" with an alternate vocal, "Stevie Wonder's "Uptight (Everything's Alright)" with an alternate vocal, and an alternate mix of H-D-H's "In My Lonely Room" (Martha and the Vandellas in 1964). Surprisingly, there is no cover of "Going to a Go-Go" (No. 11 in 1965 for Smokey Robinson and The Miracles), which would have seemed a natural for the album. However, a brief hidden bit at the end of disc one is an attempt by Wilson and Ballard at that song's backing vocals.

The second disc has four parts, with all 24 tracks previously unreleased. The first 15, titled "More A' Go-Go," are versions with seven alternate vocals, six alternate mixes and the first versions of "(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave" and "It's the Same Old Song." For "Heat Wave," Ross sings a gentle lead as the production was totally reimaged from the hit Martha and the Vandellas version. This version was never released, but a higher key version was recorded for the "A' Go-Go" album, but did not see light of day until "The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier- Holland" LP. The same fate befell "It's the Same Old Song" -- this version was recorded prior to the Four Tops version -- with a faster-paced version recut for subsequent release. The other alternate versions include "Can I Get a Witness," Wonder's "Just a Little Misunderstanding," the slower "Misery Makes a Home in My Heart," "This Old Heart of Mine," "Hang On Sloopy" and "Get Ready." The next section is six mellow tracks, all alternate mixes, including "Slow Down," "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted," Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "What the World Needs Now Is Love," Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," "With a Child's Heart" (alternate vocal) and Bacharach-David's "Let the Music Play."

Next up is a new made-in-the-studio melding of the Four Tops and The Supremes' versions of "Shake Me, Wake Me (When It's Over)" to create a never-existed duet. Finally, the disc ends with two other versions of "Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart"; the first is too slow and too low, while the second is a little too fast and too high. The third version, on the original album, of course, became the hit. The set comes with two illustrated booklets. The first includes a historical background by George Solomon and Andrew Skurow, while the second is a souvenir booklet, called "A Night with The Supremes." The latter has lots of vintage black-and-white photos. Both are 24 pages. Grade: A

Various: Gold original motion picture soundtrack (Varese Sarabande CD, 45:15). This is not the album of Daniel Pemberton's score for the film, but rather a collection of songs used in the film, including the Golden Globe-nominated title song, sung by Iggy Pop bizarrely in Leonard Cohen style. Pop and Danger Mouse were two of the song's four writers. The other selections are by some of my favorite New Wave and alternative bands of the 1980s, including Orange Juice's "Rip It Up" (it is a bit Talking Heads like, and elsewhere on the disc, Indie artist Kishi Bashi covers the Talking Heads' "This Must Be the Place" -- with cello), The Pixies' "Hey," Television's "1880 or So," Joy Division's "Atmosphere" and New Order's (the reinvented Joy Division after Ian Curtis' death) "Temptation." Additionally, there is The Big Dipper's rocker, "Ron Klaus Wrecked His House," Richard and Linda Thompson's classic "I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight" and the Isley Brothers' version of "Spill the Wine" (a hit for War). The film is being released on home video this week and is reviewed in my next video column. Grade: A

Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard: John Wick Chapter 2 original motion picture soundtrack (Varese Sarabande CD, 73:50). Having scored the first film, the duo return for the second with another highly electronic, action-oriented score. Pulsating electronics and very good percussion are the norm throughout and particularly on the cues "Man of Focus," "Wick in Rome" and "Knives on a Train." "Catacombs" is industrial rock, while the electronics turn abrasive in "John Wick Mode," with the latter performed by Le Castle Vania. There are a couple of songs as well, including the opening electronics of "Plastic Heart," performed by Ciscandra Nostalghia, and the closing "A Job To Do," sung by Jerry Cantrell (Alice in Chains). The latter is the most conventional piece on the disc. Grade: B+

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