Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Best Bits of 2007

Here's my dilemma. I'm a great fan of lists, but I'm not great at making my own. Partly, it's a question of time, and partly a question of taste. I just don't get to listen to that many records, watch that many movies and TV shows or read that many books. Much of the time, I'm still stuck in the 80's or early 90's - but what I do like, I'm pretty passionate about. In the past I've ranked albums I've bought in a particular year - many of which are not current - but with the amount of material I've discovered from my blogger friends and keeping my SanDisk player topped up, just listing some of my purchases from Wal-Mart seems somewhat churlish. And I'm certainly not qualified to attempt a comprehensive ranking of 2007 releases - if that's what you are looking for, then start here.

Instead, I've decided to describe my favorite discoveries of 2007, mainly music, but other things too. There's no ranking system, just a vaguely chronological presentation. As always, comments are welcome. Bring on 2008!

1. [Album] Grant Lee Phillips - Strangelet
Following on from an impressive covers album, Nineteeneighties, GLP issued a self-penned disc that continued the "busker-in-a-studio" vibe, and most importantly, some quality songs.
TRY THIS: The standout track, "Soft Asylum (No Way Out)"

2. [DVD] Music And Lyrics
I'm a sucker for movies about music and musicians, even when they take the form of a relatively predictable chick-flick. Hugh grant perfectly captures the heart of an aging teen-idol, and the spoof 80's tracks (by Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne) are genuinely great songs in their own right.
TRY THIS: The fantastic fake MTV video for "Pop Goes My Heart"

3. [Album] Amy MacDonald - This Is The Life
Massive in Britain, unknown in the States. Like Lily Allen and KT Tunstall, I'm expecting this one to be on a lot of Best Of lists next year, when the rest of the world catches on.
TRY THIS: The video for the title track, "This Is The Life"

4. [Movie] Ratatouille
My favorite Pixar movie, which is saying something. My daughter didn't like it, but I bought her the DVD anyway. A charming tale, and a lot of fun.
TRY THIS: Meet Colette. The hottest animation since Jessica Rabbit.

5. [Album] KT Tunstall - Drastic Fantastic
Talking of KT, I've no idea why her sophomore album didn't feature on any Best Of lists that I've seen. It's at least as good as the first album, Eye to the Telescope.
TRY THIS: The lead single, "Hold On"
BONUS: KT's managed to record quite a few cover versions in her short career. I've already posted "2000 Miles" but also check out her interpretation of Bloc Party's "The Prayer"

Phew, this is hard work. Time to go to a simpler list format.

6. [Album] The Shins - Wincing The Night Away
7. [Commercial] Miranda Kerr in the Victoria's Secret "Angels On Air" promo
8. [Album] Charlotte Martin - Reproductions
9. [Song] Rilo Kiley - "Dreamworld"
10. [TV] Battlestar Galactica
11. [Album] Steven Lindsay - Kite
12. [Song] MIKA - "Grace Kelly"
13. [Album] Kate Nash - Made of Bricks
14. [Album] The Rosebuds - Night of the Furies
15. [Album] Hard-Fi - Once Upon A Time In The West
16. [Album] Collective Soul - Afterwards
17. [Album] Fountains of Wayne - Traffic and Weather
18. [Song] Clark Datchler - "Tomorrow"
19. [Song] Keane - "The Night Sky"
20. [Song] Eva Cassidy and Katie Melua - "Wonderful World"

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

An Idiot's Guide To Fish

I've never written one of these before, but I've seen other people do them - so here goes. Fish is an artist I have suddenly rediscovered - through serendipitous circumstances I won't bore you with - and that's always an exciting experience for me.

Like many people I suspect, I was familiar in passing with Marillion before lead singer Fish left the group, but the reputation for concept albums, Fish's weird stage make-up and - let's be honest - an unhealthy obsession with harlequins, put me off. So when I discovered that I liked several singles from the new Steve Hogarth incarnation of Marillion, I kind of shrugged off Fish as being the weird one, a belief which seemed to be reinforced by firstly seeing a maniacal character on the single cover for "Big Wedge" and then seeing what appeared to be Jessie Rae's younger brother on the cover of Internal Exile. While Marillion seemed to edge closer to commercial acceptance, Fish became something of a cult figure, a strange cottage industry removed from ordinary music channels.

I rediscovered the singles "State of Mind" and "Big Wedge" back in 2001, and briefly tried to catch up with what was going on in the Fish-world. But the back catalogue was too large, too diverse, and - in the USA at least - too difficult to get hold of. So my interest waned.

But here we are in 2007, and this time around, I'm finding a lot to like in the lanky scot's myriad solo efforts. Hence a reappraisal is definitely in order.

By Fish's own admission, his debut solo album Vigil In A Wilderness of Mirrors (which quite easily could have become the next Marillion album) just took too long to come out. By 1990, Marillion has received positive plaudits for the Season's End album (and rightfully so, it's still firmly in place on my CD shelf) and Vigil in some ways seemed like an afterthought or, even worse, an anticlimax. The problem was that while Seasons had a clutch of radio friendly tracks, all of the songs on Vigil needed a little space to grow, to subvert the listener by stealth. Frankly, the album was about 15 years too early. Listening to it again in 2007, the themes seem remarkably prescient. "Big Wedge", the closest thing to a hit single, berated corporate America, pay-as-you-pray religion, and dubious foreign policy. Tellingly, the single sleeve also featured an aircraft approaching the twin towers. "State of Mind", the first single, also had its charms, "a clarion call for a gentle uprising", as I believe Q Magazine put it at the time. (Incidentally, it amazes me that I can forget where I parked at Wal-Mart but can still remember lines from CD reviews written 17 years ago about albums that I didn't even care for until much later) But other tracks on the album also had something to offer. For a more well-rounded assessment of what really was a pretty decent debut (in some quarters considered a prog-rock classic), you could do worse than listen to "A Gentleman's Excuse Me", "Family Business" or "Vigil In A Wilderness of Mirrors" itself.

One of the first clues I had that I was going to need to reappraise Fish's work was the sudden realization that not only had I never actually heard the title track to Internal Exile before, but that when I did hear it, it sounded great and completely different to what I expected. For reasons that I will explain in another post, my tastes lately have been running towards the so-called "celtic fringe", a range of artist from the borders of Britain who make passionate, lyrically rich music. Hence the jaunty reel and singalong style resonated with me in a way I didn't expect. The album itself was somewhat disjointed, as Fish wrestled with the direction he wanted his music to take. When you listen to the back catalogue as a body of work, you can't help but be impressed by the honesty, soul-baring, and sense of perennial bewilderment that Fish conveys in his compositions. When he addresses the romantic, he does so with a combination of abashed hopefulness and bruised naivety that is easy to identify with. Other highlights from the second album are "Credo" (analyzing the first Gulf War) and "Just Good Friends".

The third album Songs From The Mirror stalled Fish's solo career faster than a cinderblock meeting a Maserati. In retrospect, it was unclear just who would be interested in covers of Argent, Pink Floyd, Sandy Denny and others. Fish hit the nail on the head by pointing out that some would have been better served as B-Sides. Looking back, the album remains pleasant but nonessential. Try "Fearless" and "Apeman", but don't get your hopes up.

Having been dropped by EMI and then Polydor, Fish re-booted creatively by working with outside help and beginning his own record label, Dick Bros. The first studio-based fruit was Suits, a fairly conventional set let down by poor mastering. Fish was learning as he went along, but highlights include "Lady Let It Lie" and "Fortunes of War". Be sure to track down the remastered version if you want to add this one to the collection.

The next studio effort was Sunsets On Empire, which was effectively the death knell of the Dick Bros label. In the days before the internet, MySpace, and file-sharing it was incredibly difficult to sustain a truly independent record label and as Fish's music, and muse, suffered it was clearly time for a fresh direction. Nonetheless Sunsets is widely regarded as potentially Fish's best album overall, and the first one to try to recapture some of the progressive rock legacy that had earned such plaudits back in the early Marillion days. Much this was due to a collaboration with Steve Wilson (from Porcupine Tree) who brought in contemporary ideas as well as being a long time fan. Highlights include "Sunsets On Empire", "Goldfish & Clowns" and "Tara".

The creative (if not monetary) rejuvenation then led to 1999's Raingods With Zippos, a curiously balanced album which included both some highly commercial work and a conceptual suite "Plague Of Ghosts", which proved that Fish could deliver progressive ideas in an attractive and creative way. Interestingly enough, this critical renaissance coincided (in my own personal opinion) with the period when Hogarth-Marillion went off the rails slightly. I had enjoyed 1997's ambitious This Strange Engine but 1998's Radiation seemed forced (and unnecessarily derivative) and then 1999's seemed to promise much but fell flat. Back to Raingods, there are several highlights, including the ballad "Incomplete" and the rockers "Mission Statement" and "Faith Healer". Very worthy of reevaluation.

I will be honest and say that I have not spent a lot of time with the successive albums, Fellini Days (2001) and Field Of Crows (2003). Both projects are obviously thoughtful and point towards a more commercial sound as well as the exploration of very personal ideas. Some jumping off points include "So Fellini" and "Moving Targets". I would welcome comments from others who have spent more time with these albums.

All of this really leads me to the latest Fish project, 13th Star. Until a few days ago, I had no idea that a new album had been released. Currently, it is only available from the official website, in a limited edition package with a DVD. Retail versions will be available next spring. As well as being an attractive visual package, all the early reviews, and my own personal impression, is that this is a very strong album, possibly the highlight of Fish's career to date. I may produce a more thorough CD review in the near future, but in the meantime I have to say that this album grabs you by the throat from the first track. There is a consistency and evenness to the album that many of the previous solo works did not have. Much of the credit can go to Calum Malcolm, previous producer for the Blue Nile, among others, who has coaxed a massive sounding album out of the enigmatic laird. There are a lot of highlights, but I particularly enjoyed "Circle Line", "Arc of the Curve", "Zoe 25" and "Openwater". Could be one of the best albums of 2007.

I would be doing Fish a disservice by drawing attention to his output without mentioning where to go and get them. The Official Website is the place to find all these CD's, and in many cases the prices are very reasonable, particularly when most of the albums have been recently remastered with bonus tracks.

Fish is rightly perceived as a tremendous live artist, and as such there have been several live albums and other compilations, which I will not include in my review here. Suffice it to say, the official live albums are the place to start, but others do have their good points.

I'll finish by mentioning the source of much of my information - an extensive 90 minute interview with Fish produced by Voiceprint [Update: the interview was excellent but the mp3 no longer seems to be available. I'll upload a new link if and when I can find another one]

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Spot The Difference

(with apologies to Dr. Seuss)

All the Whos down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot
But the grinch (with a great taste in music) did NOT

"They'll do all their shopping at the Who-Mart store,
And they'll buy for anyone they met before,
Nannies and teachers, accountants and preachers,
Neighbors and cousins and other strange creatures.
They'll draw out a map of the space by the tree
Using GPS to position a present or three
They'll buy garlands and ribbons and musical elves
Candy and candles will fly off the shelves
They'll buy Bratz dolls and Star Wars toys I suppose
Like that cool R2-D2 (I want one of those!)
And indoor helicopters - now that's a great toy
(A bit better than the one I got as a boy)
They'll buy Hannah Montana CD's, I'll bet
No sign of that Red Box reissue as yet (bah humbug, Warners!)
And what's all this HD and Blu-Ray widescreen TV?
When there's no Metal Mickey out on DVD?"

But the real reason the grinch seemed so sad
Was that it was at this time of year when he saw what he had
And realized that lots of who-girls and boys
Weren't waiting this year for a sack of who-toys
They'd like some clean clothes and a bed of their own
To bathe in clean water and live in a home
The old Whos who'd worked in Whoville for years
Are living alone, confused and in fear
For all the PILLS, PILLS, PILLS)
And veterans who served their country in war
Are left out to rot like rags on the floor
Who's in charge here? Whoever they are
Will wave as they drive quickly by in the car
Just in time to arrive at the great who-bilation
Proud that they live in such a great nation
They'll wave all their flags and they'll fire who-rockets
And keep who-paws safe inside their who-pockets

And the grinch thought to himself:
"Maybe Christmas doesn't come from a store,
Maybe, just maybe, Christmas means a little bit more,
If we all think of someone we haven't before,
Maybe, just maybe, Christmas can come for us all."

Monday, December 10, 2007

Push Stars - Paint The Town (2004)

In case you hadn't already noticed, Christmas preparations are playing havoc with my blogging routine! So sorry to all those who keep waiting for things to return to normal. I hope you guys like variety!

Here's a CD that I got from Goodwill last week, and it's stayed in the car CD player for several days. I got it partly because it was new (I have a fetish for unwrapping sealed CD's and DVD's!) and because every review on Amazon gave it five stars out of five. That's maximum points from eleven people with no-one saying "yeah, but" or "didn't like this track". As it happens, they were all correct.

I really don't know anything about the band except that they make bright, shiny, commercial pop/rock with that mixture of sincerity and self-belief that the Americans do better than anyone else. Contemporaries would be Lifehouse, The Goo Goo Dolls, maybe even the Shins in a commercially focused mood.

The album is still in print, so I'm just going to put up some tasters, with the emphasis on "tasty". It was very hard to pick a few tracks, as they are really all quite good. Hopefully, this band will be a new discovery for many of you.

The Push Stars - In The Galaxy (buy the mp3 track at Amazon)

The Push Stars - Paint The Town (buy the mp3 track at Amazon)

The Push Stars - Hanging By A Thread (buy the mp3 track at Amazon)

Probably my favorite track is the closer, "Drifting Away". I've added it to my Java player and you can buy the track here. Sorry for the commercial plugs but I've always said that I have no intention of withholding earnings from artists when commercial outlets are available.

Friday, December 7, 2007


It's a cold, wet Friday afternoon here in Tennessee. A good time, then, to explore the colourful (and dry) reaches of cyberspace. Tomorrow, Christmas shopping madness awaits.

First of all, a big "mwah!" of blog lovin' to my bud The Ghost of Electricity as we do seem to talk the same language (i.e. "bother" rhymes with "hover) and his blog is chock-full of tasty bits 'n' pieces. Seemingly fearless, he even posted a track from Phillip Bailey's Chinese Wall album which, by a strange coincidence also contains the first single I ever bought ("Easy Lover") which remains a favourite to this day. Other posts include 808 State, The Killers (covering Dire Straits!) Aztec Camera (a tribute to Evel Knievel!) and, er, a pegboard. And what, pray, is "Aged P's"?

Also have to a mention Cesar from Mexico. Probably the only blog named after dog food (yes, that was an Eddie Izzard joke BTW). Recent posts include Fiat Lux, The Cranes, and a bunch of early 90's records.

If you've been enjoying the Christmas posts then hie thee over to the Duke of Straw, who has reposted two sizeable compilations of tunes. Oh, and take a sandwich with you, as a veritable cornucopia awaits - someone seems to have some free time this Christmas!

A recent addition to the blogroll is So Frenchy, a site that is very....French! Nice art, good tunes, nice girl. The art seems to be from DeviantArt by the way, always worth a surf.

Talking of DeviantArt, it's about time I mentioned emeraldiris, a photographer from Kentucky. I grabbed the header image for my site from her art page. Now, I really should buy a print. And so should you!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Random 80's Wednesday

Chris Rea - Let Me Be The One (B-Side of "Loving You", 1982)
1000 Mexicans - Diving For Pearls (from Dance Like Ammunition, 1985)
Machinations - Predator (from Big Music, 1985)
Bourgie Bourgie - Breaking Point (7" Single, 1984)
This Final Frame - Stories (7" Single, 1985)

Clark Datchler - Fishing For Souls (1992)

Clark Datchler left Johnny Hates Jazz in 1988 at the height of his fame. After internal differences within the band had led to a painful separation, he sought to rediscover a deeper sense of purpose in his music. He moved to Amsterdam and began work on a solo album called Raindance. The album featured some renowned LA musicians, including bass player Nathan East, drummer JR Robinson and percussionist Paulinho Da Costa. Also featured was guitarist Dave Gregory of XTC. The album also saw Clark’s first environmental song, “Raindance” – one of many to follow. The Raindance album was released in 1990 on Virgin Records, with an epic track called “Crown Of Thorns” being the first single. However the song, which suggested that Jesus was a courageous mortal man and not the son of God, and which criticized organized religions in the process, was shunned by radio and failed to chart. Consequently, the album was only released in Japan, where it did achieve commercial success. In 1991, Datchler went back into the studio to re-record and re-mix some tracks from Raindance with Rupert Hine, producer of Tina Turner, The Fixx and Howard Jones. Four new songs were added to the line-up, and the new album was titled Fishing For Souls. The first single, “The Last Emotion”, received little attention, and as the relationship between Virgin Records and Datchler deteriorated further, he left the record label. Shortly after, Virgin Records became part of EMI, and the consolidation of the world’s media began. Fishing For Souls was eventually made available as a bootleg, and is so sought after now that it occasionally appears on E-Bay for a sale price of between $500 and $1000 (from Wikipedia).

Clark Datchler - Fishing For Souls (1992)
  1. State Of Play (Remix)
  2. Broken Spirit
  3. Child To Be
  4. Crown Of Thorns (Remix)
  5. The Last Emotion (Remix)
  6. Fishing For Souls
  7. Widow
  8. Raindance (Remix)
  9. It's Better This Way (Remix)
I've deleted the link as Clark is planning a re-release in the near future. More news at his website,

November Group - Persistent Memories EP (1983)

In the driving "I Live Alone," Ann Prim's machine-gun vocal echoes a monotone Greta Garbo by way of Marlene Dietrich. The band had a powerful presence live in concert, and lots of angst that gets subdued when translated to vinyl in a studio. Good production work by Ann Prim and A. Kirby, who goes by the name of Kearney Kirby, became the trademark of these warriors. Everything is so serious with November Group -- "Night Architecture" sounds and feels contrived, but that doesn't take away from its beauty. Whether Prim and Kirby were doing this as a calculated business move (which MCA recording artist the Rings appeared to be doing before them) or if these songs emerged because it was their art at the time, isn't the point. For what it is, it is very good. Where an instrumental version of "Put Your Back to It" might have been fun, actually putting an instrumental like "Night Architecture" on a disc is a bit redundant. All this techno rock seems to work well sans vocals on the dancefloor anyway -- and the voice takes so long to kick in on "Heart of a Champion" that side two is very much like one long dance mix. "Heart of a Champion" is excellent, though it shows the group's limitations; of all their material it sounds the most dated. This is Devo in a very serious light. "Heart of a Champion" is "Whip It" with a longer chorus. It is the first track, "Put Your Back to It," which is the hit. This is the original long version of a song they would re-record for their A&M Records disc, Work That Dream. Don Foote on vocals and bass, and Alvan Long, the drummer who appeared on the first November Group EP, left for their own group shortly after this. Although not very original, these are good sounds worth finding and dancing to again. (from

November Group - Persistent Memories EP
  1. Put Your Back To It
  2. I Live Alone
  3. Night Architecture
  4. Heart of a Champion

On The Fourth Day of Christmas

Not too jolly today.

Barenaked Ladies - Green Christmas

Todd Thibaud - Christmas Without You

Erasure - She Won't Be Home For Christmas

Saturday, December 1, 2007

On The First Day Of Christmas

Like other bloggers I know, I'm going to start posting some Christmas songs as we get into the holiday season. I've collected quite a few over the years, and many of these are not widely known or easily available. Let me know which ones you like, or if you have any requests.

Frazier Chorus - Christmas Every Year

Red Flag - Black Christmas

Eurythmics - Winter Wonderland