Simple Minds, Brilliant Things

SimpleMinds2019 SITR CoverSimple Minds hail from Scotland, the most successful musical export from that land during the 80s, with five number one albums in the UK.  The long time leaders of the band, Jim Kerr (vocals) and Charlie Burchill (guitars) take a rather unique approach to music, poetry and stagecraft. The band’s music has gone through several evolutions, which range from the first four art-rock/krautrock inspired albums, to the transitional fifth 1983’s New Gold Dream, to the follow up rock heavy Sparkle in the Rainin 1984. The pinnacle of their early more experimental work are the pair of “EP” records Sister Feelings Call and Sons of Fascination both dropped in 1981 without a release in the states.

Released in 1982,New Gold Dream (81/82/83/84) would be the first record available in the states without paying the import fees. after the band signed with A&M records. This landmark record had a production draped in layers of lush, romantic synth, and echoes of Roxy Music, Japan, and Duran Duran. It’s a gorgeous record that pinned the band’s profile to the New Romantic movement.

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This incarnation of their sound while popular lasted just a moment, as the next release, Sparkle in the Rain (1984), went to #1 in the UK, even as it was a big turn in the road for Simple Minds. In contrast to New Gold Dream and to extent earlier efforts, Sparkle In The Rain presented a muscular, aggressive version of the band, a demanding wall of sound produced by Steve Lillywhite, who had been at the helm for U2, Peter Gabriel, Siouxsie and the Banshees and others.  The stadium rock sheen led one fan called it right – “art school rock with fantastic bombast.”

Sparkle In The Rain begins with a spoken count in for opening track “Up On The Catwalk”  (1,2, 1-2-3-4) followed by the crack of drummer Mel Gaynor’s snare in time with Mick McNeil’s ringing piano chords on his new Yamaha Grand. It’s a fantastic way to start the album – a powerful song with lyrics about hypocrisy in Britain, constructed from a riff and a promise that “I will be there” instead of a chorus, delivered with urgency by lead singer Jim Kerr.  Throughout the record, guitarist Charlie Burchill’s adds rhythms, serpentine licks and washes of color to each track, often begging the attentive listener to wonder how he is achieving the sound.  Again on this album as with their back catalog, bassist Derek Forbes, one of the absolute best players in that era, drives many of the tracks with his propulsive, creative leads – demonstrated by just a cursory listen to the hit “Waterfront” or “Kick Inside of Me”, the latter including fierce vocals from Jim that sounds as if he is actually shaking off fearful ghosts:

And we steal the world and live to survive
Shake out the ghosts and turn around
In spite of me, shake up the ghosts inside of me

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Now full time drummer Mel Gaynor smacks his snare with what seems like Herculean might – and when he runs the toms from top to bottom its like the roar of approaching thunder.  This coupled with Derek’s monster bass leads, establish the bottom end of the sound, and part of said wall, through which it often seems the bits of piano, synth and guitar emerge, shine, then fade back into the mix. Jim’s vocals work in and around the music structured more often than not in a scat-like rather than verse-chorus-verse form, something that made this band unique among peers. All of these elements combine to create the brilliant things found herein.

There is a re-mastered version of this landmark album in a box set format. It includes the original album re-mastered in stereo and various surround sound mixes by prog wizard Steve Wilson, an audio recording of a live concert from the era, a few videos, live performances from the BBC and various TV shows, a beautiful re-print of the concert program for the tour, and a complete background on the album, with track by track liner notes.

Part of the set presents a live concert from early in the tour, recorded at Barrowland Glasgow on February 28, 1984.  It’s an excellent document that captures the band on their home turf and in their prime.  Called the “Tour du monde”, the tour to support Sparkle… included a seven-night residency at the Hammersmith Odeon. It was the last tour of that period booked primarily in the smaller theaters.  I caught it at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco on a night that cemented their vaulted place in my heart. The recording herein is a potent reminder of the band’s live prowess at this time. After this tour, the next album Once Upon A Timetook the band to stadiums where much of the subtlety found here was lost for a time.

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To fully appreciate the allure of this band, they must be seen in concert, and there are several worthy performances captured to cement their place in history. On this set there are three videos, followed by television appearances of the same tracks – “Waterfront,” “Speed You Love To Me,” and “Up On The Catwalk.”  The latter two live videos, though truncated by credits, are taken from a performance on the Oxford Road Show at the end of January 1984, just before the album was released.  Of all the television and live concert appearances of the band at the time, this is one of the greatest – as the two tracks are played faithfully to studio versions, allowing us to be witness to just how their sound was achieved, certainly answering the question, “just what is Charlie playing!”

Only carp about the DVD is that it should have included the film taken at Westfalenhalle, Dortmund on 24 June 1984.  This is excellent footage of the band still available on Youtube that would have rounded out the box set: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkanFaSJXIU&feature=youtu.be

Because Sparkle in the Rain sits in their catalog between the romantic New Gold Dream, and the subsequent more commercial smash Once Upon A Time, it might escape the attention it deserves. In fact, booklet liner notes suggest the album promised that greater things were to come from the band. Perhaps these comments make the best argument for a re-evaluation of this work, and the box set treatment with engineering from Steve Wilson. Before deciding for yourself, check out this set in all of its grandeur.

(photos by the incomparable Armando Gallo)

 

 

 

Beck on Point

Beck Colors Album CoverWe’ve seen indie artist Beck several times over the last couple decades and the shows have been a bit uneven; usually presenting a mixed bag of songs that emphasize whatever is most top of mind for this diverse artist, and often with Beck himself seeming a bit disconnected from the proceedings. Not so on this fantastic night July 14th2019 at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California. Beck was in absolute top form, commanding attention as “front man” and master of ceremonies. Beck sang, played his guitars, and danced – yes danced, skillfully and infectiously for the rapturous crowd.

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The core of the set on this night put emphasis on Beck’s upbeat, groovy tunes, including “Girl,” “Mixed Bizness” and “Up All Night.” The latter was one of three songs plucked from 2017’s Colors, a very up-tempo record for Beck, often calling to mind 70s disco music, and it set the celebratory tone for the whole show. A glance through the set list, with albums and dates credited, shows a balanced pick of tracks from “Loser” 1993 to the new single from this year, “Saw Lightning.”  With just this one new song to promote (the next album Hyperspaceis not yet released) this show, though a bit short at 75 minutes, ended up as a sort of mini greatest hits compilation, with 14 of his own songs, and a handful of covers, ranging from the touching The Korgis cover “Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime” to the Rolling Stones “Miss You,” and Chic’s disco hit “Good Times.” Several of the covers fell at the end of the set; just after Cage The Elephant’s lead singer Matt Schultz joined Beck on stage for their collaboration “Night Running.” Having not been wowed by Cage’s set, or Schultz, these fans found solace in the fact that Beck absolutely nailed just over a dozen of his greatest songs.

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The production was stellar. It included rear projections, and a dazzling, colorful light show, which made ample use of geometric shapes, lasers and rich vibrant tones. One of the clever rear projections included live shots of the musicians from directly above their heads, projected just behind each, and was artfully done. Sound was fantastic – balanced, not over loaded with bass as can happen with this era of music.

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The bands Cage the Elephant, Spoon, and Starcrawler opened for Beck. For these fans, only Spoon was of interest, and they delivered, squinting in the hot sun through a short set that emphasized lead singer/guitarist Britt Daniel’s vocal prowess and riff-driven songs, following a release this year of their greatest hits.

Beck began his career with a long search for something that would set him on a proper course, and lift him from a poverty with which he had learned to cope, playing folk songs on the street for cash. It was clear on this night that Beck is still on that restless journey, one that he has paused along the way, to pay particular attention to various forms of rock, folk, pop and even disco music. We felt lucky to be part of this very upbeat detour, part of the “good times!”

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p.s. it’s worth noting that Beck also recently appeared in a very good documentary film, Echo in the Canyon, which featured Jakob Dylan leading a cast of guest musicians through the L.A. Laurel Canyon songbook from the mid sixties when bands like The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Mama’s and the Poppas, The Beach Boys, and CSN brought folk rock to the masses. Beck performs on several songs in a tribute concert that includes Dylan as bandleader, joined by Fiona Apple, Cat Power, Nora Jones and others. It’s a heartfelt tribute to these bands, and an excellent film in general for any fan of rock and folk music.