Thursday, 28 July 2011

Marlena Shaw - The Spice of Life [1969]



Artist: Marlena Shaw
Album: The Spice of Life
Label: Cadet

Whenever summer comes around, I inevitably go to listen to big summer albums, and that usually means Motown, hip-hop, soul, funk, etc. Marlena Shaw is a soul singer, perhaps most famous for her version of the song "California Soul", which itself features on this record. The Spice of Life is Shaw's second album and is, from what I can gather, the most popular and critically acclaimed release of her career. I'm not all too knowledgeable about soul and funk, mainly because it's a lot harder to find information about it on the 'net than it is with other genres, but this record is up there for me with Curtis Mayfield's stuff and if like I was, you have yet to find a way into the seemingly vast amount of classic soul records that are out there, this is definitely a good starting point.

It's pretty much impossible to discuss The Spice of Life without talking about this record's finest cut, "California Soul", a stone-cold classic that pays homage to the spirit of the west-coast. Having never been to California, and living in the North of England, I think I'm probably least qualified to say whether or not the song actually evokes the spirit of the west-coast, but when I hear gorgeous lines like this:

"They say the sun comes up every morning / and if you listen oh so carefully / the winds that ride on the high tide / whistles a mellow beat / and so the people started to sing / and that's how the surf gave birth, I'm told / to California soul"

I really don't care whether or not it's realistic or not; it's just a great lyrical distillation of the essence of the endless summer. I had to actually hold myself back from writing out the lyrics to the whole song, because each line is really as great as the next one. Instrumentally, it's spectacular too, slamming together blaring brass parts and climactic strings swells, all wrapped up in a Spector-esque wall of sound reverb wash. I think one would actually find it hard to pick out something about the track that's not iconic.

Shaw isn't limited to the feelgood vibes of "California Soul" however, showing a remarkable range of styles and subject matter over the course of the record, from the politically driven "Woman of the Ghetto", to the slower romantic ballads like "Go Away Little Boy" and the jazz-tinged "Looking Through the Eyes of Love". I'm a total sucker for those massive-sounding soul orchestrations and there's plenty of that to get your teeth into here. On top of that, you really couldn't hope for a better voice than Shaw's to guide you through the whole album.

Tracklist:

1) Woman of the Ghetto
2) Stormy Monday
3) Where Can I Go?
4) I'm Satisfied
5) I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to Be Free)
6) Liberation Conversation
7) California Soul
8) Go Away Little Boy
9) Looking Through the Eyes of Love
10) Anyone Can Move a Mountain

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Monday, 25 July 2011

The Bilinda Butchers - Regret, Love, Guilt, Dreams [2011]



Artist: The Bilinda Butchers
Album: Regret, Love, Guilt, Dreams
Label: n/a

For me, one of the most eagerly awaited releases of the year, Regret, Love, Guilt, Dreams is the first EP from Californian dream-poppers The Bilinda Butchers. Having already released a handful of tracks via BandCamp, MySpace and their official blog, it was already pretty clear that this was going to go down as one of the best releases of the year. Although the band have been compared to other European dream/indie pop groups like the Radio Dept., the place that the music takes you to is wholly different and to me, very Californian. I remember reading an interview with the London group Hype Williams where they talked about their love of "chillwave" and all of the sunny west-coast electronic music coming out of California, but that they could never make it themselves. As Londoners, they just couldn't sincerely emulate the sun-bleached optimism of their American counterparts. To me, The Bilinda Butchers represent the same polarity, but reversed.

Regret, Love, Guilt, Dreams is an incredibly well-balanced record, moving delicately between moments of youthful melancholy and the bliss of long summers. The Bilinda Butchers capture all of the emotions of youth through their California-tinged glasses, which incorporates funk basslines, electro pop, dream pop, ambient music and even echoes of hip-hop, house and Japanese music. It is the blend of these influences into a seamless, beautifully produced EP that makes The Bilinda Butchers stand out from the hoard of indie pop upstarts.

Having heard three of the six tracks already (two of which, "Tulips" and "Sigh" benefit greatly from a remaster) I was already sure what to expect from the group; "All My Friends" is a bouncy summer anthem, which to me is about those summers spent indoors alone surrounded by friends that aren't really there. "Tulips" is winner of the most bad-ass bass line competition, and throws together elements of funk, the band's own signature style of dream pop, 80's synth pop and some brilliant little nuggets of lyrical gold ("she said 'I don't give a shit about you'"). "Sigh" has a very Japanese feel to it, with the melody being driven by the sound of a koto. The song is also one of the most climactic tracks that the band has ever written, with huge white noise washes, chiptune interference, reverberating vocals and absolutely huge drum fills, all of which culminate in the outro; a massive wash of guitars and synths. And it's not even the end of the record yet. The three tracks that I hadn't heard were a welcome surprise to me. "Boyfriend", undoubtedly one of the best tracks on the EP (and according to all my friends "DEFINITELY SINGLE MATERIAL") pretty much summarises everything I love about The Bilinda Butchers, some of the best synth designs I've heard in a long time, gliding shoegaze guitars, samples of what sounds like cheerleaders or children playing and some of the most downright romantic lyrics that never suffer from sounding tacky or overwrought. "Careless Teens" shows a slightly different side to the band, where acoustic guitars clash with mechanical beats in a joyous pop cacophony.

The final track of Regret, Love, Guilt, Dreams really blew me away, and continues to do so. "Secrets" is a slow moving ambient piece, based on one long synth drone, a subtle drum beat, simple bass line and one lilting acoustic guitar loop. For me, it is the most moving piece on the record, and by the time the Chinese film sample comes in at the end, you've practically broken down in an emotional heap. This final track represents to me everything powerful about music. It is so remarkably simple, and yet through an awareness of the passage of time in music and an ear for the interplay between a drone and a simple guitar phrase, something so straightforward can be turned into an experience of great catharsis.

This goes down as one of my favourite dream pop records ever. It's concise, but forward looking and delicately done. Thus far, it's a definite contender for my favourite release of 2011. Best of all, it's available for however much you think it's worth via The Bilinda Butcher's BandCamp page.

Tracklist:

1) All My Friends
2) Tulips
3) Careless Teens
4) Sigh
5) Boyfriend
6) Secrets

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