Month: December 2014

Archbudgie’s Top 10 Albums of 2014 (Part 2)

Told you part 2 would be up before too long. Here’s part 1 if you fancy catching up.

#5. The Treatment – Running with the Dogs

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I already reviewed this album when it came out, so there’s not much to add here. Running with the Dogs is a tougher, heavier album than This Might Hurt with strong hints of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal to its sound, something I only actually noticed as I was coming up with this list. Like Toseland you could argue that it’s the same ride you’ve had a thousand times before, but what a ride, right?

#4. Blues Pills – Blues Pills

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Another great Nuclear Blast signing (that lot are on a roll right now, aren’t they?), Blues Pills’ sound is, like a lot of the stuff I’ve been listening to recently, very much entrenched in the middle of the last century. The Sixties influence is undeniable and, I would say, so is the songwriting craft on here: these are some marvellous blues-rock songs, matched to some stunning vocals from singer Elin Larsson. If anything, I’d argue this is an even better experience than listening to something taken directly from the Sixties: a blasphemous statement, perhaps, but the production is clean, the performances are punchy and the whole record has a warmth to it that a lot of the albums that likely influenced it couldn’t match (due to technological insufficiency and all the white rabbits the engineers were seeing, I imagine). The guitars are fuzzy, the melodies are cracking, the grooves are lean but punchy… ah, gee, it’s all just so good, y’know? As for favourites I’d probably go with “Black Smoke”, “High Class Woman”, “Jupiter” and their smashing cover of Chubby Checker’s “Gypsy”. Another great debut this year, not to mention a wonderful introduction for anyone to the mid-European/Scandinavian retro-rock scene, which is really on fire at the moment.

#3. Rival Sons – Great Western Valkyrie

Great Western Valkyrie

I still can’t decide if this is slightly better than, or a little under par from their last album, 2012’s Head Down, but it’s still a great record. They’ve mellowed a bit on this one, putting aside the mystic swagger of that record for a bluesier, more vintage feel, though they’ve kept the groove, the swing and the fuzz guitars around. “Good Luck”, “Secret” and “Open My Eyes” are as good as anything they’ve ever written, but the real sensations of the album are its slow-burners: “Good Things,” an understated but wonderful bit of soul rock; and “Destination on Course,” a ballad that starts off muted and builds into an absolute monster. Cracking stuff. I should also point out “Belle Starr” which is probably the most complex song they’ve ever written, even if I can’t decide whether I actually like it or not. Despite that, though, it’s a highly accomplished record with a plethora of future classics and a stylish progression of their sound that maintains the key blues and rock elements which define it. Now it’ll be interesting to see how they carry this sound forward again.

#2. California Breed – California Breed

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I’d been anticipating Hughes’ new band since they recorded their debut album in Nashville last Christmas and, fortunately, the results didn’t disappoint. There’s an acid-laced, psychedelic feel to much of the music here, particularly the buzzing guitars of “Invisible” and “Days They Come”; if Hughes’ previous band, Black Country Communion, took direct influence from Seventies rock music, California Breed goes back a little further to the early Seventies and mid to late Sixties: the glam trot of “Sweet Tea”, the Stones gospel kick of “Midnight Oil”, the Sabbath crawl of “Chemical Rain” and the New York strut of “Spit You Out” all sound as if they’ve been plucked straight from that era. Should it apologise for not being particularly original? No, because at the end of it all these are just some stonking good rock songs, retro or otherwise. Hughes is on ridiculously fine form – that voice! – Bonham’s drumming is as terrific as ever (which makes it such a shame that he’s since left the group to join Sammy Hagar’s band) and newcomer Watt plays his axe like a veteran in the making. It’s tight, it’s loose, it’s fresh, it’s raw and it’s colourful.

If you’re looking to get this for yourself, I highly recommend you shell out for the deluxe edition for another great track, “Solo”. As for Watt, if you’ve got time and a bit of spare cash, check out his 2011 solo EP, The Mulberry Tree. Not quite the same sound as the Breed, but great stuff all the same.

#1. Sixx: A.M. – Modern Vintage

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Yep, you’re reading this right: Nikki Sixx’s side-project came up with my favourite album of 2014. I just utterly loved this record from the first listen. For Sixx: A.M., Modern Vintage is a complete musical 180 away from the overwrought, highly-emotional gloom rock of their first two albums as they dive into a landscape of upbeat melodies, infectious hooks and sheer wonderful bombast. The album is like a mirror reflecting all my not-all-that-guilty pleasures: there’s stomping glam-flecked rock (“Gotta Get It Right”, “Let’s Go”), funk (“Miracle”), disco (“Let It Haunt You”), dramatic Goth-rock (“Relief”), some sort of old West-y shuffle (“Get Ya Some”, “Before It’s Over”) and I love it all.

What’s interesting, though, is that it doesn’t completely sacrifice their original sound – the emotive vocals and heavy guitar of This is Gonna Hurt are still here – but the dark skies have cleared and, for once, Sixx: A.M. actually sound like they enjoy being in a band. And there’s another thing: they actually sound like a band instead of a side-project, possibly because this is the first record of theirs to not be a companion piece to one of the bassist’s books, but also possibly because they’ve opened up the writing process to include new sounds and ideas. Sure, they might be pop songs when you dig deep enough, but they’re ruddy brilliant pop songs. Why can’t any of the Top 40 cretins write stuff as bracing and joyous as this?

A couple of other things: I know there have been grumbles about their covering The Cars’ “Drive” but, if I’m honest, I don’t particularly care for the original anyway, so the fact the band have got me to enjoy it through their version says something in my books. Also, Sixx has made it fairly clear that once Mötley Crüe’s final tour is over, his main concern will be Sixx: A.M. That’s how much of an effect this record has had on me: it’s actively made me look forward to the demise of a band I love, just so I can get another Sixx: A.M. record like this.

I should probably bring up some honourable mentions because, at least for me, 2014 was a pretty decent year for new music:

  • Vandenberg’s MoonKings – MoonKings: Adrian Vandenberg returned to the music scene this February with a great blues-rock album, very reminiscent of early Eighties Whitesnake (which is interesting, considering that Vandenberg joined the band in the late Eighties when they were at their absolute poodle-permiest).
  • Various Artists – Ronnie James Dio – This is Your Life: what’s more surprising than the fact that this tribute album finally dropped this year is just how solid it is. A fitting tribute with some very worthy names.
  • Black Stone Cherry – Magic Mountain: a much better album than their last, punching up the riffs and cutting down on the ballads with just a slight polish to keep things modern. Probably my favourite album of theirs since the debut.
  • John Garcia – John Garcia: after two decades of band-hopping Garcia finally releases a solo record. Solid, catchy desert rock with elements of all his previous efforts: the stoner sprawl of Kyuss and Slo Burn, the riffy stomp of Unida and Hermano and the dusty crunch of Vista Chino. Good stuff.
  • Black State Highway – Black State Highway: the debut album from a new band with a crisp, groovy hard rock sound, some tasty riffs  and an excellent vocalist – and at just over half an hour long, a short and thoroughly satisfying listen. Well worth your support.
  • Orange Goblin – Back from the Abyss: following on from the success of 2012’s A Eulogy for the Damned comes another great album of pure, red-hot heavy metal, keeping the grooves nice and steady with a faint touch of space rock, hearkening back to 2000’s classic The Big Black.

Archbudgie’s Top 10 Albums of 2014 (Part 1)

We’re approaching the end of the year, now, and I’m just going to put this out here right now: I can’t wait for 2015. I might even have to come up with another list of just how many ace records there should be out next year. Anyway, you may have noticed the music zines beginning to spit out their “best-of-year” lists and, in the spirit of the season, I thought I’d come up with one myself.

Now, not being in possession of infinite time or money I obviously haven’t listened to everything (or even a tangible fraction of everything) released this year, so these will all be taken from the pool of albums I’ve shelled out for, all ranked in order of how-much-I-enjoyed-them-ness. As a result this should not be taken as an authoritative document on the sonic landscape of 2014, whatever that may or may not have actually been. There’s no particular science to this, either: it’s really just the stuff I liked most this year and a few thoughts and notes on why I enjoyed each record mixed into something of a mini-review. Enjoy.

#10. Kasabian – 48:13

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I ended up enjoying this album far more than I thought I would. 48:13 is a looser, dancier record for Kasabian after the tough, experimental aggro-rock of Velociraptor!, hearkening back to their electronic roots but with a fuller, more polished sound. For all the band’s guff about being one of the last remaining rock bands out there, the songs here are mostly pop in construction with a coat of rock attitude, but after it’s all said and done they’re mostly really good songs. The instrumental interludes aren’t necessary and the odd snoozer messes up the consistency of the thing, but “bumblebeee”, “stevie” and “treat” are what Kasabian do best: dance-flecked stadium rock with attitude. Velociraptor!, to me, remains their best work, and if you didn’t like Kasabian before I couldn’t tell you how this album might change your tune, but I enjoyed it.

#9. Manic Street Preachers – Futurology

manicsfuturologySomething of a companion to 2013’s Rewind the Film (well, not really, but they were recorded at the same time), Futurology contrasts the melancholy acoustic sound of that record with a brash, explosive and experimental, but still very melodic album. There’s a definite sense of propulsion here that’s been missing on their last couple of releases, with a greater, more expansive palette of sounds, styles and rhythms that combine together well to make it an eclectic, if not completely consistent, piece of work. The Manics are still firmly entrenched in both their intellectual pursuits and their musical roots and, as a result, Futurology is an album that looks back as much as it does forward, both symbolically to the art and architecture of the twentieth century and sonically to Seventies Krautrock (“Europa Geht Durch Mich”) and Eighties New Wave (“Walk Me to the Bridge”); at the same time, lush, orchestrated pop songs like “Black Square” and “Divine Youth” could easily have slotted in somewhere on Everything Must Go. The guest vocalists are back again and, while Georgia Ruth and Nina Hoss are both excellent, I have to say my favourite outside contribution is Green Gartside and his wonderfully understated vocals on “Between the Clock and the Bed”. Another successful reinvention for the Manics, then. The only question now is, where do they go from here, if indeed there is anywhere left to go?

#8. Toseland – Renegade

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I pre-ordered this from PledgeMusic on the strength of their Life is Beautiful EP and thoroughly enjoyed it from the off, something fairly rare with me. I suppose my appreciation for this record is largely based on just how pleasantly surprised I was by it: former biker turns rock star is not something that should really have worked, but sometimes it’s the ones who break expectations that remind us how little we should rely on our assumptions. Toseland is a fantastic vocalist with a great band behind him and the songs are just pure rock bliss: the energetic “Singer in a Band”, the strutting “Comin’ to Get Ya”, the grinding “Good Eye Blind” and the wonderful title track are all worth checking out, but I don’t think there’s a single song on here I’d say I disliked. That’s all there really is to it: simple, muscular, melodic hard rock with some excellent vocals and well-crafted songs. Meat and potatoes it might be, but do you know what else meat and potatoes are? Freaking delicious, not to mention a satisfying and nutritious meal. Argue with that.

#7. Judas Priest – Redeemer of Souls

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I might as well point out now: this list is going to be pretty heavy on rock and metal because that’s mostly what I listen to, so if you’re looking for someone else to sing the praises of Perfume Genius or FKA Twigs you won’t find much love here.

Anyway, Redeemer of Souls is an interesting album because, as much as it recalls the Priest sound of the past, it also takes it in a new Gothic/power metal direction which Priest have never really dabbled in before, at least not to the extent they do here. It’s both a typical and atypical record, perhaps in part due to the replacement of longtime guitarist K.K. Downing, who retired in 2011, with newbie Richie Faulkner (who boasts quite possibly my favourite name ever). It must be said that he certainly brings a new energy to the band: where Angel of Retribution, the first Halford-reunion record, often felt a bit stiff and unsure of itself, this record is vicious, brash and confident. “Dragonaut”, “Halls of Valhalla” and “Battle Cry” are thoroughly stirring stuff and, as long as you don’t take your music too seriously, a lot of fun. The one song that actively gave me chills, though, was “Beginning of the End”, which manages to capture in a bottle that late Seventies, pre-“Hell Bent for Leather” sound more than anything they’ve put out in the last thirty-eight years. It’s not a perfect set of songs, but Redeemer of Souls is easily the best Priest album since Painkiller.

#6. Crobot – Something Supernatural

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A bit of a whim purchase, this, but a much welcomed one, Crobot have a heavy, groove-driven rock sound with a great balance of melody and riffage, making a wonderful new entry in the genre of what I like to call “beard rock.” The vocals often remind me of Myles Kennedy’s recent work with Slash while the songs have a gut-punch clout reminiscent of recent work from Clutch and Orange Goblin. “Nowhere to Hide”, “Legend of the Spaceborne Killer”, “Chupacabra” and “Cloud Spiller” are all loud, fun and catchy with some really cool lyrics based in science fiction and folklore (if you’re into that sort of thing, which I am). There is actually a ballad on here, too – final track “Queen of the Light” – which is surprisingly sophisticated and well-balanced, incorporating both the heaviness of the previous tracks and a lightness of touch that I wouldn’t mind seeing developed further in future material. Overall a very strong debut which, as all good debuts should do, has thoroughly whetted my appetite for more.

Part 2 will be up before long.

Red Dwarf II, episode 3: “Thanks for the Memory”

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Red Dwarf II, episode 3: “Thanks for the Memory”

Written by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor; originally transmitted 20th September 1988.

What happens?

After celebrating the anniversary of Rimmer’s death, the crew wake up to find that something strange has happened onboard the ship: Lister and Cat have broken feet, several pages are missing from Lister’s diary, Holly’s star charts have been messed around with, the clock is four days fast, the ship’s black box is gone and somebody has completed Lister’s jigsaw. As the crew investigate, they stumble across the mystery of the only woman ever to love Rimmer. Sort of.

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What do I think of it?

Another experimental episode for Red Dwarf after the previous week, we’re playing with the “recovering lost memories” trope this time. Despite the later discovery of the “massive footprint” and the “gravestone”, the truth about the missing days isn’t kept from us for too long which, in one way, is a shame, because it would have been nice to see how the comedy could have carried through the three of them attempting to piece together the clues instead of simply remembering via quasi-flashback.

However, what we do get instead is a surprisingly heartwarming story involving a remarkably sweet but deeply troubling act of compassion on Lister’s part. I’m not going to give too much away in case you haven’t seen it, but suffice to say it’s a wonderful mix of science fiction and bittersweet, faintly tragic storytelling (the sort of thing Doctor Who used to pull off well before it became a confused, posturing shell of itself). It never takes a turn for the mawkish, though, which it could easily have done; and the idea of celebrating Rimmer’s “deathday” is classic Red Dwarf. Laughing at death is pretty much the show’s reason for existing at this point.

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By the way, if we needed any more clarification that Rimmer was the star of the show, this episode gave it. Rimmer is pretty much the perfect sitcom character: arrogant, self-delusional and deeply flawed, both likeable and detestable at once. I feel as if we learn something new about the character with each episode that passes, and the rambling interactions with Lister are still as warmly barbed as ever. As for Cat, well, you know the drill by now, but at least there are slight hints of character development at play – I don’t think he mentions food once in this episode.

I like that the strange occurrences the crew wake up to aren’t particularly creepy or strange or world-altering – they’re just a little odd, bar the broken feet of course. They all make sense and tie together well, too, which gives both the mystery and the plot a tidiness expected of sitcom writing, but rarely that well done. Overall a great episode and a personal favourite of mine from series two – one that shows that there really isn’t much difference between comedy and tragedy.

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Some stray smeg:

  • I tried to Shazam the song that’s playing at the beginning, to no avail. Shame, too – I quite liked the sound of it.
  • I love the animation of Blue Midget being piloted by a drunk Lister. Simple but lovely.
  • Oh yes, the triple fried egg butty with chili sauce and chutney. Doesn’t that look just completely delicious? By the way, because I know you’re curious, somebody had a go at recreating this infamous sandwich and posted the recipe online. Bon appetit.
  • Further development of Rimmer’s fascination with aliens. His explanation for the missing days is simply marvellous, too.
  • Wonderful bit of acting between the three as they watch the black box recording.
  • Doesn’t last long, does it? (If you’ve seen the episode you’ll know what I’m talking about.)

Pop Song Review: Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars – “Uptown Funk”

Welp, didn’t see that coming. There I was, happily assuming that 2014 was all wrapped up music-wise – end-of-year lists coming out and everything (I’m even publishing one of my own next week) – and that I wouldn’t have to write another pop song review until January, when this one shows up out of nowhere, getting all sorts of praise and shooting up the charts faster than Father Christmas up a–wait, he goes down chimneys, doesn’t he? See, my similes are all out of sorts. It’s been a long year – I need rest too, people.

So anyway, people have come to the conclusion that old school funk music is awesome. Good of all of you to finally catch up. Anyway, today’s review is the up-and-coming “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars, a song that wasn’t even a single yet until its popularity ballooned after somebody sang it on The X Factor. Strange days have found us, indeed.

First impressions: So let’s be honest: how many of you even realised Mark Ronson had anything to do with this track when you first heard it? Just give the credit to Bruno, man – he’s clearly the main attraction here.

The music: Well, it definitely is a funk song, as if anything about the music, lyrics or marketing would have you think otherwise. There are horns, hand-claps, choppy Nile Rodgers-esque guitar and some cool, confident vocals, all set to a nice, elastic groove.

At the same time, though, there’s something very cold about the whole thing. Maybe it’s the sheer rigidity of the beat or the sparseness of the verse instrumentation (I may have to do an entire piece about underwritten verses in modern pop music) or the fact that everything is clearly so computerised and acutely programmed that none of it feels natural: the horns flash and then promptly zap out of existence as if they’d never been there, the backing vocals sound like a chorus of Budweiser frogs, the bass is all compressed and squidgy instead of full and warm like it should be… was anything on this track performed by a human being, apart from the vocals? Funk is supposed to be loose and fresh, isn’t it? So why does this sound so stiff and mechanical?

The pre-chorus rise, I guess, is meant to emulate EDM, hinting at an attempt to appeal to the club crowd that is actually pretty depressing. There are surprisingly few melodic hooks, given that the verse melody basically amounts to Mars and his multi-tracked pals yelling at you in unison, though what few there are here are decent enough (which is okay, I suppose, given that the groove is the main songwriting focus). Mars is a good singer and he does his job well. The “don’t believe me, just watch” part is pretty striking and clearly intended to be the main hook, judging by its sheer repetition; and honestly its the one thing that really sticks with me after repeat listens so… good job there, I guess.

Sorry, but I just can’t get too excited about this. Yes, it’s a funk song – all the pieces are there – but that’s about it; and it wants so hard to be a funk song, too. It’s just too calculated, though, especially considering that Mars is known for mimicking older styles of music, so in many ways it feels like just another box on his list of vintage sounds to be ticked off. I don’t want to come off as an obnoxious hipster here, though, because… well, surely we all know better by now, right?

You know what this is? This is funk by numbers, like somebody filling in the colours on a blank, segmented copy of the Mona Lisa – sure, it looks like the real thing, but it ain’t the real thing. Of course to many mainstream listeners, especially the younger ones, who’ve never experienced much soulful, syncopated music in their years of listening to rigid, staccato dance beats, this is going to sound like a breath of fresh air – which it should. To that extent, at least, I’d say I’m behind it. Those male backing vocals get annoying pretty quickly, though.

The lyrics: First things first, there’s a Michelle Pfeiffer reference in here, so if “retro” was what this song was going for then it knows what it’s doing.

“Girls, hit your hallelujah / ‘cos Uptown Funk gon’ give it to ya / Saturday night and we in the spot / don’t believe me, just watch.” Watch what? If I disregard your assertion that you and your companions are “in the spot”, how exactly do you plan to prove otherwise? Or am I supposed to question your promise that Uptown Funk is going to give this vague, elusive “it” to me? If so, how can I be sure that I haven’t already received “it” and, thus, do not require any further clarification on your part? Will I know when the aforementioned “girls” hit their “hallelujah”; and how will I know when that’s occurred? I feel like I need more information here.

“I’m too hot / call a police and a fireman / I’m too hot / make a dragon wanna retire, man.” First of all, I don’t see what use a cop is going to be in helping you cool down, assuming that’s what you even want. If anything that sounds like a waste of police time which is usually an offence punishable by up to six months’ prison time and a £40-80 fine, at least here in Blighty. Second of all, were Ronson and Mars really that strapped for words rhyming with “fireman” that they had to include some nonsense about a mythological creature having envy issues regarding its innate ability to shoot flames out of its mouth? Okay, yes, fine, the lyrics are supposed to convey confidence, not any deeper meaning, so their word salad construction is likely a deliberate move designed to showcase the song’s easygoing and light-hearted nature. That’s the point.

You know, actually, that might be the problem as well: the lyrics aren’t about anything except how awesome the protagonist is. All the classic funk songs were written in the Seventies in the wake of the civil rights movement, so most of them at least had something to talk about. All “Uptown Funk” has to say is, “I’m funky. Please acknowledge this.” The sheer daftness of the lyrics doesn’t reinforce the song’s funk credentials but, instead, inadvertently highlights why this song doesn’t quite work for me: it’s too aware of itself and the expectations it feels it has to match up to. In that sense, for a song designed to exert confidence it’s actually pretty neurotic.

On top of that, it never gives us a good reason to buy into its strutting confidence. Did you notice, in all the braggadocio, that the narrator never actually does anything? Sure, he talks about being stuff and having stuff done to or for him, but he never actively does anything to make us think, “man, maybe this guy really is funky?” The only time he even expresses any agency on his own part is when he tells you that he and his chums are planning to “hit the spot”, though no indication is given of how they plan to do this or even what it means.

Is he a good lover? A good dancer? Did he save a child from a burning building? Discover a cure for asthma? Write a play? Lose two pounds? Fend off the snipers to win an eBay auction? Solve a particularly tough kakuro in the morning paper? Get his Avengers DVD and RiffTrax commentary to synchronise perfectly on first attempt? Did he do anything of value or contribute anything worthwhile to himself or humanity?

Nope – this is the lyrical substance of “Uptown Funk” condensed to a shortlist:

  • Women exist
  • I’m sexy
  • Uptown Funk is going to give “it” to you
  • It also plans to “up” you
  • Someone pours me a drink
  • We take a limo somewhere
  • Dance for me

Look at that – the same vapid lifestyle reporting of the vain and privileged you’ll hear in any modern pop, dance or hip hop song. Terrific. This puts “Uptown Funk” in the same “hollow bragging” category as Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” and Katy Perry’s “This is How We Do”, albeit with far better music. Just what the youth of today needed, though, right? Another mantra for entitled douchebags who don’t feel like they have to accomplish anything to gain respect and admiration from others. I used to think Horrible Histories writer Terry Deary was off his rocker about wanting to close all schools and send children off to work when they turn 11, but every time another song like “Uptown Funk” slinks along, crotch out and duck-lips thrust firmly forwards, I wonder if we shouldn’t all be paying attention to the man.

“Don’t brag about it, come show me.” Yes, indeed, stop bragging and simply show me how and why I should buy into your funkiness. Sell me the funk.

Also, what is it about “uptown” that’s funkier than downtown, exactly? What town are we even talking about? I mean, uptown Conwy, Wales has fewer shops and more countryside so it’s generally less busy up there, which makes it a more pleasant area to take a relaxing stroll around as the crisp Welsh breeze flutters across your skin and the sounds of the mountain strike a harmonious chord in the soft, Celtic air; but then downtown Conwy has the castle, the woodlands, the quay, some lovely pubs and a marina full of colourful ships – not to mention a wonderful view of Deganwy from across the estuary – as well as several locales and venues where you can grab a bite to eat, learn about the rich history of the town or just take the weight off your feet with a cup of freshly-brewed coffee and a good book. Visit Conwy, is what I’m getting at here.

Verdict: Honestly, as much as I wanted to like it, I’m not particularly impressed with “Uptown Funk”. It feels more like a successful pastiche of a classic funk song than one in its own right. That said, musically at least it’s a well-done pastiche, so a 3 out of 5 it is. The lyrics can go straight to Hell, but if this at least means more funk in modern pop music then I’m all for it.

Today’s double-up is Glenn Hughes. Just… everything the man’s ever written. What, just one? Oh, very well, here’s “Soul Mover”. Now this is funky.

Red Dwarf II, episode 2: “Better Than Life”

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So. Been a while, hasn’t it? I have to admit I’ve been having way more fun with writing these pop song reviews than I thought I would and, as a result, these Red Dwarf reviews (which take longer to write and generate far less traffic) have basically fallen by the wayside. I also planned on reviewing some current television at one point, but so much of what’s on these days either peeves me off royally or just bores the breath out of me (or both, as the latest series of Doctor Who managed to do).

But I don’t want this to become a one-note blog, so this new year I’m going to have to get back into the feel of writing about television, firstly by getting these Red Dwarf reviews back on track. As you might notice I’ve had to streamline these reviews with a simpler format, just so I can get them out quicker – but don’t worry, that classic Archbudgie charm will still shine through as it always has. Aren’t you lucky?

Red Dwarf II, episode 2: “Better Than Life”

Written by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor; originally transmitted 13th September 1988.

What happens?

The first true “outside” adventure story for the Boys from the Dwarf, even if they never really leave the ship, the Red Dwarf crew receive a (very, very, very) late delivery of post, including a letter informing Rimmer that his father has died, forcing Rimmer to reveal his true feelings about the man he always looked up to. They also receive a virtual reality game, Better Than Life, that allows them to live out their wildest fantasies. Inside the game they wallow in the excess their imagination provides for them, until Rimmer gets an unwelcome visitor and his fantasy, as well as those of his crewmembers, begins to unravel.

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What do I think?

A good episode, this, with a simple premise for the jokes to hang on. Virtual reality is a pretty common science fiction trope and Grant and Naylor don’t really up-end it in any major way (though the fact that the eventual threat arguably comes from the humans themselves, rather than the software itself, is quite a nice twist), instead treating it with that classic, down-t0-earth irreverence that sets this show apart from its more serious sci-fi counterparts. If Red Dwarf had a holo-deck, this is probably how it would get used: screw personnel training, wouldn’t you rather have lavish lunches and drive around the countryside with beautiful women?

It’s also a neat opportunity for some subtle character development as we see their desires come to life in front of them (I suppose Cat’s fantasies were the closest Dwarf fans were getting in terms of development at this point). In regards to that, there’s a poignant moment at the beginning when Rimmer realises his father is dead, proof that the show was very capable of these little human moments; the dead man mourning his dead dad is also wonderful science fiction material. That they later trip up that sentimentality completely with Rimmer’s true feelings about his father is pure Red Dwarf.

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Admittedly, however, the “dead father” theme doesn’t feel as neatly connected to the rest of the episode as it should. Oh, sure, it’s the appearance of his father that triggers Rimmer’s downfall within the fantasy, but it’s never made clear whether the man’s appearance is a random occurrence as a result of the game or a symptom of Rimmer’s own unconscious need to defeat himself divorced from his feelings towards his father, so it’s unclear how it ties in to his earlier disdain towards him. He hates his father but he looks up to him; so when his father insults him shouldn’t his hatred allow him to rise above his deflated respect?

Personally I’ve never truly cared for “alternate reality” storylines, even deliberately silly ones like this. Also, watching the characters laze about in their own fantasies doesn’t make for particularly great viewing, even if the jokes are decent, so the story and the comedy only really pick up towards the end. It’s still a funny episode, though, and a good indicator of how the show was starting to step out of its comfort zone with more complex, emotional storytelling.

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Some stray smeg:

  • That news report always kinda bugged me. I mean, how and why are they watching it at all? If the human race is extinct, how is there news to report? It must be an archive report of some kind, but why would these guys bother to watch something like that? For the stray piece on Better Than Life which tells them nothing they don’t already know about the game? Or were Grant and Naylor just that desperate to get that Bible joke out of their systems?
  • Famous goof here: Rimmer picks up the sand when they arrive in the fantasy, but it’s only later as they’re eating together that Cat remarks how Rimmer can touch things now.
  • Is it me or is it a little odd that Lister fantasises about Marilyn Monroe, a woman who died roughly two hundred years before he was born? It’d be like me fantasising about Marie Antoinette.
  • Terrific special effects, there. I do love Rimmer’s idea of what would complete a fantasy involving a fast car and a beautiful woman, though.
  • I appreciate that they didn’t go for the “father-son reconciliation” device as a more sentimental sitcom would have. Red Dwarf was always best when it was at its most cheekily dark and subversive.

Pop Song Review: Band Aid 30 – “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

Yes, I am. I didn’t think I would because it’s a charity single and there’s this unwritten law about not criticising charity singles because they’re for a good cause and all that, but I feel that, in the end, it’s probably best that I do. This is not me reviewing the cause or the goodwill behind the music, but the music itself. So here I am, reviewing “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” by Band Aid 30.

First impressions: Yep, that’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Same as I remember it – only something’s changed. Something… something terrible…

The music: Er, it’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Do I… what do I even do here? You all know the song. You’ve known it since you were a kid. You probably had it in your head in utero. Instead of a full analysis of the music, I’m going to focus on what’s changed in this version, namely the vocals. Now, naturally, only the best and brightest young talents of today – the true musical übermensch, if you will – were chosen to lend their flawless, unique and deeply emotive vocals to the recording.

Unfortunately they weren’t available, so instead they just drafted Bastille, One Direction and a bunch of other faceless pop stars into the studio for a day. And Seal and Sinead O’Connor, for some reason. And Bono, because of course Bono. Aw, listen to how much they all care, guys – those forced trills in their weak, uninspiring little voices, or the way they bend and change the notes for no reason other than to carve some sort of stamp into the recording. How emotional. I mean, that is them conveying emotion, right, instead of just showing off? Right? I, er… right?

Okay, let’s just cut to the point: the vocals are a train-wreck. It’s the same problem that that weird rendition of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” the BBC did a few weeks back suffered from: too many cooks all trying to add their weird spices to the same broth. Why do we have to go straight from Sam Smith’s timid, teary-eyed gurgle to Rita Ora’s explosive foghorn shriek? Why does Ellie Goulding have to start cooing at the end of her take like a deranged sparrow? Why do One Direction’s stacked, one-note vocals have to open proceedings? None of it fits together. The only time it works is when the chorus kicks in, the voices all blend together into one anonymous mush and nobody has any room to show off. Also, for a few brief seconds you can kid yourself into thinking it’s the original.

Sorry, guys, but cause or no cause this just isn’t a pleasant recording to listen to. Mind you, no Dizzee Rascal – that’s a nice plus.

The lyrics: Given that the song has been brought out of storage to help fight Ebola and not world hunger this time around, the lyrics have been altered slightly with a few choice line changes. For example, one of the original lines was “tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.”  Now, though, it’s been replaced with “tonight we’re reaching out and touching you.” Stranger danger!

Here’s a good example of how our culture doesn’t understand irony anymore: the line’s original power came from its deliberate coldness. We weren’t supposed to take it literally; it was meant to provoke us into action, to look at ourselves and our comfortable lives and see how we might be able to help others. True, it was a bit of a weird guilt trip for a pop song, but it was effective. How did anyone think, therefore, that this new line would be better? “Hey, that’s great. Say, while you’re busy reaching out to touch me with your gloved hand from as far away a distance as physically possible, would you mind passing the medicine? Thanks – and could you not grimace in disgust while you do it? I’m still a human being, Mister Millionaire.”

“Where a kiss of love can kill you / and there’s death in every tear.” Okay, that’s a pretty evocative image that does at least get across how Ebola can be spread, even if it’s a bit cheesy. “They can’t even cry, you guys!!” Still, it’s an awful disease and thousands are suffering, so screw my cynicism.

“Bring peace and joy this Christmas to West Africa / a song of hope where there’s no hope tonight.” Again, how is this supposed to be more effective than “the only gift they’ll get this year is life”? It’s okay to leave some things intact, people.

“Why is comfort to be feared? / Why is to touch to be scared?” Sorry, what? I get the second part of this line, but is Ebola spread through comfort now? I think they meant the comfort of an embrace or a kiss, but they’ve written it in such a bizarre way that now all I can think of is the Comfy Chair from Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition sketch. Question is, what does Band Aid 30 want me to confess to?

“Feed the world” has also been replaced, albeit intermittently, with “heal the world.” I guess that works. I mean, world hunger still exists, even if Ebola is the poster crisis of the season, so it’s good to know they haven’t completely abandoned the message of the original song. I wonder if Band Aid 40 will find a way to address corruption and tyranny in African politics?

Verdict: It’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” If you didn’t like it before, you probably won’t like it now. In fact, you may even like it less. As for me, while my opinions on the whole Band Aid deal have grown somewhat more cynical over the years – charity is a personal thing that you can’t and shouldn’t have to guilt people into – I’ve never minded the song itself. It’s a bit of catchy, well constructed 80’s cheese with its heart mostly in the right place. That said, the vocals are mostly dreadful and make it a truly jarring piece of music to listen to, so 2 out of 5 it is. If Bob Geldof doesn’t like that, well, I’m sure he knows what to do by now.

Seriously, though, this is a worthwhile cause we’re talking about here, but if you want to donate this Christmas might I recommend that you just send your money directly to the DEC? That way you have the opportunity to give more to the actual cause and you don’t have to put up with having this song in your iTunes cloud forever.

Today’s double-up is “Go Away” by Living Colour.

Pop Song Review: Take That – “These Days”

This should be an interesting week for the charts, with AC/DC, Take That and McBusted all contending for success. To recognise this not-actually-all-that-interesting turn of events, let’s review “These Days”, the new single from Take That.

First impressions: Take That go Ibiza. That’s a thing now, apparently.

The music: I’ll concede that Take That are in a weird position at the moment: four albums into their post-reunion career, they’ve gone from starting out for round two with four members, to getting the original five back for 2010’s Progress, only to find themselves reduced to a trio for their latest album, wittily entitled III. They’re at an uncertain crossroads and I can understand that their goal right now might be to find cover in the ever-changing winds that are the single charts. But really, Ibiza pop?

Okay, in my opinion, the music on Progress was a modest success because it engaged with then-current musical trends while, at the same time, bringing a sophistication to the table that few of their contemporaries embodied; by which I mean, “yeah, they ripped off Lady Gaga too, but at least they made some good music out of it.” So who are they mimicking now? Calvin Harris, I guess. I mean, this is his brand of glassy, shimmering synthpop, isn’t it?

Actually, it’s a lot more fun than Harris’ recent output, and though I could really do without the breathless quasi-rap vocals in the verses they do come up with a fairly strong, upbeat melody for the bridge and chorus. The Caribbean-esque beat is a tad grating and, as far as Dance Take That goes, doesn’t even touch the funky, spiky edge of “Love Love” or “Kidz” (yes, I’m complimenting electro-Take That – wanna make something of it?), but it’s hooky enough and definitely danceable, so the young’uns will like it. Does that make it a successful update of their sound, though, or a cynical ploy to remain relevant? I want to say the former, because I do have a soft spot for this band, but… er… I really don’t know, guys.

I suppose in a lot of ways, “These Days” is the closest Take That have come to recreating their original Nineties pop sound since the reunion, which puts the line “take me back to where it all began” in a much clearer light. Personally, as fun as it is, I think it’s a bit of a step back for a band that had matured nicely in recent years and represented a classier, more sophisticated variety of pop music for people like me who generally resent the charts. But hey, if “I Found Heaven 2014” is something you wanted, well, you’re in nirvana right now, aren’t you? Except for the whole “two absent members” thing – sorry about that.

The lyrics“I can see the future coming to you / crying with the sadness in your eyes / and I can find a faith in years I’ve wasted / being around enough to feel alive.” So it’s about the passage of time, which was obvious from the title really. Take That are looking back at their past, coming to terms with their glory days and the time they could have spent doing more, and the inevitable future racing towards them, thankful merely that they’re still here to enjoy it all. It’s a pretty mature outlook for a song as bouncy as this to try and support. I’m impressed.

“Take me back / to where it all began / to where our memories grow / before the day goes off.” Goes off? What, like in the way milk goes off if you leave it out for too long? Nah, Take That are looking way back deep into their memories, or rather where they grow (so, the hippocampus?). They want to go back, too, so there’s a definite sense of yearning for nostalgia and years passed here. Essentially it’s a song about “living for the night” from a group of middle-aged men who should arguably know better, but if you think about it surely they’ve got more reason to live for now than some young putz who still has a fair shed-ful of nights to live for?

“Tonight we gotta live for / we gotta live for these days / tonight, tonight, we’ll remember / we’ll remember these days.” Hang on, so you want to go “back to where it all began”, but you also insist that we have to “live for these days,” indicating the present? And you’re looking to the future and how you’ll look back at the days you’re reliving now, which are in the present? Or is that the past? Are Take That actively trying to make a paper plane out of the space-time continuum?

“What a day to believe, to believe in the night / want a date to belong, to a face in the crowd to the beat of your heart.” Some juicy tomatoes in this word salad, aren’t there? Seriously, though, what does this line even mean? You love the night (sooo maaanyyy shaaaadoooows!), you want a date (here you go, pal), you want to belong, you want to be in the crowd and something about the beat of a heart. It’s like they took every dance-pop cliché ever and shoved them into one lyric which… is actually pretty admirable. Well done, Take That. Well done.

Verdict: I really don’t know how to feel about “These Days,” mostly because I can’t decide if Take That are overcoming their odds or succumbing to them. In the end it’s not a great song, but it could have been a lot worse; and at least it’ll have a decent place on the “updated” greatest hits album they’ll inevitably be releasing in a few Christmases’ time. 3 out of 5.

Today’s double-up is “Wasted Years” by Iron Maiden.