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CHRIS THOMPSON -
Berlin Live
Gonzo 2012

Blinding and spiritual, one of the best British singers finally delivers a full-blooded, heavy-on-the-hits concert album.

You can't go wrong with Chris Thompson: the likes of QUEEN know it too well when inviting the man to back them, and duetting with Sarah Brightman was no mean feat either. Quite simply, the man has The Voice, and that's the title of a song he co-wrote for John Farnham and gloriously reclaims here, on German radio concert which is spread over two discs and has a DVD companion. And it's only one of surprises strewn across the set showcasing many of Thompson's successes yet relying reasonably on the hits Chris notched in the company of Manfred Mann.

They're all there, from "Father Of Day, Father Of Night" to "Questions", through "Blinded By The Light" and "Spirits In The Night" and even the brilliant "Don't Kill It Carol" which the veteran didn't sing a lead on originally - all done with Thompson's charm and looseness that was sometimes missing from his old band's performances. With Norwegian players behind him now to unleash many a pleasant passage, like in "Runner", it's all about the song, not arrangement, and Chris takes off harking back to his New Zealand roots in the tribal groove of "Land Of The Long White Cloud" and gets on the edge in the funky "Wasting Time" from his latest studio work - laid down a decade before this 2011 recording. The most welcome inclusions, though, are the swaying, harmonica-oiled blues "Whole Lot To Give" from his collaboration with Mads Eriksen who has a solo spot here, and a graceful, breezy version of "Hot Summer Night" from the singer's underrated late '70s project NIGHT. Still, the emotional zenith comes down not with "If You Remember Me", a bit too saccharine ballad, but with the bare-bones "For You", a measure of the artist's dedication to his audience who's thanked, each one by name, in the booklet.

One fantastic concert - long overdue and all the better for it.

*****
ORDINARY BRAINWASH -
Me 2.0
Metal Mind 2012

An impressive - and depressive - upgrade of Polish post rock singularity. Now, things get in order.

As far as vents for personal matters go, nothing beats a one-man band, and Rafal Zak, this project's mastermind is blessed with a gift of doing everything music-wise. While his previous albums, "Disorder In My Head" and "Labeled Out Loud", showed a tendency for escaping chaos, "Me 2.0" allows the auteur to shake a (computer) chip off his shoulder. Zak braces it all between "Outdated" and "Something New", whose delicate beats create a hushed buzz to drown the voice in slow, monumental guitar riffs that gain pace and catchiness along the way, but serene moments like those piano splashes carrying "Homesick" are rare breed here.

Pouring gloom into the solemn stream of "Don't Look Back", a funereal dirge rather than a ballad to make OPETH fans flow in flocks, the composer knows how to grip the listener's soul. He does so in the urgent title track where his instrumental prowess hits a molten apex, and if a tentative tune makes "Unbirthday" lose its momentum, the rise comes with an orchestral sway to take it all to the pastures of prog - and back again. In terms of constant self-perfection, "Me 2.0" strikes many a good note.

****
NO-MAN -
Love And Endings
Burning Shed 2012

A quarter of century down the road, the barren land becomes inhabited.

The hardest working man in show business this side of Bug 2000 and bitten by it, recently Steven Wilson's been regarded as a studio boffin, what with PORCUPINE TREE planted on ice and remixing of prog classics in full bloom. His usual role as a singing frontman is thrown aside, though, the auteur finds his hands, and mind, footloose and free for collaborations, of which the most durable is the one with Tim Bowness, under a NO-MAN banner. Bowness handling vocals and Wilson the guitar, the duo started off in 1987 and lodged six albums into the post rock's collective consciousness but have always sounded a bit sterile in their math approach, a notion discarded in October 2011 when the expanded ensemble took to the stage of the Leamington Spa Assembly whence this CD/DVD set comes from. Live, for the first time on record, they cut it fine.

A slice of full-blown rocking saved for the final part of the show, the tellingly titled "Things Change", the Britons crawl into the audience's psyche gently, the blissful, gliding chords and delicate voice unleashing "My Revenge On Seattle" in vibrant, romantic passes that are fleshed out when the entire band join in and the picture gets sharp. The focus is especially bright once Steve Bingham's violin and a six-string wave carry "All The Blue Changes" to the folksy whirlwind and spice up the picking of "Lighthouse". For enjoyable contrast, the metallic riffs of another American-themed composition, "Time Travel In Texas", gain a fearful gloom in the absence of studio sheen: no danceability here, even the previously unreleased "Beaten By Love" which harks back to the duo's early era keeps its predatory coils close to the ground. Yet "Mixtaped" soars, slowly but surely, its thick desperation level upped high in concert environment to hit hard.

An obvious update on NO-MAN's previous work, this performance, available for a meatier experience on bonus DVD, enriches Bowness and Wilson's oeuvre and fills it with life. A milestone on the road to be continued.

****
KILLING FLOOR -
Rock 'n' Roll Gone Mad...
Rockfold 2012

Getting better by the year: blues veterans' bid for timelessness and immortality.

Their two albums, out in 1969 and 1970, cherished as minor classics now, only a few fans could believe KILLING FLOOR's short span would relapse in 2003 and even fewer might hope "Zero Tolerance" could be followed up. Yet here it is, a new missive from the original band - minus pianist Lou Martin - who sound even fiercier than ever before: quite fitting for our harsh times where Bill Thorndycraf's raw, parchment-dry voice is a powerful force. The quartet tackle the world's injustices in the organ-oiled "Same Booze Different Bottle" and even sharper in the insistent beat of "Xenophobic Blues", so there's a palpable sense of a life lived and tradition sunk in.

The musical weather changes in the arresting instrumental "Auntie Peggy's Handbag", adorned with Clarke's honky-tonk Joanna, and in the country blues of "Afghan Coat" but not for nothing this dozen of songs is dedicated to the recently deseased Hubert Sumlin. The Big Bad Wolf shadow lurks in the old-timey acoustic "Cold Water" and the harmonica-sliced "Trouble In My Life". Still, for all the anger of "Rack My Brain" with Mick Clarke's hammering guitar deployed to ram the message home, "One Cigarette (Toxic Nipple)" adds twangy playfulness to the feel of mortality. The reckless factor grows in stature in the swaying groove of the title track which sees the rhythm section at their most unhinged, punky style, reflecting the crazy change in the psycho climate, but Stuart McDonald's bass and Baz Smith's drums interlock the firmest in "Cardiac Arrest". It's a good sign when madness is an excuse to go rockin' and deliver another minor classic.

****1/2
PANIC ROOM - Skin
Esoteric Antenna 2012

There's a beauty in claustrophobia if somebody adorable gets close to you.

It took two albums for this British quintet to get the poise its four founder members last demonstrated on KARNATAKA's "Strange Behaviour". Since then, they've been going from strength to strength and, while Anne-Marie Helder was garnering accolades as a leading lady of prog, it's a collective force that impresses the most on their third full-lengther. The band wrote full original arrangements for the first time, to be magnified by LARKIN STRING QUARTET most notably in the dramatic rush of "Hiding The World" or the radio-friendly, if complex, "Promises", yet the record's real grandness lies in the players' ability to deploy minimal means when a tune dictates so.

And it's not only the delicate, lonesome ballad "Velvet & Stars". The magnificent, violin-stricken "Chameleon" flows on Jonathan Edwards piano to envelop one's soul as a warm cloak after the riff-laden winds of "Song For Tomorrow" that blows cold yet doesn't feel aloof like many a metal epic it gets close to with Paul Davies' blistering fretwork. His exquisite acoustic guitar chimes vibrantly with the orchestrations on the pop-shaped "Chances", whereas in more traditional art rock waters the ensemble hit average marks: "Freefalling" is kept alive by Gavin Griffiths' drums and the saving grace of "Tightrope Walking" is not its Middle Eastern motif but a jazzy keyboard run. A little less gloss would serve PANIC ROOM well as it does in the expansive "Nocturnal"... yet may render them undistinguishable from similar groups, and to be so individual and close to the listener's skin is an invaluable asset these days.

****1/4
RICK WAKEMAN -
In The Nick Of Time
Gonzo 2012

Spaced out but not out there, another marvelous crusade of the Caped Wizard.

If the myriad of Rick Wakeman's studio works requires a guide for the uninitiated to not be playing a hit-or-miss game, the keyboardist's live recordings are always listener's gain. So while 2003's "Out There" is a quirky concept confection, on the road its excerpts lent themselves to a context which mixed time-tested classics with a newer material. Choosing from his vast catalogue never was a challenge for Rick, what with his improvisational bent, yet the situation Wakeman started that UK tour in was. Shortly before the first gig Damian Wilson, who sang on the album, vanished and, although a purely instrumental performance didn't pose a problem, the piano man called his choice voice Ashley Holt to step forward as he did many times before and supplant the suppleness of his predecessor with refined muscularity. Hence the title of this CD, a document of their heroics.

Both veterans are in their dramatic element on "No Earthly Connection" here, yet the main thread during those concerts was cosmic-centered - not for nothing Wakeman reimagined Steve Howe's "Wurm" and gave much string reins to Ant Glynne - so two fresh cuts, grand rockers "Out There" and the choir-enhanced "Cathedral In The Sky", provide a lot of space for the guitarist to fly. He does just that on the opener "Catherine Parr" that is expanded with the unreleased "Beware Your Enemies" where synthesizers take over from the organ, before drummer Tony Fernandez and bassist Lee Pomeroy give rhythms an impressive weight to which Holt's heavy lungs contribute nicely. Much lighter fares their groove on the slinky "White Rock" and "The Dance Of A Thousand Lights", led by Rick's elegant piano and faux orchestra and quoting the original "Journey". Such curious selection of tracks makes this album very interesting but the ensemble's delivery turns it into a celebration of sound.

Ah yes, there's also liner notes penned by the wiz himself whose raconteur skills are on par with his playing. Let's make it a good tradition, Rick, writing notes, OK?

****1/3
DAVID COURTNEY -
The Show Must Go On
Angel Air 2012

A British stargazer looks back on his glorious past to shine a new light on its recesses.

A man who discovered Leo Sayer and nurtured Roger Daltrey's solo career, David Courtney has a helluva stories to tell, and his audiobiography is available for download, but if it was staged the outline could have run round the borders of this album. Roping in the young talent from Brighton where the producer resides now, Courtney re-imagines his time-tested songs from a mature man's perspective and adds a personal, not chart-minded, slant to the old hits. His personality is all over the vaudevillian title track, "Easy Way Out" with CURVED AIR's Francis Monkman on piano, and "Shooting Star", dry and warm unlike DOLLAR's take on it. Sure, those who lived with "One Man Band" for years might find its slow version, delivered by David and THE ROOFTOP BAND, a bit uncomfortable, yet their soulful, sensual opener "Slow Motion" can provide comparisons not in favor of Sayer's original.

None of the veteran's current charges is able yet to get to the same level as Adam Faith: the late rocker's "Star Song" featuring the harmonies of Linda and Paul McCartney, and "When Your Life Is Your Own" from Courtney's 1975 solo album where David Gilmour cameos, stand out as a monument to the composer's melodic gift. Thus, if Shiva King elegantly shoots "Talk Dirty" with after-hours blues of cabaret kind, SUPERLUNGS give "Telepath" an arena pummeling but excel with "The Dancer" making it edgy and focused. As a result, the feeling of eclecticism prevails and pulls the whole down while the individual pieces are good. A fitting reflection of any man's life.

***1/3
TONY FURTADO BAND
Live At Mississippi Studios
Funzalo 2012

A world-class banjoist pledges allegiance to the power of blues and then some.

It might be an ingenious way to beat bootleggers by putting out an official concert album but then, the very existence of unsolicited tapes is an indication of the artist's popularity. And that's how it goes for Tony Furtado who made a name for himself as a bluegrass picker of Earl Scruggs dexterity yet moved on from those pastures to other vistas where other strains of American music graze gracefully - or gallop wildly given free rein. Never more so than here, on a selection, as a setlist seen on a companion DVD reveals, of what was played in Portland on November 25th, 2011.

Armed with his main weapon only for a smattering of instrumentals, among them the almost court-dancey "Bawds Of Euphony" and Celtic-minded "Portlandia" that grows into a keen country of "Toe The Line", and wielding an acoustic guitar for the remainder of originals, Furtado and his squad of kindred spirits deliver a blistering array of tunes. To this, a sun-kissed Americana of "Golden" is a deceptively serene precursor and the flamenco-tinged, filigree "Bolinas" a perfect bottom-line. There's a dark, if smooth, blues edge to the proceedings that, though taken from different parts of the show, gel into conceptual whole and draw bridge to the CD-only Cajun-cajoling buzz of "Hurtin' In My Right Side" from the throb of "These Chains" and Tony's solo number "Another Man" which takes his mastery of slide and pick out beyond our world. Easing the pain are tremulous ballad "California Flood", a Mariachi trumpet-stricken duet with Stephanie Schneiderman, and "Bet On The Whitehorse", a showcase for the band's sensuality and harmonic telepathy.

The more it's spun the deeper the listener is pulled in for a treat. A pity it's not the full record of that evening, and this is the only gripe.

****3/4
IAN FRANKLIN
& INFINITE FREQUENCY -
Breaking Grounds
Petting Zoo 2012

No revolution, just a Bay Area auteur coming into his own and venturing out into the wide world to tune its wrongs right.

A Berklee graduate with BA in Music Therapy and Songwriting Ian Franklin knows the healing power of melody too well; more so, by linking up with Boston's groovers INFINITE FREQUENCY the Californian creates a sort of Route 66 in stylistic terms. As a result, his debut full-lengther, though long enough and spanning 15 tracks, never stays in one place in terms of diversity and takes the listener on a riveting journey. And if some of his songs are expansive in context or length, it's always relevant - the silky nine minutes of "Steep Ravine (Oceanside)", full of Laurel Canyon harmonies and a six-string adventure, plumb the titular emotional depth - but never tiresome, so the reggae of "Step By Step (We Will Overcome)" urges everyone to go forward at reasonable pace. Which might be this album's motto.

Starting with jazzy boogie of "Closer", it rapidly throws the demimonde sleaze out the window to catch it back in a brass-blaring title track and keep in this night-club loop the bass-spanked "Don't Do Me Like That" and "Baby I Got Your Fix", high on falsetto-specked soulful funk that MAROON 5 fiends will love, and the organ-rolled skank through "Better Days", all demonstrating the flexibility of Franklin's voice. Its use as another instrument reaches the dizzying heights in the progressive fusion of "Light Above" where Ian's guitar soars, Icarus-like, to the sun and welcomes blues for a flight, whereas the acoustic flow of "Lie Is A Lie" shimmers softly sometimes rippling with a riff. Never reckless or risky but oozing class up to the sad smile in "Back To Love", it's a heart-warming and life-affirming record, a therapy of high caliber and likable fiber.

****4/5
HAMER & ISAACS GYPSY SWING BAND -
Hamer & Isaacs Gypsy Swing Band
Hamer & Isaacs Gypsy Swing Band 2010

The Django tradition lives on and is passed on - across the Channel too.

Gypsy swing is a strange term as jazz doesn't have so much connection with a traditional Roma music, yet since Monsieur Reinhardt brought his acoustic to a wide audience a new thread has been woven into European fabric. Yet two Plymouth musicians, Rich Hamer who runs his own guitar school and Julian Isaacs, prefer to weave their cloth in a good company of a double bass and a double-barrel vocal that make the staples they deliver playful and charming, if hardly too imaginative as "Ain't Misbehavin'" suggests, although "Sheik Of Araby" is given a nice jive-and-scat here.

The stand-out cut on this six-track sample of the ensemble's live repertoire is a Disney classic "The Bare Necessities", or "Bear Necessities", which the voice of Rosie Corlett takes from Baloo's vaudeville to the cabaret smoke, while "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby" gets fizzy-fuzzy on a six-string crunch and a violin seduction. "After You've Gone", the earliest selection on offer, written back in 1918, was, in his time, recorded by Django to bring the best out of Isaac's rhythm and Hamer's lead now: that's where the two go out on a limb and succeed. This combo can make a good night out much better but the greatest challenge would be to hear their own material amongst the perennials.

***
SQUACKETT -
A Life Within A Day
Esoteric Antenna 2012

An unholy creative marriage of YES' bassist and ex-GENESIS guitarist bears sweet and well-laced fruit.

A four-year gestation means Steve Hackett and Chris Squire wanted their joint venture to take in as much juice as possible and their separate careers to carry on, and such unhurried approach is fully justified here. Somehow, the prog protagonists' paths didn't cross in the '70s when the former was sharing GENESIS fame and the latter took YES to glory, and the two met in 2007 as Squire imagined Hackett would be a perfect colorist for his Christmas project. From there sprung SQUACKETT yet, the name aside, there's no much joking on the veterans' album, nor there's much instrumental firework: with no point to prove status-wise, the accent is firmly on melodies - for sake of the songs.

But save for the bouncy, if soft, pop ballad "Can't Stop The Rain" and the pulsing "Perfect Love Song", it's not a song-based endeavor as was GTR, a group Steve formed in the '80s with another YES-man, his namesake Howe; now, Squire and Hackett go for the Laurel Canyon-like vocal harmonies, their nostalgic common ground lying there rather than in art rock. That's where the twangy "Divided Self" and "Sea Of Smiles" come from on easy, pellucid wave to allay the fanfare of title track with its heavy, Eastern-flavored riff so beloved of the guitarist who's a dominant force there - or so it seems with prominent bass lines on his solo records - but the adventurous angularity under Hackett's celestial solos is pure Squire. The masters manage to float "Tall Ships" on acoustic ripple over anxious rumble and then hark back gently from its dew, and the warm patina of "The Summer Backwards", to their dewy-eyed childhood fascination with sci-fi in "Aliens", and it's the closest they, assisted with Roger King's piano, come to the traditional progressive themes of time and space.

It's in "Storm Chaser", the least interesting cut on display, that those themes find a stylistic expression, where the building blocks of the musicians' parent bands are revealed for their old followers to admire. Yet ultimately, one needs no previous introduction to Steve Hackett or Chris Squire to love this little sensation of the album - it's that fine.

*****
NICK SIMPER
& NASTY HABITS -
Live At "Szene" Vienna
Angel Air 2012

The Purple Piledriver regains the long-abandoned territory to make the burned ground bloom again.

He was a victim of circumstances, Nick Simper, ousted out of DEEP PURPLE only because a new singer they fancied came in a package with his bass playing chum. No disregard to Simper's four-string skills, then, but Nick's subsequent bands WARHORSE and FANDANGO couldn't rival his most famous gig. Neither can Austrian quartet NASTY HABITS who the British veteran joined in 2011 for a string of concerts and a studio album, still in the works at the time of their Vienna show yet introduced to public via a new, modern-slick piece, "Slinky". The teaser works well as does the group's take on the material from DP's three albums Simper took part in, the songs that make a bulk of this record.

Nick's new partners' forte lies in their ability not to copy the classics which could have sounded pretty much dated by today's standards yet do them justice by updating both songs and instrumental workouts that the current line-up of DP will hardly ever play - save, of course, for "Hush", but leaving this one out of the set would amount to a crime - plus inserting quotes for connoisseurs every now and then. Thus, the powerful "Wring That Neck" with its piano interludes, Mozart et al, and opener "And The Address" possess an attack that their original versions never had, with stress on instrumental interlocking rather than individual soloing, while Helmut Puschacher's organ rages righteously throughout the hour-long set and Chris Heissenberger's guitar cuts its fine to elevate the funky "The Painter" over its rather humble roots. Even more expressive are Peter Brkusic's drums that in the likes of "Mandrake Root" go for Latino groove at the same time remaining stitched to Simper's bottom line which sails to the fore on "Emmaretta". His presence let bassist Christian Schmid concentrate on singing to let rip on "Why Didn't Rosemary" and "Bird Has Flown" and up the overall charge with congas.

With the Englishman's fave "Roadhouse Blues" thrown in for some good boogie rumble, the experience, which can expanded with the bonus DVD of the whole concert, is a treat for old fans and uninitiated alike. Good to have old Nick back.

****
XPTs -
Parachute Reborn
Esoteric Antenna 2012

Reimagining their cult classic, former PRETTY THINGS fortify it in the process to take far beyond the original concept.

In 1970, when Phil May-led hairy bunch delivered their fifth LP, it sounded like a relic from a couple of years before but it was meant to be that way - a wail for the sunshine dream falling to pieces as reflected through acoustic lace, silky harmonies and some riffs. Four decades on, four musicians who played in the band at the time of "Parachute" release decided to try and land the album somewhere else, yet primary vocalist May, having given his blessings and additional lyrics, bailed out. Perhaps, for good as rougher pipes of Wally Waller whose bass carried the original carcass and keyboardist Jon Povey give a "Reborn" cut the edge which was only hinted at initially, with an abbreviation of the "ex-PRETTY THINGS" moniker quite fitting to the compacted ensemble.

Such maturity suits them, and the material, fine, "The Good Mister Square" acquiring the seasoned, rather than simply nostalgic, solemnity to rise spiritually from folky strum to the bluesy roll courtesy of Pete Tolson's guitar, while "Sickle Clowns" sounds so dirty as to pack a heartbreaking threat that only a life lived can bring forth. Now, years in the wilderness turn into expanded heavy roar-cum-chant through the organ-moisted "Cries From The Midnight Circus" and "What's The Use" which has been elongated by good six minutes and given a delicate, if muscular, six-string acoustic solo. And if "In The Air" reveals previously well-hidden sensual textures in its muggy midst, a sitar-like coating and newly fashioned boogie piano line make "Miss Fay Regrets" jollier than ever. All this lends the album monolithic quality and a valorous panache. Waller's bass comes to surface only on the neatly orchestrated "Grass" that's certainly greener this side of the rock century, and the luxurious harmonies of "Parachute" underpinned with Skip Alan's moving drum-work show the veterans' youthful zip in all its glory - as does the catchy "She's A Lover".

It's what inspired the group to not only build on the classic foundation but to add to it a couple of new songs, brimful of optimism. One of these, "Here We Go Again", spiking airy drift with a pinch of reggae, gives a hope there can be more from this band. Welcome back, then.

****4/5
ROBIN GEORGE
& VIX -
You
Angel Air 2012

It takes a red-haired woman to give a white man blues.

If Robin George released every album he has stashed away he'd been a guitar poster boy by now; sadly, his credentials and credits that include such names as Phil Lynott and Robert Plant didn't translate into much chart action. Which is possibly why the British artist left this project out of his commercial scope even though Vickie Perks, another of George's partners in crime, notched a couple of hits with her band FUZZBOX. Two of their pieces, "Your Loss, My Gain" and "You", were the start of Vix's creative flirt with Robin when her group shared the studio premises with his NOTORIOUS and set things in motion here, on a dozen of tracks laid down there and then, in 1990, and laid on the shelf thereafter.

All demos, slide guitar provides a nice emotional counterbalance to feisty vocals on this couple of cuts and "Guilty" where the two voice blend over an oily blues shuffle before Robin smoothes the communal way into the soft, seductive lull of "Little Sister". Yet if some of the pieces sound exactly like blueprints for bigger things - "World" for example, that, together with the uplifting "Lovepower And Piece", would be fleshed out for George's charity project named after the latter - "Don't Call Me" sees plastic pop sensibilities married to acoustic sensuality, while "Seduction Song" is an masterpiece demonstrating the guitarist's mastery of flamenco and the singer's passionate fire and lacks, perhaps, only castanets. This energy finds an outlet in two live tracks, among them folksy ballad "Cry Wolf", from the mid-'90s when Vix and Robin formed THE PROMISE: typically for George, the group didn't live long yet to have it all issued feels like an intimate gift now.

***
SAN FRANCISCO MUSIC CLUB -
Love And Freedom
San Francisco Music Club 2012

The Bay Area veterans with an envious track record join forces and gently but surely go for the jugular and guts.

Looking like real brothers, spiritual siblings Jimmy Dillon and Lorin Rowan have been there before, as THE EDGE, but individually backing such luminaries as Bruce Springsteen, John Lee Hooker, Stephane Grapelli and Jerry Garcia didn't have enough time to mix their influences and shake it properly. Which they do now, and do it gloriously. Two singing guitarists throw themselves headlong into a milieu of kindred spirits to choose emotions over seriousness, and while there's a tempered drama in the violin-woven Eastern bliss of "Istanbul", the silky trumpet-twined piano of "Te Quiero" burns hot under the flamenco sun as does the organ-oiled opener "Crazy Lovesick Blues" that sets the scene in infectiously twangy way. The inevitable pleasure is wrapped around the 7-minute reggae overhaul of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" yet the skank gets gritty in "Revolutionary Man" dedicated to Jamaica's greatest son and quoting his classics like "Buffalo Soldier" or, more context-consciously, "Is This Love".

"Love Can Be", here in both electric and sensual acoustic versions, can be too transparent to ingrain its message in full, but the title track "Love & Freedom" is a full-on carnival of samba vivacity. And if "Four Winds" harks back to the '50s dancehalls, "Ponchatrain" grooves mildly in the saucy Crescent City style with a six-string duet taken to the fore and encouraged with handclaps and churchy chant, whereas "Perfection" rides the string lace into Mariachi sunset. The layers to peel are plenty here, all of them admirable. A strong contender for the "Album of the year" crown.

*****
MIMI PAGE -
Breathe Me In
Hunter 2012

An ethereal chanteuse who counts JEFFERSON STARSHIP as fans shatters the waves with her mind-crawling debut.

With a nice backlog of collaborations, LA songstress Page finally grew the wings on her own and, on the strength of high-wired single "This Fire" which hit the charts on Amazon and iTunes serves up a dozen fluttering pieces that lodge themselves into the listener's brain slowly but surely. Co-produced with Warren Huart who, in this project, might find a vent from engineering a new AEROSMITH album, "Breathe Me In" forms tentatively, as the piano of "My Vanilla Sky" pulls in electronic shimmer and trip hop beats over adventurous undercurrent where bass lurks and Mimi's voice harmoniously floats, but insistent, soulful title piece and "Come What May" fills all the space available - emotional and aural.

And if the "Colorblind" spread its erotique purr not as bold as Mylene Farmer's latest fare, Page sounds original when she welcomes folk motifs into the claustrophobia of "Black Valentine" which her vocals inhabits with much gusto. Unlike the rest, and in sharp contrast with the wild, yet soft, guitar-poisoned, yet poised jolt of "Gravity", "Jigsaw" and "New" are pure acoustic ballad, ivories lulling the vocals in a sensual way to show that, stripped of all decoration, Mimi Page has even more winning, if traditional in the singer-songwriter vein, formula up her frilly sleeve.

****
TIN SPIRITS -
Wired To Earth
Vibrola 2012

Ex-XTC axe-slinger takes a new flight but keeps a firm connection with a ground control.

Just like a tide, almost four minutes of the melody-stricken seawash of "Glimmer" pull you into the kaleidoscopic vortex to state a point of this being a guitar album. And what else could it be if the axis of TIN SPIRITS' slow wonders is the time-tested wizardry of Dave Gregory? Originally a jam guest, now the veteran tows the Swindon group into timelessness in terms of their music's feel rather than his classic connections. At the same time modern and eternal, long instrumental lines ebb and flow in complex swashes that, in turns, either spread thin as ether or crystallize into surreal, vertiginous architecture one can only marvel at and admire from the inside.

With a healthy dose of wordplay in the band's name and the record's title - quite possibly a reference to "Drums And Wires", Gregory's debut as Andy Partridge's sidekick - the words don't play a huge role here, as bassist Mark Kilminster's singing enrich the texture of the foursome's four original pieces yet doesn't direct their path. There's some good rocking in the closer "Breathe Shallow" but the contrast between mundane verses and celestial ensemble interplay comes frontal on the epic "Broken" the heart of which, "Better Place", marks a soft, if soulful, spot. By the same token, vocal harmonies color up "...And Go" in fine neo-prog fashion where acoustically adorned riffs support the pop crunch before flamenco flash touches aquatic solo spurts in the swirl Gregory sculpts with a fellow grinder Daniel Steinhardt. In the center of it all trembles a cover of GENESIS' "Back In NYC", a fantastic vehicle for this quartet to show their skills on the least obvious, guitar-wise, choice from "The Lamb" that in their hands springs to life, and it's there that voices complement, and complete, the picture.

Point taken, the message is received and the expectations bar is set high. An impressive statement of intent.

****
MARTIN STEPHENSON and THE DAINTEES -
California Star
Gonzo 2012

Four decades on since their kitchen-sink start, the Tyneside bunch cook up their second - and most eclectic - record for a new millennium.

Formed in 1982 and split in 1992 only to go at it again in 2000, THE DAINTEES, led by undaunted Martin Stephenson, are looking for stellar delights now - the delights, as the cover of the band's sixth studio album suggests, in the vein of ''Le Petit Prince'', from the mature point of view. This point is the focus of the record's folksy centerpiece "Boy To Man" that, via the piano boogie "Power That Is Greater" with its "I'm not an orphan anymore" joyous chorus, innocently connects the urban shimmer of the Knopfleresque opener "The Ship" with the eyes-wide-open reggae of closer "I'm In Love For The First Time". As a result, each song creates a buzzing microcosm which the singer inhabits and expands to let his listener in.

It's easy to relate to the reckless rockabilly rumble of "Long Way To Go" or the harmonica-oiled blues riffage of "Ready To Move On", but the flamenco lace of "Streets Of San Sebastian", a fabulous relocation of a certain Ralph McTell's ballad, brings a tragic romance into the picture which is framed with Stuart Macleod's acoustic guitar and Kate Stephenson's marching drum. Elsewhere, the delicate hoedown of "Sweet Cherwine", high on the fiddle doodles, flows down the humorous lane to drink from the timeless source of inspiration and spread the tuneful water around and ooze the class as it goes. Far away from Laurel Canyon, "California Star" shines as one of the best British records of 2012.

****1/3
MICK CLARKE -
Graveyard Shift
Rockfold 2012

The slaughterhouse grinder remixes his glorious dirge to give at more weight and woe.

If anything was missing from Mick Clarke's latter-day oeuvre, it was the darkness inherent in his work with THE KILLING FLOOR. Growing aware of this, the guitarist went back to one of the most traditional blues from 2007's "Solid Ground" to man the desk differently and bring the rock element of the piece out front. Now, "Graveyard Shift" hits really hard, its sharp riff riding the pulse propelled with Chris Sharley's almost metronomic drums that, together with FX-wrapped gravel vocals, lent the song a trance feel, a perfect reflection of a working man's mundane, quotidian existence. And then there are three shots at the guitar solo which, in places, gets peppered with infectious handclaps and at certain point imitates harmonica - that's yer morning fatigue's melody. A hit in waiting, so kick the blues up iTunes charts.

Says Mick Clarke, "I noticed that the track "Graveyard Shift" from the "Solid Ground" album was becoming very popular, so I sat down had a good listen to it. Yes, it was a good track, but the mix wasn't doing it justice. The original mix had been a compromise, to fit in with the rest of the album, which was basically blues rock. "Graveyard" is pure rock, and needed to be treated as such. So I pulled out the old master tapes and gave the whole track a new treatment, with the drums pumped up and a heavier bass. I think it sounds great and it's already received a lot of airplay and interest from around the world. The shift ain't over yet".

*****
SWEET -
New York Connection
Sweet 2012

Working up a covers paradox, the English faction of glam splinters go Transatlantic. Block-busting it ain't.

Nowadays, there are two versions of SWEET: the UK one fronted by guitarist Andy Scott and the US one lead by bassist Steve Priest. None of the two original members can steer their group towards the glitter of the days gone, yet they try hard - more on-stage than in the studio - and while the latter recently delivered a live album the former keep the competition with this collection of covers. Choosing cuts primarily on the titular criterion, the quartet stamp their trademark stomp on American songs, most impressively on ELECTRIC FRANKENSTEIN's glitzy spinner "It's All Moving Faster" and THE BLACK KEYS' handclapping jiver "Gold On The Ceilings" with its "Jean Genie"-via-"Blockbuster" riff, but the overall sensation is of professionalism prevailing over zip.

SWEET come too close to rendering "Blitzkrieg Bop" a bore even though a guitar quote from - what else? - their own "Ballroom Blitz", one of many in-jokes here, gives THE RAMONES' smash additional color. In such context, "New York Connection", originally a B-side of 1972's "Wig-Wam Bam", shines brighter, too. The same can't be said of other British chestnuts, of the same year's "Join Together" by THE WHO that rounds things off and hints at all those supplementary specks like Jay-Zís "Empire State Of Mind" in the listless opener "New York Groove", written by ARGENT's Russ Ballard, and of THE YARDBIRDS' "Shapes Of Things" which everybody, including Jeff Beck, fails to do justice to. With bassist Pete Lincoln as main singer, other players take their spot at the mike as well, keyboardist Tony O'Hora excelling in setting tension in Patti Smith's "Because The Night", and DEAD OR ALIVE's dancefloor filler "You Spin Me Right Round" getting gloriously energized to the champagne level.

At the same time Scott's heroic stance reveals all the urban tinsel of Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane" to bring it to the ground, and "On Broadway" dies a death in the scintillating iron hands of the veteran glammers who strip the tune of its inherent sensuality and bright-eyed delight. Surprise factor in full swing, this album lends the band's music a new, interesting angle yet the joyful aspect is underplayed now. Quite un-SWEET-like.

***
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