Always the bridesmaids…
When I bring up the name Rex Smith, many people – usually over 40 years of age – instantly remember him as a teen idol, soap actor, balladeer, hard rocker, TV host or stage actor. Oddly enough, they are all absolutely correct! While he may never have achieved ‘household name’ status all over the world, he is still fondly remembered for quite a few things. For the time being, I’m going to set aside his TV, film and stage work (Street Hawk, Grease, Solid Gold, As The World Turns, Pirates Of Penzance, etc) and focus on his Rock/Pop music career in the ‘70s and ‘80s, all of which is included in the six CD box set ROCK AND ROLL DREAM: 1976-1983.
The Adventures rose like a phoenix from the ashes of Irish Punk/New Wave band Starjets. Vocalist Terry Sharpe and latter-day guitarist Pat Gribben formed the Pop-oriented outfit (along with Pat’s wife Eileen, Spud Murphy, Tony Ayre and Paul Crowder) and released their debut album in 1985. Depending on which country you were in, the album was called THEODORE AND FRIENDS (in the UK and Europe) or THE ADVENTURES (in the U.S.). While essentially the same album, each version featured different mixes of the core tracks (“Send My Heart,” “Another Silent Day”, etc.) and different artwork. The album’s shimmering, glossy production accented Gribben’s melodic flair and Sharpe’s vocals. The addition of Eileen’s vocals added a nice depth to the harmonies, of which there were plenty on display. While the album received good reviews and they earned significant airplay on both sides of the pond, The Adventures didn’t achieve the success they so richly deserved.
Colin Hay is a rarity in the world of Rock ‘n’ Roll. He achieved great success out of the gate 35 years ago while leader of Men At Work (“Who Can It Be Now?,” “Down Under,” “Overkill”) but had to pursue a career as a solo artist once the band split in ’86. In 1987, he ventured out as Colin James Hay with the LOOKING FOR JACK album but struggled to maintain success. Next came the Colin Hay Band’s 1990 album WAYFARING SONS, which didn’t fare any better. In 1992, he released PEAKS & VALLEYS, the first in a series of solo albums that would slowly rebuild his career from scratch. Now, three and one-half decades after hitting #1 with Men At Work’s BUSINESS AS USUAL album, Hay is at his peak as a songwriter and vocalist and he shows no signs of slowing down. FIERCE MERCY is proof that he is one of this generation’s finest songwriters. While his hits with Men At Work may have been more ‘immediate’ on first listen, his songwriting is deeper, more passionate and better than ever on this 2017 album. Like his last release, 2015’s NEXT YEAR PEOPLE, this is an album filled with songs that are warm, intimate and emotional. Whether he is singing from experience or as an observer, Hay always connects with the subject matter and it all sounds so personal, which adds to the songs’ power. Lead-in track “Come Tumbling Down” is a sing-a-long that prepares you for the roller-coaster ride of emotions that weave in and out of the rest of the album. “A Thousand Million Reasons,” “The Best In Me,” “The Last To Know” and “Secret Love” are some of the best songs that Hay has ever written or co-written (with Michael Georgiades and others). “Two Friends” (written by Georgiades) features one of Hay’s finest vocal performances to date. Never one to live in his past, Colin Hay has creatively risen above his previous success and recorded what could be his finest musical work to date. Again, Colin Hay has proven that he leaves pretty much all of his contemporaries in the dust. FIERCE MERCY is a lovely, heartfelt album that will stand the test of time. If you stopped listening after the CARGO album, you’ve got a lot of catching up to do!
Right Said Fred may be considered a ‘one hit wonder’ in the U.S., but I’m here to tell you that they are much more than that. Their worldwide hit “I’m Too Sexy” has become a slice of Pop Culture and is still used in advertisements, films and TV shows. The mere mention of the song title will inspire people to spontaneously sing a line or two out loud no matter who else is around. However, as I once wrote over at allmusic.com: “If you’ve never heard anything by Right Said Fred apart from ‘I’m Too Sexy,’ then you are missing out on one of the best dance-pop bands of this generation. To base your opinion of the band on that one song is like judging The Beatles‘ entire catalog on a song like ‘Yellow Submarine.’ Sure, it’s fun and catchy, but there is so much more to the band than that one piece of pop fluff.” In other words, if you haven’t heard anything else by RSF, then it is time to change that.
CAN’T TOUCH US NOW
We all grow up. Some of us try to live in the past while others are happier living in the here-and-now. Our favorite artists have it far more difficult, though. They grow older and move forward, maturing like the rest of us, yet they have fans that prefer them to stay exactly the same as they were when they first started having hits. British sextet Madness has certainly had their fair share of dealings with these types of expectations from their audience. The young adults that recorded their first two albums in ’79 and ’80 – ONE STEP BEYOND and ABSOLUTELY – began to mature by the mid-‘80s and as soon as that happened, the band’s sound evolved. Their 7 and RISE AND FALL albums signaled their new-found confidence and each of them contained some big hits (most notably, “Our House”), but their audience wanted the band to remain the Ska-influenced nutty boys of old while the band just wanted to experiment and expand upon their sound. They were still selling a lot of records six years into their career but nobody seemed to really accept that the band that recorded “Yesterday’s Men” (a fab single in 1985) was the same gang that gave them “House Of Fun,” “Baggy Trousers,” and “One Step Beyond” just a handful of years before. By 1986, Madness called it quits. Each member had personally outgrown the ‘image’ that people had of the band and they needed to shake those shackles before people could take them seriously… Thankfully, they reunited for live shows in the early ‘90s and have remained together ever since (although there have been solo and side projects released since they’ve been back). Not as prolific as they once were, a studio album from Madness is definitely cause for celebration.
Incredibly, the same six man line-up that recorded ONE STEP BEYOND in 1979 is the same line-up on their latest album, CAN’T TOUCH US NOW. That, in itself, is pretty damn impressive. This is only their fourth all-original album since WONDERFUL – their first studio ‘reunion’ album in 1999 – and their second since the critically acclaimed THE LIBERTY OF NORTON FOLGATE (2009). Like RISE & FALL and NORTON FOLGATE, CAN’T TOUCH US NOW finds the band taking off their rose-colored glasses and revealing the shady underbelly of London (and British life in general). From religion and politics to lost souls in turmoil, CTUN is a trip through the darker side of jaunty. This is a raw look at the real world by middle aged men who still know how to easily craft Pop gems that ‘feel’ like classic Madness songs but reveal different layers with each listen. Lee “El Thommo” Thompson’s sax still blurts and swings; Chris “Chrissy Boy” Foreman’s guitar still twangs and stings; Mike “Monsieur Barso” Barson’s keyboard work is so highly under-rated; Daniel “Woody” Woodgate and Mark “Bedders” Bedford are still one of the most creative rhythm sections in Pop/Rock; and Graham “Suggs” McPherson remains the ultimate front-man – you’ll always get an equal mix of tongue-in-cheek and heart-on-sleeve.
“Mr. Apples” is a worthy first single but the real meat in CTUN reveals itself over repeated spins. “Good Times,” “(Don’t Let Them) Catch You Crying,” “You Are My Everything,” and the title track are the ones that hit you first, slowly giving way to a host of other gems like “Pam The Hawk,” “Blackbird,” and “Soul Denying”. While a slow-burning album may not be welcome in a digital-on-demand world where everyone feels like they are entitled to their instant gratification right now, CTUN ultimately pays off big time for Madness fans and those who love thoughtful, well-crafted albums. If you’re looking for “Our House,” “It Must Be Love,” etc., go buy the old albums. This is an album created by six guys who gratefully acknowledge their past but prefer to move forward. For the record, I kept getting a feeling that this might be the band’s studio swan song… but I hope not!
NOTE: While I haven’t mentioned it above, I did want to address one issue: Although not an “official” member of Madness on their debut album, Cathal ‘Chas Smash’ Smyth became an integral piece of the Madness puzzle from 1980 onwards. Sadly, he has chosen to take a break from Madness and his presence is most certainly missed on this album – much like when bassist Bedford and guitarist Foreman took separate brief sabbaticals from the band in the past.
I interviewed Neil Finn a few years back and told him – off the record – that he and his brother Tim were ‘ordinary men with extraordinary talents.’ He replied with a chuckle, “I’ll take that!” While listening to the Deluxe 2CD Editions of all seven of Crowded House’s studio albums, I’m reminded about just how accurate my description of the Finns was… and is. While Tim and Neil are both exceptional at making music, their paths as artists have pulled them in slightly different directions. Tim has remained the more serious of the two while Neil still retains a playful energy that has been apparent since his days with Split Enz. Tim has always been the one ‘in charge’ (i.e. the big brother) while Neil has played the role of the more sensitive and unpredictable little brother. In a sense, he always seemed to be in awe of his older brother but not fully aware that he is every bit his equal. Regardless of commercial success, the Finn Brothers remain enormously talented and inspiring artists. However, I’ll focus on Neil’s Crowded House output for now (which includes a few significant appearances from Tim)…
So…. what do we have here?
A brand-skankin’-new album from The Beat? No, not Paul Collins and Co. – they are officially known as Paul Collins’ Beat. And no, not Dave Wakeling and Co. – we call them The English Beat over here. This album is actually by Wakeling’s former partner in crime Ranking Roger and his UK-based version of The Beat/English Beat. If you want to get technical about it, this album is by The Beat featuring Ranking Roger.
Are you thoroughly confused already? Sorry ‘bout that…
I honestly have no idea why Mental As Anything – the Australian Rock quintet – are not superstars. And if not superstars, they should at least be a huge cult band beloved by music fans around the world. Or, at the very least, adored by fans of classic Pop acts like Nick Lowe, Squeeze, Elvis Costello, etc. Now that the Mentals are just about to celebrate their 40th Anniversary in 2017, it’s about time that the world started paying a lot more attention to them. They are truly one of the finest bands to emerge from Down Under in the last… err… 40+ years! Their blend of rootsy Rock and melodic Pop places them firmly between Nick Lowe’s side of Rockpile and Squeeze circa ’79 to ’81. The Mentals’ quirky sense of humor also fits that same comparison. However, the band were/are their own ‘thing’ and comparing them to other artists is ultimately unfair. While their music is filled with liberal nods to Rock ‘n’ Roll’s past, they don’t sound like any other band, past or present. Sure, you can hear their influences but it is hard to pinpoint any particular artist that may have inspired them along the way. Mental As Anything are true originals. They evolved over the years, adding more elements into their sound but they have never deviated too far from the sound that put them on the Oz map.
Peggy Lee had been a successful jazz vocalist for 33 years before she went into the studio to cut LET’S LOVE for Atlantic Records in 1974. With a career dating back to 1941, Peggy was still a respected jazz vocalist even though her albums weren’t selling as well as they once had. When Capitol Records dropped her in 1972 after 15 years of continuous service (2-3 albums per year), some may have thought that Lee would have spent the rest of her career playing nightclubs and appearing on Jerry Lewis telethons, but luck was always on Peggy’s side. And this time, her lucky charm was the cute Beatle, Paul McCartney, who penned and produced the album’s title track. By this time, Peggy was in her mid-50s and her vocal performances were far more subdued and intimate, which lent themselves perfectly to this lovely, lilting melody. Sounding like something penned for the McCARTNEY or RAM album, the song is a haunting gem and definitely worth the price of the album alone. Thankfully, there are plenty of other great tracks to enjoy on LET’S LOVE. Melissa Manchester’s “He Is The One,” the Stylistics’ classic “You Make Me Feel Brand New” (penned by Thom Bell and Linda Creed), Irving Berlin’s “Always” and the Dave Grusin/Peggy Lee co-write “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter” are other highlights. While the album might be classified as Jazz, there are definitely elements of Soul, Funk and Pop spread evenly over the tracks. Unlike many modern Jazz artists, Lee was open to taking chances and working outside the box during her career. In fact, her next album would consist of Leiber and Stoller covers! With musical assistance from Lee Ritenour, Dave Grusin, Harvey Mason, Chuck Rainey and others, LET’S LOVE is a fine addition to Lee’s vast catalog and certainly of interest to McCartney/Beatles collectors!
NOTE: This Wounded Bird reissue reproduces the Rhino Handmade edition and includes four bonus tracks from the same sessions including an alternate version of the title track.