Monday, March 26, 2012

Trip Advice

1968 was the year things went totally mad. Like Syd Barrett, for example. Stanley Kubrick released 2001: A Space Odyssey, an Emperor's New Clothes if ever there was one - two-and-a-half hours of preposterously overblown quasi-religious hokum about foraging Neanderthals, homicidal computers, apes and monolithic objects appearing from nowhere. Mad.

1968 was the year the film industry thought the world needed a movie called She-Devils On Wheels. It didn't. It was also the year The Byrds were Eight Miles High (nudge-nudge, wink-wink) and The Doors recorded a series of poems over a 25-minute piece of music called Celebration Of The Lizard

1968 was also the year that The Monkees over-extended their fan appeal by making Head, a totally bonkers film co-scripted by Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson, who had created the band in the first place. For all its pretend tripping and, frankly, unintelligible surrealism, it included some of the Fabricated Four's best music, including Porpoise Song, written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin. And it's not that bad.

Paul Weller was ten-years old in 1968 and clearly had his ears wide open. Of all the many goofy things that emerged that year, it's possible that one album made its mark on the young Surrey schoolboy more than any other: Ogdens Nut Gone Flake. The Small Faces' 40 minutes of madness contained Steve Marriott's gawblimeycockerneesparrer novelty Lazy Sunday ("'Ello Mrs Jones, 'ows your Burt's lumbago?"), the big rocker Afterglow (Of Your Love), and a lot of very daft "hello trees, hello clouds, hello sky" psychedelic wigout material interlinked by the bizarre English language-mangling comedy act Stanley Unwin. Thankfully, Weller has never tried to ape ONGF too literally.

When Weller formed The Jam at Woking's Sheerwater School in 1974, it wasn't to the prog rock of the time that the teenage Modfather turned, but to The Small Faces, The Kinks, The Who and the harder edges of R'n'B from the decade before. The Jam then rolled Mod and Punk ethics into a tight ball of social conscience, which was the only element carried through to the sockless, Weejun-wearing, pastel sweater-draped effete of The Style Council, which took Weller on a soul and R'n'B-infused seven-year run of anti-Thatcherist bile.

When he returned in 1990 with his criminally overlooked and self-titled debut solo album, Weller drew on some of those musical eccentricities from his youth, mixing in with the sounds of the latest Summer of Love and the woozier elements of his more recent past, such as The Style Council's radio hit The Long Hot Summer (listen to that closely followed by Above The Clouds to see what I mean).

(Dean Farrell)
Now, 22 years into his solo career, Paul Weller is still building his magpie's nest with influences from the here, the now and the then. Sonik Kicks is Weller's 11th studio album and his third in four years (Why? "Well, you have to, at my age," he recently quipped to The Times). It's an output few of his peers seem capable of or are willing to replicate.

A third installment in his journey of free-spirited expression, following the pastoral England of 22 Dreams and the boppier Wake Up The Nation, Weller doesn't fall back on ceremony with Sonik Kicks. In short its probably his best-ever solo album when taken on the sum of its parts. 

At 53 it would have been easy for Weller to knock out another Wild Wood or Stanley Road, full of crowd-pleasing rockers and lush acoustic ballads. But like few others in his peer group - and perhaps even only Elvis Costello fits this description - Weller continues to rummage around his musical box of Lego bricks to see what else he can come up with that is meaty, beaty, big and bouncy, and which dips either a toe or both feet in the 60s without resorting to Austin Powers pastiche. 

Sonik Kicks finds Weller carefree and stridently upbeat at work. Happily dismissing contemporary chart influences, he tastes from as diverse a reference set as Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, the polite Englishness of Nick Drake and the eccentric Englishness of Pink Floyd's See Emily Play.

From the off, the trancing, psychedelic funk of Green and its metronomic electronic pulse chugs like Weller's From The Floorboards Up on As Is Now, instantly defying anyone of Weller's age group to put Sonik Kicks on as dinner party background. Because that would be a waste of good ears.

Sonik Kicks deserves attention for its sheer variety and self-assured maturity. It's an album that one moment is about jangly two-minute pop songs like The Attic (featuring Graham Coxon and Noel Gallagher) and That Dangerous Age (a tongue-in-cheek swipe at men of a similar age to Weller himself), and next the frantic ska of Kling I Klang, a sub-conscious essay about strife in the Middle East, which somehow manages to hark back to Jacques Brel and Scott Walker's Jacky in the process.

There is more psychedelia with Drifters, which takes a turn down Tarantino Boulevard with a crazy thrash of Dick Dale reverb, a flamenco rhythm and wiggy strings along with synthesised beeps and  whoops like those used for sound effects in Brains' laboratory in Thunderbirds. There's more of that on Sleep Of The Serene, a short link between Kling I Klang and By The Waters, one of those dreamy acoustic guitar numbers Weller does so well.

For all his mod-punk sensibilities, Weller is sometimes at his best writing songs like You Do Something To MeYou're The Best Thing and Wild Wood, and By The Waters deserves to join them in Weller's perennial soundtrack to English riverside picnics, warm summer sun finding its way through blades of long grass. The Style Council's Long Hot Summer was another one of those humid August afternoon classics, and Weller returns to that vibe with Study In Blue. It starts out as a slightly gooey soul duet with Weller's new wife Hannah Andrews (sounding eerily like former partner Dee C. Lee) before oozing into a dubby trip that, were it not for the fact Weller has declared himself cleaner than a hospital door handle, would have you swearing that it had been written with a little help from nature's herb garden.

It's quite possible that the twentysomething Andrews and their infant twins John Paul and Bowie (hats off!) have given Weller a new confidence. Or maybe the adventure with which he goes about Sonik Kicks stems from the sort of trip you only get during the opening months of a new relationship, or of becoming a parent. But like the dopey romantic running along the road shouting "I'm in love!" to passing strangers, Weller jumps blindly from bold to brassy with each track. Dragonfly is one of the best songs he's written in years, another trippy track built up from a wall of noise that would be the perfect companion to Gallagher's AKA... What A Life! (indeed Sonik Kicks and Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds share many tonal similarities).

Its here you realise that for all that nonsense a few years ago between Blur and Oasis for Britpop supremacy, there was already someone sat on that particular throne. Odd, then, that echoes of both bands (as well as personnel) ring through on Sonik Kicks, such as the Beetlebum-like Paperchase and When Your Garden's Overgrown, another stroll through Blur country (End Of The Century anyone?).

In 35 years as a fan I can honestly say I've never seen Paul Weller smile. Look back at any photograph over his career and you'll see that same, mildly batey look. It's not an angry expression, just one you'd call stony-faced, like Robert De Niro.

Sonik Kicks IS Weller smiling. It is even Weller content. It is certainly Weller laid more emotionally bare - and comfortably so - than at any time in his career.

Which brings me to the closing track of Sonik Kicks, Be Happy Children. Opening with a synth line straight from Zoom by Fat Larry's Band, it is perhaps the most conventional track on an otherwise unconventional album. It's a big, Motowny ballad, featuring two of Weller's seven children - Leah on vocals and a soundbite of seven-year-old Mac - and pays tribute to his late father, John. Weller Senior died in 2009 from pneumonia, having nurtured his son's career from the beginning - an origin that began with the young John Weller (before changing his name to Paul) getting an electric guitar for Christmas 1970.

Be Happy Children draws the 'regular' version of Sonik Kicks to an end, but if you shell out for the 'deluxe' edition, there is a coda worth the extra money alone: Devotion. Written for a BBC film last year about the Munich air crash that killed Manchester United's 'Busby Babes', its original version was suitably melancholy.

On Sonik Kicks, however, it draws on the album's warmth, rearranged around a 'travelling' guitar rhythm and very similar to Gordon Lightfoot's Early Morning Rain (which Weller himself covered on his Studio 150 collection). Here, Weller gives Devotion a happier, clappier Harry Nielsson vibe and a gentle, Laurel Canyon golden glow. While it may have been deemed surplus to the 'regular' version of Sonik Kicks, it is the perfect finale to an album that tests expectations without straying too far. Which is a sign of composed maturity in itself.

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