Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Every dome should have one: Peter Gabriel - Live at the O2

© Simon Poulter 2013
For a self-confessed dilettante such as Peter Gabriel, who releases new studio albums with as much regularity as ice ages, I'm a tad overwhelmed by the relative bounty of seeing him live for the second time in three years.

Apart from anything else, how has he found the time to go out on the road again? It wasn't that long ago that Gabriel was touring his New Blood show of orchestral renderings of his greatest hits.

Then, 48 years after leaving Charterhouse to form Genesis, Gabriel finally took his gap year, travelling the world with second wife Meabh and their two young sons in what he called "The Year of Interesting Things".

But even rock star sabbaticals must be paid for, so last year Gabriel celebrated (belatedly) the 25th anniversary of his hit-stuffed So album with a US tour of the record in its entirety. And now, after a further break, presumably to do more interesting things, Gabriel has returned to the day job with a much anticipated European tour that this week brought him to London's Thames-side tent, the O2 Arena.

If anything at all can claim a long history in London's 'new' East End, Gabriel and the Greenwich venue go back to the end of the last century when it was merely the Millennium Dome. Then, Gabriel co-directed the Cirque du Soleil-like Millennium Dome Show, supplying the 'soundtrack' featuring contributions from the late Richie Havens, Neneh Cherry, Alison Goldfrapp and The Blue Nile's Paul Buchanan.

So, three years after bringing the guitar and drums-free New Blood tour to the O2, Gabriel's return - for Back To Front 2013 - is a more conventional affair, calling up his most trusted lieutenants, the flush-bonced Tony Levin (a Gabriel stalwart since 1976) and English guitarist David Rhodes, along with keyboard player David Sancious and electrifying Parisian, Manu Katché, on drums, all of whom were part of the original So tour 26 years ago. The line-up is augmented by Swedish singer-cellist Linnea Olsson and her compatriot Jennie Abrahamson on backing vocals.

'Conventional' formation notwithstanding, Gabriel has never been one for conventional anything. In his Genesis days he famously donned masks, headgear and costumes that invariably impeded his ability to get songwords out.

It was a theatricality few of his peers possessed 40 years ago, Bowie being the obvious exception. But in 2012, and at the age of 63, Gabriel is still charging about the stage, acting out songs, awkwardly dad-dancing and occasionally missing his cues. He's always done it and the audience of Gabriel-faithful accept he always will. What also hasn't changed is his remarkable voice - which, for a rock artist into his seventh decade is in truly fine fettle - or his love of doing things just that little bit differently.

 © Simon Poulter 2013
Which is why the show begins with the O2 house lights fully up as Armenian duduk player Lévon Minassian takes to the stage on his own and unannounced to play the hauntingly beautiful The Feeling Begins, the opening track of Passion, Gabriel's stunning soundtrack to The Last Temptation Of Christ.

Minassian is no support act and his performance is just a prologue to the first of three sections of an evening built with typically artistic contrivance.

The first taste of the main event comes with Gabriel himself springing on stage, dressed in what looks like a dark black Mod's fishtail parka. In tow is Levin who provides gentle bass accompaniment to his Gabriel's piano on a work-in-progress, OBUT, a Randy Newman-like song being effectively demoed on the tour.

I could end the review right there: because, in just two songs, Gabriel has demonstrated himself at his most Gabrielesque - a lone performance from a Middle Eastern musician followed by a song that hasn't even been finished.

But that's the sort of idiosyncracy that keeps Gabriel going long after many of his peers - including the band that launched him - have stopped. Even for a trawl through the hits such as this show is, it is never going to be a straightforward rock concert ending with the obligatory fankuverymuchgoodnight.

It continues with the third song of the night, as Rhodes appears with an acoustic guitar and Sancious wearing an accordion. Any fears Gabriel might coming over all Mumford are soon allayed as a) no one else joins with a banjo and b) the band kick into a semi-unplugged version of Come Talk To Me, the honest-as-the-day-is-long confessional set during the singer's failing first marriage.

Gabriel is famous for his elaborate layering on record, but the stripped back approach, even in a venue as vast as the O2, works brilliantly. So goes the same with Shock The Monkey, a song even less likely to succeed semi-acoustically, but with this configuration, does so perfectly

The sparsity, with the house lights still up, continues with Family Snapshot, an old favourite from the third solo album, and concerning a lonely child's fixation with the Kennedy assassination in 1963. Always a powerful number, it marks the show's transition from semi-acoustic to the main course of full-on rock performance, as its mournful, piano-led introduction gives way to a power-chorded break that brings the house lights down and turns the stage lighting up to 11.

 © Simon Poulter 2013
It is during Family Snapshot that the amazing vocal talents of a tuneless, ability-free fucker in Seat 551, who insists on singing along profoundly off-key and at full pelt, prove unsustainable. A stern word soon takes care of his ruination of an otherwise early highlight in the show, much to the relief of everyone else in Block 404.

Vocal travesties amongst the puntership notwithstanding, Gabriel and his ensemble have hit their stride. Digging In The Dirt and Secret World, a brace from the 'divorce' album Us, rip the O2 apart, the former's restrained funk and repressed anger demonstrating Gabriel's kinship to that other member of rock's awkward squad David Byrne. Secret World's arcing theatre provides Rhodes with a platform to demonstrate how one man, in possession of a lump of wood, some strings and a plectrum can fill a 20,000-seat dome.

Having just reflected on his own marriage, Gabriel unearths The Family and the Fishing Net, a somewhat complex - and lengthy - track off his fourth solo album which, via some obscure lyrics, compares the act of getting hitched to the rituals of voodoo. Prescient in its original form, its inclusion in the set now might appear cute, but it provides a pounding springboard for another reach back into the past, No Self Control, Gabriel's hats off to greed which was even released as a single in 1980, perhaps to cash in on Kate Bush's atypically ethereal backing vocals.

The pre-So heads in the audience are, of course, besides themselves with this trawl through the distant past, and their glee is only amplified by the swirling acclamation of freedom, Solsbury Hill. Written mainly to express liberation from the restricted structure of rock star life, it fills the O2 with fresh vigour, 36 years after it was first committed to tape.

Gabriel's second act closes with another risky divert to something untried and new, as he debuts another box-fresh song, Why Don't You Show Yourself, written for the new Guillermo Arriaga film project, Words With Gods, and a tender love song that takes some of its musical cues from the orchestral work of the Scratch My Back album.

With that, and without any pause, Gabriel begins Act III - So. It has become somewhat fashionable for artists to tour complete classic albums. From Meatloaf to Kraftwerk, and Public Enemy to The Who, the heritage trail has provided a lucrative, if occasionally, uninspiring opportunity to recreate 45 minutes of vinyl for live audiences.

But as Gabriel explains, the restrictions of vinyl - and, in particular, the physical groove space occupied by bass notes - meant that many albums were something of a compromise when they were first released.

And so, So section of the Back To Front show is performed in the intended original sequence of the 1987 album which, after almost 20 years in the business, took Gabriel into the relatively uncharted territory (for him) of pop stardom.

There had been the odd Genesis single, like 1973's I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe) to bother the charts, and the likes of Solsbury Hill and Shock The Monkey had been radio hits in their day. So was a different deal altogether, where Sledgehammer's mock Stax sound and the simply joyous In Your Eyes turning Gabriel into an MTV frequent flyer. Five of its songs even found their way into episodes of Miami Vice. 

Critics have since accused it of being a "desperate bid" for commercial success, but given that So finally enabled Gabriel to realise his teenage dream of being Otis Redding, the switch of gears from his fourth album's darkness to So's radio friendliness shouldn't be held against him. And, really, the shift was not that dramatic.

© Simon Poulter 2013
Katché's frantic hi-hat teasing heralds So's thunderous opening Red Rain, with the entire auditorium bathed in a biblical red light. If anything, songs like this on So brought to the Gabriel canon a completely new energy that continued with his subsequent releases.

Who knew, when Sledgehammer came out, that an old Carthusian from Surrey could play the soul star? 26 years ago it became Gabriel's biggest hit to date, boosted by its video featuring Nick Park's pre-Wallace & Gromit animations, and by the fact it got away with cheeky references to shagging (unlike Frankie Goes To Hollywood's Relax not so long before). It was also an infectious party hit, and still is, providing the largely greying, balding O2 audience with an opportunity to test their arthritis medication.

And who knew that someone from the depths of the progressive rock movement could write a song as tender as Don't Give Up? Even more disturbing is that this somnolent Depression-era romance was originally written as a duet with Dolly Parton in mind. Kate Bush, of course, made it to the eventual album and single release, but for this live tour, Abrahamson does the co-lead, and does so with an uncannily Dolly Parton-like vocal treatment.

That Voice Again was never one of So's strongest tracks, but it's something of a contractual obligation when doing the album in its entirety, soon making way for a spine-tingling rendition of Mercy Street. Clearly still a devotee of junior school 'music and movement' classes, Gabriel performs the song about tragic poet Anne Rice lying flat on his back. It is, we assume, intentional, and not the result of a trapped nerve. As he sings, stagehands push WALL-E-like lighting pods into place over him. It's all very theatrical. And, if I may, I'll use that word again - Gabrielesque.

© Simon Poulter 2013
Back on his feet, and the entire band get to test their funk chops again with Big Time, the wry swipe at fame which was recently covered by the equally wry Randy Newman on I'll Scratch Yours, the reciprocation of Gabriel's Scratch My Back covers project.

Seen, at the time, as being a little too much of a clone of Sledgehammer it bumps and grinds away pleasantly on this tour, raising the collective heart rate before the dystopian We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37) recounts the electric shock experiments of Stanley Milgram on obliging human lab rats in an attempt to understand obedience.

The idea that Gabriel sold out when he made So is, however, nonsense. True, it was a lot more accessible than its direct predecessor Peter Gabriel 4, but it still contained the layered complexity that is Gabriel's hallmark, and his occasional forays into the avant garde, such as his duet with Laurie Anderson, This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds). It was an obscurity on the album, even left off the vinyl release due to space constraints, but nevertheless part of the original album tour. Resurrected, 26 years on, it's still rather hard to nail down, but Rhodes adds a Nile Rodgers touch to it (ironic, seeing as Rodgers played on So), giving it an unexpected groove.

So's exposure to a wider audience was aided, in some small measure, by the American airplay of In Your Eyes as well as it's appearance in John Cusack's rom-com Say Anything. When Gabriel played the So show last year at the Hollywood Bowl, Cusack appeared at the side of the stage, a boombox held aloft as it was in the film's pivotal scene. Alas, no such showbusiness here, but there is little need for any peripheral adornment.

In Your Eyes is an uplifting, warmly infectious festival of a song and even after all these years of hearing it done live, and being a repeat fixture on Gabriel's live albums, it never fails to raise a grin, and certainly doesn't on this particular evening. As the intended conclusion of So it closes the third act, the band quickly reassembling for the evening's epilogue.

© Simon Poulter 2013
The Tower That Ate People, part of the Millennium Dome Show, brings the event to a spectacular finale, with Gabriel literally disappearing into a corkscrew tower that springs up out of a lighting ring.

Gabriel's tour for the Up album featured all sorts of elaborate staging like this, and until this point the Back To Front show has been somewhat devoid of such amusements.

That's not a complaint, however. After the bicycles, revolving stages and Zorb balls of Gabriel's tour to promote Up, his last full album of original material 11 years ago, the relative conventionality of this show is quite refreshing.

There is, though, one Gabriel convention still to uphold: Biko. Written about the 1977 death in police custody of South African civil rights campaigner Steve Biko, it has, since the 1980 tour, been an expected, no - demanded fixture of the live show.

Promoting the South African cause might seem dated now, 23 years after Nelson Mandela's long walk to freedom, but Biko remains one of the most powerful, neck hair-rising anthems about humanity ever-written. Live, it still chills, driven by its thumping dum-dum-DUM, dum-dum-DUM rhythm and industrial-buzz bass notes, and the massed clench fist-salute of solidarity that accompanies the chorus.

Biko may have been written out of hippy idealism by one of rock's finest idealists, but it closes a show as memorable as any I've seen over the last 26 years since I saw Gabriel in concert for the first time, when So was 'just' his fifth solo album.

Hopefully there will be another next year and, who knows? Perhaps a return to the big tent parked on a bend in the Thames at Greenwich?

Monday, October 21, 2013

Victorian values: Steven Wilson - live at the Royal Albert Hall

© Simon Poulter 2003
The Royal Albert Hall holds a special place in the heart of What Would David Bowie Do? For it is within this giant Victorian wedding cake that yours truly began his "career" at the cutting edge of rock writing.

February 19th, 1985, to be precise, in the company of Phil Collins and his 'Hot Tub Club' and on behalf of that august organ of record, the New Musical Express. Yes, I know: enough to have Nick Kent, Tony Parsons, Julie Burchill and the other angry young scribes of punk fold up their tents.

28 years on, it is with a tremendous sense of occasion that WWDBD? finds itself trotting up the steps to Kensington's most famous tribute to Prince Albert (the royal consort, not the - ahem - 'lifestyle accessory') to see a musician with whom it goes back even further - 43 years to be precise: Steven Wilson.

I'll spare you the why and how this vast expanse of time, save to say that here, I am filled with a profound pride at seeing someone I once shared a sandpit treading the boards of one of the most iconic concert venues in the world.

Wilson is, perhaps, the most successful British recording artist you've never heard of. Despite critical acclaim and Grammy nominations, production and remixing work for the likes of King Crimson and Jethro Tull, worldwide success with the band he formed while at school, Porcupine Tree, and work across several side projects and guest appearances, Wilson remains somewhat off radar to mainstream audiences, particularly in the UK.

And, yet, to see crowds of fans thronging outside the stage doors or the Albert Hall and other venues across Europe, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Surrey-born, Hertfordshire-raised musical polymath reassuringly demonstrates that Wilson is far from obscurity. Running into the likes of Steve Hackett (Genesis guitarist during their "classic" period), revered bassist Tony Levin (King Crimson, Peter Gabriel and many, many more), and Robert Fripp in the queue to pick up guest list tickets demonstrates the company Wilson keeps. And deservedly so.

His last album, The Raven That Refused To Sing has done splendid business around the world, winning rave reviews and making it onto the UK album Top 30, the Billboard Hot 100, debuting at No.3 in Germany and being awarded Album Of The Year at the 2013 Progressive Music Awards. No wonder, then that Albert Hall show has been so enthusiastically subscribed to.

Wilson is a busy character: somehow, since The Raven was released in March he has managed to tour the UK and Europe twice, play throughout North and South America, plus Australia earlier this month, record another album with Blackfield, his collaboration with Israeli megastar Aviv Geffen, and start work on new material for a fourth solo album to be released in the summer of 2014.

But for now, there's the small matter of the "home fixture". As soon as the house lights lower, Wilson is out to confound his audience, a 'mood' film backed by ambient drone music, appears to be of CCTV footage of a Home Counties street corner, interspersed with the sort of government information films we British children were forced to watch in the hope we won't kick footballs into overhead powerlines, or mess about on building sites (remember, kids, building sites BITE!). The central figure of the film is a busker, who appears halfway through, and may or not be Wilson, who procrastinates over getting his guitar out. When he starts strumming on screen, Wilson himself walks onto the stage - barefoot as usual, strumming the same guitar as his alter-ego - to perform solo Trains, a song from Porcupine Tree's In Absentia album.

For an artist so enthusiastically embraced by the prog rock movement, Wilson's solo work has veered more towards the sort of jazz fusion that Frank Zappa, Jean-Luc Ponty and Weather Report were doing in their prime, and the choice of musicians he has worked with on these solo albums and tours bears evidence of this. Adam Holzman, son of legendary Elektra Records founder Jac, has contributed his distinctly jazzy keyboard chops to Wilson's most recent solo tours, applying classic Mellotron, Wurtlitzer and piano sounds, while next to him stands in-demand jazz session flautist and brass player Theo Travis. Lead guitar is provided by one of the most sought-after performers today, Guthrie Govan, while the prolific Nick Beggs drives the bottom line with his expressive work on bass and Chapman Stick (a sort of bass guitar that isn't). Completing the line-up is prodigious Californian drummer Chad Wackerman, who was playing drums for Zappa as a teenager.

As the full band launch into Luminol, the expanse of their collective capabilities is brought into sharp focus, shifting from Beggs' thunderous foundation to more sensitive moments of close vocal harmony. Postcard changes the mood, demonstrating Wilson's proficiency in gentler fare, before returning to the infectious Holy Drinker.

© Simon Poulter 2003

Wilson is not, by his own admission, a singles artist. This is not, he says, out of some snobbish aversion to commerciality, it's just that he does not do, in his own words, "short". Even an abridged version of Grace For Drowning's epic Raider II runs to a mere 15 minutes. Drive Home is, however, being released this week as a single, but in typical Wilson style, part of a DVD or Blu-ray Disc audio-video package. Cute marketing, one might say, but he has a tremendous love of the visual arts and film making, which has resulted in commissions for independent film makers to create small films for both Drive Home and the title track of The Raven, an album inspired by the sort of spooky short stories written by Edgar Allen Poe.

Drive Home is a beautiful song and a touching love story inspired by artist Hajo Mueller, and one that I really can't understand why it hasn't been picked up by mainstream radio. It also has a solo from Govan that should be considered right up there with David Gilmour's on Comfortably Numb.

Wilson's prolific output is not, surprisingly, the result of being a restless soul - he's one of the most laid-back people you could ever wish to meet - but more the result of a restless creative seam. Even when not touring or recording and producing with others, new material appears effortlessly, such as the "work in progress" Wreckage, which receives a live debut at the RAH. "Still missing a few things," says Wilson, in incomplete form it takes a minimalist direction, Portishead-style trip-hop beats and a filtered vocal suggesting an interesting new direction for the next release.

© Simon Poulter 2003

Back to The Raven, and The Watchmaker closes the show's first half (with no support band, Wilson must observe some arcane Albert Hall regulation for holding an interval). It's a frenetic song, and another slice of macabre from Wilson's love of ghost stories, in which the eponymous horologist decides to off his wife of 50 years and bury her under the floorboards. Not the most joyous of pretexts, but it's a powerhouse of a number played live, and perhaps understandably leads to a well-earned 20-minute breather.

Back on stage, and Index - a story about a seriously disturbed collector of all manner of flotsam and taken from the Grace For Drowning demonstrates a band indulging in trading off each other with complex rhythms and even bolder time signatures. Sectarian from the same album, follows, and brings to the show an expanse that film buffs might be tempted to mix metaphors for, and describe as "cinematic".

The late-model Porcupine Tree stormer Harmony Korine blasts away, a few metalheads in the audience appropriating Devil's horns gestures, while another swathe of seated rockers nod their heads frantically, resembling - from my eyrie at least - a row of Beavis and Butthead fans headbanging away.

© Simon Poulter 2003

Like Drive HomeThe Raven That Refused to Sing is another beautiful ballad, and one which really underlines the quality of Wilson's songwriting. With a genuinely moving accompanying film, animated in the style of East European cartoons from the 1970s, it is, according to Wilson himself, a very simple song, about loss, perhaps inspired by the loss of his own father a couple of years ago.

Telling the story of an old man "who is waiting to die",  he discovers a singing raven in his garden that he believes is the manifestation of his dead sister. Again, not a jaunty tale, but it's lyrical and melodic simplicity conspire to provide a compelling structure to what actually becomes an uplifting end to the show.

© Simon Poulter 2003

Not being a hits factory, Wilson doesn't exactly go in for concert singalongs. But for his encore he unearths a very old song indeed: Radioactive Toy. One of the first songs he wrote under the guise of Porcupine Tree, and before it evolved from bedroom project to fully-blown band featuring Japan's Richard Barbieri, it provides a lighthearted finale to the show, replete with audience participation on the chorus or "what I call a 'chorus'", as Wilson self-depreciatingly deadpans. It has been a PT live favourite for many years, a popularity reflected by the gusto with which the stalls join in.

This tour will roll on until the end of November, setting forth tomorrow night in Europe again, but the gig at a venue as prestigious as the Albert Hall provides an odd form of ending. It's the home show, attended by family and close friends, but in Wilson's own words, it's almost the start of something new. Beyond the tour there will be work to commence on his fourth solo album and, no doubt, plenty of appointments with the assorted alumni of classic rock who are queuing up to make use of his talents.

There is something of the Victorian work ethic about Steven Wilson. Which makes the setting of Queen Victoria's tribute to her late husband all the more appropriate.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

In-flight entertainment - Moby's Innocents

It's all about location, location, location, baby. So consider this: I'm on a packed-to-the-gills El Al flight between Paris and Tel Aviv.

To my left, a mother and her screaming infant, ejecting dummies and other items into the aisle for the flight's five-hour duration.

To my right, another mother and baby, which the airline have very considerately separated from her husband and daughter, who are in the row behind me, with the gap between my headrest and hers now becoming a veritable Suez Canal for a variety of paediatric commodities.

In front of us, a venerable lady, done up to the nines, is wearing a sequinned sweater that is surreally creating a mirrorball effect in the cabin. With the fidgeting in my immediate proximity not so much affecting my well-intentioned stoicism as asking it outside for a fight, malignant, Jeremy Clarkson-esque thoughts about alternative uses for the overhead lockers begin to assemble in my mind.

Lucky, then, that I have with me Innocents, the 11th studio album by Moby. After experiments in more acoustic and rocky directions, the former Richard Melville Hall has returned to the ambient soul that, via the zillion-selling Play, turned the DJ into the world’s most licensed musician, with half of that album ending up on advertising campaigns, and the 9/11-inspired Extreme Ways, from the follow-up 18, being anointed as the theme song for the Jason Bourne film franchise.

Innocents comes along as the 47-year-old undergoes a minor seismic shift in life, moving from his beloved New York, and the bedroom studio that has spawned much of his output hitherto, and a new life in Los Angeles. "Living in LA, certainly inspired the making of this record and the music," Moby says.

"In New York, I’d work in my cloistered studio in a big apartment building, surrounded by thousands of other apartment buildings and people everywhere. In Los Angeles, meanwhile, you can be in the middle of an urban area of fifteen million people and still feel isolated, like you’re living in the country." And is if to prove the point of living in a city that sits between the Pacific and a desert, the musician is having to get used to an environment with its own distinct fauna, such as the rattlesnake he reported coming home to recently on Facebook.

Innocents is a studio album composed, clearly, by a consume studio-dweller. And with a music industry that Moby has, incredibly, been active in since teenagehood, becoming ever more fragmented and diluted by the post-rock age, he really has become the ultimate bedroom recording artist, seemingly making music for fun.

“I guess I just accept that the music business has fallen apart,” Moby says. "That demise means that, as a 47-year-old musician, when I make a record, it’s simply because I love making records – I don’t expect commercial success. there’s no reason to second guess whether something’s going to sell well, or if a radio programmer is going to like it – so I can just make the record I want to make."

A tad self-depreciating, methinks, as Innocents is highly radio-friendly and extremely accessible. In his own words, it's "a lo-fi, idiosyncratic, emotional, melodic record", an outcome that has a lot to do with the involvement of the somewhat omnipresent producer Mark 'Spike' Stent, whose CV includes turns with Madonna, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, U2, Bruce Springsteen, Muse and Goldfrapp.

Rough round the edges, Innocents may have been intended to be, but from the outset there is a Mobylicious familiarity about Everything That Rises, with that 'Sweeping Strings' keyboard pad (John Shuttleworth – we salute ya!) washing over the eardrums like waves lapping a tropical beach at eventide, chords gently evolving as the rhythm track gradually builds over them.

Bedroom fun: the Moby home studio in LA

Throughout the record there are plenty of signature touches, such as samples of spirituals and the "gothic blues", but with Moby not possessing one of music's strongest voices, there's a notable uptick in the number of guest vocals on the album. "It’s my most collaborative record,” says Moby himself, describing the album's guest roster as "the disparate random bunch of people I’ve collaborated with."

Thus, A Case For Shame delves into downbeat soul, with its reverb-drenched drum machine exchanging spaces with a grand piano and singer-songwriter Cold Specks, whose Lana Del Ray-ish drawl adds a eeriness to this and the later track, Tell Me. The Canadian vocalist's presence on Innocents is the result of a recommendation over lunch by Mute Records' founder Daniel Miller. "The moment i heard her voice," Moby has said, "I was amazed by the challenging, idiosyncratic way that she approaches harmony, melody and phrasing. it’s like gothic blues, but combined with an avant-garde, intentional dissonance." Indeed.

The Last Day puts into practice the ear-lickingly breathy vocals of Skylar Gray (better known for co-writing Eminem and Rihanna’s Love the Way You Lie) adding brilliantly to the song's apocalyptic tone with the sort of dark balladry that wouldn't be out of place on a David Lynch soundtrack.

On Don't Love Me, Inyang Bassey - one of Moby's touring singers who also lent her rich vocal chords to Innocents' unsatisfying predecessor, Destroyed - adds an eery soulfulness not dissimilar to the spiritual samples that provided Play with its memorable idiosyncrasy.

Perhaps the most unexpected guest appearance on Innocents is that by The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne, who adds a throaty folkiness to the joyously happy-clappy On The Perfect Life, one of those "It's good to be alive" numbers - not far removed from Elbow's One Day Like This - that you'd have to have a hard-boiled heart not to enjoy. The irony, however, is that it's a song about a prolonged suicide. Lovely.

The guest male vocals keep on coming, with Seattle's Damien Jurado applying his indie-based falsetto to Almost Home, a warm, Californian sunset of a song, while on The Lonely Night features the lugubrious croon of Mark Lanegan, another Pacific Northwesterner and veteran of the original grunge community that produced Nirvana. Here, Moby's lo-fi intentions become a little clearer, along with another heavy slice of noirish melodrama.

There is a notion that ambient music, and even ambient dance music is, by nature, downbeat. Moby makes no effort to disguise the darkness of some parts of Innocents, with its uneven edges designed deliberately to evoke the authenticity of old-school recording (and certainly before the horror of AutoTune). The result, however, is his most enjoyable album since Play, and drawing on the sort of cinematic light and shade of his brilliant cover of Joy Division's New Dawn Fades on the soundtrack of Michael Mann's Heat.

Heat, you'll recall, was a typical Mann depiction of the City of Angels, a city of sometimes nonsensical contrasts: Beverly Hills looking out over South Central; the hedonism of beach life nestling amongst lost dreams, opulence and poverty, side by side. In moving his bedroom studio four and half thousand miles south-west to be a part of LA, Moby has tapped into an environment that has inspired plenty of songwriters in the past, and in the process, produced something that reflects, rather than reports, on its light and shade. And the result is very satisfying indeed.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The ten albums every man could own if they were so inclined

I've always vowed to turn down any invite from that venerated old lady of BBC Radio, Desert Island Discs, because it would just be impossible to reach any conclusion on either what items I could be stranded on the eponymous mound (e.g. which of four guitars, what from the collection of Goon Show CDs, iPad or MacBook, etc).

Harder still would be to arrive at a selection of music to be 'saved' from the hypothetical situation that had me stranded  there in the first place.

But today, thanks to Twitter, the collective dander of High Fidelity fans everywhere has been elevated by an article in the Daily Telegraph by Capital Radio breakfast DJ Dave Berry, in which he proffered his selection of the Ten Albums Every Man Should Own.

Of course, no man should be told what albums he should own, let alone ten anythings he should own. Which is why Twitter went nuts, ending with Berry writing an updated piece for the Telegraph - "Dave Berry's Ten Best Albums - a further thought" in which he explained away the rationale behind including the likes of the Rocky IV soundtrack, What's The Story Morning Glory, Ed Sheeran's - +, the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, The Best Of John Lee HookerSgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Arctic Monkeys' Whatever People Say I Am, That¹s What I'm Not and Quadrophenia.

"Dealing with the subject of musical taste," Berry wrote in an updated piece, "I always knew this list would provoke discussion. Showing the list to my friends and colleagues ahead of publication certainly helped me prepare for the colourful language." 

Well, hell may hath no fury as a woman scorned, but when it comes to writing lists about bloke stuff, run for the hills my friend. So, as I tighten the laces on the Nike Airs, here is What Would David Bowie Do?'s suggestions for the ten albums a man could own if he was so inclined:

The Stone Roses - I Am The Resurrection

Let's come to an understanding: a chap's record collection should serve a number of purposes, from projecting eclectic erudition to giving bored party guests something to pour over. Somewhere between the two should be an album that - as I discovered back in the summer when the Roses came to an intimate, sweaty theatre in Paris - just makes you want to go nuts for 50 minutes. This is that album.

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band - Born To Run

He's the bloke's bloke, and thus, Born To Run is the bloke's bloke's bloke album: a denim-clad, oil-stained paean to rock'n'roll, Saturday nights, cars, girls, New Jersey bars and the timeless joys of being, well, a bloke's bloke.

Marvin Gaye - What's Going On

In 1971, when this came out, white rock was immersed in gargantuan concept albums and double-gatefold epics. At 35 minutes, What's Going On is barely longer than some of the guitar solos being put down on vinyl by Brer Rock Star. But here was one of Motown's greatest stars, struggling with depression and other demons, making one of the greatest - and shortest - albums ever, and an impassioned kick-in-the-nuts about what was going on in the world - Gaye's included.

The Beastie Boys - Licensed To Ill

I recognise that, Marvin's album, above, not withstanding, this list is pretty white and male. So including the Beasties doesn't exactly move the needle of diversity. To men of a certain age - mine, actually - this was the album that left them stranded between their rock dependency and fading teenage decadence. It was clever, it was funny, it had loud guitars, it had hip-hop rhythms, and it was the result of three middle class New York smart-arses who revelled in extending their collective middle finger at everything that was good and holy in popular music. Punk started in New York and reactionary British types took it over. These three Yankee boys stole it right back and shook it up totally.

Blondie - Parallel Lines

In 1978, when this came out, the audience that embraced it the most didn't have a clue about political correctness, and probably wouldn't have cared either. All they got was that Debbie Harry was hotter than August in Arizona, that Blondie were cooler than August in Antarctica, and that punk didn't have to be about surfing oceans of phlegm in polytechnic refectories.

The Clash - London Calling

Arguably the best album cover ever (hats off, Pennie Smith), this was a double album - a double album! - something then associated with concept albums and rock operas. It embraced grown-up issues via a never-ceasingly enjoyable cauldron of rock, reggae, funk and rockabilly, with downbeat themes of urban decay, unemployment and social deprivation mixed in. And its title song features Joe Strummer cheekily starting to sing Marty Robbins' Singing The Blues in the outro, but stopping short to avoid paying a royalty.

The Rolling Stones - Exile On Main Street

You'll have noticed that this list hardly features anything made in the last 30 years. Deal with it. You'll also notice that it doesn't feature any Bowie, Hendrix, Steely Dan, Prince, Ian Dury, Sex Pistols, Paul Weller, John Martyn, The Smiths, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and a million more I could mention. I'm dealing with it. Something had to give. What couldn't is this by The Other Greatest Rock Band In The World™ (a fence-sitting statement as I'm not even going to attempt to separate Beatles from Stones). But I digress. Exile is the album that anyone who cares about music, who has, even for the briefest moments of adolescent departure, imagined themselves in a band, would have wanted to recorded. You could argue whether it's a Keith record, or a Mick record, or a Glimmer Twins record, or whether Charlie and Bill ultimately tied it all together, with Mick Taylor providing the ribbon. But whatever came together in the South of France stands tall 42 years later. Blues, soul, country, rock - it's all here. Oh, and Keith singing Happy.

The Who - Who's Next

No, not a collection of CSI franchise theme songs, but a brilliantly efficient album, packed with hits that shouldn't have been - Won't Get Fooled Again, Behind Blue Eyes, Baba O'Reilly, Bargain...the list goes on. This was 1971, when the 60s were finally giving way to the sort of concept The Beatles had trailed with Sgt. Pepper. Except this was being written by a Pete Townshend dealing with his dark visions of a future run by machines, long before anyone had heard of the Web. A thrilling album from start to finish. And man, what a finish.

The Beatles - Revolver

I know. I know. More rock. But who cares, it's The Beatles. The B-E-A-T-L-E-S. They're on the list whether you like it or not. And Revolver - over any of their other great albums, which is most of them - is here because it's the album on which you can actually hear the 1960s jog on from asinine pop. This is the record on which pop finally left behind post-war manners and two-and-a-half-minute love songs, in which the producer was more schoolteacher than integral to the creative process. As a result, there's the wry cynicsm of Taxman, the melancholy of Eleanor Rigby and Here, There and Everywhere, the nursery school, English eccentric singalong of Yellow Submarine, the Britpop prototype of She Said She Said, the ebullience of Good Day Sunshine and Got To Get You Into My Life (do check out Joe Pesci's version...), and the moment that progressive rock was invented, Tomorrow Never Knows. There could be better Beatles albums, but the margins of difference are so thin, you may as well go with the one that feels right. Revolver is it.

Frank Sinatra - Songs For Swingin' Lovers!

I'm not even going to make an argument for this one. Just consider that, in 1956, probably the coolest gent to ever grace a recording studio committed to tape at LA's Capitol Records Studios 15 classics, including You Make Me Feel So YoungIt Happened in MontereyI've Got You Under My Skin and Swingin' Down the Lane, before heading off into Beverly Hills for some fine dining experience with a coterie of equally cool acquaintances. Short of being Steve McQueen in Bullitt, owning this album will bring the chap close enough. Cool enough to be found in the Walls Ice Cream chest in your local sweetshop. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Brazil? Nuts!

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There may have been a few hangovers across the shires of England this morning, but it would be tragic if last night's FIFA World Cup 2014-qualifying win by the national side led to anyone losing their job.

Because any England fan who thought the 2-0 victory over Poland was worthy of the sort of drinking sesh that ends with a "uh...(cough)...sorry, Boss, but I won't be coming in today. Dicky stomach. Something I ate..." phone call has probably pissed away their career prospects. Literally. No sane employer would respect such poor judgement.

Yes, Stevie G carved out a pleasing individual goal, and Rooney brought a welcome return to the sort of ruthlessness his game at Old Trafford has been missing, but really - has this been a campaign to rattle the teeth of the Dutch, the Spanish, the Germans, the Italians, the Argentinians, of course the Brazilians, or even the Belgians heading for the Copacabana in strength?

So, yes. Samba time. Roo In Rio (though not Rio in Rio, ha ha). Prepare for a barrage of poor quality Brazilian-themed puns and laboured cultural references between now and kick-off next June. You will, I promise, hear jokes about bikini line waxes more than once.

Let's enjoy the build up, but not get carried away. Face facts: last night's game was a distinctly average affair, played by two distinctly average teams. England look a weaker footballing side than at any time in living memory.

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If the team Roy Hodgson has been forced to deploy in this final round of qualifiers is anything like that which he will take to Brazil next June, Glenn Hoddle's recent clairvoyance won't be in doubt.

This was a team which, in a group comprising Ukraine, Poland, Montenegro, Moldova and San Marino, was supposed to qualify comfortably. And yet even in last night's must-win fixture, it was impossible to suppress the nerves as the Dannys Welbeck and Sturridge continued to misfire, Joe Hart looked ever more a capable goalkeeper lacking confidence (or an incapable goalkeeper covering up his game with a veneer of confidence), and a defensive quarter appeared to be in the throes of suffering the classic 'three-quarters' problem - there's always one of them you've got a question mark over.

The final Group H table flatters to deceive, too. England may have ended their ten-match qualifying run unbeaten - which deserves some credit, obviously - but the won six, drawn four, lost none stats reveal a less then convincing sequence. Especially when considering the win margins of the other teams already booking their business class seats for next summer.

Clearly, no one should be in a rush to counter FA Chairman Greg Dyke's low expectations for England's fortunes next summer ("I don't think anyone realistically thinks we are going to win the World Cup in Brazil."), and Gary Lineker's doubts that there could be a quick fix.

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Hodgson has his doubters, but the FA could appoint Harry Potter and a nuclear-powered magic wand, and still there would be mass chin-scratching as to whether he had the right credentials to run the national team.

At risk of having worms scurrying in every direction from the can in which they've been happy to reside up until this point, expectations for the fortunes of the England national football team - at next year's World Cup and every subsequent competition - must be conditioned by the reality that England as a footballing nation is distinctly average.

Moreover, we're not going to get much better, all the time English players (or "qualifying" English players...) are unable to develop the skills and talent to make them not only break into our so-called elite teams, but also make England a worthy competitor on the world stage. And that's the Achilles Heel. You can go on about 30, 40, 50 years of hurt, but we're not going to see an Englishman - or a Belgian with Albanian, Kosovan, Serbian and Turkish eligability - lifting the Jules Rimet in an England shirt until the nation's footballing competitiveness is improved.

It's not just about a lack of opportunities for English players at the top English club, either. If domestic football was a barrier to national excellence, the Dutch wouldn't be the runaway European favourites they are. Ditto Belgium. To ape Father Ted, "something needs to be done about this sort of thing".

I'm looking forward to Brazil 2014 like any other right-minded football fan should be. It's in Brazil, for a start, which should make it a party like no other (and I'm not even going to grace the argument about stadium construction) and it will therefore be a treat for all watch it on television as much as those who'll be out there in person. But, unusually, considering he's a Manchester United fan and he put Roland Rat on TV, I'm with Greg Dyke on this: England in 2014? That would just be a load of Brazil nuts.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Sorry kids, but Uncle Macca's still got it: Paul McCartney - New

In the barmy world that was Smash Hits magazine, pop stars who were, in the 1980s, considered venerable then, were given nicknames of affection. 

Thus, David Bowie became 'The Dame' (a handle that has universally pursued him ever since), Freddie Mercury was known as 'Lord Frederick of Mercury' (and, on occasion, 'Lord Lucan of Mercury' on account of his resemblance to the absconding, moustachioed nobleman), and Kate Bush was regularly referred to as Kate 'Hello Trees, Hello Sky' Bush. Because she was nuts.

Paul McCartney, on the other hand - and before he was appropriately knighted by HRH - was simply Paul 'Sir Wacky Macca Thumbs Aloft' McCartney, thanks to his noticeable habit of raising one or both of his preaxial digits every time a camera came into proximity. Strangely, Ringo Starr, who has his own 'double peace sign' signature affectation, never received the honour of a Hits nickname. I mean, what could you do to a name like Ringo?

The point of all this was that back in the 80s, to a Smash Hits audience, SWMTA was already considered a tad on the crusty side, if you get my drift. To be in his 40s was beyond the comprehension of a readership who considered their 18th birthday the ultimate milestone in life.

On June 18 this year, Paul McCartney turned 71. A month later Mick Jagger celebrated his 70th birthday. On paper, you have to question what either of them are still doing being rock stars. But the truth of the matter is that, on recent evidence, they're both doing it quite well. You could even claim they're doing it better than much of the talent a quarter of their ages. OK, that's a dangerously middle-aged thing to say, but on the evidence of both the Stones' shows in the last 12 months, and McCartney continuing to tour more now than he ever did as a grown-up Beatle, there is certainly a case to answer that these national treasures are still putting the hours in.

Still, though, the cynics maintain that such artists are no longer relevant, that despite Jagger's annoyingly lithe frame, and despite McCartney's continued passion for making new music - as evidenced by the release this week of New - there's something of the embarrassing uncle about both of them. Indeed, most of the 60s and early 70s-era performers who are still performing - be they Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Daltrey and Townshend, Stewart, Plant, Page - are frequent targets of "give it up mate" trollery.

Odd, then, that BB King (88) and Chuck Berry (86) don't suffer such snarkiness, nor Britain's original rock stars, Sir Cliff Richard (known to Smash Hits readers"Sir" Cliff Richard, and 73) and Tommy Steele (76).

The Beatles are long gone. In the context of human history, they were a blink of the eye. 1957 - McCartney meets Lennon at Woolton village fête; 1963 - Love Me Do; 1966 - Revolver; 1967 - - Sgt. Pepper; 1969 - Abbey Road; 1970 - McCartney quits. 13 years between a teenage skiffle group and cynical, bearded, warring bandmates. Having, in between, turned the world - no exaggeration - on its head.

McCartney has been tilting at windmills ever since. Lennon was the radical, but cool, maverick; Ringo remained the jester; Harrison the serious and ever so slightly dull muso, right up until his death. But Macca?

Recent reissues of McCartney's Ram and Wings' Band On The Run have reminded us that post-Fabs, McCartney didn't lose any of his natural gift for writing brain-burrowing melodies, he just took it in different directions. 

Ignore the supposed follies of The Frog Chorus or Give My Regards To Broad Street, forget the winsome Mull Of Kintyre or the cheesy Say, Say, Say duet with "Jacko" (yes, the Hits again). When he walked out on The Beatles in 1970, aged 32, McCartney needn't have picked up a guitar or sat down at a piano ever again.

But to get back to the point of this rant, he's released an album at the age of 71 which is as vibrant and as enjoyable as anything he's put out in decades. And I mean that. His last four - Driving Rain, Chaos And Creation In The BackyardMemory Almost Full and last year's standards covers album Kisses on the Bottom - have all been OK, but not thrilling. And while, of course, nothing could ever compare with anything he did with The You-Know-Whos, New is different. Plenty different. So new that it had to be called New, which I presume wasn't a holding title for something better.

There may also be some significance in the fact McCartney has gone from his 60s to his 70s in the period between an album called Memory Almost Full and an album called New, the 70s being the new 50s, or whatever ageist guff the Daily Mail has come up with recently. 

And while it could be tempting to suggest that, with a history of working with 'name' producers in the past, his choice of Mark Ronson, Ethan Johns, Paul Epworth and Giles (son of George) Martin for New is an attempt at hedging his bets with credibility, the foundation of any Paul McCartney album is going to be its songwriting. Which, on New, is easily his best in more than 30 years.

The album stomps to life with Save Us, an angry protest (well, as angry as Macca will ever get) which draws some comparison to the fuzzbox guitar of the Fabs' Revolution. Being A) a former Beatle and B) Paul McCartney, such comparisons with that little rock'n'roll band from Liverpool are inevitable. McCartney, however, has never tried shying away from his past, but not wishing to be ironic or cute, he embraces his heritage, even using it as a platform for broader reflection. Thus Early Days seeks to reset perceptions of who did what in the L&M partnership, both lyrically and melodically through the kind of acoustic balladry that made Fool On The Hill and Blackbird such fragrant entries to the Beatle body of work. 

It's here you become acutely aware that Paul McCartney may be the only living, working musician who can justifiably carry the tag Beatlesque' (sorry Liam), but that doesn't mean he feels compelled to slavishly follow the formula. True, Queenie Eye walks into the The Beatles' whimsy, and its rhythm track bears more than a passing resemblance to the Starr/McCartney forerunner of drum'n'bass, but here the listener starts thinking: "Am I listening to a Paul McCartney song that references The Beatles, or am I listening to a Paul McCartney song that I expect to reference The Beatles?"

Overall, there is a compelling energy about New, and none more so than on its title track, which dances through a pop sensibility that straddles both the old (Swinging Sixties) and the new (the not-so swinging...erm...whatever decade we're in now). Appreciate is a brave stab at modernity that might not work quite so well, but it is still a more present McCartney than some of the doe-eyed family-friendly fare of his recent musical history.

It can't be easy being Paul McCartney. It can't be easy being a living legend, a national treasure and one of the most famous human beings in the 20th century or indeed any century rolled into one. He is, or at least appears to be, normal, and if that is just act - as his critics have said it is - he's managed to maintain it for more than 50 years. He will maintain that it is down to his working class Liverpudlian roots, that he's just carrying on doing what he does because that's all he's known, and all he's known is to carry on doing what he does best. And while the earnest intent hasn't always been matched by the output, on New, it's there in spades.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Deep In The Motherlode: John Martyn - The Island Years

The Greatest Hits collection: for some, the perfect Christmas gift. To others, the ideal introduction to a grander canon. And to another category - let's call them The Suits - an opportunity to plunder a back catalogue.

But what if there were no Top 40 singles, and barely any meaningful flickering of attention beyond a faithful cognoscenti? What justification, then, the release of a compilation of 'hits'?

Logic, presumably, doesn't even enter the equation when considering John Martyn - The Island Years, a truly lavish package weighing in at a chunky couple of kilos, and containing 17 CDs, a DVD, 120 rarities, four songs never even heard before, a press kit from 1973, and a lovingly curated book by longtime biographer John Hillarby.

No one is expecting anyone other than the deepest fan to part company with close to £150 for such a weighty tome, especially one containing a lot of material the fan might already possess. But that is part of the tragedy of John Martyn and, oddly, his appeal.

It's singularly impossible to imagine that 40 years hence Justin Bieber will be regarded with the same reverence for the heart-stripping depths to which he would descend with his songwriting, his utterly unique guitar virtuosity, and even the depravity to which his tour jinks would reach. Because, quite frankly, they don't make 'em like Martyn any more, and that's what makes The Island Years more than just a fan's treasure trove.

It charts Martyn's most formidable period, when Chris Blackwell made him Island's first white signing in 1967, taking him from Surrey-born, Glasgow-raised gauche exponent of finger-in-ear bucolic folk to ethereal classics like Solid Air and the beautiful woozefest of Go Down Easy (with its opening line "You curl around me like a fern in the spring" and the intonation of "...eazzzy" that perfectly harmonises Martyn's voice and Danny Thompson's upright bass).

Picture: Island Records

There will be no shortage of people, I'm sure (and I'm not going to put this to the test, either) who will say that What Would David Bowie Do? bangs on a tad too much about Martyn. But like so many - and there are many - who love his work, we all share the same adoration and the same frustration. Adoration for a body of work that gouged open the human condition and frustration at the way Martyn's talents were largely ignored by the mainstream and came close to being wasted by Martyn himself.
Picture: Island Records

The former Iain David McGeachy, born on September 11, 1948 in a street in New Malden, Surrey, not far from the one I arrived in 19 years later, was often regarded as "a musician's musician". This is a term I always consider to be the musical equivalent of patronisingly describing someone not blessed with much beauty as having a great personality.

Martyn, however, was - and remains, posthumously - a musician whom those who know their music, and especially their singer-songwriters, will hold considerable reverence for. True, I wouldn't be able to throw any hit singles at you for reference, but to a certain generation, Solid Air remains a stoner's choice.

Clapton's cover of May You Never kept Martyn in Guinness during a career whose critical success was rarely matched by commercial success. Eclectic collaborations with David Gilmour, Phil Collins and Sister Bliss, plus the collection of artists like Beck, The Cure's Robert Smith, Paolo Nutini, Morcheeba, Beth Orton, Joe Bonamassa, Lisa Hannigan, David Gray, Snow Patrol and Collins (again) who contributed to the 2011 tribute album Johnny Boy Would Love This were the tip of the iceberg as far as Martyn's standing in the business was concerned.

"I'd never heard anything like him," Orton recently recalled. "Like all good music, it scared me a little, but it was so tender as well, wise and mysterious. He opened a door to another world of beauty and sensuality that until that moment I knew little of. To this day I still love the tenderness of his words and delivery."

Picture: Island Records
When he died, in January 2009, aged 60 and just after being awarded an OBE in the New Year's Honour's List, the tributes came from right across the industry. He was one of music's loveable rogues, a once whip-thin folkie with an angelic voice who ended his life a vast bear of a man, with a whiskey-soured Gorbals rasp, one leg missing below the knee, and the sort of history a rascally old cove in a dockside pub might retell.

That he survived his sixth decade was a surprise to some, but a blessing to all who continued to enjoy new material right up until his death. The Island Years comes to represent Martyn at his most creatively fertile and his most technically inventive in the studio (and out of it - One World's wigout Small Hours was recorded at three in the morning next to a Berkshire lake, just to capture ambient sounds like a flight of geese taking to the air).

The package includes all 12 studio albums recorded for Island and although most - and especially Bless The Weather, Solid Air, Inside OutOne World and Grace And Danger should be nailed-on fixtures of any existing Martyn collection - the additional CDs containing outtakes and complete live recordings (such as one from Richmond-upon-Thames' Hanging Lamp, as well as the Live From Leeds album) provide more than just a completist's satisfaction.

Picture: Island Records
The inclusion of a DVD featuring Martyn's various TV appearances - including seminal performances with partner-in-crime Danny Thompson on The Old Grey Whistle Test - chart his evolution from genius of a folk, rock, blues and even reggae hybrid with an acoustic guitar and EchoPlex delay, to besuited electric guitarist trying to fit the mid-80s effete with over-produced AOR gloss that seemed intended to turn Martyn into the next Chris De Burgh.

But even there, amid echoey sax solos and the battered Martin acoustic replaced by Stratocasters and Les Pauls, the essence of John Martyn can be seen for all its fragility, the raw, heart-on-sleeve (in fact heart as sleeve) emotion. Even a cover version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow turns into a song of wrought honesty only Martyn could have made.

The Island Years is a sumptuous Aladdin's Cave of John Martyn's music. The stuff you know too well bear repeated listening; the stuff you've heard in different forms will provide a fascinating glimpse of the creative process of a consummate innovator; and the absolute rarities - the demos, the previously unreleased, the obscure BBC sessions, even a cover version of Hi-Heel Sneakers by (the first record Martyn ever bought) - conspire to put one of the most event-filled, colourful and tragic careers into one mighty, postman-challenging box of never ending delight.