xPropaganda: The Heart Is Strange

Though not a big hit on its original release, Propaganda’s 1985 album A Secret Wish only seems to grow in stature as the years pass.

It was arguably the last meaningful release on the ZTT label, spawning two UK top 40 singles. More importantly it was a sonic treat, full of grandeur and drama, one of the great pop albums of the 1980s.

The Dusseldorf-formed band made a couple of botched attempts to reunite – the 1234 album in 1990, a Martin Gore/Tim Simenon-assisted try in 1998, then a partial gathering at Trevor Horn’s charity gig at Wembley Arena in 2004.

But now they’re back as xPropaganda (who knows the legal machinations behind that moniker). Founding members Michael Mertens and Ralf Dorper are not around this time but vocalists/songwriters Claudia Brucken and Susanne Freytag are, alongside Secret Wish producer/guitarist Steve Lipson.

Excitingly their album The Heart Is Strange is also on the newly reignited ZTT (Horn is credited as ‘Advisor’), via Universal Music Catalogue.

My expectations were high but then were slightly dashed with the choice of ‘Don’t You Mess With Me’ as lead-off single/trailer. It’s easily the least interesting track on the album.

Lush, cinematic opener ‘The Night’ definitely evokes memory of A Secret Wish’s epic track one ‘Dream Within A Dream’, even if Terry Edwards’ muted trumpet is incongruously ‘jazzy’ as opposed to the resplendent playing (by whom? Guy Barker? Steve Sidwell?) on the 1985 track. And there are too many vocal melodies to choose from, none particularly intriguing.

Elsewhere there are better tunes and the odd appealing lyrical zinger. And if synths are your bag, these sounds – mostly courtesy of Pete Murray – are fantastic, sometimes lush and ominous, sometimes intricate and ingenious. It’s great headphone music.

But there’s not enough memorable Lipson lead guitar on The Heart Is Strange and the drum programming is a bit flat. Paging Steve Jansen. Best track? The enigmatic closer ‘Ribbons Of Steel’, a nearly ten-minute spoken-word rumination on the end of a relationship with hints of the Pet Shop Boys and Prefab’s I Trawl The Megahertz.

The Heart Is Strange is a solid B+. Good in places but must try harder. Too many mid-tempo songs. Certainly not in the league of the freaky A Secret Wish (a lack of Mertens may have a lot to do with that?) and without that album’s pristine mastering, depth of sound, harmonic intrigue and wacky guest appearances, but some decent new material to play live. Maybe next time they’ll let their hair down a bit – and hopefully get Mertens involved again.

Brucken and Freytag speak about The Heart Is Strange in this podcast.

And Stephen Lipson deconstructs A Secret Wish and xPropaganda here.

11 May 1987: Talk Talk commence recording Spirit Of Eden

35 years ago today, Mark Hollis (guitar, keyboards, vocals), Tim Friese-Green (keyboards, production), Lee Harris (drums), Paul Webb (bass) and engineer Phill Brown convened at London’s Wessex Studios (don’t look for it – it’s not there any more) to begin work on the Talk Talk album Spirit Of Eden.

During May, June and July 1987, this core unit worked five-day weeks from 11am until midnight, in near darkness apart from an oil projector, a gentle strobe lighting effect and three Anglepoise lamps.

Tim Friese-Green on the Hammond organ, Wessex Studios

Basic tracks laid down, they took a break. On 19 October 1987, work resumed with instrumental overdubs; first woodwinds, then a coterie of world-class musicians including David Rhodes, Bernie Holland and Larry Klein, whose contributions would end up on the cutting-room floor. But those whose performances did make the cut include Nigel Kennedy, Danny Thompson, Robbie McIntosh, Martin Ditcham and Henry Lowther.

Lee Harris’s drum booth, Wessex Studios

Almost a year in the making, Spirit Of Eden was finally released on 12 September 1988 (after a long delay while EMI panicked – it was actually completed on 11 March 1988) and remains one of the most influential, least-dated ‘rock’ albums of the 1980s.

Thanks to Phill Brown for use of his photos.

‘Mark Hollis: A Perfect Silence’ is published by Ben Wardle.

The ‘Spirit Of Eden’ master tapes

Guest post: Gary Grimaldi reviews my new album for Bandcamp Friday

Hey guys, Gary Grimaldi here, eminent music scribe, checking in from The Big Apple.

I’m here to hip you mothers to a new release from this mattjoplin kid. You know, that London guy who writes/plays everything himself and records in his local ‘park’?

Well, the douchebag calls me the other week – sounded like he was ringing from the eye of a hurricane actually – and shouts something about a new album. Melody Attack – that’s the title, that’s what he’s called it. Tell me more, I spake unto him. No answer was forthcoming. Dead air, man.

What a lowlife, Limey a**hole.

Whatever. The files arrive in my inbox next day. I check them out. I can’t deny it – the sonofabitch has done it again. He’s got a whole bunch of mess on there – rockabilly, psych, jazz/fusion, acoustic/’sensitive’ crap, spoken word, ambient/soundtrack/whatever.

It’s a trip, man. A journey through space and time.

So. Help a bro. Get hold of Melody Attack here. And you can find his first album Dream Avenue here. And it’s Bandcamp Friday today, so the artists get all the profits, not the suits. Cool beans.

Anyways. That’s it from me. I gotta get down to the Vanguard to catch Archie Shepp’s late set. Keep it greasy, babies, and see you further down the trail.

From the desk of Gary Grimaldi
Head of Popular Musics
The Village View
NYC
May 6, 2022

McCoy Tyner/Freddie Hubbard Quartet: Live At Fabrik

These two giants of their instruments – Tyner on piano, Hubbard on trumpet/flugelhorn – crossed paths many times in the 1960s, particularly on three of the latter’s most famous Blue Note albums. (Tyner of course is probably best known for his work with the fabled John Coltrane Quartet.)

So it was only natural that they should co-headline a powerful touring quartet in the mid-1980s. And now we can hear it in all its glory courtesy of this 2-CD/streaming package, a complete radio broadcast from an 18 June 1986 gig in Hamburg, Germany.

And it’s a classic – full of cogent lines, attractive melodies, power and poise, here’s an album to play to people who say they hate jazz. And tell ‘em we sent you.

It may even be the most impactful live ‘jazz’ album this correspondent has heard since 1977’s epochal VSOP The Quintet (which also featured Hubbard, alongside Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter and Ron Carter).

It’s a very ‘hot’ concert recording, with a lot of presence and ‘room’. You can hear everything, including members of the band frequently urging each other on. It helps that the crowd is so respectful – silent when the band take things down, loud when things get intense.

The quartet were apparently unaccountably late onto the stage that night, Hubbard apologising after the first tune – irritatingly not explained in the liner notes. But the tardiness might help explain the players’ agitated impatience which definitely serves the music. ‘Inner Glimpse’ features a remarkable Hubbard tour de force of rhythmic intensity and characteristically wide intervals. The audience, appropriately, go mad.

On Tyner’s majestic ‘Latino Suite’, Avery Sharpe treats his acoustic bass like an electric, slapping it, popping it and even playing power chords, Stanley Clarke-style. ‘Body And Soul’ kicks off with a striking, unaccompanied, two-minute Hubbard flugelhorn statement. Then, after what sounds like an edit, there’s a further eight-minute solo – it’s edge-of-the-seat stuff. He was really cutting loose from the mostly pretty staid studio albums made for Blue Note during this period. Drummer Louis Hayes accompanies with a lot of fire, channelling both Billy Cobham and Tony Williams but with an original soloing style.

Only one minor gripe: a few tracks are too long, an obvious/excusable liability when an entire gig is documented. But what a specimen. And what a shame that these two giants of the music are gone, and also that such intense live jazz albums are so few and far between.

John Martyn: The Apprentice

Island Records undoubtedly did a lot of good for John Martyn but they also royally messed around with arguably his two best post-1970s albums.

First there was the delayed, eventually botched release of 1980’s Grace And Danger, then the complete rejection of The Apprentice when first delivered in 1988.

The album eventually saw the light of day on Permanent Records (owned by Martyn’s then-manager) in early 1990, after John finished it at his own expense at Glasgow’s Ca Va Studios. It immediately sold strongly and got a great review in Q magazine (alongside a memorable interview) amongst other rags.

But co-producer Brian Young reckons it could have done a lot better – the idea apparently had been to tout it around the major labels, but John’s manager decided to steer clear of the suits this time around. We’ll never know if that was wise (and sadly it’s currently on streaming platforms with completely the wrong artwork attached).

Most importantly, The Apprentice is full of memorable songs which easily offset the sometimes fairly flimsy production. He was expanding his harmonic horizons (and vocal range – this is probably his best singing on record) and there’s a strong Latin influence throughout, helped enormously by the return of Danny Cummings on all kinds of percussion.

‘Live On Love’, ‘Deny This Love’ and ‘Send Me One Line’ could have made cracking singles, the latter apparently penned for the movie ’84 Charing Cross Road’ but not used. ‘The Moment’ and ‘Patterns In The Rain’ suggest a hitherto unacknowledged influence from the Great American Songbook.

‘Look At That Girl’ is a gorgeous ballad for his daughter Mhairi, while the title track was a rare insight into Martyn’s political leanings, written from the point of view of a terminally-ill worker at the Sellafield nuclear plant. ‘Income Town’ may just be the standout, another attack on rampant capitalism featuring a meaty guitar solo.

In short, there was something for everyone. Long-term fans just had to accept that he wasn’t going to be playing the acoustic through an Echoplex anymore; but his collaboration with keyboard player Foss Patterson was hitting its peak, after promising beginnings on 1986’s Piece By Piece.

John sold out no less than eleven nights at London’s Shaw Theatre to promote The Apprentice, enlisting Dave Gilmour to guest on guitar, and then played at the Glasgow Big Day festival a few months later. 1990 turned out to be a pretty good year (reportedly followed by one of his worst, though I saw him live several times in 1991 and he was always superb) for Big John.

Eddie Gomez: Mezgo/Power Play 35 Years On

Even amidst this digital revolution, there are still classic jazz and fusion albums which just resolutely refuse to appear on streaming platforms, due to copyright problems, label problems or whatever.

Eddie Gomez’s excellent late-1980s albums Mezgo (later rereleased as Discovery) and Power Play are cases in point, recorded for the Japanese arm of the Epic label and currently residing in the ‘where are they now’ file (glad I held onto my cassette copies).

Bassist/composer Gomez is probably best known for his stellar sideman work with pianists Bill Evans and Chick Corea, as well as being a co-founder of jazz/fusion supergroup Steps Ahead, but his solo work sometimes goes unheralded.

Perhaps most relevantly, given Bill Milkowski’s major new biography, both albums feature some of saxophonist Michael Brecker’s best-ever recorded work. And they are crucial items in drummer Steve Gadd’s discography too.

1986’s Mezgo is mainly a trio album, Gomez on bass and keys, Gadd on drums/percussion and Brecker on saxes and EWI. It’s a stunning potpourri of styles, starting with the Weather Report vibe of ‘Me Too’, calling in at the fast bebop number ‘Puccini’s Walk’ (poorly covered by Corea not once but twice!) with some superb Gadd, and ending with a very moving version of Henry Purcell’s ‘Cello Sonata In G Minor (1st Movement)’.

Power Play, released the following year, had more concessions to commercialism, with some romantic ballads featuring syrupy alto sax from Dick Oatts and a few Latin-style groovers featuring Jeremy Steig on flute.

But the title track was a stunner, featuring double drums from Gadd and Al Foster. There was also a superb duet with guitarist Jim Hall, ‘Amethyst’, and an excellent fast bop track ‘West 110 St.’ featuring Foster and Brecker.

Shame you can’t hear Mezgo or Power Play (I can’t even find half-decent streams on YouTube). Beg, borrow or steal them if they ever appear in those proverbial ‘bargain bins’…

Frank Sinatra: She Shot Me Down 40 Years On (Stephen Sondheim RIP)

It’s probably not much of a surprise that Frank didn’t exactly thrive in the 1980s, but it’s funny thinking of She Shot Me Down, released 40 years ago this month, touching down in a landscape of AOR, yacht rock and new wave.

It was his penultimate solo studio album (the last was 1984’s Quincy Jones-produced LA Is My Lady) and the last he made for his own Reprise label (still extant and still a subsidiary of Warners).

It has its fans (esteemed jazz writer Gary Giddins called it ‘his last great album’) but is generally considered only a partial success. I’d agree with that. Sinatra’s majestic voice falters, and is subject to an uncharacteristically poor recording/mixing job: he’s generally mixed much too high with a ‘room’ reverb that quickly grates.

The grim album cover design doesn’t help either. But She Shot Me Down does feature four absolute classics that easily compare with his greatest work of the 1950s, regretful portraits of lost love that suit his world-weary voice perfectly.

‘Going Going Gone’, penned by the recently departed Stephen Sondheim from the musical ‘Merrily We Roll Along’, features a sumptuous melody and witty lyric, easily transcending its wafer-thin ‘rock’ arrangement.

‘Thanks For The Memory’, originally written in 1938 and famously Bob Hope’s signature tune, features some nice updated lyrics by Leo Robin that perfectly suit the occasion (‘Thanks for the memory/Of letters I destroyed/Books that we enjoyed/Tonight the way things look I need a book by Sigmund Freud’ etc.).

‘Monday Morning Quarterback’ is a superb co-write by producer Don Costa. But Gordon Jenkins’ ‘I Loved Her’ may be the album’s standout. He was of course a frequent Sinatra arranger of note and occasional composer (‘Good-Bye’), but this is his best song, a tragic tale of a mismatched couple that we can all relate to.

The faltering piano solo (played by Sinatra?) perfectly conjures up the feeling of bar-room regret, and Sinatra’s pronunciations of ‘pie’, ‘movies’, ‘Dodgers’, ‘noon’ and ‘saloon’ linger long in the memory.

Frank, Gordon and Stephen: good-bye and thank you.