Following the release of Xscape, I’ve been rediscovering my love for Michael Jackson’s other unreleased songs and demos, of which there are many lost gems. One in particular that stands out is the demo version of ‘P.Y.T (Pretty Young Thing) which surpasses the Thriller version. The two songs sound very different with only the title providing any real link between them. The original version was co-written by Michael Jackson and Greg Phillinganes although Quincy Jones rejected it and co-wrote a new version along with James Ingram. A bizarre decision which is underscored by the popularity of the demo. The released version of ‘P.Y.T’ is a slice of frothy pop-funk which does sound very much of its time. It’s an enjoyable dance number though it’s still one of Thriller’s weaker offerings. In its original form it’s a slick mid-tempo ballad, something that Michael Jackson excelled at. This version of ‘P.Y.T’ would definitely have held its own on Thriller. The sleek production has also aged immeasurably better than the final released version. It’s better than the final version in every way really and it still sounds fresh. If Justin Timberlake recorded vocals over the original demo and released it right now, it’d be a smash hit. It’s little wonder that Will.I.Am’s 2008 remix of ‘P.Y.T’ for Thriller 25 was actually based on the demo and not the final version given that it still sounds contemporary. Thankfully the demo version itself was officially released on 2004’s The Ultimate Collection along with other rarities. To this listener though, it’s simply sheer madness that it wasn’t released in 1982 when it should have been.
So today I listened to the upcoming Robyn and Royksopp collaborative EP, entitled Do It Again. It comes out here in the UK on Monday. I was very much looking forward to this release as I do like both artists. They seemed to be a potential match made in heaven. My expectations were met and then some. It’s already one of my favourite releases of 2014! Each of the five tracks are very strong and boast their own individual sound, yet fit together seamlessly. There’s a brilliant floor-filling single in ‘Do It Again’ and a beautiful, rather ambient instrumental called ‘Inside The Idle Hour Club’. It’s a varied EP that covers much ground in its 35 minutes. The strongest track on offer here is the pulsating ‘Say It’, which was released this week as the second single from the EP. It’s dance music at its most gripping and hypnotic – the best dance track of the year so far. Do It Again as a whole is far from formulaic electronic music. The only downside to it is that it’s just an EP and not a full length album. It really does leave you wanting more! Given that this isn’t the first time Robyn and Royksopp have worked together, I hope that all signs point towards them releasing a full album together sometime in the future. They’ve got a brilliant musical chemistry which is superbly demonstrated on Do It Again!
I have to confess: I had no interest in hearing Xscape, despite being a very big fan of Michael Jackson. I was left underwhelmed by Michael and just assumed that further posthumous albums wouldn’t offer anything either. Following a friend’s recommendation though I took the plunge and listened to it yesterday. I was surprised how much I enjoyed it! When taken as a collection of unreleased songs, it’s pretty good. Definitely much better than I was expecting.
Xscape is a collection of previously unreleased recordings – all spanning from various eras – that have received contemporary production. It’s not an album that was being worked on before Michael’s death that has just been finished off and polished. And of course it’s all been done without Michael being able to oversee proceedings, meaning that Xscape is no contender for Off The Wall, Thriller or Bad. Despite this – it’s commendable that the production team for Xscape have managed to create a record that sounds cohesive, considering tracks from all over Michael’s career have been bundled together. Some tracks do sound a little over-produced, like ‘Blue Gangsta’ but Xscape remains an enjoyable effort that sounds much more like a Michael Jackson album than Michael did. That’s as much as can be asked of it.
The songs themselves are upbeat, snappy, all the things you’d expect from Michael Jackson. There’s no new musical directions here, but it’ll please the vast majority of fans. The production is slick, and never does it decimate the origina recordings. It all feels very respectful really. It’s unfair to expect an album of classics, given that these are rejected tracks that failed to be included on his actual studio albums. Yet as far as rejected tracks go, they’re a lot better than most. There’s two particularly that stand out: ‘Love Never Felt So Good’ and ‘Loving You’. These two tracks are much better than anything released on Michael (with the exception of ‘Much Too Soon’). They are two excellent songs, in both original and remixed form.
Those original versions included on the deluxe edition will no doubt entice skeptical fans. They’re the original recordings before they were remixed for Xscape. This is a particularly fascinating listen. What’s especially surprising is how finished most of these tracks sound. It’s easy to argue that a lot of these tracks didn’t need to be remixed, except only to give Xscape a sense of cohesion. The aforementioned ‘Love Never Felt So Good’ and ‘Loving You’ would have sounded great on Off The Wall and Bad respectively. ‘Blue Gangsta’ and ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ sound better in their original form too. In any case, allowing fans to hear the original versions gives Xscape a sense of honesty as we’re left in no doubt just what work was done to these tracks.
Despite it definitely being better than average, Xscape is still a controversial release, though it’s a lot better than Michael. At least we can be sure we’re listening to Michael himself this time around. Is it surplus to requirements? Probably. It’s hardly going to be a great enhancement to his already secured legacy. However, it could have ended up sounding much, much worse than what it does. It’s hard to imagine how the inevitable third posthumous record could sound any more cohesive really. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s certainly an interesting listen.
My second – and probably less surprising – new-found musical addiction. I’d tried and failed to get into them for some time. Yet since I’ve watched the Shut Up And Play The Hits documentary about LCD Soundsystem…. it’s just sort of happened. That’s thanks to James Murphy (mastermind of LCD Soundystem) who co-produced their 2013 Reflektor album. Arcade Fire are definitely a quirky and acquired taste but their music is incredibly charming. So far I’ve only heard their debut album Funeral, and Reflektor. The contrast of musical styles between the two was stark – they’re definitely a band that doesn’t like to stay confined in one particular style for long. Out of the two my favourite has been Reflektor – I just love the spacy/otherworldly feel to it. As a sort of bonus, the group also do a fine cover of The Clash’s Guns Of Brixton, so they get brownie points from me for that. I’ve only got to listen to Neon Bible and The Suburbs now, I just hope I enjoy them as much as Reflektor and Funeral!
Lately I’ve been exploring some artists in more depth, and I’ve found myself getting into the work of two in particular. The first one being Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. I’ve been aware of them ever since I can remember actually – both my father and brother are fans. Over the years I’ve heard songs such as ‘The Weeping Song’, ‘Deanna’, ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’ and ‘People Ain’t No Good’. I’ve really enjoyed them all, but it’s only in the last week or so that I’ve explored their work more thoroughly. So far, I’m absolutely loving it! There’s such an allure to their work – and Nick Cave’s songwriting in particular – that I’m finding simply irresistible. It’s intensely dark and macabre yet so appealing. It really does underline the whole argument of a certain kind of beauty existing in darkness. I daresay there are few songwriters that could make songs about dark subjects such as murder etc sound so beautiful. I’ve heard The Best Of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and Henry’s Dream so far. Both I thought were superb. I’m doing some record shopping this coming Friday, and picking up that greatest hits compilation is top of my agenda actually. It’s still early days yet, but I think I may have an addition to my all time favourite artists list. I’m really looking forward to hearing the rest of their discography!
I’ve got good news everyone. I’ve officially purchased my ticket tonight to see The Killers perform in Belfast, on August 21st of this year! They’re one of the headline acts of the Tennents Vital music festival. This upcoming date marks the fourth time they’ve played here, and I’ve managed to catch all dates bar their 2013 show at the Odyssey Arena. I was gutted about that at the time, but I’m majorly excited that I’ll be able to catch the Battle Born tour now after all. Bastille are also performing that day. I haven’t checked out their album yet, but I’ll be doing that in the coming weeks now that I’m also going to see them live too. I’ve got exceedingly high expectations for The Killers performance – I thought they were even better live during the Day & Age tour than they were during the Sam’s Town tour. It’s just a fantastic way to celebrate my 10th year of being a Killers fan. They were the first band I was besotted by, and to be honest, my entire musical taste stems from them. It all goes back to The Killers. It makes going to one of their shows always a particularly special event for me. August 21st will be a day of musical celebration all round for me actually because the day marks the 62nd birthday of one of my biggest inspirations: the late great Joe Strummer. I’ll be spending his birthday in a field, listening to some great music. It does feel like a very appropriate way to remember Joe if I’m honest. Anyway, cannot wait to see The Killers again!
I’ve become somewhat addicted to this unreleased Strummer gem recently. It’s a mysterious instrumental piece and with its soft, almost ambient feel, it’s a rather unusual Strummer composition. I can’t find much information about this song, only that it’s actually a collaboration with Steve Jones of Sex Pistols. It also appears to have been recorded in sessions for the first Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros album, Rock Art and The X-Ray Style. It was allegedly proposed as a potential B-side, but those plans never amounted to anything and the track appears to have been more or less forgotten about. It’s never surfaced on any official release. In fact, I only discovered it thanks to a Joe Strummer two-disc rarities bootleg I had downloaded called Generations (a recommended collection). Hopefully one day it will see an official release as it’s another example of Joe Strummer’s exploration into more left of field music during his time with The Mescaleros!
So, I’ve finally watched Shane Meadow’s 2013 documentary on The Stone Roses: Made Of Stone. Given that Shane Meadows has openly declared The Stone Roses to be his favorite band of all time., I was expecting high things from this piece. My expectations were met… and then some.
Made Of Stone isn’t an objective, critical analysis chronicling the history of The Stone Roses. It’s not meant to be. Made Of Stone is a film made by a fan, and a primary focus of the film is just what exactly The Stone Roses mean to their fans. The interview footage with various fans trying to gain an elusive ticket to the Warrington Parr gig in particular is a highlight. The film is made so infectiously that it becomes impossible not to empathize with the fans, both those who gain a ticket and those who don’t. And for those that don’t, it’s both entertaining and moving to see how far they’re actually willing to go to experience or simply capture this small slice of musical history. The footage of the fans who actually stand outside the venue, merely filming the building, is both heroic and startling in equal measures. Similar levels of devotion can also be found in the Heaton Park footage. Are those extremes justified? Well, its hard to argue that they’re not once you see the Fools Gold performance at Heaton Park. With its blues inspired extended guitar solo it is a supreme display of The Stone Roses – and in particular John Squire’s – musical prowess.
It’s also refreshing to see the angle in which Shane Meadows approaches time-lining the history of the band. Rather than providing a linear timeline of the band from formation to Heaton Park, instead it’s done in a more paralleled way. For instance, the initial rise/hype of the band is contrasted with the buzz and rise in the band’s profile following the initial announcements in 2011 that a comeback was imminent. Likewise, Reni’s walkout and the band’s breakup is inter-cut with when Reni walked out of the Amsterdam gig in 2012. This approach makes Made Of Stone flow much more fluidly and feel more filmic. Made Of Stone isn’t a history lesson, it’s a reminder just why this band are as fresh and vital as they were in 1989. It’s a rousing celebration.
To add to all this – the film is also just plain beautiful to watch. Some of the shots in the Heaton park footage in particular were stunning. It’s also a real treat to have footage of the iconic Spike Island performance in there as well. Made Of Stone is a documentary that fires on all cylinders really. Made with a ton of passion, it looks and sounds awesome, and it’s as uplifting a music documentary as you’re likely to find. The one problem? Even at 90 minutes in length it still feels too short. It leaves you simply wanting… more. More performance footage, more fan footage, backstage stuff… and most importantly – that much discussed third album. Shane Meadows has crafted a more or less perfect documentation of the band up to this point. We can only hope that there will be more albums, more gigs, then he can be hired to create a sequel to Made Of Stone. Superlative work.