John Grant – “Grey Tickles, Black Pressure” (2015)

John Grant’s recently released Grey Tickles, Black Pressure was one of those albums for me. You know the ones. The next new album put out by that artist you fell in love with after first hearing their previous record. What will it sound like? How will it affect me? If it disappoints me, will that somehow make me like Pale Green Ghosts less?

These are, of course, ridiculous thoughts, but they are real if you’re a music obsessive like me. But Grant provides a bit of applicable wisdom in the title track, “Grey Tickles, Black Pressure,” which is a laundry list of things you can feel bad, or more precisely sorry for yourself, about. And, as always with Grant’s lyrics, he’s pretty damn blunt about it.

And there are children who have cancer,
So all bets are off,
‘Cause I can’t compete with that.

It’s Grant’s use of language that defines his art to me. It’s not just his personal delivery style, which is very conversational, but in the way the he obvious loves playing with words. He has admitted in many an interview that he is very interested in language, and if I recall is fluent in German and Russian, plus has working knowledge of a handful of others (and is working on his Icelandic). But it goes beyond that. It’s the obvious joy he takes in using specific words, not because they make him sound smart, but just because of how they sound, how they roll off the tongue. Decoupage… luxuriating… obsequious… ocelot… words that don’t need to appear in the songs (though an ocelot does have an important and recurring role in the TV show Archer…), but are just perfect in the way he delivers them. He gives us a few words and phrases in languages other than English too, and name-drops all over the place, from the literary like Dostoevsky and Frances Bacon to actresses like Madeline Kahn and Angie Dickinson to the downright unusual like my personal favorite, self-destructive punk rock icon GG Allin. It’s quite the list. I feel like I need a Cliff’s Notes guide and a thesaurus just to follow along. Stockholm is a place that I adore / But the syndrome by that name / Is one that I abhor. Seriously, who else can write like this and put it into a song and make it work?? Grant is the only person I can think of who can pull off tricks like that.

I was curious about how Grey Tickles, Black Pressure would compare to Pale Green Ghosts musically when I leaned that Biggi Veira (of Gusgus fame) wasn’t involved in the new album. Biggi’s sonic fingerprints are all over the earlier record, and I thought that perhaps his absence from the new one represented a shift in direction. However, that’s not the case, at least not entirely. There was an incredible richness to much of Pale Green Ghosts, perhaps nowhere more so than on the title track, and while there’s a level of musical density to Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, it feels a bit simpler, which puts more of the focus on the vocals. The differences are subtle – the overall composition still has an electronic base to it, though with a wide range of instruments playing their roles. This doesn’t feel as much like an “electronic” album.

Normally on Life in the Vinyl Lane I give my initial impressions of an album, often after just the first or second listen. I know that’s not how a reviewer is supposed to do things, and that may no always be fair to the artists, but initial impressions are still important ones. Grey Tickles, Black Pressure is an exception to my usual modus operandi – I probably listened to it all the way through around 10 times before I finally sat down to write about it. Why? I’m not entirely sure. I know that upon my first listening it didn’t sound like a John Grant album to me, though that impression faded immediately the second time through. Grant throws so much at you lyrically that it can be a bit overwhelming, and I think he simply overloaded my brain circuits during that first listen as I tried to make sense of what he just said while continuing to follow along with what he was now saying.

I enjoy Grey Tickles, Black Pressure quite a bit, and I find it growing on me with each listen. I doubt it will ever eclipse Pale Green Ghosts for me, but that was part of the enormously powerful first impression I had of Grant after seeing him perform live at Iceland Airwaves in 2013, and it’s almost impossible to replicate that kind of experience with an artist as you become more familiar with their work. Grey Tickles, Black Pressure strikes me as more mature and less raw emotion than Grant’s prior record, which is neither a positive nor a negative but simply an observation about this development as an artist and a man. I respect his lyrical honesty, even when it makes me cringe.

Rick James – “Street Songs” (1981)

“I’m Rick James, bitch,” may have been the biggest catch-phrase of 2004 when Dave Chappelle made it famous as part of his Rick James character on The Chappelle Show. Followed very closely by James’ own actual quote that was part of one of those sketches, “Cocaine’s a hell of a drug.”

Cocaine is a hell of a drug, and James had a reputation for ingesting it in copious quantities throughout much of his life, including smoking it as crack. He epitomized the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, becoming well-known for his excesses, spending not one but two stints in prison (draft evasion and assault), and being on both the winning and losing side of high dollar civil suits. When he died in 2004 at the age of 56, the autopsy found both meth and cocaine in his system, along with a number of other drugs, though none deemed to be in quantities that would have been directly responsible for his death.

1981s Street Songs may very well represent Rick James at his pinnacle as a performer. Three tracks were later sampled by hip hop artists, including his best-known hit “Super Freak” that MC Hammer rode to the top of the charts with his “Can’t Touch This” (James won his suit against Hammer and got songwriting credit). The album was his biggest mainstream hit, reaching #3 on the US charts with “Super Freak” stalling out just shy of the Top 10 at #16. However, his style of funk rock had a much stronger appeal in the R&B world, where Street Songs was just one of seven Rick James album to make it into the Top 10. In fact “Super Freak” was far from being his highest charting single on the R&B charts, it’s #3 peak falling below his four #1 singles.

Street Songs is all about the sexy. Sexy sexy sexy. “Super Freak” isn’t even the only song on the album to have the word “kinky” in the lyrics, and it includes songs with titles like “Give It to Me Baby,” “Make Love to Me,” and “Fire and Desire” just in case you thought it was too subtle. It’s poppy, highly danceable funk, with those great bass lines offset by James’ high pitched delivery. Not every song is a winner – the slower tracks like “Make Love to Me” and “Fire and Desire” don’t do a lot for me, though they aren’t bad either. The magic happens, though, when the tempo is brisk. Lest you think it’s all about sex though, James does give you a dose of smart street social commentary in “Mr. Policeman” in which he recounts how he saw his friend shot down by the police, providing a moment of seriousness on what is otherwise a very fun album.

If you don’t know the opening bass riff to “Super Freak,” then you probably need to stop reading right now and go listen to it online – it’s one of the most iconic song openings of all time. If the beat and groove of this song don’t make you want to move your body, you might be dead. She’s super freaky… yow! It’s ironic how what was a pretty dirty song at the time has turned into something so mainstream that you don’t even give it a second thought. She’s a very kinky girl / The kind you won’t take home to mother… Hell, you’re as likely hear this in the grocery store today as you would be to hear it on the radio.

Street Songs is a true classic, start to finish.

“French Synth Lovers #2” Compilation (2015)

Syncrophone is a great little house/techno record shop located in what I believe is the 11th arrondissement in Paris, France. We visited there a couple of weeks ago and found it to be a fantastic spot, a compact store outfitted with a number of turntable listening stations, a ton of display racks along the walls, and a very friendly guy working behind the counter. We came away with three records from that stop-off, including this newly released nugget called French Synth Lovers #2, a comp comprised of 10 songs from the 1981 to 1984 period. We’d enjoyed the BIPPP French synth comp so much that this one was a no brainer.

I liked this record right from the start of the first track, Siflèt’s “Rodger,” with it’s minimal synth sound and female vocals. A quick review of Discogs seems to reveal that most of these artists released little to no material back when they were active, with the exceptions of the extremely prolific Benoit Hutin and Serge Blenner, who look to have both put out a ton of stuff over the years.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about French Synth Lovers #2 is the number of songs with female vocals. Three of the six songs on side A have ladies on the microphone, which may not sound like a ton, but consider that two of the other three tracks are instrumentals (there are actually quite a few instrumental tracks on this record). So there’s that. I love the way women sound on new wave songs, and while these may be closer to no wave than new wave, it’s a breath of fresh air.

The music is so sparsely simple and deliberate, with an almost 8-bit chip-tuney feel to it and vocal stylings to match that remind me a little of 80s J-pop (or, more precisely, what I imagine 1980s J-pop to sound like…), perhaps most awesomely so on Malvina Melville’s “Fille Cosmopolite.” It’s near perfection in style. If you love 1980s synth pop like we do, French Synth Lovers #2 is a whole lot of fun. Who knows, you might even dance around the room a little while it’s playing. I’m not saying I did or anything. But it could happen. It could.

Blake – “Asfarasfarcanbe” (2001)

For some reason my unconscious mind made a connection when I flipped past this 12″ over at Lucky Records a few weeks ago, so I went back to it and asked my man Gestur, “Is this the same Blake from B.B. & Blake?” He seemed completely unsurprised by that question and confirmed that the two Blakes were indeed one in the same, one Mister Magnùs Jónsson. It seemed an unlikely connection for me to make – we’d seen B.B. & Blake perform exactly one time, back in 2009, and as far as I know they only put out the one CD that we picked up on that same trip to Iceland Airwaves. That being said, it’s one of the albums we go back to the most often because frankly it kicks a lot of ass. Plus it makes reference to Robert DeNiro, so there’s that.

Magnùs Jónsson’s projects, at least the ones I’ve heard, have that great mix of the old and new, giving you something classically familiar, but with a new twist. The BB & Blake CD was like an upbeat version of 1970s lounge, and 2001s Asfarasfarcanbe is sort of the same thing, just more rooted in disco. There’s a bit of Bee Gees in the vocals, but without the over-shrillness that makes you want to stab yourself in the ear with a fork. I dig the beats, and the high vocals set off the medium, snare filled percussion perfectly.

I’ve certainly bought more valuable and collectible and scarce and whatever records this year, but Asfarasfarcanbe might be one of my favorite random finds, something I knew just enough to luck into. Quality stuff.

Pink Street Boys – “Hits #1” (2015)

Ah, the Pink Street Boys. We saw them perform their full-frontal punk rock assault live at Airwaves in 2014, and while I was surprised to hear that their new full length album would be released by the more mainstream label 12 Tónar I figured there was little chance that they’d somehow sold out. And after sitting down to listen to Hits #1 I’m damn well sure of it.

That’s not to say all the songs on Hits #1 are dirty rotten punk songs, because they’re not. The opening track “Body Language” has a heavy dose of psych infused into its garage-style punk rock, and it’s a perfect blend of heavy and trippy and a little bit sloppy (in the best way possible). It’s a sound that carries over into the second track, “Evel Knievel,” as well, and frankly it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise since much of the band’s cassette release Trash From the Boys had a similar feel. While some songs stray a bit from psych and root themselves in the garage rock realm (like the aptly named “Blues”), in essence the Boys stay in that edgy trippy zone that would have made them feel right at home with the subculture making this kind of music in the 1960s.

I was surprised to see a couple of songs on Hits #1 also appeared on the previously mentioned 2014 Trash From the Boys tape, specifically “Body Language” and “Kick the Trash Out” (a third song from Hits #1, “Evel Knievel,” also appeared on the 2014 Icelandic comp Sharl 4). However, in both cases it appears that the versions of the songs differ – those that appeared on the earlier Trash From the Boys sound rawer, lacking in the recording quality of the versions from Hits #1 and more like demo tracks. It’s a bit harder to tell with “Evel Knievel,” which seems to be the same version on both sources.

“Ladyboy” is my favorite track on Hits #1, perhaps because it has a whiff of Motörhead about it, both musically and vocally. Hits #1 is, somewhat amazingly, available on iTunes, so you can go online and give it a listen if you’re interested. There’s also a great video of their live performance at KEX Hostel in 2014 posted HERE, which I highly recommend – KEXP has put out some amazing videos of Iceland Airwaves performances, and it’ll give you a feel for the band’s live sound.