I write record and DVD reviews for R2 magazine (formerly Rock 'n' Reel). Sometimes it's a chore, mostly it's fascinating to have to listen properly to something I might not normally hear or watch. I avoid writing reviews of people I know or am too connected to – though there are exceptions. I can never resist a Robb Johnson album…

Here are a selection of reviews. 



Live from Madison Square Garden (DVD)

Lucky us – a double DVD set along with a separately-sold CD (T-shirts available online, of course) of the ‘historic’ 2008 concert featuring old Blind Faith buddies Eric and Stevie.

Some people (lots, apparently) will love this. Mainly people who want to re-live the thrill of something exciting that happened 40 years ago. Shorn of the cultural explosion which begat Blind Faith, and coupled with typically perfect session-musicianship, this DVD proves that any sense of excitement these two conjured up disappeared sometime shortly after the 'historic' (yes, that one too) 1969 Hyde Park concert and before all the new young dudes put the old white bluesos in their place (ie back in rehab).

The version of ‘Well All Right’ being a case in point. Dug up and re-wired from Buddy Holly’s collection, Blind Faith turned it into a strange, beautiful pop song. Re-hashed here in front of an utterly respectful audience and with three tons of added gloupy smoothness, it’s just wallpaper.

The gentlemanly courtship that is the onstage relationship between Winwood and Clapton is quite touching, though. 



Rant (CD)

The Futureheads. I didn’t know much about them before I heard this album – apart from the odd song and a general impression … loud, melodic, clever guitar-pop. Four Sunderland blokes with proper Sunderland accents shouting at the world.

Then somewhere along the way (four albums into the journey), lead singer Barry Hyde declared that ‘The Futureheads have been together for a long time now. And we have the right to do something different.’ So they did. Something very different, ditching the guitars and drums and using only their four-part harmony vocals.

Before I carry on, let me insert a footnote here. Around 25 years ago, I played in a band that made roughly the same decision. Challenge ourselves, challenge our audience – force change and enjoy doing it. Put the guitars down, switch the amps off, make an acapella album. It worked, and it proved we could do whatever we wanted.

I can only hope that Futureheads end up with the same feeling of gung-ho, determined pride that I think I felt all those years ago. It’s so easy to peddle a popular style; but by breaking their own mould, Futureheads have now opened themselves to possibilities way, way beyond their pop-punk roots. Good on ‘em.

But wait – ‘Rant’ isn’t just good because it’s daring. It’s good (no, it’s great) because it’s clever, beautiful, singalongable, joyous and innovative, too. Ranging from traditional folk to covers of their own songs, ‘Rant’ is a redefined and reconstructed acapella that falls somewhere in the space between Philip Glass and Coope, Boyes & Simpson. Their version of Richard Thompson’s ‘Beeswing’ takes the biscuit, frankly (and I wouldn’t want it any other way). Quite simply brilliant.


John Street (Book)

John Street’s Rebel Rock, which arrived with a thud in the mid-1980s, set its own tone for pop music criticism, steering clear of the effervescent intellectual enthusiasm of Greil Marcus but avoiding the urge to come over all serious simply by being overly dry and academic. It was a book I held dear: critical and clever but grounded enough to wear its love of music on its sleeve.

This book – which, a quarter of a decade later, covers a fair chunk of the previous book’s ground – steers that same course with the added ingredient of 25 more years of rock, politics and popstar posturing. Who would have guessed that possibly the most obvious debate within political pop music – which essentially boils down to the question ‘Is Bono a wanker?’ – would still be ongoing in 2012? But no, U2’s frontman is still, sadly, the most easily-identfied pop-politician on the planet. Street dives into this world of power, influence and catchy choruses with gusto.

Music & Politics is a great book. Readable, provocative (sociology might pretend to be about facts and statistics, but pop music will always be about opinion) and incredibly informative, Street just about walks the tightrope between academic and fan. The book wanders between human rights and magazine star-rating systems, between taste and ideology, sometimes in huge, broad sweeps and sometimes in minute detail.

The chapter on the political power-play between the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism seems unnecessarily involved – I tend to think that most people, like me, didn’t understand the difference but were eager to be educated by the idea of anti-racist music. But when on the subject of censorship (and in one case, a thorough examination of how the Mercury Prize is an industry stitch-up), Street’s polemic is worth ploughing through. I say ‘ploughing’ because this isn’t a rabble-rousing history of protest songs; if you want that, get Dorian Lynskey’s 33 Revolutions Per Minute.

But as a full-on delve into popular culture and all the doubts, niggles and questions that run through the music we all love (and the stuff we hate, too), it’s worth the effort. Not an easy book, but a great one. 



Christ – The Album (DVD)

Classic! Over a year in the making, this album (originally released in 1982) saw Crass beginning to stretch out a little from their own punk rock template, playing with noise and form, re-shaping song structure and throwing in a fair amount of cut-up speech, studio jokes and a poem about Penny Rimbaud’s nob. (The purples and the pinks, etc. The album’s worth buying for this paean to the penis alone).

This release retains much of the fancy-pants packaging of the original (though it could never come close to the 1982 vinyl black box format) and, as with the other releases in the so-called Crassical Collection, it has added out-takes and an improved sound, reminding me that yes, the vocals were too low in the mix. Then again, the point of Christ – The Album was to throttle the listener (again and again) with that strange Crass combination of military drumming, stereo-panned guitars and a bassline that more often than not carried the melody. And the lyrics, then as now, were always there in the accompanying booklet.

Thirty years and a few sonic tweaks later, Christ – The Album is still a wonderful and breathless onslaught. This remaster shows, if nothing else, just how different Crass were to their legions of copycat bands – this isn’t just punk, it’s an avant garde sound collage with added touches of rhythm and blues (and purples and pinks). Classic! (Still).



Get Up! Stand Up! (DVD)

It’s hard not to feel rotten giving a bad review to something put out by Amnesty International. It’s a dirty job, etc. Sensitive readers who feel that stadium-sized corporate charity events are the way to help make the world a better place, look away now.

The opening shot of this star-studded look back at Amnesty’s Human Rights concerts from 1986–1998 is of Bob Geldof, all bouffant and shades, singing an impassioned version of Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’. This is perhaps the worst thing I’ve forced myself to watch for decades: Sir Bob strangling a beautiful melody into submission in a manner that might be called ‘impassioned’ if it wasn’t so utterly lacking in self-awareness, artistry or humility.

Things rarely get any better. But I like to think I’m an even-handed chap, so instead of dwelling on the bad and the ugly I’ll skip straight to what’s good.

Well, I tried, and believe me there’s little good here apart from a token appearance by Inti-Illimani, two songs by Tracy Chapman, a workmanlike Page ‘n’ Plant and the feelgood factor you might get from supporting Amnesty International, on the off-chance you buy this DVD new rather than from the bargain bins at the motorway services. So let’s get back to the bad and the ugly.

Carlos Santana’s trousers. Peter Gabriel’s dancing. Bono (the pomposity, the fake sincerity. Oh, everything). Bruce’s too-perfect pastiche of what rock ‘n’ roll once looked and sounded like. Sting’s smug self-assurance (put your clothes back on!) Page ‘n’ Plant’s absurdly indulgent drum solo. Thom Yorke’s feigned display of misery and agony. And last but not least the anodyne charade of that comradely encore version of ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ (Bruce staring hard at his lyric sheet). Oh, and all those ‘We-yoh, we-yoh, we-yo-yo-yo’ call-and-response chants that seem to be part and parcel of the stadium charity circuit.

Killjoy, me? Too right. I think it’s time we stamped out charity stadium concerts by organising a charity stadium concert. I reckon Bruce would play it. Bob would come. Sting, he says he’s available… 



American VI: Ain’t No Grave (CD)

Approaching yet another (and we’re promised it’s the last) of Cash’s ‘American Recordings’ series and I’m all set to feel my toe tapping along to the sound of a barrel being scraped. But no – these songs, recorded at the time of wife June Carter’s death and once more beautifully produced by Rick Rubin, are themed around Cash looking back over an incredible life and facing his own death head-on.

Poignant and moving, this collection – from Sheryl Crow’s ‘Redemption Day’ to Tom Paxton’s ‘Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound’ and including Cash’s own previously-unheard ‘1 Corinthians 15.55’ – ache with the wisdom and passion of a storyteller spinning his last yarns, smiling gently in the face of what’s to come.

That these songs were recorded in that final period before Cash passed away could have diminished the quality control – what with Cash’s increasingly-tremulous voice and this being the last batch of many long, long recording sessions – but it achieves the opposite; the tangible atmosphere of longing, expectancy, fragility and strength cuts through the songs like a knife.

Johnny Cash, even after death, is a reminder for us all of the power of music to comment, agitate, provoke and heal. I’d previously suggested to Sean (editor of this magazine) that he avoid having too many 5-star reviews; 5 stars should be reserved for truly great recordings. And then, as if in answer, he sent me this CD.



Dr Dee (CD)

I’m all for musicians stretching themselves, experimenting, refusing to endlessly repeat themselves. In that sense this album – 18 tracks of songs and music inspired by the life of 16th century mathematician John Dee – is another curious and fascinating offshoot in Albarn’s already-diverse back catalogue.

But there’s such a thing as over-reaching, and when pop musicians fall particularly prey to it is when they aim for ‘the higher arts’ – dispensing with the spark and nous (not to mention melody) that informed their songs. Paul McCartney’s paintings and poetry spring to mind.

When Damon Albarn snuck out of the over-hyped Blur to create Gorillaz he dabbled with cartoon alter-egos and anonymous concert appearances – daft, but successfully carrying several great and memorable tunes; this stab at opera, all wistful strings and out-of-tune vocals (bet the producer didn’t dare suggest digitally tuning the great man) is at best forgettable and at worst, cringeworthy.

It’s not just Albarn’s vocals that fare badly against the backdrop of orchestral grandeur: his attempt to cloak the music in faux-Elizabethan melody and instrumentation is ill-conceived and half-hearted.

That projects like this end up being performed in conjunction with outfits such as the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and performed at the English National Opera (and released on CD with full media fanfare) demonstrates how far we’ll go to applaud fame rather than excellence. Look! The King is wearing no clothes!

"I don't read reviews because by then it's too late - whatever anyone says, the book won't change. It is written." (Jeanette Winterson)