2006 – September

THE PUPPINI SISTERS – Betcha Bottom Dollar
Every so often an album comes along that is so different, so unusual, so fresh that it just takes your breath away. It could be because of a distinctive voice, or the use of an orchestra or maybe just because the songs grab you instantly … or sometimes you just can’t put your finger on anything at all … you simply really like it.
Well, in the case of The Puppini Sisters it’s actually the fact that they’re completely retro that caught my attention. I thought it was a wind-up at first because they’ve single-handedly brought back the sound of doo-wop and done it in such style it’s almost like it was never away. Think back to such hits as “I Only Have Eyes For You” and “Get A Job” with their layered harmonies and beautiful arrangements and you’re there in Memphis in the 50s. Now fast forward to London and the 21st century and to three classically trained musicians who met at college, watched the French movie Belleville Rendezvous together, loved the soundtrack and thought “we could do that” … and the rest is history. Precisely. Exactly. Totally. The music is history itself. They’re firmly stuck in the 40s with belted waists, silk stockings, high heels and big hair and they look and sound both completely authentic and totally amazing.
The interesting thing about this album though is that it’s not just the classics they’ve arranged into a doo-wop style. Though their interpretations of Mr Sandman, Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, Jeepers Creepers and hilariously the opening track, a wonderful cover of the Andrews Sisters eponymous smash Sisters, which sets the tone for the rest of the album, are all spot-on, it’s the choice and execution of more modern numbers that really makes you sit up and take notice. Blondie’s Heart Of Glass, The Smiths (!!!) Panic and Gloria Gaynor’s karaoke classic I Will Survive are all given a red lipstick makeover and all sound great, with lots of double-bass and French cafe style acoustic guitar. Imagine Django Reinhardt, Gitanes and some smiling GIs just back from the front all having a top night out in a saucy Parisian nitespot and you’re there. The absolute highlight for me though is a very brave version of the Kate Bush number Wuthering Heights. From the opening bars, this is the point that you get what they’re doing here … and it’s also the crux of the whole album. It’s the Marmite moment : you know whether you either love it and will buy the album or … well, you hate it.
I’ve never seen an album polarise people as much as this one. There is no black or white. There isn’t a nomansland inbetween the two factions at war here. You WILL either think it’s amazing or a load of old tosh.
Listen to that track then make your mind up but just don’t miss out on the chance. It’s that good.
Now where did I put my Brylcreem?

CHRIS ISAAK – The Best Of
In many ways, Chris Isaak is a perfect candidate for a “Best Of” compilation: he has been consistent over the years, not only in the quality of his output but in the style of his music, which hasn’t strayed much from the sweetly moody retro-pop – part Elvis, a large part Roy Orbison, a small part early Neil Diamond – he first showcased on his 1985 debut Silvertone. As such, his records can be a little interchangeable, but even the more average ones are enjoyable, and when they’re mixed and matched as they are here on this definitive compilation, they hold together as well as if it were a proper album. Not that Best of Chris Isaak is exactly a “Greatest Hits” – he only had a couple of big chart entries here in the UK, while in the States his profile is considerably higher both because this kind of music is more popular, and because he has a late night TV show that’s got a big cult following. It’s an expertly chosen selection of his best easy-rolling, slyly sexy retro-pop, containing Wicked Game and Blue Hotel along with many of his best album tracks, like San Francisco Days, Two Hearts, Speak of the Devil, You Owe Me Some Kind of Love, and Dancin’, among others. It’s so well done and so comprehensive, it’s easy to imagine that for many listeners – particularly those who liked Isaak’s style, whether musical or personal – that this will be all the Chris Isaak they’ll ever need.

HOTEL COSTES Vol.9 – Various Artists
Parisian DJ supreme Stephane Pompougnac is the mastermind behind the cult series Hotel Costes and he’s turned out another fine collection with the latest in this string of sexy, laid-back house albums.
If you can imagine being in a ritzy, velvety retro hotel in one of the naughtier districts in Paris, sitting in the bar … waiting for the entertainment to turn up … when lo and behold it’s a DJ and he’s got a couple of top models to carry his records in for him … you’re halfway there.
Turn down the lights, crack open that bottle of bubbly you’ve been keeping for a special occasion and pucker up baby – it’s time for some hot lovin’ !
This guy knows what to play to a passionate crowd – and I mean that in every sense of the word. All the vibes here are of the hotter variety and it’s a well-constructed mix of mid to down-tempo numbers, featuring such favourites as tango revivalists Gotan Project and some of the lesser known collaborators in the St.Germain scene. If you like jazzy house and classic soul and fancy a not-too-strenuous boogie then this is for you. Great for late-night driving too.

DJ SHADOW – The Outsider
I’ve been waiting for this for a very long time, and now I’ll tell you why. DJ Shadow’s story is a fascinating one : in 1994 he released his instant classic of an album “Entroducing” and then he came back with another album a massive seven years later. Naturally a lot of us have been foaming at the mouth for this one ever since that second outing, the much-under-rated “Private Press”. His is a mix of styles unlike any other. He takes beats, breaks and songs from any number of sources but manages to produces a unique sound that’s slightly sinister and a rich blend of classic soul, 60s pop and modern hip-hop. If Portishead had a rebellious son, his name would be DJ Shadow.
The album starts with a two minute intro with a gentlemen who sounds horribly evil talking over an ambient beat. It sets the stage for something dark and mysterious …. “This Time (I’m Gonna Try It My Way)” officially kicks us off. A very cool summery song, it’s bright, smooth with a hint of a jazzy feel to it. “3 Freaks” is next and features Keak Da Sneak and Turf Talk. Fans of the old Shadow material may be thrown off here. It is a little hard to handle first on, the vocals are a bit hard on the years. But it’s a bit of a grower. It is a bit grimy and bleepy but they make it work. “Keep Em Close” features Nump and his stark vocal stylings. “Seein Thangs’ is a hot and heavy romp and David Banner is rapping over this dark, ghostly beat : definitely one of the catchier songs on the album. And so it goes … a bluesy, dirty collage of broken beats and pieces, cut up and thrown back together to make something richer than the sum of its parts.
This album will surprise a lot of people. It is a mixed bag as usual, but features a lot of hip hop and – bizarrely – Kasabian feature on one of the tracks. If you go into it expecting another “Entroducing” you will be disappointed. But if you go in open and ready you will be rewarded.

GILLES PETERSON – Pure Fire
The prolific founder of Acid Jazz and sometime BBC radio presenter, Gilles Peterson is a man on a mission and that mission is to bring cool and unusual music to the fore, if not exactly to the masses. Having released a series of albums in the last couple of years focusing on African and Brazilian sounds, Gilles now turns back to his first love : jazz.
This year has seen the re-release of much of the Impulse label’s back catalogue, mainly centred on John Coltrane and the more improvisational artists on their books. A lot of the most highly regarded Impulse output was at the weirder end of the jazz spectrum so it’s a bit of a surprise that Peterson has chosen tracks that are far more mainstream than most fans would expect. There’s no Alice Coltrane or Gato Barbieri here. Instead it’s a much more balanced selection from the likes of Art Blakey, Archie Shepp and McCoy Tyner. All the 11 songs are given the full length treatment and it’s very much a personal snap-shot of Peterson’s own taste rather than a pandering to popular opinion. There are a couple of duffers – I could have done without the Pharaoh Sanders number for instance – but for the most part it’s an interesting ramble through a much deeper depth of talent than I’d first imagined. A good Sunday morning record to perk you up as you peruse the papers …


LIVE AT THE BBC – Various

Remember the Peel Sessions albums and The Old Grey Whistle Test?
If you do, you’ll be of an age and probably an inclination to look back fondly on most of the music that emanated from the Beeb back in the day. I always felt like it was a personal concert and they were playing for me in my living room. The sounds were always a bit bare and stripped down, the effects were minimal but the enthusiasm and performance were always top notch. From The Beatles through Bowie and on to The Smiths and beyond, the BBC has always championed live music in one form or another and from deep inside the vaults they now bring us four more collections and very varied they are indeed.
The artists in question are : Free, The La’s, The Housemartins and Billy Fury.
I know that aunty often works in mysterious ways – look at any Saturday night line-up on BBC1 for the last five years and you’ll know what I mean – but what a strange and eclectic choice of releases. I don’t know if it signifies the scraping of the barrel and they just wanted to churn them out, but it’s an unusual line-up anyway.
You know what to expect : it’s warts and all time – some tracks work well, others not so well but if you’re a fan of any of them, they’re worth a look. I particularly liked the Free collection and it was fun to listen to The La’s songs that weren’t “There She Goes” – how many more can YOU name?

Originally published in 2006


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