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Ground Control’s Holiday Gift Guide 002

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Friday, 10 December 2010

The beauty of the Christmas season is that it is an exciting time of year of course, but it's also right there at the end of the calendar year – so it's almost like the exciting prelude to a whole new beginning. It's the last great party before everything starts over again and, for a lot of people, it's a chance to reflect and celebrate both change and growth. At the same time of course, the music industry looks back too; it looks back in the vaults to see what music should be revisited and maybe given another breath of life. This practice isn't so much the seasonal thing it once was (reissues come out all year long) but, in gift-giving season, it's handy to reflect on what became re-available or what ideas became revisited during the year. In this second part of Ground Control's Gift Guide coverage, those are the releases we're going to cover.

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Queensryche
Empire (Twentieth Anniversary Edition 2CD)
(Capitol/EMI)
In retrospect, rock music was in a very strange place in 1990. Think about it; in that year, while Public Enemy released Fear Of A Black Planet, The Dead Milkmen released Metaphysical Graffiti, Sonic Youth put out Goo, Green Day quietly released 1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours, Soundgarden reissued Screaming Life, Alice In Chains offered up Facelift and Jane's Addiction released its' seminal first swansong Ritual De Lo Habitual, nobody knew about it because mainstream radio airwaves and a hell of a lot of the time on The Headbanger's Ball were dedicated to the likes of Stryper, Winger, Judas Priest, Warrant, Megadeth, INXS, Iron Maiden and Motley Crue. “Glam” and “hair” metal were still ruling the North American roost and (while something big was indeed brewing) it didn't look like anything was going to change anytime soon as rock bid farewell to the Eighties.

Well, that's the theory anyway.

The truth is, things were changing on a mainstream level and one of the most unlikely boat-rockers was helping to divert the tide – in its' own way. In addition to all of those aforementioned releases, 1990 was also the year that Queensryche released Empire and, while the band had always been a bit of a dark horse in the mainstream (history, chart success and record sales all reflect that), the album is clearly their play at maintaining the mainstream kudos and attention that Operation: Mindcrime had drawn two years prior. From the opening of “Best I Can,” Queensryche shoots for epic dynamism of Van Halen proportions on Empire, but without so many of the theatrical 'rock opera' trappings that Mindcrime boasted.

The differences between Queensryche and every other (hair) metal band with which they were summarily lumped at their peak are perfectly evident in Empire. While there are flecks of the over-production that dogged mainstream hard rock and metal toward the end of its' blaze of glory embedded within Empire (check out the extraneous horn blasts, synth punctuations and other nonsensical theatrics that dot songs like “Best I Can,” “The Thin Line” and “Silent Lucidity”), the album has aged better than most of those released around that time because it doesn't stick so hard to the conventions required to “succeed in the Eighties.” Take the song “Jet City Woman,” for example; while the production of the track bears no small amount so the sticky and slick sheen that hair metal was saturated in by 1990 [producer Peter Collins was likely instrumental in that, he'd made his name producing albums for artists like Alice Cooper, Bon Jovi and Suicidal Tendencies –ed], the band doesn't exactly play ball from a songwriting or arrangement standpoint. Throughout Empire, singer Geoff Tate keeps the operatic tenor that often cropped up in rock in the Eighties, but avoids the cock-swinging air of superiority that so many hair metal bands were sporting at the time and remains focused on lyrical themes revolving around personal struggle and difficulty (see “Another Rainy Night,” “Resistance” and Silent Lucidity”), as well as frustration (check “Anybody Listening?”). Likewise, guitarist Michael Wilton doesn't exactly play to the forms required for “rockin' in the Eighties” either – while Van Halen, Mick Mars and Yngwie Malmsteen (to name only a few) were still shredding out complicated, wildly over-composed guitar parts, Wilton takes a more 'working man's' approach to the eleven songs on Empire and, while there are guitar solos present of course, they serve to fuel the songs rather than dominate them.

Twenty years later, Capitol Records' twentieth anniversary reissue of Empire presents the album with some extra frills (three additional studio tracks – “Last Time In Paris,” “Scarborough Fair” and “Dirty Lil Secret” – which appeared on the 2005 reissue of the album, appear again here) and an additional live concert from the Empire tour recorded at The Hammersmith Odeon in London on November 15, 1990 where Queensryche proudly presents the songs from this album flawlessly, without the benefit of overdubs. Truly, this set makes for a complete experience of Empire as it shows both Queensryche's work ethic both in the studio and on the road around the release and, while it might not change the fact that Queensryche was (and remains) one of the most overlooked rock bands in North American history, it's not because they weren't a solid band.

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R.E.M.
Fables Of The Reconstruction
(Capitol/EMI)

Looking at it now, the truth is that Fables Of The Reconstruction is the bottle of fine wine in R.E.M.'s catalogue; while some of the band's other titles have endured (Murmur remains an 'indie masterpiece,' Automatic For The People is still regarded as a moody thing of beauty) or actually depreciated in standing (fans sneer at Out Of Time and Monster now, in spite of the fact that both were revered at the time of their respective releases), listening to the reissue of Fables now – in the context of how rock has progressed into the twenty-first century – reveals that the record is actually a stunning, disillusioned thing of beauty.

It's true that Fables Of The Reconstruction sounds very much unlike anything in R.E.M.'s catalogue, even now; from the opening of “Feeling Gravity's Pull,” there is an undefined tension and trepidation in Michael Stipe's voice which is echoed by Buck's sinewy guitar and Mike Mills' parenthetical bass line. The worry turns to sadness then the chorus cracks open with a forlorn violin and reflective melody to provide relief to the verses and a fluid roll as contrast for the halting, harmonic thread of Buck's verse guitar figure. The song is reflective of the album in general in that it is tormented, clearly, as the verses and choruses sit at odds with each other and continually struggle for the dominant emotional role in the song but, now, it translates far better because many bands (including both Dinosaur Jr. and Broken Social Scene) have taken a similar tack and refined it in their own way, thereby making the sound more familiar – if only outside of R.E.M.'s songbook.

Earlier this year, Fables Of The Reconstruction was reissued in an excellent and expansive multi-disc set with a very 'under the radar' reception (some things never change). While not every microtone of the set is essential (a couple of the demos could have remained in the vault), those weaker moments don't take away from a core record which has only gotten better with age. This holiday season, show a burgeoning indie enthusiast you care by giving them an underrated and overlooked but great album; give them Fables Of The Reconstruction. Read more.

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Various Artists
Ninjatune XX: 20 Years Of Beats And Pieces
(Ninjatune)

It's saying something about staying power when a small label dedicated to a very niche market is able to celebrate a twentieth anniversary, and that's precisely the milestone with which the release of Ninjatune XX coincides. For twenty years, Ninjatune has examined and released some of the finest documents that glitch, electro-clash and avant-garde DJ have to offer and built a reputation on the strength of a series of releases by acts including The Qemists, Coldcut, The Herbaliser, Roots Manuva and Kid Koala, to name only a few, but what's really cool about this set is just how well it flows together; granted, turntables, programmers and one label are the ties that bind all of the artists collected on Ninjatune XX together, but the individual cuts gel together surprisingly well to established one unified front. Here, for example, Offshore's hypnotic and repetitive electro-jam “Jen At The Station” blends and flows shockingly well into Emika's watery and moody lament “Double Edge” while Todd Edwards' remix of Spank Rock's “rapid-fire “What It Look Like” bottoms out smoothly and seamlessly into Shuttle's vintage chill-out “Lion.” It doesn't feel like it should work (it doesn't read like it should either) but, in listening to Ninjatune XX, the style and flow is most definitely there.

In keeping with the label's dedication to multiple formats, Ninjatune XX has been released in a few different forms: a limited edition, 8CD-and-six 7” box set and two-CD 'best of the box' compilations (see Set One and Set Two  on Amazon). In any case, what fans will get is a staggering amount of meticulously arranged and assembled music to introduce the uninitiated to the label and what it stands for, and that – without question – can't not be of interest to any electronic music enthusiast.

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John Lennon
Gimme Some Truth (4CD)
(Capitol/EMI)

In his life (as well as over the course of the thirty years since it was abruptly ended), John Lennon was many things to many people. From 1962 forward, he's been regarded as a singer, a guitarist, a brilliant songwriter, a genius, a tortured soul, misunderstood, an icon, an activist, a free and progressive thinker, a symbol, a husband, a father, a son and (at least in the minds of some fans) a holy ghost – to name only the mantles most often uttered or recognized. People (whether they're fans of his music or not) have placed John Lennon on a seat at rock royalty's head table where his image has remained unmoved for decades and, whether it's right or it's wrong, that placement is justified because few musicians or other servants of the arts have spoken to or inspired the work of so many others. That's a fact that has become indisputable over time but, the funny thing is (and especially in listening to the seventy-two songs that have been collected together from the singer's solo albums for Gimme Some Truth), it's questionable if he ever wanted any of it or if John Lennon's body of work wasn't simply an extended attempt to finally give fans an unadorned impression of himself and either come to terms with his own life or understand life in general as well as his own place in it. Simply said, as one listens to John Lennon's solo body of work, it's clear that the singer knew who he was – husband, father, guitarist, songwriter and activist against the Vietnamese war – but he didn't exactly understand why that was so important to other people and so, on occasion, he'd rebel against it. To repel some of that hero worship, Lennon would overtly downplay it (not for nothing is the first track on the first disc of Gimme Some Truth “Working Class Hero”), challenge it outright (what else would one call “Woman Is The Nigger Of The World,” if not an open challenge to see what the world would let him get away with?) or ignore it and singer heartfelt songs about the most treasured and complicated things to him in his life (his family, his children, his upbringing), or try to affect change against what he saw as societal wrongs (war and inequality, notably), or just chuck it all and sing a rock n' roll song for rock n' roll's sake. In each case and no matter what, his delivery was always disarmingly candid and noticeably (unlike The Beatles' work) devoid of artifice. This set is called Gimme Some Truth because 'truth' was obviously what John Lennon was searching for after leaving The Beatles; he was looking for the core, unadorned and honest truth of human existence and the tranquility that he saw its' discovery promising and he'd do anything he needed to do – shock, inspire, betray, enrich, inform or abandon – to reach or attain it. It's debatable if he ever reached that point to his satisfaction but, in some of these seventy-two songs, listeners will find John Lennon's greatest successes toward that end. Read more.

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Moby
Wait For Me. Remixes! (2CD)
(Mute/EMI/Little Idiot)

Last year when he released Wait For Me , the album found Moby neither trying to outright ignore or surpass Play or even try to start over again as he has so often over the last ten years so much as simply make music that pours its digital heart out for listeners to love. The results played pretty well too as, with the dust cooked off of the DJ's celestial-sounding synthesizers, he worked out some strong tracks that didn't exactly return to the ground on which Play worked, but didn't exactly ignore it either – but that Remixes! illustrates is the fact that, even better than the other material Moby has released over the last decade, the tracks on Wait For Me are flexible enough and give enough points of access for other producers to do interesting things with the music too. Beginning with a fantastic, string-dominated impression of “Isolate” produced by Mixhell, this re-imagining of Wait For Me. brims with all manner of promise as the strong album cuts are warped and mutated in myriad ways into new, thought-provoking forms.

Unlike most remix albums, there isn't really a loser in the Wait For Me. lot as greats including Tiesto, Popof, Chuckie and Yuksek (to name only a few) offer their impressions and apply their sensibilities to the album cuts and, in some cases, surpass the originals in their result. Particular standouts include Paul Kalkbrenner's fantastic, percussive drive through “Wait For Me,” Carl Cox' chilled out interpretation of “Walk With Me” and Laurent Wolf's stark impression of “One Time We Lived” where the producers take special care to not lose the original spirit or continuity of their selections, but propel each into a different vibe  than Moby intended with his compositions – it's a really interesting exercise and holds listeners firmly through each turn and change.

While the re-workings of others are, of course, the primary focus of Remixes! and they are interesting, even surprising is the second disc included with the set, where Moby takes the assembled remixes done by others and overlays his sensibilities on top of those interpretations for a new DJ mix. Such an aural environment may seem a little dubious in print ('a bunch of other people remixed Moby and then he, in turn, remixed those remixes'), but everyone's authoritative voice remains intact in Moby's DJ mix, so what listeners get out if it is an enjoyable trifle that plays well, even if it is a bit arrogant.

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Queens Of The Stone Age
Rated Rx (10th Anniversary Edition)
(Interscope/Ume)

The thing about Queens Of The Stone Age's music which has always managed to capture and hold listeners' attention is that it is nearly impossible to qualify. Of course, there's no arguing that the band's music falls squarely into the 'rock' idiom but, after Nirvana broke and the Alternative bands from the Seattle and Chicago scenes landed on the pop map, a hard line got drawn between the underground (or “indie”) stream and the mainstream that has proven to be perilous to cross; going one way means you've sold out and going the other implies that you're losing professional steam as well as some of your holdings in the 'popular' marketplace. Over the last fifteen years, such a simple differentiation as that has been known to mean the difference between career collapse and career creation or conservancy. Bands have lived and died by that line but, since first appearing on the pop radar in 2000, Queens Of The Stone Age has managed to play to both sides at the same time without losing face with either. How do they do it? By playing four-on-the-floor rock n' roll with enough ironic and/or subcultural flavor to appeal to the underground but also cutting the mix with enough classic rock bombast, swagger and (slightly modified) cliche to hook mainstream neophytes too; and when the band leans too far one way, they always make sure to compensate and resolve that moment by leaning a bit harder on the other side as quickly as possible. That constant balancing act has guaranteed interest and close observation by both camps and likely always will – at least until there is a hard enough qualifier either way that would make everyone either love the band unquestionably or hate it bitterly.

After ten years in print and plenty of time to infiltrate into the pop culture canon, it wouldn't be unreasonable for a fan to assume that Rated R had already run as far as it was going to but, here on this re-release, that has proven to not be the case at all. With Rated R's reissue, everyone – the band, their label, longtime fans and new ones – have the opportunity to re-absorb these songs in a few different ways and, not only that, get a little more insight into the ideas and both how they started in the first place as well as how they were carried out. This two-disc set is the best way to get into these songs because, here, listeners get them from every possible angle. Read more.

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Various Artists
Fat Music Vol. 7 – Harder, Fatter + Louder
(Fat Wreck Chords)

Remember back about ten years ago when on didn't have to look very hard to find a really good punk rock compilation? It was actually a really cool phenomenon; for the price of just one CD, listeners got the opportunity to sample a bunch of different bands – some big, established names, some that didn't last and some bands who got their first shot with that comp but would later be a big deal – and that quick start on that comp generated a lot of the interest that got them started. Things have changed since then though. Now, with iTunes offering consumers the ability to part any record out song-by-song, compilation records have been forced to get more narrow and focused in what they're offering; they're more topical and novel. Cool comps like Give 'Em The Boot, Fat Music For Fat People and Short Music For Short People have fallen by the wayside and more two-dimensional compilations like Punk Goes Pop, Punk Goes Hair Metal, Punk Goes Acoustic and Punks Sing Showtunes are the novel norm on the marketplace. Many of those albums (okay, I made up a couple for effect – to the best of my knowledge, there isn't a Punks Sing Showtunes album, but there may be – soon) are boring or mawkish (or both), and the interest in sampling a bunch of bands to see what you as a listener might like has definitely waned. Happily though, at least on label seems to remember how and why good punk rock compilation albums work, and has dutifully resuscitated the tradition. On Fat Music Volume 7: Harder, Fatter + Louder, what listeners get is the exact same kind of vintage teaser/interest tweaker that the label's compilations released a decade ago provide; there's a bit of old (“Holy Shit” from Former Clarity-era Against Me!), some rare (who knew No Use For A Name covered Cheap Trick?), some hits (“The Calming Collection” by The Flatliners, “Greenwood” by Banner Pilot and “Skate Or Die” by Teenage Bottlerocket should all be essential listening for any young punk) and a whole lot of brand new (in some cases, the albums won't be released until 2011) punk rock here for fans to sample and decide if they want to further pursue. This is a punk rock comp the way they should be done; thanks to Fat Mike (who personally compiled the songs) for taking the time to remind us.

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