Issac Hayes – Hot Buttered Soul – AOTM July 2021

Issac Hayes – Hot Buttered Soul – AOTM July 2021

Four tracks, 45 minutes 30 seconds. This is as close to prog soul as can be. Elongated jam sessions by the Bar-Kays (The Bar-Kays are an American soul, R&B, and funk group formed in 1966) contribute to making this one of the most astonishing soul / funk albums ever. Recorded at the end of the 60s, the album provided something to music which was totally new. It is up there with Parliament, James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone. The album was recorded in Ardent Studios in Memphis.

Though not quite as definitive as Black Moses or as well-known as Shaft, Hot Buttered Soul remains an undeniably seminal record; it stretched its songs far beyond the traditional three-to-four-minute industry norm, featured long instrumental stretches where the Bar-Kays stole the spotlight, and it introduced a new, iconic persona for soul with Hayes’ tough yet sensual image. Allmusic

Walk On By

The album opens with a 12 minute version of Walk on By (original by Dionne Warwick, composed by Burt Bacharach, with lyrics by Hal David). The definitive version of this is the one by the Stranglers for me. However, this is a really excellent and strong track. At points it is ethereal almost, and makes the listener feel as though they are floating on music. The track is so ambitious and excessive, throwing you into the deep end right from the start and not letting up until the end.

It stood as a newer, funkier phase of Southern soul, but it hinged on a sound more opulent than the most sharp-suited Motown crossover bid. It’s an exercise in melodrama and indulgence that lays it on so heavy it’s impossible not to hear it as anything but the stone truth. Pitchfork

 

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A sensational Memphis soul / funk hybrid, this is for me the greatest on the album. The opening piano does not prepare you for the magnificence that is to follow. His butter smooth lyrics are so cool. Pitchfork described Hayes’ voice as ‘like a velvet sledgehammer, and rightly too. The progressive encroaching beat gradually takes over the whole track to finish in a crescendo like all encompassing musical medley. This touches my soul in a way which I can hardly put into words.

One Woman

This is the only track on the album which resembles a nominal pop track. To be honest by comparison to the other three this one fades into obscurity but I suppose that was part of the point.

By the Time I Get to Phoenix 

With the statement, “I’m talking about the power of love now, I’m telling you what love can do” at the start of Jimmy Webb’s By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Hayes single-handedly launched the ‘love man’ genre that was soon to prevail; the roots of Barry White’s sensual symphonies and Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On can be traced right back to here. BBC Music

This is for me a type of genius in song. Hayes raps extensively and slowly for 8 and a half minutes with no melody, spelling out the story which supports the song, before bursting into melody for the final ten explosive minutes.

And when it finally does transition from Hayes’ conversational murmur to the first actual sung line from the Jimmy Webb composition he’s covering, it’s the beginning of a metamorphosis that gradually transforms the dynamic of the song from sweet-stringed orchestration into full-fledged, brass-packed, explosively-cresting soul. Pitchfork

Over 50 years on, Hot Buttered Soul remains a leading Soul album which has far reaching influence, being sampled extensively in various Hip Hop songs. This is a four track soul masterpiece which holds a high place in my pantheon of great albums. It is no wonder this is number 829 in the 1001 Albums You Should Hear Before You Die.

Ready Player One – Gamer Paradise

Ready Player One – Gamer Paradise

Usually when father recommends something to me, I will wait 4 months before actioning the recommendation then pass it off as my idea originally. This is a sneaky tactic which does not often hold water but it makes me feel better for being so slow to accept new ideas. One such new fangled idea is this wonderful film, Ready Player One. Directed by Steven Spielberg, this film tells the story of a dystopian future where a virtual reality game world, The Oasis, is the solar plexus of everyone’s lives and indeed livelihoods.

Tye Sheridan is Wade Watts, a lonely teenager living in Columbus, Ohio, which is now a gruesome favela of trailers stacked on top of each other. His only interest is in strapping on the VR headset and entering the alternative universe of the Oasis, as a mythic avatar named Parzival. Here is a limitless fantasyscape of the mind where people can play games and have experiences. Guardian

James Halliday, played by Mark Rylance, is almost deified from the get go. Before his death, he hid three keys throughout the Oasis which, if found, grant the finder a lucky Easter Egg – control of the Oasis. On the journey to the three keys we are subjected to a visual feast, the likes of which Ready Player One’s author, Earnest Cline, must have been immensely pleased with. There are myriad pop culture references. In one of the opening scenes, the race which is the first of the three key challenges, we see the DeLorian, Lara Croft, the A Team Van, a Plymouth Fury, Jurassic Park T-Rex and King Kong. This movie for me is partly a love letter to the 1980’s. It is so filled with movie and pop culture references that I felt dizzied.

A less accomplished director could get bogged down in this, causing the film to be a moving riff on a Where’s Wally? book, but Spielberg strikes the perfect balance. He knows exactly when to pull back to focus on the characters — especially the central relationship between Wade/Parzival and Samantha/Art3mis (Cooke), which gives the film a necessary and touching grounding in reality — and the story. Empire

The real masterful element for me was the dichotomy between reality and the virtual world. We are frequently thrust between both on account of IOI, a despicable organisation who are trying their utmost to win the three challenges and take control of the game for *shock, horror* profit! While on the face of it, the plot is really quite simplistic, this is more than made up for. Surprisingly, if you’ve seen the latest out of Hollywood (think Battleships), the acting is palpable, if not good! The plot is spurned by a burgeoning love between Parzival and Art3mis, whose online and offline interactions are well portrayed.

Spielberg’s visual inventiveness is unflagging. He stumbles only when trying to warm up the tech gadgetry with a personal touch, as when Wade and his friends, known as the High 5, finally connect in a reality that brings fantasy crashing down to earth. Sheridan and Cooke bring genuine romantic longing to their few scenes together. But the live-action segments of the movie are more buzz kill than bracing. Rolling Stone

Overall, what this film lacks in general plot, it more than makes up for in ingenuity and sheer visual brilliance. This is a rollercoaster of references which to lean more towards the 80s movie geek, but has most assuredly got something for everyone. See here for a full list of references used in the film.

 

Nightclubbing, Grace Jones – Birthday Review

Nightclubbing, Grace Jones – Birthday Review

On Bank Holiday Weekend, I found myself mulling over what I should do to celebrate Grace Jones’ birthday on May 19th. While out on a walk, the heavens opened and Matthew and I were drenched. I interpreted this as an omen. Walking in the Rain is the opening number on Grace Jones’ monumental album Nightclubbing, you see. It is thus superstitiously than I decided to write the following review. Grace Jones is a personal icon of mine, if not my greatest inspiration, so forgive my gushing in parts.

In 1980, Grace Jones decamped to Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas where she worked with producers Alex Sadkin and Island Records’ president Chris Blackwell, as well as a crack team of session musicians rooted by the rhythmic reggae force of Sly & Robbie. Across three critical and commercial hit albums, with 1981’s Nightclubbing as her pinnacle, Jones reinvented herself while also altering the face of modern pop. Pitchfork

Five of the nine songs on the original album are covers. The album opens with a cover of Flash and the Pan’s Walking in the Rain. From the very beginning, Sly and Robbie’s talents are put on full display. Their understanding of beat and rhythm is unparalleled in pop. Grace emerges triumphant singing “feeling like a woman, looking like a man”, one of the defining features in her image. Listen to the bass guitar supporting Jones’ unique vocals. Here, she is the embodiment of power and freedom. There is an otherness to Grace the person and Grace the musician. This is carried through wonderfully in Nightclubbing’s opening number. Jones employs a glacial tempo with haunting equally cold vocals.

Pull Up To the bumper is of course Grace Jones’ most famous song. It is no surprise it was a Top 10 Single. What do you think the song is really about? I’d tell you my opinion but this post will go live before watershed, so I’d better not. In any case this track has a glorious recurring motif and an infectious rhythm, to which we are the slaves, as it were. Listen out for the percussion in the background. It is no wonder, with such a wide arsenal of brilliance, how she inspired  so many after her.

Fashion, art, and music all converged in the form of Mrs. Jones and looking out at the 21st century musical landscape, it’s easy to see her influence: Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, M.I.A., Grimes, FKA twigs, and more. Beyond that, there’s an entire subset of alternative music that draws on the template set by Jones and her Nassau backing band: Massive Attack, Todd Terje, Gorillaz, Hot Chip, and LCD Soundsystem all emulate those rubbery yet taut grooves of Sly & Robbie and cohorts, a hybrid that amalgamated rock, funk, post-punk, pop and reggae. Pitchfork

Interestingly, Use Me is a cover of a Bill Withers song. If you hoped it would be anything like the original, you’d be mistaken. Grace does not pay homage to the original composers of the tracks she covers, she tears at the song book with her teeth. There is a single mindedness which ties her tracks together. The bass in this track is inspired, as are the lyrics: “I’m gonna spread the news, that if it feels this good being used, keep on using me ’til you use me up”.
The final track on side 1 is a cover of non other than Iggy Pop (of the Stooges). Now I won’t go on about how great the Stooges’ album Funhouse is, but you really should listen to it. Nightclubbing’s powerful and insistent piano underpins this track. Grace Jones is really “what’s happening”. You may be interested to know that Hollie Cook sampled Nightclubbing in her 2014 album Twice. Overall, Grace exhibits her raw power here with her commanding vocals.
I think at this point it is worth mentioning the cover. Jones was then styled by her beau Jean Paul Goude (French legendary photographer – does the artwork for Galleries Lafayette in Paris, among hundreds of others). Jones is seen in a beautiful black tailored Armani jacket on a background of light brown to accentuate her obsidian skin. She looks the epitome of detached with a cigarette loosely hanging from her lips.
And well, that cover. Black, blue, cropped into angles that would actually cut you if you got any closer. That cigarette, hanging there. The genuine ‘don’t **** with me’ article. Terrifying and entrancing at the same time. In pop music, it takes a lot of effort to look effortless, yet in Grace, Jean-Paul Goude had very little to do really. The Quietus
Side 2 of the album offers us Art Groupie, in which Grace asserts “I’ll never write my memoirs, there’s nothing in my book. this is the title of her auto-biography, of which I have a signed copy. I met Grace at a signing event in Picadilly in my second year at university. She was every bit as statuesque and foreboding as you can imagine. NB: she was about 65 when the cover for the book was taken.
I’ve Seen That Face Before was another outstanding track. This channels Astor Piazzola’s Libertango, while featuring Grace’s signature foreboding haunting vocals. The accordion in this track is inspired. Listen to the arrangement here, the way all the instruments and vocals are perfectly placed to evoke the overall theme of the track. This is a testament to Alex Sadkin’s production genius. I also cannot overstate how much I appreciate her use of French. “Tu te prends pour qui? Toi aussi tu détestes la vie”. Grace Jones first sang in French on her first album, 1977’s Portfolio. La Vie En Rose was the sign Chris Blackwell needed to recognise Grace’s talent and potential future. She made four albums between this and Nighclubbing, two of them disco albums produced by Disco legend Tom Moulton. But the essence of that epic Piaf cover is present here. Sting’s incredible lyricism is evident throughout this track: “I’m a walking nightmare, an arsenal of doom, I kill conversation as I walk into the room”. I suppose there are some positives in being from Newcastle.
Demolition Man is a cover of the Police original. I wonder what Stuart Copeland (the missing Beatle) made of this! I seldom ask myself which instrument I am hearing. The insistent deep instrument in the background of Demolition Man is likely a bass guitar but I may have been mislead by the synth stylings of Wally Badarou, a classically-trained synth session man who’s C.V. includes, but is not limited to, M’s “Pop Music” and Level 42’s “Something About You.”

The album adds with the beautifully remorseful Done It Again, a song that showcases Jones’ exquisite vocals. A love song that should be remembered with the greats of the genre. Louder Than War

Ending the album with Done It Again was a masterstroke in sequencing. After putting us through the tumult of the other 8 tracks, we land safely and serenely.

Overall, Nightclubbing is a masterful and essential album. Grace Jones changed the face of pop with the three major Compass Point Studio albums (Warm Leatherette, Nightclubbing and Living My Life) and immortalised herself as a seminal pioneer of music. This truly launched her and led to the torrent of cultural references beyond music for which we know and love her now. I leave you with this wonderful quote from The Quietus:

Nightclubbing made Grace Jones Grace Jones – the Harty-beating, Conan-starring, James Bond baddie, car-swallowing creature that followed. She could quite simply do whatever she liked after this, and did. It demands a place in everybody’s record collection whatever their allegiance, and you’ll never really want for anything more than this exhaustive and vital package. What was perfection has become even more perfect. The Quietus

Burger Bar – Feel Good Food, Central Amsterdam

Burger Bar – Feel Good Food, Central Amsterdam

Not being on social media has its advantages. For one thing, your parents have no idea where you are at any time. This means you can go abroad at a moment’s notice and eat nice things. One such thing I consumed was a great big burger.

Burger Bar was a pseudo saving grace for us. We had arrived from England and were quite hungry. But the trap once often falls into abroad is to go to the first place they find, often McDonald’s. I did some research and found this place.

Starting with the freshest natural ingredients – your Burgerbar experience begins. Locally baked burger buns, crisp iceberg lettuce, rucola, tomato and pickle on your burger of choice. Fresh herbs in our home-made sauces.

All our beef is minced in-house daily. The burgers are prepared individually to order and cooked whilst you wait. With only ground sea salt and black pepper added to your burger, whilst it’s sizzling upon the griddle plate. Burger Bar

I opted for the luxurious Wagyu Burger. This consisted of a gorgeous Wagyu beef patty, rucola, old Amsterdam cheese and onion jam. Old Amsterdam has an ivory coloured pate with rich, nutty, robust flavour with hints of caramel and butterscotch and firm texture. Let me speak briefly on the wonder of Wagyu. This is widely considered the finest beef in the world. It is a Japanese breed of cattle. Wa’ means Japanese and ‘gyu’ means cow.

The unique taste and tenderness of highly marbled Wagyu beef makes for an unrivalled eating experience.  Wagyu

I must say there are fewer times in my life where I have been more satisfied by a burger. The beef just melted away.  The meshing of the savoury Dutch cheese with the sweet onion jam made a gorgeous swelling ball of flavour which I am at a loss to describe.

Matthew opted for the Bordeaux burger. This consisted of Angus beef on a deluxe brioche bun with rucola, camembert and the holy onion jam. Angus beef develops with better marbling (the amount of intramuscular fat) than most cattle Matthew describes it as “One second let me finish this sentence that I am writing for my biology work… [30 minutes later] It was probably the best burger I have ever had.”

Louise had the Cheesy Burger which had Angus beef, cheddar and old Amsterdam cheese topped off with onion jam. I am starting to think we all have something in common… I must say the smokey flavour of the cheddar went very well with the Old Amsterdam.

Overall I was impressed by the quality of the burgers but also the service. The owners steered me away from the tourist traps and to some more genuine and decidedly seedier parts of Amsterdam where I could experience the ‘real city’, for which I am deeply appreciative. Please do go to Burger Bar, it contains sheer burger luxury.

 

Boxcar Butcher & Grill, Marylebone – Exquisitely Pompous Breakfast

Boxcar Butcher & Grill, Marylebone – Exquisitely Pompous Breakfast

Having been in London some 12 hours, it was time we eat solid food. Matthew and I headed to meet our friends, St Nick and Emily (who has been canonised), in Marylebone. I had read about this place in the Evening Standard. I imagine I am not the only one who did so. The cheap bacon butty was surreptitiously taken off the menu and we were left with prodigiously expensive options. This was precisely the reason I avoid most of London. One needs to take a mortgage out on their cat to be able to afford anything, it’s senselessly off-putting.

But at the peril of re-arranging last minute, I took a chance with Boxcar.

As you can see from the above picture, Saturday brunch at Boxcar is exactly as pretentious as it looks. Emily’s delicious breakfast consisted of seasonal berries, lemon, buttermilk, honey & granola, all fresh from the bakery up the road which also belongs to Boxcar. I was allowed a spoonful. The buttermilk and homemade yoghurt was a highlight for me. Of course there is always a lot to be said for fresh fruit, but the underlaying creamy pillow, if you will, is the tethering factor in any breakfast.

St Nick and I opted for the bubble & squeak. That is to say, poached egg, smoked tomato, beer & treacle bacon. As you’ll notice, the bacon was cut most thickly. Cooking anything in alcohol often sets St Nick off. Being an alcoholic, he cannot resist this frothy yeasty water mix, no matter which obstacles you put in his way. He will always find a way to defy logic and sense for a sip of that delicious sickly liquid broth. The bubble & squeak itself is a mix of cooked cabbage and potato, deep fried. Boxcar’s version was made of delightfully fine potato and cabbage. One never gets used to the slightly sour taste this early in the day, but it is well worth it.

In terms of the quality of the poached egg… I shall leave this photograph of Matthew’s smashed avocado toast with the gorgeous thick fennel seeds as evidence. An aerial shot of the same is about to follow.

Boxcar had the courtesy to ask ‘how smashed would you like it?’ which is an extraordinary question in and of itself. Matthew, being a millennial, wanted it rather quite smashed. And he got precisely what he ordered.

Overall, Boxcar is an eatery of undeniable quality. From the service to the ingredients used, one is guaranteed an excellent experience. I recommend it to those in the Marylebone area. This place is a few steps away from the cultural epicentre of Marylebone, but is far removed enough to avoid the general public. A fateful cocktail indeed.

 

Lake Skadar – Boat Milica Tours (Excellent Family Run Boat Tours)

Lake Skadar – Boat Milica Tours (Excellent Family Run Boat Tours)

Random Montenegrin (and no friend of the Boat Milica team): Do you speak English?

Cedric Conboy: Not a word.

It is fair to say that Montenegrins have many admirable attributes, but one of them does not appear to be an appreciation for the finer points of English wit. This exchange, together with others, helped Cedric earn the epithet “Pičko” (or perhaps pička, I may have misheard) amongst the vultures who congregate by the banks of Lake Skadar selling boat tours. I will leave it to the discretion of Cedric’s audience to decide whether they wish to research what “Pičko” means in the local dialect, but needless to say it isn’t the sort of thing one ought to start calling one’s grandma.

Luckily we already had a tour booked, with Boat Milica Tours, run by a local family. Jelena the wife does the talking in English, her husband Andrija (born in Virpazar on the banks of the lake) steers the boat and provides comment in Montenegrin, and their children help out when they can. One cannot but heap praises upon this family team. Jelena is an excellent tour guide, her knowledge of the area is superb, she is friendly and honest, and knows just when to provide information and when to leave her guests to sit back, relax and enjoy the lake. I was particularly touched at the effort the family made to supply us with coffee.

Both husband and wife, clearly have a great love for nature. Andrija, for example, was keen to point out the different kinds of birds that live on the lake, which Jelena translated for us. As Jelena explained the lake has been kept free of the development, which has to some extent crowded the bay of Kotor, meaning it remains a tranquil spot, perfect for lovers of nature.

One of the highlights of the tour was our visit to the Monastery at Kom, built between 1415 and 1427. An orthodox monk, who we met, lives on the island Monastery (in the periods of drought it is actually connected to the land). I was blown away by his warm hospitality. He provided us with food and homemade “Rakia” (rakia or rakija, the word meaning spirits, is synonymous with the Balkans, comes in many varieties and is typically distilled at home). I was moved beyond words by this welcoming, as I felt at last a real part of the Balkans.

This tour was an incredible find by Cedric and I recommend it to anyone. It was my favourite part of an epic trip which I will never forget. By the end of the holiday, my only regret was that we could not continue travelling on. One is reminded of the lines from Tennyson’s poem Ulysses, in which the Homeric hero becomes the perfect archetype for the yearning wanderer:

“I am part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untraveled world, whose margin fades 

For ever and for ever when I move. 

How dull is it to pause, to make an end, 

To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!”