Saturday, 16 September 2017

Hallelujah: A Celebration Of Leonard Cohen @ JW3 London 14th September 2017

Romeo Stodart, Angela Gannon, Ed Harcourt, Michele Stodart, & Will Harvey (watched over by Leonard)

You'll be hearing from me baby, long after I'm gone
I'll be speaking to you sweetly
From a window in the Tower of Song
In 2016, aka the year of the great pop culture extinction, we lost a seemingly never ending swathe of precious talents. When David Bowie and Prince left the shock lead to impromptu and planned musical tributes of varying quality. When Leonard Norman Cohen passed in November the reaction was more of quiet respect and acceptance of a good innings, well played. Tonight's concert in conjunction with Camden Town's excellent Green Note venue and curated by Kathryn Williams tried to give a flavour of the wisdom, poetry, insight and, yes, humour of the man.

Interspersed by readings of his poetry, his prose and his witticisms in interviews from Mr Shale, echoing Cohen's deep sandpaper drawl Kathryn had called in friends, collaborators and fellow Len fans to present not carbon copies of well known tunes but with arrangements that threw fresh light on old ideas.

I've been an admirer of Ren Harvieu's stunning voice through appearances with Romeo Stodart at venues across the capital and early on her sultry take on 'Chelsea Hotel' set the high standard for tonight's show. At the Union Chapel's Flying Seagull benefit she and Romeo performed a dramatic version of 'The Partisan' which he repeated tonight with
fellow Magic Number, Angela Gannon creating a real chill. The third Number, Michele had the unenviable task of taking on perhaps Leonard's most iconic song 'Suzanna' that reverberated around a million bedsits as pale young boys failed to get off with pale willowy girls.

Partisans Romeo Stodart & Angela Gannon

Like Leonard's own live shows a choir of 'Angels' provided soothing backing vocals and call and response when Ed Harcourt stepped up to growl about 'The Future'. His voice fits these songs like a glove 'from his 80's electro period' and the band grooved brilliantly anchored by Michele Stodart's mercurial bass and foot stamps. Curator Kathryn Williams, closed the first half out with a moving 'Hey That's No Way To Say Goodbye'

What I particularly enjoyed was discovering new elements to Leonard's life that I wasn't aware of. I'm a fairly recent convert to his work, luckily I got to see the man live at one magical night in Brighton where he made a 5,000 seater feel like a tiny room like the one we were in tonight. Kerry read a section from Cohen's first novel, the semi autobiographical 'The Favourite Game' - a funny, poignant tale of dancing, teenage insecurity and comic pain. Even his interviews sounded like poetry, although his estate should get Mr Shale to do audiobook versions of his prose as he really bought the tales to life. Romeo and I would buy that for a dollar for sure. 
Host Kerry Shale
Kathryn Wiliams & Michele Stodart

This all helped create a more rounded and different experience for both performers and audience that your run of the mill tribute show wouldn't have touched on. Astrid Williamson performed a song not by but about Leonard by one time squeeze Joni Mitchell (course he did, the lucky blighter) 'Rainy Night House' from Ladies Of The Canyon. Cohen's admiration of Federico Garcia Lorca was represented with 'Ballad Of the Moon' spellbindingly sung in Spanish by Sylvie Lewis.

Ed Harcourt & his Angels

My personal highlight was the central section of the second half with Ren Harvieu, Romeo & Michele Stodart flowing on what felt like a telepathic energy during 'Famous Blue Raincoat' (which I suddenly realised refers to Cohen's experience with Scientology). Michele picked a song from the albums he recorded when he came back down from the mountain 'Crazy To Love You' which I admit I'd not noticed the gold in before hearing her perform it.

The real standout for me was Angela Bannon's reworking of 'Tower Of Song' - simply breath-taking. Shorn of its familiar female backing vocals it became a bare country song akin to that of Hank Williams who features in the lyric. From the running order below it appears this was a last minute addition to the set and I am so grateful it was.

Kathryn spoken movingly before 'Bird On A Wire' of how she recorded songs in her bedroom and sent them on cassette to the shop near the monastery where Leonard was living in the hope they might pass them on to him. That she heard about his passing while on the road, performing music all those years after he helped spark her career obviously guided her in piecing this celebration of his life together. A communal chorus of 'Marianne' beautifully led by Polly Paulusma and THAT SONG sealed a rather special night. Your correspondent was lucky enough to squeeze in to the sold out show at the last minute so stood for 2 1\4 hours, witnessing a loving and fitting tribute by some of my favourite musicians.

I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Pet Shop Boys - Bord Gais Theatre, Dublin 5th September 2017

They called us the Pop Kids
Cause we loved the pop hits
And quoted the best bits
So we were the Pop Kids

I have loved The Pet Shop Boys (hereafter PSB, no not THAT lot but they are great too) since the punchy beat and swirling wind of ‘West End Girls’ (not the 1st issue, wasn’t that trendy a pop kid) in 1985. Echoes of Ghost Town along with Neil Tennant’s distinctive deadpan delivery of arguably the greatest opening couplet, like, evs and I was smitten. I haven’t got the aversion to arch or cooly detached that some suffer from. My7 attention in their career wavered in the 2000’s (as possibly did theirs) but they’ve had a strong run of albums in the 21st Century although the latest ‘Super’ is a bit pony.

Despite this admiration I had never got to see them live – they rarely toured during their “imperial phase” perhaps too aware that Raw Sex’s spoof of their image “me, I’m good at standing still, you stand behind me with a keyboard someone has lent you” suggested their music wasn’t made for the stage. The decline of people actually buying records has made the need to tour to pay the rent a necessity. Thing is that they’ve become very good at it in a stylish way rather than the overblown egotism of stadium acts like U2, Coldplay etc

So the annual Irish roadtrip this year was a quick hop over to Dublin to see PSB in the fairly intimate Bord Gais Theatre – beautifully designed inside and painfully modern from the outside. From the Upper Circle for the first of a pair of instantly sold out nights we had a great view of the stage and full effect of the impressive lighting setup that would dominate the night, the sub bass throbbing as an intro as people slowly filtered in from the bar.

Neil and Chris appeared as if by magic, adorned with metal headgear, in front of two large circles either side of the stage before Chris took his post behind keyboard rig and Neil slowly prowled the monitor line. Despite his image of slightly bemused and embarrassed detachment, Neil was not averse to yelling ‘DUBLIN!’ in between songs in a rousing fashion. Unlike other acts of their vintage they have not slid into a nostalgia act and it was clear from the opening ‘Inner Sanctum’ from the so-so ‘Super’ that they had ‘new’ and we would hear it.

The duo were aided by two drummers percussionists (one regular drumkit / one electronic) plus extra keyboard, violin and beats from another. As to how much was actually being played live, I don’t think it really matters, this wasn’t Kraftwerk levels of inactivity – that band were tight and on it with the sound immaculate, bass kicking and the highs sharp. When I had seen Elvis Costello there three years earlier the sound had been muddy and vocals buried but it wasn’t the case tonight – a delight.

Although the set was heavy on recent adventures there was still room for “deep cuts” and ver hits – ‘Opportunities’ signalling the first roar from the crowd but I was particularly thrilled to hear ‘In The Night’ originally the B-side to the aforementioned single and the glorious 'The Sodom & Gomorrah Show' from ‘Fundamental’. The songs from ‘Super’ were given extra energy played live and ‘The Dictator Decides’ with images of battling insects mixed with militarialist material as a backdrop was the nights darkest moment.

As there wasn’t much movement on stage the lights and projections had to reflect as well as enhance the music in ways that a glittery jacket (ala Father Ted & Dougal in the My Lovely Horse promo film) Neil sported for most of the show could not. Hits were played but with a modern feel and edge thatr some might see as heresy when it came to ‘Left To My Own Devices’ sans Anne Dudley’s divebombing strings replaced with sparse trance drones and scattered beats. Hearing a couple of thousand people sing ‘Che Guevara & Debussy to a disco beat’ was still thrilling thou.

“This is called Love Comes Quickly, it used to go like that, now it goes like this” Neil Tennant didn’t drawl as another 30+ year old tune was given some fresh fairy dust and hits came in a similar rush – Go West, West End Girls, It’s A Sin, Domino Dancing, ending the night with one of the best Xmas number one’s ever (that kept Fairytale of New York from the top spot) the non-festive ‘Always On My Mind’

In an alternate universe they played ‘Being Boring, ‘Suburbia’, ‘So Hard’, ‘Can You Forgive Her?’ ‘Heart’ (although we got a couple of lines of that), ‘You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk’, ‘Rent’, ‘It’s Alright’, ‘Jealousy, ‘DJ Culture’ ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This’ or (as it was Dublin, ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ but it was a fabulous night in this reality showing the quality of their work. The pop kids still rule, ok?

Inner Sanctum
The Pop Kids
In The Night
Love Is A Bourgeois Construct
New York City Boy
Se A Vida E
Love Comes Quickly
Love Etc
The Dictator Decides
Inside A Dream
West End Girls
Home & Dry
The Sodom & Gomorrah Show
It's A Sin
Left To My Own Devices
Go West
Domino Dancing
Always On My Mind \ The Pop Kids (slight return)

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Kathryn Williams 'Songs From The Novel "Greatest Hits"

This blog so often features reviews and bits on Kathryn Williams that it might as well be a fanpage. Well as her stalker of 18 years it's often her music that moves me to put fingers to keyboard during even my lowest times. Recently has been the nastiest of times - periods of self loathing, self harm and just feeling sad in the most exhausting of ways.

I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of Kathryn's new album 'Songs From The Novel "Greatest Hits"' and so have been living with it a while now. It's gone from something that I was really unsure about to a moving and delightful record which is up there with Kathryn's best work.

I've been here before.

Although the concept behind this project with novelist Laura Barnett that sees an imaginary musical life bought to life for the protagonist of her novel, Cass Wheeler is unique it's not the first time one of my faves has hooked up in this way. In 2010 Ben Folds and Nick Hornby released 'Lonely Avenue' - a collaboration where Nick took ideas he had as short stories and wrote them as songs which Folds then took and put to music - jamming different arrangements with his band until they got what was wanted. Although the songs - unsurprisingly - were pretty strongly narrative driven they were not autobiographical.

For some reason I was really unsure about the record and Hornby's involvement. Don't get me wrong, when I first read his novel, 'Hi Fidelity' I thought he had crawled into my head, intensified by being a fellow Costello obsessive. I think it's because Ben's material is often deeply personal and dragged from his life experiences in often naked ways I didn't want to hear him parroting someone else's thoughts. A strange kind of jealousy I suppose which ignored the fact that he didn't write some of my favourite Ben Folds Five songs. However on listening the album quickly became one of my favourites not just by Ben Folds but by anyone. It's such a varied and interesting listen - 'Password' exploring obsession via linguistic tricks, 'Belinda' sees a singer songwriter haunted by his hit song and a past that is always present and 'Claire's Ninth' divorce from the point of view of a child who just wants to have a normal birthday.

Ashamed to say that I had a bit of that same feeling when I clicked the play button for the stream of Kathryn's album. I didn't mind if I thought it was no good, more that I did't want it to be a diluted version of what makes Kathryn great. In other words - I was being a total dick and not trusting Kathryn, Laura and her musical wunder-band to produces something unique.

The 16 songs are meant to cover Cass' career from the late 60's\ early 70s folk/blues/psyche boom through the era of the singer songwriter to reflection of heartbreak, loss and rebirth that feature in the latter part of her life. She is sitting at age 65, on the cusp of a slight return, putting together a "best of" collection and the songs reflect the memories they unlock. Rather than being a collection of Kathryn's songs it is her channelling the feelings and thoughts of Cass Wheeler. It's no more unusual than the alter egos that Bowie often inhabited but without the need for as much makeup and lycra.

A key ingredient is the arrangements which delicately echo the sound of a particular musical era without being a pastiche or impression of an artist. 'She Wears A Dress' has a Motown disco shimmy to the soul of its dancing shoes with great brass accompaniment. 'Living Free' can't help but conjure up the Californian coast, the wide Pacific glistening as you cruise down a windy road like in the movies - you can taste the salty air. The synthpop of 'Architect' has a sparse, airless feel, Kathryn's detached vocal undercut by a genuine laugh as she imitates the woozy backing. 'In This Garden' sounds like something but I can't quite put my finger on but its more a feeling than a band and that's the point. The grinding fuzzy rock energy of 'Road Of Shadows' and its infectious 'knocking down miles like dominoes' refrain is perhaps less familiar territory for Kathryn but she pulls off the sassy snarl with ease.

Kathryn puts the albums' "feel" down to producer Romeo Stodart of The Magic Numbers but aside from that he brings the best out of Kathryn's performance several times through his playing. Originally in the novel, Cass composes 'Edge Of The World' on guitar but in the studio, Romeo performing the song on piano caused a quick rewrite by Laura. It may be the stand-out track on the album - a genuine spine tingling moment occurs at its close where Kathryn's voice soars higher and higher until it cracks and dissolves, Romeo playing subtle and sometimes unexpected, unusual notes reflecting the sense of loss before Kathryn's voice, as if arcing back into the world to moan it's 'the sea, the sea' coda as piano tumbles and washes over you. It's simply breathtaking in the most literal sense of that word.

From the fun, innocent vibe of 'Just Us Two' with it's penny whistle interjecting like a Clanger on BV's, the wistful mother daughter dialogue in 'Queen Of The Snow' and the seductive jazzy tones that slink through 'I Wrote You A Love Song' with Romeo taking on the mantle of Cass' boyfriend and guitarist, Ivor Tait, from the novel this feels like a collection from different times and places.
Long time friends and musical companions Michelle Stodart, Kate St John and Neill MacColl among others have helped create something not only unique in concept but pretty damn special in it's own right.

I can't say if the album is better understood or appreciated after or while you are reading Laura' accompanying novel. The reason being that I heard the album many times before I got my hands on the book. I found the book a genuine minute melter, I devoured it, perhaps rightly, in a single day and enjoyed it immensely. Where other books about fictional musicians can be heavy handed, this had a subtle touch and felt right, from the reality of low level touring in the early 70s to the band names - 'Heavy Elements' , 'Vertical Heights' & 'The Puritan Experience' which I'm sure she had fun dreaming up.
Of course the novel gives the songs more context and crosses a few t's but despite intertwining they stand on their own merits.
So why not buy both?

The album ends with 'When The Morning Comes' which is the most "Kath" rather than Cass track on the album - a sweet and loving acoustic lullaby to waking which features those Williams buzzwords "darkness" & "light" but it also feels part of Cass' story and a suitable exit.

'Greatest Hits' by Laura Barnett is out now
as is Kathryn Williams' 'Songs From The Novel "Greatest Hits" on deluxe CD and double vinyl
Pledgemusic have some great combo deals too

On a side note this week I have been mostly staying alone at a travel tavern at the side of an A-road near Ipswich for work. My anxiety has been particularly high and its been a real struggle, particularly late at night to prevent myself from falling headlong into a full panic attack. Lying back, big old headphones on, I lost myself in Kathryn, Laura and Cass' world, managing to become calmer and cope. So for that alone, I give thanks.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Life is unfair. Kill yourself or get over It

""I'm not convinced by this new trend of male public soul-bearing. Time for our gender to get a grip, methinks. Life's tough - man up." - Piers Moron , Twitter, 6th May 2017

There is real Grade-A idiocy at work here  - not just cos anyone who writes 'methinks' and isn't a 16th Century dramatist really needs to have a word with themselves.

Look, we know Piers doesn't care if he's liked, thinks PC has gone mad and does these things purely to gain notoriety. We know he's the centre of his own little universe who he's perfection despite his failures in newspapers, serious TV news and allegedly insider dealing, phone hacking and making us admire a git like Jeremy Clarkson for punching him in the face. He's an odious worm who used his newspaper editorship to settle personal scores and harass anyone who crossed him - granted but his attitude is fairly common and brings nothing but suffering and scorn in it's wake.

Of course he's since back-peddled like Sir Chris Hoy being pursued by angry bears, keen to mention he didn't mean Princes William & Harry and their recent comments about dealing with the death of their mother. Just those pesky "celebrities" who wear it as a badge of honour to be bi-polar or have a spell in The Priory. As if fame somehow takes away all your vulnerability with money, cars, drugs and so on and that similarly makes them fair game for ridicule from celebrity culture leeches like himself.

People who suffer from depression don't need telling that they are weak - they know it every time they look in the mirror, are out in the street, are in the midst of a panic attack, lying on the bathroom floor crippled with nerves, awake in the small hours with head spinning, when they wish they could just disappear. Weakness is at the heart of the problem and we are surrounded by signs that 'manning up' or being more of an Alpha male. At the centre of it all - we keep all this pushed down - it's secret, safe as our dirty little lie, we don't want to parade it or use it to make us out as special. We want to be just like the "normal" people who are able to cope and seem happy and content so we admit nothing. So the stigma and the inability to express the realities of depression and anxiety continue.

I myself have recently had a particularly bad period where I think if I had the bravery to disappear from life that I would have.

I fear my friends have stopped taking me seriously and see it as something that I will just ride out and feel better soon. I'm scared that they are wrong.

And I'm not the only one - that oft quoted stat of suicide being the biggest killer of young men at the rate of three a day - is showing no sign of falling any time soon with 30-44 as the most dangerous age.

When I was at school and my problems began the school welfare guidelines had no way of dealing with what I was going through. Today might have been a different matter with emphasis being put on the mental and physical welfare of students. The Tory party's announcement to place the mental health of young adults t the heart of a new Mental Health bill is encouraging but it's a fucking wreck.

So few beds, so few facilities, so few professionals lead to children in wards sometimes hundreds of miles away from their parents. The Conservative's root and branch destruction of the NHS is only going to make that worse. Decent treatment will be pushed further to just being available to those who can afford private care. Continual cuts and pay freezes will not attract new blood to the organisations, however much your election promises wish it to be so.

However, perhaps the recognition of mental problems from an early age and that speaking out, sharing them with others and recognising that they are not bad, strange, weird or unmanageable will create the cultural change that we need. It's only through blowing apart this idiotic notion that to speak about your inner life is as important to your health as the pills and medicine we would take for any other ailment. Such dinosaur viewpoints like Piers Moron holds should be allowed to die with him. Then perhaps people won't have to suffer literally in silence.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

The Unthanks: How Wild The Wind Blows (Live at Basingstone Anvil, 28th April 2017)

Like mushrooms , which I don’t but that’s another story, I have a preference towards darkness and fretting over the intricacies of life’s bigger questions. Whether it be love, death, time, space or the nature of reality – it’s very much in my wheelhouse. Which is where we find The Unthanks and their latest Diversion, No.4, using the words or Molly Drake, poetess, songwriter and mother to the more well known, Gabrielle and Nick.

Cards on the table I knew very little about Molly before I heard about this project, Actually pretty much nothing apart from being Nick & Gabrielle’s mum. I expect this may be the experience of many attendees of this tour and listeners to the album and I can say that it’s perfectly fine. In fact I had preordered the album and it’s accompanying 8 track mini album ‘Extras’ which had duly arrived 2 days before the show but deliberately delayed listening so I could experience the songs for the first time in a live setting.

For these shows The Unthanks are a more streamlined setup which serves the songs best – Becky, Rachel & Adrian McNally on piano, Niopha Keegan on strings, Chris Price on bass and water effects plus newbie Faye MacCalman on clarinet and sax. The backing to Rachel & Becky’s vocals are at times sparse and atmospheric but also complex and rising with the words.

The songs are often top n tailed with the disembodied voice of Gabrielle Drake, speaking her mother’s words which add a haunting pathos to the evening and the material. The songs themselves often deal with the darker side of existence but that doesn’t mean it is a morose or depressing listen. Ok it’s ain’t no disco but there is hope and sunshine In many of the thoughts expressed – “Never pine for the old love / go out and find the new” , ‘Dream Your Dream’” which is arranged like a valedictory torch song and ‘Poor Mum’ which is a response to Nick Drake’s ‘Poor Boy’ lamenting the lost dreams or chances of her life. ‘Soft Shelled Crabs’ muses on the brittleness of some when weathering life’s storms but with a sparklingly witty lyric.

The stage is simply dressed with wicker armchairs, standard lamps and chintzy d├ęcor, two cloth screens used to display images of Molly, mostly in stark black and white echoing all the images of Nick Drake ever seen but when they burst into colour during main set closer ‘Road To The Stars’ we appreciate this wasn’t a life lived in monochrome. The band return for Becky to deliver a stunningly sultry and wistfully mystical version of Nick’s ‘River Man’ – which stretches like a long lazy riverboat.

It takes confidence to play all new songs and The Unthanks have faith that their audience are grown up enough to go with them on the journey. Through the Unthanks presentation of her work we come to know Molly Drake and appreciate her art – this moving, uplifting and perfectly marvellous show is a great tribute to her and the musical beauty of The Unthanks. Long may their varied diversions continue.

You can get a copy of Diversions Vol.4: The Songs & Words Of Molly Drake & it's companion EP direct from the band before it’s release at the end of May.

Or alternatively, get a ticket, go see this for yourselves and join the heaving throng at the merch table.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Nirvana - Sheep LP

So in an alternate 1991 – probably visited at some point by Marty McFly in a DeLorean – Nirvana released their second album for the SubPop label – ‘Sheep’. Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic & Chad Channing select Butch Vig to produce the majority of the release which garners positive reviews in the music weeklies. Due to SubPop’s ongoing distribution and marketing problems, it barely equals the 40,000 sales of ‘Bleach’. Channing quit the band with the remaining members attempting to recruit ex Scream tubthumper Dave Grohl but losing him to Pearl Jam……

Back in our timeline – April 1990 at Smart Studios, Madison, Wisconsin, Nirvana recorded 8 songs for their proposed second album on the SubPop label but these tracks would be used by the band to score a new deal with a major label. Naturally once Channing was replaced with Grohl, the material was re-recorded although the arrangements and lyrics often remained the same. With the addition of other tracks from the period this bootleg album attempts to give a taste of what was lost. All of the tracks are now officially available – scattered across the CDs and box sets – but this track-list is seemingly based on scrawl in Cobain’s posthumously published journals.

The versions here aren’t necessarily “worse” or “better” than what ended up as Nevermind – the whole feel is punkier and looser, it’s more the sound of a band in a room than the airless final NM mix. The performance of Polly actually ended up being used on the finished album as there is real magic at work on that recording. However what is clear is Chad Channing’s limitations as a drummer fail to make the songs really punch through like Grohl does. He often gets the beat but not the feeling, the attack is missing, it’s not just Grohl’s power but his dynamics.

Despite that, ‘Imodium’, or ‘Breed’ as it would become, is a powerful sound – a roaring snarling bugger from the off. Sliver lacks the urgency of the later live versions with Reading 1992 being a particular favourite of mine with Kurt veering from goofing off to primal screaming. You often hear bands talk about their “sound” not being right until they were all in a room together, that magic extra member. Well that in evidence here but also the “loud-quiet-loud” Pixies trick is less in evidence too.

There is a punk 101 conventionality to how ‘In Bloom’ is here as that orgasmic rush is faked. It’s still puzzling how ‘Sappy’ never made it onto a Nirvana release while they were active, only as a hidden track on an AIDS benefit compilation. It’s likely that their cover of the Velvet’s ‘Here She Comes Now’ would probably never have feature on the 2nd SubPop album but its a great version with Kurt doing a spot on Reed drawl. I just find this stuff a fascinating alternate view. Artists hate studio bootlegs or even reissues because it lays their sketches bare (REM voiced such concerns over the ‘Out Of Time’ demo CD) as well as prevents them deciding how their work should be heard. For us obsessive or devoted nutjobs its like seeing a 1st go at the Mona Lisa or a rough cut of ‘Citizen Kane’ – it adds to not subtracts the magic therein.

As I said, all these tracks are available legally but if you do happen to see this particular release floating at a record fair or market near you then I’d recommend it. Well mastered and mixed, ace cover art and the sort of thing you’d expect a record label would have done themselves by now. Lazy bastards.

In that alternate 2017 maybe Krist is working for the UN, Dave is playing with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and Kurt a self published poet and outsider artist. The grass is greener over here

Oh well, whatever, nevermind.

Side 1:
Imodium (Breed)
Been A Son

Side 2:
In Bloom
Pay To Play (aka Stay Away)
Here She Comes Now

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Paul McCartney ; 'Flowers In The Dirt' Deluxe Edition

AKA I Saw You Standing There With A Bootleg In Your Hand.

Beatle Paul had a variable 1980's - kicking off with the drugs bust and the death of his teenage best friend \ nemesis \ rival, John within the first 12 months, followed by a technical nightmare live appearance at Live Aid, Ebony & Ivory, Give My Regards To Broad Street, the 'Press To Play album, losing out owning The Beatles catalogue to Michael Jackson, the theme song for 'Spies Like Us' and - no I'm not going to say "The Frog Song" because a) it's called 'We All Stand Together' and b) it's a fucking brilliant children's song.

On the other hand - a memorable video for 'Pipes Of Peace', 'Coming Up' with its fab multi-Paul promo, Take It Away, Wanderlust, No More Lonely Nights, the inventive McCartney II album, Here Today, Choba B CCCP and a triumphant live return at the end of the decade off the back of one of his most successful and critically acclaimed albums in years - 1989's 'Flowers In The Dirt'. Paul's reissue projects slightly haphazard sequencing lands there this month with a 2 CD, 2LP and a 3CD & 1 DVD Deluxe Edition with a lavish book stuffed with photos, lyrics and other ephemera. The central feature of all the various editions are the demos and sessions recorded with Elvis Costello in 1987 with the songs ending up on the album, Elvis' own records or remaining unreleased....until now.

Well not quite.

For in 1998, the prolific bootleg label Vigotone who published Beatles and solo Fabs titles a-plenty dropped 'The McCartney McManus Collaboration. a single CD featuring 8 out of 9 demos from that initial 1987 session plus various Paul and Beatle related chunks live and on disc. This includes a rare appearance of the pair onstage performing 'Mistress & Maid', another co-penned song that featured on 'Off The Ground' alongside a fun romp through 'One After 909'. There is some piracy with officially released material making up the numbers but it all helps to give a well rounded picture to their short working time together and Declan's fondness for Paul's 60's band.

Listening to the official release of the full eight 1987 demos next to the bootleg there is no discernible difference, maybe a little tweaking in volume but it's a work in progress guide with all the flaws of what was meant to be a private record. 'Twenty Fine Fingers' works so much better here as an acoustic little bit of rock n roll fluff that you wish Macca had just left as is. 'Tommy's Coming Home's tale of a widowed fresh wartime bride is very Elvis and I've always liked that 'a broker awoke her from a fitful slumber' lyric.

A large section of the interviews for the project discuss how EC and PM wrote together and how they found the experience which is fascinating stuff. Macca often says that critics latched on to a remark he made about how their writing sessions felt like when he wrote with Lennon which made him uncomfortable but it's clear that Elvis wasn't afraid to push at his hero when he felt it was needed.
The handwritten lyrics & doodles in the accompanying book seem to suggest that the songs were perhaps more or less solo written with some small alterations. A letter from 'Elvis The C' to 'Mr Ramone' underlines the former's keenness to continue their collaboration and there is some great detail on how they came to collaborate and how it panned out.

The demo for 'You Want Her Too' has far more bite and bile than the version that ended up on the finished record with Elvis audibly spitting the line 'So why don't you come right out and say it, stupid?' like a snarky Scouse scally. 'That Day Is Done' retains some of that real Aretha tinge that got lost in the production. It is suggested, although not here, that Elvis and Macca clashed over the album's sound with Paul not sharing Costello's vision of a more stripped back approach. Slightly ironic as both of Elvis' albums around this time 'Spike' & 'Mighty Like A Rose' are often criticised for being too 'busy' production wise. Elvis perhaps got the song to sound his way when he recorded it with The Fairfield Four vocal group for their 1997 'I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray' album

One last Elvis mention and then I'll talk about Paul McCartney in this review of a Paul McCartney release. I have never liked 'Playboy To A Man' which eventually surfaced on 1991's 'Mighty Like A Rose'. Costello's vocal is shrill and at times painful and the demo bears out that it's clearly more suited to the Little Richard yelps and scream of the artist once known as Paul Ramon.

Also here are demos of 'Shallow Grave' , the aforementioned Mistress & Maid and 'I Don't Want To Confess' although irritatingly, along with the 1988 sessions with his band alongside Elvis these are only included on the deluxe set and that controversial download only section of the set. All of that would easily fit on a single CD giving the hardcore as well as casual fan a real insight into the making of the album. As it is unless you go all in on this release you don't get the full picture.

The controversy about the b-sides and other previously released mixes being download only (and that bloody cassette) gets in the way of the main issue - who is this for? The devoted may buy it whatever, it looks nice on the shelf next to the rest but they are really getting very little bang for their buck. The casual fan may not have heard the bootlegged demos and may be nonplussed by the slightly low fi quality.
McCartney has mused that it would be interesting if The Beatles session tapes were released in heir entirety so we could hear how those songs came together - wars and all. Yet his own solo output appears to have an eye on creating a blemish free photo-shopped and overly expensive image.

The book that comes with the set has exclusive photos by the lovely Linda that have an intimacy, access and skill that few others could hope to achieve but like the music section there is a lot of wasted blank space. Macca's peace and love ethos doesn't seem to extend to the world's tree population. Yes, I'm sure it's printed on the best recycled paper but I feel the music takes a back seat here.

As an album, Flowers In The Dirt, has a similar feel to another of that year by a fellow 60's survivor, Bob Dylan's 'Oh Mercy' in that it's someone who has been leaning on old familiar ways for too long and a younger artist gives them a kick up the arse. That might be simplistic but if only for the suggestion that Paul dig out his Hofner bass from the MPL vaults, take him back to the beginning of his song-writing then giving him a fresh outlook, the album is a success. Aside from the songs and singles already mentioned - 'Distractions' is the effortlessly wistful chugging ballad with artful arrangements that Paul excels at. 'Rough Ride' tries too hard with it's funky slap bass, electronic drums and whooping to sound down with the Madchester lot. And the album should have finished with the appropriate 'That Day Is Done', the remaining two (or three) songs feel superfluous.

The deluxe version of FITD is currently £135 quid from the Tax Dodgers which for 3 barely half full CDs, a DVD of home movies, mp3 download and a coffee table book is quite steep. In comparison the deluxe version of Nick Cave's career retrospective with similar music, DVD and book count is more than half that amount (or a third if you got in quick). OK it's Paul bloody McCartney and not the Aussie goth king but still.

Before I heard the deluxe version, just on the contents listing, I would have recommend you go with the 2CD edition and I still do.  You get the main meat of the set but you deserve more and it's not worth the upgrade. Box sets are moving more towards catering to the uberfan who wants all their pudding at once until they are sick. This just feels old hat - it even has a hidden track on the CD for all you 90's kids - and if this isn't aimed at me (a fan of both PM & EC) then, I ask once more, who is it for?