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Album Reviews

Kete Bowers: Paper Ships Review

An acoustic guitar is fingerpicking a lonely, melancholic chord sequence, a low bass plays a sparse melody and a slide guitar echoes a minor scale counterpoint. The effect is unsettling and creates a mood that could be described as cheerless or gloomy.

This is the world of Kete Bowers. Do not come here expecting uplifting songs or lyrics that are comprised of meaningless froth, but do come here if you want to listen to honest songs that examine a place we all know only too well, a world made up of heartache and disappointment.

All of this is by no means a criticism, some of the best music ever made has come about when people confront their demons and examine their life path from a point they never thought they would reach.

There is art in this kind of approach, where an artist lays out their thoughts, their disappointments and their shortcomings, there is an honesty that lifts the resulting music up and makes it seem empowering more than depressing.

Think of the lineage of Nick Cave, Tim Buckley and Simon Bonney, who have also managed to turn their dark thoughts into art. Bowers has a mighty lineage behind him as he opens his heart to us all.

First track Northern Town sets the scene with some delicate guitar work and a vocal line that initially recalls Patti Smith’s Free Money, which can only be a good thing.  “I can count on the fingers of just one hand the number of times you treated me well” sings Bowers as he starts to examine his life. The slide guitar that appears places the song in alt-Country territory, but a million miles away from the more mainstream proponents of this genre.

Full Force: In Conversation with Holy Sons’ Emil Amos – Part 1

There Was a Time sounds to these ears like the perfect song to soundtrack a tracking scene in a gritty Western, there is a sense of a story being told and a cinematic feel to his songs. Strings swell the sound, but Bowers remains centre stage. I imagine him sat on a stool in a smoky bar whilst the audience looks on in rapt silence, but that may just be me.

Although the next song is called Winner, this does not mean a burst of ill advised optimism is about to reveal itself. “I used to be a winner” he tells un, before adding “I guess I lost my turn” There is an Americana about Bowers music and his voice and his Liverpool roots are not immediately apparent, but his experiences growing up in an area of decline add to his lyrical canon.

Ghosts adds an organ to Paper Ships‘ sonic palette as Bowers sings “Only old ghosts walk behind you on that road” Again I am reminded of Simon Bonney’s solo work, but when I mentioned this to Bowers, he was unaware of these records, making him a like minded soul to one of my favourite artists of all time.

A Town With No Cheer is quiet and affecting, with Bowers’ voice high in the mix, giving a feeling of having him talk directly to you in a bar room confessional. With hints of Bob Dylan, perhaps this song is closer to what people are calling Dark Folk as a genre.

A Place By The River is an album highlight, a creepy feel again makes me think that Bowers would be well suited to soundtrack work, perhaps for some mid period David Lynch. A Fine Day To Leave is more pastoral and lighter in tone musically if not lyrically.

Country Westerns -“filled with tales accepting the misgivings of life”

Northside sees Bowers look to his Liverpudlian childhood, telling us “I grew up on the North side of the river” and is lyrically evocative with images of rain soaked cobble streets and rows of houses all the same. Although he left Liverpool many years ago, the ghosts of his past “still call my name.”

You Stole My Joy is a delicate country song that brings Paper Ships to a close on a suitably down beat note. Not once has this album let its vision or quality slip. Paper Ships has navigated the terrain of Bower’s experiences and has documented these in an honest, open and sincere way.

It is a sad fact that a lot of good, credible music like this goes under the radar these days, while more lightweight, less intended music earns fortunes for the teams involved in its successful marketing. But then again, musicians like Bowers have always been denied a mainstream path, choosing the road that leads to heartfelt, genuine songs rather than commercial gain.

The mainstreams loss is our gain here, leaving us able to claim Bowers as one of our own.

To listen to Paper Ships is to be involved in another person’s life journey in the same way we do when we read a good book and become immersed in the lives of the main characters. With the lockdown again about to bite, maybe Paper Ships is the best journey we can currently take.

Kete Bowers’ Paper Ships can be bought at Bandcamp here.

Categories
Lost Albums

Crime and the City Solution’s Paradise Discotheque

Crime and the City Solution’s Paradise Discotheque is an album that should be in everybody’s top ten, Sun 13’s Banjo looks at why success never came for this lost gem.

Crime and the City Solution are a band who seem trapped in a ‘should have been’ situation.

They should have been more successful, their albums should have been selling in huge quantities and they should have been a band that everyone has heard of and loves.

But fate can be cruel and quality is sadly no guarantee of success.

What we are dealing with here is not so much a lost album, as a lost band.

Why this should be the case is difficult to determine. I am put in mind of a comment made by Al Jourgensen when he was asked why he thought Ministry had suddenly become famous and successful back in the 90s, after many years at the fringes.

His reply was along the lines of there being decision made by either fate, record company execs or both, whereby a finger was pointed at a particular underground band, a decision was made that ‘they’ll do’ and levers were pulled, decisions were made and said band were then rocketed to stardom and stadiums.

The flip side of this coin however, is that for the bands who do not have this finger pointed at them, success in any meaningful, financially supportive way is often disallowed.

Such was the fate of Crime and the City Solution, who were denied success at anything other than a cursory level.

This does not mean that the music they made has any less value than that of their more successful peers. On the contrary, few bands that have ever existed made music as beautiful and haunting as Crime and the City Solution.

Their story starts back in Australia in the maelstrom of 1977, when Simon Bonney put the band together in Sydney. There must have been something in the Australian air at the time, as this was when Nick Cave formed The Boys Next Door (later to become The Birthday Party) and Rowland S Howard was involved with The Young Charlatans. Kindred spirits bringing bands into being at the same time.

In 1978, Bonney moved the band to Melbourne where, with the distance between them removed, all three bands became friends to some degree.

The initial lineup lasted only a couple of years before they fell apart, leaving no records behind to tell their story.

Fast forward to 1985. The Birthday Party had fallen apart, as they were always bound to do, and the band’s members were scattered to the winds. Nick Cave, as we know, went on to huge critical and commercial acclaim with a career that still, magnificently, shows no sign of tailing off.

But what of their stellar guitarist, the whirlwind of sonic turbulence that was Rowland S Howard?

Well, Simon Bonney travelled to London and reformed Crime and the City Solution, with Howard at its heart, the guitarist perhaps seeing Simon Bonney as a natural successor to his former partner Nick Cave.

For a while, Birthday Party drummer/guitarist Mick Harvey played with both Crime and the Bad Seeds, also taking on management duties for both bands.

As you may expect from all this, there are common threads joining these bands together, in terms of sound, lyrical slant and attitude. But, while eclipsed by the success of Nick Cave, Crime and the City Solution can lay claim to an output the equal of anything their more famous countryman has produced. But, tragically, one that has had less coverage and reach.

Crime and the City Solution have produced a body of work without flaw, including such gems as the haunting Six Bells Chime, All Must Be Love and Shine.

The cliché is that a band’s debut album is often their best, but Crime grew in stature with each release, reaching a pinnacle on what was to be their last album for 13 years, before reforming again in 2013.

On Crime’s fourth album, everything fell into place perfectly.

Paradise Discotheque starts with single I Have The Gun, an almost jaunty number with country leanings that may give the listener a false sense of normality. The country theme was further explored in Simon Bonney‘s first solo album Forever, itself an incredible, 24-carat gold record more than worthy of its own lost albums feature.

By track two we are into something denser and more intense. The Sly Persuaders is a bluesy tale of corruption and greed, or perhaps even capitalism itself.

Bonney’s words were often very literate, coming across more as a story than actual lyrics and again it is easy to see a connection to the work of Nick Cave. The Sly Persuaders can be seen as a short story, with its cast of shadowy characters and easily-persuaded town residents.

Musically, the importance of Bonney‘s wife Bronwyn comes to the fore on this album. Her input helps lift Crime above the masses, often adding a melancholy counterpoint to proceedings. She also shares song writing with her husband and between them they make a formidable team.

Next track The Dolphins and the Sharks is perhaps Crime and the City Solution‘s high watermark. An unabashed love song, The Dolphins and the Sharks is beautiful and, again, literary. The object of the song’s affection is a beacon that shines out in grim conditions; ‘Waking from the slums of the night, you kick your toes out and touch the light, you are a beautiful and lazy sight.’

Simon and Bronwyn Bonney‘s ability to set a scene with just a few words is again in evidence as the opening lines show: ‘The urban heat is stifling, the kettle’s on the boil. The dishes are dirty and the milk’s about to spoil. The sounds in my head crowd the hours, you brush across me like a summer shower. It ain’t loud now‘ all delivered in a slow drawl.

Musically, The Dolphins and the Sharks is hauntingly beautiful. If you are reading this and by any chance are unaware of Crime and the City Solution, listen to this song and marvel at how uplifting and affecting music can be. The Dolphins and the Sharks is really as good as music gets.

From here, most bands and most albums could be forgiven for lurching into a trough, after so magnificent a peak. But Paradise Discotheque is not most albums. The Sun Before The Darkness features a cyclic, melancholic guitar riff that works its way into your subconscious and stays there.

Live, the guitar in this song was more to the fore, but here in the album version it is buried in the mix adding atmospherics and letting the strings take over and guide the song.

Lyrically, we find ourselves in a world where the deeds of man have stopped the sun from rising, ‘Since the sun has refused to rise, to wake is an unwelcome surprise‘.

Again, there is a story here that conjures images with an efficiency of words: ‘Daybreak, strange shapes on the horizon obscure the sun.’

The only cover track on the album is a version of the traditional Australian song, Motherless Child. Crime and the City Solution‘s version here is a claustrophobic and dense take on this tale of a rootless person travelling the world.

Ironically, this is pretty much what happened to the Bonneys after Crime and the City Solution split up, with  work and a restless spirit taking them to live in places such as Papua New Guinea, Bangladesh and The Marshall Islands, before settling in their current home of Thailand.

With side one (remember sides?) out of the way, Crime and the City Solution settle down into the main part of Paradise Discotheque, an incredible, ambitious and brave four-part epic called The Last Dictator.

The songs follow an epic tale of ambition and power seeking, with references to historical and biblical stories. The scale of the songs and the ambition needed to bring them to life is staggering.

The only other record I can think of that matches the scope and aspirations of The Last Dictator is The Hazards of Love by The Decemberists, which has even been performed as a play.

There is something about The Last Dictator Parts 1 – 4 which would also suit being performed in this manner and it is easy to imagine it cast as an epic film, such is its depth and density of language.

Simon and Bronwyn Bonney were clearly working at a level that is quite simply beyond the reach of most lyricists. As good as these songs are, it is perhaps a shame that The Last Dictator didn’t take the form of a novel; the themes and treatments are utterly compelling and work on many narrative levels.

As to the question of why this magnificent album wasn’t more widely received, I really have no answer. When I was younger and in a band myself, I believed that the cream would always rise to the top and all a band had to do to become successful was to produce great records and fantastic music.

Time has robbed me of this illusion and I realise that success is more to do with chance, payola and sheer dumb luck.

The fact that Crime and the City Solution were deprived of these does not make this record any less valuable, any less powerful or any less wonderful.

Seek it out, play it, fall in love with the marvel that is Paradise Discotheque and marvel at the unfairness of the world.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/album/64TMVdqoLQvuEoGnA5t8jC