EXCLUSIVE WORLDWIDE FIRST REVIEW OF
THE U.K. SUBS' BRAND NEW STUDIO ALBUM
(Captain Oi Records - AHOY HBCD 315)
Released 6th February 2013
Review by Mark Chadderton
SUBLIME SUBS SERVE SHOCK AND AWE WITH 24
How does this band do it?
Finishing their LP-alphabetically named musical odyssey from A to Z as strongly as they started it, the U.K. Subs’ 24th official album, suitably entitled ‘XXIV’ is a blisteringly brilliant collection of new Subs classics.
Those who thought that ‘Work In Progress’, their last studio album, was up there with the Subs’ finest, will be delighted to hear that this follow up album release is even better!
Charlie, Jet, Alvin and Jamie have really got something special when it comes to musical chemistry. Their live shows are always superb, but it is their studio alchemy that is really starting to shine through and catch your breath as 'XXIV' serves us up some surprising gems with its varied treasure-chest of glittering songs.
And they’ve given us a double album!
The band’s first studio double 35 years down the line…
Not only that but they’ve gone and recorded one half of it acoustically.
Fortune favours the brave they say and there could be many out there who would shudder at the thought of the Subs turning acoustic. It will certainly shock a few.
Just let those doubters listen to it though.
Because the real shock will dawn on them when they realise just how fabulous it is.
So the acoustic side is a real radical departure for the Subs and will surely 'challenge' their hardcore fan base? However, the band are all keen to move their musical output forward and in many ways 'break the mould', with Charlie having been keen to stress that the Subs are in a ‘born again’ frame of mind.
There are so many highlights from the 26 tracks on offer here that it is difficult to pick out my particular favourites so I will go through each individual track later on in this review.
The first side is the ‘electric side’ comprising 14 new Subs tracks with the writing credits shared well between all four members, showing the strength of collective creativity this band now has. The 12 songs on the ‘acoustic side’ are all new Subs songs bar two cover versions, which – again – is great to see. The band are on such strong form writing wise that any cover version would have had to be really very good to be included here, and that proves the case as we shall see.
So before we get onto the aural delights of ‘XXIV’, a quick few words for the fabulous final artwork that accompanies this release. The true story of the lengthy trials and tribulations, heartache, heartbreak and emotional roller-coaster concerning the artwork for AHOY 315, for which the wider world is perhaps not yet quite prepared, will hopefully one day be told here on T&M, but suffice to say that Daryl Smith of Chase The Ace Design has really come up trumps with 'XXIV'. The old style soviet poster design certainly reflects some of the political commentary within the lyrics on 'XXIV' and I really love the colour scheme and lay-out – brilliant stuff!
The acoustic side is the real revelation to me, as, although some of the band may view it as a bit of fun, it is, in fact, seriously good!
But don’t get me wrong – both the electric and acoustic sets deliver delights in bucket loads of catchy riffs, quality chorus’ and sing-along superb songwriting. It's a real Subs-smörgåsbord of tasty treats, so without further ado, let's get our teeth into each individual track...
Above: Artwork for the promo CD - click to enlarge
Special thanks to Mark Brennan for permission to use.
1. Implosion 77
Those who thought that the stunning opening track to ‘Work In Progress’, ‘Creation’ was the best kick-off to a Subs album in years now have another candidate to consider for that crown!
The slow lo pass filter fade-in is brutally scorched into orbit by Jamie’s powerhouse drumming as the track explodes into life with some gutsy and melodic guitar from Jet leading into Charlie’s manic distorted crazy-headed lyrical tirade emanating from ‘Psycho central’. The pleading slower no-distortion chorus draws you in before there is a brief, quiet musical interlude with whispering voices feeding off the interruption declaring that "psycho central is in your head"… before once more the final savage music takes hold, complete with violins. With its lyrical allusion to a mind collapsing in on itself – this track explodes out of your speakers and is incredibly catchy and scarily brilliant stuff.
2. Coalition Government Blues
Capturing the political zeitgeist to perfection, this would make a singularly stunning single. Based on a slow burning blues riff and heralded by an opening blast from Charlie’s harmonica, the only thing missing from the previous ‘Work In Progress’ album, this red-hot-of-the-times-track will have you singing the chorus for the next couple of years, whilst the ConDems keep “enriching the city” and “shaking down the poor”. Biting barbed political points ring so true throughout, and especially with the opening salvo of “They got a public school cabinet, MPs who have never worked, Liberals who talk like Tories and Clegg who likes his perks”. This truly is up there with the Subs’ best political songs – feeling as current as the words to ‘Warhead’ did over 30 years ago when we were “stuck in the middle of the Yankies and the Russians”! Brilliantly boiling down the main reasons for our current social and political ‘blues’ with the couplet, “Siding with the bankers, and Murdoch’s power lust…” is indeed a new lyrical masterstroke! Alvin’s best lyric yet!
The Subs are at their frenzied punk best here as the lyrics and music ferociously crash relentlessly forwards to its end with exceptional… err… speed!
A nice comment lyrically on how technology and time races by, and marvellously mirrored by the manic music, Charlie’s final thought is to “…live your life… just live your life…” as humanity races into the future re-inventing itself. This is a song that incessantly creeps up on your senses with its gnawing guitar work and brutal drumming. Its simple repeated lyrical proclamation on humanity that "We need speed" as the song’s chorus hammers home to Jamie’s crescendo of crashing cymbals, works to perfection.
So what does the band do on the next track? Go faster and more manic of course! Just as the lyrics to ‘Speed’ marry wonderfully well to its title and tempo, so does this savage little number. Upping the tempo even further, these two slices of fevered instrumentation gel superbly well as back-to-back tracks, which, once more, further highlight the choice of the songs' running order chosen by Charlie and the band to be spot-on. More distorted singing from Mr Harper certainly gives added… errr... bite to this “Rabid, rabid dog” of a song! The track opens with the sound of a beer can being opened before leaving you “…with a poison infection…” A nasty dirty sounding spiky punk rock track with another snarling chorus barked out. Subs-sational!
There’s some great guitar work on this stomper of a mid-tempo track as the wah-wah opens a song in which Charlie utilises that old phrase “I don’t give a Monkeys” to great effect on a chorus underpinned with some fine backing vocal harmonies. A lyrical sideswipe at those who ignore the writing on the wall as well as other social ills, we also hear a lovely guitar solo toward the final end chorus’ from Jet, which is a real highlight.
6. Black Power Salute
The contribution of Alvin’s ever-improving lyrics to this Subs album are one of many high points that ‘XXIV’ contains, and this song is certainly up there with the very best. Taking its lyrical cue from the African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos giving their famous salute after they won the 200 metre gold and bronze medals respectively at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. The event was one of the most overtly political statements in the history of the modern Olympic Games. Smith later stated in his autobiography that the salute was not a Black Power salute, but in fact a human rights salute. On the medals podium, Smith and Carlos both wore ‘Olympic Project for Human Rights’ badges, receiving their medals shoeless, but wearing black socks, to represent black poverty. Smith wore a black scarf around his neck to represent black pride and Carlos had his tracksuit top unzipped to show solidarity with all blue collar workers in the U.S. also wearing a necklace of beads which he described "were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage…”
So does Alvin do this powerful political event in human history justice in song? Too right he does! This track is the real deal; Alvin’s vocals are pitched to perfection against a barn-stormer of a track. Brilliant lyrics, brilliantly powerful music, immediately memorable chorus (“Took a black power salute, to signify the truth”) and then another stroke of production genius is heard as a recording of a famous speech by the black person’s rights advocate and campaigner Malcolm X intermingles with the track’s thumping music in which he emotively speaks out that “...we declare our right on this earth, to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.”
7. Las Vegas Wedding
Now this is a real fun feelgood track with a chiming guitar motif throughout driving it on as Charlie regales us with a story of a fantasy good time wedding... From flying into Las Vegas, the pre-nuptial drinking session in a "sleazy hotel" before we get to the sing-a-long chorus of "Limos and wedding bells, champagne and party girls, for my Las Vegas Wedding!"
Some traditional chugging-Subs guitar work, rumbling bass and driving drums lead into a fab guitar solo complete with handclaps (I'm a sucker for ANY track that has hand-clapping on it!)
This sunny song does nothing but make you smile and feel happy that the Subs are still around 35 years on and that they keep coming up with tracks like this.
8. Stare At The Sun
Another Alvin penned and sung song which is a real grower, growling out its grim message at a medium pace, giving the listener time to dwell on Alvin's introspective lyrical insights on certain human behaviours that baffle and disturb. Post mid-song solo there is a neat break complete with ringing bell effect courtesy of Jamie's keyboard before the song builds once more to sear into your brain its message. The echo effect on the chorus works nicely too and Alvin's voice again is a revelation.
Another classic-Subs-sounding track, with low guitar riff to fade in, chugging guitar and mid-tempo. I love the bass mixed fairly high on this track and the "oooh, oooh" backing vocals that underpin the chorus work really well.
10. Workers Revolution
Another deserved lyrical pop at the "bankers and the bosses, and the politicians", and as Charlie goes onto sing "...those donkeys get away with the lions share..." Simplistic but effective as Charlie puts forward the need to find an alternative way to succeed in getting "workers rights". Another track with a catchy backing harmony that enhances the song to great effect.
11. Wreckin' Ball
Just as Jet's guitar on 'Rock N Roll Whore' on the last album took its riff-spirit from 'Chinese Rocks', so this track reminds me of a multitude of rockabilly tracks but I have yet to put my finger on which ones? It just so heavily reminds me of something rockabilly-ish that I may be doing Jet an injustice. Neverthless, aside from that it certainly is a catchy number. Great chorus, enhanced by the backing vocals and some ace Harper harmonica to compliment Jet's guitar-effect heavy playing throughout. What's not to like?
Faded in drums lure you into this slow burning track reflecting Charlie's opening words of "I just sleaze around all the day..." taking a little of this and loving a little of that, the chorus utilises that old phrase that "Detox is for quitters", again with a shouted backing vocal that rams the platitude home.
To paraphrase an old Harper song favourite by the Reverend Gary Davis, 'I got this Subs song - running round my brain...'!
13. Failed State
Described by Jamie as "the new 'I Wanna Be Your Dog'" this is a tune that satisfies your punk soul! The descending guitar riff carries the song throughout wonderfully well and I can see this becoming a real live favourite if it makes it into the Subs set? Love the single note piano plonking toward the end in homage to the Stooges' classic track mentioned above.
14. Momento Mori
A rumbling menacing bass line explodes outta the speakers to kick off this stomper of a tune with yet another gets-stuck-in-your-brain chorus that will be spinning round your head for days on end, as the Subs exude their Latin influence on us, not musically of course, but with the title which means “remember your mortality.”
Jet’s swirling guitars and Jamie’s relentless backbeat speed this religion-questioning song along toward a chaotic ending a la the intro to C.I.D, with Charlie’s sage warning that “…there is no afterlife, and you won’t walk with God, we only get one shot at life…”
Remember your mortality indeed!
1. Angel Of Eighth Avenue
Brave! The Subs' first ever acoustic album. 12 of the 14 songs on it are originals, so how ingenious to throw you off balance straight off with firstly, a cover version, and secondly, with Alvin on vocals instead of Charlie! And what a blinding choice of cover this Mott The Hoople track is. The original Mott song is much gentler and delicate, but the emotion in Alvin's voice works brilliantly with the lyrics, giving the Subs version an edge missing in the original. The musicianship sparkles also as we get a fabulous start to our journey with the Subs into previously uncharted territory. It lays down another marker to expect the unexpected.
2. Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind
More brilliance! Another Alvin penned song, which Jamie wrote the music for but again with Mr Gibbs on vocals and already this feels strange, no Charlie vocals yet on the first two acoustic offerings, but no matter as Alvin delves into the inner psyche and thoughts of a serial killer for this err.... killer ditty! To paraphrase an early lyrical line from this track, ‘this don’t seek normality.”
To offset these grim and disturbing words (“my crimes are all I have…”) the Subs again spring a startling surprise, this time with an instrumental Spanish style classical guitar lead break - finger picked by Jamie - which, quite frankly - is the most beautiful piece of music ever recorded under the name of the UK Subs! There! I've said it!
To contrast such beauty against those dark words is genius!
With a guitar distortingly stuttering into life at the beginning of this number, the lyrics take off for another thing of beauty. You'll be stunned at the charming... Yes I said charming... lyrics on this tale of a young girl – “always sweet 16”… …”looking good in [her] peddle pushers.” This touching tale is full of emotional resonance, especially in Charlie’s voice as he brilliantly captures the mood of the lyrics: “I saw you change into a woman – pupate just like a butterfly…” This and the fantastically effective backing harmony underpins a simple tale, simply told – it’s simply exceptional.
In fact, Charlie could have written my review of this song in its opening lyric:
“I know this ain’t no miracle just a joyous surprise…”
4. Sleeping Rough
Harking back to Charlie's love of Woody Guthrie and his travelling the States with a guitar on his back, sleeping under the stars and looking for work, told so brilliantly in Guthrie's autobiography ‘Bound For Glory’ this is yet another example of the band gelling superbly in the studio. Some fine clipped strumming guitar interludes bind this song together as Charlie’s ode to an open air travelling lifestyle leads “whichever way the wind blows - what have I got to lose?” The headed direction in Charlie’s modern take, in which he is sick of the concrete and confinement of four walls, the cement of towns weighing him down, is California, which is reminiscent of Guthrie’s own ‘Dust Bowl Blues’ classic song ‘Do Re Mi’ in which the folk legend sang of “Beatin' the hot old dusty way to the California line.”, where he achieved fame performing on the radio. Never mind the acoustics, this song would grace any Subs album. Period!
Charlie told me this is his 'Morris Dancing' song but don't let that confuse you. Another blast of the Harper harmonica heralds this olde-English blues ballad as the titular folk are “…coming up through your wishing well…” to “…keep the evil spirits away…” I’m not sure who’s leading this merry dance around “the maypole” but Charlie conjures up a fun song that’s another toe-tapper to (dancing) boot!
6. Stop Global War
Sometimes simplicity is best, especially when the lyrical message is the salient point of the song. And this protest song says it all so superbly. Slow strumming to start under Charlie’s vocals provide a suitably lo-fi feel to the song before the ensemble of multiple voices burst forth with the four-times-repeated chorus cry of “Stop Global War”. It’s a startling effect as the one questioning voice inevitably leads to others joining this worthy cause, reflected brilliantly in the musical composition of this track. The to-the-point question to humanity and its “war junkie” leaders that Charlie poses cuts through to the basics and heart of the matter and is all the more powerful for it when he proclaims “choose war or feed your people”.
A lovely Rock ‘N’ Roll guitar solo toward the final verse encapsulates a certain sad yet hopeful feeling and is a delight, before the final protest push of the song cleverly makes a concluding point by cutting the final two words - “Global War” – from the last chorus holler with the song suitably ending with the word “Stop!”
7. Four Strong Winds
It's a known fact that Charlie is a great admirer of Neil Young, and so the inclusion of a second cover version on this acoustic offering partly reveals that, as, although not a Young original - it was penned by Ian Tyson in the early 1960s - this 'folk classic' was covered to great effect as the closing track on Young's 1978 album 'Comes A Time'. It is to Charlie's credit that his gravelly voiced take on this song is nothing like the sweet tones of Young's version which also included strings and a female backing vocal.
8. Higher Tide
A short but sweet sea-faring tale of waiting for a “…higher tide…” to set sail and escape all the “…tinsel and glitter…” of society. Great backing vocal chanting that repeats what Charlie sings works wonderfully well, as they appear to sound like ‘Charlie’s crew’ on-board, just as eager to take to the seas and “…be home no more…” Nice harmonica interludes add some nice colour as Charlie looks ahead to “…sail away on the setting sun…”
9. The Outsider
Swirling slightly distorted acoustic strumming provides a suitably mournful musical background to Charlie singing delicately about being the outsider, “…out of society…” and being out of sight, mind and vogue, but conversely, sounding all the more positive for it. The elongated single backing voice adds an emotional depth of sentiment to a real slow burner of a song.
10. Thunders In The Rain
“Oh God Damn!” My favourite track of the 26....
Alvin’s “personal perspective on the life of Johnny Thunders”, of the New York Dolls is a staggeringly accomplished song, playful informative and insightful lyrics sung with such feeling by Mr Gibbs that even someone ‘messing with opiate realities’ would be forced to sit up and listen to this “little lesson”!
The fantastic wordplay is spearheaded by the duel-meaning chorus of “Thunders, Thunders, Thunders in the rain, Thunders, Thunders, you don’t want to live the same!” over a brightly strummed guitar. The clever line “you don’t want to live the same” could, of course, be directed toward the listener as a warning against a drug-related early death or equally, as a commentary on Thunders’ own life ethic.
Considered posthumously to be a “saint”, Alvin poignantly points out the “darker side” of this Rock ‘N’ Roll guitar icon as the abrupt stop-start sounding acoustic guitar work, culminates in some sharp high notes - reflecting and pinpointing the song's vein!
Listen to those heartfelt words of “Light and shade, a price is paid for doing the drunken two-step, don’t be dumb, he’s not the one, don’t try to emulate the burned out sun…” with him having “a monkey on his back; guitar god built to impress nothing could hold him back”. There is really so much to admire in this song, which, is not quite an anti-tribute, but is perfectly pitched for even a fanatical fan of Thunders to perhaps appreciate.
Pure theatre in a song!
I doubt anyone will come up with a better song in 2013.
11. Stormy Day
Charlie’s off on his boat again, sailing the high seas! And back again!
Lovely warm acoustic guitar with accompanying tambourine starts this superb sort-of-sea-shanty with a difference!
One of Charlie’s musical gifts is his knack of being able to arrange songs brilliantly and making them ‘come to life’, and this is demonstrated at its best on this song as he simply talks over the opening chords, introducing the song with a spoken word intro of “this song’s called ‘Stormy Day’…” giving an immediate ‘live’ feeling to the song, almost making you imagine you are there, holed up in port with the Subs-shantyman, as outside it’s “another stormy day” with you “getting drunk as an old sea dog…” via his “…old rum bottle…”
Some adept lyrical alliterative onomatopoeia such as the sea roaring, ropes rattling, sails whistling and the boat rolling give further verisimilitude to a song that won’t make you sea-sick from repeated listening!
What shall we do with the drunken sailor? Listen to him sing of course!
12. Little Black Crow
Some say seeing a single crow will lead you on a spiritual journey, and life long bird-watcher Mr Harper’s little heart-felt ditty is perhaps the most un-U.K. Subs sounding song of all-time, but it is all the better for it, fitting in perfectly on this astonishing collection of acoustic pleasure. The bird of the title sits atop of Charlie’s shoulder and then in his hand as his harmonica-infused hymn to this bird’s survival from a possible feline attack leads the singer to plead that he “just want(s) you to be flying free…”
A “cat’s dinner” of a song? Nah, it really does take off and enthuses you with some love and wonderment for nature’s ‘Corvus species’. A musically slight song maybe, but it exudes a touch that is as light as a feather!
A final nod is also needed toward the excellent production on this album by Pat Collier, who the band regard as the fifth Sub whilst in the studio. On the evidence of W and X, it's proving to be an ever-evolving musical marriage of much depth that will continue to delight us when the band, hopefully return as soon as possible, to the recording studio.
So... U.K. Subs - 'XXIV'?
This reviewer is in awe of just how great this band continues to be.
24 carat gold in musical form!
Roll on Y and Z…