February 24, 2019

Retro Album Review: Black Box – "Dreamland" (1990)

Released: May 1990 on RCA Records
Time since last listen: N/A (first listen)

Well, I say first listen, but the ubiquity of massive Italo-house group Black Box in the early 1990s means I've listened to five of the nine tracks on this album already. Yes, there are only nine tracks on this album, and I was already apprehensive about the familiar singles extended to boredom lengths. But the runtime clocks in at 42 minutes, so let's give it a spin.

Track 1 "Everybody Everybody"
The album opens, somewhat oddly, with its third single which only made it to number 35 in Australia, but achieved a more respectable number 16 in the UK. It's not a bad tune, with (like all the other singles bar "Ride On Time") sampled vocals from Martha Wash, who is of course uncredited. If, like me, you're a fan of the 1992 Sega Megadrive game Streets Of Rage II (a.k.a. Bare Knuckle II) and its awesome soundtrack by Yuzo Koshiro, you'll see the influence of this song on the game's track "Wave 131" – the music that plays during the opening beach scene of Stage 6.

Differences from other versions: I remember the version used in the music video started with four quick piano glissandos, but this version doesn't have them.

Track 2 "I Don't Know Anybody Else"
The second single, loved it in 1990, still love it. Nobody did house piano like these guys, eh? A phenomenal piece of work, just the right balance of elements, none of it feels weak. This is the first time I saw Katrin Quinol fronting the group, in the video for this song (and on the album cover above). (This is because we in Australia got a very weird Australia-only music video for "Ride On Time", without Katrin in it, which I actually prefer to all other versions of the video.) It got to number 6 in Australia; it deserved higher.

Differences from other versions: This version starts with some bloke counting the song in, instead of the few rapid drum beats, before the vocals start.

Track 3 "Open Your Eyes"
This was the sixth (!) single released from the album, entering the Australian top 100 in March 1992 and eventually getting to number 60. It had a video, but it was just cobbled together from old footage. The song has a synth line that obviously influenced Yuzo Koshiro and his Streets Of Rage video game music in 1991 – the Round 4 music "Keep The Groovin'" has a very similar-sounding melody.

Track 4 "Fantasy"
A cover of an Earth, Wind & Fire song from 1978, released as the album's fourth single in early 1991 and its second biggest hit in Australia, reaching number 3. Katrin wore blue contact lenses in the video. It's not a bad song, but as Smash Hits made clear, Katrin wasn't doing Black Box's vocals; Martha Wash was.

Differences from other versions: This version starts with a short piano intro, instead of that naff spoken word thing you hear in the music video.

Track 5 "Dreamland"
Two minutes of ambient keyboards serve as the title track. It ends rather abruptly to crash into that intro. "Gotta get up, gotta get up, gotta get up..."

Track 6 "Ride On Time"
Arguably Italo-house music's finest moment. Well, I think it is, anyway. An absolute barnstorming single, kept from number 1 in Australia by the bloody stupid B-52s, but it topped the charts in the UK, Ireland and Iceland and went top 10 in 13 other countries – but only peaked at number 19 in its native Italy! Fresh, exciting, different, and just a bit dark, it's still a brilliant tune that has lost none of its appeal in the last nearly-30 years. The album credits a bass player and rhythm guitar player on it; I never would've guessed. It should have opened the album – what an opening salvo that would have been!

Differences from other versions: There are notably two distinct versions of this song: the original recording with sampled vocals from Loleatta Holloway and her 1980 song "Love Sensation", and then, due to legal issues involving royalties, a second version with vocals re-recorded by Heather Small, who you may know as the singer of M-People. Because this album was released before those legal proceedings, it contains the Loleatta Holloway version.

Track 7 "Hold On"
Believe it or not this was the seventh and final single from the album, released in 1992, but it never reached the Australian top 100 so I'm not sure if it was released here. I was surprised when I heard the intro – with it's percussion-only beginning, then the bass line kicking in – it obviously influenced the aforementioned Streets Of Rage track "Keep The Groovin'". I knew that game's soundtrack was heavily influenced by hits from Technotronic and Enigma, but I never heard the Black Box influence until now.

Track 8 "Ghost Box"
An instrumental track that sounds like it could be the soundtrack for a scene in an '80s crime thriller film where a hard-bitten detective makes his way to a seedy neon-lit bar at night in the rain. It also has a sax solo, like "Open Your Eyes". I'm not sure why it's not the final track; it should be.

Track 9 "Strike It Up"
The fifth single, released in early 1991. An appealing piece of Eurodance with a rap that I quite liked; not as hard-hitting as its predecessors, but an enjoyable listen.

Differences from other versions: There are two versions that have variations in the music, but the big difference is in the rap. I was surprised to hear the rap on the album version is different! Not only is the rapper himself different, but the lyrics are as well, with only the first line of the rap staying the same. They must have updated the rap for the single version, because in my opinion that's the superior one.

...so that's Dreamland! Apart from the title track, you shouldn't be dreaming when listening to this. You should be going mental to house pianner keyboards and reminiscing about how effing ace 1990 was.

Retro Album Reviews: M.C. Hammer – "Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em" (1990)

Released: February 1990 on Capitol Records
Time since last listen: about 28 years

I spent the small hours once again listening to a rap album from 1990 that I haven't listened to since I was a kid – in fact apart from its two biggest singles "U Can't Touch This" and "Pray", I haven't listened to any of the other 11 songs on here at all since then. As with the Vanilla Ice album I never actually owned this one (until two days ago), but some kid in my sister's class at school lent it to her and I taped a copy, although I can't say I listened to it much.

Speaking of Vanilla Ice, M.C. Hammer is the rapper he was most frequently compared to, or associated with. Both of them had rap singles that blew up the charts in 1990 and both had subsequent mega- selling albums, and fast-selling too. I think they may have toured together as well, to show off their considerable dancing skillz.

But I guess that's where the similarities stop – stylistically the two rappers are quite different. Upon listening to this album, Hammer also relies on an abundance of samples. Vanilla Ice and other rappers certainly utilize this structure as well, and I'm not knocking it, because a well-placed and well-integrated sample can create a memorable song. I hadn't heard of M.C. Hammer (real name Stanley Burrell) when "U Can't Touch This" hit the Australian charts in 1990, but it turned out he'd released two albums before this and was now in his late twenties, though he hadn't made much of an impact in Australia until now.

Right, let's get into it. I'll start with the cover. Mr. Burrell certainly presents himself as a clean-cut young man, with a neat suit, gold-framed specs, three chunky gold rings and a rather nice gold watch, with a square dial. It seems this wholesome image made Hammer somewhat a figure of mockery, being 'dissed' in the wake of his success by the likes of Digital Underground (who came from the same city as him), Ice Cube, and LL Cool J, but gained support from Ice-T. I'm not sure what Vanilla Ice thought of him, but perhaps there was some rivalry there.

Now to the music. "Here Comes The Hammer" starts the album, and it's not a great opener. Perhaps its title earned it the coveted track 1 position in the running order, but there's nothing particularly noteworthy about it. It was released as a single and made the lower reaches of the Australian Top 50, but the repetitive "oh-oh"s tended to grate a bit, as does the "make it smoooooooth" parts.

Next up of course is the massive "U Can't Touch This". Smash Hits informed me it relied on sampling a song called "Superfreak", which I had never heard. As with "Ice Ice Baby", no credit for this sample was originally given (it wasn't really the done thing back then) and only once Rick James was granted co-writing credit was the lawsuit for infringement of copyright dropped. The video introduced many people to such staples as the 'running man' dance, girls in bike shorts, 'breakin' it down', and the concept of 'Hammer time', but my takeaway was the piece of advice "Either work hard or ya might as well quit", probably the song's best line. I did enjoy the song being parodied by Weird Al Yankovic two years later as well.

"Have You Seen Her" was also released as a single and is pretty naff, but has some nice harmonies. It's a slow rap ballad though, and you probably can guess how I feel about those. It's also a cover version, with Hammer dropping new lyrics on it. "Yo!! Sweetness" is notable for its very '90s double-exclamation mark in the title, but on listening to it now I noticed it contains a reference to Hammer having a mobile phone. In 1990! That's impressive, dude.

"Help The Children" samples a Marvin Gaye track and is about a social issue, but the chorus is too long for my liking, and it's repeated too often. "On Your Face" doesn't have as good a backing track as "Yo!! Sweetness" (there really need to be more songs with "Yo" in the title...I kinda miss that. I know, I need to move on).

"Dancin' Machine" reminds me of Vanilla Ice's "Dancin'" because it samples the same Jackson 5 song. It's actually a cover. "Pray" is next, coming in at track 8, the second-best song. It might even be the best, but the overweening piety of that spoken-word bit at the end kind of irks me a bit. Sound-wise though it's strong, with a well-incorporated Prince sample and I just love that bit in the video where Hammer's stooging down the street in some grimy downtown area flanked by various 'hood types – he even intervenes in a dispute between two thugs at one point. Also, I thought the chant was "That's why we pray" but it turns out they're saying "That's word we pray". The rhythm of that chant bears similarities to the title being repeated in Faith No More's "We Care A Lot", a song I first heard in early 1991, but never made that connection at the time.

More social issues arrive in "Crime Story". Unlike the Vanilla Ice album, I don't think there are many lyrics about sexual prowess on this album, probably only in the following track "She's Soft And Wet". I think Hammer was just trying to get across various issues that black people in America have to deal with. Speaking of which, "Black Is Black" follows it, and do you know the title of the James Brown track sampled here? That's right, it's "Say It Loud – I'm Black And I'm Proud".

"Let's Go Deeper" and "Work This" close the album and aren't particularly worthy of mention apart from the "Work this, work this" chants which remind me of the whispered "Work it, work it" refrain of Vanilla Ice's "Ice Is Workin' It". There's a similarity of cadence there. That scream near the end of "Work This" is pretty ace though.

All in all it's a good album, and the production is decent, but I still kinda prefer To The Extreme to it (you can throw your rotten tomatoes at me later). And I have no idea why Hammer called this album Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em. This phrase doesn't appear in any of the lyrics and I'm not sure what it even means. Maybe the man himself with the baggy pants is the only one who does, so if you're reading this Stanley Burrell (fat chance), let me know in the comments.

Get me outta here! That's word, we pray.

February 23, 2019

Retro Album Reviews: Vanilla Ice – "To The Extreme" (1990)

Released: September 1990 on SBK Records
Time since last listen: 28 years

I picked up four CDs at an op shop yesterday, and three of them were from 1990 (in pristine condition I might add – that's a genuine CD collector right there). This month of February 2019 alone I have picked up five second-hand CDs that were from 1990. It got me thinking, I haven't listened to these albums in years, decades in fact, and so I decided to write these mini-reviews to see how my opinions about them have changed since then.

Vanilla Ice's first album is up first. I spent the first 57 minutes of today listening to it for the first time in about 28 years. In early 1991 my friend Jonathan bought the album on CD and allowed me to tape a copy, and we both listened to the album a lot. Jonathan would go on to become a rap fan, listening to harder-edged stuff and gangsta rap in the years to come, but back in 1991 I preferred pop-rap stuff such as was charting at the time. As such I thoroughly enjoyed this album at the age of 12, and now at the age of 40, I can still recall a lot of it. Let's take a look at each track.

Track 1 "Ice Ice Baby"
I first heard this song in late November 1990 when it had just entered the Australian charts and this girl in my class called Monika brought the cassingle of it to school. Supposedly written in 1983, it first saw the light of day in 1989 as the B-side to Vanilla Ice's first single, "Play That Funky Music". It eventually hit number 1, only the third rap song to do so in Australia, and it did the same in the U.S. The other two, "U Can't Touch This" by M.C. Hammer and "Bust A Move" by Young M.C, only managed to reach numbers 8 and 7 respectively on the Billboard Hot 100. Anyway, I memorized every lyric of this song at the time and I haven't forgotten a word of it. I knew from reading Smash Hits that the chorus' bass riff was taken from the 1982 song "Under Pressure" by Queen and David Bowie, which I hadn't heard yet, but Vanilla Ice and his label got into some trouble due to no credit for the sample being given. It was a genius sample, giving the song its memorable hook, but it's too bad they didn't give the low-budget analogue mix a bit more polish for the album – you can hear buzz and hum, noise reduction on the top end, and the fade at the end is shoddy. Those are my only criticisms though.

Track 2 "Yo Vanilla"
This is five seconds of Ice with his voice pitch-shifted up saying "Yo Vanilla, kick it one time, boyyeeeee!" Brilliant. Smash Hits' track-by-track review gave this five stars, with the comment, "One star for each second of it!"

Track 3 "Stop That Train"
This song uses a sample from "Draw Your Brakes", a reggae track by Scotty, as its hook, and the results sound pretty good to me. You could go on about the lyrics but personally I don't care, I still like the sound of it.

Track 4 "Hooked"
To The Extreme was first released in 1989 under the title Hooked, so this is the former title track. I quite liked this song in 1991, I still do, probably because the vocals are a little bit understated here, and there's a few short samples used to good effect. I didn't have a clue what "You're hooked on that S-S-S-Y" meant all those years ago, and still have no clue now.

Track 5 "Ice Is Workin' It"
Here we see the artist born Robert Van Winkle explore new-school rap with more understated instrumentation, whispered vocals a la "Ice Ice Baby". I probably like it more now than I did 28 years ago.

Track 6 "Life Is A Fantasy"
The sultry backing track sounds like it belongs on the soundtrack of an '80s teen movie; Weird Science perhaps. Yikes! I remember when Smash Hits interviewed Vanilla Ice and asked him what his last dream was about, he responded with the first few lines of this song, to which the interviewer asked "Did you just make that up?"

Track 7 "Play That Funky Music"
This was the second single, and the version on the album has had its first and second verses changed from the original 1989 version (which had "Ice Ice Baby" on the B-side). I dunno, I kind of prefer the original version, so I don't know why he changed it. He gets a fair bit of stick for the "Steppin' so hard like a German Nazi" lyric in this new version, so maybe he should have left it as-is. Anyway, the chorus of this song is also a sample, although I didn't know this back in 1991. Probably the second-best song here.

Track 8 "Dancin'"
Eh, this song's okay. I wasn't too enthralled by it, but it's not bad or anything. However I do find that "Come on, girl!" sample irritating, then and now.

Track 9 "Go Ill"
On the vinyl release of Hooked this track is listed as "Go 111"! Someone clearly wasn't "with it" at Ichiban Records. This track is one of the better ones, a few cool samples in there, notably a James Brown one, so it scores points for that.

Track 10 "It's A Party"
The female singer blows on this one, but Ice's rapping is pretty rapid in some bits, so I like it. I think this is the only track with a "swear word" in it.

Track 11 "Juice To Get Loose Boy"
A similar high-pitched voice intro. Smash Hits only gave it two stars, saying "This nine-second ditty doesn't quite capture the same essence as "Yo Vanilla".

Track 12 "Ice Cold"
More James Brown sampling and a somewhat Asian feel on the keyboard chords, but this song isn't as good a deep cut as "Go Ill". 

Track 13 "Rosta Man"
Some might say it was a misguided move to emulate Caribbean music (isn't it 'rasta' instead of 'rosta'? I have no clue), but Vanilla Ice at least doesn't put on the phoney 'patois' seen in many a lame early '90s 'ragga' track. Not sure what's being sampled in the chorus but it's pretty nice.

Track 14 "I Love You"
It's a soppy ballad which even has a saxophone, but apparently Ice hates it and didn't want to record a slow song, but the president of his record company Charles Koppelman insisted there be a slow song on the album and gave him a ton of money to do so (a "copule million bucks" according to Ice. As the album's denouement it's a bit twee (it wasn't on Hooked at all), and its synth bass sometimes distorts on the low notes due to the limitations of the recording equipment. I guess even a couple million bucks doesn't get you the best sound quality.

Track 15 "Havin' A Roni"
A very strange conclusion to the album – just over a minute of beatboxing (I didn't know it was called beatboxing, but I'd heard it on another album from 1990 which used beatboxing to finish the album – World Power by Snap!, on a track called "Only Human"). It's nonsensical and weird, and I have no idea what a "roni" is, but it's an interesting listen nonetheless.

So there you have it. I still think this album is an enjoyable listen, even though I can hear a bit more of the audio limitations in it, but there are some interesting drum sounds, samples and of course that killer "Under Pressure" hook in there. Ice comes off as a bit boastful, but I guess that was the point of most rap, wasn't it? You gotta show off to some degree.

Yo man, let's get outta here. Werd 2 ya mutha.

November 5, 2017

Stationery: Bits And Pieces

Whoever you are, you use stationery. Some of these items we take for granted are actually genius inventions that we can't do without, and as someone who constantly had to faff about in school with correction fluid, these correction tape dispensers shown at right were the light at the end of the tunnel. Gone were the dark days of dabbing brushes in correction fluid and waiting several minutes for it to dry, and the more recent days of correction pens that frequently got blocked up. Under the tape dispensers are two scratchboard tools given to me in 2016 by Jan Lowe of the Australian Guild of Realist Artists. One is a fibreglass-filament 'brush' and the other is a sharp point, both for scratching board surfaces.

The last item in my stationery showcase is a Cyclograph, a geometric drawing toy similar to Spirograph in the results it produces. As seen here, I spent many an hour as a kid producing these geometrically-patterned circles, but my Cyclograph is over 30 years old now and there are several cracks in the plastic. It's actually quite a brilliant invention. If you see one in a second-hand shop, grab it and don't look back.

August 28, 2017

Stationery: Rulers And Stencils

I have collected dozens of rulers and stencils over the years and thought I'd share some of them with you. Some are bog-standard, others somewhat rarer. In the photo on the right you can see your typical 15cm and 30cm plastic and metal dealies, along with a couple of rolling rulers for making parallel lines and arcs, as well as that odd metal protractor-with-a-ruler-attached contraption that I was sent from Hong Kong. The small KDK rolling ruler I picked up for spare change in some el-cheapo shop in the late '90s, while the Seikoshi rolling ruler was given to me in 1989.

These rulers here are an odd bunch: the top pink one was a free gift from my internet provider OCN in 2001 when I was living in Japan. The little dog attachment shuttles up and down the ruler when you tilt it. I'm not sure what purpose it serves other than to make a little noise. Next is a Yikes! novelty bendy ruler, bought in 1995, a slide rule given away as a free gift in the late '80s, and one of those bendable rulers for drawing curves with. Can't remember what they're called.

Now, onto the stencils. The ones you see here all date from the mid-'80s to the mid-'90s. The most dirty and used ones are made by Helix and are unbreakable – many a DIY sign back then was made with these. The larger green one was part of a kids' stationery set and was more of a novelty, as was the Gothic font one. Even now in the age of computer lettering, they have their own charm.

Finally we have two map-stencils from the UK and dated 1976; I wasn't born then, but someone in England gave me 'em. The green one is something anyone who attended high school in Australia would recognize: it's a Mathaid 4, a maths template which we used in school back then. They are still being made, so I guess they're still being used in schools. As you can see, unlike my 35+ year old Helix stencils, Mathaids are not unbreakable. But if you wanted to draw parabolæ, bell curves or sine waves, look no further.

One more stationery post, then it's back to business!