Album Review: Dominic Valvona




Larry “Ratso” Sloman ‘Stubborn Heart’

(Lucky Number) 5th April 2019


Schmoozing with the very best of them over the decades, both as a receptacle and fountain of inspiration in his own right, author-lyricist Larry “Ratso” Sloman’s knockabout career trajectory has taken as many blows as successes. Lifted straight from Rock’s Back Pages, Sloman, who resembles Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan as rumpled gumshoes with a penchant for filing pathos in the style of gonzo pulp, vividly documented the counter-cultural heroes of the 1960s and 70s for a litany of titles, including, when it mattered, Rolling Stone.

Most notably encapsulating the whirlwind adulation and reverence of Dylan-on-tour, Sloman’s self-explanatory entitled On The Road With Bob Dylan account of the troubadour’s 1975 Rolling Thunder tour remains both a template and benchmark in music writing. In that same sphere of influence, rubbing shoulders with luminaries such as the already mentioned Cohen but also Lou Reed and Joan Baez (who anointed the scruffy-attired writer with that Midnight Cowboy “Ratso” nickname), Sloman collaborated with a number of doyens, writing lyrics for John Cale and Rick Derringer.

A biography specialist-investigator though, he’s also both principally and co-written books on the baby-boomer generation antagonist and revolutionary figure Abbie Hoffman (Steel The Dream), the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ frontman Anthony Kiedis (Scar Tissue), and with magic historian William Kalush, a controversial propound account of the life-and-death of Houdini (The Secret Life Of Houdini). With his star in ascendance this year – that co-authored escapologist investigation is heading to the big screen alongside a Martin Scorsese directed documentary of the fabled Days Of Thunder – Sloman has decided, in his seventies, to finally take the plunge and release his debut long player, Stubborn Heart.

Imbued by those past and present relationships and attachments he sagacious grizzled narrator borrows Dylan and Cohen’s (well at least one of them won’t be using it anymore) signature burr and half-spoken wisdom; using it well to unburden himself; opening up that old, stubborn heart of his to the overriding power of love…or something along those lines. Though the tropes are well worn, Sloman’s patter still rings true, the disheveled bon vivant parading his wisdom in a semi-confessional, semi-elder statesman style of liberation.





Every song on this album has a story, a certain providence, with the first third of this songbook featuring a cast of more contemporary soul mates. The relaxed smoky lounge smooching opener ‘I Want Everything’, which features the ariel alluring ache of the Lebanese polymath and leading progenitor of Middle Eastern electronica (as a founder of the Soapkills duo) Yasmine Hamdan, indolently journeys from youthful “world domination” exuberance and hubris to the self-realization in maturity “that love IS the drug”, and that “sacrifices must be made.” The elegantly romantic, venerable-tinged, “star-crossed” ‘Our Lady Of Light’ features Nick Cave, in The Boatman’s Call era fine fettle, dueting with Sloman on a yearning song of hypnotic worship, chained empirically to the power of their muse, whilst the sun-dappled E Street Band lilted ‘Caribbean Sunset’ features the wafting smoky-jazz blues saxophone of Paul Shapiro and dueted soul of the singer/songwriter and violinist Imani Coppola. Though my copy didn’t credit anyone on the album’s country Stones waning finale to a false deity, ‘Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands’, this Western mythological Gram Parson’s like gospel-country hymn features (more or less) a revolving chorus of guest vocalists.

Talking of myth and its making, the often somber remorseful and venerable ‘Dying On The Vine’ was originally conceived in a hotel room off Sunset Boulevard; the result of trading lines with Tom Waits and Chuck E. Weiss we’re told. The angelic swoon of Cohen co-writer, producer and back-up singer Sharon Robinson can be heard on this sanctified plaint; that swoon going a long way in creating the right mood of grizzled exoneration at that last chance saloon, Robinson’s support came in exchange for Sloman writing the preface to On Tour With Leonard Cohen.

Night creeper Dr. John like allusions with the “children of the night” recording from a phooey Dracula movies, Muscle Shoals Stones and bowing saxophone elegy follow as Sloman offers a myriad of sage-y metaphors and analogy: Some offer consolation, others, redemption.

Wearing it well, Sloman embodies the sagacious storytelling and voice of his Boomer generation peers with relish. Like a character from his own back pages, the bon vivant of cocktail and yacht lounge blues and candid romantic troubadour rock proves it’s never too late to add another proverbial string to, an already stretched, bow. This Stubborn Heart is one classy affair.





Words: Dominic Valvona

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ALBUM REVIEW
WORDS: DOMINIC VALVONA

Vukovar   ‘Puritan’
The Brutalist House,  25th October 2017





Ah, the times in which we find ourselves. Portrayed in a maelstrom of uncertainty, anxiety and utter chaos by the collective forces of the established press and social media, and by reactionaries on all sides of the political divide: from those who envision a Marxist takeover to those losing their shit over fascistic dystopias. Fear and (self) loathing in a post-postmodernist world, all the constructs and old arguments previously, we believed, answered as democracy, and by its extension capitalism, seemed to have won out, are once more dragged to the surface.

No side in the political struggle, left or right and its various iterations however seem capable or ready to handle the personality cult leaderships (of which Corbyn’s own party could be accused) of Trump, Putin, Xi Jinping, and of course ‘supreme leader’ Kim Jong-un. They also seem almost powerless to legislate and reign-in the domineering forces of Silicon Valley, which continues, in the name of so-called progress, to manipulate and filter much of the content and media we see and hear; taking over from traditional broadcasting whilst circumnavigating any restrictions and collecting our data for their own nebulous (daresay nefarious) intentions – well perhaps it isn’t that much of a secret, we know that Facebook et al are serious about entering the political fray in one way or another, and their tweaking of the algorithms in future will certainly benefit their own held ideals and leanings.

Yet despite the cataclysmic augers and the visions of the four horsemen appearing on the horizon, history proves that the world keeps spinning through all the bullshit regardless. And so proving that age old adage that history not only keeps on turning but often repeats itself (in a manner) the malcontent romantics Vukovar remind us through their chosen moniker that only a mere twenty odd years before in the infamous Croatian city of the same name, on the EU’s own doorstep, 300 poor souls, mostly Muslims, were rounded up and barbarically executed by Serb paramilitaries and the Yugoslav Peoples Army in what remains one of the worst committed atrocities of its kind since WWII. This was of course during the Balkans implosion of the nineties that followed the defrosting of the Cold War, as the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Empire crumbled. A decade long war that eventually redrew the map of the region, demarcating for the most part, ethnic groups into their own republics and countries, with the most fought over and disputed being the NATO backed Kosovo. In a different part of the world, in the same generation, a similar genocidal persecution of a Muslim minority unfolds in Myanmar. A former darling of the West and liberals, Aung San Suu Kyi has proven to be anything but the democratic champion in the wings, having after a decades long struggle to hold office and take power away from the totalitarian military regime, turned a blind eye to the massacre of the country’s Rohingya Muslim population. Talks are ongoing, though Aung San’s constant stoicism and ‘fake news’ crowing in the face of blatant persecution doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence that the situation will improve anytime soon.

Before this review becomes an all-encompassing purview style essay of the state of affairs throughout the world and the multiple crisis we all face, I’d better stick to the catalyst of this piece and return to Vukovar.

 

Following in the tradition of their three-syllable sloganist album titles, Vukovar’s fourth LP drums home the Puritan mantra and analogies; a cleansing if you will of the status quo, a year zero, and perhaps also a return to the roots and communal deliverance of protest in music – not, I hope, the ‘puritanical’ steeple hat and buckle shoe wearing bible bashing of zealots, burning heretics at the stake, nor the bloody zeal of so many badly turned-out revolutions that end up creating just as terrible a reign of tyranny. The only fires here are the metaphorical kind; a funeral pyre of mediocrity, a bonfire of vanities, the-bland-leading-the-bland towards a conversion of raw intensity, dangerous, shamanistic performed anarchistic rock’n’roll: well I think that’s the idea.

Vukovar have their work cut out in a climate of such chaotic unreasoning, as people tend to turn towards escapism or certainty, even assurance. And so it comes as no surprise to find the creative landscape lacking in ‘danger’, new ideas, and confrontation; with much of the most fiery, interesting music coming from outside North America and Europe.

As the band’s previous album, Fornication showed, Vukovar have at least listened to many of the right bands; released at the start of the year, this amorphous, transmogrified covers style collection featured reconfigured homages to a host of iconic luminaries including David Sylvian, Coil, The Monks, The Birthday Party and Neu!. Cultish in a manner, the band’s influences and manifesto statements of propaganda intent, plus allusions to cultural regicidal and ability to shrink from publicity – even self-sabotage any signs of success or promotion – suggests a band that takes itself very seriously.

Yet even with countless references to history’s outsiders, philosophers, discontent mavericks, revolutionaries and demons throughout their previous trio of albums, and the elegiac resignation that shadows them, they waltz sublimely (for a majority of the time), rather than rage in romanticized contempt, as Olympus slowly grumbles.





I’ve stated in the past that Vukovar sound best when encouraged towards the light of melancholic pop and post-punk than when firing into a cyclone of caustic discord and noisy self-indulgence. Better when they enact Joy Division than say Throbbing Gristle; melody doesn’t necessarily mean commercial; doesn’t necessarily mean compromise, whilst industrial strength misery can grate and test the patience: in a live setting, depending on circumstance, a primal cacophony is just what’s needed; captured on record for posterity, it better be good and have some meaning beyond the atmosphere of the studio on the day it was recorded. Thankfully the band seem to have reigned-in the chaos and used it wisely and sparingly. Puritan however is closer to the debut Emperor, inasmuch as it balances the group’s dynamic forces of tortured-soul poetry and violent more aggressive tormented bursts of churning hell and occasional screaming.

Between the Gothic skulking and crystalline rays of shared 80s synth new romanticism Vukovar wander transfixed in a nightmare state of both despair and indolent antagonism; with stark lyrics more descriptively visceral than forced down the listener’s throat. Donning the vestiges of the Puritan, the front man, an amalgamation vocally of both Ian Curtis and Bernard Sumner, sets the scene (“I am a sinful man, yet an honest man”) to a backing track of slung low growled bass, Jesus and Mary Chain’s bastardize Spector drum death knells and the miasma threat of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds on the opening inflicted and gradually ascendant Nietzsche propound Übermensch.

Pounding away like the BRMC on the life and death rock’n’roll discordant Veil, a tension is first released and then carried over with sinister effect on The Leadership Is My Light: the singer channeling Trent Reznor at Lynch’s Bang Bang Bar stage and Berlin era Crime And The City Solution as he shrieks “I am nothing!” repeatedly on one of the album’s most ominous seedy doomed outpourings of daemonic grief.

Waltzing once more through a gloomy dreamscape, joined for the first of a trio of tracks that feature the daemonic siren folksy vocals of Elizabeth Menally, Once More For The Puritan is a pendulous duet bordering on esoteric shoegaze, and despite its mantra title is anything but puritanical, consulting as it sounds with spirits and hallucinogenic substances. The first of two traditional song translations, and again featuring Menally, who floats in the ether with fateful ghost like calls, the old Appalachian via even older Celtic roots Down In The Willow Garden lament continues in the haunted vein. The macabre beckons, as in a fashion, Menally and Vukovar echo the murder ballad partners Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue; our protagonist inching towards the gallows after doing away with his lover in all manner of diabolical ways, the spirit of his love cooing from a maelstrom of spiraling dread from beyond a watery grave.

The second old faithful, All The Pretty Little Horses – itself a handed-down version of the hush-a-bye lullaby – is given a bewitching enchanting treatment that suggests foreboding rather than comfort and a good night’s sleep.

A second guest spot is reserved for the Lancashire actor, writer and producer, and owner of an equally disenchanted weary ominous voice, Graham Duff, who narrates a despondent eulogy full of death throes, destruction and adages over the two-part A Final Solution. The first part of which is starker, delivered over a drone, the second part submerging his speech beneath a merger of Radiohead, The Stooges and Joy Division influences, and the repeated vocal line, “Without you I’m an empty space”.

If Vukovar were in the business of releasing singles, then the trio of tracks in the last half of the album would prove ideal. I’ve already featured the group’s precursor to Puritan, the rapturous OMD joining Echo & The Bunnyman and The The on Nero’s veranda, A Clockwork Dance – launched on bandcamp in the run-up to this latest album -, but equal contenders for the single status are the Tubeway Army-Visage-OMD(again) melding synth pop indie crawl through the wastelands The Moment Severed, and the brilliantly dark throbbing Radiohead-esque S.S.S.

 

The most complete and best produced encapsulation of Vukovar’s sound yet, balancing both their experimental raw and ritualistic live performances with melancholic post-punk, and even brooding new romanticism pop, Puritan offers a travail through the dirge and gloom of our (end) times with all its sinful and cleansing, often biblical, connotations and language. Though it also often sounds like some kind of personal tortured Nick Cave love requiem, unfolding in the midst of chaos; looking over the edge into the abyss, the heretics taking over the asylum.




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