Alexander O’Neal: ‘Hearsay’ and ‘Live At The Hammersmith Apollo’

 

Sorry for the crappy quality. And that's just the sound of the CD on the right.
Sorry for the crappy quality. And that’s just the sound of the CD on the right.

 

Back in the eighties and nineties Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were my personal heroes. Up there with Mark Fisher, Neil Armstrong and Juri Gagarin. To those not acquainted with these musical demigods, the two are buddies from uni who ended up in a band in Minneapolis called ‘The Time’ – essentially an outlet of Prince’s songwriting material that didn’t make it onto his own albums (he apparently doesn’t sleep much) – with Jellybean Johnson and Morris Day. After becoming independent producers, they pretty much were responsible for creating the ‘Minneapolis Sound’ (together with their tiny ex-boss) and made a gazillion of albums with some more or less talented vocalists. Imagine the Stock/Aitken/Waterman model, just with better music and artists. They could do no wrong (and mostly didn’t). Their sound was instantly recognisable though changed quite significantly throughout the decades. Just for academic purposes, compare the S.O.S. Band’s ‘Just be good to me’ with Janet Jackson’s ‘ ‘Rhythm Nation’ and The Human League’s ‘Human’:

 

Why is this in anyway relevant to this entry? Good question. I might have just got carried away a bit. Well, the point I was trying to make that in the mid eighties these guys were on the ascent to mega-oodle stardom, and on the way produced an album for local singer Alexander O’Neal. Now if you ask me, this is one of the best albums that Jam/Lewis ever made. The up-tempo numbers (Fake/Critize) were unique in both in their chord structure and production and sounded like nothing before. The ballads were engaging and not too boring, and giving it a narrative (from the beginning to the end of a party at O’Neal’s house) makes it even eligible for the seventies moniker of ‘concept album’.

You get it: I like it. It’s one of my most played CDs and it shows. It’s falling apart, there’s beer stains all over it (from numerous DJ gigs) and it’s full of scratches. But to this day, it’s unique and a bright star on Flytetime’s echelon.

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Which brings us to the other CD in this little feature. I was actually quite excited when I saw that this CD existed as I saw the chap live in 1994 with the best brother ever (BBE). This was a great night, with even the BBE shimmying around like a 17 year old. How times have changed. ‘Live at the Hammersmith Apollo’ is O’Neal’s attempt to get some extra dollars from a singular concert in London in 2005. This is a 2 CD set with 14 songs from his first three albums, with most of the ‘Hearsay’ album all present and accounted for. Once you pop the CD in the player, the first you notice is the terrible sound. I am really wondering whether they literally just took the feed of the desk without any editing afterwards. During the introduction the musical director of the show mentions they have an 18 piece band on stage, but they get lost: it’s one big, gooey ghastly sounding mess. I could accept this from a bootleg, but not from something I actually paid money for. Unfortunately once O’Neal does appear there is no improvement. Quickly running out of steam, his fake laugh and painful attempts at banter do annoy quickly. What really pissed me off the most was the ruining of what were supposed to be the highlights of the CD: ‘Critize’ and ‘Fake’ are both up-tempo funk numbers with great harmonies, really showcasing the Jam/Lewis songwriting brillance, but on this record the chord structure has been simplified (or maybe one of the 18 musicians is playing it, but with this sound you certainly can’t pick it up) and some random heavy metal solos ruin it further.

One to avoid like the plague.

Finn, Runga, Dobbyn. Heaven.

While I am the first man to step forward to say that New Zealand is not the paradise that most Europeans believe it is, the musical output of this community the size of South London is impressive. The recording of the 2000 tour (and a 2002 London gig, I believe) of these three veterans of Kiwiana Pop is especially gratifying, as it combines the sparse melodies of Bic Runga with a ‘best of’ Dobbyn’s oevre and some of the best of Tim Finn’s three decades of music (including his solo work, Crowded House and Split Enz). Together with a tight band of musical mercenaries they sing, whistle and hum together and created an outstanding album that showcases the best of New Zealand’s recent musical heritage. All three are songwriters with an outstanding ability of capturing their touching lyrics in ultimately hummable songs that linger around in your brain for a long time.

Even if you have no idea who these people are and have never been to New Zealand, Together in Concert is an excellent introduction into this culture’s musical culture and apart from that a damn good album.