Annie Haslam – Annie In Wonderland

Annie Haslam - Annie In WonderlandTaking a break from her “day job” as the lead female vocalist of ’70s prog rock outfit Renaissance, Annie Haslam set out to record a solo debut that was an outlet for her self-penned tunes that just didn’t fit the Renaissance house style – but that doesn’t mean it sounds like anything else released in 1977. Haslam recruited former Move, ELO and Wizzard frontman Roy Wood to produce the album, and Wood was already known for his own distinctive style. He also didn’t exactly have a long list of production credits for projects that weren’t The Move, ELO or Wizzard.

The result is a quirky and eminently listenable album that showcases Annie Haslam somewhere between her Carole King-esque singer/songwriter mode and something closer to Kate Bush territory, and also gives multi-instrumental whiz kid Wood full reign. A blast of brass opens the album with “If I Was Made Of Music”, but the production work never overshadows Haslam’s voice, which always has center stage. “I Never Believed In Love” is one of three songs actually written by Wood, and it bears the hallmarks of his vaguely-Beatlesque oddball Move-era songwriting.

It’s the next song, however, that can blow your hair back – Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “If I Loved You” (from the musical Carousel) gives Haslam’s considerably vocal range a real chance to shine, accompanied by an ocean of multi-tracked balalaikas. It’s not like any other rendition of this particular song or, indeed, like anything else you’ve heard before. (It’s not for nothing that, of all the songs on Annie In Wonderland, this song was chosen to be dissected and analyzed in detail on a BBC Radio special celebrating Roy Wood’s career.)

Almost as mind-blowing for its sheer display of Haslam’s near-operatic range is the soaring, wordless vocal of the otherwise-instrumental “Rockalise”. Drastic key/octave changes are also central to “Inside My Life”, which is as close as thiis album comes to typical ’70s singer/songwriter stylings – and in the capable hands of Haslam and Wood, it’s still not terribly close to typical.

What’s most surprising here is that this was the first and final collaboration between Annie Haslam and Roy Wood, but there’s another story there: they got engaged as Annie In Wonderland was being recorded, and never married over what’s said to have been a four-year relationship. Annie In Wonderland was a career-making album in the UK (and sadly overlooked elsewhere), and by all rights should have kick-started Wood’s career as well as Annie Haslam’s. 4 out of 4That it didn’t is truly sad; this album’s inventiveness and willingness to overstep the usual bounds of pop music are off-the-scale. Future collaborations could have been beneficial to all involved, but alas, it wasn’t to be, leaving Annie In Wonderland as a singular achievement that launched Haslam on a whole new career trajectory away from Renaissaince. Very highly recommended.

Order this CD

  1. Introlise / If I Were Made Of Music (4:46)
  2. I Never Believed In Love (3:40)
  3. If I Loved You (4:39)
  4. Hunioco (7:33)
  5. Rockalise (6:09)
  6. Nature Boy (4:56)
  7. Discuss it!Inside My Life (4:51)
  8. Going Home (5:01)

Released by: Warner Bros.
Release date: 1977
Total running time: 41:35

Roy Wood – Starting Up

Roy Wood - Starting UpThe year is 1985. Euro-pop has taken hold, but is rapidly giving way to watered-down hard rock “hair” bands. And despite having a fine and, it must be said, multi-colored head of hair, if you’re old school rocker Roy Wood (founding member of The Move and ELO), you fit into neither of these categories.

Not that he didn’t try, mind you. Woody’s always been an advocate of reinventing his sound, of trying to do something that either hasn’t been done before in rock ‘n’ roll or trying to bring back something that’s fallen out of favor. After trying to give rock music a full-time string section with Electric Light Orchestra, he moved on to create groups like Wizzard and Helicopters, centered around a 50s-style wall-of-saxophone sound. (It’s this last permutation that seems to have stuck, as Wood still tours to this day with Roy Wood’s Big Band.) But in ’84, Wood returned briefly to what he did with his underrated 1975 classic Boulders – recording everything by himself – only with much more modern tools at his disposal.

The sole drawback to this: Starting Up probably could have charted in 1980 or 1981, when the sound of synths and drum machines was fresh where the mainstream was concerned. And Wood’s voice isn’t a million miles away from, say, Gary Numan’s. It wouldn’t have been a bad fit for the early days of synth pop. But in 1985, most of the songs on this album already sounded dated, and 20 years later, time hasn’t been much kinder to them.

Oddly enough, one of the only two tracks that stand head and shoulders above the rest suffers (or perhaps benefits) from a near-total sonic disconnect from every other song on the album. Featuring Louis Clark (of Hooked On Classics fame, and longtime orchestral arranger for ELO) and a full orchestra backing, “On Top Of The World” is a catchy song with a snazzy tune, and easily Wood’s best vocals on the whole album. It’s like this song dropped in from a better-written, better-produced album that we’ve never gotten to hear. The other standout track, “Turn Your Body To The Light”, is a nice melding of synths and Wood’s trademark sax, and it’s a catchy tune too. These two songs easily eclipse the rest of the album.

And let’s set one thing straight – drum machines alone don’t doom a song to cheesiness. Two demos Wood recorded with old friend and former bandmate Jeff Lynne circa 1990 have leaked out, very simple, low-tech productions showcasing a couple of beautifully written nuggets of rock ‘n’ roll that most of the world has never gotten to hear. And that’s what Starting Up is really missing: well-written songs. This is the same Roy Wood who gave us “Blackberry Way” and “Fire Brigade” back in the Move days, and has peppered his solo career with lesser-known but equally-worthwhile songs like “Dear Elaine”…not that you could tell from listening to Starting Up. To put the cards on the table: his songs this time around either weren’t as inspired, or the intent got lost in the execution.

2 out of 4A real curate’s egg, this one, and it’s also Woody’s last solo album to date. Considering what his former bandmate was able to accomplish with Zoom under the ELO banner, I’d really like to hear Roy Wood come back and zing us with a solo project now. Because, as hard as I’m sure he tried to accomplish something unique with Starting Up, he’d almost certainly do better with the technology and techniques available today…and he’s had time to write some new songs too.

Order this CD

  1. Red Cars Are After Me (3:56)
  2. Raining In The City (4:17)
  3. Under Fire (4:24)
  4. Turn Your Body To The Light (4:31)
  5. Hot Cars (3:13)
  6. Starting Out (3:20)
  7. Keep It Steady (3:49)
  8. On Top Of The World (3:30)
  9. Ships In The Night (5:04)

Released by: Castle
Release date: 1985
Total running time: 36:04

Roy Wood – Mustard

Roy Wood - MustardFollowing up on the not-quite-success of his amazing 1973 solo debut Boulders and some equally underground releases (commercial-success-wise, that is) with his band Wizzard, ELO co-founder Roy Wood regrouped and decided to do another truly solo album. Woody can play a few dozen instruments, you see, so locking this guy into a recording studio by himself for a few weeks with a fresh batch of songs is not a problem. What he emerged with, while not quite up to the innovation level of Boulders, is still stunning.

I have to admit a certain level of amazement with those gifted individuals who can play it all for themselves, and Roy Wood is among the most amazing of those musical hermit crabs. Who else could get away with using bagpipes in an intro to an all-out 70s style rocker? And actually play the bloody things himself?

That’s not the only stylistic innovation on Mustard; on two tracks – the title track intro and “You Sure Got It Now” – Wood does an uncanny vocal impersonation of the Andrews Sisters, complete with scratchy-record effects on the former. The latter overlays that all-female trio sound on a somewhat bluesier, rockier rhythm track, and it works in a weird, cultural-collision sort of way. And keep in mind, it’s all Roy Wood’s vocals. (The only guest vocals are Phil Everly – yes, as in the Everly Brothers, who coincidentally later had a song produced by Wood’s former ELO cohort Jeff Lynne – on “Get On Down Home” and Annie Haslam singing higher backing vocals on the excellent ballad “The Rain Came Down”.)

The highlight for me is easily “The Song”, which slowly unfolds into a lovely instrumental in its second half, and it’s easy to tell that the starting point for the song’s sound – if not the music itself – was The Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home”.

This being a 1999 CD reissue, fully half of the tracks are added bonuses from non-album singles and B-sides (the original Mustard ended with “Get On Down Home”), including the sitar-heavy “Bengal Jig”, and some more of the 50s-style rockers which Wood has made part of his unique style – “Oh What A Shame” 4 out of 4and “The Rattlesnake Roll”. An ELO-worthy instrumental with equal helpings of sax and Moog synthesizer, “Strider”, is also included, as are some very interesting liner notes placing Wood’s work into the context of British rock history and what other acts were doing at roughly the same time. A highly recommended package for fans of Woody’s work – or even for those unfamiliar with it.

Order this CD

  1. Mustard (1:27)
  2. Any Old Time Will Do (4:12)
  3. The Rain Came Down On Everything (6:34)
  4. You Sure Got It Now (5:29)
  5. Why Does A Pretty Girl Sing Those Sad Songs (4:32)
  6. The Song (6:35)
  7. Look Thru The Eyes Of A Fool (2:55)
  8. Interlude (1:24)
  9. Get On Down Home (7:29)
  10. Oh What A Shame (3:50)
  11. Bengal Jig (2:13)
  12. Rattlesnake Roll (4:01)
  13. Can’t Help My Feelings (5:11)
  14. Strider (2:49)
  15. Indiana Rainbow (3:53)
  16. The Thing Is This (This Is The Thing) (5:43)

Released by: Edsel Records
Release date: 1975 (reissued in 1999)
Total running time: 68:39