"Retro Future" [with Louis Gordon] (Album, 2007) !DSO Recommended!
The best live albums serve both as a document of an event but more importantly capture and then resonate back to the listener the magic in the air at the very best performances. The latter is stated easily enough but is rarely fully achieved. The best live albums don't resort to post production trickery in the studio to iron out any imperfections, they just channel what went through the venue's mixing desk that night onto another medium for listening pleasure another day - either for those fortunate to have been present or for the many thousands more who couldn't be.
Retro Future is one of (increasingly numerous) offical John Foxx live albums and one that manages to fix for all time the excitement of his live sets. Like most of his post 90s return material, the stage and (to some extent) writing credits are shared with former fan and now trusted ally Louis Gordon. It records a performance from Foxx and Gordon's fantastic 1998 Subterreanean Omnidelic Exotour. In this particular instance it happens to be the decidedly ordinary location of the Shrewsbury Music Hall. Which in a very John Foxxian/J.G. Ballard way is deliberately apposite. For both artists take every day locations and place in them remarkable occurances.
Never having been one to turn his back on his past (and why would he?), there's a decent quota too in the middle of a choice selection of some of the finest Ultravox compositions: Hiroshima Mon Amour, Just For A Moment, The Quiet Men and Dislocation are here in all their glory. Contemporary renditions, but faithful to the essence of the originals, all benefitting from Foxx's ever-improving voice. One well-established rule of gigging is that as much as an artist has the right to indulge themselves, classic songs rarely benefit from doubling their length. In the world of rock music this is usually via the painfully cock-rock staple of the uber-indulgent extended guitar solo, but electronic bands are no exception to this and frequently dabble in a bit of musical extension.
Thankfully, Foxx and Gordon understand which songs can survive such treatment intact. Furthermore, they've an impressive knack of causing you to pause to ask if songs like Burning Car ever really could have been just over three minutes. The 8:48 epic here works brilliantly, following a 7:09 minute 20th Century which opens proceedings. Most songs in this set are extended, the pinnacle (and one I remember vivdly from the tour myself) is a glorious ten minute version of Shifting City from the impressive 1995 'return' album of the same name (that's three times as long as the the album version!). The edits between tracks indicate that this is not the complete setlist, and this may not even be the best John Foxx live album (I've still several official releases to catch up with) but by any measure this is impressive stuff. 8/10
Rob Dyer (January 2009)
"Live From A Room (As Big As A City)" [with Louis Gordon] (Album, 2006)
In recent years, John Foxx has turned releasing albums into something of an industry. Not entirely a one-man industry though, as releases are often in collaboration with others. Here it is his inspirational partnership with Louis Gordon, with whom he first teamed up on the glorious return to activity on 1997's Shifting City.
As the title implies, rather than an album of all new material, this is instead Foxx and Gordon performing twelve of Foxx’s previously released material (there’s also a new, short instrumental Intro that was used on tour at the time). The ‘live’ word is a bit of fun as these are studio recordings – albeit partly played in realtime – aka live. It also has a more genuine meaning in that properly ‘live’ versions of recorded songs often sound slightly different. Sometimes out of necessity - the tools on stage may not match those in the studio making entirely meaning the equipment at hand must be utilised to recreate the sounds and structures. Sometimes it may simply be a creative decision to mix things up a little or try something out that differs from the recorded counterpart. Foxx has established a reputation for not only faithfully re-creating synth sounds live (in part by ensuring he has original technology available), but also experimenting with and exploring the outer limits of some of his compositions.
Live From A Room (As Big As A City) then is simply a studio (the ‘room’ of the title) gig as it were. The concept is welcome for the very reasons mentioned above for the live setting. When you stop to think about it – it’s surprising that more artists don’t revisit past glories and reflect on them with the viewpoint they have gradually formed in the subsequent years. Being so sold on the idea then, it is something of a disappointment to have to say that this doesn’t live up either to expectations or, more importantly, its potential.
The perspective is easier to draw from the older material, and Foxx delves back to his finest hour and first solo album Metamatic by including no less than six songs from it: No-One Driving, Plaza, Underpass, Touch & Go, and He’s A Liquid. Single b-side from the same period Metal Beat also appears. They’re certainly worthwhile interpretations, each proving that Foxx’s voice retains all the character it ever had and, moreover, is probably stronger (or at least more agile) that it was back in those more youthful days. Interestingly, of these Underpass is perhaps one of the best (and quite subtle) versions – quite surprising given that Foxx has revisited this several times down the years, even changing the lyrics for a slightly schizophrenic cut entitled Overpass. Brief nods too for Touch & Go – particularly the characteristics of the vocal track; and He’s A Liquid for the alternate analogue synth pad choices. Not a million miles away to be sure but a nice journey nonetheless. Ultravox! fans in particular will delight in a re-work of My Sex - the original of which dates back as far as 1977.
The more recent material obviously lacks the longevity of those listed above, making taking a view on them more tricky in that one lacks perspective and/or the ingrained familiarity with the material, but Broken Furniture (first appearing on the album Crash and Burn in 2003) is for me the most successful take – possibly surpassing the original. 7/10
Rob Dyer (July 2011)
"The Pleasures of Electricity" [with Louis Gordon] (Album, 2002)
The Quiet Man's latest postcard from the RetroFuture is his third release to share the sleeve credit with co-composer Louis Gordon. But unlike their first studio album together (The Shifting City) this is has a more humanistic and melodious tone. Its rich history lies in part in a romantic 1930s vision of Europe via Trans Europe Express era Kraftwerk. The more contemporary repetative beats are like someone's imaginary view of the English electronic club scene. Actually not much like reality at all and frankly somewhat quaint and naive - but surely that's deliberate? This second vein represented by the slightly self-conscious, mainstream dance beat of Nightlife.
At the other end of this album's spectrum is the operatic elegance of Camera, yet The Pleasures of Electricity has a more sumptuous, less abrasive feel to it when compared to the last album. In place of the chilling, metallic otherwordliness of Shifting City, this is a richer, warmer, yet classically very John Foxxian sets of songs that are still fascinated by tales from the city that Foxx is so fond of. The brilliance of tracks like The Falling Room and Travel proves that Foxx (and co.) has plenty of distinctive ideas and ways of expressing them that continue to excite, twenty five years after he started. 7/10
Rob Dyer (November 2002)
"Modern Art (The Best of John Foxx)" (Album, 2001)
To be honest, I'm not sure how many people who aren't already John Foxx fans will purchase this compilation. But if there are some people out there who know just one or two John Foxx tracks and would like to hear more then you couldn't ask for a more ideal starting point. Taking in Foxx's career from his first solo material in 1980 after splitting from Ultravox to what was then a preview of the 2002 The Pleasures of Electricity album, this eighteen track collection encompasses the three main musical styles: minimalist pure electronics (cf the classic Underpass), lush Europop (Europe After The Rain) and ambient (Sunset Rising).
I've never really cared for Foxx's explorations into the more romantic, pastoral pop in the mid 1980s, but there are a couple of songs from that era that are well worthwhile like Europe After The Rain and Your Dress, whereas entries like 1985's Enter The Angel simply sound cheesy even to the most sympathetic ear. Still, credit to all concerned for including all his singles alongside some of the rarer tracks.
Weaknesses aside, this is a thrilling look into the mind of one of the UK's most unique songwriters. Songs like Underpass and 20th Century (anyone in the London region remember the 80s Sunday TV programme called 20th Century Box that used this song as it theme tune?!) sound, remarkably, as exhilirating now even with more than twenty five years of intervening noise, sometimes from those who cite the influential Foxx as a point of reference. After some years in the wilderness, Foxx returned with a stunning ambient album Cathedral Oceans in 1995. This is represented here by the lilting Sunset Rising - an accurate sampling of that beautiful album. 7/10
Rob Dyer (October 2006)
Official John Foxx website: http://www.metamatic.com