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Music Review: Primal Scream – Riot City Blues

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Whatever else might be said about them, Primal Scream is not a band that can be neatly labeled. Since their 1987 debut Sonic Flower Groove, Bobby Gillespie and the various incarnations of the band have skirted between jangly psychedelica, blues-based rock and acid house industrial with a seemingly flagrant disregard towards fanbase expectations. After single-handedly bringing acid house to the mainstream with 1991's Screamadelica, they retreated to a seventies sound with Give Out But Don't Give Up — with commercially dismal results. The techno-jazz infused Vanishing Point followed, marking a slow return to the house sound that had served them well on Screamadelica.

Primal Scream apparently knew who buttered their bread, as evidenced by 2000's follow-up XTRMNTR, in which they jumped on the "where is Trent Reznor when you need him?" bandwagon. The band ventured more deeply into this territory with Evil Heat, albeit with a more T-Rex inspired groove and a cast of celebrity guests. Gillespie and company, for all purposes had lost that subversive edge that had kept them afloat all those years.

Subversion comes in many forms, however. Riot City Blues, Primal Scream's eighth album (and their first on Columbia) marks a radical departure from the techno-throb beats that have been their signature for the past decade. This is an album of bare-bones rock unlikely to set well with their club-driven core base of fans.

For the rest of us, it's an unexpected treat. Riot City Blues is a paean to pre-punk blues-based britpop and a possible indicator of the next direction Gillespie is taking the band. This is guitar-driven often anthemic rock and roll that takes its cues as much from MC5 as the Stones. "The 99th Floor" is reminiscent of Iggy and the Stooges at their zenith, while "We're Gonna Boogie" conjures up memories of both T-Rex and Canned Heat, due in no small part to Martin Duffy's loping harmonica .

This is an album that performs sleight of hand at every turn, thumbing its nose at genre restrictions. A listen of the single "Country Girl" only might make the listener think Primal Scream had reverted to a good time honky tonk sound. But "When the Bomb Drops," a blistering indictment of drug addiction centered around Will Sergeant's swirling guitar strains, pinballs the work in an entirely different direction. "Little Death" languishes in a psychedelic haze and "Hell's Comin' Down" goes off in a bayou-tinged tangent, supplemented by Warren Ellis's fiddle.

The one constant in Riot City Blues is its staunch refusal to play to type. Some may decry Primal Scream's effort here as a betrayal of the acid house movement. The truth of the matter, however, is that this may be the core element of a new phase for the band. Gillespie has reached a stage in his life where he has realized that the most subversive form of expression is in the nuance of the expression. Then again, a case could be made that Primal Scream is pandering to the changing winds of popular taste.

The truth lies somewhere between. Riot City Blues is by no means going to be a rave favorite. It is what it is — a homage to the punk roots that spawned acid house. As Alex told his droogs, "Old ways is best ways."


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About Ray Ellis

  • zingzing

    hmm. much as i like this new one (and “like” is the word,) i think you drastically misrepresent primal screams glory days, i.e.–1997-2003.

    “vanishing point” is partially a dark dub, partially nasty guitar rock, all psychedlic mess, and has almost nothing to do with house music whatsoever. the pure dub follow-up (which i can’t remember the name of right now…) is as great a dub album as was made in the 90’s, and is surely adrian sherwood’s last gasp of genius.

    if “trent reznor” is the only reference point you can bring up for “xtrmntr,” you haven’t really given it all that much of a chance. the album isn’t solid back to front, but the first four tracks are masterpeices of funk, noise, minimalism and techno-rock heaven. some later tracks (like blood money, mbv arkestra and shoot speed) are just as grand in their own ways (ahem, unclassifiable jazz-rock-noise-techno thangs for the first two, lovely krautrock on the last).

    “evil heat” has its moments, but is basically a retread of “xtrmntr.” the live album from 2003, on the other hand, is killer. a better live album than one would expect from this studio-bound incarnation of the band… then again, if you’ve seen them live, you’d know better. i’ve never seen a more violent show in my life.

  • zingzing

    oh, but i do like the new album, and other than a stinker (hrm, can’t remember the name…) near the end, it is their most solid, back to front, since vanishing point… maybe since screamadelica.

  • http://culturesalad.blogspot.com Ray Ellis

    I have to agree with you, zing. The references to the earlier albums were just that–not meant as mini-reviews, merely a point of reference to put Riot City Blues in perspective. And yes, it’s a solid album, one of the better rock albums I’ve heard this year (though Pure Reason Revolution is, at least for now, my favorite.)

  • zingzing

    hrm. what i was really disagreeing with is that you seem to think that primal scream’s audience is a bunch of techno-house nuts who won’t appreciate RCB. almost everybody who gets into p.s. is going to get into them through Screamdelica, and that album’s charm is the rock that was added to the dance. most p.s. fans are rock fans, i would say, not house fans. so i think you are giving them the short end of the stick, and nowhere near enough credit.

    my biggest problem with this new album is not the lack of dancable tunes (because it is quite dancable), but the defection of kevin shields, who is the absolute motherfuckin shit. they are a weaker band without him. i’m not sure how it really happened… did p.s. want to go it alone without him, thinking that they needed to prove themselves capable by themselves (come on now… they are and have always been at the mercy of their producers… and they don’t need to “prove” anything, as they have been one of the best rock bands on the planet for the last 15 years). or maybe shields just got bored. who knows?

  • http://culturesalad.blogspot.com Ray Ellis

    Screamadelica was followed by Give Out But Don’t Give Up– a Stones, bluesy album–it was a flop. Primal Scream’s core audience has always been the acid house crowd.
    I think Gillespie is reaching out to a broader audience. Then again, he would say he doesn’t give a damn one way or another.

  • zingzing

    it wasn’t much of a flop (only a relative flop), and p.s. hasn’t touched much on acid house since screamadelica. maybe a track here or there that has some sort of house structure (only “swastika eyes” comes to mind) are released as singles. primal scream’s core audience are the people that DID buy give out, not the other way around. screamadelica rode some sort of zeitgeist to its sales figures, while give out was brought back to earth in many different ways.

    if you want to be technical about it, about half of primal scream’s albums have been vaguely techno-ish. the other half blatantly rock-oriented. p.s. has had their greatest successes artistically (screamadelica, v.p. and xtrmntr) within a techno-rock vein. and yet their highest charting singles have been pure rock songs. but acid house? screamdelica was barely acid house to begin with… half the album was acoustic jesus and mary chain rip-offs. shrug.

    sure, “country girl” is going to get a broader audience than “miss lucifer,” but it’s not because they are leaving behind some acid house crowd for the pop charts. acid house died 15 years ago, and p.s. moved on, taking their audience with them through change after change after change.

  • http://culturesalad.blogspot.com Ray Ellis

    This is their first album in four years, and it marks a radical departure from the work they had done on their previous three albums. It’s that simple.
    “When the Bomb Falls” is a much better song than the ones you cite. But then again, I’ve always liked Will Sergeant’s guitar work. You have heard of him, haven’t you?
    Bands evolve, or they grow old and wither. I think they evolved on this one.

  • http://www.butterflyfiction.com/journal/ Connie Phillips

    This article has been placed at the Advance.net websites, a site affiliated with about 12 newspapers.

    One such site is here.

  • zingzing

    exactly ray, but they’ve always changed from album to album (except on “evil heat” to a degree).

    think about it. the first album was all byrdsy jangle. the second was mostly stooges-lite. the third was stones meets techno. the fourth, stones. the fifth, dub-rock hybrids. the sixth technoish noise rock. all quite different.

    this new one is in familiar territory for the band. i’m not bashing it at all (i quite like it), but it is the first time that the band has stepped backwards to something they have attempted before. maybe it is because their first attempt was pretty poor, and it must be said that this album is much, much better than give out, but it is a step backward none-the-less. and that’s what concerns me. this very much looks like a “last gasp.” it’s great, but it does not bode well for primal scream’s future. of course, that’s been said before.

    and yes, will sergeant, guitarist for echo and the bunnymen, uh huh. i really like “when the bomb drops,” but i was a bit disappointed to hear that it was will playing that guitar rather than andrew innes. i mean, “bomb” is one of the few songs on the album that sounds anything like p.s. during the past 10 years… meh, it’s a great song, and mani is amazing on that track. rhythm machine.

  • http://culturesalad.blogspot.com Ray Ellis

    Zing, I think you want to be a music critic. You might even have potential. But one thing you’re going to have to do is divorce yourself from a fan’s perspective. You don’t have that luxury as a critic. Sure, it’s a subjective field, but your job is to be as objective as possible. I’ve been doing this professionally since 1980, so I have a bit of perspective on this.
    I try to do as much research as possible before writing a review, just to put things in a frame of reference (probably too much research, truth be known, but that’s my obsessive compulsive nature.)But all that aside, the reader doesn’t want or need a biography of the band–all they really want is a hint as to whether it’s worth owning.
    If you do your job right, you’re going to gain fans here and there, and you’re also going to piss people off. It’s pop music, and it’s not something the course of civilization hinges on.
    You tell people, here’s something you might like, or do not under any circumstances waste your time on this. Usually, it falls somewhere in between, with enough ambiguity in the info that the reader can make up their own mind.
    So I’d say to you, Zing– get your writing chops up and write some reviews. Keep it concise, keep it real and never back down from what you believe. Just make sure what you believe can be backed up with qualifications.

    Good luck!

  • zingzing

    oh. ha. i have done quite a bit of music criticism, thanks. but i’m also a p.s. fan.

    (also, i believe your “objective” stance is very, very wrong. and your “research” here lead you to some incorrect conclusions.)

    i’m not saying a biography is necessary. it’s just that i feel like you lazily decided to gloss over the past 10 years of p.s. as some descent into “trent reznor techno-throb” and nothing else, just so you could claim that RCB is somehow “subversive,” like it’s the first time primal scream has changed gears or challenged their audience. it’s just not true, and it’s lazy criticism. so there.

    and don’t stick your tongue out at me with those “get your writing chops up.” in case you haven’t noticed, i come here to opine and argue and curse. i do my “writing” for newspapers, as i like getting paid to do such things. ugh.

  • zingzing

    sorry. you probably had good intentions. you were probably tired of arguing. meh.

  • http://culturesalad.blogspot.com Ray Ellis

    You assume quite a bit, zing. If you had read the review, I alluded to the idea of subversion being camouflaged in tradition– had nothing to do with 9iN. Your “fan” stance proves my point more succinctly than anything I could say–it clouds your judgement. I’m guessing the writing you get paid for is on a more professional level than the phlegm you’re spewing here.

  • zingzing

    whew! knew it was coming!

    okay, for the sake of the argument, what exactly is being subverted here? that’s my question to you.

    a few possibilities…

    is it political? certainly not. politics, it seems, is the furthest thing from gillespie’s mind here. even “when the bomb drops,” with that title, is more about the metaphorical guitar bomb than it is about any actual bombing. in fact, this album is all about drugs, sex, rock n roll, the works. so politics is out.

    is it the fan’s expectations? nope. if you look at the band’s history, they were traditionalists to start. then they brought trad rock n roll to dance music (or vice-versa). then they fucked off the dance music and just made trad rock. then they started adding everything they could to their trad rock (dub, jazz, noise, krautrock, hip hop, metal, etc) until it was so full to bursting that there was really only one place to go, and that was back to basics. it was warranted, if not expected, but then again, within primal scream’s history, that’s just what is expected. in fact, when p.s. didn’t make some drastic change (from “xtrmntr” to “evil heat,”) plenty of fans cried foul.

    as i’ve said before, the thing i’m really arguing here is your idea that this album will not sit well with your imagined “club-driven” fan base. the fact is that it does not exist. primal scream’s fans have diverse taste and this album is actually doing quite well with them.

    and yes, the writing i do for money is much more thought out than the mess i leave here. professional? i dunno. sometimes, “professional” is dull. we’re writing about music here, not stocks.

    so, did you want an argument or not, because you really don’t seem to be willing to respond to certain bits of my argument (like how primal scream changes all of the time). how does that change your opinion of what this album means in terms of their career? and what’s subversive about songs about women and guitars?

  • zingzing

    and subjectivity doesn’t cloud my judgement, subjectivity IS my judgement. this is pop music, not the 450th CD version of some bach concerto. objectivity is the enemy! when i read criticism of pop music, i want to know that one person’s opinion. i want to know what THEY think.

    i like being a fan of a band i am reviewing. if i despise or don’t care about said band, then either i just don’t get it or i am ambivelant. dull… if i’ve never heard the band before i am assigned an album, then i either will or will not be a fan by the time i am ready to review it. it’s just the nature of the game.

    “objectivity,” is either dead wrong or a total myth. so, i go with subjectivity and i don’t feel the slightest bit ashamed to admit it.

  • http://culturesalad.blogspot.com Ray Ellis

    What you’re writng, in that case, is irrelevant. Might work for a press kit, but it serves no further purpose. Nobody bats 1000, and if a band puts out a release that doen’t pass the essential test of accomplishing what they set out to do, you’re failing in your responsibility as a critic if you approach it “as,gollygee, my favorite band!It’s gotta freakin’ rock!” Waht purpose do you serve by doing that? Conversely, if a band you haven’t particularly cared for in the past makes a good album, you have to put aside your pejudices and acknowledge that.
    Only pop music? ALL music was pop music at one time or another. You think Moxart or Beethoven weren’t playing to their spponsors?

  • http://culturesalad.blogspot.com Ray Ellis

    What you’re writng, in that case, is irrelevant. Might work for a press kit, but it serves no further purpose. Nobody bats 1000, and if a band puts out a release that doen’t pass the essential test of accomplishing what they set out to do, you’re failing in your responsibility as a critic if you approach it “as,gollygee, my favorite band!It’s gotta freakin’ rock!” Waht purpose do you serve by doing that? Conversely, if a band you haven’t particularly cared for in the past makes a good album, you have to put aside your pejudices and acknowledge that.
    Only pop music? ALL music was pop music at one time or another. You think Moxart or Beethoven weren’t playing to their spponsors?

  • zingzing

    oi, oi, oi. you totally misunderstand.

    #1, i’ve written bad reviews of bands i like. if you’ll notice, i said “i like being a fan of a band i am reviewing,” which doesn’t mean that i don’t write about bands that i have never heard of or don’t care for, it’s just that i PREFER to be familiar with a band if they have several releases. if a band simply retreads past glories, i’m going to point that out. i’ll be disappointed, but honest. there really isn’t any point in holding prejudices about music… so i don’t.

    i prefer to write about music that i like because i see writing a bad review as just a chance to knock someone (artist or fan) down a peg, while i see writing good reviews as a chance to spread the word about something i truly enjoy, and that is so much more rewarding (to me). it’s just more fun in the end. i like fun. it’s fun. it’s not that i won’t… but it’s not nearly as exciting, you know? (i have thought about getting into pr/a&r/etc… sounds fun if you’re working for the right label. 5RC, call me.)

    #2, when i say “this is pop music,” “this” refers to what you wrote (being a review on primal scream) and what i tend to write (being reviews of mostly pop [itself a vast spectrum] music), it had nothing to do with any judgement on classical music. but the point stands. when you review a classical album, you are reviewing the performance, not the artist’s material itself. in classical music reviews, one should be a little more objective, noting the choices the conductor made, the clarity of the winds, the acoustics, etc. in pop music, this stuff matters, but it is not the be-all, end-all of what you are reviewing.

  • http://culturesalad.blogspot.com Ray Ellis

    Know what, zing? I’m bored now. I wrote a review– you’re trying to make it a manifesto.

  • zingzing

    i’m not trying to do anything. you’re the one that pushed the conversation this way, not me. you refuse to answer questions (and i put them plainly) and make this thing about me and not the band.

    all i did was say that you underestimate primal scream’s audience’s eclecticism, a charge which you refuse to answer. if you don’t want comments, don’t publish in places like this. simple.

  • http://culturesalad.blogspot.com Ray Ellis

    Au contraire. What you did was make a blanket statement about their audience, of which you have set yourself up as spokesman. There’s a reason I didn’t go into detail about their past efforts–it’s irrelevant. The only album that matters when I’m writing a review is the one I’m reviewing.
    I don’t know how much more simple it could be.

  • zingzing

    you don’t need to go into some heavy amount of detail, but it certainly is not irrelevant. this is especially true when you make a point of saying that primal scream’s fan base, being club-rats, will not like this direction, it being a big ‘fuck you’ to said fans’ static taste. (and the fact that it isn’t a new direction and that primal scream almost always changes didn’t phase you.)

    if you were to talk about dylan’s “john wesley harding,” how could you not mention his increasingly abstract imagery in ’65 and ’66? and how, writing today, could you not mention the impact that “the basement tapes” had on those recordings and how “jwh” was viewed before they were released? eh?

    i absolutely know that you are feeding me a line of shit when you say that past efforts are irrelevant. it goes against your own practice (see the review) and it also makes very little sense.

  • http://culturesalad.blogspot.com Ray Ellis

    They were irrelevant to the review of the current release. All things evolve–except fans.

  • zingzing

    you gonna answer the question i’ve posted now… SEVEN times? see #’s 4, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20 and 22.

    and to repeat: what makes you think, in the face of primal scream’s consistent changes, that primal scream’s audience would still be all about the acid house?

  • zingzing

    ok, your #23 lets me know what you answer would be. so you think that music fans don’t evolve. fine.

  • zingzing

    you don’t even believe what you are saying anymore.

  • zingzing

    maybe we are just defining “fan base” differently. i define it as someone who buys all (or most, or several) of a band’s albums. you seem to be defining it as someone who bought the last album and seems to have some expectation about what the new album should sound like.

  • zingzing

    and if i am to understand it, here are your new rules for writing reviews:

    1)maintain objectivity–never inject personal opinion or reactions;
    2)never speak of previous material;
    3)assume that the beatles, van morrison, david bowie, prince, beck and the like never kept fans between releases.

    i know this is complete bullshit and you don’t believe a word of it.

  • http://culturesalad.blogspot.com Ray Ellis

    1) maintain objectivity, but also be subjective–of course, opinions are going to be in there–but only qualified opinions, not hyperbole.
    2)Obviously, speak of previous material–as a reference point for that which you are reviewing.
    3)thatcomment makes no sense. There is a huge difference between appreciating an artist’s work, and getting into a lockstep assumption that the next work, by extension, is going to be great.

    What you may “know” is all well and fine, but don’t assume you know what I believe. My writings speak for what I believe.

  • zingzing

    what you write in the review and what you write in the comments have been two separate things so far. that’s why they are “new” rules of yours, because you were b.s.ing me and i knew it. so which of your writings speak for what you believe? the review, or comments like “music fans don’t evolve” and “past efforts are irrelevant?” i think it’s the former, and it’s pretty obvious that it is.

    #3 reflects the fact that audiences grow with artists. they evolve and change, because that’s what an audience does.