I admit I have a crush on this record, which I made the album of the month on the Voix de Garage show. First of all, the project was super exciting: remake the best tunes from the comic operas of Gilbert & Sullivan as if performed by the Small Faces. Anything’s possible on paper, of course, but the album delivers!
It’s a very charming Old England period piece, but not only. The orchestrations, with their very light touch of ‘synthesis’, bring it all into the present day – the themes of these songs are perennial. ‘Sense of duty’ is one ongoing central theme, but there also an ironic treatment of the great and good of this world. Knowing the work of Gilbert & Sullivan and the historical & social context in which the tunes were composed wouldn’t harm the listener, but it’s also possible to be simply carried away by this music alone!
Musically it’s somewhere between ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’-era Queen and a muscular Electric Light Orchestra, with hints of Roxy Music and T Rex. Pure class.
Allow me to first introduce the actors in this comic drama. Multi-instrumentalist Martin Gordon, former member of Jet, Sparks and Radio Stars – he also wandered into world music and was once in the running for the bass position in the Rolling Stones. Gilbert & Sullivan, both dead for over 100 years, which is why Martin Gordon is working with them – they wrote these songs. Composer Arthur Sullivan and librettist William Schwenk Gilbert, to give them both their full names, wrote fourteen comic operas in their career, which has not gone unnoticed by Gordon. Gordon played bass with Sparks, to whom pathos, extravagance and theatricality is no stranger. and they certainly have lifted a trick of two from G&S.
And comic-dramatic moments are no stranger to this, Gordon’s seventh solo album, in which Gordon and his colleagues give a selected fifteen tunes modern clothing. And the way it comes out is playful, exaggerated, rocking, shrill and ironic theatrical rock/pop with a wink. Some tunes (for example ‘Lord High Executioner’, ‘Make Way For the Wise Men’, ‘In Every Mental Lore’ and ‘Modern Major General’ could all have come from a Sparks album, despite the fact that Martin Gordon is currently not on speaking terms with the Mael brothers. But actually it doesn’t matter – ‘Gilbert Gordon & Sullivan’ is enormous fun and curious listeners should definitely lend the album an ear (or maybe two). Make way for the Wise Men.
Martin Gordon (Sparks) is likely the only person who could take the 138 year old musical opera H.M.S. Pinafore by Arthur Sullivan and W. S. Gilbert and turn it into a rock n’ roll album, other than maybe Todd Rundgren. Gilbert imbued his play with mirth and silliness, and Gordon gamely runs with it. As the video for “Modern Major-General” shows, there is a Monty Pythonesque approach to the singing and Martin’s Rickenbacker is also up to the challenge.
With selections ranging from the well-known (‘‘When I Was a Lad”, “Lord High Executioner”) to the more obscure songs (“Go Away Madam”), Gordon delivers this labor of love in a way that makes it extremely fun to listen to, and dare I say it sing along to. So grab your libretto, sailors hat and a good set of headphones! It’s also available in a glossy limited edition package. The full album will be available to download on May 2nd.
7/10 Aaron Kupferberg
Monty Python, possibly with a little touch of Rick Wakeman’s ‘Arthur’
Bassist and vocalist Martin Gordon has a lot of previous projects on his musical resume. Best known is probably Sparks and Jet but there have been so many projects on his own and as session musicians that many will have heard him, although all may not be aware of it.
Now that there’s a new album and he’s he is looking far back in time to the British duo William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan who, in the last part of the 1800s, wrote fourteen operettas. Possibly I am spitting in the cultural hat, but I was reminded of Monty Python, possibly with a little touch of Rick Wakeman’s ‘Arthur’ album and some rock thrown in.
I guess it would be funnier/better if I had the words available so that I could more easily keep up with lyrics that seem to be funny. But the fact that I do not have any relationship to either Gilbert or Sullivan, or even barely Gordon, means that neither his Rickenbacker basslines or visiting guest Pelle Almgren (surely Howlin’ Pelle from the Hives) on the disc’s bonus tracks will make me listen to it as often as I might. Though I guess it’s a pretty good album if you are a little more open minded.
Roger Bengtsson 3/5
Prepare yourself to be stunned by the brilliance of this unique and marvellous new album by Martin Gordon: ‘Gilbert Gordon & Sullivan’, being years in the making, finely crafted over time with great care, which shows in the myriad details and intricacy of this mixture of eccentric Victorian light comic opera in a Pop/Rock setting. A vibrant new interpretation of a selection of incredible Gilbert and Sullivan songs, true to the original spirit, with some alterations and a great deal of modern oomph stirred in!
Those wary of anything related to Opera needn’t fear a thing, for this is instantly accessible music full of charm, humour, and fun (of course there’s no operatic warbling here, nor a hint of frock coats or bizarre facial hair). The previous samplers of song snippets were enticing, but did not present but a fraction of the aural delights within the finished and complete album; as from the start of my first proper listening of the whole of this masterpiece (with headphones on to absorb every detail), I was in amazement from beginning to end. There is much to be excited about, for it is a joy, and for new recordings of a Pop/Rock nature to be this good and exuberant is so rare that it makes this an oddity. ‘GG&S’ is devoid of all the things I detest about contemporary music, yet even with the fanciful 19th century lyrics, it sounds more fresh and timeless than anything you will hear. Most music seems to have sadly lost valuable characteristics such as individuality and whimsicality, so a treasure such as this must be applauded.
Let us note the fine musicianship on this album. Joined by Ralf Leeman on guitars, Romain Vicente on drums/percussion (plus others adding tasteful touches of woodwind and brass), Martin played his mighty Rickenbacker bass, piano, organ, melodica, xylophone, kazoo, and sang all the vocals (and arranged, produced and engineered this entire complex album – what an arduous task to mix all these tracks!). This includes all the many-layered harmonies and lavish choruses (the choruses are very impressive and beautiful), thus becoming an entire rock opera ensemble in himself! He infuses the songs with personality, incorporating vocal variations and various inflections, as one does when singing Gilbert and Sullivan pieces. There is a mixture of good straightforward singing and singing more as the characters in the songs, such as with the contrast of the surprisingly high and low vocals on the haunting and compelling ‘Go Away, Madam’, one of the most astounding songs on the album.
It’s impossible for me to choose a favourite song from ‘GG&S’, all of it is great, ‘Make Way For the Wise Men/ In Every Mental Lore’ is outstanding (and very clever the way the two songs merge and segue back and forth), but then so is ‘Lord High Executioner’, “When I Was A Lad’, ‘Modern Major General’, well all of them! This is a spirited album, with bewildering variety in style and tempo, there’s a lot going on and to take in, no dull bits to bore you, yet it refrains from bombarding you, the songs are well chosen; though after imbibing all those jaunty tunes and manly choruses, you may need a little lie down after listening to it all in one go…
One doesn’t have to understand all the references to enjoy this album, but doing so will give more depth to it by experiencing the delight of W.S. Gilbert’s witty, satirical lyrics (which usually had a sharp alternative meaning behind the silliness on the surface) combined with Arthur Sullivan’s wonderful melodies (qualities always in abundance in Martin Gordon’s songwriting). This album comes housed in a handsome, six-panel CD package, but does not include the lyrics, but they are clearly sung and understood. Obtaining a book of the librettos with notes explaining all is easily done, for those keen enough to delve into it further and expand their horizons.
Listening to this does have one drawback, and that is that it tends to spoil the listener, as other new recordings tend to pale considerably in comparison (like going from a rich and elaborate gourmet meal to nasty, generic fast food) so be warned and watch out for that! ‘Gilbert Gordon & Sullivan’ is not only my choice for best album of the year, but this delightful disc has become one of my all-time favourite recordings.
“On album, overhauls of popular classics have included Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’; the uproarious approximations of the Portsmouth Sinfonia; the arias fuelling Malcolm McLaren’s ‘Fans’ and 2006’s ‘Songs From the Labyrinth’, Sting’s interpretations of John Dowland madrigals. Now comes this enthralling take of Gilbert and Sullivan, a shadowy link perhaps with Adam and the Ants’ ‘Jolly Roger’ causing Adam to be supplicated to star in a contemporaneous presentation of ‘The Pirates of Penzance’.
As well as excerpts from this and similarly enduring comic operas, Gordon approaches obscurities, exemplified by a medley of two numbers from Utopia Ltd which, amassing only modest acclaim in 1893, still has wordsmith Sullivan (sic) on a par with Noel Coward or Ian Dury as a rapid-fire lyrical wit.
Sometimes Gordon’s diction is a little too curdled, notably on ‘Faint Heart Never Won Fail Lady’ from Iolanthe but, rather than fracturing a given piece with a premeditated ‘modern’ reconstruction, he so retains the composers’ original vision – detailed by the ‘ratbag’ soprano on ‘Go Away Madam’ – that only ‘The Captain of the Pinafore’, relegated tellingly to a bonus track, comes remotely close to orthodox rock.”
Alan Clayson, April 2016 4/5
“Ex-lots of bands that we can’t be bothered to list, Martin Gordon is by far better known, and feted, for the chain of solo albums he has unleashed over the last few years, a sprawling non-trilogy of Mammal-based albums not least of all, and across everything serving evidence that there are few songwriters sharper or wryer than he.
So now he strips back to the barest roots, to illustrate perhaps the most significant influence on his own literary style – a veritable tribute album to Gilbert & Sullivan, packed with remarkably faithful, but gorgeously individual takes on some of that team’s best known numbers: a rock opera in literal terms, then, and you probably know every song in the set, regardless of whether you’ve heard of them. “Lord High Executioner,” “Modern Major General,” “Taken from the Country Jail” “Cock’n’Bull,” “A Policeman’s Lot”… fourteen original operas were scoured for Gordon’s favorite numbers, then stripped down to the elements that transform them from pomp to circumstantial pop music. Let alone information animal, vegetable and mineral. And it is, quite frankly.”
Dave Thompson, Dec 2015
“First single from the forthcoming album, rock with lots of pop and stuffed full of Englishness under the direction of Martin Gordon. I await the album with impatience.”
Radio Campus Grenoble, March 2016