Thursday, September 30, 2021
Wednesday, September 29, 2021
New Sufjan Stevens product is generally pretty good news. His latest, A Beginner's Mind a collaboration with Angelo De Augustine is certainly no exception. Where Angelo starts and Sufjan ends is rather difficult to discern. This certainly sounds like something Stevens devotees might welcome with open arms though.
Blessed with a truly awful cover, A Beginner's Mind is altogether wonderful in every other respect. Stevens if one of the most gloriously ambitious musical artists that the Twenty First Century has produced. The closest thing to Bowie I'd say, though a Twenty First Century Bowie is no longer really possible in the Age of The Internet.
But Stevens certainly has something of Bowie's restless, itching struggle. I'm not even going to begin to attempt to discuss the themes of A Beginner's Mind. They're too obscure for me to even struggle a guess at except that the cover and song titles given some kind of indication that Greek Myth is in there somewhere. Otherwise, you're on your own in that respect.The Internet might be some help.
Great song titles. Lady Macbeth in Chains, The Pillar of Souls and Cimmerian Shade, particularly took my fancy. Glittering, shimmering melodies. Sadness, euphoria, mystery. That will do me. Stevens and De Augustine tick my requisite boxes.
Too late for a high placing in this years chart rundowns but it had to be here somewhere so # 88 is as good a place as any. Sorry fellas, you need to get here earlier next year to avoid disappointment. Neverthesess, Stevens extends his fine batting average and this will encourage me to investigate the De Augustine back catalogue too.
'Now this is what we wanted.Former agitprop indie janglers McCarthy giving birth to subversive Europop virtuosity.'
Tuesday, September 28, 2021
Tracy Chapman's eponymous debut album from 1988 was that unfortunate thing. A record that was played far too much for its own good. It was everywhere for more than half of that year. For good reason. It was full of wonderfully written, emotive and instantly memorable songs.
That doesn't make it any easier to listen to almost thirty years on. These songs are just too damned familiar. From the one two of Talkin' Bout a Revolution and Fast Car, the latter particularly which still, never ever seems to be off the radio or the jukebox of any pub you ever go into.
It's not the songs fault. It really isn't. They're immediately songs that project emotions and convictions that you can get behind immediately. Liberal ones essentially that says the world's a bad and unjust place and we should definitely get off our asses and do something about it.
These were the tenor of the times. There was a lot of music like this in the Eighties; Gabriel's Biko U2's, (well half of U2's output for amost of the Eighties, until they discovered and acted as if they'd invented irony. Oh, the irony), Simple Minds and Jim Kerr's astonishing mullet, Suzanne Vega's Luka.
At the heart of it all, the undoubtedly well meaning Live Aid, which ended up making the wrong Pop Stars multimillionaires and directing the money the event generated into the hands of completely the wrong people.
None of this of course is Tracy Chapman's fault. She's an evidently sincere and able performer. A talent, though for some reason she never capitalised on the immediate and spectacular take off this record gave her career. Can you name a single song by her that's not on this album?
Ultimately, this seems stranded in time now. Sispended in aspic. It's so 1988, it's really rather difficult to listen to in 2021 if you experienced it the first time round.
There are plenty of moments that still draw you in. I particularly enjoyed Baby Can I Hold You, its third best selling single and Mountains O' Things with its gorgeous marimba patterns. Most of all, If Not Now, I'd forgotten how lovely that one is.
I'm sorry though but Tracy's good intentions wore me down rather eventually. Yes the world's a bad place, Trace but don't you know any jokes? I know... I'm a bad person.
In the end it reminded me of the Gerard Depardieu character in Green Card who initially repels Andie McDowell but eventually steals her heart from her worthy but dull boyfriend before the end of the movie.
'All your ideas come from the same place..' he says eventually after much provocation. I'm sorry Tracy. you're right, but all your ideas come from the same place. The world seemed a bad place in 1988, listening to this. It feels a lot worse than that to me now and I'm afraid listening to Tracy Chapman isn't going to be the prescription anyone really needs.
An appropriately early Seventies looking album sleeve with suitably corny font and an out of focus photo of the author. The record itself? Creamy Laurel Canyon. Honeyed vocals, silky piano and gently strummed acoustic guitar. What a rad idea. Though hardly unprecedented. But in the case of Lia Ices' Family Album it certainly works.
Mainly because the songs are great. That's what this kind of conceit really stands or falls on isn't it. Every track here is rather gorgeous in its own way and the record itself is a dream, locating a sweet spot somewhere between Karen, (Carpenter) and Joni. With a bit of Enya and a bit of Kate thrown in for good measure.
Grounded in autobiographial specifics, it's a record that flushes with abundant good will. Ices' move to California with her winemaking husband and her impending motherhood. It would be churlish to scoff at such fundamental instincts and emotions and anyway the record is more than good enough to stand its own ground.
These kind of nostalgic pipe dreams are ten a penny these days. In order to succeed they require artistic investment and that's here in spades. Altogether a rather lovely record.
Monday, September 27, 2021
Andy Shauf's latest Wilds is a set of songs from the sessions for his 2020 album Neon Skyline. This is far from a set of cast offs but stands either on its own or as a set of complimentary statements for that fine record.
Neon Skyline was a finely wrought set of vignettes on the themes of lost love. Wilds offers more of the same. and the songs seem every bit as strong Shauf is a craftsman, a slightly less anguished Elliott Smith but with plenty of poetic fire of his own. Wilds is another marvellous record.
Sunday, September 26, 2021
Sure to feature majorly on all the high profile countdowns of Albu's of 2021. Little Simz Sometimes I Might Be Introvert released in late Autumn. It's a powerful and immediate record, high octane and thrilling from start to finish.
What I feel about it is a different thing. I didn't even listen to it all the way through until a few weeks after its release. I am as I keep telling myself, a man who gets closer to sixty than fifty every day. So whether I want state of the art and full on state of the nation addresses rather than a cup of tea and a biscuit while I sit down with Upstairs Downstairs or A Room With a View on a Sunday afternoon is an openand valid question.
Still, it's an excellent record. Lyrical, funky and literate, in the way Soul II Soul and Massive Attack records were when I started getting into stuff like this first time round thirty years or more ago. In a year when Arlo Park's, Collapsed in Sunbeams, a middle class record to Simz deeply street one, scooped the Mercury Prize the two make interesting listening contrasts.
Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is rarely a comforting or consoling record in the way that Collapsed in Sunbeams often is. It's urgent and upbeat while Sunbeams consistently seems concerned with doing what it can to sedate the patient and encourage their temperature down. for better or worse.
I'd say the Little Simz record is much, much better, which is why it features much higher in my chart for the year. It will be well, well into December until I post its position, for those waiting with bated breath for thmy higher chart positions. That doesn't mean I'll listen to it that often it that often. I refer you back to the sixty and fifty thing. But I can recognise what a powerful and far ranging record it is.
It's a primed and toned middleweight, itching for its title challenge, skipping on its toes. Scaring the hell out of its ring opponent for whom the end is surely nigh. It's certainly one of the best albums of 2021.
Watching The Graduate, In The Heat of the Night and Midnight Cowboy are as good an entre as any into the strange, distorted world of America at the end of the Sixties. Old Versus Young, Straight Versus Alternative, Rich Versus Poor, Men and Women, Black and White, Straight and Gay. It still a fascinating moment in time, a society in turmoil, at war with itself with everybody it seems struggling to find their place within with the scheme of things.
There are plenty of great albums released at this time that document that process. The Velvet Underground & Nico, Forever Changes, The Doors and Sly & the Family Stone albums. The Monkees ones even. Plenty more at the fringes. The United States of America, The West Coast Pop Art Exprerience. But these are all to a greater or lesser degree hip records. Even The Monkees. Stephen Stills and Charles Manson both auditioned for The Monkees after all. There were plenty of other Pop artists of the time whose time it seemed by '67 was up who were still doing all they could to prove themselves relevant.
Take The Four Seasons. Refugees from the Doo Wop age, singers of harmonised roamntic ballads in impossibly high voices. Once seen as genuine competitors for The Beatles when they first arrived on American shores, by 1969 they seemed all washed up. Certainly as singles artists.
Then, in January of that year came The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette one of the oddest Rock albums ever released and certainly far from the worst. A concept, and a lavishly packaged record with a mocked up newspaper cover, a comic book insert that screamed 'contemporary.' . As for the music, no more love songs, or at least straightforward ones but instead tracks that tackled themes the group had never touched on before, societal struggle, war and politics of all kinds, albeit approached in a satirical and obscure manner.
Directed by band member Bob Gaudio, who co-wrote the songs with Jake Holmes who had worked in comedy previously, and produced in a lavish manner by Gaudio, who had often taken this role for previous Four Seasons records.
It's a record destined for commercial failure and critical acclaim. Too obscure in terms of its themes for radio play, too clever for its own good, though it's full of great pop melodies often tending to the baroque and the tradition of Jimmy Webb.
It's an album essentially destined for the likes of me. Record collectors in constant search for the last piece of the puzzle.The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette is a must buy for the types who haunt record shops whenever they have a couple of hours free. Not just for its wonderful packaging and its oneupmanship kudos, (a key factor), but for the sheer quality of the record. Its an obscure masterpiece, almost beyond criticism.
File next to Sinatra's Watertown and John Phillips, John The Wolf King of L.A. as documents of how strange straight, white America became towards the end of the Sixties and into the Seventies. The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette like its title. is a host of contradictions, a hall of mirrors, and most importantly a very, very good record that rewards repeat listening. Track it down.
Best Ever Albums - Top 1,000 Albums - 871 The United States of America - The United States of America
Saturday, September 25, 2021
A record so fundamentally introverted it refuses to so much as look you in the eye, Lights Out, Lonely Birds, the second album from Texas band St. Yuma, definitely has its own specific charms, Unfurling at a funereal place, it reminded me of East River Pipe in its head on chest, deeply inset melancholy.
There's definitely some beauty to be gleaned from this kind of pursuit. Essentially predicated on self-absorbtion of the most clinical kind, St.Yuma somehow make a kind of winning hand out of it through the sheer strength of their songs and their ability to construct and maintain the warmest, most claustrophobic mood imaginable.
Telling the band to snap out of it is clearly not going to be any use at all. I found I took to Lights Out, Lonely Birds the longer it played. Not an album that any mother wants to hear on coming into her teenage son's bedroom perhaps, but I definitely think I'll be coming back to this. Forty minutes of sublime ennui.
Friday, September 24, 2021
Nevermind was released thirty years ago today, so now is as good a time as any to write my own review of it. It's a record that changed things, perhaps the last Rock and Roll album to genuinely be able to make that claim. I bought it at the time. You had to if you had more than a passing interest in music of any kind. On a recent trip to Canterbury I was told that my original vinyl copy is probably worth £100 or more. Nice and slightly astonishing to hear. Not that I'm planning on selling it any time soon.
I was twenty six turning twenty seven when this record came out. That 'stupid club', 'the twenty seven club' that Kurt was to join soon. I was off to Dortmund, Germany where I would meet the biggest Grunge fan I would ever meet, just as that particular movement came into its own, thanks largely to Nevermind. That friend, like Kurt is no longer with us.
'He's the one, who likes all our pretty songs. And he likes to sing along. And he likes to shoot his gun. But he knows not what it means.' Lyrics from In Bloom, Nevermind's second track. Like so many of the lyrics on the album they resonate with fresh meaning thirty years on.
'I don't have a gun', on third track and third huge smash single from the record Come As You Are. A bassline pinched from Killing Joke's Eighties. Nirvana were magpies essentially, picking the pockets of hugely contrasting moments from Rock and Pop's past and making them all work in a new way. Punk, Black Sabbath and The Beatles were Kurt's main sources of inspiration, and he understood them all innately, chucked them all in the pot, mixed them up and spat them out with gleeful intent like no-one had ever quite done or has done. Before or since.
After Breed's full throated howl comes Lithium, probably my favourite song on the whole album. 'I'm so happy. Cos today I've found my friends. They're in my head.' 'That's OK. My will is good.' This one has always struck me as having almost religious fervour. That's no revelation. 'Light my candles. In a daze. Cos I've found God.' More than any other Nirvana track to my mind this makes me think of religion and our quest for meaning. Sadly, (no tragically), drugs are clearly there too.
Then Polly, a song about abuse and a perfect way to end a perfect side of music. Anguish, pain, an open wound. There's no consolation here. Unlike elsewhere, not a hint of irony.
Flip the record. Side Two. 'Come on people. Smile on each other. Everybody Get Together. Try to Love One Another. Right Now.' A steal from The Youngblood's utterly idealistic and utopian Sixties hit single, 'Get Together' sung in a high pitched girly voice by bassist Krist Novolesic before the drums kick in. Like many of the tracks on Nevermind, this one's a bit difficult to listen to now with hindsight. 'Just because you're paranoid. Don't mean they're not after you...' It's been drained of its original rage and joy by the passage of time. Fine track mind.
Talking of draining, on to Drain You another of the album's finest tracks to my mind. 'Now it is my duty to completely drain you...' Plenty of Bi-Polar wisdom. Potfulls of pain. 'A love song. Or rather a song about love.'
Lounge Act one of the few songs on the album that sounds like an album track. Probably the weakest track on the record but it still sounds damned fine. Nirvana by numbers, if such a thing is possible.
Stay Away, another album track but the record isn't treading water. You can almost see the crowd surfing. Then on to On A Plain, another personal favourite. Grohl's backing vocals. 'Love myself, better than you.' Grunge Beach Boys. This has always struck me as a surfer song.
Something in the Way. Another comedown song like Polly on Side A. Quiet resolution and then the record's done and we can go home. It's a good one, that's for sure. Age hasn't withered it. A couple of years later, I sat one Friday afternoon in my Grunge mates' flat watching events unfolding in Seattle on MTV until the news was finally announced that Kurt was gone. It was difficult to find any genuine meaning in such utterly tragic news. It's difficult to find any all these years later. RIP Kurt. 'Oh well. Whatever. Never mind...'
A proper treat on a Friday morning. A song by song compilation of covers of one of the most important Rock albums ever made; The Velvet Undergroud's stellar debut from 1967; The Velvet Underground & Nico. A record that now sounds as if it's hewn in living stone.
Released appropriately on the label it first came out on, Verve, this tribute can't of course and doesn't want to be seen or heard apart from the original. Listening through to it is a constant comparison process with the Velvet's versions to what the songs spoke and speak about.
The Velvet Underground & Nico was very much a product of the New York streets. John Cale, as much an author of the record as Lou Reed or Andy Warhol, said he couldn't believe how dirty the city was when he first arrived from rural Wales.
This record captures plenty of the gritty thrill of urban neophyte experience although it's a damn sight better produced than the original, that record's one obvious flaw. This is a good thing as much that seemed muddy and obscure on that record, no matter how often you played it, now speaks clear. You can hear every one of Reed's words, and that can't be anything but a good thing.
Some of the covers here are comparatively straight, some take more risks, trying to burrow in to the essence of the originals. St. Vincent's spoken and whispered vocal take on All Tomorrow's Parties is by turns irritating and invigorating. Nothing here is shabby though. It's all deeply heartfelt and thought through.
It's difficult to overstate the importance of The Velvet Underground & Nico. It's one of Rock and Roll's few genuine game changers, not at the time of its release where it was a complete critical failure but shortly thereafter, the starting point for innumerable musical and artistic statements and also changing the direction of countless lives who heard and responded to its call.
From here come Bowie and Roxy, Can, The Modern Lovers and New York Dolls, New York and London Punk, Liverpool and Manchester Post Punk, R.E.M. and The Smiths, Nick Cave, Sonic Youth, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Creation Records, Pixies, My Bloody Valentine. So many more. A good half of my record collection. Many other artistic statements of different kinds too. The thrill of discovery. All of the joy and pain of life. Iggy too. One of the last of this generation still standing. It's wonderful hearing him and his take with Matt Sweeney on album closer European Son.
I loved listening to this. It's a valid and realised statement, both moving and thought provoking. Most of all it takes you back to the original. In wonder.
Thursday, September 23, 2021
'Hey it looks like the bear stole the honey from the bees.'
Not an album I would have anticipated would be on my end of year rundown of favourite records but this one definitely will be. That's my failing not Crowded House's. It's not as if they're not a band with a fair pedigree. In some ways perhaps they occupy a space particular to themselves.
So this, Dreamers Are Waiting is their first record since 2010 and a cursory initial listening registers it as good as anything they've ever done. The space that they occupy is being utterly mainstream, they've sold records by the truckload down the years, but also routinely quality. Not many ithers I can honestly say this for.
I don't like all of the record. In many ways the model for Neil Finn, the main man for Crowded House has always been The Beatles. But consistently the McCartney of The Beatles rather than Lennon. He lacks Lennon's acerbic quality, much preferring McCartney's sweetness and classicism. But while McCartney could do Blackbird and Hey Jude, you could also have to endure Ob La Di or Maxwell's Silver Hammer somewhere along the way. Finn has the same occasional tendency for saccharine.
But his strike rate on Dreamers Are Waiting is remarkably high. The band are one of the few I can think of that make cruising down the middle of the highway seem like a great idea. It's great to see the leftfield maverick promise of Split Enz, the band Finn started out with, realised to this degree over so many years.
Wednesday, September 22, 2021
Sometimes you buy albums because you come across them by chance and think you should have them without really knowing them or even being sure that you'll actually like them. Such was the case with me and the eponymous debut from The Raincoats, first released in 197,9 when I chanced upon it in a German record shop about fifteen years later and sensed I should own it. I don't think I listened to it much at the time. I listen to it all the time now.
It was a landmark, for sure,(even in 1979), but not to everyone's tastes. Danny Baker of the NME described seeing the band play thus: 'they are so bad that every time the waiter drops a tray we get up and dance.' This is a perfectly valid opinion and a funny one, though of course it reflects the chauvinist world The Raincoats wandered into.Not everyone will like this record. It's made for certain ears.
Now it doesn't sound anything like as other-worldly or strange as it must have done at the time. Its rhythms and jerkiness, its awkwardness have become familar contours of the Rock and Roll landscape. Largely due to bands like The Raincoats who were brave enough to make the records they did back in the day, when it was a more difficult and dangerous thing to do.
In a memorable scene in the wonderful 20th Century Woman a film about the changes of the late Seventies in terms of lifestyles and attitudes, the following interaction takes place:
the Annette Benning mother character comes into the boy's room and finds him and a female friend listening to the first Raincoats album. She can't understand why anyone would want to and the conversation goes as follows:
'Dorothea (Benning): What is that?
Abigail: It's The Raincoats.
Dorothea: Can't things just be pretty?
Jamie: Pretty music is used to hide how unfair and corrupt society is.
Dorothea: Ah, OK, (sits on bed). So they're not very good and they know that. Right?
Abigail: Yeah. It's like they have all this feeling. And they don't have any skill. And they don't want skill. Because it's really interesting what happens when your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it. It creates this energy that's raw. Isn't it great?
Dorothea doesn't respond.'
The Raincoats is jittery and skittery, like a band rehearsing for the first time,. Its fire is fuelled by the sensibilities of two quite different singers, Ana De Silva and Anna Birch. De Silva is more obviously Punky and abrasive while Birch has genuine chidlike innocence, sounding like a refugee fromSeventies BBC children's programmes. Bagpuss or Noggin The Nog.
'Nothing is ever as exciting as the first time.' Birch said many years after the event. 'It's just so thrilling making your debut record. Nothing beats it.'The Raincoats next two albums before their original disolution Odyshape and Moving are both excellent records but Birch is right, nether of them are instilled with the primal thrill of true invention like The Raincoats is ,
There's plenty of serious stuff discussed here. Rape, the armed forces, gender roles, (the inspired cover of The Kinks Lola). But The Raincoats make it all sound like the best fun you can ever have with your clothes on. You get the sense that this will sound even better in fifty years time.