Monday, September 03, 2012

Great Albums: 42 - Roxy Music (Roxy Music, 1972)

If I were giving proper credit, I'd have to give this album a more thorough analysis than a couple of paragraphs here.  In fact, there are single songs on this debut LP which deserve whole posts to themselves.  Is there a better opening quarter in music than 'Remake/Remodel', 'Ladytron', 'If There is Something' and '2HB' (well, yes, there are -  but not many)?  Is there a more ambitious single track in music than 'If there is Something' (probably not)?  Has a voice ever sounded as riddled with vice as Bryan Ferry singing 'Death could not kill our love for you' (not in popular music, no)?  Or as arch as the opening vocal on 'Strictly Confidential' (only - again - in Bowie's back catalogue)?

It's an uneven record, though not in the usual sense of good and bad.  More it's album that leaps all over the place in terms of style, tempo, tone and instrumentation both in between tracks and often within the tracks themselves.  'If there is something' starts as country twang in the style of the Rolling Stones and ends up as the sort of messianic cry that Bowie did so successfully at the time.  The frantic pop genius of 'Do the Strand' comes straight after the melancholy 'Sea Breezes' - though to be fair, the  'Sea Breezes' is as schizophrenic a track as anything else in pop, suddenly stopping the slow, sad keyboards about three and a half minutes in and changing into a different (though equally lonesome) song altogether, complete with stuttering, almost jokey vocal, jazz bassline, discordant, off beat drums and guitar feedback - then drops back into the initial sound for the final minute.  'In Every Dream Home a Heartache', menawhile is just bloody scary.

Roxy Music were the only artists in the seventies to get within touching distance of Bowie (and Ferry managed to out-louche even Dave at his most coked-up) - the fact this - their debut - is by a distance their best album possibly explains why they were never able to top him though.

Roxy Music on Spotify
If there is Something on Youtube

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Sunday, September 02, 2012

Great Albums: 43 - It'll End in Tears (This Mortal Coil, 1984)

I was sixteen in 1986.  Not a good age, really - no girlfriend, an obsession with kids' tv show Doctor Who (those two facts may be linked) and a preference for wearing diamante jewellry, white silk shirts and chains of pearls (that fact may also be linked to the first one).  Sure, I had the Smiths and Bowie but the real unflowering of music for me was still twelve months away.

Enter 'It'll End in Tears'.  Nicked to order from the Other Record Shop by the big brother of a guy at school, the tape of this album ended up in my schoolbag one rainy morning alongside that not quite Cocteau Twins album they did with Harold Budd (which I hadn't asked for) and Bowie's 'Heroes' (which I had). I can't even remember now why I wanted It'll End in Tears (possibly I never asked for that either - it was, in retrospect, quite a hit and miss operation but each tape was only a pound so even then not a huge amount of money - and the random nature of some of the stuff you ended up with was a little like an early, luddite version of doing playing random tracks on Spotify).

Anyway, in some ways this single album was as big a musical revelation as the now legendary Tape Dave Benger made the following year, but whereas the Tape was full of noisy guitar tracks by scruffy indie bands - the Weather Prophets, the Woodentops, Andy White, Rote Kapelle, the Shop Assistants, A Witness, Stump and many, many more - It'll End in Tears was full of cover versions of bona-fide forgotten classics, all of which I later tracked down and each of which added something vital and intriguing to my record collection over the next couple of years.  Two tracks stood out though - not least because they were sung by what appeared in every respect to be an actual, came-down-from-God-to-freak-me-the-fuck-out angel.  Coincidentally, the singer in question - Liz Fraser, for those who inexplicably don't know who I'm talking about - also turned up on the Harold Budd tape but while that was good, the Mortal Coil cover of Tim Buckley's 'Song to the Siren' remains one of the most astonishing vocals in music.

Even more astonishing though is the fact it's not even her best vocal on the LP.

'Another Day', a beautiful song by Roy Harper in which he sings with both male and female inflections to describe a love affair unfulfilled, is fairly wonderful in its original format, but Fraser makes it hurt, where Harper makes it pretty, and absolutely nails every one of the big moments in the song.  It's my favourite performance by her - and she's sang several of my all-time favourite tracks - and the fact that the album also contains 'Song to the Siren' (and several excellent non-Fraser covers amongst the atmospheric, string-bathed originals which fill out every Mortal Coil release) means it'll never be far from my turntable/cd player/iPod.

It'll End in Tears on Spotify
Another Day on YouTube
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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Great Albums: 44 - Ready for the House (Jandek, 1978)

A certain person will be along in a moment to claim that I'm being wilfully obscure, but nowadays Jandek is a cult classic, not a scary wierdo.

That's right, isn't it?  For years the story was more important than the music - the mysterious singer/songwriter who could neither play nor sing very well, releasing one or more albums a year for decades, every one attributed to the non-name 'Jandek' (well, except this debut album, which was originally credited to The Units), the only clues to the real person behind this most outside of outsider music being the polaroids which make up most of the album covers.

Since Jandek unveiled himself (admittedy as the Representative of Corwood Industries) in Glasgow a few years back, some (not all) of the mystery has gone and, possibly as a result, the music is getting a re-appraisal and, you know, there's something about it which is pretty special.

On first listening Ready for the House can sound like a joke - Emo Philips wailing over an untuned  two string shoebox guitar being played by a mentally deficient, tone deaf mentalcase.  But even on first listen there's an occasional phrase, a certain intonation, an unexpected set of not quite discordant twangs on the guitar, and you find yourself wondering - is it actually funny?  Is it even meant to be?

I think the latter, myself.  Jandek's not a con or a joke or an elbroate tax dodge.  There's real emotion in his signing and the lyrics - on this album more than any other - are terrifying at points.

Take the opening track 'Naked in the Afternoon'.  Stick it on in the car as you drive through the pouring rain one dark winter evening.  Put it on repeat.  And I bet you that you'll be starting to feel down and a little bit unsettled before you get tn miles.  It's creepy, and disquieting and even scary.

The rest of the album continues in the same vein, until the final track (the only electric one) finishes in mid-sentence (and then completes on another album entirely!).  It's not Brothers in Arms or some Joe Satriani guitar wankfest, but then that would be the antithesis of Jandek - soulless but competent, all pretence and style, no heart.  Ready for the House is all heart, it's just that that heart's been mangled and torn until ti sounds like nothing else you're ever likely to hear.

Go on, give it a try...

Naked in the Afternoon
What Can I Say, What Can I Sing
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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Great Albums: 45 - Delay: 1968 (Can, 1981)

OK, so it's a complilation album, really, and of outtakes at that.  But those lovely fellas at WasistDas asked me to have a think about this album for a project of theirs and, you know what - it's my favourite Can LP.

Yeah, it's Malcolm Mooney, not Damo Suzuki, and the dynamic is totally different.  Originally intended to be their first album (aparently to be named 'Prepared to Meet Thy PNOOM') and rejected by the shower of clueless clowns who evidently ran music at the time, it languishe din the doldrums of bootleg land for over a decade before been issued in 1981, on the back of Can achieving a degree of mainstream success.

It's an odd, fractured sort of album, and a diffuclt one to pin down.  At this point in time, Can sound like a proper rock band, albeit a messed up and disjointed one.  Touchstones for the sound of Mooney-era Can aren't the usual fellow travellers, NEU!, Tangerine Dream and Faust, but US freakout bands like the Red Krayola.  Mooney can't sing in a totally different way from the way in which Suzuki can't sing, but  it's a strangely hypnotic failure all the same.  Lines repeat over and over again (famously, Mooney is supposed, in his last Can gig, to have reated the same two words over and over again for three hours, before collapsing), Mooney yelps, screams and whines over the top of some great soundscapes (the rest of the band are as good as they were when amazing everyone on Ege Bamyasi et al) and amongst the freakishness genius tentatively pokes out its head.

(Dying) 'Butterfly', 'Nineteen Century Man" and 'Little Star of Bethlehem' in particular are as close to actual 'songs' as Can ever got, ever, but every track - even the very short Pnoom - are worth a listen, if only to hear Mooney's paranoid, druggy mutterings combine with the sound of the US psych scene, all wrapped up in Teutonic drive.

Mooney didn't last long, incidentally - he's on one proper album, Monster Movie plus the reunion Rite Time, this LP and a chunk of the recently released Lost Tapes and that's it.  He left the band in 1970 on mental health grounds and seems to be in good health now, recording as recently as 2006 and working on his art, unlike other casualties of the time.  Best of luck to him, I say, and thanks for this.

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Monday, August 27, 2012

Great Albums: 46 - The Marble Downs (Trembling Bells and Bonny 'Prince' Billy, 2012)

A friend of mine is fond of saying that you can compile a sensible Worst Ten Hollywood films list without once stepping outside the back catalogue of Mr Arnold Schwarzenegger, and while I'm not so sure of that (any Top 10 with no Braveheart or The Incredibles is nonense, IMO), I am inclined to say that you can create a Ten Great Albums and never leave the ouevre of Mr Will Oldham, in his many and various guises.  Like Bowie, he's going to pop up in this Top 50 more than once...

This first entry though is his most recent release, in company with Scottish alt-fok band The Trembling Bells.  It starts like, well like nothing else you're likely to hear this year.  'I made a date (with an open vein)' sounds like it should be a miserable dirge but instead it starts off with over two minutes of repetitive yet pleasant instrumental layered with Lavinia Blackwell's equally repetitive but wordless vocal, then some drums kicks in and what may be the most unlikely opening lines to a love song ever.

"I made a date with an open vein/And with scarlet matter emblazened your name"
 The song continues in sinilar vein - brilliantly unexpected lyric, great melody, two excellent voices, clever instrumentation - and in doing so sets the template for the rest of the album.  Not every track reaches the heights of the opening song, but a couple - 'Riding' (as bleak as call/response tale of incest and death as Nick Cave ever managed - and, in passing, a far better version of the song than the solo version which appears on the Palace Brothers 'Lost Blues' album ) and 'Ferrari in a Demolition derby' (proving intense can also be funny) are on a par with anything I've heard this year or last, and even the 'weak' songs have lots to recommend them.

Like I said there'll be more Will Oldham (as Bonny 'Prince' Billy, himself or Palace Brothers) to come, but this is worth savouring for now...

Spotify Link to Album
I Made a Date video

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Thursday, August 23, 2012

Great Albums: 47 - Extricate (The Fall, 1990)

In 1990 Mark E. Smith, the driving force behind the mighty Fall, had just divorced his wife and one-time Fall guitarist Brix Smith. The band, for years a cult favourite championed almost exclusively by John Peel, were surfing an unprecedented wave of popularity after Brix pushed Smith into recording far more poppy and commercial tracks (both 'Victoria' and 'Ghost in My House' had charted in the top 40 in the preceding couple of years while the ballet soundtrack LP, 'I am Kurious, Oranj' had gained the band favourable reviews from other than the usual music press suspects).

Those of us who loved the Fall approached this new, first post-Brix album with more trepidation than usual (and, tbh, you approach every new Fall album with more trepidation than optimism - he's a cantankerous and unpredictable old bugger, MES). The presence of Martin Bramah, invited back into the Fall fold 11 years after leaving, was a reassurance though - even if Smith took the Fall all the way back to their late seventies punk roots, with Bramah it'd at least be competent (he'd played on the brilliant Live at the Witch Trials).

The first single off the album 'Telephone Thing' was a bit of a concern.  I saw Smith do it with dance floor types, Coldcut, and - with the exception of the reference to elderly Easteneders' actress Gretchen Franklin -  can't say I thought much of it.  Shades of bandwagon hopping (as Madchester dominated the music scene) are not accusations usually aimed at the Fall, but they could have been at that point.

But I needn't have worried.  The LP, when it came out, was a fabulous synthesis of MES' love of old rockabilly songs, memories of Brix poptastic hooks and a completely unexpected but excellent dip by the singer into crooning on the slow lovesong 'Bill is Dead' (which came top of Peel's Festive 50 that year).   I've seen it  mentioned that song began as a parody of the Smiths, which seems unlikely - it sounds nothing like the Smiths - but whatever it started off as it ended up being the highlight of an album which already contained the brilliantly scabrous 'Sing! Harpy' and 'Black Monk Theme', the pop genius of 'Popcorn Double Feature' and the simply fantastic 'Chicago Now'.  It's a shame that Smith only really uses his crooner voice once more (on the following year's 'Edinburgh Man') but maybe it would've got boring if he'd over-used it. 

What I wouldn't do for Fall album as good as this nowadays...

Spotify Link: The Fall – Extricate
"Bill is Dead" on SnubTV

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Great Albums: 48 - Secrets of the Beehive (David Sylvian, 1987)

Stripped down to their bare essentials, with Sylvian's soft as Andrex voice whispering huskily in the middle of everything and Ryuichi Sakamoto's string arrangements draped over anything left over, these songs are as near to perfect a collection as any songwriter has ever managed. 

When I was a stuent, my flatmate, Alistair, had the album, not the cd, and for some reason when he put it on alwyas started with side two. Which meant I always started with a track which is now mid-album, 'When Poets Dreamed of Angels'.  With fantastic spanish guitar and Sylvian's stylised, impersonal, velvet voice counterpointing a lyric about wife beating, violence and medieval poetic imagery, it felt like the place the album should start, rather than the actual first track, the brief, conversational 'September'.  Re-listening on cd though, 'September' is exactly right - sparse piano and a brief (just over a minute) sketch of a couple lying to one another in what I tend to assume is continental autumnal sunshine (the September sun - now 'so cold it blisters' is revisited in one of the last tracks, 'Let the Happiness In').  From there, the mood wanders up and down without ever settling on one, unless the faintest scent of nostalgic melancholy counts.  Which I think it does, not least because nostalgic melancholy is my favourite kind of melancholy.

Sylvian's voice is so high in the mix (in a good way) that at times he's almost all you can hear, which is no bad thing with a voice like his, but there's still space for Sakamoto's lush (damn, I promised myself I wouldn't use the word 'lush' in this post) strings and some lovely bursts of trumpet and what sounds like double bass  and jazzy piano(on 'Mother and Child'). He never did anything even approaching this good again, but most people never do so even once.

Spotify Album Link
Sylvian singing 'September' live, 1995

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