Saturday, January 30, 2010

438. #1 Record- Ironic title number… actually I’ve lost count.


Album: Number 1 Record.
Artist: Big Star.
Year: 1972
Genre: Pop.
Tracks
  1. Feel
  2. The Ballad of El Goodo
  3. In the Street
  4. Thirteen
  5. Don't Lie to Me
  6. The India Song
  7. When My Baby's Beside Me
  8. My Life Is Right
  9. Give Me Another Chance
  10. Try Again
  11. Watch the Sunrise
  12. ST 100/6
I suspect a conspiracy at work, it's the only way I can account for this. I think a group of the contributors to the list decided to have a bit of a fun with the concept and subtly include a massive gag purely for their own entertainment. While everyone else decided to take their awesome responsibility seriously and carefully evaluate whether Revolver was better or worse than Pet Sounds, a small but statistically significant bunch of giggling jokesters decided to subvert the entire experience. Whoever these funny-buggers were they've given us not one, not two but all three albums by Big Star in the top 500. Take that mainstream rock press!

As far as conspiracies go it's perfect. If they'd chosen a completely worthless musical act (Bucks Fizz for example) people would have picked up that something was wrong and approached the pranksters who would have tried to maintain they were deeply moved by Makin your Mind Up. It also would have looked odd if Big Star appeared at number one but having all three releases in the bottom 100 is crazy but not so implausible it immediately calls attention on the entire ruse. Most people would look at the list and say "Oh another album by Big Star. They were obviously a lot more influential than I thought. They must have been seminal." Few people know what seminal actually means (and fewer still can say it without giggling) but it's a great way to describe an album that you don't really like but think people who know more than you enjoy.

Look I have nothing against Big Star and nothing against this album. I just can't for the life of me see why it's here. It's not really groundbreaking in any way. Nobody is trying anything new, playing in a unique time signature or breaking out an instrument that hadn't made it's way onto a pop record before. You can't say this album was the first of it's kind, if anything it's the 10,000th of it's kind. The only thing unique about it is the fact that it sounds really British despite being American. It's totally unlike other American albums but a lot like a lot of English ones. That technically makes it unique but not in any revolutionary way. None of the musicians are brilliant masters in their field. A list of the greatest singers, drummers, guitarists or bass players isn't going to include a member of Big Star anywhere in it's ranks. That's not to say they can't play but I'd describe them all as "competent" rather than outstanding and who wants to be described as competent? ("Hey you have to come down to the pub there's this new band playing who are all really competent.") . There's not a song on this album that I hated but nothing at all that stayed with me. It made as much impact on me as a ball of wool makes on concrete. The only emotion I had while listening to this album was confusion at how it possibly rated above almost half the albums that loiter in the charts below it.

The only way I can account for this album's success is to blame it on patriotic American's who grew up during the British Invasion years of Rock and Roll and were overly enthusiastic about a group of their countrymen proving that it wasn't only Limeys who could make pop/rock. Either that or my conspiracy theory was closer to the mark than I realised.
Highlight: The Ballad of El Goodoo, if only for the name.
Lowlight: Try again.
Influenced by: The Beatles, The Kinks etc.
Influenced: REM. Tom Petty and others.
Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: (This is a comment made on someone else's review) "What kind of person gives a one star review to an excellent release of Big Star's first two albums???? Your kind is what. Really, you should be sterilized before you reproduce."
-Ouch. Clearly there's no allowing for differing music tastes.
So is this truly a Number One album or just a bit pile of Number Twos? Let me know below.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

439. In Utero- An audio suicide note.


Album: In Utero.

Aritst: Nirvana.

Year: 1993

Genre: Grunge

  1. Serve the Servants
  2. Scentless Apprentice
  3. Heart-Shaped Box
  4. Rape Me
  5. Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle
  6. Dumb
  7. Very Ape
  8. Milk It
  9. Pennyroyal Tea
  10. Radio Friendly Unit Shifter
  11. tourette's
  12. All Apologies

Nirvana are one of those bands who never did what people thought they were going to do. In their short career and longer pre-history they’ve defied expectations every step of the way. Nobody expected them to become a mainstream success and then suddenly they did. They stunned their record label by becoming the biggest band in the world with a commercial breakthrough. Then they released an attempt at career-suicide which was expected to flop but still sold bucketloads. Just when people assumed they’d become a permanent fixture in the rock stratosphere their leader decided to effect the music world’s most permanent form of band break-up. After Kurt’s death the rest of the band were expected to forever live in his shadow but 50% of the leftovers formed the Foo Fighters and Nirvana became just his first band.

In Utero is the last Nirvana album, it was recorded when the band was uncomfortable with the superstar status they’d received and wanted to record a raw album without the commercial sound that the mega-selling Nevermind used to make them the biggest band in the world. Kurt Cobain threw polished production (and actual tunes according to some people) out of the window and went for a sound that moved towards hardcore punk. The result is a bit of a tricky listen if the only Nirvana you’re used are the hit singles that were all over the radio back in the early nineties. The second track Scentless Apprentice replaces a chorus with a series of distorted screams, which makes it slightly more accessible than Tourettes in which Kurt screams every single word. There is also a lack of cheeriness in the lyrics as well. Rape me caused some issues when it was released and a lot of confusion. I’m going to assume it’s not a tautological request for consensual unconsensual sex and is actually related to record company executives (anyone out there ever heard a positive song about a record exec? If your favourite band has a song called “Hooray for the suits!” or something similar please let me know)

But while there’s a lot on In Utero that would never make it near commercial radio it had two big singles which prove that Cobain could produce a hit when he needed to. Heart Shaped Box is a song that makes good use of the light/heavy technique that Nirvana made popular and many have overused since: Acoustic verses and electric choruses with added grunt. All apologies, the album closer gives us another good riff which a million teenager boys were probably practicing in their rooms within an hour of buying the album.

Cobain’s suicide within a year of its release turned In Utero into something he never meant it to be: his final statement to the world. Kurt may have written a note and quoted Neil Young in his greenhouse but for the fans this album and its lyrics are his final message. The overall effect is definitely a harrowing portrayal of a troubled soul. The press were keen to label Cobain “The voice of his generation” a tag he apparently hated as much as Bob Dylan did when he copped the title in the sixties. Nobody in their right mind wants to be called the voice of his generation. The only person who has embraced the idea is Kanye West who took on the title himself and is as big a tit as the hip-hop world has ever managed to produce.

It’s not fair to suggest that Nirvana owe their popularity and record sales to the death of their lead singer. Cobain could clearly write a song. If you want further proof that they weren’t one trick ponies then give Nirvana Unplugged in New York a listen. Many bands would be fairly pitiful when stripped of their distortion pedal and bombastic drumming but Cobain, Grohl and…um… the other guy prove that they had the musical talent to outlast the grunge fad they helped start. They also continued to defy expectations by playing a 14 song set mainly comprised of obscure covers and their lesser known album tracks. It’s just a pity their lead singer’s mental health couldn’t live up to his talent.

Influenced by: Gang of Four and death metal.

Influenced: Countless thousands of angst ridden teenagers.

Highlight: Heart Shaped Box and All apologies.

Lowlight: Tourettes.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: “I gave this 1 star because ive only heard 1 song off the album I didnt hear the song that well, it was blasting in a furnace Running into telephone pollsThis album just isnt very good, ive only heard 1 song off the album though, but if i may quote some lyrics

"Hay! What?!
Ive got a rude compliment
Only looking out of my heart shaped box!"

THose lyrics Cobain wrote arent very good, someone needs to tell this guy to get his head together”


-Normally I’m scornful about people who review an album after one listen and incandescent about people who only hear one song, but this one just left me baffled. What’s with the furnace and telephone polls reference?

So is this audio nirvana for you or sonic hell? Let me know below.

Friday, January 22, 2010

440. Sea Change- Over produced in a good way.


Album: Sea Change.

Artist: Beck.

Year: 2002.

Genre: Rock.

  1. "The Golden Age" – 4:35
  2. "Paper Tiger" – 4:36
  3. "Guess I'm Doing Fine" – 4:49
  4. "Lonesome Tears" – 5:38
  5. "Lost Cause" – 3:47
  6. "End of the Day" – 5:03
  7. "It's All in Your Mind" – 3:06
  8. "Round the Bend" – 5:15
  9. "Already Dead" – 2:59
  10. "Sunday Sun" – 4:45
  11. "Little One" – 4:27
  12. "Side of the Road" – 3:23

If you’ve read all the posts I’ve put up on this blog so far you might have gathered how much I hate over-production. I’m a fan of keeping music as simple as possible. If you’ve written a nice song on your acoustic guitar then I’d prefer to hear you play it with that one instrument than have it augmented by strings, backing vocals and other embellishments. It’s one of the reasons I like live music where performers have nowhere to hide and are forced to get by on the quality of their music and their own talent. I’ve often blamed producers for this. A performer comes to the studio with a bunch of demos they wrote on a guitar, if all the producer needs to do is set up a few mikes and remember to hit record then they’re not really justifying the massive paychecks studios give them. But if they decide the song can’t survive without orchestration (which of course they have to arrange and produce) then suddenly they’re earning their millions. My hatred of over-production is a fundamental part of my music appreciation but was challenged in every way by Beck’s Sea Change.

There’s a huge amount going on behind every song on this album but it works, it really works. Paper Tiger starts with vocals, drums, bass and guitar but eventually becomes almost overtaken by a string section that sounds like a room full of violins, backing vocals eventually kick in which means all that’s missing are strange sound effects to make the overproduction trifecta complete (the strange noises do crop up on other tracks: Sunday Sun features percussion that sounds like one of the presets on a cheap electronic organ). It should be awful but it isn’t, it’s flat out fantastic. It’s one of the best thing’s I’ve heard in ages and made me wonder where Beck has been all my life. Paper Tiger is the best track on what I’m happy to declare is a really strong album that gets better with every listen.

The reason this song survives being so heavily interfered with in the studio is mainly because those strings don’t do anything that you expect them to. Violins normally fulfill a definite role in pop music. They make big statements in the background, the say: “This is a big important song that took a room full of musicians to make and should be treated with respect” or they say: “This is a sad song and this is an especially sad bit so you need minor key violins to make you sad” or even worse: “the singer doesn’t have anything to do in this bit so we need an important backing for her to look melancholy and whistful in the videoclip.” Strings are usually predictable and straight out of a publication called The Pop Producers handbook, which I’m sure sits on the console in all major recording studios. But the violins on Paper Tiger aren’t fitting into anyone’s long term plan. For a start they sound unlike strings I’ve ever heard before. While they’re recognizably cellos and violins (and probably violas, no I don’t know what they are either but they’re probably there) they sound more like they were recorded in Area 51 than Abbey Road. There’s a weirdly alien tone to them which his highlighted by their ability to turn up when you don’t expect them and behave in ways you didn’t see coming. These strings aren’t just an aural backdrop they’re a dark presence trying to usurp the mood and throw the track to places it was never expecting to go.

But don’t go thinking that the only thing Sea Change has to recommend it are a bunch of unexpected violins. There’s a lot more to this release than just session musicians you didn’t see coming. Beck is clearly a talented guy. He can write songs and he can play but what sets him apart is his voice which is a truly sensational instrument in his own right. His range isn’t magnificent, at times he sings in a deep register and at other times he sings slightly deeper, but it has a fantastic tone. I’ve heard voices described as rich before but never felt the need to use the term myself until now. If Beck’s albums didn’t sell then he could probably live on money borrowed from his voice which is one of the wealthiest I’ve ever heard.

Beck uses his voice to the fullest effect. He never belts out notes but sings each song as gently as he can. His voice is always full and centre and the final effect sounds a bit like what God would sound like if he decided to record an album. Except you can’t really imagine the creator of the universe being involved in a messy breakup, which Beck clearly was. The songs on Sea Change deal with the disappointment of a relationship that went to pieces and so it’s not cheery but any stretch of the imagination. Beautiful: yes, but cheery: no.

This album made me want to go out and hear more Beck but I’ve deliberately held off because I know he’s got another album in the countdown and I want to listen to that release with as fresh an ear as possible. But he’s definitely gone from my “vaguely on my musical radar" list to “someone to hear more of” list.

Highlight: Paper Tiger. Great track.

Lowlight: Hmmm, struggling with this. There are no obvious weak moments.

Influenced by: Nick Drake.

Influenced: This is a pretty unique concept, I don’t think you could hear this and say- that’s just what I want to do. You just have to enjoy it.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: “There are few albums as great as 'Sea Change,' because in no other albums does Beck royally suck my derriere. With mayonnaise.”

-That’s the complete review right there. I haven’t the faintest idea what they’re talking about.

So are you at his Beck and Call or do you wish he’d Sea Change completely? Let me know below.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

441- Tragic Kingdom- I certainly didn’t see this coming


Album: Tragic Kingdom.

Artist: No Doubt.

Year: 1995.

Genre: Pop.


Tracks

1. Spiderwebs
2. Excuse Me Mr.
3. Just a Girl
4. Happy Now?
5. Different People
6. Hey You
7. The Climb
8. Sixteen
9. Sunday Morning
10. Don't Speak
11. You Can Do It
12. World Go 'Round
13. End It on This
14. Tragic Kingdom

This caught me by surprise. I honestly wasn’t expecting to see No Doubt anywhere in the top 500 albums. It’s nothing against the band themselves I just had no idea that they actually made an impact. I can remember when this came out and heard one or two of the singles but I can’t recall anyone critically raving about it. I wonder how it would fare if the Top 500 was voted on again today? 14 years after its release is Tragic Kingdom being held up as a pop masterpiece or has everyone moved on? I guess we’ll find out when Rolling Stone does the inevitable reboot of the 500 list.

Part of me is also surprised that more people haven’t embraced No Doubt’s approach to music making. It seems to me that if you want to sell lots of albums it’s a good idea to appeal to as many people as you possibly can. Death Metal albums are all very well but they only appeal to fans of Death Metal which is a fairly shallow pool to draw your potential audience from. But if you can produce a cross-genre release that’s as inclusive as possible then sales await you by the truckload. No Doubt’s secret was to get a pop singer who appeals to female fans of popular music and stick her in front of a bunch of guys who know how to play rock and roll. Clever plan.

I’m not normally a pop fan because most of your popular divas sing in front of a musical backing which takes all of twenty minutes to dream up. The important thing is the voice in front (and the video clip), the musicians behind could be replaced by machines, and in fact they frequently are. Rock fans like me don’t like this, it doesn’t matter how nice the singer is to hear or look at and how catchy the tune is we just don’t respond to it if there’s nothing real there to latch on to. No Doubt put as much effort into what goes on behind Gwen Stefani as she does. Pop fans bought it and their boyfriends were prepared to listen as well.

In fact they actually put more effort in than they needed to. There’s a lot going on in every track. Bass and guitar riffs, horn sections, tempo changes there’s a lot to appreciate. You could remove Stefani’s vocals and enjoy most of the tracks as instrumentals, and there aren’t many pop albums that could make that boast.

Consequently putting Tragic Kingdom in a genre is tricky. It’s a bit too rock to be pop and a bit too pop to be rock. It’s possibly influenced by Ska in it’s rhythms but not enough that you’d call it an actual Ska album. It’s a happy product of a time when bands were liberated from genres. Record companies were less interested in what section of music store it belonged and more interested in how they could sell it on MTV. And Gwen Stefani’s looks made No Doubt’s music an easy sell. Which is not to take anything away from her musical ability and vocal talents.

Tragic Kingdom dances lightly with ska melodies, flirts with rock, skips gracefully with pop and then falls flat on it’s face when it slams into prog-rock at the very end. The title track which closes the album has all the pretensions and affectations of progressive rock and closes the album on a definite low point. But before the line graph of the album crashes at the end of the disc there is a definite high point with Don’t Speak which was one of the album’s many singles (at times it seems like Tragic Kingdom sprouted more singles than it has tracks). Don’t Speak is one of the songs that is relentlessly catchy with a vocal hook that stays with you long after the song ends. But unlike a lot of lesser bands No Doubt managed to milk every inch of mileage out of their song’s impact. The production and Stefani’s vocals make a catchy song a bit of a classic I have to say.

Tragic Kingdom may drag a bit in the middle and fall in a heap at the end but there are more hits than misses and those who (like me) dismissed it should give it another look.

Highlight: Don’t speak.

Lowlight: The Title track.

Influenced by: Madonna and Ska.

Influenced: Pink and other’s who produce pop without a conventional look.


Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "first of all i'd like to start of by saying that no doubt is not and never will be a ska band. for some real ska or ska punk bands try listening to the pietasters,the toasters,skinnerbox,the gadjits,issac green and the skalars,the busters,the specials,the slackers,desmond dekker,op.ivy,the skoidats and many many more."


-the best way to annoy someone on Amazon is to say that a band with commercial appeal is part of an obscure sub-culture.

So do you have No Doubt about Stefani’s talents or is it all just Tragic? Let me know below.

Friday, January 15, 2010

442. Boys don’t cry- It’s sort of an album by the cure.


Album: Boys Don't Cry.

Artist: The Cure.

Year: 1980

Genre: Pop.

Tracks.

  1. Boys Don't Cry
  2. Plastic Passion
  3. 10:15 Saturday Night
  4. Accuracy
  5. Object
  6. Jumping Someone Else's Train
  7. Subway Song
  8. Killing an Arab
  9. Fire in Cairo
  10. Another Day
  11. Grinding Halt
  12. World War
  13. Three Imaginary Boys

In order to clear up any confusion- Boys don’t cry is the debut album from The Cure if you live in America. If you don’t then their debut album was Three Imaginary Boys which is basically this release with a slightly different track listing. While it’s pretty much unheard of today there was a time when America would tinker with English releases in order to tailor them to the US market. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones had totally different releases on either side of the Atlantic. So The Cure are in good company, but that’s the only time I would ever lump those three bands together in the one category.

When I was at University you could easily divide people into two definite categories- Cure fans and everyone else. They were distinct groups and both thought the other were complete wankers. Cure fans firmly believed that everybody else had inferior music tastes and that by following Robert Smith and Co they were automatically slightly better than the rest of us who listened to more mainstream music. They believed their music taste made them unique and somehow special. It goes without saying that if everyone suddenly woke up one morning loving the Cure as much as they did they would move onto something more obscure before lunch and deride everyone for liking something as mainstream as the Cure.

I know it’s wrong to form opinions of bands based on their fanbase but it’s fair to say most Cure fans weren’t really a good endorsement for the band itself. At Uni I hated The Cure primarily because I couldn’t stand the tossers who raved about them. Now a decade and a half later I’m taking the opportunity to listen to a Cure album all the way through with those prats just a distant, gothic memory. I’ve now got the chance to evaluate the album on it’s own merits without any of the baggage that annoying fans provide.

I can say now that Boys don’t Cry is a hit and miss affair. I liked some parts and not others. I can clarify this distinction further- the parts I didn’t like were all the bits were Robert Smith sang, the parts I liked were the bits where he shut up. The Cure’s vocals are a love-them-or-loathe-them affair. There’s something about his tone and inflection that either move you or grate on your nerves like the sphinx grinding its teeth. It doesn’t affect me like nails on a blackboard it’s impact is more like nails being hammered through a blackboard I’m holding to my forehead. There’s real pain involved.

If you’ve heard Smith sing you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t then I can only describe it as flat-sounding and whiney but with excellent diction. He might sound like a whinging cockney but he does hit every consonant even if he does seem to add extra syllables to the vowel sounds in order to really highlight how approximately he hits notes. It’s like he’s working against his English accent and trying to use every possible accent during the pronunciation of one vowel sound. "I’m going to sing this word like a Texan, Indian, Cockney and Belgian all in the one go". There is no way I’m getting past that noise which is a pity because to my surprise I quite enjoyed what the band were doing. Smith might be an irritating singer but as a guitarist he’s no slouch and the band as a whole produces a really good sound. If they had a different singer I might have been there with the prats at uni singing their praises.

The other thing that annoys me about Robert Smith (and I hate to keep hammering the guy but this has to be said) is the fact that he has "a look". Onstage Smith always appears with jet black hair in an Edward Scissorhands style along with eye liner, pale make-up and smeared lipstick. It’s an affectation and one that I think goes against rock. To my mind the only reason a bloke needs to spend more than ten minutes getting ready to go onstage is because he can’t track down where a groupie threw his pants the night before. The idea of needing to work on your make-up suggests a definite image and I don’t think good music needs an image to survive.

Highlight: Some of the guitar stuff on this album is really good.

Lowlight: Fire in Cairo.

Influenced by: Punk and new wave.

Influenced: Many a prat.

Favourite Amazon customer review quote: “Basic, hypnotic, synic, lipstick. All of these apply to Robert Smith & the 2 other boys in their 1st real performance. Put the lights out & listen to the silences between the tracks as even they are evocative of an album that stands out from the crowd.”

-I’ve never heard an album’s between-tracks silence praised before, but then I’ve never heard of the word synic either so…

So do you love the Cure or would you rather have the disease?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

443. Live at the Harlem Square Club- You will boogie.


Artist: Sam Cooke.

Album: Live at the Harlem Square Club.

Year: Recorded in 1963, released in 1985

Genre: Soul.

Tracks.

  1. Feel It
  2. Chain Gang
  3. Cupid
  4. Medley: It's All Right/For Sentimental Reasons
  5. Twistin' the Night Away
  6. Somebody Have Mercy
  7. Bring It On Home to Me
  8. Nothing Can Change This Love
  9. Having a Party

I know it’s an odd thing for a guy doing this blog to say but I’ve never been a huge fan of studio albums. I prefer the feeling of a live show recorded warts and all with no overdubs and everything as it was on the night. A few album’s back I wrote about How Will the Wolf Survive by Los Lobos and from my raving you might have assumed I listen to this album all the time. In fact I rarely put my copy of Wolf in my CD player but I often listen to live Los Lobos shows. If you wonder why I’m a fan of live releases and not studio recordingss then whack Sam Cooke's Live at the Harlem Square Club in your ears, it’s about as good as live albums get.

It’s actually surprisingly easy to bugger up a live release. One way to do it is to overdub sections and fiddle with things so you lose the feeling of a live band. This practice is surprisingly more widespread than you’d think and lots of live releases feature guitar solos, percussion or extra vocals that were added later in the studio. This turns the audience into just another instrument to be faded in and out at will until it feels like just another studio release. The Rolling Stones even had an early live album that was primarily made up of tracks they recorded in the studio with audience noise added later which is definitely just cheating. The other way to stuff up a live disc is to record it so it sounds like it was all recorded on a mobile phone by someone in the back row of an auditorium. Often the audience is so up front and centre that the aural range does a better job of recreating a party with an album in the background than a live show. Sadly every live Beatles album ever is like this. Beatles convert recordings exist more as audio documents of their fan's deranged hysteria than the band themselves.

While it was made before the Fab four took off, the people who recorded Sam Cooke at the Harlem Square club did a magnificent job of capturing the perfect live album. You can clearly hear the band and Cooke’s vocals but the audience comes through loud and clear and their evident excitement is really infectious. The overall effect makes you jealous you weren’t there but glad that this recording is definitely the next best thing.

Thankfully the guys onstage are as good as the backstage boffins setting up the mics. This is soul music at its finest: at its worst it’s great and at its best it’s flat out brilliant. Twisting the Night Away was always a song that I was pretty much indifferent to but the version on this album is truly magnificent. King Curtis swings on the saxophone and Cooke doesn’t just sing he commands. The man is issuing orders up there on stage. You will twist! And you know they do. Twisting is one of the few songs when you can’t hear the audience and you know it’s because the entire club was basically just a huge corkscrew of happy groovers making communal arsewits of themselves on the dancefloor. I know they were dancing because I certainly was. When I first heard this I could barely contain myself and felt irresistible boogie urges. It was only due to an incredible sense of restraint on my part that my fellow train travelers weren’t treated to the sight of a 36 year old twisting his way down the carriage with an extremely foolish grin on his face. I had to content myself with some frantic toe-tapping. And it’s a great example of the other reason I love live albums. The single version of twisting is okay but when you get a great band in front of an audience everything lifts up several notches and the track cut in the studio just pales in comparison.

There isn’t a low point on this album. Cooke transforms Cupid draw back you bow from a slightly lame and pissy track into a great number. The guy clearly has a midas touch. Bring it On Home To Me has been done by loads of people but Cooke blows them out of the water here and cranks out a version that makes you forget anyone else ever stood in front of a microphone. The only people who can come close to doing this song as well as Cooke are the other people in the audience who can’t stop singing along.

If you haven’t heard this album then I urge you to check it out. It’s the best new thing I’ve heard so far on the countdown and I can’t recommend it enough.

Highlight: Twisting the night away is the Everest in an album of Himalayas.

Lowlight: It’s nine tracks long and consequently far too short.

Influenced by: Blues and Gospel.

Influenced: Everyone whose ever played soul music since.


Favourite Amazon customer Review Quote: "This is perhaps the greatest record of all time. I've played it for my friends, and they love it, I've played it for my mom and her friends and they love it, me and my dad sit around and get drunk and listen to it.
I have had this album stolen by from me by roomates, friends, relatives, it is a classic album, that everyone can enjoy.
Sam Cooke was the greatest singer of the 20th century. He makes Sinatra etc look like a f***ing joke."

-Isn't that cool? I starts off so happy and then flings in a zinger at the end.

So do you think Sam Cookes or is he just a big Harlem Square? Let me know below.

Friday, January 8, 2010

444. Criminal Minded- Possibly a new low.


Album: Criminal Minded

Artist: Boogie Minded Productions.

Year: 1987

Genre: Rap.


Tracks.

1 Poetry
2 South Bronx
3 9mm Goes Bang
4 Word From Our Sponsor
5 Elementary
6 Dope Beat
7 Remix For P Is Free
8 The Bridge Is Over
9 Super-Hoe
10 Criminal Minded
11 Scott LaRock Mega-mix

Boogie down productions is a rap/hip hop group made up of two guys: KRS-One who provides the rhyming and Scott La Rock who DJ’s. Normally When it comes to rap groups (about whom I know nothing) I have to look this sort of information up but with Boogie Down productions there was no need because these two names make up about 80% of their lyrics. The only thing KRS-One is capable of rapping about is how spectacularly brilliant he is and how the only human being on earth who could possibly approach him for incandescent perfection is Scott La Rock. While the Fugees name dropped all over their album the members of BDP clearly feel that there is nobody worthy of name dropping on their release except themselves. They clearly view each other as name-droppees rather than droppers. If you love KRS-One as much as he loves himself (and I’m not sure this is possible) then you probably enjoy this sort of stuff but if he gets on your nerves like he does mine, Criminal Minded is an insanely irritating listen.

Criminal Minded features the rapping of KRS-One over the top of a series of “dope beats” supplied by Scott La Rock who has ripped them off actual musicians. Probably the low point on Criminal Minded is Dope Beats which features backing unwittingly supplied by ACDC. The opening riff of Back in Black is constantly looped to provide the backing for KRS-One to get megalomaniac over the top of. It goes without saying that I’m a huge fan of Back in Black. But mindlessly repeating the first half of the riff commits the huge sin of turning something fabulous into something annoying. It's like Boogie down productions are just taunting the audience by including snippets of something way better than them underneath their rapping. It’s a constant reminder of the fact that you could be listening to much far superior music but instead your stuck with this nonsense. Over the top of Angus Young’s restricted riffing KRS-one tells us yet again how fantastic he is. He tells us the he has dope beats without once pointing out that ACDC had them first and used them much better.


KRS-one likes to call himself a poet. The opening track of Criminal Minded is called Poetry and the word "poet" appears in pretty much every song. So just how proficient a wordsmith is he? “The Super Hoe is loose in your section/And he's armed with a powerful erection” is just one of his finest rhymes. "However, I'm really fascinating to the letter/ My all-around performance gets better and better" is an example of his modesty at work and here's a gem from this same song: "After years of rocking parties now I picked up the knack/ Because everything that flows from out my larynx/ Takes years of experience and bottles of Beck's/ I cannot seem to recollect the time I didn't have sex." You can unpack that last line for ages and still have more fun with it. Presumably he's implying that while the rest of us have more innocent childhood memories (playing with a favourite toy, watching a loved one injure themselves in a comical way, eating chalk) the first memory that KRS-One has is of the day he became a man, thanks presumably to the easiest girl in the kindergarten. Unless of course he just has an especially bad memory or his first sexual experience was so mind-altering that it completely erased his life up to that point and he emerged sweaty, spent and incapable of recalling his childhood. Either way it's a truly magnificent boast and I take my hat off to him. Some rappers suggest that they get a lot of sex but KRS one has taken it a further step and deserves all our admiration.

But just for a minute Imagine if you had someone in your workplace who behaved like KRS-One does. Pretend your staid and boring place of employment had a rampaging egomaniac with no capacity for restraint on the payroll. Some guy who spent their time telling everyone they were the best accountant that ever lived and all other accountants were beneath them. And not only did they declare themselves the best number-cruncher who ever lived but also the inventor of accountancy and incapable of remembering a time when they weren't accounting. Not only did they boast this but they wrote it down on top of spreadsheets prepared by better accountants who went before them. It would drive you nuts. You'd be gathering together in the photocopy room and organizing a contract hit on the guy. So why the hell is it okay if it does it on a CD? Why is behavior acceptable in music when it's not in real life? The only answer I can come up with is that it isn't unless your 15 and the sort of people you idolize are the sort of people who brag incessantly about their sex life and how good they are in a gunfight. The rest of us can leave this sort of thing well alone.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "You know,in 1986 I thought diss records went out with UTFO and SHANTE. Then I heard "South Bronx" an anthem to where hip-hop really started also an unexpected answer to MC SHAN's classic hit "The Bridge". I felt "The Bridge","South Bronx" didn't move me at first,it sounded like a demo,didn't seem real to me. Then SHAN answered back with "Kill That Noise",it didn't hit me at first whom he was feuding with. Next,"The Bridge Is Over" hits the airwaves like crazy. I had no choice but to give it a listen and damn,KRS-ONE's dissing the whole JUICE CREW (SHAN,MARLEY MARL,MR. MAGIC and SHANTE)except BIZ MARKIE & BIG DADDY KANE,kinda put SHAN in his place on the dissing part. Still it didn't get me into them. But it gave me a buzz. I had to hear what's next by BDP."


-I honestly haven't a clue what on earth that person is talking about.

Influenced by: Grandmaster Flash.
Which is my standard response to every Rap album's influence.
Influenced: Oh... generations of great MC's probably.

Highlight: God I wish there was one.
Lowlight: Start at track 1 and work forward, it's all pretty low to be honest.

So do you Boogie Down or is the whole thing just an incredibly annoying collection of poorly written egomania? Let me know below.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

445. Rum Sodomy and the Lash- Probably the best Celtic Punk album I’ve ever heard


Album: Rum Sodomy and The Lash.

Artist: The Pogues.

Year: 1985

Genre: Knees up punk.

Tracks.

  1. The Sick Bed of CĂșchulainn
  2. The Old Main Drag
  3. Wild Cats of Kilkenny
  4. I'm a Man You Don't Meet Every Day
  5. A Pair of Brown Eyes
  6. Sally MacLennane
  7. A Pistol for Paddy Garcia
  8. Dirty Old Town
  9. Jesse James
  10. Navigator
  11. Billy's Bones
  12. The Gentleman Soldier
  13. And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda

My horizons have definitely been widened by this experience. Writing this blog has taught me much about music, especially three genres that I’ve never liked: Hip Hop, Country and Punk. While I’ve had my views on the first two challenged the last one has been pretty much blown out of the water. I’ve come to an understanding that Punk isn’t so much a genre as a state of mind. I thought Punk was the Sex Pistols and the first Clash album but I realise now that Punk isn’t in the eye of the beholder it’s in the head of the creators. The Pogues play punk music on traditional acoustic Irish instruments. They have all of the punk aesthetic but a sense of musical history and an ability to play accordions, whistles and banjos.

The most famous member of the Pogues is Shane McGowan who handles most of the vocals and is a legend in the UK for two main reasons. The first is his alcoholism, which started in his early teens, and the second is his spectacular brand of facial ugliness which he must have carried from the womb. Apparently these two states are not unrelated- McGowan drank due to his sensitivity about his looks, although possibly he just wanted to consume any nearby liquid to remove all reflective surfaces from his presence. While his looks might be a drawback if he wanted a career in a boy band his notoriety probably helped the Pogues career.

Not that I’m suggesting for a second that the Pogues needed a gimmick to get a gig. They didn’t need to find the most unattractive singer they could find in order to stand out from all the other traditional celtic punk bands on the market. Until Flogging Molly and The Popes came along they were the only guys doing what they do. They had the “Irish Punk Rovers” market pretty well sewn up. And it was sewn up darn well. There’s a lot to love on Rum Sodomy and the Lash, the Sickbed of Culuchainn is a fantastic track that really rocks but is just overtaken by Sally Mclennane which must really explode when played live.

But while McGowan’s car-crash dentistry and deranged look didn’t hold the Pogues back, apparently his drinking did. Eventually his wild ways made him too unreliable and he was booted from the band for missing performances. While it might have been an issue late in their career in the earlier stages when Rum was recorded his drinking is actually part of the charm. Make no mistake about it, McGowan was clearly pissed while these sessions were being recorded. At times during Dirty Old Town I swear you can hear him pause to take a quick swig. But it doesn’t hold the album back since the entire release is so alcohol-sodden you could get tipsy just by running your tongue around the outside of the disc. Its music designed to be played in pubs by performers who are halfway to being completely legless and an audience who are halfway beyond them. Lyrics are frequently concerned with alcohol, wine, whiskey and other spirits (although surprisingly not rum) are mentioned constantly. If you decided to down a drink every time Shane or one of the other vocalists sang about imbibing then you’d never hear the end of the album.

But the heavy drinking mood really suits this music, you can easily imagine the entire band pretty strung out on booze. It sounds like lead vocals are taken by whoever can remember the words and locate a microphone with backing supplied by anyone still standing. The album’s one instrumental was probably supposed to have lyrics but nobody could remember what they were or else the person who nominated themselves lead singer was so pissed he spent the session crooning into a hatstand. McGowan handles most of the vocal duties which is just as well because his face would be much improved by being hidden behind a microphone. Cait O’riordon sings one song and she might be uglier than Shane for all I know but when you hear her voice you can’t help but picture her as being as beautiful as he is hideous. Her voice has that sort of tone.

The final track on Rum Sodomy and the Lash is a cover of The band Played Waltzing Matilda a popular folk tune about an Australian who goes off to fight in the First World War and comes back without his legs. It’s been covered by artists all over the world and is a popular anti-war song often played by the likes of Joan Baez and other folkies. As an Australian myself it’s a pretty important part of my musical heritage and a song that means a lot to me. While McGowan might be the sort of singer who would be laughed out of an X-factor/pop idol audition he’s just the sort of guy who can do justice to the sentiment in this song. I would never knock Joan’s voice but this is a song that needs to be sung by someone who sounds like they really were at Gallipoli and left a part of their soul (and a fair chunk of their body) in the mud. McGowan gives the track his all and it makes for an impressive conclusion to a really great album.

Highlight: Sally Maclennane a great track.

Lowlight: The old main drag. Like the most tedious waltz you’ve ever heard.

Influenced by: Whiskey, beer, Guinness and other spirits.

Influenced: Flogging Molly.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "If it hadn't been for my horse, I would never have spent that summer in college."

-That's the entire review. That's all it says. Baffling.

So… the pogues… a rum bunch of sods or lashings of good music? Let me know below.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

446. Suicide. Genuinely terrifying stuff.


Album: Suicide.

Artist: Suicide.

Year: 1977

Genre: Audio terror.


  1. Ghost Rider
  2. Rocket U.S.A.
  3. Cheree
  4. Johnny
  5. Girl
  6. Frankie Teardrop
  7. Che

Suicide is not an album I’d recommend to the faint of heart. To be honest I couldn’t really recommend it to anyone but certainly not to people who need to sleep with the lights on. It’s designed to be dark and scary and it culminates on the most unquestionably terrifying thing I’ve ever heard on record.

There are only two members of Suicide and one of them doesn’t play an instrument at all which means all the sounds heard behind the vocals are created by one guy. Normally this would make him a multi instrumentalist but since all the sounds are created by synthesizers and drum machines it makes him more of a “guy who can operate two machines.” Traditionally synths are used to give tracks more of a light and breezy feel. When you think about synthesizers in pop music they’re usually part of a bouncy pop song- not part of… this.

The soundscapes on Suicide are straight out of a David Lynch film. They’re dark and brooding and really spooky while occasionally being highly evocative. Ghost Rider, the opening track, is about a motor bike riding comic book hero (later played by Nic Cage in a movie that nobody bothered to watch) and the music perfectly evokes the sound of someone riding a chopper down the highway without ever using an actual motor bike. You could tell it was about a motorcycle rider even if the vocals weren’t there.

The drum machines on Suicide create rhythms but never noises that sound like actual drums. The synths provide noises that aren’t trying to replicate instruments as much as create a mood. Occasionally something that resembles an actual organ bubbles to the surface but generally the sounds are more like industrial machinery and droning robotics than anything you could buy in a music store. There is also a constant, repetitive rattle which is really disturbing in a way that I can’t describe.

The other half of Suicide provides the vocals which are just as unsettling as the music. Alan Vega doesn’t really sing the lyrics he utters them in an echo-laden monotone that sounds just like the narrator of your worst nightmare. For most of the album he simply breathes his words into a microphone but on occasion he becomes more…involved. One such example is on Girl when the woman in question turns him on. While a steady drone seethes behind him he proceeds to replicate a sexual experience and full on orgasm. It’s slightly disturbing but nothing compared to the next track.

Frankie Teardrop is the most unsettling thing I’ve ever listened to. For ten minutes Suicide relate to us the tale of a man who can’t afford to feed his wife and child so instead he kills them and then commits suicide and suffers in hell. The story itself is disturbing enough but the track adds an extra element of spook with the backing "music" which starts of sounding like a hellish factory and by the end sounds like hell itself. And then there’s the screaming. The gunshots in the narrative are represented by ear-piercing shrieks laden with echo and mixed at a much higher volume than the rest of the song. They’re made all the more terrifying by the content of the lyrics which does draw you in. As the vocalist said “Frankie picked up a gun… pointed it at the six month old kid in the crib…oh Frankie” I found myself listening intently saying “No Frankie don’t do it” so when the scream came it was a real jolt. The howl that accompanies the murder of Frankie’s wife is even worse and then finally his demented wailing in hell is just painful to hear. I have to admire them for creating such an amazing experience using just sound but I never, ever want to hear it again.

It staggers me that Suicide were apparently really good live. The concept is mind boggling. One guy standing in front of a microphone talking away while someone stands nearby flicking switches. It’s an odd concept but not nearly as strange as the idea that people would pay money saying “I really hope they play that one about the guy who kills his family, that track rocks!”

Highlight: Frankie Teardrop, it’s an impressive achievement.

Lowlight: Frankie Teardrop- it’s agonizing to hear.

Influenced by: Comics, The Velvet Underground and apparently a desire to pioneer a new musical direction.

Influenced: I can hear a lot of Nick Cave in this.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Qoute: "Im sorry, but this is not entertaining music, infact its very very annoying to the ears...i can even recall the misfits early demo stuff having an entertaning synth sound in there music( and that was just plain laughable, but wasnt terrible). This music however, is not "music", and anyone who can actually sit down and listen to this all the way through and try to tell me that I dont get the "artistic value".......well......to them i say, Enjoy sniffing your own farts the rest of your life"

-enjoy sniffing your own farts. Ouch! Take that Suicide lovers!

So would you rather suicide than listen to suicide or are you a big fan of murder/suicide narratives complete with aural depictions of eternal suffering in hell? Let me know below.