52 Albums in 52 Weeks: A Look Back…

It started with a sort-of obsession with a website called Ruth and Martin’s Album Club, which ran for the best part of a couple of years, and involved inviting a celebrity (of varying degrees of actual ‘fame’ – JK Rowling, Richard Osman, Ian Rankin and Tim Farron, on the one hand; lots of people I’d never heard of, on the other) to listen to a ‘classic’ album they’d never heard before and write about what they thought of it. I had been toying with the idea of writing a weekly blog of my own, going through each of their selections, when on New Year’s Day, an e-mail from Mookbarks dropped into my inbox, linking to their new ’52 Albums in 52 Weeks‘ project. And having a bit of time on my hands in that dead zone between New Year’s Eve and the inevitable return to work, I thought that it would be a better idea to use their list. For one thing, it would have the element of surprise. Rather than spending literally weeks dreading having to find something worthwhile to say about The Wu Tang Clan or Andrew Lloyd Webber, news of the week’s album would appear each Sunday morning, and I’d fire up Spotify (and only twice through the whole project did Spotify not have a copy of the week’s album – King Crimson and Anais Mitchell). And it did have the effect of jolting me a bit out of my late-30 something indie guitar with a side order of folk and classic rock bubble.

So what did I learn from the process? Well for one thing, writing about music actually seemed to get harder the more I did it. At least if I wanted to avoid repeating myself. I’m not a musician – I can strum a few chords on a guitar, and I know roughly what a key change is, can identify a minor chord from a major one, but I’m not really in any position to write about the music itself, as distinct from my reaction to it. Years ago, Frank Zappa (whose music, I’m afraid did nothing for me) described music journalism as ‘people who can’t write, writing about people with nothing to say, for people who can’t read” and it is easy to end up feeling a bit of a fraud writing record reviews. There are really only so many ways of saying either ‘I liked it’ or ‘this did nothing for me’.  Am I really doing anything more than a bit of an ‘if you liked X, then you might also like Y’, with a bit of biographical stuff about what I was doing when I first heard those records with which I was already familiar thrown in? Or perhaps a brief explanation of why a whole genre, say early 20th Century classical or French chanson, had passed me by. On the other hand, if I was a musicologist, able to offer informed comment on the musical structure of songs by say, Prince or Childish Gambino, then how many people would actually understand a word I said anyway?  Is music journalism all a matter of hiding how little you really have to say?

Nonetheless, I enjoyed writing these pieces, and, for the most part, I enjoyed listening to records that I might never otherwise have given the time of day. Even if as often as not, I did end up having my prejudices confirmed: Repeated listening failed to shift my indifference to either Prince or George Michael, I am perhaps too male and too old to stand much chance of ‘getting’ Lily Allen or Girls’ Edition, and Korn didn’t sound any less like an angry man grunting pointlessly over a sludge of de-tuned guitar after four days’ listening. Whether I needed to give them more than 4 days to worm their way into my head, or whether it’s just not for me, I don’t know.

There were discoveries though. Of the 52 albums, 33 were new to me (though some were by bands that I was not unfamiliar with). And a few of these records I ended up going back to long after my four days with them were over. Anais Mitchell’s folk-musical re-telling of the myth of Orpheus set in rustbelt America Hadestown was a good soundtrack to the beginning of the Trump presidency and Tegan and Sara’s Heartthrob actually grew on me more after I had written the week’s piece and I actually think I short-changed the record a bit in my review. I discovered that I did in fact like jazz, or at least Miles Davies’ Kind of Blue (and Bitches’ Brew for that matter) which meant that I’ve found one more place to go when looking for instrumental background music when I’m writing. And then there were records that I didn’t love, but which nonetheless were better than I expected them to be. I’d never paid much attention to Lauryn Hill when she was at the height of her fame in the late 1990s – mentally filed her away as ‘that singer in the Fugees’ but listening to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill I realised that I’d been unfair. And maybe if I give the album some more time, then it will properly click with me.

And then there were those albums that I hadn’t listened to for years, and had the experience of going back to revisit, in one or two cases, decades after I’d last listened to them. As I entered my teens in 1991, it was inevitable that I spent a lot of my teenage years listening to the grunge music that came out of the west coast of the US. More than twenty years later, Nirvana’s Nevermind no longer really connected with me, whereas the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream did. Because leaving the very adolescent lyrics aside, it’s musically a great record – the production is fantastic. Then there was Cat Power’s The Greatest which brought back memories of running around the Meadows, and Beth Orton’s Central Reservation  which sent me back to my student days. Never mind Proustian madeleines, only certain smells are better at evoking memories of particular times and places.

And so finally it is over. Thanks to Emily and Fiona for setting up their 52A/52W site. It’s been a fun ride. This will no longer be a regular feature, but if you are reading this and thinking ‘But I really want to know what you make of this album, then leave comment or tweet me to let me know what the record is, and I’ll give it a listen and write up what I make of it.

 

Week 52 – Faith

And so, 364 days after I began this project of writing a review each week of the record featured on Mookbarks’ 52 Albums in 52 Weeks project, I come to the end.  I’ll be honest, of all of 2016’s untimely celebrity deaths, George Michael’s was the one that had the least impact on me.  Nothing against him as a person – it seems that in a milieu not short of sharks, he was a genuinely decent man – but I was always quite indifferent to his music.

As this is the final review I’d like to end on a positive note, but I’m afraid I can’t really.  On the plus column, there is no getting away from the fact that the lead single and title track, Faith, is an extremely catchy pop-song. I don’t know that it is simply that I hadn’t been paying attention before,  but I hadn’t really noticed that it was produced in the style of an old 50s rock ‘n’ roll song  – especially the guitar solo that comes in at around the 2min 20 mark.   Listening to the rest of the album, I wish that he’d tried recording a whole record in this style.

On the subject of things I hadn’t spotted before, the organ that plays at the beginning is playing the melody from his Wham! hit, Freedom.  And I’m going to throw a cat among the pigeons by suggesting that Michael wrote better pop songs with Wham! than he did in his solo career.  I mean, I know that they were writing pop songs for twelve year olds, but I would have been all of about 7 years old when they were a their peak, but leaving that aside, Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, Freedom and I’m Your Man have an earworm quality that is largely missing from this record.

The second track, Father Figure stood out to me mainly for the mondegreen “I will be your creature feature”  though the chorus sounds a little, um, worrying in this post Operation Yewtree world.  Ironic as George Michael was one big 80s pop figure who does not appear to have been accused of sexual harassment.  Or maybe it’s just that it comes immediately before the 9 minute I Want Your Sex which, in my chin-stroking way, I found myself rather appreciating the drum sound of.  Albeit there was to my ears absolutely nothing about the song that required it to be stretched to the length of nearly 3 pop singles.  If there is one prejudice of mine that I wasn’t really aware of until I got going with this project, it is that (with a lot of honourable exceptions) most pop and rock songs really don’t benefit from being more than four minutes long.

And maybe that’s a part of my problem with this record.  Of its 9 tracks, only Faith comes it under the four minute barrier, and most of the songs sound to me like they could have done with a bit of judicious editing.  Certainly, the whole of what would once have been thought of as the ‘second side’ of the record rather dragged to me.  Hard Day and Hand to Mouth sounded to me like background music for some kind of 80s-themed lounge bar from hell.  And I honestly don’t think I would be able to recall the melodies for more than half an hour after I’d heard them.  Look at Your Hands starts promisingly in an 80s pop-funk kind of way, but it takes nearly five minutes to never really arrive anywhere in particular.

Aside from the title track, only One More Try, which appealed to the part of me that loves melodrama in pop, there really wasn’t a lot else that grabbed my attention here.  On the other hand, it wasn’t Korn or Girls’ Edition, and Faith is one of a handful of genuinely top-notch radio friendly pop songs that he wrote, so it’s not all bad.  But I don’t think I’ll ever be going back to listen to it again.

Highlights: Faith, One More Try

 

Week 51: Joan Baez: Joan Baez

This week’s review is a little late as I was travelling over the Xmas period and didn’t have the means to listen to music on the move. So I sat down on the morning of New Year’s Eve and put Joan Baez’s debut record on Spotify and immediately found myself on wikipedia checking the release date. Not for the first time during this project, I’ve found that a sound or aesthetic that I associate with a particular time period actually goes back further than I had realised. Just as I could hear the DNA of Radiohead’s OK Computer in Captain Beefheart and DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing in David Axelrod, so I can hear a lot of late 60s/early 70s folk music in this record, notwithstanding it was recorded some years before either the end of the Chatterley ban or the Beatles’ first LP. It brought to mind in particular a live Tim Buckley record I had been given by a friend in the late 90s, after a late discussion in the Holyrood Tavern (RIP) decided I needed an education in folk music. There is something slightly psychedelic, a touch drug-influenced, about the sound that I don’t really associate with 1960. On the other hand, all those late 60s folkies had to be getting their ideas from somewhere…

The album is comprised entirely of covers of folk standards. And for the most part, it is the less well-known songs that work best. Silver Dagger kicks the record off on exactly the right note. There is more than a hint of Fleetwood Mac at their most folk-influenced. On East Virginia Baez uses her considerable vocal range to its best effect and conjures a dream-like sound that reminds me an awful lot of the neo-folk music that I used to listen to occasionally at Finsternis (RIP) in the early 2000s – possibly the only music club I’ve ever known where its denizens simply sat and scratched their chins listening to the weird and wonderful music, though this may have been a reflection of how difficult it would have been to dance to most of it. In particular, it reminded me of early noughties psych-folk band, Espers.

I was less enamoured of House of the Rising Sun, if only because I think of it as a song that requires a grizzled baritone vocalist, rather than a soprano with a three octave vocal range. It’s the one moment where the record veers off into talent-show vocal theatrics. On the other hand, on Fare Thee Well, her almost operatic voice actually works really well against the very sparse guitar-picking, so I’m forced to concede the possibility that my expectations as to how this song should be performed have been coloured by the Animals’ version, which still lay in the future when this was recorded.

For the most part, though, and somewhat against the usual run of things when it comes to my tastes in music, I think I like the up-beat faster-paced tracks more than the melancholy songs. Wildwood Flower rather than All My Trials, for example. Maybe it’s just that I’ve heard too much miserable singer-songwriter acoustic music for one lifetime now, or maybe it’s just that I prefer the songs where she makes fullest use of her vocal range. Or it could simply be that (to show the mechanics behind how I actually write these pieces) it is those songs which leap out most instantly to me, on the first few listens, and if I were to stay with this record for a few months, my favourites might be quite different. If it weren’t for the fact that I’m trying to catch up quickly on two weeks’ worth of ’52 albums in 52 weeks’ having been away from my spotify account and a working pair of headphones, I think I should give this record more time, but it is certainly a late entry for one of my favourite discoveries of the project. Now to see if a listen to George Michael’s debut succeeds in shifting what I admit has been up to now my utter indifference to his music…

Highlights: Silver Dagger, Wildwood Flower, I Know You Rider

Bonus Edition: Murmur – R.E.M.

So, with no record on Mookbarks 52A/52W page this week, I thought I should complete my ‘three favourite records’ posts. I’ve made a couple of false starts with this. I’ve written about my two other favourite records, DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing and Throwing Muses’ self-titled debut album. But in I find it harder to explain what it is that so captivates me about R.E.M.’s 1983 debut, Murmur. It just does. It’s been a part of the soundtrack to my life for more than quarter of a century and unlike pretty well everything else I was listening to in 1991, I haven’t tired of it.

At the age of twelve, about ten minutes before the rest of the world discovered them, I heard a song called These Days by a band called R.E.M. which was used by the BBC as the soundtrack to their highlights reel for the 1990 Formula 1 season. I remember trying to make a recording of it by holding a cassette player with a microphone up to the TV (even the sound of motor racing’s Alan Partridge, Nigel Mansell, droning over the middle 8 couldn’t entirely ruin it). And then three months later, they released Losing My Religion and Shiny Happy People and everyone had heard of them. Whatever it was that appealed to me about them seemed to appeal equally to my Dad, who I remember playing a cassette of their first two records Murmur and Reckoning the summer that the world discovered R.E.M – some 7 albums and 9 years from their beginnings. And of the two Murmur is the one that has stuck with me.

It didn’t have the instant ‘where has this been all my life?’ impact that the other two records had. It’s something that grew on me over a period of time. And of the three records, it’s the one whose appeal to me I find hardest to explain. I mean, yes, it’s a collection of twelve very well-written, catchy pop-rock songs. But I can think of plenty other records that fit that description. Maybe it’s that even after twenty six years, I’m not really sure what it’s about. Maybe because it’s not really about anything. Although I have a sort of half-baked theory that it’s a kind of concept album about communication.  Now, you might say that this is ridiculous, that most of the time you can’t even make out what lead singer Michael Stipe is saying. But maybe that’s part of the point. The listener can fill in the blanks for themselves.

Take album opener Radio Free Europe. Apart from the repeated chorus of “Radio Free Europe”, I can’t really make out what he’s singing at all. It might be doggerel, but I’d argue that it’s not doggerel in the way that, say, Noel Gallagher wrote doggerel. It’s the difference between me throwing paint at a wall, and a Jackson Pollock print. Even if there is the nagging thought in the back of my head that maybe there’s no difference at all. It’s a trick the band play again on Sitting Still, where odd snatches of comprehensible English emerge from the murk, but only the line at the end “I can hear you, can you hear me?” can really be heard clearly

Then there’s Pilgrimage, which combines rather melancholy and slightly sinister verses “Speak in tongues/It’s with a broken look/ Your hate, clipped and distant, Your luck/ Rest assured this will not last” with a euphoric, determinedly major-key chorus “Pilgrimage has gained momentum” that, when you stop to think about it, actually sounds quite sinister in itself when contrasted with the rest of the song. Is this a description of people being led astray by a kind of pied piper figure? A religious cult leader? It’s a theme that is perhaps returned to in Talk About the Passion, although I honestly can’t tell whether the first line is “Empty prayers, empty mouths” or “Into prayer, into mouths” (the former would, I guess, make more sense).

This juxtaposition of competing moods in one song is something of a theme in the record. Perfect Circle has a warm, and yet slightly discordant, echoey looping piano sound over which Stipe throws contrasting images of feeling perfectly at ease “A perfect circle of acquaintances and friends. Drink another, coin a phrase” and of social anxiety “Standing too soon, shoulders high in the room.” Is it a song about feeling completely relaxed, completely at ease, or about being the only person in the room who is not at ease?  Oh, and it has one of the finest fade-outs in pop music…

There’s no doubt, on the other hand, about the mood of 9-9. Beginning with an alternative version of Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord, Hesitate…” The most out and out rock song on the record, its dissonant harmonics are the sound of an anxiety dream and almost the only intelligible line to emerge from the murk is the repeated cry of “conversation fear.”

It ought to end with We Walk (and I think the C90 version of the record I used to listen to for years did as there wasn’t room on the tape for the final track) which on the one hand sounds quite unlike anything else on the record, but at the same time, kind of epitomises it. An unexpectedly jaunty, whimsical arpeggiated guitar track is the backing for an apparently nonsensical lyric “Up the stairs into the landing/ Up the stairs into the hall/ Take oasis/ Morag’s bathing” Or that’s how I heard it for years. One of probably many misheard or misunderstood lyrics (I mean, at the age of 12, when I first heard it, I probably misheard and misunderstood a lot of stuff in songs.  Though one should remember that it was presumably grown adults who signed off on using the Stranglers’ Golden Brown as a backing tune for an advert for Hovis.) Anyway I’d misheard the final part. It’s “Marat’s bathing” – which suddenly casts the song in a much more sinister light, given that Jean-Paul Marat was murdered in the bath… And perhaps explains why it sounds like everything is collapsing in the background at the end of the song.

This could all make it sound rather serious and po-faced. But its not. Thanks to the word of Mike Mills and Bill Berry’s rhythm section, an awful lot of this is very danceable. Certainly songs like Catapult, Radio Free Europe and Sitting Still are. There are bits of it that sound almost like the re-purposing of the tricks of 70s disco for what would years later come to be called indie rock. Because this was indie rock before it really existed as a genre in itself.

Is it a perfect record? Well, no. If I were deciding on the track listing, I’d ditch the album-closing West of the Fields which to my ears, just sounds like the band are for once trying too hard, and being too obvious, writing a song about a dream instead of the rest of the album, which evokes the feel of actual dreams. And I’d include in its place Carnival of Sorts from their 1982 EP – One of the best songs the band ever wrote, it would have made a great closing song for the record. And yes, I could make an argument that it wasn’t even their best record. Objectively, I can see the case for Automatic for the People, Lifes Rich Pageant or even New Adventures in Hi-Fi, but it’s not about what I think their best record was. Murmur is the one I like best.

Highlights: Oh, all of it. But especially Perfect Circle, 9-9, Sitting Still and Radio Free Europe. And Pilgrimage, and probably Shaking Through too…

Week 50: In the Court of the Crimson King

Listening to the opening track of In the Court of the Crimson King, I was reminded of nothing so much as the first time I heard Paranoid Android, the opening track on Radiohead’s OK Computer, which was a record which sounded much more inventive, much less like anything I had ever heard, at the age of 19, than it does twenty years later.

Up to now, I’ve never really dived into the less obvious corners of 70s prog-rock. Like everyone else, I’ve listened to Dark Side of the Moon, but Genesis, Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer, and yes, King Crimson, have been terra incognita for me up to now. And listening to this record, I realised that what Radiohead were doing in 1997 really wasn’t that radically different or new at all: they were simply re-tooling prog rock for the late 1990s. For a time when the listening public, or at least the taste-makers in the music press, had become a bit sniffy about albums that sounded like Tolkein-esque soundtracks to non-existent fantasy novels, because their teenage readers really wanted to think they had grown out of the Games Workshop stuff they were playing a year or two earlier. Who quite liked the idea of writing songs in free time, with jazz interludes and multiple key changes, but cringed at lines like:

The black queen chants the funeral march,
The cracked brass bells will ring;
To summon back the fire witch
To the court of the crimson king.

But different elements of this record kept bringing that Radiohead album back to mind. The way a song like Epitaph uses what sounds like multi-tracked recordings of human voices to create a not-quite-natural ghostly sound of a backing choir, the break into free time jazz that occurs at the end of 21st Century Schizoid Man, and even the curious echoes that the lyrics of Paranoid Android has of In the Court of the Crimson King.

Elsewhere, though, it sounds like the continuation of English folk music by other means – most noticeably on I Talk To The Wind and Moonchild. The trouble with listening to this nearly 50 years on from when it was first released is I can’t really know how radical, and more to the point, how futuristic, it might have sounded at the time. In particular, would someone listening to this album in 1969 have regarded the sound of the mellotron as being quaint and pastoral in the way that it does to my ears, or would it have been the sound of the future calling, back then?

I suspect that if I’d been 19 in 1969, I would have fallen in love with this record, but as it is, I was born too late and in any case, am too old, to really lose myself in its now rather dated sound. If prog-rock was meant to be truly ‘progressive’ – in the sense of doing something that had not been done up to that point, then the progress has been made. The idea of introducing elements of jazz and classical music into rock music, which up to that time, had been an evolution of the blues music of the American south, may have been radical at the time, but its since been done better and more convincingly by many others in the intervening years. It sounds an awful lot like I suspect OK Computer might sound to listeners in 2047. Something of a relic.

Highlights: In the Court of the Crimson King, Epitaph

Week 49 – Rumours and Tusk

So this week’s album over at Mookbarks’ 52A/52W project was Rumours. And right at the end, the review notes “…I should have gone for Tusk And the thing is, I’ve heard Rumours so often over the last thirty or so years that I couldn’t really summon up much inclination to go back to listen to it again. I mean, yes, Don’t Stop and Dreams were fine pop songs, if only they weren’t so damned ubiquitous, if not perhaps to quite the extent of the closing riff of The Chain which was used for years as the theme music for the BBC’s coverage of Formula 1 (two things about that video clip – 1: I was in the crowd at Pilgrim’s Drop at that race, and 2: How old must Murray Walker be now?). But really, the summary of the summary is: if you somehow haven’t heard one of the 40 million copies of this album, do go give it a listen, but if you have, the highlights on a re-listen are Gold Dust Woman and the aforementioned The Chain (and not just the bass part at the end, which actually sounds like it could equally easily have been tacked onto the end of Gold Dust Woman).
Whereas Tusk? Well, I’ve heard the title track, obviously, but I don’t think I’ve actually listened to it all the way through. I used to know someone who said she was named after a Fleetwood Mac song, and a part of me was a little disappointed that she was not called Tusk, or Albatross. So, how does it compare to its enormously commercially successful predecessor? Was it too clever, too experimental for its audience, or was it just not as good?

Listening to Tusk, I’m struck by the thought that Fleetwood Mac, at this point in time, at least, is not so much a band with three different song-writers as three quite separate groups who just happen to share a name and a rhythm section. Lindsey Buckingham’s blues-rock band is very much at the forefront here. He wrote nine of the record’s twenty songs. But there’s an also a band that writes more traditional AOR ballads that’s headed up by Chrissie McVie, and then there’s a dream-pop, folk-influenced group headed up by Stevie Nicks. And they really don’t have much in common. On this record, more than Rumours, I don’t think its just their quite different voices that enables listeners to tell their songs apart.
After a few listens, I’m pretty sure that the version of Fleetwood Mac I like most is the one fronted by Stevie Nicks. She has a better voice than either of the other two, and a sound that is much more distinctly her own than, in particular, Chrissis McVie. Songs like Sisters of the Moon and Storms sounds a little like a kind of radio-friendly precursor to the most melodic end of female-fronted alternative rock of the late eighties and early 1990s. In terms of her lyrics, if not her voice, I’m fairly sure I can hear her influence strongly in Tanya Donelly’s work with Belly and Throwing Muses. And for all that I can’t say I was taken by Hole’s cover of Gold Dust Woman, it’s hard not to hear echoes of the Mac on their best album, Celebrity Skin. And as I’m writing this, Laura Marling’s Rambling Man is playing on the sound system in the pub I’m in, and there’s something in her most nasal moments that suggest she grew up listening to Fleetwood Mac.

Buckingham’s best contributions to this record are the equal of anything that Nicks wrote for it. The Ledge and I Know I’m Not Wrong are just great blues-pop songs. Elsewhere, though, he’s clearly trying to lift from the new wave bands that were popular at the time, perhaps fearing that he might otherwise be seen as being as much yesterday’s man as the Eagles. And it doesn’t always work. In particular, his contributions to the first side of the second disc – That’s All For Everyone and Not That Funny sound weak to me, like someone trying, and failing, to be down with the kids (who will themselves be in their mid-50s by now, sic transit and all that…) That said, sometimes, as on the title track, Tusk, the experimentation and willingness to try something different works. I mean, what’s not to love about a song where Mick Fleetwood is credited with playing drums, percussion and ‘lamb chop’?

I’ve got most of the way through this without even mentioning Chrissie McVie’s songs. And to be honest, that’s because I don’t really remember much about them. I was a little surprised to discover that she wrote Don’t Stop on Rumours as it sounds so much like a Buckingham song, but here, it seems that ballads are very much the order of the day. I think my favourite McVie song remains the first Fleetwood Mac song I remember hearing, Little Lies from their 80s synth-pop record Tango in the Night. Maybe she’s a pop writer, and the 80s pop/rock thing just played to her strengths.

So its self-indulgent, and would probably be a better record if it were about two thirds its actual length. In particular, I think it might have worked better if all three of the band’s songwriters were given five songs each and Buckingham was forced to cut back his contribution. But maybe the twenty song, 80 minute, running time is simply a reflection of the fact that they would otherwise have been left with a very short double album. Which might be why just about every double album I can think of sounds a bit bloated and in need of a suitably ruthless editor. Has there ever been a double album that doesn’t feel a bit like an act of self-indulgence? Some might suggest The White Album, but I’d always thought of it as in need of editing.  And perhaps Blonde on Blonde, although personally I can think of a couple of tracks it could lose… All that said, if you’ve heard Don’t Stop, Dreams and the final minute of The Chain more times than you care to remember, Tusk is worth a listen, even if it is easy to see why it wasn’t anything like the commercial success that its predecessor was.

Highlights: The Chain, Gold Dust Woman, Storms, The Ledge, I Know I’m Not Wrong, Angel

Week 48: Nightclubbing

Earlier in the week, I was listening to an interview with the comedy writer and director of The Death of Stalin, Armando Iannucci where at one point he says “I wasn’t one of the cool kids. When I was given money as a teenager, I didn’t spend it on clothes. That was just boring. Mostly I spent it on comics.” Substitute ‘records’ for ‘comics’ and I was exactly the same.
And I wonder if that is why I didn’t really ‘get’ this record. I can’t help but be aware that Grace Jones is considered a significant pop-cultural icon. But just as I cannot understand, on the basis of having been stuck in a car listening to one of her albums, why some people seem to really identify with Lady GaGa, whose music sounds to me like very run-of-the-mill pop, so I can’t quite understand what the fuss is about Grace Jones.

Because, divorced from her look, how she presented herself to the public, her cultural significance, the music itself, if Nightclubbing is representative, sounds just sort of ok to me. No better or worse than lots of other synth or disco records put out in the early years of the 1980s. Maybe the trouble I have is that I lack the context. Perhaps most of the records that this sounds really similar to were actually made after, and heavily influenced by, Grace Jones. Or maybe the emperor was always a little under-dressed.

It begins with Walking in the Rain which does quite a good job of conjuring up a certain ‘city at night, in bad weather’ feel but doesn’t particularly stand out to me as a song.  Not that the blame for this can be laid at Grace Jones’ door, as its actually a cover of a song by the unknown (at least to me) Australian band, Flash and the Pan. Pull Up To The Bumper is the one song that I’d heard before, and is unusual for having been written (at least in part) by Jones herself. It’s one of the strongest tracks on the album – while not doing anything particularly new, it is a pretty good example of late 70s disco.

From there, the album loses its way a bit for me – or maybe it’s just that after 48 weeks, I’m just no longer paying attention as much as I need to be if I’m going to find anything to say about the record. I can’t help noticing in passing that the two other strongest tracks, the titular Nightclubbing and Demolition Man, were both written by other, more famous names. That said, her electro take on Nightclubbing is sufficiently different from the Iggy Pop version that appears in the film Trainspotting, that I didn’t recognise it as the same song the first time I heard it. And whether it is because she has the voice for it, or because Sly and Robbie produced it, her version of Sting’s Demolition Man is a much more convincing take on reggae than anything the Police ever recorded (not necessarily to belittle the Police, but I always thought they sounded better the less they were trying to sound like they had come up from the streets of Trenchtown.)

Maybe I’m being deliberately blind. Perhaps its just wrong-headed of me to dismiss as irrelevant the question of the image and persona she had so carefully crafted – after all, isn’t the history of pop music as much about all that as about the music itself? If David Bowie had always dressed in jeans and whatever t-shirt came to hand for his performances, would he have been the figure that he was? Well there’s the rub: I’d argue that, yes, he would have been, because the songs were good enough that it really didn’t matter what the singer looked like. And for all that I didn’t exactly dislike Nightclubbing, I don’t think the same can be said of it.

Highlights: Pull Up to the Bumper, Nightclubbing, Demolition Man

Week 47: Anohni – Hopelessness

I was dimly aware of the critical acclaim surrounding Anohni’s debut album last year, but I have to admit I’d not actually heard it at all before this week. A reviewer on Big Mouth was talking about what years of reviewing records for a living had done to his appreciation of music, and he singled out this record saying (something along the lines of) “I can see it’s a very well crafted Work of Art. But I honestly can’t imagine listening to it for pleasure. It’s just too serious, too po-faced.”

It is, to be blunt, rather overwrought. In part it is simply Anohni’s voice, although the title of the album serves as a clue that its subject-matter is fairly unrelentingly bleak. It begins with Drone Bomb Me in which a kind of electronic orchestral sound provides a backing to a song which melds a story of complete personal submission to one of the American drone war on the Afghan-Pakistan border. The mix of the political and the electronic sound put me in mind of Thom Yorke’s solo work, and, although the album has been talked of as the moment where she has gone full EDM, of 1980s synth music (maybe that’s because I think EDM is just an acronym the press have used to label ‘electronic music made in the last ten years’. Is it that much of a stretch to imagine a less commercially minded Eurythmics could have produced something remarkably similar years earlier. The recent PJ Harvey albums, with her interest in documenting military conflict, are perhaps another useful reference point.

Writing political pop music is hard, to be fair, and writing a whole album of it is harder still. Perhaps that’s why there aren’t many people doing it. The second track, 4 Degrees is her attempt at a climate change song and it ends up just sounding (like a lot of the album) rather melodramatic.  Maybe it’s just that, given my day job, I’m inclined to see politics in the wonkish mindset of a government policy officer, but I do often find that songs whose message boils down to “down with bad things” can be a bit dull. There are exceptions. If you want to hear a great song about environmental despoliation, Mercury Rev’s Goddess On a Hiway, with uses a doomed relationship as a metaphor for environmental collapse (or is it the other way around) would probably be on my Desert Island Discs. And R.E.M.’s Welcome to the Occupation was subtle enough that I at first missed the way it played on the two meanings of the word ‘occupation’, deliberately juxtaposing the terminology of the business world with imagery from the USA’s clandestine South American wars of the 1980s.

Lyrically, I didn’t hear anything so interesting here. I suppose it’s a good thing that someone is writing songs about drone strikes, the security-industrial complex exposed by Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning and America’s love of the death penalty, but I couldn’t help thinking it felt like a distraction from what I found most interesting about this record.  Because what I liked about it, primarily, was the music itself.  It is just very well crafted electronic music.  The opening notes of Drone Bomb Me sound a bit like what the slow end of 1990s house music might have been like if it had been written by more inspired musicians.  And the (presumably synthesized) strings come in at exactly the right moment.  And there’s combination of Anohni’s falsetto and the doom-tinged bass notes of album closing Marrow reminded me more than a little of bands like Portishead and latter-day Massive Attack.  Anohni’s vocal performance on Crisis just works, almost entirely independently of what he’s singing (I misheard the opening line as ‘If I killed your father with a trombone…’  The final minute is cathartic again, just through the choice of chords, the vocals, the change in the melody.  It almost doesn’t matter whether he’s singing about a drone bomb operator’s remorse or reciting a shopping list.

One of the things about trying to form an opinion about a record in four days is that sometimes you are left wondering if you’ve had quite enough time.  And I can’t help thinking this is such a week.  That with more time, I might come to love this album, or I might come to regard it as a rather clumsy attempt at making political electronica.  I just don’t quite know.  Ask me in a month…

Highlights: Drone Bomb Me, Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth?, Crisis

Bonus Episode: Throwing Muses – Untitled (1986)

Way back around the time Endtroducing appeared on Mookbarks’ 52 Albums in 52 Weeks project, I remarked that it would almost certainly have been one of the three records I would pick as my favourites were I ever to be asked to do a piece for Ruth and Martin’s album club. And at that point, I said I’d at some point get around to writing a couple of ‘bonus’ pieces about the other two. I thought I’d start with the one least likely to crop up in the remaining 6 weeks…

In 1994, when R.E.M. had briefly, and somewhat improbably, become one of the biggest bands in the world, I heard a song – and I can’t remember where – in which their singer, Michael Stipe, provided the haunting backing vocals while someone else, a woman whose voice I did not recognise at all, sung about, what, an ex-lover?, a dead friend? a dead ex-lover? Calling them in the middle of the night, or possibly only in a dream, seeking to wake a ghost. It stayed with me.

Some months later, I mentioned this to a friend who told me “Oh, that’s Kristin Hersh, the song’s called Your Ghost. I could make you a copy of that. But what you really want to hear is her band, Throwing Muses’ debut album.” So she bunged a recording of it onto a cassette, along with Your Ghost, and so it was that for much of my late teens, a slightly poor C90 recording of the band’s by-then deleted first record was a fairly constant soundtrack to my life. When I was in 6th form, and most of us couldn’t afford to buy many records (we are talking about a time well before Spotify or Youtube, or even Napster and torrenting…) and C90s were like Samizdat copies of forbidden, or rather,  very difficult-to-obtain, records. And this was about as obscure and difficult to get hold of as anything I had…

At the age of 16, it sounded not quite like anything else I had ever heard before. It begins with Call Me: For a few seconds, there’s tension building duel between the band’s two guitarists, – so far, so indie – and then the banshee wail of Hersh’s vocals kick in. “Read the stop signs!” she implores, at the beginning of what can best be described as a four part song.  If it were classical music, you might say it has four ‘movements’. It’s a shade under 4 minutes long, and yet fits in several changes, not only of mood and melody, but of time-signature with the band’s other guitarist, Tanya Donelly providing ethereal backing vocals. At a time when Radio 1’s take on alternative music was to play the singles from the first Oasis album on heavy rotation, this was music you could lose yourself in.

The second song, Green is perhaps the closest thing to a conventional pop song on the record, and the only one written by Donelly (who in contrast to Hersh, would go on to produce at least one million-selling record later) and perhaps a good route into the band’s sound for someone who is initially ill at ease with Hersh’s vocal pyrotechnics.  But it’s still recognisably a Muses song in a way that her later work, untethered from her step-sister, never quite was.

I Hate My Way could so easily be parody miserablism in the vein of latter-day Morrissey, and yet it isn’t. There seems to be kind of awareness of the ridiculousness of it all in lines like “I could be in a holocaust/ And hate Hitler/ My god I’m a child/ And hate school” – although last year I saw her performing at the Dissection room at Summerhall and she told a story about how the song was basically just a straight transcription of a conversation she had overheard on the college campus where her father worked.  And it’s just a really great song, whatever you make of the lyrical content.

There’s nothing resembling conventional story-telling on the record though. Much of what Hersh is singing I can hardly discern at all, and what I can make out is aimed more at creating images, at evoking a mood, than telling a story. On America (She can’t say no), a percussion track that sounds like a steadily cantering horse that speeds up as the song goes on provides a backing while Hersh appears to recount an especially bad dream “Oh/ It was a funeral/ Mine” And can anyone make a line like “A kitchen is a place where you prepare. And clean up” sound quite so ominous, so threatening as she does on Vicky’s Box. She makes it sound like she’s describing a scene from a horror film, where it is more likely a body that is being dismembered than a meal being cooked.

Delicate Cutters was a song about self-harm that meant that an awful lot of people assumed all the songs were essentially Hersh’s account of mental illness, though in the liner notes for the 1997 re-issue (that C90 wore out in the end…) she comments “I swear to god, we thought we were a party band… It has been suggested that I was insane during the Muses early days, something I have vehemently denied in my effort to prove that this stuff could come out of our girlfriends, our sisters, our mothers. Listening now, I wonder if I was all there. But maybe that was the point. Our girlfriends, sisters and mothers have been known to go elsewhere at times, too.

It’s a record that is influenced not by goth, but by the gothic. And specifically, the American gothic. Where European vampires are well-dressed upper-class sorts, American vampires, at least, southern state American vampires, are dusty and down on their luck. They would have spent their living years hopping rides on box-cars. And there’s something really rather unique about David Narcizo’s drumming. Apparently he had been the drummer in the marching band at Hersh and Donelly’s school, and he learned to play on a kit that didn’t have any cymbals. I’m sure that by the time they made this record, he had got hold of some, but listening to it, I’m not sure I can hear any. I do wonder if this rather unusual background goes a long way to explaining the record’s sound.  Although it is only a part:  more significant is that Kristin Hersh had either never been told that songs usually were in a single time signature, and consisted of verses, a chorus and maybe a middle 8 and a bridge, or else she found such restrictions boring.

The band are still going, over 30 years later. To my ears, they never quite topped this moment. The follow-up House Tornado sounded forced, like they were trying to maintain a reputation for weirdness they had picked up on that first record. The Real Ramona is worth a listen, and includes perhaps their finest moment, Two Step, the sound of the calm after the storm. University is a record that could have made them huge during the grunge/alt-rock explosion of the mid-1990s, but for whatever reason, didn’t. Hersh’s solo stuff is mixed, though a good way in is her 2010 album, Crooked. The band’s other guitarist, Tanya Donnelly, went off to be in The Breeders for a while, before forming Belly who were kind of a Throwing Muses-lite,  re-tooled for commercial success.

Why did this record connect with me at the age of 16? Perhaps because where so much pop and rock music is made by twenty-somethings already reminiscing about their teenage years, the band were all still in their teens themselves when they wrote this record. I had a much more mundane, settled adolescence than Kristin Hersh, who at the age of 18, had been (mis)diagnosed with schizophrenia, was pregnant with her first child, and was having record companies making apparently outrageous offers to sign her band (at least as recounted in her memoir, Paradoxical Undressing, which is worth a read). But it’s still a record that speaks to a time that even those of us with the most settled upbringings could find difficult. On its own, I doubt that would be enough.  It’s

On its own, I doubt that would be enough.  There are lots of things that I loved at the age of 16 whose appeal now slightly mystifies me. And I can’t guarantee that hearing this record for the first time at 40 or 60 or whatever wouldn’t be a very different, and less pleasant experience. The line between genius and failed art-school experiment is both a thin one and in the eye of the beholder. But I know which side of that line it falls on for me…

A word, finally, about where you can find this record: To the best of my knowledge, it never received an official release in Throwing Muses’ home country of the US. British indie label 4AD released it here in the UK in the mid 1980s, though it was subsequently deleted from their catalogue, and so, for a long time, was very hard to get hold of. Thankfully, 4AD re-released it in the late 1990s as part of a compilation of the band’s early work, called In A Doghouse. The album is the first 10 of the 26 tracks spread across 2 CDs, and may now possibly not be the easiest thing in the world to find either, but it is on Spotify. If you’re curious it also includes the early demo versions the band recorded between 1981 and 1985, although personally I thought the highlight of that record was a rather surreal hoe-down called Sinkhole which didn’t make it onto the finished album.

Week 46: Any Other Way

I grew up two doors down from a rather odd, taciturn man whom I was dimly aware had long ago been the DJ at the apparently iconic Northern Soul club, The Twisted Wheel. Mostly, what I heard coming from the speakers when I walked past his door was rare reggae, and I’m guessing that his fascination with Detroit soul was long in his past, but I can imagine that Jackie Shane might be exactly the kind of record that might have got people onto the dance floor on a drug-fuelled all-nighter in Manchester or Wigan. For those unfamiliar with what Northern Soul was, as far as I know, there wasn’t a whole host of folk from Barnsley, Bolton or Wigan belting out soul music in the 1960s, but rather that the music coming out of Detroit at that time became enormously popular in the night clubs of northern England.

And Any Other Way sounds to me like exactly the kind of music that would have been played in The Twisted Wheel. It sits at the meeting point between soul and rhythm and blues. I enjoyed it much more than I expected to. The sax on the opening track sounds like a call, if not to arms, then to the imaginary dance floor. My living room might just about be big enough for embarrassing dancing, but as such would be both visible to anyone looking in from the Meadows, and liable to upset the dog, any dancing occurred only in my head.

Soul music, and its modern cousin r&b, has never really been my thing. But this goes back to the early 60s and represents perhaps an early branch on the tree of all the different musical genres that would eventually emerge from the rhythm and blues of the American South in the first half of the twentieth century – everything from indie rock to r&b and even hip-hop. And maybe that’s why I got on with it. It’s got a combination of the energy of rhythm and blues with the vocal pyrotechnics of early soul.

It’s not quite a blues record – it sounds a bit too much like it is meant for the dancefloor for that, but it’s really not a million miles from it. Though it was recorded in Montreal and Shane was originally from Nashville Tennessee, it is the sound of Tamla Motown that dominates this record. Shane’s vocals on title track Any Other Way remind me more than a little of Percy Sledge and Jackie Wilson. She does a spirited version of Berry Gordy’s Money (That’s What I Want) and, though I couldn’t find a wikipedia article to confirm my hunch, I think a lot of the songs on this album were Motown standards. Another song that stood out for me, Walking the Dog, has been covered by everyone from the Rolling Stones to Green Day. Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag I’ve heard more versions of than I care to remember, but Shane’s take on it was as good as any I can recall (though before I heard of any of this, I heard Papa’s Got a Brand New Pig Bag.)

Of course, insofar as Jackie Shane is any more than a footnote in history, it is that she was an early trans artist. These days, I can go past the Potterow underpass on my way to work and see a chalked advert for a club night playing ‘only female and non-binary artists’ but its fair to assume that 1960s Tennessee was probably a less welcoming place to be someone whose biological sex and gender identity did not match. That said, soul music might in its way have been a more welcoming place than many. Or at least a genre where the men sing a bit like women and the women a bit like men. Listening to this record, I think I’d guess the vocalist was male, but I’m not sure I’d have staked too much on that guess. That said, I’ve always been easy to fool. When Tracy Chapman had a big hit in the 1980s with Fast Car, I remember being unsure if the singer was a man or a woman. And looking at the big vinyl EP cover with her portrait on it in the living room didn’t help clear up that mystery for me either (in my defence,  I was ten years old).

I don’t drive, and I live in Scotland and it’s November. But if I did, and if, say, I was in California in the summer – probably a fictional version without the traffic jams – I could imagine putting the top down and blasting this out on a nice empty road leading out into nowhere in particular.

Highlights: Money (That’s What I Want), Walking the Dog, Sticks and Stones