Week Fourteen: Central Reservation

If last week’s album, Nevermind, transported me back to my fourteen year old self’s bedroom, Central Reservation moves me on eight years, and five bedrooms later, to a large, cold, draughty room I was sharing with my girlfriend of the time while in the final year of my degree. Her copies of Central Reservation and Daybreaker among the records that we were both happy to have on in the background (Shania Twain and Throwing Muses, on the other hand, were, um, bones of contention.  Which of us preferred each of these is left as an exercise for the reader) and hearing Central Reservation again for the first time in a long time was a slightly disconcerting experience.

I’m not sure I’ve listened to it at all in the intervening fifteen or more years, but the opening track, Stolen Car, sounds like an old friend whom I’ve inexplicably forgotten to keep in touch with. It’s the best song on the album, with a very distinctive cello-like lead guitar from Ben Harper, though listening to it again in the light of my current day job, it sounds considerably darker, from a lyrical perspective, than I remember it being. At the time, I had just thought of it as a song about a former partner showing up out of the blue and discombobulating the narrator by his presence, but listening again “one drink too many/a joke gone too far/ I see your face drive like a stolen car” he sounds like a rather nastier piece of work than I had realised at the time.

It’s followed by Sweetest Decline which provides a rather neat illustration of a point made by one of the guests on the Slate Audio Book Club a couple of months back, considering Bob Dylan’s song lyrics in the light of his Nobel Prize, about how song lyrics are not poetry, but something slightly different. Because a singer has tools that a poet does not: they get to control the delivery of each line. Think of all the different ways you could say “How does it feel? To be on your own/ With no direction home/ Just like a rolling stone”. What might appear like a tired cliché, or worse, as meaningless doggerel on the page, can be made to work in a song. In this case: “What’s the use in regrets/ They’re just things we haven’t done yet.” It’s nonsense. , the kind of thing that might appear on one of those awful motivational posters, but which doesn’t ascend to the heights of cliche as it’s not even true.  But because of the way Beth Orton delivers the line, it doesn’t matter. Because she does have a very distinctive, affecting voice. I can’t quite put my finger on why this is – I could try throwing adjectives at the metaphorical wall, but suffice to say that I think she is a jazz singer singing folk songs.

On the subject of song lyrics, the title track, Central Reservation has a great opening line “Running down a central reservation in last night’s red dress, / And I can still smell you on my fingers and taste you on my breath” It’s one of the album’s stronger moments, though I’m not entirely convinced it’s so good as to merit the inclusion of two different versions: a fairly stripped back acoustic version and a more electronica-influenced version that I remember sounding quite cutting-edge at the time, but which now, unfortunately, sounds an awful lot like Dido…

Listening to this album as a whole again for the first time in a long time, though, it does feel a bit one-note in terms of its mood: It’s all low-key melancholia. And the songs themselves are a mixed bag. All easy on the ear, but I struggle to tell some of the later songs apart. Which one was Love Like Laughter? I think I might have got it confused with Pass in Time. I know that if I was to describe the record as coffee shop background music, it can’t help but sound negative, but I don’t mean it to be – it is very good background music, but that is what it is. The opening track aside, there is little that really grabbed my attention, but I liked the sound of her voice.

By the bye, Blood Red River brought back memories of one of my personal favourite mondegreens “Walrus people want what they can’t have…” On the subject of which, the ex-girlfriend with the Beth Orton CD also had a copy of Macy Gray’s On How Life Is and thought I was mad to think that she was singing about putting on goggles when her beloved wasn’t around.)

Highlights:  Stolen Car, Central Reservation, Stars All Seem to Weep


Week Thirteen: Nevermind

At school there were the kids who skipped classes, who would disappear off down the vennel for a smoke and who were invariably held back in detention. They usually wore Guns n’ Roses, Iron Maiden or Megadeth t-shirts underneath the rather dull blue uniform we had to wear. Then, at some point in my third year, I noticed that they started wearing t-shirts with a big yellow smiley face and the name of a band I hadn’t then heard of, called Nirvana. I’d assumed that this band were not for me, but some months later, a friend whom I find hard to picture wearing a Megadeth t-shirt, and who was not among the crowd who gathered in the vennel at lunchtime, gave me a C90 with Automatic for the People on one side and Nevermind on the other. Well if you could like both… It was as if I had been given a signal that it was ok to like Nirvana. That they were not just another dumb metal band – in 1992, I suspect the term ‘grunge’ hadn’t yet pierced my consciousness. Loud music with lots of distorted guitars and shouty vocals was all heavy metal, And so began the grunge soundtrack to my teenage years.

When Siamese Dream turned up on 52A/52W last month, I said it was a very teenage record. Which is true to the factor of eleventy-stupid of Nevermind. Over a quarter of a century later, I’m struck by the fact that I still often see teenage kids wearing Nirvana t-shirts. And, I wonder, do they actually listen to the records? Or are Nirvana, like the Ramones, a t-shirt band these days? More to the point, it’s perhaps twenty years since I last listened to it all the way through, from beginning to end. What on earth am I going to make of it after all this time?

It’s certainly not twenty years since I last heard the opening riff from Smells Like Teen Spirit but I’m still struck by its power. A perfect distillation of the loud/quiet/loud trick that the Pixies had used to such great effect. I’m sure Kurt Cobain would hate the comparison, but I think those first opening chords are playing a very similar trick to that which Mark Knopfler pulls off with Money for Nothing – although at the time, as I recall, the way to irk the purists was to point out that it was ripping off More Than a Feeling.

On to track two. On reacquaintance with In Bloom it feels very much of its time. It might have been the soundtrack to my early teenage years, but I don’t think I’d want to go back there. I can’t help but hear something of the dumb football chant in it. Come as You Are, on the other hand, is just a brilliant, simple pop song. Everything about it, from the simple but effective opening riff to the watery guitar sound, just works. It’s one of relatively few tracks that actually use the detuned guitars that I associate with grunge (though actually, I think it was probably quite specific to Mudhoney and Soundgarden) Lithium works with the drums serving to remind us all that Dave Grohl, while I don’t think he had any song-writing credits, was always a key part of the band’s sound. Breed, on the other hand, really only has Grohl’s drumming, and the slightly surreal line “We could plant a house, we could build a tree” to recommend it.

I’m less taken by the band’s nods towards thrash punk. Territorial Pissings is a triumph of screaming over song-writing and Drain You feels like it goes on a bit, even though it’s actually only 3 and a half minutes long. On the other hand, the album does have some strong moments on what I still rather anachronistically think of as its second side: On a Plain and Lounge Act are just great three minute pop songs. Musically this is all very simple: not for nothing did an awful lot of people of my age learn to play guitar by picking up the tablature books for Nevermind, but he does have an ear for a melody. Anyone can come up with a melody over the top of a few power chords. But the ability to devise onet that sticks in your head, that you want to hear again, is a harder trick to pull off.

It ends with the simplest track of the lot, Something in the Way where a tale of teenage homelessness is recited in an uncharacteristically muted voice over an acoustic guitar strumming E minor and C while a cellist adds a bit of background colour. The cello is a very grunge string instrument, isn’t it?

The C90 copy I had of this album didn’t have the final track, Endless, Nameless (Endless, Tuneless?) so this week’s album does, as it turns out, have something new to offer me. Suffice to say that I hadn’t missed out. Whatever Nirvana’s strengths as a band were, this kind of improvised sonic collage with a side order of vocal barking is not it (side question: are there any good hidden album tracks? Anywhere? Answers in the comments section…)

So this is generally regarded as the touchstone ‘grunge’ album. Musical labels and categories tend to descend into meaninglessness if you think about them too hard. To some extent, ‘grunge’ became a label to describe ‘music that sounds like Nirvana’. And nobody sounded more like Nirvana than Nirvana. All the same, while I liked this album, even on re-listening, rather more than Fiona or Alex Massie over at RAM Album Club, I’m going to engage in a bit of half-hearted contrarianism: It’s alright; there’s some good song-writing, but it doesn’t belong near the top of all those ‘greatest album‘ lists. It’s a patchy record. It has its moments, but it’s not consistently strong. There is, whisper it, a fair amount of filler on it. Listening to it now, I wonder what Cobain might have gone on to do, had he lived. I rather suspect that Nirvana would not have lasted – that Dave Grohl would almost certainly have gone off to do his own thing whatever had happened. Butthe follow-up record, In Utero showed signs that he was developing as a musician (I like the fact that he begins the opening track with the line “Teenage angst has paid off well. Now I’m bored and old.”) even if, to my ears, it was ruined by Steve Albini’s production. I suspect that Nirvana would be less culturally significant were he still around today – that probably there would not be 14 year olds wearing their t-shirts, but I wonder if he might be ploughing a similar furrow to, for example, former Screaming Trees front-man, Mark Lanegan who these days does a rather fine line in gothic disco.

When the mood takes me to indulge in a bit of grunge nostalgia, it’s not the album I put on. Instead, I would probably go first to Copper Blue. Or Beaster if I want something more primal, less restrained. Hell, if want something in the folk-influenced vein of Nirvana Live and Unplugged in New York, I’d reach for Workbook (technical proficiency may not be everything in this game, but I somehow rather doubt that Cobain could play, much less write, something like Sunspots). And I can’t help thinking that the fact that Nirvana are regarded as one of the classic rock bands, while most won’t even have heard of Sugar, goes to show how the music is only really a small part of what decides whether a band becomes not merely successful, but iconic. If, in 1991, when he put out Nevermind, Kurt Cobain had been a balding, overweight thirty-something gay man, was there any chance that the kids going for a smoke in the vennel would have worn his band’s t-shirts? There. I’ve said it. Bob Mould was a better song-writer and a better guitarist than Kurt Cobain.

Highlights: Come As You Are, Lithium, Lounge Act, On A Pla

Week 12: The Love Symbol Album

If there was a pop music equivalent of David Lodge’s Humiliation then I could kick it off with the admission that I don’t think I’ve ever listened to a Prince album all the way through before. Of course, I’m familiar with his hit singles, and indeed it strikes me that it’s a crying shame that his record labels haven’t been able to band together to produce a definitive ‘best of’ album because, even without being familiar with the album tracks, it would be quite some collection. In the early 1990s though, growing up reading a music press that referred to him as ‘the purple pervert from Minneapolis’ or ‘The Artist Formerly Known as Good,’ he was a bit of a joke. An impression perhaps reinforced by the fact that, around the time he released this album, his biggest cheerleader at school was the kid who sat a couple of desks down from me in science classes who thought that the summit of comedy was scrawling penises on other peoples’ textbooks.

The first Prince song I remember was Sign o’ the Times, which was on a recording I had made of the top 40 with the ‘ghetto-blaster’ (remember when that was the term of art for, um, a tape recorder) I had been given for my ninth birthday. And as a small child growing up in a world very different from the urban America that produced Prince – I could see sheep and cows from my bedroom window – it seemed to describe a world both faintly threatening and intriguing. I can’t remember now if I understood at that age what the ‘big disease with a little name’ was, though I think it is safe to say that the line “In September my cousin tried reefer for the very first time, now he’s doing horse. It’s June” would have meant nothing to me. Although isn’t that part of the fascination of pop music, or at least pop lyrics, to a small child: these coded glimpses it offers into the mysterious adult world.

But anyway, back to the record itself. This album kicks off with My Name is Prince, in which he repeatedly declares “My name is Prince. And I am funky”. Which, to be fair, is to the point. Because this is nothing if not a funk record. If he’d sung ‘My name is Prince: And I am jazz-influenced death metal‘ then he could be accused of misleading the listener. Later, he adds that “on the first day, God made the sea. And on the seventh, he made me. Proof, if nothing else that he was not a man who could be accused of humblebragging. It does sound a little of-its-time now. Something about the sound of scratched vinyl and the synth effects can’t help but remind me of the sort of stuff that filled the charts in my early teenage years.

From there, it’s on to Sexy MF which I don’t think I’ve ever heard in its unbowdlerised form before. When it was on endless rotation on Atlantic 252 at the time of its release, The F of the song’s title was left unvoiced. As with the album’s opener, it is proof that he (or his record label) knew how to pick singles. It is nothing if not an earworm, even if, on reflection, it does sound like a slightly inferior re-working of his 1986 hit, Kiss.

Prince was nothing if not musically eclectic, on this album as much as anywhere, and as well as the very James Brown-influenced funk of, especially, the opening track, there’s the pop-rock of Morning Papers, an experiment in electronic-tinged reggae with Blue Light which works an awful lot better than many pop artists who decide to dabble in reggae mid-career (Snoop Dogg, I’m looking at you) and Three Chains O’Gold reminded me more than a little of Queen – all the more impressive for the fact that Prince is able to channel both the guitar pyrotechnics of Brian May and the sheer showmanship of Freddie Mercury.

Emily at Mookbarks had suggested that this was an album very much influenced by Prince’s Christianity. It might be that I have a tin ear for these things, but I have to admit that I didn’t really pick up on that at all. In fact, having just finished watching the second season of Game of Thrones, I could equally easily have been persuaded that Seven was actually a song about that world’s fictional religion with its septons and seven aspects of god. If this was a concept album, then the concept itself rather passed me by.

And in the end, I wasn’t really won over by this record. Perhaps it wasn’t the place to start.  The Guardian’s ranking of all 37?! of his albums suggests that it was not one of his best. Maybe my introduction to Prince should have been through Purple Rain, Controversy or Sign o’ the Times. I could admire the musicianship, and the groove on tracks like The Max, but for me it seems a bit of a triumph of musicianship and production over actual song-writing. The singles aside, the songs just didn’t grab me. It’s not as if Prince couldn’t write pop songs – but there’s nothing on this album to sit alongside Raspberry Beret, Kiss, Purple Rain, or even, whisper it, Manic Monday. And much of it melted into a kind of sameyness to the point where I can’t quite distinguish Melt with Me from The Continental from The Sacrifice of Victor.

The other week, I was listening to Michael Hann, or perhaps it was Pete Paphides, on Big Mouth, reviewing the new Anonhi album, and he remarked that, in his time as editor of the Guardian music pages, he had heard hundreds of records that were sonically interesting, had good song-writing and highly accomplished musicianship but, which he’d never listen to again once he’d finished writing the inevitable four-star review. And, for me, this was one of those records.

Highlights: Seven, Sexy MF, Morning Papers.


Week Eleven: Alas I Cannot Swim

Nu folk’ happened while I wasn’t looking. Long after I had stopped reading the weekly music press, and before the appearance of Spotify and Youtube made it possible to find out without cost about any passing musical phenomenon. I might have read about it in the Guardian Weekend section, but if I did, it went in one ear and right out of the other. Even the seemingly inescapable Mumford and Sons passed me by for a fair while, it was only when a friend who had emigrated to the US remarked in an e-mail that local radio was awful, and not only that, but the worst band, the one that he really never wanted to hear again in his life, had followed him across the water from the UK and they were called Mumford and Sons that I think I became aware who they were.

When Laura Marling’s second album, I Speak Because I Can, was released, an old friend got in touch and was rather insistent that I should give it a listen. Which seemed odd, both because my dim notion of who Laura Marling was amounted to ‘some Kate Nash/Lily Allen copy but with acoustic guitars’ and because said friend was usually into abstruse electronica. Though she did introduce me to Half Man Half Biscuit.

So I paid attention. And she was absolutely right about that Laura Marling album. It had a slightly gothic, eldritch quality and I am just a sucker for the droning sound of guitars in open tunings. I also remember being struck at the time that it was possibly the first album I had really liked by a child of the 1990s. And so of course I was keen to hear what else she had done and looked up her debut on Spotify. And I listened to it once, and never again. It’s not that I thought it terrible, it just seemed rather dull. It all sounds like it’s in standard EADGBE tuning, and it’s a bit happy-clappy, the kind of thing I could imagine a group of kids at a Christian summer camp coming up with (though, to be fair, only if said kids had an unusually acute ear for a good melody).


So coming back to it, did it win me over? Not exactly. But to be fair, listening to it a few times over the last week, I can hear clues that she had it in her to become a much more interesting artist. She was, after all, only eighteen when this record was released, and so probably younger still when much of it was written. How many really great records have been made by teenagers, after all? (Oh, yeah, um, one of my all time favourite records was. And if I thought about it harder, there are probably lots).
The opener, Ghosts is a very good three minute pop song. It’s even got a decent middle-eight. It is pretty much her signature tune, and when I saw her at the Usher Hall shortly after she had released Once I was an Eagle it was one of just two tracks she played from her first record. I’m sure she’s sick of it now, but there are plenty of songwriters who go their whole career without ever writing a single infectious earworm of a tune.


There’s not really anything else on the record which comes close to hitting that mark. I did rather like the minute and a half interlude of Crawled Out of the Sea and was torn between wishing it were a little longer and being thankful that she, or her producer, had the self-awareness to know that this kind of acoustic folk-pop rarely benefits from being dragged out, and every song comes in under the four minute mark. The longest of these, My Manic and I, is the most structurally interesting song on the record and a hint of things to come: that she would, in a few years, be quite comfortable opening her fourth album with an eighteen minute raga influenced song in four movements.  The strings on Night Terrors remind me a little of the sonic atmospherics she’s able to conjure in her later records.
But there’s an awful lot here though that’s really rather unremarkable. Your Only Doll, Dora is a rather cliched kitchen-sink drama about domestic abuse. Old Stone sounds a touch overwrought to my ears and the traces of estuary English in her voice on Failure do rather leave me wondering why others seem so upset at her adoption of an American accent in later records. She sounds far better impersonating Stevie Nicks or Joni Mitchell than pretending to be cockney.


I think my problem with this record is that, where her later albums sound like a rather wonderful amalgam of what I suspect might be her parents’ record collection – I can hear hints of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Fleetwood Mac, even PJ Harvey in her accessible Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea phase – this just sounds like another nu-folk record.

Highlight: Ghosts, It Crawled out of the Sea, Night Terrors. But really, go dig out Once I was an Eagle instead. Or perhaps I Speak Because I Can.

Week Ten: Liege & Lief

There were, I think, three distinct ‘phases’ to my trawling through my parents’ record collections. The first came at the age of 12, when I found a huge stack of slowly decaying C90 cassettes, each carefully indexed and numbered, in a drawer, that my dad had collected through the 1970s and into the early 1980s. Through that, I discovered Queen, Talking Heads and the Eurythmics (there was a bias, I think, towards the later, early 1980s stuff, because the cassettes tended not to have become quite so warped and stretched). A second phase came about three years later, when my parents were divorcing and I went through the huge stacks of vinyl in the living room, taping anything I found that was of interest as the soundtrack for GCSE revision. It was then that I stumbled upon, rather incongruously,  The Doors, Peter Gabriel’s early solo albums, Jean Michel Jarre and Joni Mitchell.

The third phase came years later when my dad was transferring his vinyl collection over onto MP3 in order to free up space and I went through the hard drive on his PC looking for things of interest. It was then than I discovered Liege & Lief . I can’t now quite remember what had piqued my interest, though I think I might have been going through a Richard Thompson phase at the time and been curious to hear what the band that he started out with sounded like. Any which way, it was one of my better discoveries.

I suppose it’s the fate of all innovators to find that the passage of time renders their work much less radical sounding than it was when it was made. The idea of taking the motifs of folk music and adding electric guitar might seem very old hat now, but while it would probably be an exaggeration to say that Fairport Convention invented folk-rock, after all, Liege & Lief came some years after Dylan went electric, I think it is at least arguable that they were the first to produce a distinctly British take on it. One can hardly blame them for Mumford & Sons and the ‘nu folk’ movement, which for what it’s worth is to folk as nu metal was to metal a decade earlier, though your mileage may vary.

Where their previous album had been made up, to a significant part, of Dylan covers, Liege and Lief mixes original compositions with arrangements of traditional English folk songs and ballads. The best of them, to my mind at least, is their eight minute version of Matty Groves, an old folk song about an affair between a Lord’s wife and the song’s title character, [who works on the Lord’s estate]. Class warfare as a theme in popular music did not begin with Paul Weller singing about the Eton Rifles.

I do wonder if I might like this record more if it had a few more Richard Thompson compositions on it. Certainly, listening to this record again for the first time in quite a while, I think Crazy Man Michael is a rather stronger track than anything else on the record, even if there’s nothing quite as outright brilliant as Meet on the Ledge or Who Knows Where the Time Goes.

If Thompson’s songwriting is a strength, then so is Denny’s singing. Even tracks that don’t particularly grab me on their own merits, like the rather twee Come All Ye, have this going for them. My flatmate and I have had a long-running dispute regarding who was the better late 60s folk-rock singer: Sandy Denny or Maddy Pryor. I’m firmly in the Denny camp, though I concede that he’s taken singing lessons, probably has a much better idea what he’s talking about and it might simply be that I’d much rather listen to someone singing Fairport Convention songs than Steeleye Span songs. Any which way, there’s no getting away from the fact that Denny’s voice was a very significant part of the appeal of the band: perhaps the best reason to pick up this record, rather than that of one of their many imitators.

Highlights: Matty Groves, Crazy Man Michael.

Week Nine: Kind of Blue

Now I really am dancing about architecture. At heart, I am a child of the three minute pop song. Jazz was not something I grew up with. I am aware that this is generally considered to be one of the all-time great jazz albums. And I think I can hear the sound of great musicians improvising together. But am I absolutely certain that if someone were to swap Kind of Blue for some easy-listening loungecore jazz album and tell me that it was one of the all time great jazz records, I wouldn’t be fooled? Am I hearing great trumpet playing because that is what it is, or is it because I know that is what it is generally considered to be? A few years ago, I found myself watching a covers band playing at the campsite at the British Grand Prix on the night before race day. My brother remarked that “here’s a bunch of chancers getting over-excited about playing to a big audience” And I said “Most of them, maybe, but I think the guitar player, the fat guy who looks old enough to be everyone else’s dad, he’s a pro..” And ten minutes later, he announced “Here’s a song I wrote, back in the dark ages” before launching into Whitesnake’s Here I Go Again. But jazz? I have no such confidence in my ability to distinguish between genius and mere competence. Do I really have a clue about what I am listening to?

Wikipedia informs me that what makes this album so significant is that it is an early example of modal jazz: wherein the harmonic framework is build around scales rather than chords. But if I’m honest, I have no idea what that means. Aren’t all scales, and chords, in a key? Don’t you just play the chords and scales in the relevant key? What is a harmonic framework? Can I live in it? If I am honest, I am simply well and truly out of my depth here. Maybe if I were to really immerse myself in music theory, I would understand, but I am no more than a three-chord strummer of the worst kind.

So instead of trying to get my head around it, I think I’m much better off instead relaxing into it. Years ago, I used to share a flat with someone who was very much into jazz (another flatmate at that time would derisively remark ‘oh, he’s playing his elevator music again’) and I got the impression that there was definitely something interesting going on, but I couldn’t quite get my head around it. I was listening to Radiohead a lot and I was aware that Jonny Greenwood was a big fan of Miles Davis’ Bitches’ Brew, but all the same, it was too far removed from the indie-rock that made up most of my record collection at that time for me to really get into it. In the same vein, the labs in which I sat up late writing my final year dissertation were above a jazz bar (a victim, I think, of the great South Bridge fire) and I would occasionally wander in there with friends, but the music was never really more than ambient background to me.

Nearly twenty years on, the music is much more up my street. It’s night time music. Music for writing to in the small hours. Or is it? I don’t know how much of my reaction reflects the music itself or simply the fact that it has been used by film directors and television documentary makes for decades to conjure up a particular mood; to achieve a certain effect. If I didn’t associate jazz music with smoky 1950s bars, with a kind of Beatnik, Kerouac-esque American decadence, and specifically, with these places after dark, would the music conjure an entirely different mood.

Well, I think it is. Not least because, to my ears, it gets progressively more nocturnal as it goes on. The opener, So What, has a late afternoon feel, but by the time we get to the closing track, Flamenco Sketches, the clock has gone well past midnight. For all that it doesn’t sound in any way similar, that it’s of an entirely different genre and achieves that nocturnal feel by very different means, it put me in mind somewhat of DJ Shadow’s cut-and-paste masterpiece, Endtroducing. Albeit a much more musically complex, tricksy Endtroducing. But in both cases, there is something hypnotic about the repetition of simple phrases, even if the improvisation around those is much more elaborate here.

And here’s the thing: I’ve stuck to the RAM Album Club rule of listening to each record at least three times, although in the interests of self-preservation, I’ve not been following Alex Massie’s rule of listening to each record in what he describes as “each of life’s three states: sober, drunk and hungover” . But sometimes I haven’t managed more than that (Alex Parks, come on down…) However, with the exception of Ryan Adams’ new album, I didn’t really listen to anything else this week. I didn’t even find myself checking out what had appeared on my Spotify Weekly Discover playlist. And that’s got to count for something.

Highlights: Does it really make sense to pull out individual tracks? This is a record best listened to in its entirety. But if you insist, then probably All Blues and Flamenco Sketches.

Week Eight: Introduction

Which one was Fame Academy? I lose track a little. There was the one that produced Hear’Say that was on ITV, I think. And at some point along came Britain’s Got Talent, whose title the show seemed to go out of its way to refute. I think the X-Factor is still going (was that the one that foisted One Direction on the world? Or was it Girls Aloud? Or both?) and there’s something called The Voice which I think is meant to be a little bit more high-minded on account of how the judges couldn’t see the contestants and so were supposed to be judging them solely on how they sounded. BBC rather than ITV. There was one called Pop Idol, wasn’t there? But Fame Academy? It flew under my radar, and, notwithstanding that wikipedia tells me her debut record sold 600,000 copies, I honestly don’t think I’d ever knowingly heard of Alex Parks before her name showed up over at Mookbarks on Sunday.

It begins with Maybe That’s What it Takes, which sounds to me like inoffensive adult-oriented pop. Not something that would have me reaching for the ‘off switch’ but, equally, nothing I think I’m going to remember. The same is true of Cry, and I’m starting to wonder if I’m going to have anything to say about this record.  Dirty Pretty Words reminded me a little of that Christian Goth band, Evanescence, that seemed to be inescapable for a while. But not necessarily in a bad way. It feels a little more musically adventurous than the standard-issue talent show radio-friendly unit-shifter. The crunchy guitar sound, weirdly, brought to mind Snap’s The Power. Which wouldn’t usually be a point in a song’s favour, but anything that establishes a little distance from Leona Lewis can only be a good thing.

Um, then comes Imagine. The world is really not crying out for more covers of a song that I wasn’t wildly keen on in the first place, and the melismatic over-emoting really highlights just how awful the lyrics are. I’m not automatically against melisma. I could happily listen to Elizabeth Fraser or Jeff Buckley all day. The more so if they’re dueting. But too often it sounds like someone just wanting to show that they can reach the notes and hold a tune, as if what they are really doing is submitting an application for a part in a Broadway musical.

The choice of cover versions strikes me as decidedly unimagin(e)ative. As it was 2003, we get her take on Mad World which really adds nothing to Gary Jules’ reimagining of the Tears for Fears hit (on the subject of which, couldn’t she have instead had a go at Everybody Wants to Rule the World? I’d sort of like to hear  that). Her version of Yellow is, to be fair, further proof that Chris Martin is a rather better songwriter than he is vocalist, though it has nothing on Aimee Mann’s The Scientist. She’s brave enough to have a go at Here Comes the Rain Again, and while I can’t really see what it adds to the original, (though probably the target audience may well have been rather less familiar with the Eurythmics than I am), it does prove that she has the pipes… Everybody Hurts strikes me as exactly the kind of song that ends up getting mutilated on talent shows. Suffice to say I had no need for a six minute version in which Parks manages to squeeze four syllables into ‘hand’…

And then there’s Beautiful (Permit me a digression: I had confused this with the James Blunt song of the same name. He may have produced some of the most toe-curlingly awful music of the last fifteen years, but at least he has a sense of humour… And it turns out that Linda Perry, who wrote Beautiful for Christina Aguilera, was also responsible for getting Blunt a record deal in the USA and was the front woman of 90s pop-rockers, 4 Non-Blondes, who were inescapable on Atlantic 252 for a time when I was in my third or fourth year of secondary school. What’s Going On might have been an interesting choice of cover for this record. Oh, and to digress from the digression, here’s an illuminating interview with the Amanda Ghost, who wrote the James Blunt song, and who, like Linda Perry, also went from song-writing to a career as a record label mogul…).

It’s all competently performed, but it really is the sound of talent-show balladry eating itself. Now I have a soft spot for a good cover version. Or, perhaps, I should say, for an unusual cover. Kathryn Williams channeling Kurt Cobain’s inner folkie with All Apologies, China Drum imagining how Bob Mould might have sung a Kate Bush song or Richard Thompson bringing out the medieval elements in Britney Spears’ Oops I did it again…

(Here’s a playlist I made earlier….)

But none of the covers on this album pass that test. The problem is that talent shows are really just karaoke competitions. And Alex Parks may be very good at karaoke, but it’s not really something on which to base a pop career.

Anyways, back to the record… Stones and Feathers actually sounds like a pretty decent ballad. A welcome relief from the cover versions, on the subject of which, for a moment I was intrigued to see Wandering Soul on the track-listing, but then I realised I’d forgotten that the Portishead song was Wandering Star and Wandering Soul is another original track straddling the line between Evanescence and T’Pau. It’s pleasant enough musical wallpaper, but to my ears at least, nothing more.

There are hints that she might be a more interesting artist than this record lets her show. That in a parallel universe, she might have been the Alison Moyet of the early years of the 21st Century or Adele avant la lettre. Maybe the problem was that it all happened so quickly. Not so much that she was so young, but that the whole thing was, according to wikipedia, recorded in a hurried fortnight after her talent show win.

Perhaps you had to be there. Maybe if I’d been a shy, awkward teenager in the early 2000s, young enough not to be utterly uninterested in Fame Academy. this album would bring back a warm flood of nostalgia rather than the tidal wave of indifference that engulfed me.

Highlights:  Um, meh.  I suppose Stones and Feathers and Dirty Pretty Words…