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Albums of the Year: 2010

December 16th, 2010 8 comments

A few months ago I complained that few albums released this year had grabbed me; suddenly there came an avalanche of quality albums that compensated for my disappointment in sets by some favourite artists that I had looked forward to.

I have not been able to get on with the Ben Folds and Nick Hornby collaboration, much as I am a Folds fan and as I like Hornby’s books. Joshua Radin’s album is decent enough, but it did not attract the affection I had for his debut album. Jenny Lewis’ collaboration with Jonathan Rice bored me. Even the Weepies’ album, which does make it into my top 20, will not become my favourite of theirs.

I am quite sad to leave out of my Top 20 a few albums that could have been contenders in previous years: Shelby Lynne, Josh Ritter, Patty Griffin, Plants & Animals, Krista Detor, Audrey Assad, Belle & Sebastian, Leif Vollebekk, Merle Haggard, She & Him (which I took a while to like) and Bruno Mars.

So, on to my top 20, which is rather dominated by the Americana and country thing. It comprises albums I enjoy playing; it’s not intended to be a list of the year’s best albums, nor are they the most groundbreaking or experimental releases. These albums simply just gave me joy (which is why I listen to music). The songs listed with the album appear in the compilation linked to at the end of this post.

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Lloyd Cole – Broken Record
The music mags’ reviews were respectfully lukewarm to what is a hugely appealing set. This warm and intelligent album is Lloyd’s county record, with slide guitars, banjos and harmonicas. Funny enough, it’s a song called Rhinestone that sounds least like country and most like Cole’s stuff with the Commotions (one of whom turns up in this album). Lyrically, the album is standard Cole with clever turns of phrase and endearing self-deprecations. The vocals of Joan Wasser (Joan As Policewoman) are much welcome. Homepage
Lloyd Cole – Like A Broken Record
Lloyd Cole – Oh Geneviève

Brian Wilson – Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin
Brian Wilson reports his earliest musical memory as hearing Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue (which bookends this set). It makes sense that the great American songwriter of the ’60s should record an album of music by the great American songwriter of the ’30s. The standards – They Can’t Take That Away from Me, Someone to Watch Over Me, I Got Rhythm, It Ain’t Necessarily So etc – are engagingly recreated, and even the overdone Summertime, so often violated by mannered interpretations, is bearable here. Of particular interest are the previously unrecorded Gershwin songs, completed by Wilson at the invitation of Gershwin’s estate. Wilson’s style is so distinctive that it is difficult to imagine how they might have sounded in interpretations by, say, Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra. They are nonetheless quite lovely. One of these originals, The Like In I Love You, sounds a lot like a song from Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man. Homepage
Brian Wilson – I’ve Got A Crush On You

Caitlin Rose – On The Town
Caitlin Rose is receiving massive buzz, deservedly so. The Nashville native’s debut album recalls Tift Merritt at her country-folkiest: mellow melodies and vulnerable vocals. It’s a mature album that belies Rose’s 23 years – even if some of these songs were written when Caitlin was a teenager. Homepage
Caitlin Rose – Own Side

Mavis Staples – You Are Not Alone
Mavis and her family are probably best known for soul hits such as Respect Yourself and I’ll Take You There, but their primary genre was gospel. Now 71 years old, Mavis continues to work the gospel beat, using the genre’s traditional sounds as well as new approaches. Produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy — who on tracks such as In Christ There Is No East Or West marries the Wilco sound with the gospel sensibilities which Pop Staples would have approved of with— You Are Not Alone will rightly feature high on many end-of-year lists. Homepage
Mavis Staples – In Christ There Is No East Or West

Ryan Bingham & The Dead Horses – Junky Star
I know a music journalist who has stated his objection to musicians going by their civilian names if these sound like those of school teachers. My pal might not review Ryan Bingham’s album because of his name, though his interest might be peaked that it also serves as George Clooney’s character’s name in Up In The Air. Or he might listen up because Bingham has won an Oscar and Golden Globe for his song The Weary Kind, the theme song of the film Crazy Heart. Don’t expect Junky Star to be a pure country album; this is Steve Earle and  Tom Waits territory, before Waits’ voice became excruciating. One almost expects Bingham, blessed with a gruff, expressive voice himself, to likewise lose his voice by the end of this powerful album. Homepage
Ryan Bingham – Depression

Dylan LeBlanc – Paupers Fields
If the critics are right, 20-year-old Dylan LeBlanc is the new saviour of the country music heritage. The happy news is that, despite his age and name, this is no male version of Taylor Swift, whose primary relationship with country resides in marketing, nor is he likely to don a black Stetson, wifebeater and sing masculine tunes about the good ole U S of A. LeBlanc is a serious country musician, of the Gram Parsons or Townes van Zandt school (true enough, Emmylou Harris turns up to lend harmonies on one track, which also invites comparison to another much-hyped prodigy, Conner Oberst). His young age is no issue: he sounds much more mature than a lad just out of his teens. Even if he doesn’t sing from experience – if he does, then he has lived the life of a man twice his age – his delivery is credible. Homepage
Dylan LeBlanc – If Time Was For Wasting

Bill Kirchen – Word To The Wise
A veteran musician and guitar maestro who released his first solo record in 1972 and not much else before 2007’s brilliantly titled Hammer Of The Honky Tonk Gods, Kirchen has issued a fun rock & roll album with the likes of Nick Lowe, Chris O’Connell, Maria Muldaur and Elvis Costello collaborating. It’s unfair, actually, to reduce the album to rock & roll: it draws from the traditions in the melting pot that produced the genre: blues, rockabilly, boogie woogie, honky tonk. It’s an eclectic album: opener Bump Wood sounds like Jerry Lee Lewis, it is followed by a Merle Haggard ballad, which in turn is followed by a blues-rock number with Elvis Costello, and so on. His duet with Asleep At The Wheel’s O’Connell, Roger Miller’s Husbands and Wives, is particularly well executed. Homepage
Bill Kirchen (with Nick Lowe and Paul Carrack) – Shelly’s Winter Love

Ray Lamontagne and the Pariah Dogs – God Willin’ And The Creek Don’t Rise
The reviewers’ meme with this album refers to Neil Young, Harvest era. If so, then I’m grateful that Lamontagne has a raspier voice than whiney Neil. Lamontagne’s fourth album is folk-rock, but heavily country influenced. Maybe a reference to the Byrds would be more apt. And when Lamontagne slows things down (even more), one might recall Joni Mitchell. A most captivating album. Homepage
Ray Lamontagne and the Pariah Dogs – Devil’s In The Jukebox

Cee Lo Green – The Lady Killer
Regular readers will be in no doubt about my abiding love for the rich repository of soul music, but I have little patience for the current crop of high-pitched auto-tuned R&B gubbins, nor for stylised retro singers like Amy Whitehouse or the frog-voiced Duffy. Even John Legend, who does understand his soul heritage, doesn’t excite me. I am, however, hugely excited by the Gnarls Barkley singer’s album, which draws from different eras of soul. On It’s OK he sounds like namesake Al on Motown steroids, Old Fashioned draws from the 1960s, Bodies recalls Bobby Womack, Cry Baby and Satisfied a nods to ’80s soul-pop. Green has a couple guests on his album, but none are likely to blind him with dental bling, brag about their wealth or threaten to bust caps in his ass. Paradiso Girls’ Lauren Bennett turns up; it’s a delicious irony that the author of the ubiquitous Don’t Cha gets a member of a Pussycat Dolls knock-off band to guest. The other guest is Earth, Wind & Fire’s Philip Bailey, on a song that sounds more contemporary  than most of the material here. It’s also a funny album: when Cee Lo subtitles the title track “Licence To Kill” it seems to be a tongue-in-cheek finger at his cliché-mongering R&B contemporaries, and the Gold Digger reference in the fantastic Fuck You is inspired. Homepage
Cee Lo Green – It’s OK

Raul Malo – Sinners and Saints
The former Mavericks frontman’s sixth solo album is eclectic, to say the least. Opener Living For Today sounds like Little Feat jamming with Lynyrd Skynyrd; that’s followed by the mariachi horns and telecaster guitar dominated title track, followed by a Tex-Mex rocker, then a country song performed as if by Springsteen (Rodney Crowell’s Til I Gain Control Again),  later a Spanish ballad, and so on. Raul Malo, a multi-instrumentalist whose powerful voice is full of character, clearly enjoyed making this album. And the result is hugely agreeable. Homepage
Raul Malo – Living For Today

The Watson Twins – Talking To You Talking To Me
Chandra and Leigh Watson (who actually are twins) harmonise the hell out of catchy tracks with shots of experimentation that takes them over the alt.county boundaries of their reputation, at times sounding like Sade if she was an Indie musicians (Savin’ Me, Harpeth River). And, yes, there are songs where they sound like Rilo Kiley, whose frontwoman Jenny Lewis they backed on their fine 2006 collaboration (Savin’ You). Homepage
The Watson Twins – Devil In You

Johnny Cash – American VI:  Ain’t No Grave
Seven years after Johnny Cash died, we get another collection of his Rick Rubin-produced American series, apparently the final release. It is a fine way of going out. There’s nothing new here, but the special poignancy of knowing that Cash recorded these ten songs in the four months between the death of his beloved June in May 2003 and his own in September, with Cash acutely aware of his mortality without descending into morbidity, and to the end insisting on communicating his deep religious faith. Some songs I can live without (Aloha Oe!), and some cannot compete with the previous versions (Kristofferson’s For The Good Times). But the minimalist arrangements and intimacy of Cash’s fragile yet forceful and soulful voice wrap the songs in a warmth and appealing sense of yearning. Buy
Johnny Cash – Redemption Day

Lissie – Catch A Tiger
Lissie Mauros reminds me a lot of Neko Case, with a heavy dose of ’80s pop influence. Or maybe Stevie Nicks, in attitude and voice – In Sleep sounds like Fleetwood Mac ripping off Blondie (Atomic-era). And, seeing as I’m grappling to find comparison to female singers, there’s a hint of Nicole Atkins, if the wonderful Atkins was a folk-rock singer. Almost every song here is utterly catchy, some even exhilaratingly poppy  (Loosen The Knot, Stranger). Homepage
Lissie – Stranger

Carl Broemel – All The Birds Say
As guitarist and some-time saxophonist of My Morning Jacket, Carl Broemel was not an obvious candidate for the release of a solo album, much less such a sweet one. This, his second solo effort after 2004’s Lose What’s Left, is a perfect Sunday morning record; played while one sips the morning coffee, bites into the croissant and opens the newspaper. Think of it as a lighter version of Ron Sexsmith, an artist influenced (and highly rated) by Paul McCartney, as clearly is Broemel. Homepage
Carl Broemel – Enough

Willie Nelson – Country Music
This is a T-Bone Burnett-produced tribute to the country songs that reside in the juke box of Willie Nelson’s memory. Cover albums are a precarious beast. Some artists feel they need to re-interpret, re-invent and update the songs they profess to love. Others will give us the very best in karaoke. Nelson just damn well sings the songs, straight and without bullshit. He knows these songs and their context, and preserves them there. The sound is timeless. And some of the song choices are inspired. Homepage
Willie Nelson – Satisfied Mind

Crowded House – Intriguer
The trouble with Crowded House is that their songs are really made to be heard live. The second post-reunion album is something of a grower. The hooks that at first seem to be absent reveal themselves over time. The album was produced by Jim Scott, who also produced Wilco’s last album. It shows, even as the album is very recognisably a Crowded House effort. Homepage
Crowded House – Twice If You’re Lucky

Walt Cronin – California I Gotta Run
Already in his 50s Walt Cronin’s gravelly baritone and sound reflect the experience of life, wistfully and defiantly. “I would never count the days of my life, but I’ll always let the dawn greet my eyes,” the former medic in the Vietnam war sings in Shinin’ Through, one of several sweet love songs on this most appealing set. Homepage
Walt Cronin – Road I’m Takin’

Tift Merritt – See You On The Moon
I am bound to love an album that kicks off with a song about making a mix-tape (“with home-made covers”). Of Merritt’s three preceding studio albums, two were filled with slow-burning ballads, one was a rootsy affair. See You On The Moon has a bit of both; she is both plugging into the templates of both Harris and Ronstadt (even if she has evidently departed the world of county). I expected that her cover of Loggins & Messina’s Danny’s Song would make me wince; happily it is tender and amiable. Homepage
Tift Merritt – The Things That Everybody Does

The Weepies – Be My Thrill
In this post’s introduction I declared myself vaguely disappointed by Be My Thrill, but this is only in relation to the album’s three predecessors. Like them, Be My Thrill is very likeable. Deb Talan and Steve Tannen are happily married, have a happy family and are (no surprise twist coming up) very obviously happy (“I was made for sunny days,” Talan sings, “and I was mad for you”). The streaks of darkness from the debut have been usurped by all the colours of the rainbow. The album is relentlessly happy (with the jarring exception of Tannen’s “How Do You Get High?”) and unless one’s demeanour is governed by inexorable melancholy, the occasional burst of happiness can be richly welcome. So Be My Thrill is a bit like a double strawberry milkshake.  Homepage
The Weepies – Please Speak Well Of Me

Sahara Smith – Myth Of The Heart
T-Bone Burnett is on a golden streak. Among his protégés is Texan Sahara Smith, a former child prodigy who has been writing songs since she was 14. Blessed with a beautiful and expressive voice, Smith writes smart lyrics set to appealing melodies, some of them very memorable. Train Man sounds much like Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game. Smith might have a name that conjures images of pop muppetry, but she is a very talented artist who has created an impressive debut. MySpace
Sahara Smith – Are You Lonely

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Previous Albums of the Year

Albums of the Year: 2003

November 11th, 2009 7 comments

Before we move to my Top 10 albums of 2003 — a purely subjective choice of albums from that year which I enjoy, rather than an attempt at a best-of list — let me apologise for the confusion created by wrong links in last week’s two posts, and thank the kind people who alerted me to them. It was a little negligent of me not to test the links first. I have worked out what the trouble was: on Mediafire’s infuriatingly redesigned site, the “copy link” button is seriously wonky; instead of copying the link for the requested file, it copies the link of the first file in the upload folder (in last week’s instance the Iron & Wine song). So, here’s an urgent message to Mediafire, Facebook and all other services: please don’t innovate yourselves into oblivion. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

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Josh Rouse – 1972

josh_rouseTo mark his 30th birthday, Josh Rouse decided to record a concept album intended to evoke the year of his birth. I’ve written about the cover before here. In that post, I wrote the following about the album itself. 1972 might easily have turned out as a pastiche of the worst clichés. Happily, it didn’t: the sound is contemporary. Rouse evokes rather than recreates what he imagines were the sounds of 1972. Imagine the concept as the subtle but essential spice in a delicious meal. The album borrows its influences wisely: James, a song about alcoholism which appears on the first Any Major Flute mix, is a psychedelic soul workout, with Jim Hoke’s excellent jazz flute and Rouse’s falsetto positioning the song closest to 1972. Elsewhere, swirling strings and saxophone (also by Hoke), handclaps and Latin percussions serve as a marker for the ’70s influence being filtered through Rouse’s sound.
Josh Rouse – Rise.mp3
Josh Rouse – Love Vibration.mp3

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Lloyd Cole – Music In A Foreign Language

lloyd_coleLloyd Cole used to get such a bad rap back in the day. I could never understand the charges of Cole being pretentious. Even Easy Pieces, the second Lloyd Cole & the Commotions album which Cole has virtually disowned (on account of having been rushed by the record company to prematurely complete it), has many great and not particularly pretentious moments. Having broken up the Commotions after three albums, Cole’s solo career didn’t really take off. That is a shame. On Music In A Foreign Language, Cole continued on the acoustic trip he began on the previous album. Here it’s just him, his guitar and minimal backing music, with Lloyd singing his melancholy, beautiful songs straight on to his computer. The whole exercise is so intimate, listeners may be forgiven if they feel like they are intruding on a private moment. Lyrically he is on introspective top form. I don’t listen to this album nearly often enough.
Lloyd Cole – Music In A Foreign Language.mp3

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Death Cab For Cutie – Transatlanticism

death_cab_transatlanticismThis is the album where Death Cab for Cutie crossed the line from oddly-named Indie group to serious rock band. Transatlanticism is something of a rock symphony; it’s not rewarding to pluck out its songs in isolation, except perhaps the excellent opener, The New Year, and the acoustic coda, A Lack Of Color. It’s the kind of lush album one must hear in full, preferably with headphones while in a kicked back mood, being immersed in the sound. Lyrically it has its moment, such as the story of the protagonist in Title And Registration who finds a forgotten photo of an ex-girlfriend after being pulled over by a cop (it also features the annoying line: “The glove compartment is accurately named”; thanks for pointing that out, Gibbard).
Death Cab for Cutie – A Lack of Color.mp3

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Colin Hay – Man @ Work

man@workThe title of the album is an obvious reference to the Australian band with which Scottish-born Colin Hay had some chart success in the early ’80s. Here Hay revisits some of his best songs from his solo repertoire as well as the Men At Work catalogue. None of these re-recordings do their originals injustice. The acoustic versions of the three big Men At Work hits — Down Under, Who Can It Be Now and Overkill — are strikingly remade and worth the price of the CD alone, especially the far superior interpretation of Overkill. There is also a more faithful reworking of Down Under, with brass replacing the flute; and fine remakes of Men At Work’s Be Good Johnny and It’s A Mistake.

Hay fans will have their own views on which versions here eclipse the original. Looking For Jack is vastly improved here, but I prefer the less dreamy version of Beautiful World on Going Somewhere to that reproduced here from 2002’s Company Of Strangers. Hay does recycle enthusiastically; the recording of Waiting For My Real Life To Begin here is the same as that on Going Somewhere; he recorded a rockier, inferior version for 2005’s Topanga, named after the California town where he now lives.
Colin Hay – Overkill (acoustic).mp3

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The Minus 5 – Down With Wilco

minus5The title of The Minus 5’s fifth album notes the involvement of Tweedy and pals in its production, not an antipathy towards Chicago’s finest (and the group was doubtless aware of the title’s gag). A project of songwriter Scott McCaughey, leader of The Young Fresh Fellows and touring bassist for Robyn Hitchcock, this incarnation of Minus 5 also includes long-time collaborator Peter Buck of R.E.M. and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies. The sound borrows heavily from White Album period Beatles, early Byrds and the Hollies (Life Left Him There sounds more than a bit like Jennifer Eccles), filtered through an ambient alt.country colander. Wilco’s mark is evident but not overbearing, and Tweedy’s voice is welcome when it pops up. There is a joy in the sound which suggests that the collaborators had great fun recording it. This is an upbeat album that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Minus 5 – Where Will You Go.mp3

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Richard Hawley – Lowedges

hawley_lowedgesAll of Richard Hawley’s five full albums will feature in my Top 10s of the ’00s. All of five of them are superb; all are beautifully orchestrated with Hawley’s attractive baritone giving life to his fine, often melancholy lyrics. So when I declare that Lowedges is my least favourite Hawley album, I am being somewhat unfair to what is a fine album. The songs on Lowedges are as affecting as any; one wants to live inside them. Don’t Miss Your Water, On The Ledge, The Nights Are Made For Us or the dramatic Run For Me are as good as almost any Hawley songs. Lowedge’s The Motorcycle Song probably is my least favourite Hawley song; and even that is not terrible.
Richard Hawley – The Nights Are Made For Us.mp3

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Damien Rice – O

damien_riceO, but Damien was one overwrought lad. You fear for him in what must be a terribly fragile state. But, goodness, there are some beautiful songs on this album, and some heartwrenching lyrics. Rice is not a very good singer, so all the happier the moments when Lisa Hannigan supports him (although, typically, only to make poor Damien even more heartbroken). There are no clunkers on this set, and a bunch of quite brilliant songs, particularly The Blower’s Daughter, Volcano, Eskimo (with the operatic interlude), and Delicate. And Cannonball, which eclipses all of them. The album’s inclusion in this post is something of an anomaly. O was released in Ireland in 2002; after slow-burning success which eventually took the album into the UK top 10, it was released internationally in 2003.
Damien Rice – Eskimo.mp3

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Rosie Thomas – Only With Laughter Can You Win

rosie_thomas_laughterOf Rosie Thomas’ four albums (excluding last year’s Christmas effort), this is the one on which she is most explicit about her Christian faith. That is good news, of course, for the believer, but should not put off the religious sceptic, for her brand of Christianity — like that of her frequent collaborators Damien Jurado and Sufjan Stevens —bashes no Bible and does not glorify or moralise. Mostly, she is asking God how the hell she is supposed to live this life. Indeed, the evangelical fundamentalists might well call Rosie a Maoist Osama Nazi, as is their objectionable wont, should they encounter lyrics like this, on Tell Me Now: “How am I to tell them if they never follow Christ that heaven doesn’t hold a place for them…when I’m no better than them.” Christ is periodically present; and He should be: the album was recorded in Detroit’s 19th century St John’s church.

The music, as on all Rosie’s albums (which is another way of saying predictably), is intimate, delicate and entirely gorgeous — but there isn’t much by way of the victory-aiding laughter in the title. Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam makes an appearance on Red Rover, alas the weakest track on this album, which is also the weakest of in the Rosie Thomas catalogue — though here I hasten to invoke the Hawley doctrine.
Rosie Thomas – I Play Music.mp3

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The Darkness – Permission To Land

darknessWas it all a glorious piss-take, lending heavy rock all the camp that Queen fans so routinely denied in their group because the band’s name provided absolutely no clue? The cover of Permission To Land even aped the sexism we occasionally encountered in Queen (remember the Fat Bottomed Girls poster that came with the Jazz album?). The debut, unlike the follow-up, borrowed its influences more broadly than merely Queen, of course. The Darkness swigged copiously from the vats of hair metal, Van Halenesque CocRock, and AC/DC. Singer Justin Hawkins camped it up in striped spandex trousers, while bassist Frankie Pullain played the straight man. It was all a bit Spinal Tap, and if not quite a spoof or wind-up, then certainly rock music performed with a wink and a nod. And yet, the Darkness was not a novelty act; they took their music seriously and wanted the listener to have fun with it. They even gave us a damn good power ballad, featured here.
The Darkness – Love Is Only A Feeling.mp3

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eastmountainsouth – eastmountainsouth

eastmountainsouthBefore there were The Weepies, there were the shift- and space-bar boycotting eastmountainsouth. Discovered by Robbie Robertson, the folk-pop duo released only this one album, before Kat Maslich Bode and Peter Bradley Adams went their own way. That’s a pity; the album is lovely. It does not spring surprises on the listener; indeed, played in the wrong mood, it could be considered boring. The songs don’t go beyond mid-tempo, and they don’t always engage as immediately as those of fellow folkie Rosie Thomas. But the harmonies are exquisite, the vibe is warm. This is an album to savour on a lazy, preferably rainy weekend over a cup of coffee.
eastmountainsouth – Ghost.mp3

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More Albums of the Year

Albums of the Year: 1987

June 11th, 2008 No comments
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Some time ago I started a series of my favourite albums of the year, starting with round-ups of the ’50s and the years 1960-65. It was a good idea, but the prospect of choosing ten albums from 1966 and writing about them somehow put me off. So I procrastinated in continuing the series. Then, this morning, it hit me: why the compulsion to follow the years in a rigorously tidy chronology? Surely I won’t receive a flood of complaints if I focus on random years. So we’ll continue the long dormant series with a random year, inspired by the album I was playing in the car as I had my brainwave, and which tops the list. A few caveats: these lists represent my top 10 of albums in terms of my own enjoyment and/or the nostalgic bonds they represent. Greatest hits type compilations are not considered (else New Order’s Substance album would have featured). And, no, I never liked The Joshua Tree much, by 1987 I was past my Depeche Mode phase, and never owned Actually.

1. The Jesus And Mary Chain – Darklands
Somewhere I read the Jesus And Mary Chain’s 1985 aptly named debut Psychocandy described as the Beach Boys being played by vacuum cleaners, or a notion to that effect. The description is spot on: the rather lovely tunes struggled to be heard above the feedback. It sounded great, but somehow one wondered how great JAMC might be with a cleaner sound. Two years later the Reid brothers switched off the vacuum cleaner and, Hoover be praised, produced that clean sound. Listen to Cherry Came Too: you can imagine it being sung by the Beach Boys back in the day. Indeed, the Reid boys wore their influences with ease. The dark Nine Million Rainy Days pays homage, wittingly or not, to the Stones’ Sympathy To The Devil. Closing track About You could have been sung by Nico and the Velvet Underground. The title track channels Berlin-era Bowie (but is much better than that). Yet, they could not be accused of plagiarism, as Oasis would be later. The whole thing incorporates earlier sounds without compromising the JAMC’s originality. Two decades later, the album still sounds fresh and exciting. A forgotten classic.
The Jesus And Mary Chain – Darklands.mp3
The Jesus And Mary Chain – Nine Million Rainy Days.mp3

2. Prince – Sign O’ The Times
There probably is a critical consensus that Sign O’ The Times is the best album of 1987. There is indeed much to be admired. The music is great, of course. Provided one is in the mood for it, because it can be a bit tedious. Let it play on a non-Prince day — and surely everybody but the most devoted Prince fan has these — and the whole thing has the capacity to irritate. It is not a pop masterpiece like Purple Rain; SOTT demands that you to listen it, and forgive its trespasses, especially the flab (oh, but if you condensed it down to a single album, which tracks would you cut?). SOTT is to Prince what the White Album was to the Beatles: despite the flaws that tend to be a by product of innovation, a masterpiece.
Prince – Sign O’ The Times.mp3
Prince – Starfish And Coffee.mp3

3. The Smiths – Strangeways Here We Come
A year earlier, the Smiths had released their ageless opus, The Queen Is Dead. Now Morrissey, Marr and chums themselves delivered their swansong. It was not necessarily their finest hour: lead single Girlfriend In A Coma is a lightweight novelty number, presaging Morrissey’s solo career that is riddled with similar witless doggerels. It was a bizarre choice for a single. I submit that Unhappy Birthday might have become a big cult hit on the back of its wonderfully vicious lyrics. A Rush And A Push… and the oppressive Death Of A Disco Dancer are excellent, and Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me is one of the most affecting songs in a canon jam-packed with such things. The line “Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head” is emotionally exhausting. It is a great piece of sequencing that this track, a throw-back to the self-pity years, is preceded — at least on the CD, for Last Night… opens side 2 — by a song called Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before.
The Smiths – Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Love Me.mp3

4. Alexander O’Neal – Hearsay
When ’80s soul became unfashionable, O’Neal became something of a reject emblem for the out-of-favour genre. It was rather unfair on the man. He made some classy soul music in his time, thanks to his effortlessly expressive voice and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ sparkling funk-soul-pop arrangements. Hearsay is a concept album, with dialogue intros preceding each song (they tend to grate once the novelty has worn off). The first side is the going-to-a-party section with great funk tracks such as Fake and Criticise, on the flip side things mellow down a bit, though the thing continues to groove, as on the gorgeous duet with the frequent collaborator Cherelle, Never Knew Love Like This. This is one of the great soul albums of the ’80s. Why would anyone want to dismiss Alexander O’Neal? Little known fact: O’Neal was the singer of a group called the Flyte Tyme (with Jam and Lewis). The group was signed to Prince’s Paisley Park label, but after a dispute with His Tiny Highness, O’Neal left the group, which hired one Morris Day and renamed itself The Time, providing the baddy foil to Prince’s flawed hero in Purple Rain.
Alexander O’Neal – Criticise.mp3

5. Lloyd Cole & the Commotions – Mainstream
In a comment to a post in which I featured Lloyd Cole’s best song, Rattlesnakes, Rol from the fine Sunset Over Slawit blog wrote that he “could live inside” that song. I know exactly what he means. Likewise, I could spend a lost weekend (with or without a brand-new friend) in Cole’s Mainstream album. Lloyd’s final album with the Commotions, it did less well than its two predecessors. This is a pity, because — and this may be fighting talk — it is in some ways even better than the debut, Rattlesnakes, and most certainly superior to the sophomore album, Easy Pieces. On Mainstream, Cole and his increasingly distant friends returned to the guitar-based sound of the debut. Lyrically, Cole seemed to be at war with himself, his band and the world. On the side two opener he prnounced himself Mr Malcontent, and on the excellent From The Hip, he declared that he doesn’t care anymore. Oh, but he did. There are a couple of commitment songs, notably Jennifer She Said. That line “her name on you…Jennifer in blue” is a regular earworm, sometimes supplanted by the repetitious “that’s forever she said…”.
Lloyd Cole & The Commotions – From The Hip.mp3

6. Basia – Time And Tide
There is a very good reason why this jazz-pop singer goes by her Christian name. Basia Trzetrzelewska (try saying that after a few pints of finest Hevelius) provided the splendid three-octave female voice on Matt Bianco’s first LP. While I rather enjoyed Matt Bianco, their Get Out Of Your Lazy Bed song used to irritate me when I was still a notorious morning grump. There was nothing aggravating about her 1987 solo debut, a finely judged collection of Latin-tinged jazz-pop which could with ease move the twinkletoed to the dancefloor to do the samba (or its Capetonian cousin, the jazz). The title track and Promises received fairly wide exposure, and are indeed the strongest numbers on the album. But the entire set is strong, with the possible exception of Prime Time TV and How Dare You. Check out songs such as New Day For You or Astrud.
Basia – New Day For You.mp3

7. The Housemartins – The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death
Like an Indie-pop supernova, the Housemartins burnt out after two albums. It probably was just as well: the überanorak shtick was going to get them only so far. So bassplayer Norman Cook became a DJ and then Fat Boy Slim; singer Paul Heaton and replacement drummer Dave Hemingway formed the Beautiful South. Before going their own way, our Marxist-Christian pals left us with a maddeningly uneven yet rather enjoyable album, the title of which was a reference to the royal family. By now the political consciousness started to mingle uneasily with the wackiness. What at first was endearing started to irritate. The single Five Get Overexcited, catchy jangly guitar pop with a message about superficiality though it was, had annoying lrics (“I am mad from Scandinavia, I want a guy in the London area. He must be crazy and Sagittaurus, ’cause I am Leo and I’m hilarious”). Conversely, a serious song about the rotten class-system like Me And The Farmer fails to convey its message thanks to a happy melody (and a very silly video). The People Who… is at its strongest when things are allowed to calm down a bit. And so the stand-out tracks are the quieter Build and The Light Is Always Green. As an opponent of apartheid, I particularly appreciated the inclusion of Johannesburg, although the Housemartins deviation towards jazz was less welcome.
The Housemartins – The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death.mp3

8. Wet Wet Wet – Popped In Souled Out
This may be one of the most unjustly disrespected albums of the ’80s. I cannot understand why Wet Wet Wet have such a poor reputation. Is it because they were initially marketed as the teenybopper group they never could be (I mean, Marti Pellow was good looking, but the drummer and the little one are hardly dreamy heartthtrobs)? Is it because that song from a Hugh Grant movie was so ubiquitous? Was it the name? The answer is beyond me, but it surely cannot have been the music on the Scottish band’s debut album. This is high-quality blue-eyed soul, made by people who clearly understand the genre. The sound draws from ’60s pop and ’70s soul, and Pellow’s vocals settle for a fine balance between soul technique and pop delivery. The songs are very catchy. Strings swell, but never in a corny way. The lyrics aren’t Tom Waits or Patti Smith, but they remain on the right side of pop banality (and sometimes they are pretty good). What, I beg you, is there not to like here?
Wet Wet Wet – Wishing I Was Lucky.mp3

9. INXS – Kick
Let the record reflect that I had no time for INXS before Kick, and none after. And yet, I love this album. It is the most accessible INXS album; the slew of hits that emanated from it testifies to that. It is also their least self-conscious album; Hutchence lets it hang out like Jagger and actually seems to be enjoying himself. On Need You Tonight, Hutchence is sex personified. When he sings “Your moves are so raw, I’ve got to let you know…I’ve got to let you know: you’re one of my kind”, he is having hot ‘n sweaty sex. With you (well, if you happen to be listening to it). I can happily live without a few tracks from Kick, such as opener Guns In The Sky or Calling All Nations, but for all their exposure, I am never unhappy to hear Devil Inside, Never Tear Us Apart, Mediate, New Sensation, Mystify or the song on which Hutchence is having sex with us.
INXS – Need You Tonight.mp3

10. Johnny Clegg & Savuka – Third World Child
I like Johnny Clegg. I like it that an English-born Jewish boy would defy apartheid, which was predicated not only on the separation of races but also of cultures, and assimilate with Zulu culture but not lose the awareness that he could never be a fully-fledged Zulu. His affinity with the Zulu culture is sincere, as was evident in his previous group, Juluka. When Juluka colleague Sipho Mchunu left the group, Clegg founded Savuka. His new group continued in the Juluka tradition; in concerts the setlist included most Juluka classics and the old dance routines with the highkicks. Third World Child was more commercial and polished than Juluka, possibly consciously so as to appeal to the fans of Paul Simon’s Graceland. It was a better album for it, I think. One has the direct comparison of Scatterlings Of Africa, a Juluka single in 1982 and re-recorded by Savuka for this album. The latter version is marginally better. At times Third World Child, like everything Clegg does, is a little too earnest, and sometimes it seems Clegg got bored with an idea before completing its development. But, goodness, when it’s good, it really is great. Apart from Scatterlings, the stand-out tracks are Great Heart and the great anti-apartheid song dedicated to the then still jailed Nelson Mandela, Asimbonanga, with its moving litany of activists who were murdered by the regime.
Johnny Clegg & Savuka – Asimbonanga.mp3

Previously featured:
1950s
1960-65

iPod Random 5-track Experiment Vol. 6

March 31st, 2008 3 comments

To end off the month, here the five random tracks my iPod threw out for your pleasure. Actually, I’m cheating, because it listed a couple of tracks I recently posted…

The Band with Neil Diamond – Dry Your Eyes.mp3
From The Last Waltz. Neil Diamond must have retained some of the cool he had rightfully acquired before going all lamé on us (cf. Pissing off the Thought Police with Neil Diamond), else surely Messrs Danko, Robertson, Manuel et al would not have invited the man to jam with them. And the crowd seems happy enough to welcome him on stage. It’s all good. I like pre-lamé Neil, I like The Band, and I like this song. Thank you, iPod Shuffle Function.

Moldy Peaches – Anyone Else But You.mp3
Originally from the Moldy Peaches eponymous 2001 debut — and so far only — album, this is everybody’s favourite song from the quite wonderful Juno soundtrack (lovely film too). The one Ellen Page and Michael Cera sing at the end. Kimya Dawson, the female component of the Moldy Peaches, features very prominently on the soundtrack. Her solo albums are well worth seeking out as well.

John Barrowman & Kevin Kline – Night And Day.mp3
iPod loves soundtracks. First The Last Waltz, then Juno, now DeLovely. I was hoping it would give me chance to post something from Cabaret, actually. I may be committing some sort of credibility suicide here, but this is my favourite version (of those I know, which must be a dozen at least) of Night And Day, in terms of tempo, arrangement and vocals. A great though pretty difficult song to croon along to.

4 Non Blondes – What’s Up (Piano Version).mp3
Sometimes iPod surprises me. I didn’t know that this slowed-down acoustic version of the 1993 hit by Linda Perry and chums was residing on it, and I certainly can’t see why I might have thought it necessary to copy it over. Still, having listened to it again for purposes of this post, I think it’s quite a nice version, and a pretty good song, too.

Lloyd Cole & the Commotions – Rattlesnakes.mp3
To me, this is the sound of 1984. The lines “She looks live Eve Marie Saint in On The Waterfront; she reads Simone de Beauvoir in her American circumstance” (hey presto, and another movie reference) are among my favourites from the ’80s.

And for our listening pleasure, a song which iPod didn’t random shuffle: the original version of the Sesame Street/Muppets classic Mah-na Mah-na, by Italian film score composer Piero Umiliani, from 1969. Of the two muppetised versions, I prefer that of Sesame Street, also made in 1969, with the two female backing singers who communicate bemusement better than many a movie actress, and the singer who looks like heroin addict (video). The Muppets’ version (video) has a stoned hippie and some pink animals. Good, but not as good. By the way, links open in the same window, so click new tab/window, or you’ll lose this page.
Piero Umiliani – Mah-ná-mah-ná.mp3

And an added bonus for my fellow Weepies fans: the title track from their new album, due for release on April 22:
The Weepies – Hideaway.mp3