Monday, 30 June 2014

1964: The Supremes - Where Did Our Love Go?

That thing I said (in The Smiths post) about finding it harder to revere artists who were around as you were growing up has a slightly different version, and that's to do with the stars of the 60s during the 1980s. Bear in mind that the 80s were to the likes of McCartney, Harrison, Dylan, Diana Ross as nowadays is to the likes of Damon Albarn, Liam Gallagher and Mariah Carey. And they initially all seemed like slightly rubbish people of the present rather than legends of yesteryear. My first experience of Paul McCartney was The Frog Chorus, my first experience of Diana Ross was a cheesy power ballad called 'When You Tell Me That You Love Me'.

And it doesn't help that a lot of music criticism, even after you realise that The Supremes were basically the 2nd biggest singles band of the 60s and that Diana Ross has sung several of the most perfect songs that ever existed, is a little sniffy about her. They'll say that Martha Reeves was a better  singer, that other members of The Supremes were better singers, that she was lucky to get all the good songs and make insinuations about how she got  to be the star. As if those songs would be better if other people had sung them. And what with all those rubbish power ballads of the 80s and 90s and that terrible penalty at the 1994 World Cup, I believed the doubters for a long time.

Some people would still say Kelly Rowland was a better singer than Beyonce.

Others may have more range, more power, but Diana Ross was a great pop star and a wonderful singer. There's something really rather bizarre about her, isn't there, the way she carried herself, even 50 years ago, like a refined little old lady, the articulation, the catch in the light but still strong voice. I just ended up hearing too many great songs sung by Diana Ross to doubt her talents.

So, here's this album, then, never really seen at the top of Greatest Albums Lists. Because Motown were a singles label, right, and The Supremes were a singles band. 'Where Did Our Love Go?', as an album, includes several of their most famous songs. I was expecting the rest to be watered-down filler, but actually, no, there's real range and variety and there's not a bad song on the album. The most famous songs are the title track and Baby Love, followed by Come See About Me, but then there's Run Run Run and A Breathtaking Guy, Your Kiss of Fire and When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes. Everyone a winner! Songs written by Holland-Dozier-Holland, or Smokey Robinson, or Norman Whitfield. No drop off in quality.

Yes, yes, it has a little compilation feel to it, as some of the singles had already come out, but how's that different from The Strokes' debut or even, say, What's the Story, Morning Glory?

I'm asked the question before - what is it with so few soul albums being seen as great albums by the rock music press. They love the singles, but seem to set a higher standard for soul albums. Great rock and punk albums can just be great collections of songs without some great theme, but a soul album seems to need to be as deep as Songs in the Key of Life or What's Going On.  Incidentally, the latter has far fewer distinctly memorable songs than Where Does Our Love Go?

There hasn't really been anything else like Motown in the history of pop music, there have been prolifically successful songwriters for a while, and studios, like Stock Aitken Waterman, who hit a winning formula for a while, but the sheer numbers of Motown hits in the 60s which both achieved massive success at the time and are still seen as unique classics to this day is astonishing.

The Supremes were its biggest stars, just about, though there were plenty of great songs to go round. They had 12 US Number 1s, and some of the ones that didn't become big hits in the UK, like love Child and I Hear a Symphony,  are the best of the lot. There are a few Diana Ross tracks on the compilation too - my absolute favourite vocal performance is on 'I'm Gonna Make You Love Me', a duet with The Temptations, which has really become one of my favourite records.

I Hear a Symphony
Ain't No Mountain High Enough - Diana Ross
I'm Gonna Make You Love Me - The Supremes and The Temptations
Love Child
You Are Everything - Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross
Run, Run, Run
You Can't Hurry Love
Come See About Me
Chain Reaction - Diana Ross
I'm Still Waiting - Diana Ross
You Keep Me Hangin' On
Stop! In the Name of Love
Baby Love
A Breathtaking Guy
Where Did Our Love Go?

Friday, 27 June 2014

1999: Guerrilla Part 2

I realised that my main post on this album was rather taken up with trying to prove that Gruff Rhys was a genius and very little about 'Guerrilla' itself and my experience of it. Rather a shame, as it's so tied up with a particular time for me, and I so thoroughly experienced it as a single entity, that it's a good opportunity to talk about that phenomenon, which has been increasingly hard to find with the digitization of music.

So, let me set the scene. The album was released in the summer of 1999, preceded by the single 'Northern Lites'. I hadn't, in fact, been totally and utterly sold on the Furries before that point, but I loved 'Northern Lites'. If any Furries track was to be a massive hit, it was this one, but it stalled at Number 11. The next single, 'Fire in my Heart' came out in August 1999 and was really just as good, a beautiful harmony-laden circular torch song, one of the sweetest, straightest songs the Furries ever did, which again stalled in the charts far short of its deserved position.

I was finally ready to embrace the Furries wholeheartedly as I returned to St Andrews University for my third year, taking up residence in a shared house, 7 Baker Lane.

Aah, Baker Lane. The name sends shivers through all who knew it. I lived there with friends Alex and John. Finding a flat/house in St Andrews was a bit of a circus, always conducted the previous February, as there were only so many good ones to go round. John, Alex and I had agreed to rent with another fellow named Richard Smith, and even reached an agreement on a lovely 4-bedroom house on North Street, only for Smith to mysteriously duck out at the very last minute. Ah Smith.

So, we three kings of mirth were stuck needing to find a three-bed place when pretty much everything had already been taken, and all we could find was 7 Baker Lane. It was central - check! A house - super! Picturesque - mmm! It had a piano - luverly, and a garden - sweeet! It had two bedrooms, both the size of cupboards -hmmm. One of them had bunk beds - ah. It had no central heating - eek.  It was next door to a mad alcoholic with a mad cat - oooh. Baker Lane, remember the name.

Baker Lane was formerly known as Baxter's Wynd, it was a little alley between two of the town's main road. We got a lot of walking traffic going past. Before winter kicked in, it was a place of revelry. We had an open plan downstairs and we all spent most of our time there with the stereo on, so listening to the same stuff. Alex would impose the likes of Macy Gray, Shelby Lynne and Lauryn Hill on us, I had a bizarre affection for twee-indie no-hopers Ooberman, John would restore order and find universal approval with Belle and Sebastian and, above all, the Super Furry Animals. And above all, Guerrilla.

We really did revel. We ate, drank and made merry, had friends round, had parties - it was as good a version of dissolute, wasted decadence as we could muster. All soundtracked by our Furry Friends. Early in the morning to late into the night. Not necessarily the way to endear yourself to a mad alcoholic next door with a mad cat.

'Guerrilla' is rather a disconcerting album - it squelches and stutters, beauty follows torture, absurdity follows grace, you never really know where you stand with it. Baker Lane was a disconcerting place in a way - statistically one of the lowest ranked places in St Andrews, it was cold and dingy and squalid, but we loved it. I hear the album and my senses fill up - the cold, the smell, the dust, the laughs.

It was the first Furries album I listened to repeatedly and the first I bought. I think there are stronger, more consistent works elsewhere - its predecessor, 'Radiator' is an astonishingly consistent and imaginative work. 'Guerrilla' has several songs which are ideas but not exactly  full songs, like 'Wherever I Lay My Phone (That's My Home') and 'Chewing Chewing Gum' - it's the sound of some kind of madness. The childlike refrains bounce out at me, almost haunt me. Honestly, if I'd bought the album now, there would have been lots of tracks I'd have skipped, I'd have stuck with, say, Citizen's Band, Do or Die, Turning Tide, Northern Lites, Night Vision, The Teacher, Fire in My Heart, Keep the Cosmic Trigger Happy. But the point is, I'd have been poorer for it. It's the squelches and the creeping oddities which stick with me, which bring back the memories, which make 'Guerrilla' not just the work of a band I like, there for me to assess, but a part of my life and memories.

These days, I still listen to loads of music, and I try to give whole albums a reasonable chance, but I get to listen to music in a controlled, sanitised, environment and I'll inevitably start skipping to the good ones pretty soon if the weird ones don't grab me. Life's too short. Isn't it?

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

1999: Super Furry Animals - Guerrilla

It seems there's a winner. I didn't expect there to be a winner when I started this, and if I had, I certainly wouldn't have expected it to be this particular act, which - though I've never lost the love for them - I haven't really listened to all that much in the last few years.

But, in the process of listening to everything I intend to write about for a few weeks in advance, it became very clear to me - Gruff Rhys and the Super Furry Animals win! They win pop. They win rock'n'roll. They win the Song Contest.  Sorry Bob Dylan, sorry Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney and David Bowie, you can all go home now.

Whaaaaaat, you say? Just like that. Without word of explanation? Of course there'll be a few words of fatuous, unrigorous explanation, fear not, I won't let you down.

I should probably have come in a little lower and you'd be on board. If I'd suggested that SFA were the finest Welsh tuneful indie-rock combo of the post-Britpop era, you'd almost certainly agree, unless you classify the Stereophonics as tuneful ... but, try as I might to deny it, I think more than that. I compare the Furries to The Beatles and I think they're better. I compare Gruff to Damon and I think he's more eclectic, imaginative and masterful. I compare them to Wilco and think they're more consistent. I compare them to Joni Mitchell and they tell me more about the world, more that I trust and believe in. Gruff Rhys and his buddies are a joyful gift to the world which far too little of the world knows about.

What really gives the lie to my grand statement is, of course, success. Success, whether in sales or influence, means something in popular music. The Super Furry Animals have not, by the way, sold as many records as the Beatles. Or as Ed Sheeran. Or The Stereophonics. And how much have they influenced ... not all that much. But it's kind of hard to be influenced by a band who does absolutely everything and does it brilliantly. Easier to be influenced by a one-note, one concept act like the Libertines or The Strokes. Oh yeah, the Libertines and The Strokes, they're so influential ...

Having said that, they hardly wallowed in complete obscurity and do hold a chart record of their own, albeit a slightly unwelcome one, which is the longest run of Top 40 hits which didn't make the Top 10. That says a lot really. It says they're a band which could do singles, which sought success, which maintained a high standard of likeability, which fans stuck with, but that they never quite compromised enough to do anything which "the masses" cottoned on to. Probably their most famous single is 'The Man Don't Give a Fuck'  - never going to get all that much airplay ...

Why else didn't they become wildly successful? Yes, they were too offbeat, Gruff's voice is not as such a pop voice, they were always five men who didn't look like pop stars, past the first flush of youth. Gruff Rhys is himself the most striking-looking but he does speak English ... in the most .... unusual way ... that it was probably .... quite  hard work ... having him on ... TV shows  ... selling his wares.

Why else? Because there is no stand-out moment in their career, because music journalists had no  option but to be a little complacent about their mastery. Another great Furries album, the story went. Where's the story?

Their first five English language albums are almost faultless. That's why they win pop. I listen to them all, all the way through, and I find them almost faultless more than anything else in the history of pop music. Relentless tunes, more per song than most people manage in a career, brilliant ideas, humour, every genre effortlessly blended in - soft rock, prog rock, techno, calypso, punk, folk, hard rock, close harmony, sampling, Americana, country, tropicalia, balladry, Nick Drakey instrumental, Spiritualizedy instrumental - it is all there and not in a showy, aren't we clever way. They just could do it all and make it sound great. Within that time,  they also released two of the greatest stand-alone singles of all time, The Man Don't Give a Fuck and  Ice Hockey Hair, which distils all their genius into 7 minutes, a great album of b-sides and extras, and, of course, a fine Welsh-language album that made the Top 20 and was mentioned in parliament.

Gruff is like a seer, or an alchemist - his songs so full of complex, bold ideas boiled down to something funny and palatable. As a lyricist, his propensity for humour perhaps sees him underestimated, but his skill for setting words to  music is unquestionable. Even a simple line like "I really need to get some energy in me" from Fuzzy Birds, the way he uses it to propel the song forward count as great lyricism for me. I wonder if another reasons why the Furries are underrated is their iconography - the wonderful illustrations of Pete Fowler are so tied in with their sound, it is possible to view SFA as almost a cartoon band. Like Stevie Wonder, there is so much bright colour in the music, it can almost be overwhelming. Oh, the Furries, they're fun ... like the Coen Brothers ... not weighty enough ... nonsense ...

I described those first five albums as "almost" faultless. There are perhaps two major faults I identify in their career path, both at the time when major label stardom was closest, when signed to the label Epic. Their two albums within that period, Rings Around the World and Phantom Power, are a tiny bit undervalued compared to the first three. To me, they're amongst their strongest, but 'Rings' begins, oddly, with two of its least catchy songs,  and the lead single of 'Phantom Power', 'Golden Retriever',  is the weakest of their career for me, just too obvious a steal from 'Son of my Father'. It's their Roll With It moment. I have come to love everything else on Phantom Power. Everything. It's also Gruff Rhys' favourite.

That's the thing with the Furries - listen back to the songs you've forgotten from the albums you've forgotten and they'll blow you away with their tuneful lushness or rocking power - 'Out of Control' from Phantom Power, 'Bass Tuned to DEAD' from Radiator, 'Helium Hearts' from Dark Days/Light Years. The list goes on.

This here album, the one I'm writing about, is 'Guerrilla', their third English-language album, the one that actually really got me into them in a big way, never off the stereo for a couple of years at university. Perhaps, critically, just, the most acclaimed, though there's not much in it. Personally, now, it's my 3rd or 4th favourite, but that is personal - the slight mentalness of the second half with all its squelches was wonderful at the time for drunken students but less so now.

But the album is still such a rich gift - Gruff Rhys has said he hates to write songs which lure audiences in with poignancy, yet this album contains a couple of true beauties, Turning Tide and Fire in My Heart, the faultless Northern Lites, Do or Die, Keep the Cosmic Trigger Happy and, the special treat, Citizen's Band as a hidden track, which is almost as good as anything else on the album. It's quite a disconcerting album, really, it's still got the tint of madness to it. If they lost anything as they got older, it was that.

I found the album inspiring, genuinely inspiring, the seriousness and coherence of ideas,  the virtuosity all wrapped in the cloak of humour. They're never trying to persuade or manipulate you into liking them, they're just entertaining you on your own terms.

I've seen articles writing Gruff off as a dope-addled joker but, hell, like, say Gram Parsons or Damon Albarn,  he hasn't half kept up a prodigious work rate. This has carried on into his increasingly tremendous solo work, where he has really found his feet on the last couple. He is a true renaissance man, a cross-media master, has been for years - albums come with DVDs or films, books, travelogues, apps. He has become the world expert on the subject of his latest solo album (the masterful 'American Interior'), John Evans. And all the time, the tunes keep coming. Such a great ballad man for someone who tries not to write poignancy songs.

There  was a waning of the Furries. It began with 'LoveKraft' and carried on through 'Hey Venus!' and 'Dark Days/Light Years'. I did not like LoveKraft at the time, hated the fact that songwriting duties were being shared round, that they'd slowed things down tried to make a lusher album. Listening to it recently, it's much much better than I remembered - it was a change, but it holds up. Not their greatest, but a worthy addition to their canon.

'Hey Venus!' and 'Dark Days/Light Years' less so, sadly.  They are both albums made by a band trying to recapture some element of its identity, not sure of itself. 'Hey Venus!' is POP Furries, look, we can still do tunes, 'Dark Days/Light Years!' is jamming heavy rock Furries, too loose and casual. To be honest, it was probably mainly a brief dip in Gruff's own songwriting mojo. It happens. He's got it back now. Will he ever bring it back to the Furries? I hope so. Those are decent albums but you'd want something more to be left with.

I once came across a guy who hated the Furries - he was a massive twat and he was a massive fan of The Killers. Apart from that, I've been lucky to spend time with other people who love them, and am slightly baffled that anyone who really paid any attention wouldn't.

I enjoyed reading all  the cooler-than-cool Pitchfork reviews of them. Pitchfork is often very sniffy about substandard British acts.  Not the Furries, of course Furries Reviews

Because Gruff and the Furries are the winners, I've indulged myself (and them) by giving them a 40-son compilation, just to show how many good ones there are - i've taken them from every part of Gruff's career. Nothing ... nothing ... beats this.

American Interior - Gruff Rhys
Northern Lites
Helium Hearts
Ymaelodi A'r Ymylon
Atomik Lust
I Told Her on Alderaan- Neon Neon
Something 4 the Weekend
If We Were Words, We Would Rhyme - Gruff Rhys
She's Got Spies
God! Show Me Magic
Bad Behaviour
Out of Control
Fuzzy Birds
Hometown Unicorn
The Undefeated
Sex, War and Robots
Presidential Suite
Now that the Feeling Has Gone - Gruff Rhys
Liberty Belle
Citizen's Band
The Last Conquistador - Gruff Rhys
Run, Christian, Run
The Turning Tide
Keep the Cosmic Trigger Happy
Hello Sunshine
Fire in My Heart
Hermann Loves Pauline
Mountain People
Slow Life
Venus and Serena
Walk into the Wilderness - Gruff Rhys
Christopher Columbus - Gruff Rhys
It's Not the End of the World
Ice Hockey Hair
The Man Don't Give a Fuck
For Now and Ever

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

1994: Suede - Dog Man Star

I've seen Brett Anderson doing his thing up on stage twice, both times in front of tens of thousands of people. The first time was on the main stage at Benicassim in 2006 as frontman of the short-lived band The Tears, his reunion with erstwhile Suede partner Bernard Butler. The second time was as frontman of the reformed Suede headlining Latitude in 2011. I'd been told (by a big fan of the band, which I myself am not) that the reformed Suede was a joy to behold, would blow my cynicism away, and it was to an extent. They rocked it. The Tears, on the other hand, did not, and I heard an awful lot of people,  as they ploughed through their one - mediocre - album, shouting "Play some fuckin' Suede". Brett Anderson, with his rock star moves, seemed defiantly ridiculous. He might have seemed just so ridiculous fronting Suede, except I allowed myself to buy into the idea of Brett Anderson rock star  because I liked a lot of the songs enough, and it was great.

Suede were the first of those bands, those major bands of the 90s, who really broke through, even to kids like me without much of a music taste in 1992/3. I knew about them and knew they were the great hope of British music. They were the Paul Gascoigne of the whole thing, if you will, while Blur and Oasis were the Alan Shearer and David Beckham ... if you will. Brett Anderson, to me, is one of the most nonsensical characters in music, buzzing with insecurity and self-importance and utterly undisguised envy and weak bravado. But, you know, he's done all right for himself. Despite the fact that the Tears were so hopeless,  most people, including me, think that Bernard Butler supplied Anderson with a magic he would never recapture.

Butler was kicked out of the band at the end of sessions for their second album 'Dog Man Star'. Suede have since (including a large hiatus) completed four albums without him, the first of which 'Coming Up' was actually very successful, but they have really not been the same band since. They're the perfect example of the band that starts to sound like a covers band of themselves, where the magic is intangibly (or, actually, sometimes, fairly tangibly) lost. It's not always disastrous, not exactly, it can be fine, but it's all too clean, too self-conscious. Think Wilco's 'Wilco', Spiritualized's 'Let it Come Down', Furries' 'Hey Venus', Belle and Sebastian's 'The Life Pursuit'.

What Suede lost was obvious. They lost their great musical talent - no one has ever denied that. Butler has had success in numerous fields since then, and, actually, if you ask me who I'd rather see reform to make a new album, it would be McAlmont and Butler, not Anderson and Butler.

Although Anderson and Butler really did work well for a while, there's no denying that. Now, and at the time, their eponymous debut and 'Dog Man Star' were both considered classics - this seedy, narcotic Londony take on the Smiths and Bowie. I never know with Brett Anderson if he's in on any of the joke - when he sings " you're tie-king me eau-va" on The Drowners, sure, he knows he's pronouncing the words oddly and doing that on purpose, but he does he really know how silly it is, that the magic comes from the silliness above all? He probably does, but i'm never quite sure. Still, what a song ...

Their best songs, though, for me, are on Dog Man Star, a massive, sweeping, elegant, dangerous album, and the album that suggests that if they'd stuck together, well, they really could have been something. It's the one act of Suede I still hold in the highest regard - I like the first album, I really don't rate anything post-Butler, I just think it's weak, plinky plonky, trite and boring. I think Dog Man Star's great. It's not like it's been on my stere-eau by the nuclear maotorway for the last twenty years, but, you know, I like it.

The one I always loved was The Wild Ones - really beautiful.  I remember it was on the same Top of the Pops as End of a Century - to be honest, from that point on, Suede were a defeated enemy and I was all about Blur. Dog Man Star was not a massive commercial success and no wonder Anderson was seething. He thought he was creating a definitive masterpiece and who stole his thunder? The dick who stole his girlfriend.

It's interesting how the three, or let's say four, guitar heroes of English indie all had their alliances with charismatic frontmen severed and how all fared afterwards. Morrissey and Marr, Brown and Squire, Anderson and  Butler, Albarn and Coxon - how interestingly similar all those relationships are, with the Albarn/Coxon one being slightly different in that it was always known that Albarn was the main musical talent and would be fine one his own, whereas Morrissey, Brown and Anderson actually all did a bit better without their foil than many thought they would.

Anyway, I'm rambling because I'm watching Spain-Chile (what of the severed alliance of Xavi-Iniesta?) - Dog Man Star is an album out of time, forgotten in a sense, though enough people comment on its forgotten state so as to make it unforgotten. It's pretty brilliant, rather like The Bends; some of the best songs are the non-singles, it's instantly evocative and without filler.

It's born of conflict, tension, drama, decadence and ambition, and I've never been in a recording studio but it is fascinating to consider the elements that create magic and those that don't. A lot of the mythology of rock'n'roll seems to have a large grain of truth to it.

Anyway, here's a compilation of the works of the members of Suede - sorry, I do love a bit of McAlmont and Butler, I really do.

Introducing the Band
The Wild Ones
The Drowners
Animal Nitrate
Yes - McAlmont and Butler
New Generation
Metal Mickey
Stay Together
Refugees - The Tears
I'm Not Alone - Bernard Butler
So Young
You Do - McAlmont and Butler
Stay - Bernard Butler
My Insatiable One
Black or Blue
Bring it Back - McAlmont and Butler
It Starts and Ends With You

Sunday, 15 June 2014

1976: Stevie Wonder - Songs in the Key of Life

There was really just one summer of Stevie Wonder for me. Or so it seems, looking back. 2000. And I think, just as soon as it started, it was over.  I think maybe it was being disappointed by the two lesser albums from his "golden period", Music of My Mind and Fulfillingness' First Finale, or maybe it was hearing one too many slightly clumsy lyric - "just like a haystack needle", "was for Christmas what would be my toy" etc. I've listened to Stevie Wonder since then, but not with such fervour ever again. I know those songs, love the songs, but the albums, the three great albums, 'Talking Book', 'Innervisions' and 'Songs in the Key of Life' are not "go-to" albums for me.

Which is a shame for me, as they're brilliant, imaginative, influential, rich, joyful, eclectic, thought-provoking, without direct comparison. Stevie Wonder's early-70s is surely one of the very greatest prolonged creative spurts in the history of popular music, alongside Bob Dylan's mid-60s and not much else for consistency and prolificness.

Songs in the Key of Life was the culmination of this - almost 40 years ago. Incredibly (even though it was itself considered a long delayed album), this was his fifth studio album in four years, and in the time since he has only completed five more full studio albums (notwithstanding film soundtracks and such like). It's not true to say it's all been cack since then - there's plenty to like on Hotter than July, from 1980, but it is safe to say that Stevie spent the vast majority of his creative juices in that period.

Though it's not like he'd been quiet before then. As a Motown child prodigy, he'd released several hit albums in his teens, though not breaking too far from the Motown blueprint. It was in the early 70s, tentatively with 'Where I'm Coming From', then with 'Music of My Mind' that he seized control of his career and wrote himself into music history.

Listening to Stevie's most famous 60s hits next to his 70s work, though I'm normally a gigantic fan of the simple Motown magic compared to 70s MOR, smooth soul/funky jams etc, you can't help but hear the quite enormous leap he made. It really is the leap from black and white to colour, it's as simple as that.

Colour. Has there ever been an artist whose music is so associated with colour as Stevie Wonder? I've never considered myself the slightest bit synaesthetic, but listening to these albums, the colour bursts into my ears, like Pet Sounds, like the Furries, like Joanna Newsom, not like the Strokes or Otis Redding or The Smiths - don't get me wrong, a lot of the greatest films are black and white, but Stevie Wonder's music of the 70s is kaleidoscopic, technicolor, that's just how it is.

It's explicit in some of his greatest songs and greatest lyrics too (for all that there was the very occasional clumsy lyric, he was really a tremendous writer of beautiful words), from 'Golden Lady' to the glorious 'Visions' - "I'm not one who makes believe, I know that leaves are green, They only change to brown when autumn comes around". You don't need me to point out the poignancy.

'Songs in the Key of Life' is the big one, the final statement from a great artist's greatest period. You rather make yourself a hostage to fortune with a title like that. Does this immense double album live up to its premise? I've never quite been sure.

Its critical standing is unquestioned as is the fact that it was also a phenomenal commercial success. There are enough people who know what they're talking about who consider it their favourite album of all time, but perhaps for me the streamlined perfection and poignancy of Innervisions is preferable.

I've never quite got on board with the second half, never been entirely sold on 'As' (perhaps the problem was that I heard George Michael and Mary J Blige do it before Stevie) or Isn't She Lovely, found Black Man a little cheesy, gave up on Another Star a little way through too often. Perhaps this is carping,  and perhaps indicative of the fact that, as I fell out with Stevie Wonder after the summer of 2000 passed, I didn't then accept Songs in the Key of Life on its own terms, and it was hence permanently etched in my mind as a glorious failure.  I've recently listened to the ones that were a turn-off all those years ago, like Summer Soft, Have a Talk With God, and Ngiculela, and just thoroughly enjoyed them.

And anyway, the first half contains, in order, Sir Duke, I Wish, Knocks Me Off My Feet, Pastime Paradise. Ridiculous.

Still, I wonder if I will keep on listening to Stevie Wonder and Songs in the Key of Life now, after their recent forced rediscovery.  Or will I just move on to the next one in alphabetical order and leave him behind again? I think it's more likely to be Talking Book and Innervisions that keep me interested, to be honest, and perhaps I have unfinished business with Music of My Mind and Fulfilingness' First Finale, which I bought from King Creosote for a fiver each in September 2000 when my Wonderlust was already on the wain, and never really believed in. There are no songs from those two albums on this wonderful compilation of Stevie Wonder, which, if I were using it to soundtrack the goings-on of a friend of mine, I'd call 'Songs in the Life of Key'. Oh.

Sir Duke
All In Love is Fair
Knocks Me Off My Feet
For Once in My Life
Blame it on the Sun
He's Misstra Know-it-All
Livin' for the City
I Believe When I Fall in Love With You It Will Be Forever
I Wish
Master Blaster
You are the Sunshine of My Life
Uptight (Everything's All Right)
Happy Birthday to You
Tomorrow Robins Will Sing
Signed, Sealed,  Delivered
Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing

Thursday, 12 June 2014

1986: The Smiths - The Queen is Dead

This is, according to the NME's thoroughly put together and extensive list in late 2013, the Greatest Album of All Time.

OK, that's not the stupidest thing I've ever heard. There are plenty worse. There are few others with such marvellous moments throughout. It's an album with at least 6 stone cold classics. And bathos can be a good thing. I like bathos well applied.  But there are few such balefully bathetic moments as this album's low points.

Anyway, Morrissey. Morrissey and Marr. The severe dalliance. Or severed alliance. Everyone says Johnny Marr's a cool dude and everyone says he's one of the most wonderful guitar players too. That's never in doubt. Morrissey's a more controversial figure. Because he often seems such a bellend, it's quite hard to deal with.

Morrissey is, sort of, massively famous. Or at least, if he's in your sphere, he's massively famous. Broadsheet journalists write about him as if he's Michael Jackson. But he's, oddly, not actually that famous or successful. Were we to construct a list of acts who've sold more records than Morrissey, we'd probably find all kinds of irrelevances like Level 42 and Herman's Hermits and The Stereophonics there. The Smiths, though sometimes called their generation's Beatles, never had a Number 1 album and hardly had any Top 10 hits. It's a large, large cult, but no more.

I go back to my childhood to understand that. Watching Top of the Pops growing up, The Smiths, then Morrissey solo, were on it all the time with the some Number 14 single or uth-aa. And I couldn't stand it, I thought he was weird and it was always a tuneless racket.

[Incidentally, does anyone else have that, where if you grow up listening to bands before your taste is fully developed, and then it turns out they're kind of critically acclaimed, it's much harder to fully appreciate them. That's my excuse with bands like REM, New Order and U2. Well, my excuse with U2 is that they're awful, obviously. Also, incidentally, did anyone else, when they were little get the bands, all the British bands, confused. Look - Simply Red, Simple Minds, Dire Straits, U2, UB40, Level 42 - I could not tell any of them apart till about 1991.]

Anyway, getting back to The Smiths (who I confused with the Housemartins, I think), to be honest, even as I got older and listened to them on Virgin Radio or whatever, I really wasn't sold, I didn't hear much in the way of tunes. It took buying this here album in 1998 or 99 to really get it.

Once I got it, like many others, I instantly fell for it big time. Suddenly I understood what everyone had been going on about. My oh my, I Know It's Over, where's that been all my life? Then I heard Vicar in a Tutu, Never Had No one Ever and, mainly, Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others. Johnny Marr has tactfully said he prefers the music on that song to the lyrics. There are 10 songs on this album, and how can it be the greatest album of all time with two duds and one abomination. I'll ignore those songs for the rest of the time and treat 'The Queen is Dead' as a 7-track masterpiece.

The Smiths did have a perfect short career where they never released anything substandard - the first is pretty good, Meat is Murder is pretty fantastic and gets better the more you listen to it (though I hate the title track), Hatful of Hollow and Louder than Bombs are both tremendous compilations, The Queen is Dead is the zenith for most, though both protagonists cite Strangeways Here We Come as their favourite.

All great stuff, great iconography. No wonder our forebears in those dark 1980s fell so hard for them. The seven songs on 'The Queen is Dead' which I don't hate are the fearsome, funny title track, the beautiful I Know It's  Over, the super-hilarious and cutting Frankly Mr Shankly, the marvellous central tunefest of Cemetry Gates, Bigmouth Strikes Again and The Boy With the Thorn  His Side, and then, of course, There is a Light That Never Goes Out, which is better than most things ever.

Getting back to the puzzle of Morrissey, I've seen him just the once, second on the bill at Benicassim, I think to Franz Ferdinand (who were great, by the way).

It was kind of great, a thrill to start with, he played loads of good songs up front and then he actually played There is a Light ... and it felt like a profound life moment, and then he gave some shit patronising chat, played a few dodgy songs and it all kind of drifted and we got the beers in and waited for the headliner. For a noted wit, a lot of his chat is so lame. He has to live up to his idea of himself, and nearly always fails to, that's what I think.

Anyway, Morrissey's solo career has actually had several really great moments, I'll give him that, he's clearly a capable songwriter in his own right, but listening back to the Smiths as I've been doing lately, I really do appreciate the artistry of Johnny Marr. He's had a really good career himself, doing the job in all manner of bands and always making them better, but you do wonder if he might have done more, his arranging and compositional skill seems so vast.

Anyway, this is my compilation, it's the Smiths and Morrissey and would include anything Johnny Marr took the lead one, but nothing quite makes it.

The Headmaster Ritual
How Soon is Now?
The Boy With the Thorn in His Side
I Know It's Over
Irish Blood, English Heart - Morrissey
Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want
That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore
Cemetry Gates
First of the Gang to Die - Morrissey
Well I Wonder
The Queen is Dead
This Charming Man
Everyday is Like Sunday - Morrissey
The More you Ignore Me, The Closer I Get - Morrissey
Suedehead - Morrissey
William it was Really Nothing
Bigmouth Strikes Again
Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now
There is a Light That Never Goes Out

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

1968: Simon & Garfunkel - Bookends

There's a tendency from music critics to revise history by saying "You know, it wasn't actually the most super-successful album by this legendary act that was the best, it was the second most successful one that was the best" (a bit like, though the opposite of, always choosing the second cheapest bottle of wine at a fancy restaurant, which is, of course, what everybody does).

So, Revolver, Off the Wall, Talking Book, Hunky Dory, Definitely Maybe etc all fall into that category, as, I often find, does 'Bookends'. This is a more complete, fulfilling work than Bridge Over Troubled Water, they say.  Is it?

Let's not underestimate how phenomenally successful Bridge Over Troubled Water was - before Thriller, it was the bestselling album of all time. It was the last album of S and G's relatively short spell at the top. They split, people suppose, because Simon didn't think he needed Garfunkel and was constrained by the process. Fair enough, he's hardly flopped on his own, though, for me, everything he has done since has not lived up to the best of the Garfunkular era. Though Simon sang lead on the majority of songs even in S and G, it's somehow Garfunkel's voice which is more memorable and Paul Simon's (forgive me if you disagree) suffers for being a little monochrome. Perhaps it's no accident that the most successful work of his solo career surrounded him with many other wonderful voices.

Together, they made beautiful music. Undoubtedly. Despite that vast success and the accomplishment of the work, you do hear Simon complaining that he doesn't quite receive the acclaim of his most lauded peers (Dylan, Cohen, Mitchell, let's say). Hard to say, really. Paul Simon is probably more successful than all of them but I certainly don't think he's come up with as many memorable songs as Bob Dylan. Maybe that's the monochrome voice again. And maybe it's that thing which critics of the band will say that it's just a bit ... prissy, a bit pleased with itself, a bit church group.

That's the criticism. That's countered by how beautiful, exemplary, imaginative, progressive and utterly well-crafted their finest songs are. I do think there is too large a gap between their best work and their second tier songs though. I think that's true on  both 'Bookends' and 'Bridge Over Troubled Water'. America, Overs, Old Friends in succession on Bookends, this could be a masterpiece, but then Fakin' It and Punky's Dilemma are, for me, forgettable. Likewise Cecilia, Baby Driver, Why Don't You Write Me amongst one or two others on 'Bridge Over Troubled Water'. Hey, it's just like, my opinion, man.

So I must say I'm a little underwhelmed by Bookends on giving it the most considered listens I ever have. The songs I love on it I already knew inside out - America and Old Friends/Bookends are wonderful - I'd say America is their greatest song - and others like Mrs Robinson and Hazy Shade of Winter are great too. Everything else is good, but you know, pretty light, don't you think?

It certainly shows the duo (or Simon), moving on from the folk sound, the first noise of Save the Life of My Child is pretty aggressive and there are all kinds of lovely production touches - this was never really a band capable of rocking, so this gives a very account of what they're capable of.

I think it's meant to have a bit of a "life cycle" theme to it, but I'm not particularly sure how well that fits together, in particular the second half.

I also noticed while writing this how much i've concentrated on the major American stars when it comes to the late 60s/early 70s - Dylan, Young, Cohen, Mitchell, Simon, Redding (and a few others) have all had their turn, but what of Jagger, Townshend, Davies, Barrett etc. i've just read a book about just that period in the history in British music, the "madmen" who took it past the summer of love and into the darker waters of the next decade. It's fascinating, but for the most part I don't buy it - I don't believe in the genius of Pete Townshend, or Ray Davies - I've never ever found any of their concept albums anything but absurd - give me The Best of the Who/Kinks any day, and even that begins to sag a little when you get to the likes of Plastic Man. [This implies, reading it back, that I don't like the Kinks or think they're one of the most important bands in all music, which isn't quite true. I do love them, and they were important, but I just haven't got into all that much of what they did after the late 60s, despite trying]/

I do think those pesky Americans took it all to the next level around that time, certainly in terms of melodic, literate pop/rock. Britain still had the biggest bands of the early 70s - Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and, a little later, Queen, but I do think the great British artists of the 60s never really found the spark to the full extent again.

But still, saying that, I appreciate that when it comes to that period, mine's a pretty limited history of rock'n'roll. Bookends, in style, substance, and conception, epitomises that slightly po-faced, crafted, American thing, but when it's good and you're in the mood for it, you can't beat it.

Here's a compilation from duo and solo - had to have Bright Eyes, of course. Don't cry, now.

Old Friends/Bookends
The Only Living Boy in New York
Bridge Over Troubled Water
You Can Call Me Al - Paul Simon
Homeward Bound
Kathy's Song
Dangling Conversation
Still Crazy After All These Years - Paul Simon
You Can Call Me Al - Paul Simon
The Sound of Silence
The Boxer
Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard - Paul Simon
Bright Eyes - Art Garfunkel
I Am a Rock
So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

2000: Ryan Adams - Heartbreaker

Hmm, what a load of Rs. This is the last of the Rs, fans of the RZA's solo work will be disappointed to hear. And it's another North American turn-of-the-century wunderkind, often accused of lacking quality control, who went to New York, tried to make it his own and was scarred by the experience. Rufus and Ryan were probably at a few of the same parties back in the day but despite whatever superficial similarities I might point out, they don't sound anything like each other.

Ryan Adams is country. Country for people who don't like country, who like punk and classic rock and power pop and folk and would sooner listen to pretty much anything else than Garth Brooks. He's made a lot of mistakes in his career, rubbed people up the wrong way, stuck with the wrong name and complained too much about it, put out too much, lost momentum and good will, got some terrible reviews and fallen far off the cool list - I sometimes feel as embarrassed about owning up to being a Ryan Adams fan as I do the Manic Street Preachers.

But a fan I am. This is someone who has done a lot of songs I love. So many fine songs. But how many fine albums? That's often seen as the problem. Too many albums, not enough wholly satisfying ones. This, his solo debut, is really the only one which has achieved pretty universal critical acclaim, and having made such a striking start, it's understandable that he engenders disappointment in some quarters.

This, 'Heartbreaker', just works perfectly, from its off-the-cuff Mariah Carey-inspired title to its banterous beginning to its woebegone ending. The supporting cast is, of course, impeccable. Who wouldn't make a great album with Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Ethan Johns, David Rawlings, Pat Sansone etc? ... I wouldn't, and you wouldn't and everyone we know wouldn't, but, you know ...

That opening banter leads into the stomping, simple 'To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)' which, somehow, even after all these years, is still Ryan Adams' greatest song. Who knew it wouldn't quite ever sound so carefree again?

A red herring, they called it, not representative of the mood of the album.  I suppose that's true, though the next few keep the standard up, Winding Wheel, Amy and Oh My Sweet Carolina. Indeed, the whole first half of the album is pretty flawless - the heart of the album is Damn, Sam, I Love a Woman that Rains and Come Pick Me Up, which is up there with To Be Young. Right then, everything Ryan Adams is touching is turning to gold. Miserable gold. [I'll get on to Gold.]

The second half, for me, contains a few too many funereal moans, all splendid in their own right, but a little too indistinguishable, though anyone drifting off will be woken up by Shakedown on 9th Street.

All in all, if anyone listening to this didn't think a star was born, they're either dumber or smarter than me. Ryan Adams will have heard it, and I think he thought a star was born.

So he tried to make an album a star would make, said 'Gold'. I think he kind of succeeded, though many don't. 'Gold' was a reference-heavy, wildly ambitious trip through the modern American songbook. It's a bit too long, it is, though he thinks it's too short.

That's the trouble. So many good songs though.

'Gold' was still Uncut's Album of the Year for 2001. It was hardly a critical flop. The critical flops were to come. The problem, for me, with a lot of Ryan Adams albums was their genre specificity - this is my country album, this is my rock album, this is my impressionistic one. There's a lot to be said for creating a unity, but equally there's a lot to be said for being patient and putting all the best songs you've got in one album and then knocking it together into a unity, as opposed to coming up with the unity beforehand then making the songs follow that.

Of all the genres he's attempted, from country to folk to punk to metal to country-rock to rock'n'roll, for me it's his powerpop that I love the best - the cheesy rocking ones with hooks. His U2 pastiche 'So Alive' is worth more than that band's whole career to me.

He endures, and is actually more successful than ever. His last three albums have all had solid critical notices and Top 20 placings and are all pretty fine, though not as spectacular as either 'Heartbreaker' or 'Gold'.

The wisdom of his prodigious workrate and prolific release schedule is questionable, of course it is, but all I'll say that there are now hundreds of Ryan Adams songs available and lots of them are very good, and I found knocking this compilation down to size extremely tricky.

To be Young (Is to be Sad, is to be High)
Mirror, Mirror - Whiskeytown
Oh My Sweet Carolina
New York, New York
So Alive
Gonna Make You Love Me More
Come Pick Me Up
Shakedown on 9th Street
Drank Like a River - Whiskeytown
My Winding Wheel
Damn Sam, I Love a Woman That Rains
I See Monsters
Rock and Roll
Don't Be Sad - Whiskeytown
Nobody Girl