Synthesis accession

ewfx4DiHhXLow-Life | New Order | 1985 | Factory | #346

Another first for me in listening to an entire New Order album. In fact I’m sure this is the first time I’ve listened to a synthpop album all the way through. Previous encounters with the genre were limited to listening to the classics most likely at parties as part of some sort of weird nostalgic experiment which almost becomes ritual at any student house party. (weird in the way that none of my friends were even alive when the likes of New Order were at their peak)

So I was anticipating an album of obsolescence. A genre based on the overuse of 80s music technology surely would just sound silly and irrelevant today. As far as I could tell though this only applied to the one track, “Face Up”, which comes across as a bizarre attempt to lighten the mood at the end of the album – why? The main appeal for me is the gloomy, sinister, almost threatening depressive mood of the album which seems to exist alongside the skipping synths, handclap/snare drum beats, and rock rhythm guitar work which gives it all a bit more of a synth-rock fusion feel rather than all-out synthpop.

The highlight for me is “Sunrise” which perfectly captures the essence of the album. The lyrics are of despair and abandonment by his God who has apparently neglected him; “I’ve been waiting to hear your voice for too long now, One way conversations do not work somehow”. The dejected lyrical verses are followed by blissful, uplifting instrumental sections – spirited guitar riffs and powerful, sustained chorus synths – like sunshine breaking through on an overcast day. Majestic and almost biblical. The following all-instrumental track “Elegia” is almost as evocative, creating a brilliant two song combo. Great album.

Candid Youth

sonic-youth-dirtyDirty | Sonic Youth | 1992 | DGC | #347

Admittedly sometimes it feels like a chore to begin the listening and writing process every day, especially when I leave it as late as I have tonight (again). But I’m thoroughly enjoying the extreme transitions between genres and moods that this list is providing. Though that’s a purely accidental fallout of NME’s debatable ordering rather than anything calculated that I can credit them with; I hardly suspect they fancied their choices as inspiration for a daily playlist.

From the almost offensively palatable, sanitary serving of yesterday’s 80s contemporary pop to a return to early-90s alternative-rock for today then. I haven’t listened to Sonic Youth before, so I don’t care what they’ve sounded like previously (word is they’ve been better), I just liked this album. It was recorded early ’92 which is only shortly after Nevermind was released, yet this is most definitely that post-grunge sound which wouldn’t take off for a few years. It’s almost like they were aiming for grunge but missed and accidentally stumbled on a punchier, prettier, cleaner-produced alt-rock. You know, the stuff Dave Grohl got rich from in the second half of the 90s.

The album is interspersed with moments of screeching guitars and the mostly spoken word female vocalist, Kim Gordon, going nuts in some slightly punkier sections. And of course I love the explicitly political nature of the lyrics; there’s nothing ambiguous about “Yeah the president sucks He’s a war pig fuck” and “Black robe and swill I believe Anita Hill” as heard in “Youth Against Fascism”. Any form of music that makes all-out attacks on the George H. W. Bush-lead Republican administration is a winner for me. Kim also uses dark humour to bring about feminist issues in “Shoot” and “Swimsuit Issue”. Looking forward to hearing Sonic Youth’s other album later this year which makes an appearance way further up the list.

 

Efficiently Whitney

whitney-whitneyWhitney | Whitney Houston | 1987 | Arista | #348

There’s no getting away from the fact this album was huge, it sold ten million copies. Whitney was Huge. The team of professionals who wrote and produced the album were geniuses themselves. One name pops out more than others; Narada Michael Walden. He has worked in collaboration with some of the biggest artists ever, produced loads of number ones, drummed for Robert Fripp, made movie soundtracks, and had a string of solo releases himself. This album must have been one of his biggest triumphs though.

It’s not my cup of tea but let’s be honest, Whitney can belt it. And this is an album full of perfectly crafted, polished-up love ballads and 80s dance tracks showing how she can do just that. Her sheer talent isn’t enough to overshadow the utterly soulless professionalism of its production though.

I listened to this album twice, which means I had almost 2 hours of Whitney today. I’m going to bed now with “You’re Still My Man” ringing in my head. It’s quite catchy. One album a day.

 

 

Differentiable

An-Awesome-Wave-Alt-JAn Awesome Wave | Alt-J | 2012 | Infectious | #349

This is a bit more than just another indie-pop album created by some nerds with a penchant for geometry and bizarre sexual innuendos; their name being the method for deploying a triangle on a mac (or rather the Greek letter Delta, which in physics we use to denote the change in a variable or quantity – interesting), and lyrics such as “triangles are my favourite shape” or “In your snatch fits pleasure, broom-shaped pleasure Deep greedy and googling every corner”. Beneath the geometry-referencing lyrics and the album’s apt pitching, oblique production is a very accessible and reassuring sound. Not in the same vain as the easy-listening achieved by repeating a hashed-out, dependable formula though, but instead through something more profound and unique. Basically that sound that every indie-dance-pop band has been trying and, in my opinion, failing to achieve for about the last 10 years.

The varying musical styles ebb and flow; at times a chilled, folky emptiness, at others brimming with layers of electronica. This is layers done right though – each one carefully thought about and adding a dynamic that compliments the others and keeps the album percussive and melodic – it never feels bloated or saturated with contrived nonsense filler (unlike others in the genre). Even the various interludes work to stitch it all together – calculated breathing spaces, not lulls – creating an album that seems natural in its flow.

Perhaps I’m not acquainted well enough with the genre, but I feel like this is a sound various artists have been playing whack-a-mole with for the last decade or so and finally, for me, this one hits. I might stick it on my phone to let it bed in some more.

Drowsily done style

2294174720_cceb4c9183B.R.M.C | Black Rebel Motorcycle Club | 2001 | Virgin | #351

Today was the first day in which the difficulty of this challenge caught up with me. It’s late, I’ve had other stuff to do today, and I desperately want to go to bed. Thankfully then, BMRC don’t offer much here to make me excited enough to lose sleep over. I get the feeling they’re primarily about image – that’s what they’re selling – second comes the music. We’re far too cool to be looking at cameras whilst casually hanging out in this street spot with our leather jackets. Now buy our album.

It was 2001 though to be fair. Shoegazing was still acceptable. They cite The Verve as an inspiration which I picked up on straight away, and although this is more distorted, fuzzed-out garage rock, the dreamy, slightly psychedelic britpop vibe is definitely happening. Interesting given they’re from San Francisco.

I like that their sound backs up their image, and if I had more time I might begin to appreciate it a bit more. I don’t though, so not for me.

Righteous round-up

byrdsSweetheartSweetheart of the Rodeo | The Byrds | 1968 | Colombia | #352

Swinging in the opposite direction to yesterday’s album of the same year, which left me pumped for the concept of counter-cultural ideals mercilessly demanding a shift in how music should be produced and consumed, comes this easy-listening, easily-digestible procession of country & western. This list obviously wasn’t designed to be listened to sequentially; teasing contradicting emotions out of me and not allowing me to settle on them for more than 24 hours. My scrobble list definitely has a schizophrenic characteristic to it now – thankfully my day job doesn’t require me to work with people much.

This is all-out twangy, pedal-guitar, simple country & western rock. It isn’t supposed to be cool (and it really isn’t), but there’s a haunting, melancholy beauty to it at times. Especially felt in “You Don’t Miss Your Water” with its sombre harmonies and heartbroken lyrics. Calling it a “highlight” is generous – more like the rest of the album recedes into the consistent canvas of no-thrills country rock and this one remains as the track which just about made me feel something.

I suppose you’ve got to respect the dedication and sincerity with which The Byrds went all out country rock on this one – I think it was a bit of a turn for them. It didn’t inspire me to return to my cattle-herdin’ ranch days, nor is it technically amazing, but it didn’t offend me and is probably decent education for learning where those later, insipid Americana artists would draw inspiration from.

Delayed gratification

velvetWhite Light/White Heat | The Velvet Underground | 1968 | Verve | #352

A piece of trivia I found quite funny; apparently Tom Wilson (producer/engineer) couldn’t stand the noise over the couple of days they spent recording this album such that he started the tapes, walked out, and said “call me when you’re done”. It goes that The Velvet Underground had just sacked Andy Warhol as manager and were fed up with being over-produced and didn’t care whether they sounded good. The result is an aptly-named, wilfully under-produced cacophony.

An honest appraisal is that this isn’t an easy album to listen to. If not for the fact that I had listened to other, more accessible Velvet Underground albums previously, and learned of how important their music would become – considering nearly 50 years of retrospect – I’d probably have reflected on this in a post-traumatic state, struggling to justify its place on this list.

At its core this is 60s rock’n’roll with an avant-garde twist. “The Gift” is an 8 minute dark-humour story about a boy in a long-distance relationship who can only afford to mail himself to his girlfriend – who then ends up accidentally stabbing the protagonist in the head while opening a package which, unbeknownst to her, contains her boyfriend – all narrated while in the background plays an instrumental which contains screeching, heavily distorted guitar work. “I Hear Her Call My Name” is another rock’n’roll track heavily polluted with feedback, white noise, and shrieking lead guitar – loosely resembling a solo – which made me feel like I needed a tetanus shot after listening to. The rest of the album is equally uncompromising in its style and production.

White Light was the second Velvet album and was as much a flop as the first. Listeners at the time just weren’t buying it (figuratively and literally) and its influential effect would only be felt and recognised years later. That’s the point though isn’t it? They knew they were producing something unconventional and unappealing; it was a necessity to challenge what was appropriate and acceptable for an artist to produce at the time, and in the interest of being critically honest I don’t think it’s anything more than that (Velvet purists may disagree, albeit disingenuously). Sterling Morrison said it himself, “We were the original alternative band, not because we wanted to be, but because we were shunned into it. For us there was no alternative.” I think this album is them sacrificing their own credibility and deferring their obvious talent for later albums in an attempt to bring about an end to the shit-show that was 60s pop.

Bad intentions

mclusky-do-dallasMclusky Do Dallas | Mclusky | 2002 | Too Pure | #353

Mclusky Do Dallas is intentionally obnoxious, noisy, punky post-hardcore (whatever that means) which is all about cracking jokes and acting like idiots from start to end. With songs such as “Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues” and “Fuck This Band”, and lyrical treasures such as “All of your friends are cunts Your mother is a ball point pen thief” pretty much sum up the attitude and articulates their temperament better than I could.

The maniacal frenzy of offensiveness is misleading though, as usual, because although their presence is obviously engineered toward drawing in a particular audience with their unhinged central theme which all but screams “fuck off, mum”, I actually got a feeling that there’s more concern for some sort of conventional form and catchy song-writing than what first appears. “Fuck This Band” is a ballad (sort of), with just a repeating bass line and drum beat while Andy Falkous softly sings about his concerns. And there are enough moments of comic relief and catchy guitar riffs such as on “What We’ve Learned” to break away from it simply being one-dimensional noise-rock more toward something that I actually found quite entertaining.

Other than a couple of tracks – one of them being “whoyouknow” – there’s not a lot for me to come back for, but this album is good for a laugh and definitely works to lighten the mood and provide a not-so-serious distraction.

Spreadable funk

71-NVM7BUmLHot Buttered Soul | Isaac Hayes | 1969 | Enterprise | #354

I haven’t surveyed the list thoroughly enough to make comments about NME’s efforts to be equally representative, and I’m only twelve days in, but something tells me a departure from white man playing guitar will be scarce enough that it should be savoured when it comes. Disappointingly then, I only managed to squeeze in a handful of plays of Hot Buttered Soul today, but that was enough for me to notice some disparities between this album and the sort of soul music I’ve been exposed to until now.

“Walk On By” starts of with the familiar love ballad style I associate with one end of the soul spectrum, but when the vocals pack it in the song transitions into five minutes of all-out funk jamming; the bass start going nuts with some 16th note groove while the Hammond and fuzz-effected guitar simultaneously freestyle solo until the song closes out. Then there’s “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic” which is a fully reclined, slow-paced funk soundtrack for floating down a lazy river – with very little vocal interruption to what is essentially a totally chilled instrumental freestyle jam session. These first two tracks are about 12 and 10 minutes respectively and it’s appreciated.

Some brief research reveals that this album is considered a landmark in the soul genre, and important for black pop music. This surprised me and changes my opinion about what soul is and where it comes from. I realised that what I thought was soul was more a caricature – excessive sexual references and preaching about what love is. And although there are moments in this album that fit that misconception, it mostly proved me ignorant.

Lipstick punk

R-380407-1330740956.jpegNew York Dolls | New York Dolls | 1973 | Mercury | #355

Part of New York Dolls’ advertising campaign involved slogans such as “The Band You Love to Hate”. Creem magazine ran a readers poll which awarded the band both “Best New Group of the Year” and “Worst New Group of the Year”. It’s really not hard to see why, what with their deliberately controversial appearance and attitude (sensitivity to men wearing platform shoes and eyeliner might have had a different meaning in the early 70s than it does today!) – even in the present big pop personalities can divide public opinion. The key difference here is that NYD left behind a legacy and their work would inspire the likes of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. Their divisiveness had a purpose and their arrogance is vindicated in their becoming canon in a new genre.

The album’s sound is a mix of 60s R&B, early 70s hard rock, and a different kind of noise – such as what is heard in “Bad Girl” in which David Johansen at times barks the lyrics in a distinctive raw, unprocessed way – which definitely sounds like something that punk might eventually evolve from. “Vietnamese Baby” and “Private World” both have that heavier, rockier feel; plenty of drum compression and strong, sticky bass lines.

I can appreciate their don’t-give-a-fuck attitude with regards to their image, and I think that’s reflected in their music which resulted in an album that has a similar personality, but there’s too much left over from that 60s sound for me to really get into it.