Countdown to Ecstasy | Steely Dan | 1973 | ABC | #310
It sounds like what I’d imagine a mid-morning BBC Radio 2 presenter would play if they were being daring. For example, Donald Fagen finally exclaims “look out!” before the breakdown/solo/outro of “Bodhisattva” begins – a blues guitar solo over a swing rhythm section complete with an organ! To be fair there was hardly any time to react to New York Dolls in 1973. Cautionary lyrical warnings preceding innocuous 70s guitar solos only seem naive now because we know about the invention of punk.
“The shine of your Japan/The sparkle of your china/Can you show me Bodhisattva… I’m gonna sell my house in town” and just like that I now love this album. The funk, jazz, rock, easiness is so adept I first mistook it for being a bit tedious, but then I realised we were doing it whilst taking the piss out of Westerners who try to buy Asian culture, qualming over class differences, and other topics I get to feel smug about having self-righteous grievances with.
Actually the whole album is laced with nuances I initially overlooked. I’ve listened to it about 10 times now (it’s been a while since my last entry) and I get something new out of it every time. The album format seems silly and frustrating for what are obviously a bunch of expert jam session musicians who seem like they could probably eternally produce material of equal quality. As a snapshot though this seems pretty good.
Guerrilla | Super Furry Animals | 1999 | Creation | #311
There are many parallels between embarking on this challenge and doing a PhD. Namely that I’m apparently very good at doing it every day for a couple of months followed by 6 weeks of total capitulation and questioning why I’d ever started. But part of being an adult, I’ve grudgingly learned, is knowing the relative consequences of failure for both and to whom it is most important to keep happy. Which is why I’m reviewing 25 Feb’s album on 8 April and consequently why I still have a job.
The truth is sometimes you just really don’t feel like doing something. And sometimes you just really don’t feel like doing something for several weeks. A bit like how Super Furry Animals decided not to record a decent track for some period in 1999 while they were laying down this record. Each song could be the title sequence music for a mid-2000s teenager-targeted sitcom airing during the small hours on BBC3 (RIP/Good Riddance), which puts them in the bizarre and unwanted position of being slightly ahead of the curve for that period of entirely forgettable gaudy popular culture which happened at the turn of the Millennium – it kinda makes me think of Microsoft Word Art. Unfortunately our parents’ generation used up all the nostalgia for things fun and tacky on the 80s. All we get to do now is look back and say things like ‘that was a bit shit wasn’t it’.
Part of me wants to appreciate the varied use of genres that helps create a somewhat original pop-rock album (can’t really argue with that), and even ‘Do Or Die’ is not a terrible track but, somewhere in the middle, there’s a song based on a mobile phone ringtone; visions of trending novelty-based creativity return and all is lost.
Treasure | Cocteau Twins | 1984 | 4AD | #312
I found this quite a difficult album to describe. It plays out like the antidote to a stressful day with its delicate, dreamlike, melodies – not that today was stressful by any stretch. The songs wash about with ambient echoes and indecipherable lyrics with an unobtrusive drum track; it’s dream pop. The problem is that if you’re not looking for music to be medicinal then I found there wasn’t much here to find entertaining; the idea quickly runs bland and it’s just not fun after that.
On the one hand the 80s elements of experimental instrumentalism which technology afforded artists in the day are very obvious, on the other it’s quite remarkable how this doesn’t feel entirely like a record more than 30 years old. The squeaky-clean production leaves hardly a fingerprint with which to identify its place in the musical spectrum which, while normally I hate, I found myself appreciating here. The Enya-like vocals and atmospheric, chilled instrumentals are really effective at creating that peace-of-mind vibe (as is obviously the goal), but it all feels a bit too shallow and eventually the blissful bubble of euphoria bursts and you’re bored again. Having said that it’s easily an album I could come back to on another day and enjoy immensely. Who knows? It’s pretty though.
Franks Wild Years | Tom Waits | 1987 | Island | #313
Being a Tom Waits neophyte, I feel like I’m running through a biography or getting a chronological discovery of the development, or invention, of Tom’s character with every album of his I listen to. I watched him on an old Letterman interview recently. He really is quite a character. But there’s something unsettling about realising his off-record persona matches that in his music. Idiosyncratic characters who are that cool exist only in fiction, or so I thought. Maybe I’m wrong and it’s all genuine. Maybe it doesn’t matter.
It’s similar antics to Swordfishtrombone. A return of that peculiar, eccentric jazz sound; aching trombones and accordians, carnival organs, and of course the distinct Waits vocal style which is now an instrument in its own right – of which I can’t decide if its still entertaining or just too distractingly artificial. What I like about Tom is the dedication and intensity with which he’s pitching his individuality. His albums are unconditionally a showcase of his talent; whether that’s a funhouse creation of a mad genius, or a brilliant piss-take. For me it’s fascinating but not terribly entertaining, but undoubtedly the kind of music I support. For sure the world is a better place (as is my musical catalogue) for having Tom Waits and his curious works of Operachi Romanticos.
Spiderland | Slint | 1991 | Touch and Go | #314
For me this is so definitively 90s alt-rock. Edgy, spoken-word vocals, grungey guitar riffs, odd time signatures, and sounding like it was recorded in someone’s basement. But it’s also way more than that and it’s impossible to explain why without sounding like a pretentious twat. The lyrics are pensive and cynical – and the music reflects that – but it’s so incredibly mesmerising. It manages to be moody but not sulky; the melodies creep and brood and suddenly flair out with controlled bursts like a breaching whale. (told you)
The more you listen to it the more impressive is the amount of tension and atmosphere they create out of extremely simple, yet methodical, song structures. If I was to get technical I’d suggest a large of part of that is down to the dynamics of the rhythm section – and it’s pretty much all rhythm section – the drumming especially. In fact a lot of the attitude for the album is articulated by the expressive drum riffs. The rarity of the outbursts – the moments of unleashing distorted eruptions – make them seem more pertinent than the almost perfunctory use of this kind of form heard from grunge artists of the time.
I had to listen to this one a few times as it always seemed like it was over too quickly (6 tracks in 39 minutes), but I’d listen to it more if it wasn’t time for bed. It lingers for a while afterwards and disrupts your normal state of mind; occupying space in your thoughts as something vast and significant yet inscrutable. So that’s cool.
Cheap Thrills | Big Brother and the Holding Company | 1968 | Columbia | #315
Should I have known that Janis Joplin fronted Big Brother as her first major label record release? Well I didn’t. She’s a stand-out here; sounding like someone’s ripping out her vocal cord while she’s belting out blues vocals over a classic rock and roll backing band. You could say its an almost Robert Plant-esque “banshee wail” but of course Janis was doing it first.
I can’t decide if this really does sound fresh for its age (late 60s release, remember) or if that’s an illusion brought on by the disgustingly stale record of yesterday. Either way it sounds great. The big tracks are raucous, fast and loose, 60s sounding overdrive guitar-led wailing blues/acid rock fracases. Take that image, couple it with Janis’ vocal style and a purposefully undercooked production and it all sums to something incredibly impassioned and musically intense. The quieter tracks are tight and soulful.
There’s some absolute classics here. Obviously the “Piece of My Heart” cover is somewhat a signature for both the band and more so Janis herself. But other stand-outs are “Summertime” and “Ball and Chain”. As far as I’m concerned this matches a lot of what Led Zep ever wrote and, while its peaks aren’t quite as high as LZ’s, Big Brother’s consistency is appreciated which oftentimes is a frustration of mine when listening to Zep. One of the best albums this month.
Imperial Bedroom | Elvis Costello and the Attractions | 1982 | F-Beat | #316
This was one of the most difficult albums for me to sit through. It’s such boring, predictable tripe. The meandering vocal melodies – seemingly deliberate to show sophistication or something – along with gratuitous vocal vibrato and sounding like he’s got a cold all culminate into the most aggravating vocal style I’ve heard on this list so far. I can’t bare to listen to him, it’s torturous.
The music itself is some sort of post-jazz, laid-back pop. There’s no doubt that these songs were deliberated over and extensively crafted into what they are. But what are they? What’s the end product but a dull arrangement of lyrically obtuse – what the fuck is he even singing about? – characterless songs with entirely forgettable melodies? The fact this is so critically acclaimed is offensive.
Grievous Angel | Gram Parsons | 1974 | Reprise | #317
Gram Parson as a person is apparently way cooler than this insipid, honkey-tonk, country rock record suggests. A troubled musician born to rich, alcoholic parents, who found country music after a stint at Harvard. Word is: Rolling Stones kicked him out of their house for doing too many drugs, let that one sink in. Not that I’m one for glorifying drug abuse, but if there’s a chance Gram produced this shit to fund his high life – which unfortunately concluded at the age of 26 after an overdose at Joshua Tree – then I can just about accept it.
I don’t understand the time or place where this sort of music comes from and frankly I don’t care enough to find out. It’s sweet but not beautiful; sentimental but not affecting. If I wasn’t interested in Gram Parsons’ intriguing back story then this would be another banal country-rock – sorry, “Cosmic American Music” – album to entirely forget about. As it is though I can still hear the dreary slides of pedal steel and melancholic vocal harmonies echoing around long after the album finishes, forcing me to contemplate his life in some sort of awake Gram Parsons themed nightmare.
O.G. Original Gangster | Ice-T | 1991 | Sire | #318
It’s easy to forgive the hilariously 90s sound – which now comes across as a parody of gangster rap – given the context (the 80s had just ended) and the fact that Ice-T was a pioneer for the genre. Musically it’s dated; James Brown samples and rudimentary turntablism sound-bites aren’t quite as impressive in 2016. Lyrically it would be harsh to describe it as simply violence, misogyny, and glorification of crime – uncompromising in attitude and language – because the intellect and skill at delivering lyrical clarity can easily be overlooked; fierce political commentary and, for me, portaying the futility of gangsterism and poignancy of his position in society (often relating to issues of black power).
Ice perhaps laid down a blueprint for gangster rappers using the genre as a vehicle; these records chronicling their roots and their lives, cutting straight to the source of frustration and disabling any ambiguity for the listener to guess what they’re angry about. My knowledge of the genre actually isn’t that bad, not enough to fail to make a comment about how this album compares anyway. You can’t ignore how much of a classic this one is; Ice-T’s raps are smooth yet brutal; dark and hilarious. And impressively consistent over the huge 24 track, 72 minute record.
Who’s Next | The Who | 1971 | Track | #319
I happen to think modern music owes a lot to The Who. I also like to think that slagheap they’re pissing on is the 60s. “Baba O’Riley” begins the process of relief (territory marking?), assertively opening one of the greatest rock albums of all time, and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” climatically concludes it – zipping back up and tucking in their belts. There are other elements of anguish and heartache, but what’s most evocative is the apparent resentment and disdain for the “teenage wasteland”.
Keith Moon bashes the shit out of the kit the whole way through and Pete Townshend’s new-found use of synthesisers provide that iconic sound to his energetic acoustic rhythms. These three elements more than anything else, I think, give the album that easily recognisable sound; unequivocally identifiable as The Who.
I’m still woefully behind with my writing but, spending the best part of the day playing this one through several times was probably worth it.