Swordfishtrombone | Tom Waits | 1983 | Island | #320
It’s Sunday and I’m only just writing something about last Tuesday’s album. It’s a shame that I feel like I’m rushing this one through as I would presumably have a lot more to say about it if afforded time.
It’s not so much that Tom has diverted from the sound of his début album which I listened to three weeks ago – there are still elements of his personal jazz style, though heavy experimentalism for the most part replaces conventional jazz and blues instrumentation – but things have moved on. Swordfishtrombones is much darker, almost sinister with Tom’s now ravaged, harsh voice narrating deadbeat comical monologues such as in “Frank’s Wild Years”. The unconventional production mixed with Tom’s now very distinct vocal style makes this an album which sounds like nothing else. Somehow it’s entirely unique – an expression of Tom’s individual mode – yet manages to still be an album of which its sound is accessible and is within reach of being enjoyable. I really appreciate when artists can do that and I can’t help but acknowledge how well it’s done here.
Lost Souls | Doves | 2000 | Heavenly | #321
Initially I struggled to see how some reviewers were writing this up as an indie-club dance floor filler; there’s too much a foggy screen of melancholy which prevents it from becoming that for me. Instead it isolates itself as more of a mood album. Criticism came from suggesting that the album lacked any discernible attempt to deviate from a particularly hammered-out blueprint. I don’t get that either; I always thought that a pre-requisite for mood albums. And in any case, despite it being a very long album, I thought it was engaging enough that such a criticism never became an issue. On the contrary, I found the more likely indie dance tracks such as “Catch The Sun” a bit of a disappointing diversion from the tone of the album – mellow, atmospheric swells of emotional alternative-rock/pop.
Lost Souls also manages to create a kind of blissful vibe – like waking up on a carefree sunny morning – contradicting the lyrical tone of the album which is pretty much exclusively about break-ups, loneliness and other shit things. This keeps it from feeling excessively morose and makes it an album to happily wallow in when you’re feeling sorry for yourself. Not that I have time to wallow any more, as much as I’d like to (I try to limit it to weekends). It might not be for everyone but I think these kind of albums are a necessity, and this is as good as any, so I know where I’ll be going when the time comes.
This Is Happening | LCD Soundsystem | 2010 | DFA | #322
What’s fun about this album is singer, songwriter, and producer James Murphy’s commentary and musings to do with being a 30-something in 2010 and having your coolness being overtaken by new-wave hipsters. Its dance-punk, electronica sound is not something I haven’t heard before but I think LCD Soundsystem do it particularly well. Helping to characterise the sound are influences felt most appreciably from Bowie, Talking Heads, and Daft Punk.
There’s an 8-bit vibe going on which brings up memories of easy days spent playing Sega Mega Drive as a child, juxtaposed then with the wry introspection otherwise begot with the lyrical tone – a kind of humorous self-reflexiveness cultivated only in adulthood. One might make the observation that the tension and release of the music compliments this somehow. I never really felt like the album reached a summit so much as consistently riding a funky pace of groove for its duration.
I liked the attitude and I liked the sound. I’ll be coming back for more.
Bitches Brew | Miles Davis | 1970 | Columbia | #323
1 hour and 45 minutes of completely indulgent, all-instrumental jazz-fusion. It’s always been a genre I’ve been more curious of that appreciative; always uncomfortably in a kind of tension between wanting to appreciate the musicianship and wondering what the hell is going on. Here are seven tracks, only one of which comes in under 10 minutes, which are essentially free-form jam sessions seemingly revolving around a core progression, melody, groove, whatever. The key to appreciating this album is understanding how proficient each of the twelve musicians that are playing at any one time have to be in order for each track not to sound like a piano falling out of a tree. Having hosted jam sessions of a dozen-plus musicians I find it amusing to reflect on how difficult that is to avoid, and really that’s my only source of fascination here.
Of course the focus is Miles Davis himself and his trumpet solos, always sitting on top of a busy rhythm section of a drummer who sounds like he must have four arms, a bassist who’s so good you don’t even know he’s there until the odd scale flurry, and a guitarist constantly arpeggiating chords which I’m sure I’ve never heard before. In true jazz-fusion fashion the meandering melodies make you feel like you’re tripping on acid whilst floating down a lazy river on an alien landscape. The trouble is you’re never allowed to settle on noticing how brilliant it all is for too long before you’re completely bewildered, wishing someone would wake you up.
There’s certainly a lot here to listen to and brood over if you so wish, but you can’t help feel that Miles and co. are giving you the middle finger and laughing at you whilst you’re doing it.
Lifes Rich Pageant | R.E.M. | 1986 | I.R.S. | #324
Today I hung up the idea that particularly lengthy reviews were required to keep this challenge authentic. I prefer to see it as drawing on a more succinct style rather than realising this whole thing is eating too much of my time.
It’s not my fault that I’ve never listened to an R.E.M. album in its entirety, because all those that they’ve made since I’ve been paying attention to music have been crap (name a good R.E.M album post-Millennium). Palatable jangle-rock is not something I usually go for, but I have to give some appreciation for a band who seem to fall between genres becoming as successful as they did. Probably too pop-y to even be considered amongst the regrettably edgy, and too alternative to be considered accessible alongside the swath of teeny chart hits. This one definitely falls into the more accessible pop camp with it’s jangly rhythm section and simple up-beat song compositions, but it’s done with such solid musicianship; blending folk and punk and creating a decidedly R.E.M. alternative-rock sound. The overall impression of the album is of sheer quality which never wavers.
Some quick research tells me that this is the last pre-major-record-label album before R.E.M. became huge. There are no hits here, no pretentiousness or pomp (although lyrically slightly of protest and politically active), just 12 solid tracks in 38 minutes.
Sea Change | Beck | 2002 | Geffen | #325
One thing I’ve noticed about professional music reviews is the sickening amount of nepotism shown not just for each other but for certain artists also. Beck is one, revered for something I’m yet to recognise. I’m sure the self-pitying, slurred vocals and twangy folk/country sentimentality is “moving” and “cathartic” if you’re to be taken seriously as a music critic. If you’re only interested in calling this out as a pretentious and arduous attempt at making a soulless, calculated “I’m feeling emotional” album, however, then you’ll end up fucking bored and wishing Beck would go away.
I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One | Yo La Tengo | 1997 | Matador | #326
I usually do my daily listens on headphones after sort of sequestering myself in my bedroom for a couple of hours, but I had this one playing aloud on our not-so-modest audio set-up which gave the opportunity for my flatmate to offer the observation of it sounding like Blur or Gorillaz. Later – after a couple more listens (back in the sweet isolation afforded by bedroom-headphone-mode) – I discovered that Beating As One is actually quite a triumph of many genres, all of which are intrinsic of lo-fi indie. The guitar-based, whispered vocals style of the album just about avoids accusations of being repetitive because of how well it subtly switches moods and rhythms, and it’s a great album because of that. It’s a collection of indierock, electronica tracks that create a subdued mood which I think can work to conceal how brilliantly made it really is. I rarely find myself needing an album that sounds like this; I’m seldom in the mood for it, but for someone (probably many actually) this is a classic.
Mutations | Beck | 1998 | Geffen | #327
This one is a puzzler. On first listen I thought I must have made a mistake, perhaps I began listening to the wrong record. There’s no way such n dull collection of washy acoustic trite could be held in such high regard, I thought. But I did have the correct album and after the second play-through I’m still as perplexed. The songwriting feels limited and tame, offering absolutely nothing novel or engaging; a thoroughly stale recording. Emotional but without passion, diverse but not imaginative.
The album starts of with some sloppy singer-songwriter stuff complete with harmonica solo. “Cold Brains” sounds like the song version of one of those algorithms that render an image of what the average face looks like in a pool of people. Only the pool in this case is insipid, dreary pop-rock tracks. Things start looking up with “Nobody’s Fault But My Own” which comes on like a Neil Young track. Droning sitars are used to create an uneasy atmosphere as Beck sings forlornly about some shit I don’t care about, the main thing to get appropriately mildly excited about is the influence of Nigel Godrich (Radiohead’s OK Computer producer).
The rest of the album awkwardly and uninterestingly blends genres of blues, country, and folk with a very shallow psychedelic twist; a redundant and tiring display of versatility if that’s what it’s supposed to be. I couldn’t wait to not listen to this painfully boring record any longer and I have no desire to further articulate why, I’m just glad it’s over.
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots | The Flaming Lips | 2002 | Restless | #328
Clearly socialising is enough of a rarity for me that I thought this daily challenge – which requires at least a couple of hours a day of commitment because I still suck at writing – was achievable. Fortunately it is, and so it is. I’m not quite at the point where I’m turning down invites in favour of staying in and reviewing a Flaming Lips album however, and so I find myself a few days behind schedule (I’m basically the British male version of Carrie Bradshaw).
Listening to this album gave me a slightly watered-down version of the feeling you get when watching a Hayao Miyazaki movie. Possibly enhanced by the fantastical narrative of battling killer-robots with karate, almost delivered in story form for the first four tracks by lead singer Wayne Coyne. “Those evil-natured robots They’re programmed to destroy us She’s gotta be strong to fight them So she’s taking lots of vitamins”. Okay, Wayne. The music matches the dialogue so well; it’s essentially simple pop melodies but with an infectious charm which is generated, I think, by a ridiculous over-use of studio effects. The sound really plays out like an anime soundtrack. Hip-hop-like drum rhythms, staccato synthesiser bursts emulating robot cries, and crashes and whistles all stack to feel like a battle scene as heard in “Yoshimi… Pt. 2”. Conversely, on “Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell”, droning, warbling synthesisers drift around and make you feel pleasantly lazy – such is the tone for much of the second half of the album.
Everything feels a bit more human and down-to-earth in the final tracks. The mode switches to songs about love and life, and you realise that you’re an adult and all the talk about fighting killer robots before was probably a metaphor for something way less cool. Summoning karate girls to fight your insecurities and self-doubt is one thing, creating a likeable sci-fi musical accompaniment is another. It’s different and I enjoyed it.
“Heroes” | David Bowie | 1977 | RCA | #329
The album title is in quotation marks. What does that mean then? Is Bowie being sarcastic about the hero status of the protagonists in the title track? A song apparently about two lovers either side of the Berlin wall: “and the guns, shot above our heads, And we kissed, as though nothing could fall”. Sure it’s a good song – though more because of how it depicts heartbreak with its increasingly desperate delivery rather than because of how its its chorus lyrics are clumsily taken out of context and presented as something uplifting or inspirational – but it stands alone as the only song that actually works in what is a totally bizarre album.
Apparently he was in a period of artistic exploration while writing this (great) which goes some way to explaining things. Half the album is instrumental with Bowie playing sax on “V2 Schneider”, and koto (Japanese stringed instrument) on “Moss Garden”. The latter a purely ambient track apparently thrown in so Bowie could show he could also write massage parlour music. Pleasant, but more in the sense of it being highly-polished nonsense rather than musically entertaining. “Sense of Doubt” just about fits in with the first half of the album; sinister, striking piano bass notes followed by some equally ominous ambient synth work and that’s it – no percussion, no vocals – yet somehow works to create a mood consistent with the spirit of the times (70s cold war era Berlin).
Robert Fripp is about the only thing going for the vocal tracks on the first half of the album. Apparently he was asked by Eno to participate despite his self-declared retired status, so he flew in and recorded his contribution to the entire album in 6 hours. But apart from Fripp’s input there really is nothing going on here. It’s a series of banal, uninspired compositions thrown together so Bowie could deliver his conspicuously-curious lyrics and posed style. I don’t get it.