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.
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.