“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.
Third | Portishead | 2008 | Island | #330
It’s hard to appreciate musical creativity when it’s drenched in such misery. I think it poses somewhat of a dilemma for a lot of people as it appeals to a different kind of enjoyment, an almost unwanted gratification. Third plays out like the soundtrack to a post-apocalyptic dystopia. The mechanical percussion, odd rhythmic structures, use of breakbeats, and off-key, wailing synthesisers sum to a krautrock (ugh) styled feeling of stoic minimalism.
Once you get over the nauseating and unresolving musical style it becomes somewhat accessible, sort of, though I get the feeling it was never intended to be conventionally enjoyed. I think the vocals bring it to another level of melancholy fun; Beth Gibbons croaks and wails with complete emotional torment. She spells it out for us in “Magic Doors”: “I’m just emotionally undone”. Dude, we know. In the middle of the album sits “Deep Water”, totally juxtaposed with the rest of the album with its cute ukulele happiness, immediately followed, brutally, by “Machine Gun” which sounds like it was made for a Terminator movie; doom and hopelessness emotionally trumping anything positive you may have just felt. Portishead bully an almost totalitarian command of your emotions – at least for 47 minutes – it’s brilliant.
This is an album you put on for a purpose, to scratch a very particular itch. I don’t even know what inspired Portishead – there are elements of synthpop, trip-hop, and dark electronica – it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on at times with all its layers and unnatural construction. It must be done with such competence though because it just sounds so undeniably cool.
Kick Out the Jams | MC5 | 1969 | Electra | #331
A live-recorded début album is quite an interesting idea – think of all the bands who would never have found success if that was some sort of merciless requirement of the industry – and probably serves MC5 particularly well given their style. For they’re all about creating an almost obnoxious, aggressively energetic rebellion in musical form. It being a live recording means they can capture all the stage energy in its rawness without worrying about the potential buzz-suppression of not having a hyped audience present in the recording studio.
MC5 waste no time in letting us know what Kick Out the Jams its all about. The opening track starts with an address to the audience by whom the sleeve’s personnel details as the “spiritual advisor”. It’s basically some rhetorical far-left spiel intended to incite some kind of revolution, “I wanna hear some revolution out there, brothers. I wanna hear a little revolution. Brothers and sisters, the time has come for each and every one of you to decide whether you are gonna be the problem or whether you are gonna be the solution.” Followed by some punky, bluesy, hard rock and roll. While I think the energy and passion can be applauded, I take exception to using genuine socio-political issues which people have literally died for – Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated earlier in the same year this set was recorded for daring to envision fairer ideals – to then use this fabricated, radical stage presence to make sex noises such as heard in “I Want You Right Now”. Do you really want an anti-establishment revolution, or do you just want to use borrowed faux-anarchy to act like tits on stage?
I’m not sure how unfair that is as I don’t have the time to research how invested MC5 were in their White Panther-led ideals. But if ever there was a time to capitalise on the counter-cultural mood of the young, disillusioned American audience it was the late-60s. I thought the music was great though; I appreciated the explosive energy with its raw proto-punk feel – basic but fierce chord progressions and a shit-bashing rock and roll rhythm section – it’s one of the best live albums I’ve heard.
H.M.S Fable | Shack | 1999 | London | #332
I was ready to write this one off after just the first half of the album. I couldn’t shake the image of the sort of person who might try to convince you that Oasis are the best band ever. That proved to be rash and hastily unfair though because after a couple more plays of the album, and paying distinctly more heed to its second half, it really started to grow on me. It’s not my fault, obviously; this album massively suffers from some sort of quality bipolar.
It’s quite a shame that they decided to go with that sound for the album’s initial tracks – which would make untimely appearances at random moments later on in the album – because by far and away the best tracks on H.M.S Fable are those which have a different sound entirely. “Captain’s Table”, “Daniella”, and the best track of the album “Streets of Kenny” have a more sombre and folky feel – there’s something emotionally stirring and somewhat charming about the music coupled with the Liverpudlian accented vocals – which is in such contrast to the tinny acoustics, ringing chorus-electrics Brit-pop sound that plagues the rest of the album. Such are the differences in sound and quality that it’s almost as if these groups of songs are of two different bands.
Far be it from me to appear to suggest that any positives might come out of disastrous and destructive drug addiction, but it’s definitely the case on this album that its best tracks seem to be inspired by the emotional carnage that must entail (as interpreted from the lyrics, I’m not just making an assumption of drug abuse). But I can’t say that the mentioned tracks fully salvaged the album for me; it’s still too heavily tainted by a musical style I find difficult to enjoy.
Band on the Run | Paul McCartney and Wings | 1973 | Apple | #333
Probably the most frustrating album I’ve listened to so far. On the one hand there are some really well written melodies and sections of song that give you a glimmer of a hope. This riff is awesome, let’s see where it goes. But then invariably the song opens up and reveals itself for the drippy nothingness that it is. It’s 1973, where we saw releases of the likes of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and The Who’s Quadrophenia, it’s difficult then to appreciate this album as anything other than a bag of missed opportunities.
“Helen Wheels” is the track where my anger peaked, and is the point in the album where I realised all is lost, we were agonisingly close but there’s no time for a recovery now. It perfectly summarises the album; the first 5 seconds opens the track with a bluesy leading riff which builds a sense of anticipation and sets a particular tone, only to then get destroyed when the verse comes in with some generic, strummy pop jingle. Similarly, but to a lesser extent, “Mrs. Vandebilt” opens with a dense bass riff and drum beat which gets you pumped for something that’s never delivered. It’s almost comical (and massively unsatisfying) how such a good songwriter can produce glimpses of absolute brilliance and yet still end up with something that’s only slightly above average.
I get that Paul’s a great songwriter and these are great songs if you’re a Paul McCartney fan, I suppose, but I came away a little disappointed that there was nothing here to challenge my predisposition, nothing which could forestall the big “Meh” that pops into my head whenever I hear his name. Apparently this is Paul McCartney’s most critically acclaimed album post-Beatles which leaves me a little worried about potential future encounters of his other solo stuff. Checks list, nope, we’re all good. I just have to be careful to ward off any preconceptions this might conjure before the onslaught of Beatles that’s yet to come.
Since I Left You | The Avalanches | 2000 | Modular | #334
Clearly there’s a line between creative musicianship and simply re-releasing other peoples’ work under the guise of a ‘remix’. Since I Left You comes nowhere near it though; The Avalanches are utter vinyl nerds who have spent an awful lot of effort collecting records and perfecting their ability to fashion samples from said records into something totally new – a brilliantly-well-composed musical collage deserving of the recognition of creative ability and respect bestowed upon any original artist.
Apparently there are samples from over 900 records present on the album, sincerely plundered from existing records and stitched together to create a comical, upbeat, feel-good album which surely belies the laborious production effort required. There’s definitely summery freshness about it, skipping between elements of disco funk, hip-hop, and simply surreal, yet superb, turntable wizardry such as “Frontier Psychiatrist”. The whole record resolves to some sort of experience of bliss and nostalgia, necessarily consumed in its entirety in order to be appreciated.
It’s a solid album, not just in the context of this challenge but in the more antiquated meaning of album composition. The positioning of each track is deliberate and works to invoke an intentional emotional response – which I think particularly clever given this is an album with no vocal composition bar what it samples – with multiple tracks stringing together themes and lulls only to be built upon and raised to highs later on. There’s absolutely no appeal being made here to the concept of immediately accessible, hastily consumed “hit” tracks that a music career can be made from – even more so since the idea of YouTube-ing singles, which is a market you could argue the industry is positioned around now – this is an album for an album’s sake. Designed to take an hour to listen to; 18 tracks amounting to a record that’s more than the sum of its parts.
…Like Clockwork | Queens of the Stone Age | 2013 | Matador | #335
Queens are one of those bands I have a couple of albums worth of tracks shuffling about on my phone, which means that occasionally I get a blast and am reminded of how much I like this band. It’s stoner rock that has a dense, compressed production feel, often hooking on to and riding out catchy riffs in a guitar-based groove. At least that’s what I expected. …Like Clockwork takes takes a bit of a turn though; recruiting the likes of Trent Reznor, Alex Turner, and Elton John, it’s a softer, driftier, more experimental Queens – I can’t decide if I like it.
Josh Homme apparently almost died in the time between this and their previous album which may explain why he is more personal here. In fact there’s a distinct greater vocal presence throughout – at times almost flamboyant – which is not something I’ve previously associated with Queens of the Stone Age. Perhaps as a result of this, and the collaborative effort between the other big-time musicians featuring on the record, there’s a more idiosyncratic songwriting style; less emphasis on seemingly improvised grooving out with monstrous riffs, more focused on expressive, complete songs.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, it’s more of an observation which becomes obvious when comparing this to previous work. Queens always had a sound that seemed suited to a small, sweaty, low capacity gig room; intense grooves with much head-nodding capacity. And although this one still has that characteristic heaviness to the music, it feels a lot more chilled-out at times – deliberately swinging between old styles and ballads of new – but the problem is that Queens of the Stone Age sound best when they’re locked-in to that dense tightness of rhythm and riffs, which there’s too little of here for me.
Raw Like Sushi | Neneh Cherry | 1989 | Virgin | #336
I think Neneh Cherry is cool. She’s empowered, multi-cultured, and full of attitude. This album is so late-eighties – keyboard funk, pop-rap – and has a bizarrely fresh yet simultaneously dated feel. It’s not easy to explain why, perhaps it’s something to do with how Neneh’s background influences the album; Swedish-African, born in Sweden but lived in Long Island and eventually moved to London when she was 15 – just in time to be a part of the punk scene over here. There’s some sort of curious appeal, but it painfully belongs in the decade it was made.
Neneh freely switches between styles and accents to create different moods (vocally, not musically) – sometimes coming across as a hollering New Yorker, other times a lippy cockney – and I can’t decide whether this adds to the charm of the album or is just confusing and disorientating. “Buffalo Stance” is edgy and scowling, making points about sexual responsibility, taking digs at unwanted sexual advances from men and womanisers, and shows a detest of superficial, tacky women. The rest of the album has a similar street-smart edginess – loads of personality and very socially concious. The problem is I feel this is neutralised by a kind of patronising, nostalgic sweetness which gets attributed to this kind of sound in the present day.
I’m sure this is sloppy analysis because in 1989 this may have been seen as a rebellious, witty, and provoking record. It just doesn’t have the same effect today and the result is that it comes across flimsy and somewhat irritating.
The Grey Album | Danger Mouse | 2004 | #337
From Brian Burton (Danger Mouse): “A lot of people just assume I took some Beatles and, you know, threw some Jay-Z on top of it or mixed it up or looped it around, but it’s really a deconstruction. It’s not an easy thing to do. I was obsessed with the whole project, that’s all I was trying to do, see if I could do this. Once I got into it, I didn’t think about anything but finishing it. I stuck to those two because I thought it would be more challenging and more fun and more of a statement to what you could do with sample alone. It is an art form. It is music. You can do different things, it doesn’t have to be just what some people call stealing. It can be a lot more than that.”
So the mash-up artist himself has insisted that the listener not be so small-minded as to simply write this off as a simple remixing. Normally I don’t like being told how I’m supposed to interpret media – a pet peeve of mine is when someone insists I listen to/watch something usually with the explanation that you should find this hilarious/brilliant/mind-blowing almost as a compulsory requirement – but in this case Brian may have a point. When you consider the restriction he placed upon himself to create an album sampling only Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album to create not just something new but, something that actually works, then I think you can just about respect the creativity. For me its a concept that’s been corrupted by certain R’n’B artists sloppily cashing in on remixing pop-punk classics under spurious offerings of creative genius. There’s a point where we must refuse to reinforce ideas that were once novel and made with good intentions before they become perfunctory.
This one doesn’t quite dilute the mash-up pool though. The union of these two particular classics, the disparity of old and new, is something I haven’t heard before and it definitely is done well. It really is more of a deconstruction of both albums – although more a rebuild of the melodies of Beatles reconstructed in a hip-hop style – which I think has to call upon some inventive skill to pull off without it sounding shit. Really though it fails to hold my interest for very long and once the novelty has worn off after the first play-through I’m left feeling entirely indifferent about it.
Ready to Die | The Notorious B.I.G. | 1994 | Bad Boy | #338
This was the album that brought an end to West Coast domination of hip-hop, was the first album on Puffy’s Bad Boy label, and made Biggie an instant legend of the genre. He raps with a sense of humour and self-awareness and, while I found it funny where I was supposed to, it was also quite tragic; rapping about issues of death, crime, and his precarious existence as an ex-drug dealer.
Biggie has a laid-back form with an easy-to-follow lyrical style and flow, for a hardcore hip-hop album I found it very easy listening. And he obviously has a lot of fun being Biggie Smalls (apart from all the shit stuff obviously); it’s almost like he’s playing the character of Biggie as he refers to himself in third person and remarks proudly on what he’s apparently known for – which is either sexual or criminal in content, or bombastic blasé attitudes to life events which would make other people nervous. That attitude is the sad part for me though; it’s almost as if he saw his early death as inevitable and was very aware of his outlook given his Broolyn-raised background: “If I wasn’t in the rap game/I’d probably have a key knee deep in the crack game/Because the streets is a short stop/Either you’re slingin crack rock or you got a wicked jumpshot/Shit, it’s hard being young from the slums/Eatin five cent gums not knowin where your meals comin from”.
When he’s not talking about the “Everyday Struggle” or being “Ready to Die”, he’s romanticising criminal activities such as in “Gimme the Loot” and “Warning”. His lyrical humour and attitude combined with the funky, laid-back production of the album give it all a bit of a charm though. I don’t care at all for hip-hop politics and I’m not seduced by the drama of the massive rivalry that he and Tupac got caught up in (or any of the hard-man posturing made by today’s hip-hop artists), I just think he’s an interesting character it’s sad that he died so young -I liked his album.