December 15: Manu Chao, Jack Elliott, Nightmares on Wax, Laura Nyro, John Prine, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Silver Jews

This week’s blog is What The Hell Is This week, in which I pick five albums from the list where I have no (or nearly no) knowledge of the artist and the artist name and album title offer little clue as to the content. Let’s find out what I unearthed…

Manu Chao, ‘Clandestino’

I could have surmised that Chao was probably Hispanic from the title and so it proves, although more complex: he is a French-born Spaniard who also sings in Portuguese and English on this 1998 album. His backing is as eclectic as his language choices, experimenting with reggae, rap (on the single ‘Bongo Bong’), chantalong choruses and flamenco. While mostly based around traditional instrumentation, Chao loves augmenting his melting pot sound with Space Invader sounds and answerphone beeps: to what conceptual effect I’m not sure. The album’s only 45 minutes long but finds time for 16 tracks: as a result it feels pretty long.

Jack Elliott, ‘Jack Takes The Floor’

When I looked this up on Spotify and it was credited to ‘Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’ I got more of an idea as to what this might sound like. Elliott was the step between Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan: mentored by the former, mentor to the latter. His good ol’ country boy credentials also have a fascinating background: he was the son of a Jewish doctor who, pressured to follow in his dad’s footsteps, ran away to join the rodeo. His family brought him back a few weeks later but by that point Ramblin’ Jack’s mind was made up. Anyway, to the album. Mostly accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, Jack segues the songs with brief introductions as if he’s broadcasting the album live, and has a chatty interlude with Guthrie before they sing a duet. It’s quite charming, although the album’s wizened folk feels like too much of a period piece to objectively rate.

Nightmares on Wax, ‘Smokers’ Delight’

“Something dance-y?” I hazarded, wondering if it would sound more like DJ Shadow or King Tubby. It is indeed a dance album: an early Warp Records release, NoW have less in common with the austere soundscapes of Autrechre and Aphex Twin and more in common with Bent or Barry Adamson. There’s a lot of texture and build here as a variety of sounds from throat singing to jazzy Rhodes to acoustic guitar licks get thrown in, but as with a lot of 90s dance, it’s desperately short on top line i.e. this album has no tunes. As a result, while there’s often cool sounds happening, the album vanishes into the background for an unacceptably long 70 minutes. It sounds a bit like a guy showing off his cool record collection without making a cool record of his own. Later Wax albums recruit a singer, presumably realising that then-new arrivals like Air, Zero 7 and Goldfrapp were all glueing tunes onto their sonic atmospherics.

Laura Nyro, ‘Eli and the Thirteenth Confession’

Nothing here offered any clue as to the content and I’d not heard of Nyro before. She was a singer-songwriter-pianist who wrote hits for Barbara Streisand among others before dying in 1997 aged just 50. This was her second album and throws jazz, gospel and soul elements into a pop mix: standard ingredients for an Aretha Franklin album maybe but less so for a Polish Jew in 1968, perhaps. Whether you like this album boils down to whether you like her voice, and I didn’t: her high notes are pretty grating on this jaded ear and the songs are generally too boring to overcome it. It sounds like an album someone might put on when trying to seduce someone, thinking they’re being sophisticated: we’re in a pre-Anita Baker world I suppose. Fans of suitable album titles will appreciate that the closing track is number 13 and is called ‘The Confession’.

John Prine, ‘John Prine’

Prine was a folk/country singer most familiar with playing solo gigs who, after having the good fortune of drawing Kris Kristofferson’s attention, found himself in a studio with a full band for his debut album. Prine says he can hear the nerves in his voice but he sounds pretty comfortable to me, with sympathetic arrangements and production to compliment his sarcastic drawl. People seem to like his lyrics: none leapt out on this listen, but I like it enough to revisit it.

Paul Revere and the Raiders, ‘Midnight Ride’

The only Paul Revere I knew was the Beastie Boys track, so this could have been anything, but it turns out that this was an American R&B/rock band with an interest in British Invasion acts. The first three songs are high-quality, organ-heavy rock numbers in an Animals/Zombies style. The fifth track was covered by the Monkees. The seventh has complex time signature changes and Eastern scales. It’s like the most 1966 album ever. It runs out of steam in the second half and nothing is as good as opening track ‘Kicks’, but this is pretty cool all round.

Silver Jews, ‘Night Flight’

I always confuse these with 60s psychedelic synth act Silver Apples, and I kind of thought they were an Elephant Six indie band. Sure enough they’re an indie act, although their association is with the ilk of Pavement (with whom they share two members). As with a lot of indie acts – the Mountain Goats, Neutral Milk Hotel, Guided by Voices – the singer muttering over his acoustic guitar is front and centre, although there’s plenty going on around the edges to keep things interesting. If you don’t enjoy it, it’s also a mere 35 minutes so at least it has brevity going for it. I suspect the Pavement albums on the list will be better, but this hit the spot.

This was a really fun week, as I had no idea what I was getting before hitting ‘play’ and I wouldn’t have come to these albums any time soon.

Over Christmas, I’ll be posting about some of my favourite albums on the list. These will (of course) be albums I’ve already heard, so the total will stay as it is until 2017. We’ve still got a long way to go together: October 2018 is the projected end date!

Progress update: 373 listened to (37%). Remaining: 628

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Author: JT Wilson

Listening to all of the albums in the '1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die' book (2006 edition).

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