This week it’s time for another If I Must special, comprising of albums I was not looking forward to hearing at the start of the project. Will any of them surprise me? Let’s find out.
Beck, ‘Sea Change’
The last Beck album we’ll be covering off after I wrote about ‘Odelay‘ and ‘Guero‘ in previous editions. Here, everyone’s favourite Scientologist and ironic eclectist is blighted by heartbreak: he learned that his fiancee, who he’d been with for nine years, was cheating on him with someone from an LA band called Whisky Biscuit. He had to be convinced that writing about his feelings wasn’t self-indulgent, and recorded these songs with his usual band. The circumstances account for the sombre mood and the Nick Drake feel of tracks like ‘Round the Bend’, while the rest combines desert psychedelia, acoustic guitars and Sean O’Hagan-ish string arrangements from Beck’s dad. By dropping the mask and being more directly emotional, Beck’s probably done his best album here or at least my favourite of his.
The Coral, ‘The Coral’
Indie was running on fumes by the time these perky Liverpudlians came along, and mining 60s sounds was getting very close to being passe. The Coral weren’t the last band to do this and still have hits – after all, they brought along mini-mes The Zutons – but they were among the last. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this, being as it is full of energy and enthusiasm, and glueing together a whole bunch of influences in the same way that a big beat record might. It’s perhaps a bit light on compelling melodic hooks (except the singles), and aside from a thrillingly Of Montreal-ish funk sample collage at the end of ‘Skeleton Key’ there’s little indication that this was made in the 21st Century. Yes, they’ve listened to a lot of good albums, but the point of a project like this is to listen to those albums, meaning that on its own merits, this one is superfluous.
Don McLean, ‘American Pie’
This album is of course most famous for its opener and title track, a song so big and long that it threatens to swallow the rest of the album. I was reticent to come to this album because of that song, full of good ol’ boys and “wasn’t it better in the old days” sentiments and rambling. The rest of the record, though, doesn’t try and replicate the formula, being instead a mostly pleasant late 60s/early 70s folk-pop album. Surprisingly it does have one other fairly famous song in the gentle solo acoustic track ‘Vincent’, although I prefer the Car Seat Headrest song of the same title and subject.
Morrissey, ‘Viva Hate’
Moz had barely closed the door on The Smiths before this album came out: a mere six months had gone by. Here, he retains Smiths producer Stephen Street and promotes him to co-writer, bassist and rhythm guitarist. Street’s no Johnny Marr though, and the album’s a bit pedestrian in parts. Although this has ‘Everyday Is Like Sunday’ and ‘Suedehead’, its best three songs are, unusually, its last three: the uptempo ‘I Don’t Mind If You Forget Me’, the acidic ‘Dial A Cliche’ and the backwards chords and flamenco style of anti-Thatch fantasy ‘Margaret on the Guillotine’. If it makes a difference, I listened to the remastered Spotify version of this, where Moz’s meddling involved a song being removed and another added, and another song being truncated (to Street’s displeasure). Two more Morrissey albums and three more Smiths ones on the list.
Primal Scream, ‘Vanishing Point’
The singles from this album felt weak in isolation but work better in context: ‘Kowalski’ sits in the middle of a mostly instrumental, groove-heavy section of the album and ‘Star’ sounds like an expansive piece of dub (Augustus Pablo even turns up on melodica). The album is probably best understood and appreciated as an experimental big beat album, even if the makers are nominally a guitar band; the album’s strong points are its groove, samples and melting pot of styles, whereas its weak points are the melodies, lyrics and vocals. Less of a boring slog than I was anticipating. I’ve already heard ‘Screamadelica’ so there are no more of the band’s albums left to hear: mysteriously ‘XTRMNTR’, considered an essential Scream cut, is absent from the list.
The Ramones, ‘The Ramones’
Joey and the gang influenced millions of people with their breakneck three-note punk, but I’ve never felt that their stuff was anything I desperately needed to hear. For a start, it all sounds the same (there aren’t any other Ramones albums on this list). This one blasts through 14 tracks in just 28 minutes, features ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ and a lot of songs about horror movies (plus a Velvet Underground-ish lyric about a male prostitute turning tricks but then murdering the john to prove he’s not gay). Aside from the Blondie-ish ‘I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend’ and a hilarious cover of ‘Let’s Dance’, this is very repetitive.
Scissor Sisters, ‘Scissor Sisters’
The Sisters first came to prominence in the UK with their cover of ‘Comfortably Numb’, which they bragged about having modernised. Sounded like it’d be a good idea: yet the cover sounds like it came out in 1977, whereas the original came out in 1979. (If anything, it’s less of an update and more of a recontextualisation: from “prog singer ODs before a stadium show” to “kid has ketamine freakout in a gay bar”.) The album too is something I should like – a male singer and a female singer doing camp songs and occasionally putting the feather boa down to sing from the heart – but which instead bored me pretty quickly. ‘Laura’ is catchy, ‘Tits on the Radio’ at least mixes things up by giving female singer Ana Matronic something to do – she is almost absent from most of the songs – and ‘Return to Oz’ is a bit of fairytale prog, but the rest is pretty uninspiring.
Next week: we’ll be looking at what happened in the 1980s when post-punk gadabouts tried to make sophisticated pop music instead. Yes there’s a lot of New Romantic stuff in the next episode.
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