May 21: Calexico, Common, The Flaming Lips, Norah Jones, The Libertines, The Strokes, The Thrills

This week we’ll be looking at a few of the albums on the list that came out this century. I’m using the 2005 edition of the list, so there isn’t a huge amount of scope, but still plenty to talk about. Let’s begin.

Calexico, ‘Feast of Wire’

Calexico were an indie rhythm section for hire who became a full band and have released nine albums over a 20-year career. This is their fifth, which oscillates between gloomy Will Oldham-ish folk (‘Black Heart’), mariachi (‘Pepita’, ‘Across the Wire’) and even Warp-ish dance experiments (‘Attack El Robot! Attack!’). The album is about 50% instrumental, which makes me wonder whether Joey Burns was still becoming comfortable with being a singer. The album feels more like smart guys with eclectic record collections showing off their taste: a triumph of the brain over the heart.

Common, ‘Like Water For Chocolate’

Common is a socially-conscious rapper whose records generally featured his dad doing spoken word on the final track (before his father passed away a few years ago). This one features Femi Kuti playing sax on a tribute to his dad and MC Lyte on a song about what a bad pimp Common would be. Produced by the Roots, this album’s jazzy rap played on organic instruments should be familiar to Roots fans, and sounds like the sort of thing Kendrick Lamar pursued on ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’. As with that album, ‘Like Water For Chocolate’ feels too long, but repeated listens might bring the album into focus.

The Flaming Lips, ‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots’

Wayne and the gang had broken through with their previous album ‘The Soft Bulletin’ and this album even features UK Top 20 hits. If you know the title track, the overall sound of the album isn’t much of a surprise: frazzled psychedelia played on acoustic guitar and clattering electronic noises. The other big hit, ‘Do You Realise??’, saunters in late, acting as a kind of climax to the album. It feels familiar: along similar lines to Sparklehorse or old pals Mercury Rev. It’s good: from the heart despite its layers of surreal mystery.

Norah Jones, ‘Come Away With Me’

Jazzy standards with country arrangements, performed with all the verve, energy and danger of a hungover lunchtime set at a coffee bar, Jones’s sleepy voice driving the restrained, dusty air. Surprisingly, the album is oddly expressive with feminine desire: two of the tracks are called ‘Turn Me On’ and ‘I’ve Got To See You Again’ (she is not talking about a doctor’s appointment). Yet despite the eroticism, there’s nothing here that would be too edgy for a John Lewis advert. That’s Jones’s legacy, of course: a million mumbling Katie Meluas follow in her tracks, ‘Come Away With Me’ in one hand and ‘Songbird’ in the other. Thanks Norah. Shivaree were doing this whole jazzy Americana sleepy mumble thing too, but in a quirkier, more vibrant way. Listen to them instead.

The Libertines, ‘Up The Bracket’

I guess if I could point at the time when I was last hip, when I knew all the bands that were out and followed the weekly music magazines, it was 2004-05. I wasn’t always good at backing the right horses, though, and when the UK indie revival happened, the band that most moved me were Dogs. Dogs had a couple of Top 30 hits and then were pretty much finished, but they were beautiful and had big choruses and this amazing guitarist called Rikki. What, then, could the Libertines offer me? They wore Chelsea pensioner jackets and were always in the papers and music rags for their internecine squabbling: even in the ‘Up The Bracket’ era, Pete Docherty was robbing Carl Barat’s flat. They had a good single, ‘Time For Heroes’, where the stop-start rhythm makes it sound like the song needs to pause for a line of coke mid-verse just to get to the chorus.  They always came across as talented but sloppy, fumbling their way through their career, doing gigs with AWOL members or cancelling constantly. I like my bands a bit more robust, and I certainly like my albums a bit less half-assed than ‘Up The Bracket’. There’s maybe five good songs in the morass of end-of-night mumbling and three of those are the final three. ‘Up The Bracket’ captures a time when you’re trying to articulate yourself but you’re too shitfaced to do it properly. Ironically, though, if you were in that condition, you’d be singing songs with bigger choruses, clearer hooks. Dogs could offer all that and still nobody listened to them. So there’s my review of ‘Up The Bracket’, which I listened to because the list I’m working off mysteriously says ‘The Libertines (1st Album)’, and yet when I check I realise that the list is mistaken, it’s been copied down wrong, and the album on the list is actually the second album, which is called ‘The Libertines’…

The Libertines, ‘The Libertines’

…and by this point the band were a complete joke, non-existent as an entity, the album essentially serving as a testament to Pete and Carl’s break-up. Yet there are points on this album where the myth that this was ever a functioning band seems almost believable: the first two songs (‘Can’t Stand Me Now’ and ‘Last Post on the Bugle’) are both killers, even if both songs are co-written by ‘real’ songwriters holding the frontmen’s hands. Pete by this point has devolved into the drunk mate insisting that it’s really important that he tells Carl why he loves him, a persona that he was of course also portraying in real life, such as on the Libertines’ forum. There’s a fumbling, chaotic attempt at an album here: perhaps more refinement and discipline would have led to a slicker record, but it would also have removed some of the charm. Presumably it’s producer Mick Jones hammering the piano on a few tracks here.

The Strokes, ‘Is This It’

Probably the most influential indie album of the century, The Strokes came along at the point where Britpop was basically dead on its arse and ushered in a new wave of NYC cool in the grand tradition of the Velvets and Television (of course Lou Reed was doing a similar sound to The Strokes on his first album). As with the Libertines, the hype completely put me off at the time, and even now I struggle with that sound on Julian Casablancas’s voice: recorded through a Peavey amp, it sounds like it’s being broadcast over a tannoy and removes a layer of intimacy. The metronomic simplicity of the rhythm section annoys me less now, though, perhaps because the album in general isn’t as dumb as its best-known songs (‘Last Nite’, ‘Someday’, ‘New York City Cops’). The best songs here are ‘Hard To Explain’ and ‘The Modern Age’, astutely-composed and simple without being stupid.

The Thrills, ‘So Much For The City’

Look, I’m as surprised as you are that this is on the list and King Tubby, Lee Perry and Neutral Milk Hotel aren’t, but we are where we are, so let’s get on with it. The Thrills are a band who I always knew were objectively pretty rot, but I have a soft spot for ‘Big Sur’ and ‘One Horse Town’, non-threatening indie gently sung by Conor Deasy, which still sounds pretty good now. Like the singles, the album anchors a feeling of wistful melancholia to sunny California arrangements, but none of it sounds like it belongs in the 21st century, least of all duff Dylan pastiche ‘Say It Isn’t So’. The success of this album ushered equally safe acts like Keane and The Feeling into the charts – so thanks The Thrills – but this album had no longevity on the 1001 Albums, being purged on the very next edition (2008) and never returning. So you’re saying I didn’t need to hear this before I died? So much for ‘So Much For The City’.

Next week: We’ll be getting emotional as we climb onboard the soul train!

Status update: 513 listened to (51%), 488 remaining.

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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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