April 16: If I Must – The Darkness, Def Leppard, Everything But The Girl, Iron Maiden, Megadeth, Morrissey, U2

Happy Easter everyone who celebrates it; to everyone who doesn’t, happy Sunday! This week, it’s time for another of everyone’s favourites, the If I Must week. Fortunately for me, but sadly for you, this will probably be the last of these: I’ve pretty much listened to all of the real horrors on the list now, so while there are still some that I’m dreading, there aren’t quite enough for more of these weeks. Luckily, that still leaves me with over 100 albums that I’m looking forwards to hearing, so there’ll be plenty of good stuff as we head towards the second half of the project. Seven of the ones I least wanted to hear first though: let’s get to it.

The Darkness, ‘Permission to Land’

Although their second album ‘One Way Ticket to Hell… and Back’ went platinum, The Darkness’s commercial and critical peak was their debut album. At the time, they were massive, but the fact that their jokey take on 70s and 80s hard rock was going Top 10 at a time when less retro British rock bands were completely absent from the Top 20 was a worrying sign for the genre. Anyway, this is front-loaded, with catchy singles ‘Growing On Me’, ‘Get Your Hands Off My Woman’ and ‘I Believe In A Thing Called Love’ all in the opening four tracks. The novelty’s worn off by the fifth track though: Justin Hawkins hasn’t got anything in his arsenal other than falsetto, at least one of the songs is nearly six minutes long, and given that the list already contains all the acts that The Darkness are aping (AC/DC, Queen, Aerosmith, Bon Jovi), you don’t need this.

Def Leppard, ‘Hysteria’

And indeed here are one of the bands that The Darkness are likely imitating. ‘Hysteria’ recorded over the course of a year packed with incident, including two of the band being involved in motor accidents: one, of course, cost drummer Rick Allen his arm. Consequently, there’s a fair bit of Fairlight jiggery-pokery involved with the drum tracks here. ‘Gods of War’ and ‘Love and Affection’ are probably the best songs here, but they all sound the same anyway: commercial 80s hard rock with massed backing vocals, helium lead vocals and synths. It seems mean to lambast such good-natured music too much: it’s okay, but this will be my last listen to it.

Everything But The Girl, ‘Idlewild’

Not to be confused with the Scottish band who did ‘When I Argue I See Shapes’, or the 2006 Outkast album, ‘Idlewild’ was the fourth album from EBTG, released in 1988. When we last looked at Tracy ‘n’ Ben, it was in their mid-90s dance incarnation, but before that they were making a sort of light coffee-table take on sophisticated pop, which I guess would have been popular with people who also liked The Beautiful South and Level 42. It starts with the band’s cover of Crazy Horse’s ‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It’, but it quickly recedes into background music: it’s so tasteful and restrained that it becomes a struggle to resist turning it off and listening to something more interesting. The dated production doesn’t help – tenor saxes and fretless bass everywhere – any more than the lyrics, where “they call you Jimmy, they call you James” is regarded as a good enough lyric for a repeated refrain. ‘The Night I Heard Caruso Sing’ is probably the best song here, vaguely like Slow Club’s last album; as a two-piece who trade vocals, Slow Club should see EBTG as a warning from history.

Iron Maiden, ‘Iron Maiden’

The line-up on the first Maiden album is different to their later ‘classic’ line-up: here we have Paul Di’Anno on vocals, Clive Burr on drums and Dennis Stratton on guitar, so no high-pitched extended notes from Dickinson and not much twin guitar riffing. The band don’t like the production on this (which they mostly did themselves) but I think the raw sound suits them: on ‘Prowler’ and ‘Running Free’, they sound sort of like ‘Destroyer’-era Judas Priest rather than the polished cheese (an Edam wheel?) of their later material. The album only sags at the midway point, with the instrumental ‘Transylvania’ and the waltz-time downer ‘Strange World’ both moves into areas the band don’t sound at home in. It finishes strongly, though, and overall this one is pretty good.

Megadeth, ‘Peace Sells, But Who’s Buying?’

This was Megadeth’s breakthrough album and is one of the big three as far as thrash is concerned (together with ‘Master of Puppets’ and ‘Reign in Blood‘). Dave Mustaine, the former Metallica guitarist, focuses here on political and global concerns rather than the Lovecraftian omens of his old band, giving the lyrics a then-topical feel. I’ve always found thrash a bit tedious though: no wonder nu-metal eschewed the multi-section, solo-heavy, five-minute-or-more template for something blunter, punkier and funkier. You can’t fault the instrumental skill, particularly on the guitar lines, but the style seems old hat now.

Morrissey, ‘Vauxhall and I’

Our fourth visit to Moz’s back catalogue, we meet him here in 1994, at a time when he’d stopped wanting to plough the same furrow he did with The Smiths but before he started making off-colour remarks about immigration, the Chinese and so on. I’m starting to think that perhaps his solo career is best regarded as having a great singles catalogue, rather than any crucial albums: here, the best song is the elegaic ‘The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get’, which even Boz Boorer’s mid-90s Noel Gallagher lead guitar can’t spoil. Elsewhere there’s a cinematic closer called ‘Speedway’ and what sounds like a clarinet section, but nothing that quite matches the single.

U2, ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed ‘The Joshua Tree‘ and remember quite liking U2’s mid-90s output, or finding it interesting at least, but the release of the band’s 1980-1990 Best Of seemed to cause them to re-evaluate their output, hence abandoning the My Bloody Valentine and Nine Inch Nails experimentation and reverting to Soaring Anthem U2. Commercially it was a big success, but critically? Early on Bono feels like the weak point, both lyrically and vocally, while sequencing ‘Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of’ as track 2 is a mistake, as the song piles on instrument after instrument in a vain attempt to bring a dull melody to life. Elsewhere, ‘Beautiful Day’ borrows its middle eight from A-ha, ‘In A Little While’ sounds like Eels with its arpeggios and drum machine, ‘Wild Honey’ sounds like Van Morrison, and I’m sure you know what the rest of this album sounds like.  Pretty dull.

Next week: a type of album I’ve never generally been hot on – the live album! There are at least a dozen on the list; hit me up in the comments if you have any favourites.

Progress update: 478 listened to (48%), 523 remain. Nearly halfway!


November 13: If I Must – The Band, Everything But The Girl, David Gray, The Happy Mondays, Kid Rock, The La’s, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Verve

This week is another of the popular If I Must series, in which I pick out some albums I don’t want to listen to on the 1,001 and put myself through them. I got so excited to do this that I ended up doing eight: here they are.

The Band, ‘The Band’

‘Music From Big Pink’ was a one-pace slog filled with Dylanisms, so it was with some reluctance that I came back to The Band. On ‘The Band’ it seems that the, uh, band remembered that they could play in more than one tempo and, without Dylan around, indulged their interest in Southern US influences, moving into a more country flavour and pushing Levon Helm’s unusual alto voice closer to the foreground. The stop-start of ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ and the clavinet wah of ‘Up on Cripple Creek’ add dynamic variety, while ‘Whispering Pines’ is an obvious influence on Mercury Rev. I’m still not totally sold on Americana – a sort of rootsy rock version at invoking ‘Huckleberry Finn’ vibes – but I feel more positively towards The Band.

Everything But The Girl, ‘Walking Wounded’

Ben’n’Tracey were megastars at the time as a result of the omnipresent Todd Terry version of ‘Missing’, which pushed a folksy band on the fringes of the top 30 into a Top 5 presence. I was unenthusiastic to listen to a whole album of their stuff as I always thought their singles were pretty bland lite electro-sad and, for all this album’s interest in jungle and techno, it does little to disabuse me of that notion. Its monochromatic mood and pace are inoffensive at Brand New Heavies frequencies and while it’s not outstandingly bad, there’s nothing on here that would be too aggressive for a Dido album.

David Gray, ‘White Ladder’

Before there was Adele, there was David Gray, whose wobbly-headed singing and flappy-brushed drummer clogged up the charts for what seemed like an eternity with an album that, like ’21’, is bland but mystifyingly mega-selling. If you lived through the dark reign of Gray, you’ll recall the sound of this album: folky acoustic guitar and gently tapped drums in a sphere nominally called folktronica but mostly created with organic instruments. There are no surprises here apart from the forced wackiness of ‘We’re Not Right’, and the overall effect is dullness that even a Soft Cell cover (‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’: sadly no David Gray covers of ‘Sex Dwarf’ exist) fails to redeem.

The Happy Mondays, ‘Pills’n’Thrills And Bellyaches’

This dreadfully-named album contains the Mondays’ biggest hits, ‘Step On’ and ‘Kinky Afro’, add at least one new member (singer Rozalla) and sees Paul Oakenfold on the faders and tape deck. It’s surprisingly eclectic, as the band’s 60s and 70s influences are visible, but not so much that they’re blind to the contemporary scene around them. It’s a plausibly comprehensive snapshot of Manchester in the late 80s/early 90s. It doesn’t entirely hang together, though, at least not for me. Why? Probably the melodies, which are often weak or completely absent when left to Shaun Ryder, who couldn’t be described as a great or good or even average singer.

Kid Rock, ‘Devil Without A Cause’

The cowboy and singer in black was an early proponent of rap-metal, meaning that in some places, this album sounds like a fresh mix of metal riffs and rapping; in some places, however, it sounds about as edgy as 5ive. The main problem with the album, as with most albums, is the personality at the front: whether it’s moaning about his record label, uncharitably referring to his son’s mother as a ‘slut’ or not writing enough ideas for a song (‘Bawitdaba’, just ‘Rappers Delight’ with metal guitars), he’s pretty constantly obnoxious. Still, his interests are rap-metal, being a redneck, and misogyny: probably an insurmountable combination for me.

The La’s, ‘The La’s’

Like ‘Apocalypse Now’, or ‘Loveless’, the mythos surrounding The La’s doomed album has elevated it to almost mythical status: rumour has it that Lee Mavers didn’t want the band to dust their guitars, thought they sounded best recorded on dictaphone and rejected a mixing desk because it didn’t have authentic 60s dust on it, to the point where the exasperated label ended up stealing the master tapes just so they could finally put out the record. To what extent this is all apocryphal is another question, but what is definitely true is that the band disowned the record on its release and Mavers pulled a Neutral Milk Hotel and never released another album. Are we missing much by not having more La’s material? On this evidence, no. The first two songs are as innovative as Jet, the third is literally called ‘Timeless Melody’ and the fourth has whistling. Then the album finishes with a nine-minute song. “But JT, the album celebrates Liverpool’s past while looking forward to later Scouse bands like The Coral and The Zutons.” Well, exactly.

Red Hot Chili Peppers, ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’

‘Californication’ is a strong contender for Most Boring Album I’ve Listened To, but this album isn’t quite as monotonous. John Frusciante is the stand-out performer as he works his way through a variety of styles from John McGeoch to Michael Hampton, while Chad Smith is also louder in the mix. Additional texture is brought by mellotron, celeste and trash-heap percussion. The boisterous performances put Anthony Kiedis lower in the balance, but he still stamps his mark: one of the more interesting songs has the bloody awful title ‘Sir Psycho Sexy’. This would be a pretty good 40-minute album: it runs a near-intolerable 73 minutes.

The Verve, ‘A Northern Soul’.

One of two Verve records on the list, but luckily for me I’d already heard the good singles/crap rest ‘Urban Hymns’. Here we have a lot of cokey guff – the first two tracks sound like one long song (and one is called ‘This Is Music’, presumably unironically knowing Richard Ashcroft). Gentle third song ‘On Your Own’ and the string-drenched ‘History’ poke their heads above the parapet of sprawling, overlong, blustering trudge and if it seems like I’m indicating that only the singles are any good here, then it at least suggests they had good choices of singles. The e-bow and feedback instrumental ‘(Reprise)’ makes for a pleasant closer: I wonder whether Nick McCabe might have been better suited leading a post-rock band like Mogwai rather than spending a decade playing second fiddle to Ashcroft and his ego.

Next week, in tribute to one of the country’s most notable singers, Leonard Cohen, passing away this week, I’ll be listening to some of the best Canadian albums on the list. Obviously Laughing Len will be featured.

Progress update: 338 listened to (34%), 663 remain