October 8: Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Marianne Faithfull, Bruce Springsteen, Robert Wyatt, Neil Young

Pop music fans are capricious, meaning that most bands’ careers are shorter than even that of a professional footballer.  It’s generally accepted that artists’ best work is normally done by the fifth album, when the combination of initial passion and musical accomplishment is still at its peak. Beyond that, many artists go on to make albums which are either dignified but play mainly to their core fanbase (Eels, for example), or are derided as embarrassing experiments (Lou Reed is the king of this, but see also Korn’s dubstep album). Even a band like Pulp, whose commercial peak came as late as their fifth album, were all but done by their seventh.

Yet there are some exceptions to this rule. This week’s entries are all artists who released critically regarded albums 15 or more years into their careers. Of course, we’ve met many of these artists before.

Johnny Cash, ‘American IV: The Man Comes Around’ (link)

Pretty much the definition of this week’s list, this album is, of course, best known for his dignified cover of ‘Hurt’. The Nine Inch Nails cover – surprisingly credible, doing justice to both the original song and to Cash’s legacy – serves as a reasonable summary of the album, which mainly features covers or previously-recorded Cash compositions in a stripped down, restrained manner. The best other song is Sting’s ‘I Hurt My Head’, which sounds strong (I don’t know the original). Several singers show up to complement Cash, but with mixed results: on ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, Fiona Apple sounds as if she was singing to a different version of the track, while Don Henley does nothing notable on ‘Desperado’; only Nick Cave adds any value (on ‘I’m So Lonesome I Might Cry’). While this is perhaps a few tracks too long, it serves as a high point to go out on. This is the last of his albums on the list and our final visit.

Leonard Cohen, ‘I’m Your Man’ (link)

Not many artists do their most well-regarded album aged 53, but Cohen was never an ordinary artist; besides, he only started making music in his thirties. One of just two 80s albums from the never-prolific Len, this one backs him with an unusual combination of female hackette backette vocalists, a crummy-sounding synclavier and a bunch of near-Eastern instruments, while Cohen himself rarely expands his vocal range beyond a single note. In an odd symbiosis, his monotone baritone almost sounds as if he’s taken cues from his own acolyte Andrew Eldritch. This is a popular album with Cohen fans and features some of his best known songs, but sounds like an album where the writing is better than the execution, whether due to cheesy arrangements (‘Ain’t no Cure For Love’) or dud playing (the synth solos in ‘Tower of Song’ for example). I’ve not gotten a lot out of Leonard yet; we do however have another (earlier) album of his to explore.

Bob Dylan, ‘Time Out of Mind’ (link)

Dylan’s idiosyncratic later career has seen him doing three albums of standards and a Christmas album, as well as winning a Nobel Prize he scarcely bothered to acknowledge. Before all that, though, he made a 1997 record with Daniel Lanois which was widely acclaimed. In some ways, the shimmering sound makes it as much a Lanois album, but the odd way Bob’s vocals are recorded doesn’t do any favours. Dylan’s contributions, meanwhile, are some of his most direct lyrics, delivered in a guttural semi-croak that became his late-era trademark. ‘Not Dark Yet’ is very good, ‘Can’t Wait’ sounds like a Tom Waits cut, but overall I don’t think this is a contender for Dylan’s top three (with or without the 17-minute blues cut at the end). We’ve covered Bob many times on this blog, but there are still two more of his albums to go.

Marianne Faithfull, ‘Broken English’ (link)

Marianne in 1979 was younger than any of the other artists this week, but she’d spent a lot of time in the wilderness after a fairly prolific 60s and had wrecked her voice with smoking, drugs and laryngitis, so the quality and success of this record was seen as something of a surprise. Re-inventing herself as a new wave artist with the help of Steve Winwood and others, the synth-heavy cuts on this album often sound like Blondie (‘Guilt’, the title track), or are fresh post-punk takes on ominous, brooding folk songs (‘The Ballad of Lucy Jordan’, Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’). The album ends with the fantastically crude ‘Why’d Ya Do It?’, an explicit story about sex with the wrong woman strewn with Berlin trilogy guitar which, amazingly, was originally written for Tina Turner (Faithfull astutely realised Turner would reject the track and took it for herself).

Bruce Springsteen, ‘The Rising’ (link)

If I told you that this was Bruce’s 2002 album, made in response to September 11, and featured the E Street Band, you could probably figure out what it sounds like without me elaborating. But in case you’re struggling to picture it: it’s 70 minutes long, is arranged with plenty of musicians, a lot of organ, and nothing gets out of second gear tempo-wise: all very classy but not very edgy. There is, however, some pretty good stuff here: ‘Lonesome Day’ is a good opener, ‘Worlds Apart’ has an unexpected Qawwali intro (I guess to demonstrate that being a working-class Yank doesn’t mean you’re anti-Islam), and ‘The Fuse’ starts off with what sounds like an organic stab at the ‘Head Like A Hole’ intro.

Robert Wyatt, ‘Shleep’ (link)

This is the first album of Wyatt’s I’ve heard, and features a bunch of old boys, but maybe not the ones you’d expect: rather than Canterbury pals like Ratledge and Ayres, it’s 70s geezers like Eno, Manzanera and Weller. I’ve always found the jazz-influenced Canterbury psychedelic sound a bit cluttered and finicky for my tastes, and this album often has the same issues. There are some exceptions, though: ‘Free Will and Testament’ is the sort of frazzled sighing Wayne Coyne excels at, the melody and backing perfect for Wyatt’s mannered, splintered falsetto. The best on the second half is ‘Blues in Bob Minor’ borrows a template from ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ for Robert to ramble unusual words like ‘intercontinental’ and ‘genuflecting’ over the top. This came out in 1997 and it’s odd that Wyatt didn’t – never did – make an album with young fans who’d taken this sort of sound into the top 50. You’d think the Flaming Lips, Gorky’s and Grandaddy would have loved to make a record collaborating with him, but it never happened.

Neil Young and Crazy Horse, ‘Ragged Glory’ (link)

Young is one of my big discoveries from this project: this is about the 10th album of his I’ve listened to, and I hadn’t listened to any 18 months ago. Here we are in 1990, just before he enjoyed a kind of resurgence in the 90s, due mainly to his veneration by the Seattle scene: he made some records with Pearl Jam, and he was notoriously quoted in Cobain’s suicide note. Still, Young wasn’t just coasting on endorsements: he made very good albums like ‘Harvest Moon’ in this time. ‘Ragged Glory’, like his other albums with Crazy Horse, allows many openings for lengthy guitar workouts (‘Over and Over’, ‘Country Home’). Which is fine on a 40-minute, 6-track album, but feels a bit like overkill on 10 tracks in 62 minutes. The grizzled old boys do sound up-to-date here, with something of a Frank Black feel: ripe for a career revival. We’ve almost listened to everything on the list from Young’s solo career: just one album remains.

Next week: we’ll be getting into the DeLorean and going back to the 1950s with some of the oldest albums on the list!

Status update: 651 albums listened to (65%), 350 remain

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April 22: Live – Allman Brothers Band, James Brown, Johnny Cash, Cheap Trick, Deep Purple, Bob Dylan, Peter Frampton

This week we’re coming to you LIVE from the hallowed fields of Coventry UK, in front of 20,000 screaming fans, for seven choice cuts from the 1001 Albums!

*audience screams*

The theme this week is LIVE ALBUMS. I’ve always lumped live albums into the same category as compilations, “unreleased material” and remix albums: i.e., inessential fluff padding out an artist’s catalogue and making some easy bucks from marks. This is, of course, mainly because of 90s bands treating the live album as bonus material or as a contractual obligation (Pulp and Marilyn Manson respectively come to mind). Yet back in the 60s and 70s – prior, of course, to VHS and DVD – the live album was a big deal. Are you ready to hear some?

*YEAAAHHH*

I can’t hear you, are you ready to hear some REVIEWS OF LIVE ALBUUUUUMS?

*YAAAAAAAASSSSSS*

The Allman Brothers Band, ‘At Fillmore East’

Initially, this sounds like a boring blues-rock album, except with two drummers (one is the fabulously-named Butch Trucks) and two lead guitarists. However, the album finds its groove in massively extended jams: one lasts 19 minutes, another lasts 23 minutes. It’s not just extended guitar soloing (well, not entirely…): the latter, ‘Whipping Post’, has some of the most interesting sections, while there is dramatically eerie organ and timpani concluding ‘Hot ‘Lanta’. It’s the sort of record where all the ingredients are among my least favourites – long jams, blues, jazz, drum solos – but I can see why this is so fondly regarded. The Allmans had barely put this one out when lead guitarist Duane Allman died, aged just 24.

James Brown, ‘Live at the Apollo (1963)’

The Godfather of Funk only appears on the list once, believe it or not: most of his best-known work was only released as singles. In 1963, he was part of the Famous Flames and still a soul singer, wowing a crowd of screaming teenage girls. The frenzied audience are the most distinctive feature of the album, but the band are on point: my favourite track here was ‘Think’, but the ten-minute ‘Lost Someone’, with well-timed call and response interplay with the crowd, shows a consummate performer with the audience in the palm of his hand. With great songs performed masterfully, this album flew by.

Johnny Cash, ‘At San Quentin’

I enjoyed ‘At Folsom Prison‘, and here Cash is in another prison, composing a song for the inmates which they enjoy so much that Cash and his band play it twice in a row. As with James Brown, the real pleasure here is in Cash’s rapport with his audience: his choice of songs and his between-song conversation keeps the inmates engaged throughout. Do you need both this and its very similar older brother ‘At Folsom Prison’, though? They’re both really good, but if I had to choose, it’d be the earlier album: this one ends with a boring Carter Family duet (‘There’ll Be Peace in the Valley’) and a version of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ which is cut off after barely 60 seconds. Short on time, I listened to the original version, rather than the multi-disc legacy edition.

Cheap Trick, ‘At Budokan’

I knew hardly anything about Cheap Trick, but it seems that they were a power-pop/hard-rock quartet who performed cuts from their two previous albums in front of a hysterical Japanese audience for this album (although Robert Christgau reckons it was recorded on a soundstage with the audience track dubbed in). The first half is pretty routine hard rock, made to seem like a bigger deal by the ecstatic spectators. The second half varies the pace with a Fats Domino cover, a poppy hit of their own called ‘I Want You To Want Me’, and an almost all-chorus song called ‘Surrender’.  I don’t think this is essential but I can believe it’s the best Cheap Trick album.

Deep Purple, ‘Made in Japan’

Reluctantly persuaded to make a live album by their Japanese record company, Richie and the gang recorded this over three nights. The album’s a mixed bag. There is a great version of ‘Child in Time’ and an unbelievable version of ‘Smoke in the Water’. Then a song with a six-minute drum solo followed by a song where Ian Gillan is singing falsetto harmonies with Richie Blackmore’s guitar: both of these really test one’s patience. There’s only seven songs in 78 minutes, with an awful lot of soloing (guitar, organ and drums all get involved: sometimes the organist starts playing ‘Louie Louie’ or ‘Jerusalem’ instead). I think there’s probably a lot that I’d enjoy about Deep Purple, a favourite band of my dad’s, but this was almost certainly the wrong place to start.

Bob Dylan, ‘Live 1966 “The Royal Albert Hall Concert” The Bootleg Sessions Vol 4’

“Judas!” “I don’t believe you! You’re a liar!” This is a double album which starts off well for Dylan as he plays unaccompanied acoustic versions of tracks from incredible albums ‘Highway ’61 Revisited’ and ‘Blonde on Blonde’. The audience, however, are less keen on his second set, because it is, of course, the tour where Dylan went electric for the first time. For whatever reason, the Spotify version of the album edits out the particularly abrasive interactions with the audience (including the “Judas!” shout), but you can hear something’s off. The hostile delivery is most notable on a sour version of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. An interesting recording of Dylan’s artistic peak, one of the most famous musical shifts in history, and how the audience reacted.

Alright, that’s all the albums this week…

*WE WANT MORE! WE WANT MORE*

(comes back out to review another album)

Peter Frampton, ‘Frampton Comes Alive’

Frampton was a very good-looking singer and guitarist with distinguished musical chops. By 1976, he’d made four largely-ignored albums, but this double live album proved to be the point where his career, um, came alive. It’s kind of hard to see what all the fuss was about: there’s an occasional interesting chord sequence, and the Sparky’s Magic Piano talkbox thing sounds fresh on its first appearance, but beyond that, it must have dated badly. First half is mostly anonymous soft rock, including ‘Baby I Love Your Way’. Second half is interminable solos (particularly on ‘Do You Feel Like I Do’ for thirteen minutes) and an atrocious Rolling Stones cover. It felt like I was listening to this forever (it’s 90 minutes long): I can’t see myself coming back to it.

There are loads more live albums on the list – this is just a sample (and of course I’ve already heard some, such as Nirvana’s ‘Unplugged in New York’).

Next week: Are you ready for the country? Well either way, we’ll be back listening to some of the finest albums in that genre.

Progress update: 485 listened to (48%), 516 remaining.

November 27: Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton & trio, Marty Robbins

This week I’ll be delving into a genre about which I know almost nothing: country and western music! There’s plenty of trailhands and cowgirls on the list, so let’s see what they have to offer.

Johnny Cash, ‘At Folsom Prison’

Cash had been playing gigs in prisons for years before recording this concert, which famously features a song written by one of the inmates among others that sound like they could have been. If you’ve heard any Cash you’ll know the basic template: his baritone murder ballads over a shuffling beat provided by his backing band The Tennessee Three. Prison suits his style though: the track sequencing is good, the gradual shifts in mood work and the interstitial jawing with inmates is fun (even if the album seems to abruptly terminate during a Q&A session). There are two other Cash albums on the list but this sets the bar high.

Ray Charles, ‘Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music’

Sort of a cheat as this isn’t a country album per se but a selection of country songs translated into Ray’s soulful big band stylings. The combination suits both the songs and the style, as it brings the melodies to the forefront without being drowned out by cornball arrangements of weeping pedal steel or violin. One of just two of Ray’s albums on the list, this is a gorgeous record.

Waylon Jennings, ‘Honky Tonk Heroes’

This album has an interesting back-story: Jennings invited a songwriter called Billy Joe Shaver to come meet him, but then forgot the invitation and neglected it. Shaver, livid, threatened to beat Jennings up if he didn’t listen to his songs: a risky move given Jennings’s tough-guy entourage. Lucky for Shaver, the songs were so good that Jennings decided to record a whole album of them. The record’s a bullish good-old-boys album, but Waylon’s own melodramatic voice is the most distracting feature. The crooning ‘You Ask Me To’ and the oddly swooning closer ‘We Had It All’ are the stand-out tracks here. As with many albums this week, it ends before the 30-minute mark: brevity appears to be a characteristic of the genre.

Loretta Lynn, ‘Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ with Lovin’ on Your Mind’

With country music, as with most music, it’s important that you believe the voice of the singer: sure we know that Johnny Cash hasn’t shot a man in Reno, but we can believe that he might. It’s the difference between authentic and ‘authentic’. Lynn was married to the same guy for fifty years but the relationship was volatile, which adds a veneer of plausibility to the title track and the gloomy ‘I’m Living in Two Worlds’. Initially sounding impenetrably cheesy, I warmed to this album the longer it went and when it finished after just 28 minutes I was disappointed that there was no more.

Willie Nelson, ‘Red Headed Stranger’

One of Nelson’s best-known albums is a concept album about a preacher who murders his adulterous wife and eventually finds redemption in the arms of another. Feels as sparse on justice as on instrumentation: many of the tracks here are stripped down to vocals and guitar only for long stretches. The first half, filled with violence and melancholia, is better than the second half’s corny instrumental sections (including a solo piano by Nelson’s sister) and unrewarding salvation.

Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, ‘Trio’

Ronstadt’s only appearance on the list as featured artist (although she’s on background vocals on ‘Harvest’) sees her team up with country stalwarts Dolly and Emmylou for a long-anticipated collaboration. I wanted to like this but it doesn’t quite work: whether because of the Dixieland cheese, the cheap-sounding piano on ‘Telling Me Lies’ or Ronstadt’s musical theatre take on Kate McGarrigle’s ‘I’ve Had Enough’, this isn’t an album befitting the three powerhouses. It seems redundant to say that the harmonies are on point, though, and Parton and Harris’s other albums on the list should be better fare. I was hoping this album contained the trio’s ethereal take on Neil Young’s ‘After the Gold Rush’ but alas that’s on ‘Trio II’.

Marty Robbins, ‘Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs’

The oldest album this week sees Robbins concern himself with affairs of the heart: will it be Cupid’s arrow that pierces it, or a bullet? The protagonists of his stories are often morally wrong (on ‘I’m Getting Married Tonight’, he shoots his ex-girlfriend and new lover purely out of jealousy) but driven by loneliness and/or heartbreak. It sounds plausible coming from Robbins, and the melancholy is often spiced up by a Mariachi sound that comes in whenever he looks across the border (such as on ‘El Paso’). Good stuff.

Next week: we’ll be taking the time machine back to the 1950s as I cast my ear over some of the oldest albums on the list.

Progress update: 352 listened to (35%), 649 remain