November 20: Leonard Cohen, Cowboy Junkies, kd lang, Joni Mitchell, Rush, Rufus Wainwright, Neil Young

This week, I’ll be looking at some of the Canadian albums on the list. There aren’t an awful lot of Canadian artists on the 1001, but those that are represented generally have multiple albums, almost as if the quality is concentrated in a small group.

Leonard Cohen, ‘Songs From a Room’

The second Cohen album, and the second of his on the list, sees his backing stripped back to predominantly acoustic guitar and, of all things, jew’s harp. There are no hits, or at least no songs I’d heard of before, but highlights include ‘The Butcher’, a Lou Reed-ish tale of a butcher father and a heroin experiment, and ‘Story of Isaac’. The album abruptly ends ever 35 minutes: always leave them wanting more eh Len? Incredible, listening to this minimalist record, to think that he would later make synthpop records and work with Phil Spector, but Cohen was an artist who did what he wanted.

Cowboy Junkies, ‘The Trinity Session’

The second album (and only appearance on the list) for a band whose debut had the fantastic name ‘Whites Off Earth Now!!’. The album was mostly recorded in one day around a single microphone in a church, which results in the sort of wintry reverb you hear on Low or Fleet Foxes albums, albeit without the multi-layered harmonies of those acts. The music is minimalist country, blues and folk, with the most distinctive features being Margot Timmins’ vocals and her brother Michael’s guitar. I prefer the tremelous country to the blues. This is a record suited for 2am.

k.d. lang, ‘Shadowland’

The nicotine and caffeine aficionado and capital letter eschewing lang is best known for ‘Constant Craving’, an adult-rock staple from the album ‘Ingenue’ (which also features on the list). There are no original compositions on this, her solo debut, however, which combines crooning country, smoky blues and Orbison-ish pop. The album is kind of like a 60s Patsy Cline album recorded on modern technology (Patsy Cline’s producer is even onboard). Lang’s voice is fine, as is the playing, but the album never veers into particularly interesting territory.

Joni Mitchell, ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’

Joni alienated a lot of her listeners with this abrupt shift into jazz-based territory and it’d certainly be fair to say that the album is not what they – or I – were expecting from a Joni Mitchell record. The peak weirdness is as early as the second track, ‘The Jungle Line’: based around a sample of Burundi drummers and a Moog bassline, it sounds like a prototype of Bjork or Portishead. ‘Shades of Scarlett Conquering’ is an orchestral song that avoids Carpenters-style gloop by its rambling digressions and oddity, the title track obliquely covers life as a trophy wife and, while some of this fades into the background, it has touches that force it back into your attention (the splanky piano in ‘Harry’s House Centerpiece’. The last track is arranged for gospel choir and ARP synth. Who knows what made Mitchell decide an album should sound like this but bless her for doing so: it’s excellent.

Rush, ‘2112’

This is the first time I’ve knowingly heard Rush and it seems that they’re a helium-voiced rock band doing a space opera: hey, I didn’t know Coheed and Cambria were on the list! Rush appear to be straddling the fence between super-serious prog of the Floyd type and stadium hard rock of the AC/DC and Kiss variety. Surprisingly, it works pretty well on the 20-minute title track (sadly it does not last 21:12, surely an oversight), as the rawk elements steer it away from po-faced pretension despite the preposterous Ayn Rand-influenced concept about finding a mystical banned instrument called the “guitar”. The second side’s non-concept tracks fare less well: a corny lyric about ‘The Twilight Zone’; an attempt to emulate ‘In The Court of the Crimson King’ called ‘Tears’. Worth it for the title track mind.

Rufus Wainwright, ‘Want One’.

The last time we’ll visit Rufus (we looked at ‘Want Two‘ just a month ago), this is the first part of the ‘Want’ double-header. As with its Siamese twin, ‘Want One’ has eclectic instrumentation, celeb mates including his mum and a kind of arch feyness, voluptuously top-heavy by front-loading its best tracks with okay/bland stuff towards the end. Rufus’s lyrics are prominent – not always a good thing in the case of ‘Vibrate’ or ’11:11′ – and when he croons “I just want to be my dad with a slight sprinkling of my mother”, you can’t help but wonder what he means given Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle never did louche theatrical quirk-pop like this. It’s okay but perhaps a few songs too long and there’s nothing fabulously captivating here.

Neil Young, ‘Tonight’s The Night’.

Recorded in the wake of the heroin overdose deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry, ‘Tonight’s the Night’ sounds like a group of shitfaced people shellshocked, but too wasted to realise how the deaths might be a wake-up call to them. The recording process probably contributes: the band got wasted before they started recording, and most of the tracks were recorded in one take in one session. It takes a while to get going; ‘Borrowed Tune’ is the point where it feels like it’s taken flight. One song, recorded years earlier, features Whitten: it is called ‘Come on Baby, Let’s Go Downtown’. Unfortunately for everyone, we know what happened when they did go downtown (and Young himself foreshadowed it on ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’).

Next week I’ll be looking at some, but not all, of the 17 country albums on the list.

Progress report: 345 of 1001 listened to (34%), 656 remain.

April 5: 2Pac, Bob Marley, Joni Mitchell, Parliament

Latest installment of the 1001 Albums You Must Hear. After the ‘Songs from Big Pink’ borefest I decided NO WHITE MALE BANDS for this installment.

2Pac, ‘Me Against The World’.

As the album opener indicates, Makaveli got shot (non-fatally) prior to this album, yet checked himself out of the hospital and ended up with this album. Perhaps a few more days in hospital would have allowed him more time for reflection: instead he appears to have reached the conclusion “nah I’m right, it’s everyone else who’s wrong!”. Musically, it’s big bass, squealing synths in the treble section and 2Pac’s gruff rapping in the low-middle end. I’m not sure if there’s still a Biggie/Tupac divide like Blur/Oasis, and it’s probably not an apples/apples comparison, but I prefer the Notorious BIG stuff I’ve heard to this offering from his rival.

Bob Marley and the Wailers, ‘Exodus’.

A pleasant surprise: a lot more varied than I was perhaps expecting with hits scattered throughout.

Joni Mitchell, ‘Blue’.

Often under-represented in the arrangement department (sparse solo piano or guitar), ‘Blue’ didn’t do too much for me. Sucks to be me I suppose – three more of her albums on this list.

Parliament, ‘Maggot Brain’.

Who says a funk band can’t play prog rock? The opener and title track of this album is, of all things, a 10-minute Gilmour-esque guitar solo from Eddie Hazell, possibly the Maggot Brain of the title. It sets a sombre mood which the rest of the album doesn’t quite overcome. I preferred the later, more fun ‘One Nation Under a Groove’. Although this album does have a song called ‘Whole Lot of BS’.