January 8: Nick Drake, Aretha Franklin, George Harrison, Fela Kuti, Love, Lou Reed, Dusty Springfield

Happy New Year everyone! Since the last update, there’s been a new version of the 1001 Albums book released, adding ‘Blackstar’, FKA Twigs and The War on Drugs among others but finding no room for ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’: the full list from that version is here. I’m going to persevere with the list I’ve been working from, rather than drive myself insane by trying to combine or reconcile the lists. We’re still likely to have a late 2018 finish date for this project, by which point there’ll probably be another revision!

This week, we’re easing back into it with some of the albums I’ve been looking forward to hearing. Excitingly, we’re far enough through the project that this includes artists I hadn’t heard before I started doing this, such as our first artist…

Nick Drake, ‘Pink Moon’

While ‘Bryter Layter‘ had seen Drake working with a full band for pretty, John Cale-ish arrangements, it was only under sufferance from the minimalist guitarist, and he stripped his sound back to basics for ‘Pink Moon’: the album is just him, accompanied by his acoustic guitar. The record is alarmingly intimate as a result: on ‘Things Behind the Sun’, for example, the tempo wobbles, a string is mishit, there’s a split-second of hesitation. You can almost hear his fingers against the soundboard. The starkness would be about as exciting as a bare wall painted magnolia, but Drake is such a good singer, writer and guitarist that it overcomes the austerity. Just three albums into his career, this was it for Drake: he never recorded anything else and died of an overdose two years later. His whole canon is on the list.

Aretha Franklin, ‘Lady Soul’

The First Lady of Soul was a prolific recording artist: this is her fourteenth album, and features a dozen musicians, including her sisters and Whitney Houston’s mum on backing vocals. It has two of Aretha’s best-known songs, ‘Chain of Fools’ and Carole King’s ‘You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman’, but almost anything on this album could have been a single. Her passionate delivery – sometimes delivering sassy put-downs, sometimes full of romantic yearning – sets her apart from the pack, but she’s also matched by raunchy horns and soulful keyboards from the backing band. It’s Franklin being good, what a surprise.

George Harrison, ‘All Things Must Pass’

My goodness, but this album is long. A treble album recorded with Ringo, Badfinger and Clapton among many others, this first post-Beatles collection features Harrison compiling a selection of songs rejected by the Beatles or about them and adding some new jams on top (literally: the third album is an interminable series of jams). I love Harrison’s Beatles contributions – the cool Indian elements, the blistering solos, the dour compositions – but he was never a strong lead singer and that’s made more clear when faced with producer Phil Spector’s “just add everything” approach, which swallows the songs whole. The album’s distinguishing feature is Harrison’s slide guitar, which rises above the overegged pudding, but overkill is a pretty good summary of the record generally.

Fela Kuti & Africa 70 & Ginger Baker, ‘Live!’

Burned out from touring and partying, Cream drummer Ginger Baker fled to Nigeria for a change of scene, where he spent his time getting high with Fela Kuti. While Kuti had a very good drummer of his own in Tony Allen, Baker appeared on a couple of albums including this one. His appearances on the B-side are dynamic percussion-heavy grooves, while the rest of the album is a fun, loose, fluid collection, as you’d probably expect given the live setting.

Love, ‘Da Capo’

Forever Changes‘ is in the pantheon but I think I prefer ‘Da Capo’, a more ragged, weird offering which offers harpsichord solos and (on ‘Seven and Seven Is’) pre-thrash rock. Unsurprisingly it sounds very much like a mid-60s record, as with ‘Forever Changes’, but it keeps you guessing more frequently. It ends on a bummer though, with the deathless ‘Revelation’, where guitars and saxes wail away for nearly twenty minutes. Like most 18-minute jams, it’s best enjoyed by avoiding it altogether. The good news, of course, is that it’s the last track and you can always press ‘stop’ before you get there.

Lou Reed, ‘Berlin’

The Velvet Underground are one of my favourite bands but Reed’s solo work has always felt patchy to me: even when he was vibing with the Spiders from Mars on ‘Transformer’, the songwriting was rarely good enough for a full album. Reed was still riding the commercial crest of ‘Transformer’ on this, his follow-up, so in a typical move he decided to make it one of the most depressing records ever. The album’s overly upbeat first half isn’t much to shout about but, when the band cut out 60% of the way through ‘Oh Jim’, the stark grimness of the mostly-acoustic second half becomes a compelling Mike Leigh nightmare as the heroine Caroline’s life spirals into the vortex. Nice to see the Velvets’ prettiest song, ‘Stephanie Says’, brought back to life here, although renamed ‘Caroline Says II’, it’s a brutally damaged version telling of Caroline’s domestic abuse and isolation.

Dusty Springfield, ‘A Girl Named Dusty’

Springfield’s first solo album is mostly a collection of classy pop songs written by the likes of Kander/Ebb, Bacharach/David, Carole King (her second appearance this week) and Holland/Dozier/Holland that were more famously sung by others: ‘My Colouring Book’, ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ and ’24 Hours From Tulsa’ (!) feature. It’s not as if you can argue with Dame Dusty, one of the all-time great vocalists, but this album serves more as a look at what fantastic songs were doing the rounds in the early 60s, rather than as a statement of Dusty’s individual greatness. Her own definitive canon was still to come.

Next week: I’ll be looking at some of the albums which, according to Listchallenges.com, are the least-heard on the list.

Status update: 381 heard (38%), 620 remaining.

 

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September 11: ‘Abbey Road’, ‘Blood on the Tracks’, ‘Rumours’,’Forever Changes’, ‘Astral Weeks’, ‘Sign O’ The Times’, The Stone Roses, ‘Marquee Moon’

One of the advantages of a project like this is that it makes you listen to things that you’ve never quite got around to, allowing for gaps in your knowledge to be plugged. In this week’s update, I’ll be looking at some albums that almost always appear on Classic Albums lists, yet which I’ve never heard. Feel free to castigate me for not having heard any of these before in the comments.

The Beatles, ‘Abbey Road’.

A peculiarity: I had listened to all the Beatles’ albums between 1965-1968, even owning crappy odds-and-sods like ‘Yellow Submarine’ (although that does have ‘Hey Bulldog’), but had stopped at the White Album and not explored beyond it. Why? Because the blue double album best of had hardly inspired confidence in late-era Beatles, with crap like ‘Get Back’ and ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ stinking up the end of that record. It was, then, with some reluctance that I came to ‘Abbey Road’. This being their farewell album, however, the band made the effort, with Lennon and McCartney raising their games, Harrison bringing some of his most accessible songs and even Ringo putting in a shift with ‘Octopus Garden’. There are some false steps: ‘Come Together’ and ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ prove yet again that blues is not the band’s strong suit, and the hidden track ‘Her Majesty’ is superfluous. However, the concluding medley is a fitting finale for the 60s’ greatest band. Just don’t mention ‘Let It Be’.

Bob Dylan, ‘Blood on the Tracks’.

Like an overquoted movie like ‘Casablanca’ or ‘Psycho’, it’s hard to come to a classic Dylan album for the first time: even though you’ve never heard it before, it’s so familiar that you might as well have. This is the third album I’ve heard of Bob’s, and it’s the one that most closely matches the stereotype I have in my head of him (mind you, one of the other albums of his I’ve heard was the inexplicable ‘Christmas in the Heart’, probably the least Dylanesque of his albums). There’s a harmonica solo in almost every song, most of the songs are over five minutes long, and they’re often just vocals and guitar. This may not be a popular decision but this didn’t do an awful lot for me I’m afraid. Luckily for Zimmermaniacs there’s still plenty of albums of his coming up, so maybe I’ll be more swayed by those.

Fleetwood Mac, ‘Rumors’.

Notoriously made while hedonistically partying like mad in an attempt to forget that their relationships had disintegrated – it was the style at the time, Abba did it too – it’s incredible that this album features a song as jauntily poppy as ‘Don’t Stop’, even if it is a fairly lousy slice of honky-tonk corn. Despite the soap opera background, the band managed to keep their shit together enough to hit home runs on virtually every track here: each of the songs is a triumphant achievement, and, in the case of ‘The Chain’, a dull plod suddenly gets a song-saving injection of adrenaline midway through. Sure it’s cheesy and soft, but it’s artfully written and masterfully constructed.

Love, ‘Forever Changes’.

The final Love album with the original line-up, this one was lucky to feature them at all: they were so lost in LSD, smack and infighting that exasperated producer Bruce Botnick hired a bunch of ace session hands to back Arthur Lee on two songs instead. This tactic finally motivated the slackers to bother to learn Lee’s songs, and they’re on all the rest of the songs (the hacks’ tracks still made the cut though). Neil Young was invited to produce but backed out: no wonder under the circumstances. Anyway, the album’s disillusioned melancholia gives it a bit more weight than a lot of groovy flower-power albums of the era, but it is still very much an album of its time, almost like a time capsule from the late 60s. I think I prefer what I’ve heard of ‘Da Capo’, perhaps because it feels more ragged and experimental even if it’s less cohesive as an album than this one.

Van Morrison, ‘Astral Weeks’.

A few weeks ago I reviewed the Waterboys’ ‘Fisherman’s Blues’, where the artist’s best-known song (‘Whole of the Moon’) gave little clue that their best-known album would be folk-heavy and largely acoustic. So too with ‘Astral Weeks’, which sounds nothing like Van’s student disco fixture ‘Brown Eyed Girl’. This is a staple of ‘Best Album Ever’ lists, so it’s no surprise to see it here, but I’m not sure I get it. The songs are unacceptably long, frequently pushing at the five- and even ten-minute marks, and the musicians are audibly figuring out their parts as they go: they were told to play whatever they felt like and were in many cases recorded in one take, which gives it a doodling feel. The album lasts 47 minutes; feels longer.

Prince, ‘Sign O’ The Times’.

Speaking of albums that feel long. Of Montreal are my favourite band and it almost feels like I should have had a mandatory education in Prince as a result and yet, due to the Purple One’s absence from Spotify and so forth, this is the first time I’ve checked out one of his albums. Come on, Prince’s estate! Even The Beatles are there now! Maybe it wasn’t the wisest idea to start with the 80-minute album, a lot of which sounds very similar (side 2 especially is mostly minimalist Fairlight funk). Side 3 has all the hits, and it’s hard to dismiss an album with two songs as different but as good as ‘I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’ and ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ on the same side. Good, not great, and too long. There are a couple of other Prince albums on the list, which I’m expecting good things from.

The Stone Roses, ‘The Stone Roses’.

If you’ve known me for a while then you’ll know that Madchester isn’t exactly my favourite scene, and yet here’s the second album in three weeks from the early 90s Manchester era. Yay. Like ‘Twin Peaks’, the Roses had a big hit with the first effort, on which their reputation rests, despite a less successful second release, and are only now doing a third, 25 years later. Is the first album any cop, though? Certainly it starts off promisingly, with the moody ‘I Wanna Be Adored’, the dynamic ‘She Bangs The Drums’ and the glistening ‘Waterfall’, but the momentum isn’t sustained: the fourth song is just the third song backwards right? And the sixth is ‘Scarborough Fair’ for 50 seconds? And the eleventh is ‘I Am The Resurrection’ for EIGHT minutes? (The Spotify version really compounds the piss-taking by adding a ten-minute version of ‘Fool’s Gold’ on the end, but I won’t count that against the album.) It feels like a ‘good singles, bad album tracks’ album: not that this is necessarily a bad thing but it’s hardly the second best album ever or whatever.

Television, ‘Marquee Moon’.

You get eight this week because I can’t count. I’d tried to get into Television before, even seeing them play this very album at Latitude one year, but I never quite got it. Listening to it now, however, I wonder whether it just caught me at a bad time, as this album is ace. The angular melodies of ‘Elevation’ and the title track are up my street and even a slow-motion meander like ‘Torn Curtain’ is redeemed by a heartfelt guitar solo. One listen isn’t really enough to herald acclaimed nuances such as the lyrics, but you can see why turn-of-century hipsters like The Strokes and Franz Ferdinand were paying attention.

Next week, I’ll be listening to some of the artists who appear on this list most frequently. Do Steely Dan or Elvis Costello warrant four or more albums each on here? Only one way to find out.

Progress report: 273/1001 (27%), 728 remain.