April 29: Nick Cave, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, REM, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Steely Dan

Welcome back to 1001 Albums, where this week it’s a party full of people we’ve already hung out with several times. Many of today’s star guests are making their final appearance on the blog, as we’ve now listened to everything on the list by them: we’re in the last six months of the project after all. Let’s get to it.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘The Boatman’s Call’ (link)

Many of the albums we’ve been listening to of Cave’s involve a one-legged pirate murdering a dwarf at a carnival or something, but this album by the Antipodean vampire is less lurid and more sombre and romantic than usual. Written around the time of a brief and unsuccessful relationship with PJ Harvey, although not necessarily about her, the infusion of personal themes invigorates Cave’s writing. The best thing here is ‘Brompton Oratory’, in which Cave conflates religious ceremony and carnal desire in a classical Catholic manner. Also, what an opening lyric for an album: “I don’t believe in an interventionist God”. The only gripe is that maybe it’s too long for such a windswept album.

Miles Davis, ‘In A Silent Way’ (link)

Our final of four visits to Davis, but the third chronologically, this one has just two tracks, unravelling over eighteen minutes each. The first, ‘Shhh/Peaceful’, starts off like a jumbled 60s spy movie soundtrack and ends up like a precursor to Broadcast or DJ Shadow or something, gradually adding textures and sounds without perceptibly changing. The second, ‘In A Silent Way/It’s About That Time’, starts off sounding like Godspeed You Black Emperor before the trumpet and drums come in, making it sound more definably jazz. The sound of walking home late at night and unexpectedly seeing a shadowy figure bathed in streetlight, I’m not sure I completely understood this.

Bob Dylan, ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ (link)

Gradually transitioning between the all-acoustic sounds of ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ and the rock band line-ups of ‘Highway ’61 Revisited’, this features Bob doing half of one and half of the other. It features two of Bob’s best-known songs: ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ opens the album, and ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ appears in a sleepy, wistful guise rather than the Byrds’ jingle-jangle. Some of the lyrics on this are Dylan at his most Dylanesque: ‘Gates of Eden’ and ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream’ (at least after the false start) are both rambling stories with no real chorus featuring surreal characters. Not my favourite of his, but in some ways his most representative.

REM, ‘Document’ (link)

They go for everything full-tilt: upbeat jangles like ‘It’s The End of The World As We Know It’, callous break-up songs like ‘The One I Love’, vaguely pub-rock stompers like ‘Strange’. And it sounds like a 1987 album: drums high in the mix with reverb all over them, guitar a trebly jangle. I think this lacks the emotional immediacy of ‘Automatic For The People’, which is probably why that album sold loads more, but at least you can make out what Stipe’s singing. There is another REM album on the list, which we’ll cover this year.

Rolling Stones, ‘Sticky Fingers’ (link)

Our last of six trips into the Stones’ back catalogue. I’ve come to understand Mick and the boys as starting their albums in style (‘Gimme Shelter’, ‘Street Fightin’ Man’, ‘Paint It Black’) but not sustaining the momentum for a long-player. Here, we open with ‘Brown Sugar’, which did nothing for me. And yet! This may well be my favourite of theirs. ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ goes into a lengthy Allman Brothers jam, ‘Sister Morphine’ is a bleak wallow, and ‘Moonlight Mile’ is a stirring closer. It sounds more American than some of their albums (e.g. their psychedelic albums) but the sound suits them.

Bruce Springsteen, ‘Nebraska’ (link)

In the days of streaming music, having the unreleased demos bundled onto Spotify as bonus tracks is nothing out of the ordinary (‘Tommy’ has the entire album’s demos as extras); rarer, however, is the home demo actually being the album. The story here is that the Boss made the demo at home on a four-track in order to record the album in the studio with the E Street Band. However, when the band struggled to replicate the intimacy or the soul of the demos, the demo itself came out instead. And that’s how lo-fi was invented, everyone! I often find Springsteen stifled a bit by the cornball earnestness of the arrangements, and listening to this palatable album of stark, barely accompanied cuts, perhaps that was the problem all along. This is good.

Steely Dan, ‘Countdown To Ecstasy’ (link)

The first album on which Donald Fagen sings everything – although the previous singer David Palmer didn’t take it personally, appearing on backing vocals here. Music fans of about my age probably know this album best for ‘Show Biz Kids’, or at least its featured spotlight when sampled on Super Furry Animals’ ‘The Man Don’t Give A Fuck’. But the two-chord vamp is hardly representative of the whole: the album’s mostly jazz-styled, harmony-heavy soft-rock which is familiar, but pretty good.

Next week: it’s my birthday week, so we’ll be doing EDITOR’S CHOICE. Even this far into the project, there’s still loads of albums I’m excited to hear. Hooray for self-restraint!

Status update: 840 listened to (84%), 161 remaining.

 

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August 14: Abba, Nick Cave, Frank Sinatra, Tom Waits, Zombies

Abba, ‘Arrival’.

In many ways this is a typical pure pop album: great singles (five of them) dotted among bad album tracks. The all-treble production has dated, though, and with its low-in-mix drum machine and invisible bass, ‘Dancing Queen’ must be the least rhythm-driven song to have the word ‘dancing’ in its title. It doesn’t even have a tambourine! It’s unusual for a band whose songs were generally composed by a guitarist and a keyboardist to steer away from solos, too, so when one does turn up on ‘Happy Hawaii’ it’s a surprise.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Murder Ballads’.

One of many Cave albums on the list, this one has the big hit, ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’, with Kylie Minogue. Cave has a penchant for vaudevillian ham but his output is generally more enjoyable on the tracks where that’s curtailed. Overall, this imaginative combination of traditional songs and original songs is a fully realised world, concluding with a Dylan cover, ‘Death is Not the End’.

Frank Sinatra, ‘In The Wee Small Hours’.

I’ve always been suspicious of the reverence afforded to the Rat Pack: there’s something a bit self-satisfied about the whole thing, with the smug lyrics of, say, ‘That’s Amore’ being just one example. Trotting out teenagers on X-Factor to do ‘Mack the Knife’ in suits as if they’ve accidentally applied for ‘Stars in their Eyes’ is such a ridiculous concept that you might as well have them come out and sing madrigals. Anyway, this is the oldest album on the list and features Ol’ Blue Eyes being, well, blue. The melancholy air of the selections is informed by Sinatra’s divorce and if the pace never rises above somnolent then bear in mind the intended listening time of 2am. I doubt I’ll necessarily listen to this again but it certainly captured a mood.

Tom Waits, ‘Swordfishtrombones’.

The Beefheart-ish album title name and Waits’ eccentric turns on Sparklehorse and Eels albums made me think that this would be an obtuse listen but, although very unusual, this quirky not-quite-jazz was surprisingly easy on the ears, perhaps due to its sympathetic production and playing, allowing Waits to go wild over the top. A good album.

Zombies, ‘Odessey and Oracle’.

By the time this album came out the band itself was a zombie, long dead but still releasing the album anyway. I imagined this would be sort of Animals-ish R&B but instead it’s a day-glo 60s pop album evoking swinging Carnaby Street cliches. Pretty groovy.