September 30: The Pretty Things, R.E.M., The Replacements, Saint Etienne, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Simple Minds, Soft Boys

For the last few weeks, we’ve been finishing off the list alphabetically, which we’re continuing here with letters P-S.

The Pretty Things, ‘S.F. Sorrow’

Preceding The Who’s ‘Tommy’, this is generally considered to be the first rock opera. With nothing to compare it to, the kinks hadn’t been ironed out yet: much of the story was told through liner text in the sleeve. It didn’t succeed commercially either, which is often attributed to the pessimistic plot. With recording technology having become more sophisticated since then, this doesn’t sound very good to the 2018 ears. In fact it sounds awful: barely above the standard of a four-track demo, with guitar solos about three times louder than anything else.

R.E.M., ‘Murmur’

Our last visit to the haphazard collection of R.E.M. albums on the list (no ‘Out of Time’ or ‘Up’) goes right back to the start, with this low-key debut album. The lyrics are often as oblique as the Cocteau Twins, putting the focus on the melodies. There are some hints to future work: ‘Perfect Circle’ is sort of a precursor to future piano-based songs like ‘Nightswimming’, for example. It’s fine, but I’m struggling to think of new things to say about them.

The Replacements, ‘Let It Be’

The only album on the list called ‘Let It Be’: take that, The Beatles! The Replacements were a hardcore band who, on this album, transitioned into something more melodic while retaining the hard edge to their sound. It’s kind of a jumble, with switches into REM jangling (Peter Buck appears on one solo) among the heavier stuff. Often, they make the pieces fit: ‘Sixteen Blue’ is a late standout with its John Hughes melancholia, and ‘Unsatisfied’ is the best song I’ve heard this week, a Pixies-ish slice of frustration.

Saint Etienne, ‘Foxbase Alpha’

‘He’s on the Phone’ was one of the first singles I bought, but I never explored the band’s back catalogue beyond that. The first real song on this record is ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’, a cover of the Neil Young song done in a Beats International style. The album is mostly defined by the tension between their tastes in 90s house music and their affection for 60s pop music, making it one of the more interesting albums in the house genre. The lack of a regular vocalist means the album meanders in the second half, and it’s no surprise they brought in Sarah Cracknell full-time after this (she’s a guest performer here).

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, ‘Next’

The band’s second album, logically enough from the title. This was a kind-of glam band founded by a singer who’d already had one fairly unsuccessful career in the 50s and 60s playing blues and rock & roll, and was already in his mid-thirties when he formed the band. While the backing is often bleedin’ awful pub rock, there’s something interesting here, whether it’s the fighter jet guitar of ‘Swampsnake’, the burlesque tango of ‘Next’ or the presumed irony of the jumbled ‘Last of the Teenage Idols (parts 1-3)’. Harvey’s affected yelps elevate this above the average but I think this is a curio rather than a must-hear.

Simple Minds, ‘New Gold Dream (81/82/83/84)’

Much like U2, Simple Minds veered more towards the stadiums as the 80s went on, and became more bombastic at the expense of their intensity. Like U2, however, they had a yearning to some of their material that puts me in mind of Zoo’s stuff (Teardrop, Bunnymen). Somewhere between Joy Division and ABC (‘Promised You A Miracle’ is pure New Romantic), this album manages to sum up what music had sounded like in the late 70s, what it sounded like in 1982, and what it might sound like for the rest of the decade. That means that some of it has definitely dated, but it mostly sounded fine.

The Soft Boys, ‘Underwater Moonlight’

The only appearance on the list from Robyn Hitchcock is the Soft Boys’ second and final album, recorded on the cheap and released in 1980. It’s a mix of punk, Canterbury psychedelia and Byrds albums: ‘Old Pervert’ is a hungover Television, ‘Queen of Eyes’ is the son of ‘Younger than Yesterday’, and ‘Insanely Jealous of  You’ frames Hitchcock’s vocals and lyrics over a slow burn of ‘European Son’ rhythms. A clutter but a captivating one. This is also, I think, the only album with a UK Eurovision winner on it: guitarist Kimberley Rew wrote Katrina and the Waves’ ‘Love Shine A Light’.

Next week: we complete the 1001, going from S-Z with the last seven. After that, I’ll probably do a mop-up week of some sort and then… what would you like, dear readers? Obvious choices are:

  • All the albums on the list which I’d already listened to before the project (121);
  • All the albums that have appeared on the list since (68, although I’ve listened to 20 of those already)
  • Both?
  • Neither?

Let me know!

Status update: 994 listened to (99%), 7 remaining.

Advertisements

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.

 

July 16: Ryan Adams, Frank Black, Blue Nile, Deep Purple, Massive Attack,Orange Juice, REM

This week, we’ll be looking at one of our flimsiest categories yet, as this week’s septet are included because either the band name or album name features a colour! What will be joining Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, ‘Kind of Blue’ and the White Stripes in the 1001 canon? Read on.

Ryan Adams, ‘Gold’

This album’s title confuses the heck out of music shop staff, as this album and Cat Power’s ‘The Greatest’ are frequently found lumped in with Best Of collections. In fact, it’s just Adams’s second solo album after leaving Whiskeytown. It’s a bewilderingly uninspiring 70 minutes of country rock, the sound of someone aiming to be nominated for multiple Grammys, taking his cues from Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young yet learning nothing about their urgency or intensity. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, whose own work is arranged starkly, turn up for a brace of writing credits, but even their songs are smothered in uninspiring full band line-ups. The album’s highlight is CC White’s ‘Gimme Shelter’ impression on ‘Tina Toledo’s Street Walking Blues’, but it’s just an album.

Frank Black, ‘Teenager of the Year’

The former Pixie and one-time Teenager of the Year clearly had a lot to say on his second solo album, flexing his songwriting muscles over a whopping 22 songs in 62 minutes. With former Beefheart/Pere Ubu bassist Eric Drew Feldman at the helm, the songs are more sonically diverse than Pixies, with synths and pianos prominent and one song pausing for a dub reggae breakdown. The album’s fine, but some editorial control would have helped: it felt as though I was listening to one of Spotify’s extended editions.

Blue Nile, ‘A Walk Across the Rooftops’

Recorded in the 80s and put out on a record label owned by drum machine manufacturers Linn, ‘A Walk Across the Rooftops’ is sophisti-pop in a Scotch brogue, mostly based around piano and synth, topped lightly with ‘Baba O’Riley’ ARP drizzle, but lacking essential ingredients like melody or hook. Too often, the album receded into the background, partially due to its gentle subtlety, but generally due to meandering instrumental sections with no obvious value. This was not very good.

Deep Purple, ‘Deep Purple in Rock’

Our second visit to the organ-driven hard-rockers is a lot like the first: heavy riffs, lengthy solos, falsetto, and the tempo-shifting quasi-prog ‘Child in Time’. Ritchie Blackmore and Jon Lord give the band its distinctive flavour: the former adding screeching histronics whenever he lets loose, the latter plugging his organ into whatever amplifier was available, with unique results. An album which codified hard rock early, and feels like it has all the essential components of Purple’s style. Beware though: contains drum solo.

Massive Attack, ‘Blue Lines’

Like Harlow’s theory of bonding in developmental child psychology, I think there was probably a crucial period in which I could have got into Massive Attack, but once that had passed, I’d never be able to do it. The end of that period was probably 1999, after which their context and significance receded into the past. ‘Blue Lines’ came out in 1991, a bit before I got into music, and by the time I caught up, all its parts had been looted for other works: trip-hop, Warp electronica, Bjork, BBC muzak. At the time, though, this downtempo collection’s fusion of Herbie Hancock, Lee Perry, house music and hip-hop must have sounded astonishing. To the modern listener, it’s mostly better when Shara Nelson is on vocals, rather than the boys rapping inexactly and doing Topol impressions. This does, of course, have the immaculate ‘Unfinished Sympathy’, which turns up mid-album but just about avoids overshadowing everything else on it.

Orange Juice, ‘Rip It Up’

The band are best remembered for the title track here, a Franz Ferdinand template which also named Simon Reynolds’s exhaustive post-punk study. The band’s second album in less than 12 months, the line-up only retained Edwyn Collins and bassist David McClymont from the first, adding Zimbabwean drummer Zeke Manyika and songwriting guitarist Malcolm Ross here. The diversity of the sound kind of positions them as a Scottish Talking Heads: most of the tracks sound distinct from one another, from African rhythms to reggae to Wedding Present-ish lo-fi indie, while maintaining a coherency. Pretty good.

REM, ‘Green’

There are a few more REM albums on the list, and I already did ‘Automatic for the People‘, so this is probably their best-known album on the list. It bounces between jangly, if introverted, 80s guitar pop and acoustic, mandolin-heavy numbers, with Mike Mills occasionally contributing keyboards as well as bass. The album’s biggest song is also consistent with this week’s theme: ‘Orange Crush’. It’s very listenable, but I suspect the albums of REM’s I’m most interested in are not on the list (‘Out of Time’, ‘Monster’, ‘New Adventures in Hi-Fi’).

Next week: we’ll be bringing the beat back with another rap week!

Status update: 569 listened to (57%), 432 remaining

 

May 10: Buena Vista Social Club, The Doors, ‘Let’s Get It On’, ‘Automatic for the People’, Soft Cell, ‘Born in the USA’

Buena Vista Social Club, ‘Buena Vista Social Club’.

An album of mostly acoustic traditional Cuban music by an American guitarist and some local Cuban musicians. Suited the sunny weather we had for half an hour there; if none of it particularly jumped out to me, it’s probably my lack of familiarity with the genre.

The Doors, ‘Morrison Hotel’.

I’d heard the Doors before, of course, but not knowing any of their albums I picked one arbitrarily from the three (!) on this list. Perhaps the wrong choice: I prefer their brooding ‘Riders on the Storm’ stuff to their “ordinary blues band with jaunty keyboards” setting, and the latter is more prominent here.

Marvin Gaye, ‘Let’s Get It On’.

Gaye’s 70s were up there with Bowie’s in terms of wildly varied highs. Social issues album? Brilliant. Shagging album? Great. Divorce album? Excellent. This one is of course the sex album and is pretty marvellous.

REM, ‘Automatic for the People’.

I’m not sure I’d ever heard an REM album all the way through. This is a hard one to judge objectively as it sounds like a lot of alt.rock did when I was growing up: of course, that’s largely because of the success of this album with all its mega-hits (‘Everybody Hurts’ and ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight’ and ‘Nightswimming’ and etc). Like ‘Psycho’, you can’t experience it for the first time. Pretty good I guess.

Soft Cell, ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’.

In which a Lytham St Annes schoolboy makes a load of campy songs about sex with a bunch of knackered equipment; sounds familiar. It’s incredible that this stuff sold in the volumes it did, with the hysterical shrieks of opener ‘Frustration’, the atonal chords of Top Five single (!!!) ‘Bedsitter’ and the gauchely-named ghost-train freakout ‘Sex Dwarf’. This oscillates between pretty great (the other two big singles) and dreadful rubbish (anything with a saxophone, but then isn’t that always the way?).

Bruce Springsteen, ‘Born in the USA’.

In these post-Arcade Fire times, the Boss is the hipsters’ choice, but I’ve always wondered if I was listening to a different Springsteen: the rugged American Bloke with those corny 80s synths and that Courtney Cox video and that Bob Clearmountain stadium rock production is the cognoscienti’s favourite? Are you kidding? This is, of course, his most mainstream, with a hit every two tracks, and perhaps repeated listens might reveal more subtlety in his lyrics, and at least there’s no harmonica, but the appeal’s completely lost on me. Luckily there’s another four (!) albums of his on this list. Perhaps Stockholm Syndrome will kick in.

Project update: 199 albums heard (20%) – however, 145 of those I’d heard before I started doing this.