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.

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October 23: Beck, Kings of Leon, MIA, The Streets, Rufus Wainwright, The White Stripes, The Zutons

This week, I’ll be looking at the newest albums on the 2006 list: not exactly “up to date” but as close as we’ll come in this project. Annoyingly, more than one of these albums had disappeared from the list in later editions. Were the compilers right to remove them? Let’s find out!

Beck – Guero

I’d already listened to one of Beck’s recks for this project, ‘Odelay’, and found it easy to admire but hard to love due to the measured ironic posturing. This album brings back the same producers, the Dust Brothers, and the same kitchen-sink approach, but feels easier to connect to than ‘Odelay’. Perhaps this is because it feels less mannered and self-conscious, perhaps because the influences are easier for me to engage with. Distorted bass lines inform ‘E Pro’ and ‘Rental Car’, while the gruff baritone Hansen adopts onĀ  ‘Emergency Exit’ reminds me of fellow junk-shop eclectist Eels. There is yet another Beck on the list, ‘Sea Change’: I’m slightly keener now to check it out than I was. This one is good.

Kings of Leon – Aha Shake Heartbreak

Before their unexpected rise to stadium rock band, the Followills had a sort-of Southern blues take on the Strokes template which they were still using on this, their second album. The album’s lead single was its best track, ‘The Bucket’, a killer single which remains the band’s best song. So this isn’t the disaster I thought, right, I hear you ask. Well, no, and yet it’s a difficult album to love, with Caleb’s slurry mumble rendering most of the lyrics impenetrable. The second half of the album adds some more imaginative flourishes onto their standard sound, but it’s an inessential listen. This isn’t even the only KoL album on the list!!

M.I.A. – Arular

M.I.A.’s minimalist template goes beyond drum’n’bass and expunges the bass as well, leaving only the vocals and the drums as the dominant instruments (with low-in-mix synths here and there). Largely written on a Roland 505 previously owned by Elastica’s Justine Frischmann, the obvious debts to Missy and Peaches are largely written off by an artist furrowing her own path. Okay, if largely a triumph of sass over substance, ‘Arular’ pre-dates her best-known songs (‘Paper Planes’, say) and I would be surprised if there weren’t better albums later in her career.

The Streets – A Grand Don’t Come For Free

This was in the If I Must pile thanks to the bloody awful singles (‘Dry Your Eyes’ was a slog) and it’s mildly surprising to see this on the list instead of ‘Original Pirate Material’. Despite my reticence to listen to it, though, the album has a sort of scrappy DIY feel to it which should have come as an inspiration to young rappers in the same way as, say, Bratmobile inspired punk grrls. Here we have a rapper delivering rhymes in a stilted, hesitant fashion over beats he recorded at home, calling it ‘Fit But You Know It’ and having top 5 hits. As much as I hate to use these words there’s something that feels authentic and genuine about the experiences Skinner describes, couched in the language he’s comfortable with, which is charming despite some seriously ropey material (‘It Was Supposed To Be So Easy’ for example) and despite the fact that Skinner’s singing on the choruses rivals D-12’s ‘My Band’ for Worst Vocal Delivery On A Rap Song.

Rufus Wainwright – Want Two

Given the wealth of uninspiring choices this week I perhaps reacted more favourably to Rufus than I might have done normally, even if all he’s doing here is a selection of camp theatrical pop songs performed with his celeb mates (mother Kate McGarrigle, sister Martha, Anhoni Hegarty, Levon Helm from The Band etc). Patrick Wolf (who is not on the list) did a similar thing in a more aggressive style with thunderous beats, of course, and ‘Want Two’ doesn’t quite maintain interest all the way through. There is, though, a lot to like about Wainwright’s songs and arrangements, which take in solo piano, Eastern-sounding violin, Van Dyke Parks orchestrations and more.

The White Stripes – Get Behind Me Satan

I’d been a White Stripes fan at the same time as everyone else had, but I got off at this stop due to lacklustre singles ‘Blue Orchid’ and ‘The Denial Twist’ (and because I was bored of Jack White’s fetishisation of ancient equipment) so never heard this album. This album appeared on 2006’s list but was hastily removed in the 2007 edition, indicating that posterity hadn’t been kind to it: and so it proves. The previous albums had been most effective when White was either going in hard with riotous rock-outs or going in soft with sweet Paul McCartney ballads; this album mostly expunges both. The album mostly focuses on piano or marimba, and poor Meg is often sidelined or absent. Unlike the previous two albums in their career, you don’t need to own this.

The Zutons – Who Killed The Zutons?

Back when I was at university I was seeing a girl who went to university in Liverpool and we’d see the Zutons semi-often at tiny venues like Le Bateau. This was in 2002, where they sounded very like The Coral and their sound diversified only on the tracks Abi Harding featured on saxophone. By 2004, they’d become monsters with moronic geezalongs like ‘Don’t Ever Think (Too Much)’ and ‘You Will, You Won’t’ scaring me off pursuing their career any further. The concentrated horror of ‘You Will, You Won’t’ is, thankfully, an anomaly that isn’t sustained throughtout the album, and they’d largely purged their Coral-alike elements by this point, yet there’s little here that hadn’t been done before; in some cases, 30 or 40 years before.

Next week, I’ll be checking out some more of the jazz on the list. Jazz is not a genre I know almost anything about. Will that change by next week? We’ll find out!

The week after will be REQUESTS WEEK so feel free to pick an album for me to enjoy (or not enjoy if you’re a sadist) – full list here

STATUS: 315 albums listened to (31.5%), 686 remain.