February 11: Ryan Adams, Coldplay, Deep Purple, Flaming Groovies, The Lemonheads, The Mamas and the Papas, Small Faces

Welcome back to 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, where this week we’ll be looking at albums whose titles reference a body part. Yes, it’s another one of those tenuous theme weeks! Let’s dive in.

Ryan Adams, ‘Heartbreaker’

I wasn’t thrilled by ‘Gold‘, which felt stifled by over-production in its attempt to reach the mainstream. So this solo debut, justly heralded for its simplicity, was refreshing. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings appear here, as they do on ‘Gold’, and perhaps Adams was taking cues from them, or wanted to do something direct and stripped down following his band Whiskeytown’s last album. Whatever, it feels relaxed and the songs hit home.

Coldplay, ‘A Rush of Blood to the Head’

Derided for diluting Radiohead’s sound in order to shortcut their way into the mainstream – not that translating Radiohead’s oblique style is necessarily a bad thing – Coldplay do have the occasional banger in them: had slow-burning anthem ‘The Scientist’ been recorded by Sigur Ros, it’d probably have been heralded as a masterpiece. Much of the musicianship here is a tastefully restrained arrangement staying out of the way of the melody: it’s unfussy but sometimes you wish for a burst of virtuosity, or at least something unexpected, to add some colour and prevent the album disappearing into the background.

Deep Purple, ‘Machine Head’

Not to be confused with the dreary thrash act who later took the album title for a band name, this is our final visit to Purple’s output. Perhaps I’m just desensitized to their style now but it feels pretty tame compared to the other albums: ‘Smoke on the Water’ lacks the crackling energy it has on ‘Made in Japan’, for example. While it doesn’t contain any drum solos, for which we should be thankful (although it does find time for a bass solo), I’d say ‘Machine Head’ is the weakest of the three albums on the list. As usual, the artwork is atrocious.

Flaming Groovies, ‘Teenage Head’

You can probably guess what this sounds like from the band name alone, but if not, this is a proficient if not terribly exciting take on rockabilly played at a thousand miles an hour and with slide guitar all over it. Sometimes it sounds unacceptably retro (the album came out in 1968 and has tendencies towards sounding like 1958), sometimes it sounds like proto-Sex Pistols. The Spotify version bolts on a load of covers of 50s hits such as ‘Shakin’ All Over’.

The Lemonheads, ‘It’s A Shame About Ray’

The only appearance on the list from this band is also Juliana Hatfield’s sole album as Lemonheads bassist; the band were already on their fourth drummer by this point; they are only a trio. It’s trebly, disengaged-sounding music from a band that sound like insolent slackers: ‘Bit Part’, half-a-dozen songs in, is the first one that sounds like there’s any passion involved, and the most pleasant texture is the pedal steel-ish slide guitar from guest Jeffrey ‘Skunk’ Baxter. It probably took loads of effort to sound this effortless, I know, but I prefer my music a bit more passionate.

The Mamas and the Papas, ‘If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears’

themamasandthepapas-ifyoucanbelieveyoureyesandears

Never mind the toilet, the real aberration on the cover is the grocer shop punctuation (‘The Mama’s and the Papa’s’ indeed). Anyway, while this starts off with ‘Monday Monday’, the most dramatic song on the first half is closer ‘Go Where You Wanna Go’. On the stream, we get Side B opener ‘California Dreamin” straight after that: quite the one-two. The folky, vaguely psychedelic pop is a charming listen, as you’d probably have guessed.

Small Faces, ‘Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake’

A fairly early concept album, the first half is a selection of psychedelic rock workouts interspersed with gorblimey Cockernee knees-ups including ‘Lazy Sunday’, a sort of 1960s ‘Parklife’. The B-side is where the concept kicks in, as comedian Stanley Unwin tells a wittering story in his weird argot which doesn’t make a great deal of sense even in ordinary English, and in the pauses, the band play songs connected to the theme. It essentially reduces Small Faces down to Unwin’s backing band, and the songs aren’t great. This was a real disappointment: it just feels like a pissabout.

Next week: it’s Valentine’s Day, so let’s do a week of love-themed albums.

Status update: 763 heard (76%), 238 remain.

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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