November 13: If I Must – The Band, Everything But The Girl, David Gray, The Happy Mondays, Kid Rock, The La’s, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Verve

This week is another of the popular If I Must series, in which I pick out some albums I don’t want to listen to on the 1,001 and put myself through them. I got so excited to do this that I ended up doing eight: here they are.

The Band, ‘The Band’

‘Music From Big Pink’ was a one-pace slog filled with Dylanisms, so it was with some reluctance that I came back to The Band. On ‘The Band’ it seems that the, uh, band remembered that they could play in more than one tempo and, without Dylan around, indulged their interest in Southern US influences, moving into a more country flavour and pushing Levon Helm’s unusual alto voice closer to the foreground. The stop-start of ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ and the clavinet wah of ‘Up on Cripple Creek’ add dynamic variety, while ‘Whispering Pines’ is an obvious influence on Mercury Rev. I’m still not totally sold on Americana – a sort of rootsy rock version at invoking ‘Huckleberry Finn’ vibes – but I feel more positively towards The Band.

Everything But The Girl, ‘Walking Wounded’

Ben’n’Tracey were megastars at the time as a result of the omnipresent Todd Terry version of ‘Missing’, which pushed a folksy band on the fringes of the top 30 into a Top 5 presence. I was unenthusiastic to listen to a whole album of their stuff as I always thought their singles were pretty bland lite electro-sad and, for all this album’s interest in jungle and techno, it does little to disabuse me of that notion. Its monochromatic mood and pace are inoffensive at Brand New Heavies frequencies and while it’s not outstandingly bad, there’s nothing on here that would be too aggressive for a Dido album.

David Gray, ‘White Ladder’

Before there was Adele, there was David Gray, whose wobbly-headed singing and flappy-brushed drummer clogged up the charts for what seemed like an eternity with an album that, like ’21’, is bland but mystifyingly mega-selling. If you lived through the dark reign of Gray, you’ll recall the sound of this album: folky acoustic guitar and gently tapped drums in a sphere nominally called folktronica but mostly created with organic instruments. There are no surprises here apart from the forced wackiness of ‘We’re Not Right’, and the overall effect is dullness that even a Soft Cell cover (‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’: sadly no David Gray covers of ‘Sex Dwarf’ exist) fails to redeem.

The Happy Mondays, ‘Pills’n’Thrills And Bellyaches’

This dreadfully-named album contains the Mondays’ biggest hits, ‘Step On’ and ‘Kinky Afro’, add at least one new member (singer Rozalla) and sees Paul Oakenfold on the faders and tape deck. It’s surprisingly eclectic, as the band’s 60s and 70s influences are visible, but not so much that they’re blind to the contemporary scene around them. It’s a plausibly comprehensive snapshot of Manchester in the late 80s/early 90s. It doesn’t entirely hang together, though, at least not for me. Why? Probably the melodies, which are often weak or completely absent when left to Shaun Ryder, who couldn’t be described as a great or good or even average singer.

Kid Rock, ‘Devil Without A Cause’

The cowboy and singer in black was an early proponent of rap-metal, meaning that in some places, this album sounds like a fresh mix of metal riffs and rapping; in some places, however, it sounds about as edgy as 5ive. The main problem with the album, as with most albums, is the personality at the front: whether it’s moaning about his record label, uncharitably referring to his son’s mother as a ‘slut’ or not writing enough ideas for a song (‘Bawitdaba’, just ‘Rappers Delight’ with metal guitars), he’s pretty constantly obnoxious. Still, his interests are rap-metal, being a redneck, and misogyny: probably an insurmountable combination for me.

The La’s, ‘The La’s’

Like ‘Apocalypse Now’, or ‘Loveless’, the mythos surrounding The La’s doomed album has elevated it to almost mythical status: rumour has it that Lee Mavers didn’t want the band to dust their guitars, thought they sounded best recorded on dictaphone and rejected a mixing desk because it didn’t have authentic 60s dust on it, to the point where the exasperated label ended up stealing the master tapes just so they could finally put out the record. To what extent this is all apocryphal is another question, but what is definitely true is that the band disowned the record on its release and Mavers pulled a Neutral Milk Hotel and never released another album. Are we missing much by not having more La’s material? On this evidence, no. The first two songs are as innovative as Jet, the third is literally called ‘Timeless Melody’ and the fourth has whistling. Then the album finishes with a nine-minute song. “But JT, the album celebrates Liverpool’s past while looking forward to later Scouse bands like The Coral and The Zutons.” Well, exactly.

Red Hot Chili Peppers, ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’

‘Californication’ is a strong contender for Most Boring Album I’ve Listened To, but this album isn’t quite as monotonous. John Frusciante is the stand-out performer as he works his way through a variety of styles from John McGeoch to Michael Hampton, while Chad Smith is also louder in the mix. Additional texture is brought by mellotron, celeste and trash-heap percussion. The boisterous performances put Anthony Kiedis lower in the balance, but he still stamps his mark: one of the more interesting songs has the bloody awful title ‘Sir Psycho Sexy’. This would be a pretty good 40-minute album: it runs a near-intolerable 73 minutes.

The Verve, ‘A Northern Soul’.

One of two Verve records on the list, but luckily for me I’d already heard the good singles/crap rest ‘Urban Hymns’. Here we have a lot of cokey guff – the first two tracks sound like one long song (and one is called ‘This Is Music’, presumably unironically knowing Richard Ashcroft). Gentle third song ‘On Your Own’ and the string-drenched ‘History’ poke their heads above the parapet of sprawling, overlong, blustering trudge and if it seems like I’m indicating that only the singles are any good here, then it at least suggests they had good choices of singles. The e-bow and feedback instrumental ‘(Reprise)’ makes for a pleasant closer: I wonder whether Nick McCabe might have been better suited leading a post-rock band like Mogwai rather than spending a decade playing second fiddle to Ashcroft and his ego.

Next week, in tribute to one of the country’s most notable singers, Leonard Cohen, passing away this week, I’ll be listening to some of the best Canadian albums on the list. Obviously Laughing Len will be featured.

Progress update: 338 listened to (34%), 663 remain


March 25: The Avalanches, The Band, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, The Butthole Surfers, Count Basie

The Avalanches, ‘Since I Left You’.

This came out in my lifetime but I didn’t know anyone local who owned it, so this is my first listen. Its standout tracks are the singles ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ and ‘Since I Left You’ but, like a lot of dance music of its time, this is high on sounds and samples but low on melody and hook. A good party album.

The Band, ‘Music From Big Pink’.

The first album in this project I’ve hated, from the amateur Dylan painting that adorns the cover to the narcotic pace of most of the tracks. This slow-motion country-rock sounds infinitely more fun to have recorded than to listen to; the arrangements and melodies are tedious white male stuff. Atypically, the album wakes up with its penultimate track, ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’.

The Beatles, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’.

Opening with the finest chord in rock history, the rest of the album doesn’t quite live up to the standard. If you like the Beatlemania stuff then this is a fine example of it, though, and it’s the first Beatles album to be wholly original material.

The Butthole Surfers, ‘Locust Abortion Technician’.

SATAN! SATAN! SATAN! SATAN! I think I had heard this album already c/o Funk Cutter from Anarchistwood. It’s at its best when there are melodies – ‘Human Cannonball’ is the stand-out – but the variety and grittiness of this record means it’s never dull.

Count Basie, ‘The Atomic Mr Basie’.

This sort of music is difficult to judge objectively, as my only real exposure to it came from its use in cartoons from the 40s-60s. Basie’s ‘splanky’ piano and the frenetic brass must have been thrilling at the time.