June 11: The Divine Comedy, Sinead O’Connor, The Pogues, Thin Lizzy, U2, Undertones, Van Morrison

Welcome back to 1001 Albums You Must Hear! This week, we’re looking at some of the Irish acts on the list. It’s been a tight squeeze to fit these in this week, as I’ve been busy playing gigs of my own, but would I let my blog audience down? NEVAH!

The Divine Comedy, ‘Casanova’

Neil Hannon’s Terry-Thomas Lothario impression on his breakthrough hits was so convincing that, as a teenager, I was surprised to learn that he wasn’t English but Irish (at the time I hadn’t joined the dots with the ‘Father Ted’ theme). The hits are piled up at the start, ‘Something For The Weekend’ preceding ‘Becoming More Like Alfie’ in a flawless one-two. While nothing entirely matches the immaculate singles – those two, and ‘The Frog Princess’ later on the album – there’s plenty of wit and invention on display, from Hannon’s fortune teller spiel at the start of ‘Middle Class Heroes’ to the Isaac Hayes parody in the middle of the bitty ‘Charge’ to the muzaky ‘Theme From Casanova’. It’s arch, of course, aside from perhaps ‘Songs of Love’, and is an assured album from a songwriter at his peak.

Sinead O’Connor, ‘I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got’

O’Connor became notorious in the 80s and 90s for her inflammatory position on the Catholic Church, but her legacy as a musician was sealed with her incredible cover of ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ and its video, one of the most famous music promos of all time. ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ shows up mid-album here and is so overwhelmingly intense that nothing else on the album, uh, compares 2 it. Leaving that song aside, though, there’s a lot of really great stuff on here. There’s a Siouxsie-ish feel to her top register, characterised most notably on ‘Jump in the River’, co-written by occasional Banshees guitarist Marco Pirroni and with that band’s verve. The slow-burning strings of the opening tracks and the six minutes of a capella that closes the album are other highlights and, if the second single ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ couldn’t match the high watermarks of its predecessor, it’s a damn fine song in its own right. Recommended.

The Pogues, ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’

Much like the inverse of the Divine Comedy, imagine my shock to learn that only two of the Pogues are actually (first-generation) Irish, and neither are the main songwriters or singers! Like ‘Rum, Sodomy and the Lash’, this album is heavily influenced by rowdy Irish folk, although it also branches out to other international styles in the name of the sesh: ‘Turkish Song of the Damned’ effortlessly blends Byzantine guitar patterns into Celtic fiddle and whistle in a way Gogol Bordello can only dream about, while ‘Fiesta’ is an unexpected conga in a Spanish all-inclusive. This is, of course, also the album with ‘Fairytale of New York’, which shows up as track four with no preparation and feels like it’s been beamed in from elsewhere, with a melody so strong that it’s recycled later on the album as ‘The Broad Majestic Shannon’. The new guys to the band contribute two of the highlights: ‘Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six’ covers the Troubles and the Birmingham bombings in four minutes, while ‘Thousands Are Sailing’ is an emotive rock song almost completely removed from the folk-punk roots of the band. This is the last Pogues album on the list: they’ve been an unexpected pleasure.

Thin Lizzy, ‘Live and Dangerous’

The ‘live’ part here is a notorious bone of contention: everyone accepts there was some studio fixing going on, but nobody involved with the album can agree on what extent was studio chicanery. Anyway, ostensibly taken from a series of live performances between 1976-78, then tidied up by Tony Visconti, this has one album of 70s mainstream rock (Gilmour soloing on ‘Still In Love With You’, funk on ‘Johnny The Fox Meets Jimmy The Weed’), and one album with heavier, faster fare featuring twin guitar riffing (this one features ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ and the vaguely Judas Priest vibe of ‘Are You Ready’). It’s okay, but I think I’m a bit burned out on live double albums from the 70s at the moment.

U2, ‘Achtung Baby’

This was a favourite album of one of my uni friends, but I’m not sure I ever heard it all the way through, so for the avoidance of doubt let’s cover it off. This was the album that started a sort-of trilogy in which the band started writing personal songs and backed them with My Bloody Valentine guitars rather than minimalist clean electric guitar (continued on ‘Zooropa’ and ‘Pop’ before they went back to basics). While some of the early 90s effects sound dated – ‘Mysterious Ways’ sounds like ‘Fool’s Gold’, ‘Ultra Violet’ shares a guitar sound with ‘All Together Now’ – it mostly sounds great. The big hits sound as good as anything they’ve done: ‘The Fly’, ‘Even Better Than The Real Thing’, ‘One’. The rest weirdly reminded me of Smashing Pumpkins, perhaps because they share a fondness for big choruses and weird guitar effects (and of course both appeared on the ‘Batman Forever’ soundtrack). This is another classic from U2; guess I’m coming round on them.

The Undertones, ‘The Undertones’

I have ‘True Confessions’, the band’s sort-of greatest hits, and liked it enough to cover closer ‘I Don’t Wanna See You Again’, but never explored their albums. Another band best known for one song, the Peel staple ‘Teenage Kicks’, welded into the re-release of this album to shift more stock. It’s mostly Ramones-y bubblegum punk rendered endearing by Fergal Sharkey’s helium vibrato, although there’s some knackered-sounding organ brightening the spectrum occasionally and a bizarre Kraftwerk-inspired drone version of ‘True Confessions’. The last song, ‘Casbah Rock’, fades out halfway through what sounds like a demo: as if it was left on the master tape accidentally. It feels like quite a good punk album but I was hoping for a great one. We’ll come to ‘Hypnotised’ later.

Van Morrison, ‘It’s Too Late To Stop Now’

There are two albums of this name – volume 1 and volumes 2-4 – but we must assume it’s volume 1, for the sake of my sanity if nothing else. While his ‘Astral Weeks’ felt like abstract wandering, this double live album is mostly focused blues and jazz with a big, well-rehearsed band, including an unlikely cover of ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’ and including songs I didn’t know were Van songs (or at least Them songs), like ‘Here Comes The Night’ and ‘Gloria’. It’s pretty ‘Later With Jools Holland’: competent musicians making Memphis-style music, and surprisingly palatable for it. Van himself, who’d recorded ‘Astral Weeks’ sat alone in the vocal booth with a mirror, has blossomed into a confident performer by this point, keeping things on point. I don’t think the time will ever come where I’ll actively seek out this sort of thing but it’s a very good example of its type.

Next week: We’ll be exploring some of the prog and weird albums on the list.

Status update: 534 listened to (53%), 467 remaining.

 

March 26: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Fairport Convention, Bert Jansch, Jethro Tull, The Pogues, Cat Stevens, Richard & Linda Thompson

After last week’s dabbles in the eccentric, we return to more traditional fare this week in the 1001. What is more traditional than folk music? There’s a reasonable amount of albums that fall under the definition of folk, although some are more folk than others.

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, ‘I See A Darkness’

Kind of a cheat but the most recent folk-infused album on the list. 1999 was something of a downbeat time for music: a lot of the albums of the era were filled with disconsolate brooding or moody lashing out. Will Oldham’s only appearance on the list is of the same ilk: song titles include ‘Death to Everyone’, ‘Another Day Full of Dread’ and ‘Today I Was An Evil One’. Oldham clings on to some hope that things will improve throughout the album, but it’s still a record to soundtrack 2am horrors.

Fairport Convention, ‘Unhalfbricking’

Wikipedia tells me that this was the album where they started stepping away from American influences, although with three songs written by Bob Dylan and another song called ‘Cajun Woman’, it wasn’t a massive departure. The lovely voice of Sandy Denny is the best feature here, and her songs ‘Autopsy’ and ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’ are the best songs (although the last two songs, both by Dylan, are both good). There’s also an eleven-minute drone called ‘A Sailor’s Life’ which amazingly holds the interest as it sprawls out like a Led Zep song. Some tracks felt kind of weak: the French-language Dylan cover is a dud. Still, the highlights are strong and the naff songs are the shortest ones.

Bert Jansch, ‘Bert Jansch’

Like many of this week’s candidates, Jansch only makes one appearance on the list. Recorded on a reel-to-reel tape, Bert’s debut sees him accompanied only by his guitar or banjo throughout. The minimalism strips the songs away from the cliched arrangements you might associate with folk music (fiddles and accordions and so on), leaving the heavy lifting to the fingerpicking. He’s more interesting when he’s steering clear of Applachian sounds: the banjo songs are dull but the weird chords and finger-picking is pleasant. Jansch was still recording up to his death, hanging out with talent like Johnny Marr.

Jethro Tull, ‘Aqualung’

I’m cheating here a little as this album is more like a rock album with folk influences, but I only realised this when I started playing it. It starts off promisingly with the title track and a series of recurring characters but, despite the wide variety of styles and instruments deployed, the melodies didn’t hold my interest throughout. The flute is perhaps the most pleasing touch here, perhaps because it’s such an unconventional instrument to hear featured so prominently in a rock band. Alas, no room on the 1001 for ‘Thick as a Brick’, the band’s spoof concept album.

The Pogues, ‘Rum, Sodomy and the Lash’

Shane and the gang are best known for Kirsty MacColl duet ‘Fairytale of New York’ but years before that, this was their crowning achievement. Of course, as their background was in punk (MacGowan had come from a band called The Nipple Erectors), this is a lot more raucous than most of the folk albums this week, laying the foundations for acts like Gogol Bordello. Among the accordion and tin whistle knees-up atmosphere, we have a ballad sung by the bassist, an instrumental, a Monty Python old woman voice and a version of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ accompanied by a brass band. Shane MacGowan’s drunken slur sounds at home here. This is a good album.

Cat Stevens, ‘Tea for the Tillerman’

The future Yusuf Islam’s lone appearance on the 1001 features two of his best known songs in ‘Wild World’ and ‘Father and Son’, although both are arguably most famous for covers (by Jimmy Cliff and Boyzone respectively). The album’s quite pleasant, with Cat switching up the tempo and instrumentation to ensure that monotony doesn’t kick in. An easy way of spending 40 minutes, even if I don’t think I’ll return to it.

Richard and Linda Thompson, ‘I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight’

In which the former Fairport guitarist and his wife start touring and making records themselves. Overall, this is the best album of the week: the medieval stuff is cornball but the melodies are the strongest, the musical pallette the broadest (it’s as comfortable with an electric guitar as with a crumhorn) and the singing from the duo is flawless. Clearly an influence on Kate Rusby: she’s even covered ‘Withered and Died’.

Next week: we’ll be going to the opposite extreme and checking out some of the metal on the list.

Status update: 457 heard (46%), 544 remain.