August 26: Ice Cube, Spiritualized, Rod Stewart, Stephen Stills, The Temptations, The The, Traffic

Continuing on from last week, here’s the last of the artists who’ve got two albums on the list. Something of a mixed bag of artists who otherwise don’t have much in common, as we’ll see.

Ice Cube, ‘The Predator’

As topical as you could want, Cube takes his title partially from ‘Predator 2’, takes his lyrics partially from the LA riots (which had finished just six months earlier), and joins the album together with interludes in which Cube attempts to contextualize the riots and his own music’s impact on the events. It feels urgent. In its use of samples, it also feels like an attempt to cover all rap music up to that point: it’s full of the standard Parliament and Isley Brothers samples, but there’s also room for Public Enemy, NWA, Beastie Boys, Malcolm X and Richard Pryor. This must have seemed essential at the time and still sounds pretty good now.

Spiritualized, ‘Lazer Guided Melodies’

The first Spiritualized album following the collapse of Spacemen 3, there’s a similar sort of shoegazey drone as you hear on ‘Playing with Fire‘, with obvious influences from Neu and The Velvet Underground (presumably Lou Reed was compensated for the liberal use of his choruses in ‘Run’). There’s some hints, though, of the later orchestra-and-gospel direction that the band would go in: there’s keyboards throughout and brass, strings and reeds emerge out of the mix as the album goes on. I’ve often found Jason easy to admire but hard to love; I could see myself loving this, though. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space’ is also on the list (of course), but I’ve already listened to that (I think I still own a copy).

Rod Stewart, ‘Every Picture Tells A Story’

It feels hard to take the first half of this album particularly seriously: Rod seems worn out during the title track/opener (luckily Long John Baldry and Maggie Bell add some oomph on backing vocals), and there are Stones-ish slide guitar versions of ‘That’s Alright Mama’ and, uh, ‘Amazing Grace’. The second half behaves itself a bit better, with certified banger ‘Maggie May’ and a very long but very pleasant song called ‘Mandolin Wind’ (more slide guitar, but the promised mandolin does eventually show up). It lives and dies, I guess, on whether you can take Stewart’s voice seriously as an artist after decades of ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?’ and so forth.

Stephen Stills, ‘Manassas’

The book credits it as Stills, the original concept was that Manassas was the band, so who knows whether this really merits its position in this week’s list, but here we are anyway. Released at the same time as ‘Harvest’ and a Crosby/Nash collaboration, this is a double album with one disc of bluesy jams and another of more esoteric material. Joe Lala’s Latin percussion gives a fresh texture to even the most routine stuff on the first record, but I got on better with the second; ‘It Doesn’t Matter’ is the sort of harmony-driven soft rock that Steely Dan would make their trademark, ‘Move Around’ sees Stills on the synth, and ‘The Love Gangster’ sounds like Hendrix. Pretty good.

The Temptations, ‘All Directions’

Another of Norman Whitfield’s weird productions for the band, the most notable stuff on this record is in its first half: ‘Funky Music Sho Nuff Turns Me On’ could have been a gangster rap staple sample if it wasn’t a live recording, ‘Run Charlie Run’ has an alarming hook and a staccato brass riff, and ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’ extends the Undisputed Truth song to 12 minutes. As with the other Temptations album on the list, relatively normal service resumes on the second half; who knows what would have happened if they’d held their nerve.

The The, ‘Infected’

The The are such a strange band: they’re somewhere between industrial and sophisti-pop, and I’m not sure if that’s a combination I like. It means that some of the stuff here sounds ahead of its time (the drums on opener/title track, for example), and some sounds very dated (the production on ‘Heartland’, for example). There’s plenty of interesting sounds on this record but the band’s output is more intellectually stimulating than emotionally moving. The album also has a film, of sorts: as with the music, it’s more interesting to read about than to actually consume directly, particularly given some of the bizarre events during filming.

Traffic, ‘John Barleycorn Must Die’

Traffic were kind of a blues-rock band with jazz elements who had abruptly disbanded in 1968, but who reformed equally abruptly in 1970 for this album. The long instrumental jams feel familiar – a lot of the 1001 sounds like this, to be honest – but the band’s repetoire expands with their ‘Wicker Man’ cover of the title track, a folk song of obscure origins about booze. Not bad, just overfamiliar. The band continued collaborating on and off for the next four years, with a brief mid-90s return.

Next week: We’ll be looking at some of the solo artists remaining on the list.

Status update: 959 listened to (96%), 42 remain.

 

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May 28: Solomon Burke, D’Angelo, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Cee-Lo Green, Otis Redding, The Temptations

This week in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, we’re checking out some of the more soulful numbers from the collection. Of course I’ve already written about some of the all-time great soul singers – Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, James Brown – so let’s see what else this storied genre has to offer us.

Solomon Burke, ‘Rock ‘N Soul’

Presumably named to indicate a fusion of rock’n’roll and soul music, this 1964 cut has a full side of tracks heavily indebted to doo-wop, its 6/8 balladeering the sort that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early Elvis record (regular Presley songwriters Leiber and Stoller contribute a track here). The second half feels more up-tempo, but there’s not much here that leapt off the speakers into my heart. A man I knew nothing about, Burke later became a preacher: not the only reverend on this week’s list.

D’Angelo, ‘Brown Sugar’

Less concerned with getting you to the bedroom than assuming that you’re already there, D’Angelo takes parts from Stevie, Marvin and Luther and blends them with ‘Illmatic’-ish smoky drum samples and electric piano. It’s a superior take on the sort of refined, minimal sound that Boyz II Men or Blackstreet were purveying at the same time (along with also-ran UK acts like Mark Morrison or Conor Reeves).  Not unduly concerned with changing tempo, D’Angelo does nonetheless incorporate some Santana-ish guitar on both ‘Me And Those Dreaming Eyes of Mine’ and (not that one) ‘Smooth’,  while this is surely the only shag album to have a track about being cuckolded (he doesn’t take it well: it’s called ‘Shit, Damn, Motherfucker’).

Aretha Franklin, ‘I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You’

Last time we met Aretha it was on the sassy ‘Lady Soul‘. This album, a couple earlier in her career, opens with ‘Respect’ but generally is heavier on the piano and more restrained in nature, with a smaller-sounding band adding to the intimacy. There’s some swelling Hammond on ‘A Change is Gonna Come’, some rock guitar on ‘Save Me’ and some waltz-time electric piano on ‘Soul Serenade’. I preferred ‘Lady Soul’ but the time flew by on this one too.

Al Green, ‘Let’s Stay Together’

Of course the title track, which opens the album, is one of the all-time great soul songs, with unshowy musicianship and a beautiful voice. It sets the tone for the album’s tales of love and heartbreak, with a laidback, brassy feel that was ideal for the sunny Sunday evening I listened to it on. The second half highlight is Bee Gees cover ‘How Can You Mend a Broken Heart’. This is Al’s only appearance on the list: none of his secular or religious stuff otherwise features. There is another Green on the list though…

Cee-Lo Green, ‘…Is The Soul Machine’

“I can sing, I can rap, I can act”, boasts the Totoro lookalike and muumuu wearer on an album that features far too little of the singing and much too much of the rapping. Green’s flow and verbosity suits rap fine, but his Macy Gray falsetto just doesn’t sound right spitting bars, particularly when he has such a great singing voice (as seen on ‘Crazy’, ‘Fuck You’ and so on). Indeed the Soul Machine seems like an informed attribute rather than a demonstrated one, as the music is mostly unremarkable turn-of-century rap fare produced by usual suspects like Timbaland and the Neptunes. There’s even a turn by Ludacris. A good audition for Oogy Boogy in a ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ remake but not an essential album.

Otis Redding, ‘Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul’

I only really knew Redding for ‘Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay’, the mainstream soul sound of which doesn’t demonstrate any of Redding’s funk, energy or passion. This album, on the other hand, covers all of those. ‘Respect’ also shows up here – turns out it’s a Redding original, and who knew? – as does ‘My Girl’, another song I only knew from its more famous Temptations version. There’s plenty of lust and urge in these songs, ably backed by a band featuring Booker T and the MGs on rhythm and brass and Isaac Hayes on piano. Probably my favourite album this week.

The Temptations, ‘Cloud Nine’

Early on in ‘Cloud Nine’, we get a clumsy version of ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’, which seems to have been around a few Motown acts before Marvin Gaye’s definitive version. That’s nothing compared to the madness of ‘Runaway Child, Runnin’ Wild’, which stretches funk clavinet, country guitar picking and a child crying for his mother over nine minutes. The label must have found out what they were up to in the studio after that, though, as the second half of the album is more conventional fare. The overall effect is kind of forgettable, although perhaps it was a bigger deal in context and did kick off a quartet of psychedelic soul albums released by the band, influenced by Sly Stone (the first track especially).

Next week: It’s time for another look at the most common artists on the list.

Status update: 520 of 1001 (52%), 481 remaining.