May 13: Girls Against Boys, Baaba Maal, John Martyn, Method Man, Fred Neil, The Only Ones, The Undertones

Today’s 1001 Albums adventure is another collection of albums heard by less than 5% of the listchallenges.com community. While some of these artists are relatively obscure, there’s some pretty big names in there too, so hopefully this isn’t too unfathomable a collection. Let’s roll…

Girls Against Boys, ‘Venus Luxure No 1 Baby’ (link)

I’d not heard of this act before I pressed play on the album, so it could have been anything as far as I knew. What it actually is, however, is a Fugazi offshoot with an unusual guitar-2 basses-drums line-up, adding an aggressive low-end heaviness to the insolent grungy indie style they work with. Released in 1993, you can see echoes of their style in later Deftones, Rival Schools and others, even if the two-bass line-up never caught on.

Baaba Maal, ‘Lam Toro’

Apparently designed as Maal’s crossover – not entirely successful – ‘Lam Toro’ is a mishmash of traditional Senegalese music, bad guitar solos (on ‘Minuit’) and dated Shaggy-ish reggae (on the single ‘Yela’). The unevenness doesn’t make for a satisfying listen, in spite of Maal’s best efforts vocally. This is exasperatingly difficult to find online, despite having been released on an Island Records subsidiary.

John Martyn, ‘One World’ (link)

The mumbly jazz-folk oddity is better known for ‘Solid Air‘, a hard-to-categorise 1972 effort. This is equally difficult to pigeonhole, being a kind of folk that incorporates elements of jazz and funk and then submerges them under a bunch of effects. It’s no surprise to see Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry credited on ‘Big Muff’, a loose dub-like funk in keeping with Martyn’s album title, but completely unlike any of the other folk albums I’ve heard from this time. Martyn, a stranger to me at the start of the project, is an interesting character.

Method Man, ‘Tical’ (link)

One of at least three Wu Tang solo projects on the list (’36 Chambers’ is the only full cast album on the 1001), this one is the one that sounds most like the band’s debut, not least because it too features the song ‘Method Man’. Apparently by design there’s cheap keyboards all over it, Emerson, Lake and Palmer are sampled, while a ridiculous version of ‘Mr Sandman’ sung by a choirboy is the most unusual gamble here. It’s competent but oddly unsatisfying.

Fred Neil, ‘Fred Neil’ (link, see note below)

Available on Spotify rolled into a compilation called ‘The Many Sides of Fred Neil’, this is best known for ‘Everybody’s Talkin”, later a hit for Harry Nilsson (the album was later re-released as ‘Everybody’s Talkin”). It’s a folky record that’s okay but dull, which incongruously ends with an avant-garde attempt at a raga that goes on for eight minutes. It was the 60s, what can I say? The album opens with ‘Dolphins’, which serves as a clue to Neil’s future career: never keen on touring or promoting his work, Neil abandoned music in the 70s and spent the rest of his life working in dolphin conservation.

The Only Ones, ‘The Only Ones’ (link)

Woozy junk anthem ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’ is a staple of punk compilations but the band’s three-album career is otherwise mostly forgotten. On this evidence, the band could do with re-appraisal, as this is one of the most dexterous punk albums I’ve heard. Featuring horns and keyboards augmenting the familiar two-guitar/bass/drums line-up, the band can make a three-minute song sound like an epic rock song, and Peter Perrett’s languid voice oddly works over whatever backing it’s given. The band are, apparently, still together following an appearance in a Vodafone advert and a Libertines endorsement, although the three albums are still all we’ve had.

The Undertones, ‘Hypnotised’ (link)

We covered ‘The Undertones’ last year, a just-about-competently-played punk album best known for ‘Teenage Kicks’. On ‘Hypnotised’, the band maintain the helium-Ramones energy of their debut but add a few more musical influences and a bit more musical proficiency that leads to a better album. It starts with ‘More Songs About Chocolate And Girls’ (a Talking Heads joke maybe?) and that pretty much summarises the lyrical thrust, while backing vocals, keyboards and ‘My Perfect Cousin’ all appear.

Next week: Hold onto your MySpace profile, set your MSN Messenger to ‘away’ and pause that DVD of ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ as we’re going into the 2000s!

Status update: 854 listened to (85%), 147 remain.

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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.