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.

 

April 16: If I Must – The Darkness, Def Leppard, Everything But The Girl, Iron Maiden, Megadeth, Morrissey, U2

Happy Easter everyone who celebrates it; to everyone who doesn’t, happy Sunday! This week, it’s time for another of everyone’s favourites, the If I Must week. Fortunately for me, but sadly for you, this will probably be the last of these: I’ve pretty much listened to all of the real horrors on the list now, so while there are still some that I’m dreading, there aren’t quite enough for more of these weeks. Luckily, that still leaves me with over 100 albums that I’m looking forwards to hearing, so there’ll be plenty of good stuff as we head towards the second half of the project. Seven of the ones I least wanted to hear first though: let’s get to it.

The Darkness, ‘Permission to Land’

Although their second album ‘One Way Ticket to Hell… and Back’ went platinum, The Darkness’s commercial and critical peak was their debut album. At the time, they were massive, but the fact that their jokey take on 70s and 80s hard rock was going Top 10 at a time when less retro British rock bands were completely absent from the Top 20 was a worrying sign for the genre. Anyway, this is front-loaded, with catchy singles ‘Growing On Me’, ‘Get Your Hands Off My Woman’ and ‘I Believe In A Thing Called Love’ all in the opening four tracks. The novelty’s worn off by the fifth track though: Justin Hawkins hasn’t got anything in his arsenal other than falsetto, at least one of the songs is nearly six minutes long, and given that the list already contains all the acts that The Darkness are aping (AC/DC, Queen, Aerosmith, Bon Jovi), you don’t need this.

Def Leppard, ‘Hysteria’

And indeed here are one of the bands that The Darkness are likely imitating. ‘Hysteria’ recorded over the course of a year packed with incident, including two of the band being involved in motor accidents: one, of course, cost drummer Rick Allen his arm. Consequently, there’s a fair bit of Fairlight jiggery-pokery involved with the drum tracks here. ‘Gods of War’ and ‘Love and Affection’ are probably the best songs here, but they all sound the same anyway: commercial 80s hard rock with massed backing vocals, helium lead vocals and synths. It seems mean to lambast such good-natured music too much: it’s okay, but this will be my last listen to it.

Everything But The Girl, ‘Idlewild’

Not to be confused with the Scottish band who did ‘When I Argue I See Shapes’, or the 2006 Outkast album, ‘Idlewild’ was the fourth album from EBTG, released in 1988. When we last looked at Tracy ‘n’ Ben, it was in their mid-90s dance incarnation, but before that they were making a sort of light coffee-table take on sophisticated pop, which I guess would have been popular with people who also liked The Beautiful South and Level 42. It starts with the band’s cover of Crazy Horse’s ‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It’, but it quickly recedes into background music: it’s so tasteful and restrained that it becomes a struggle to resist turning it off and listening to something more interesting. The dated production doesn’t help – tenor saxes and fretless bass everywhere – any more than the lyrics, where “they call you Jimmy, they call you James” is regarded as a good enough lyric for a repeated refrain. ‘The Night I Heard Caruso Sing’ is probably the best song here, vaguely like Slow Club’s last album; as a two-piece who trade vocals, Slow Club should see EBTG as a warning from history.

Iron Maiden, ‘Iron Maiden’

The line-up on the first Maiden album is different to their later ‘classic’ line-up: here we have Paul Di’Anno on vocals, Clive Burr on drums and Dennis Stratton on guitar, so no high-pitched extended notes from Dickinson and not much twin guitar riffing. The band don’t like the production on this (which they mostly did themselves) but I think the raw sound suits them: on ‘Prowler’ and ‘Running Free’, they sound sort of like ‘Destroyer’-era Judas Priest rather than the polished cheese (an Edam wheel?) of their later material. The album only sags at the midway point, with the instrumental ‘Transylvania’ and the waltz-time downer ‘Strange World’ both moves into areas the band don’t sound at home in. It finishes strongly, though, and overall this one is pretty good.

Megadeth, ‘Peace Sells, But Who’s Buying?’

This was Megadeth’s breakthrough album and is one of the big three as far as thrash is concerned (together with ‘Master of Puppets’ and ‘Reign in Blood‘). Dave Mustaine, the former Metallica guitarist, focuses here on political and global concerns rather than the Lovecraftian omens of his old band, giving the lyrics a then-topical feel. I’ve always found thrash a bit tedious though: no wonder nu-metal eschewed the multi-section, solo-heavy, five-minute-or-more template for something blunter, punkier and funkier. You can’t fault the instrumental skill, particularly on the guitar lines, but the style seems old hat now.

Morrissey, ‘Vauxhall and I’

Our fourth visit to Moz’s back catalogue, we meet him here in 1994, at a time when he’d stopped wanting to plough the same furrow he did with The Smiths but before he started making off-colour remarks about immigration, the Chinese and so on. I’m starting to think that perhaps his solo career is best regarded as having a great singles catalogue, rather than any crucial albums: here, the best song is the elegaic ‘The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get’, which even Boz Boorer’s mid-90s Noel Gallagher lead guitar can’t spoil. Elsewhere there’s a cinematic closer called ‘Speedway’ and what sounds like a clarinet section, but nothing that quite matches the single.

U2, ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed ‘The Joshua Tree‘ and remember quite liking U2’s mid-90s output, or finding it interesting at least, but the release of the band’s 1980-1990 Best Of seemed to cause them to re-evaluate their output, hence abandoning the My Bloody Valentine and Nine Inch Nails experimentation and reverting to Soaring Anthem U2. Commercially it was a big success, but critically? Early on Bono feels like the weak point, both lyrically and vocally, while sequencing ‘Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of’ as track 2 is a mistake, as the song piles on instrument after instrument in a vain attempt to bring a dull melody to life. Elsewhere, ‘Beautiful Day’ borrows its middle eight from A-ha, ‘In A Little While’ sounds like Eels with its arpeggios and drum machine, ‘Wild Honey’ sounds like Van Morrison, and I’m sure you know what the rest of this album sounds like.  Pretty dull.

Next week: a type of album I’ve never generally been hot on – the live album! There are at least a dozen on the list; hit me up in the comments if you have any favourites.

Progress update: 478 listened to (48%), 523 remain. Nearly halfway!

May 25 – ‘If I Must’ List #1: Beck, Morrissey, Royksopp, Travis, ‘The Joshua Tree’

The thing with the 1001 Albums You Must Hear project is that, as well as a lot of albums I’m intrigued to check out, there’s a fair amount of albums I’m reluctant to listen to. Rather than put them off any longer, it’s time I covered some of them.

Beck, ‘Odelay’.

I’m sure my dislike for Beck is a surprise for some, given I like Eels and the Beta Band, both of whom did similar blues-n-sampler kitchen-sink records. Unlike those two, though, Beck always struck me as all-surface-no-feeling: the ironic detachment is at the cost of relatable content or melodic impetus. He couldn’t even get ‘Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime’ right! As for ‘Odelay’: the musical palette is always varied, but it’s a record to admire rather than love.

Morrissey, ‘You are the Quarry’.

There are four of Stephen Patrick’s solo albums on this list: perhaps more than even Moz fans would consider essential. ‘Quarry’ was preceded by killer single ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’, where the most dramatic chord sequence on the record is augmented/completely ruined by Morrissey’s tainted patriotism schtick: lyrics which leave a bitter taste when matched against later “I’m not xenophobic but immigrants” speeches. The most evocative lyrical image on the album is “you have never been in love/until you’ve seen the stars/reflected in the reservoir”, from second single ‘First of the Gang to Die’ (which sounds better here than it did as a single). The other bulbous salutations on this album are bogged down by leaden arrangements or titles like ‘All the Lazy Dykes’.

Royksopp, ‘Melody AM’.

Royksopp are another band who sounded on paper like a band I’d like (I like Air and Bent) but who never impressed me: despite the album title, ‘Eple’ and ‘So Easy’ have no tunes. The album is more palatable than I expected as background muzak, but it’s not exactly an attention-grabber.

Travis, ‘The Man Who’.

It’s hard to understand how this album qualified for this list given its obvious debt to other albums on the list (Jeff Buckley, Radiohead): in fact the album’s producer is ‘OK Computer”s Nigel Godrich, bringing along the same bag of tricks he used for that album. When they aren’t ripping off Thom, they can’t resist pointing out their sources (“what’s a wonderwall anyway?” indeed). The best song is the Ziggy-for-dummies ‘She’s So Strange’ but there is nothing essential here. This was a band whose previous album featured a song called ‘All I Want To Do Is Rock’: on this evidence, clearly not.

U2, ‘The Joshua Tree’.

Later efforts like Apple malware ‘Songs of Innocence’ and ego-driven political campaigns have soured people to U2, but here on ‘The Joshua Tree’, hit after hit are augmented by great Brian Eno production and top drawer musicianship. It’s easy to mock The Edge’s minimalist style, but it sounds refreshingly spacious compared to his five-note-per-second contemporaries. Dare I say it: this is a good album.