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.

 

September 11: ‘Abbey Road’, ‘Blood on the Tracks’, ‘Rumours’,’Forever Changes’, ‘Astral Weeks’, ‘Sign O’ The Times’, The Stone Roses, ‘Marquee Moon’

One of the advantages of a project like this is that it makes you listen to things that you’ve never quite got around to, allowing for gaps in your knowledge to be plugged. In this week’s update, I’ll be looking at some albums that almost always appear on Classic Albums lists, yet which I’ve never heard. Feel free to castigate me for not having heard any of these before in the comments.

The Beatles, ‘Abbey Road’.

A peculiarity: I had listened to all the Beatles’ albums between 1965-1968, even owning crappy odds-and-sods like ‘Yellow Submarine’ (although that does have ‘Hey Bulldog’), but had stopped at the White Album and not explored beyond it. Why? Because the blue double album best of had hardly inspired confidence in late-era Beatles, with crap like ‘Get Back’ and ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ stinking up the end of that record. It was, then, with some reluctance that I came to ‘Abbey Road’. This being their farewell album, however, the band made the effort, with Lennon and McCartney raising their games, Harrison bringing some of his most accessible songs and even Ringo putting in a shift with ‘Octopus Garden’. There are some false steps: ‘Come Together’ and ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ prove yet again that blues is not the band’s strong suit, and the hidden track ‘Her Majesty’ is superfluous. However, the concluding medley is a fitting finale for the 60s’ greatest band. Just don’t mention ‘Let It Be’.

Bob Dylan, ‘Blood on the Tracks’.

Like an overquoted movie like ‘Casablanca’ or ‘Psycho’, it’s hard to come to a classic Dylan album for the first time: even though you’ve never heard it before, it’s so familiar that you might as well have. This is the third album I’ve heard of Bob’s, and it’s the one that most closely matches the stereotype I have in my head of him (mind you, one of the other albums of his I’ve heard was the inexplicable ‘Christmas in the Heart’, probably the least Dylanesque of his albums). There’s a harmonica solo in almost every song, most of the songs are over five minutes long, and they’re often just vocals and guitar. This may not be a popular decision but this didn’t do an awful lot for me I’m afraid. Luckily for Zimmermaniacs there’s still plenty of albums of his coming up, so maybe I’ll be more swayed by those.

Fleetwood Mac, ‘Rumors’.

Notoriously made while hedonistically partying like mad in an attempt to forget that their relationships had disintegrated – it was the style at the time, Abba did it too – it’s incredible that this album features a song as jauntily poppy as ‘Don’t Stop’, even if it is a fairly lousy slice of honky-tonk corn. Despite the soap opera background, the band managed to keep their shit together enough to hit home runs on virtually every track here: each of the songs is a triumphant achievement, and, in the case of ‘The Chain’, a dull plod suddenly gets a song-saving injection of adrenaline midway through. Sure it’s cheesy and soft, but it’s artfully written and masterfully constructed.

Love, ‘Forever Changes’.

The final Love album with the original line-up, this one was lucky to feature them at all: they were so lost in LSD, smack and infighting that exasperated producer Bruce Botnick hired a bunch of ace session hands to back Arthur Lee on two songs instead. This tactic finally motivated the slackers to bother to learn Lee’s songs, and they’re on all the rest of the songs (the hacks’ tracks still made the cut though). Neil Young was invited to produce but backed out: no wonder under the circumstances. Anyway, the album’s disillusioned melancholia gives it a bit more weight than a lot of groovy flower-power albums of the era, but it is still very much an album of its time, almost like a time capsule from the late 60s. I think I prefer what I’ve heard of ‘Da Capo’, perhaps because it feels more ragged and experimental even if it’s less cohesive as an album than this one.

Van Morrison, ‘Astral Weeks’.

A few weeks ago I reviewed the Waterboys’ ‘Fisherman’s Blues’, where the artist’s best-known song (‘Whole of the Moon’) gave little clue that their best-known album would be folk-heavy and largely acoustic. So too with ‘Astral Weeks’, which sounds nothing like Van’s student disco fixture ‘Brown Eyed Girl’. This is a staple of ‘Best Album Ever’ lists, so it’s no surprise to see it here, but I’m not sure I get it. The songs are unacceptably long, frequently pushing at the five- and even ten-minute marks, and the musicians are audibly figuring out their parts as they go: they were told to play whatever they felt like and were in many cases recorded in one take, which gives it a doodling feel. The album lasts 47 minutes; feels longer.

Prince, ‘Sign O’ The Times’.

Speaking of albums that feel long. Of Montreal are my favourite band and it almost feels like I should have had a mandatory education in Prince as a result and yet, due to the Purple One’s absence from Spotify and so forth, this is the first time I’ve checked out one of his albums. Come on, Prince’s estate! Even The Beatles are there now! Maybe it wasn’t the wisest idea to start with the 80-minute album, a lot of which sounds very similar (side 2 especially is mostly minimalist Fairlight funk). Side 3 has all the hits, and it’s hard to dismiss an album with two songs as different but as good as ‘I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’ and ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ on the same side. Good, not great, and too long. There are a couple of other Prince albums on the list, which I’m expecting good things from.

The Stone Roses, ‘The Stone Roses’.

If you’ve known me for a while then you’ll know that Madchester isn’t exactly my favourite scene, and yet here’s the second album in three weeks from the early 90s Manchester era. Yay. Like ‘Twin Peaks’, the Roses had a big hit with the first effort, on which their reputation rests, despite a less successful second release, and are only now doing a third, 25 years later. Is the first album any cop, though? Certainly it starts off promisingly, with the moody ‘I Wanna Be Adored’, the dynamic ‘She Bangs The Drums’ and the glistening ‘Waterfall’, but the momentum isn’t sustained: the fourth song is just the third song backwards right? And the sixth is ‘Scarborough Fair’ for 50 seconds? And the eleventh is ‘I Am The Resurrection’ for EIGHT minutes? (The Spotify version really compounds the piss-taking by adding a ten-minute version of ‘Fool’s Gold’ on the end, but I won’t count that against the album.) It feels like a ‘good singles, bad album tracks’ album: not that this is necessarily a bad thing but it’s hardly the second best album ever or whatever.

Television, ‘Marquee Moon’.

You get eight this week because I can’t count. I’d tried to get into Television before, even seeing them play this very album at Latitude one year, but I never quite got it. Listening to it now, however, I wonder whether it just caught me at a bad time, as this album is ace. The angular melodies of ‘Elevation’ and the title track are up my street and even a slow-motion meander like ‘Torn Curtain’ is redeemed by a heartfelt guitar solo. One listen isn’t really enough to herald acclaimed nuances such as the lyrics, but you can see why turn-of-century hipsters like The Strokes and Franz Ferdinand were paying attention.

Next week, I’ll be listening to some of the artists who appear on this list most frequently. Do Steely Dan or Elvis Costello warrant four or more albums each on here? Only one way to find out.

Progress report: 273/1001 (27%), 728 remain.