Early October: A Slightly Haunted Mix To Tide You Over Until Holloween
Sorry for the delay - expect regular service to return sometime next week. In the meantime, enjoy some cakes and fine wines.
Sound Affects – get it?! As in the sound effects that are affecting. I automatically will tack an extra half star onto any record that is willing to go the extra mile of titling the album with a tasteless pun: hence how Blink 182 manage a half star* from me for their opus, Enema Of The State. Blink 182 of course then lose that same half star for titling a song, “Dumpweed” (not to mention the automatic -5 for being really fucking annoying). Now that the glance behind the curtain has been concluded (please ignore all the empty liquor bottles: the Wizard has fallen on hard times, and no, he really cannot send you back to Kansas) we can press on with the review.
Paul Weller was only 22 when he wrote and recorded the Jam’s best album, Sound Affects. Weller was apparently very taken with two records at the time: Revolver by the Beatles (the song “Start!” is basically “Taxman” with new lyrics, which doesn’t hurt it any) and Off The Wall by Michael Jackson. The goal apparently was to blend the sounds of the British invasion with late 70s disco. He did all of this all within the milieu of upbeat, somewhat socially conscious punk/new wave in which The Jam normally worked. This is not a bad trick and is one that pushes this record ahead of a lot of much of the Jam’s other material in my estimation. Admittedly, the British invasion material appears to except a stronger influence than the Michael Jackson, something that Weller would subsequently rectify through a solo career ostensibly composed of bland, blue-eyed soul reworking, so, bygones and all of that.
Weller, throughout his career, has been enamored with the Mod culture of the early 60s, which is where the Jam swiped a lot of their aesthetic sense. People always want to lump the Jam in with the 10,000 or so other British punk acts at the time, and though they had something of the punk attitude and sensibility, they were always more of a pop band. Weller makes this all the more explicit through his well-documented obsession with Mersey Beat and old soul records, all of which made him something of an outlier in the punk scene. It was around this time that Paul earned himself the nickname, “The Modfather” (personally, I preferred “The Modfather, Part 2” - especially the bit where they are in Cuba - but I guess within the context of this joke, the Modfather Part 2 might just be a euphemism for The Style Council).
The record opens with the Ray Davies-esque “Pretty Green”. The song starts with beast of a bass-line (mixed way too high…as it should be) which is eventually joined by some extremely angular guitars. The song’s core conceit is about spinning discs in the jukebox. Records go ‘round and ‘round in the jukebox, just like they always have, except for those awful ones with internet connections that charge you a dollar a play but somehow fail to contain a wider selection than your typical CD or 45 based jukebox, despite access to, quite possibly, oh…. ALL THE MUSIC THAT HAS BEEN RECORDED IN THE HISTORY OF HUMAN CIVILIZATION.
The second song, “Monday”, includes jangly Rickenbackers and multiple harmony parts. Those are some quality jangles – accept no substitute (except for the song “Substitute” by the band The Who, to whom Weller is clearly deeply in debt). It’s pleasant, wistful British invasion fare, including a nice descending piano bridge. “But I’m Different Now” follows this and is a little too unabashedly pop for my tastes, leaving behind a sweet, saccharine trail that can only attract ants. ANTS!
“Set The House Ablaze” is a nasty bit of punk with dark sounding guitars and a hook created by… whistling. Even when he is trying to sound edgy, Weller’s pop sensibilities appear to kick in during this period (which may be the Michael Jackson influence). As a whole, this one really works: hitting just the right blend of pop and aggression. “Start!”, as I mentioned at the beginning of this review, is just a flagrant rip-off/ homage to/ rewrite of ‘Taxman” by the Beatles only with lyrics centering on the difficulties of communication in relationships, which rings a little truer than its source materials unbecoming whinging about the income tax rate in Britain.
“Start!” is followed by the centerpiece of the album: the acoustic slice-of-life-on-the-London-street anthem, “That’s Entertainment”. Paul apparently wrote the song in one go one night when night after coming home drunk from the pup. The man was so immersed in pop music that, even pissed and dysfunctional, he couldn’t help but emote it. The song includes gentle backing melodies, a backwards recorded electric guitar solo and the trappings of a folk song. It is probably the “truest” song that Weller wrote, reflecting back many of the foibles, hopes and dreams of English city life and the English middle class. It is one of the most quintessentially English songs ever written but also, strangely, one of the most universal. The line about “two lovers missing the tranquility of solitude” is one of the absolute best. The song is also damn catchy, making it quite entertaining.
But wait, there’s more!
“Dream Time" starts out with some neat backwards recorded sounds before eventually transforming into yet another turbocharged pop song with largely domestic sensibilities. "The Man In The Corner Shop" is yet another slice of Kinks-inflected pop with ostentatiously English sensibility. The song plays on the notion of England as a nation of shopkeepers and makes the claim that all men are equal. Neither song particularly catches fire the way any of the songs on side-A did and you start to get the feeling that Weller may be repeating himself.
Weller clearly anticipated this, following these up with “Music For The Last Couple”, which is Weller’s attempt at Clash-style white boy reggae (or Regatta de Blanc to the connoisseur. Goes great with sea food!) The song is well constructed and features a lot of typical dub instrumentation (various weird pipe sounds, organ, slightly-skanking guitars) but there is a certain feeling missing that prevent the song from being entirely convincing. Still, it does break up the feeling of monotony that began to creep in and as such, is a welcome addition.
It also allows for the return to the pop-all-the-time template with “Boy About Town" to feel like a welcome addition rather than a retread. The song improves on the pop sensibility by adding an extremely bright sounding horn section. Once it kicks in, you start to wonder why Weller et al didn’t just go all out with the horns from the beginning. Horn sections improve every rock/pop song by 20% or so. See also "Close To Me" by the Cure and "Can’t Hardly Wait" by the Replacements.
The record ends with the aggressive “Scrape Away”, whereby Weller denounces cynicism and lack of hope. For a guy who has a reputation as being a bit of a snarky asshole, Weller was certainly on a power of positive thinking kick.
This record clocks in at only 35 minutes, which is great. In places, it is something of any ideal slice of pop music: made to be rapidly enjoyed and disposed. It even manages to be affecting from time to time (especially “That’s Entertainment”). Overall its a strong record by a band seem to know what they are doing. Weller is very good at crafting the 3-minute pop songs but doesn’t bring a lot of depth to proceedings (even if the lyrics occasionally hint at greater depth). None of this is bad mind you, a man can’t live on high art alone after all, and for a record masterminded by a 22-year old, this is impressive stuff indeed.
You might even say that the record is affective.
*This is similar to the so-called “Rule of Caine” by which any movie including Michael Caine will automatically receive an extra half star by virtue of the great mans presence. It is just one of the few hard and fast rules by which the universe operates.
I slowly became aware yesterday evening, as the September breeze slithered beneath my windowsill, that life, like its charmless co-conspirator death, is an intractable action. Given the onset of the annual fall cosmic accounting – and isn’t fall is the loveliest time of intense flora death? – one would be hard pressed to find a better soundtrack for the dying days of summer/early fall than Bob Dylan’s 1997 reflection on his own mortality: Time Out of Mind.
While the record, disappointingly, does not include a cover of the Steely Dan song of the same name, it was cut with producer and shimmery, echoed guitar effects connoisseur Daniel Lanois and was, at the time of its release, something of a return to form for Dylan. The recording process was apparently one that was extraordinarily fraught: Dylan did not see eye-to-eye with Lanois and his use of texture – which makes you wonder why he hired Lanois in the first place – the two had been similarly at each other’s throats with one each other when they cut Oh Mercy together eight years earlier. To state the obvious: sometimes from great tension can come great art.
Dylan brings to the table his strongest batch of songs in well over a decade. You really are left to wonder exactly where this record came from. Dylan’s last 3 albums had been two acoustic records of covers of old folk songs proceeded by Under the Red Sky a record that frequently vies with the material from Dylan’s “born again” period for primary example of artist not doing themselves (or their legacy) justice. Instead poorly produced, phoned in 80s/90s pop conventions polluted by phoned in lyrics about God and damnation, we get a set of sprawling, though thematically focused story songs. Dylan’s voice, also often an inflamed, keyless wheeze has similarly become much more focused: having been transformed into an aged blues man’s croak.
The record kicks off with “Love Sick”, a 12-bar, minor key, minimalist blues about the torment and longing wrought by lost love. Dylan’s lyrics center of themes of exhaustion and illness that this torment can bring. Lanois pairs Dylan’s forlorn voice perfectly with staccato guitar chords, occasional melodic stabs from heavily processed guitars and electric piano and eventually, what sounds like a creaky theater organ. This followed-up with an upbeat cover of Charlie Patton’s “Dirt Road Blues” with the same theater organ being brought front in front and center. Dylan clearly relishes spitting out lines like “’Gonna’ walk down that dirt road/ ‘til the BLOOD gets in my eyes”.
“Standing In The Doorway” is a touching and smoky ballad that evokes the dragging feeling of the end of summer. It is thematically similar to “Love Sick”, bringing up the misery of lost love and the feeling of defeat, exhaustion and collapse. Dylan deals with heartbreak by wandering and the song returns again and again to the notion of wandering from bar to bar, from doorway to doorway, wit nothing but ones own misery for accompaniment.
“Million Miles” may be the first semi misstep on the record. The song seeks to emulate 40s, down tempo jazz ballads but lacks anything that even resembles an interesting melody. As a result, the song just kind of hovers around a blues progression and, despite some excellent playing from the backing band, never really does anything to justify its nearly 6-minute run time. The piano-driven “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven” fairs significantly better, offering some interesting lyrical conceits against a country-western backing. The song tells a story about trying to find redemption, process lost love (again) and thematically fits with the record. It also includes the sole harmonica solo on the record (which goes nowhere, but is fortunately brief), so for collectors of Dylan harmonica moments, this one is for you.
“’Till I Fell In Love With You” is a slide guitar driven number that seems to be a return to the types of list songs that Dylan was writing in the late 80s. While the guitar tones sound absolutely amazing, the song isn’t particularly interesting beyond the first minute or so because there doesn’t seem to be enough of a musical idea behind it to really justify it.
With the fading notes of “’Till I Fell In Love With You”, you start to wonder if Dylan has run out of ideas already and that the great Dylan renaissance of the late 90s was limited to just a handful of songs. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, comes “Not Dark Yet”, which is in direct contention for the single greatest song Dylan ever wrote. The song is a thing of absolute beauty – an extraordinarily slow country-tinged musing on mortality. The line about feeling as though “my soul has turned into steel” gets me every time. As does the one about feeling as though “there’s not even room enough to be anywhere”. The lyrics, which are some of the most personal, direct and relatable Dylan has ever written. Musically, the song is features a sea of snippets of guitars, organ, drums and about a thousand other things. The song gets the full ‘Lanois treatment’ – it is almost a collage of different textures and sounds that seem to mesh thematically. Dylan’s voice carries the main melody while snatches of musical lyricism pop up here or there only to be rapidly extinguished. It shouldn’t work as well as it does. Dylan doesn’t say too much, he says just enough and leaves acres of space – making the song feel even more haunted.
“Not Dark Yet” is then followed by ‘Cold Irons Bound” which is the greatest blues that Dylan ever wrote. The song straight-up kicks ass, featuring a catchy-riff, some furious playing by the cast of session musicians, a near descending organ-based refrain and another set of some of Dylan’s best lyrics. This song is nearly as good as “Not Dark Yet” and may be one of the greatest 1-2 punches ever committed to a rock record. Dylan tosses off so many great one-liners in “Cold Irons Bound” that you lose count. They all fit thematically with the core conceits of the records – feeling trapped by now unrequited love, death, and the sense that one cannot travel anymore. The song is nearly eight minutes long but feels like it is over much too soon.
Anything that followed that one-two punch of “Not Dark Yet” and “Cold Irons Bound” was going to feel like a come-down and the slightly campy piano ballad “Make You Feel Me Love” certainly does. It is not a bad song, even if it comes off as a bit maudlin, and would probably fair significantly better were it not juxtaposed so directly with Dylan at his absolute best on the proceeding two songs.
If “Make You Feel My Love” was the come down, then “Can’t Wait” was the hangover. The song is built around a really simple guitar riff and features around half good lyrics and half clichés. The song is also hampered by an extremely flemmy sounding delivery from Dylan that undermines the urgency of the song but being unintentionally hilarious in places. The song is also much too long. “Can’t Wait” is about right – this is the one song where the listener genuinely can’t wait for it to be over.
Dylan ends the record with, arguably his funniest song ever - the sprawling, 16 and a half minute epic: “Highlands”. The song is an easy, laid-back blues, the centerpiece of which is a confrontation of sorts on the subject of women authors between Dylan and his waitress in a Boston diner. This conversation is taken to certain agonizing extremes, with Dylan beating a hasty retreat the moment the women’s back is turned. The incident can be read as a failed, and hilarious attempt at seduction. While the song is extraordinarily long, it never quite feels its length. It merely takes the amount of time needed to tell the story, which, while somewhat aimless, is also pointed. Dylan also gets in some good humored jabs at some of his peers: “I’m listening to Neil Young/ I gotta’ turn up the sound/ someone’s always yellin’ / turn that down”.
“Highlands”, is a wonderful way to end the record and ends up emerging as one of my favorite moments. It seems to belong to an older tradition of radio-plays and storytelling. The song is Dylan at his most self-mythologizing and the whole thing comes off as so charming, funny and playful that it is impossible not to enjoy or be sucked into. Much like some of the funniest songs on the Basement Tapes (i.e. “Clothesline Saga”) the song also feels like you are joining the story after the main event and the minor events that are detailed here would provide additional context to the story that you never heard. As a narrative approach, this is wonderful because it requires the listener to construct the meaning and narrative thrust around the record. The songs dares you to try to read too much into it, when in reality, it is a long, but absolutely bizarre joke. A lot of critics thought ‘Highlands” was too long or too indulgent (though positively regarding the rest of Time Out Of Mind), I think it is one of the best songs in what was Dylan’s strongest record in decades. It is almost Proustian in its cataloguing of minutiae, while playing many of these features for laughs and the overall strange other-worldliness of the observations imbuing everything with a sinking sense of importance and meaning.
Shortly after the record was completed, Dylan became seriously ill with a near fatal Histoplasmosis – aka “Spelunker’s Lung”. It is a bacterial infection that is contracted by inhaling decaying bat guano and/or bird droppings and is usually only associated with agricultural workers or cave divers. Leave it to Dylan to nearly be wiped out by a bacteria associated most commonly with agricultural day laborers, with Dylan’s well documented pastoral wanderings (ala a modern day Aesop) likely being the culprit. In light of this, the record takes on a certain secondary resonance – it’s almost as if he knew something wasn’t quite right with his health while cutting the record.
Time Out Of Mind rewards repeat listening and seems to represent the framework around which Dylan’s late career resurgence has been built. It also introduced a tendency that latter Dylan would irritatingly develop of writing the occasional directionless (no direction home?), overly-long song with too many verses based on a simple blues progression. While overall this formula works par excellence on much of the material here, there are a handful of songs here that really didn’t have a substantial enough idea behind them to warrant their inclusion. Where the record really shines is when Dylan seems to have come in with a fully-formed or written song that Lanois then tweaks with his particular aesthetic sensibilities. For a record that was so agonizing to cut (it resulted in Dylan foregoing professional production altogether and opting to self-produce his subsequent work) the record does all seem to hang together well thematically and sonically, with Lanois deserving a lot of the credit for this. Where his production works, as on “Not Dark Yet”, “Love Sick” and “Cold Irons Bound”, it only enhances what was already strong material, adding additional texture, meaning and depth. Where the production doesn’t, it never hurts the material per se, though because of the aesthetic similarities that it introduces, it does make the weaker material sound even more plodding because of how similar it all ends up sounding.
All that that said, overall, Time Out Of Mind is a great, if somewhat flawed record, that was entirely unexpected based on the half-written, half realized mess (though sprinkled with the occasional absolutely great song, seemingly to remind you that he could still do it) that Dylan was turning out over the proceeding 20 years. That’s quite a lot of time in the wilderness (as Dylan would likely note), which makes the sudden appearance of Time Out Of Mind all the more curious. Still, I hope there is a lost tape someplace with that missing Steely Dan cover, because that would be something else.
Chicago-based trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist Philip Cohran was a member of Sun Ra’s band and a mainstay of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) – which always sounded more like a branch of the Federal Government or some kind of civil rights organization than it ever did a free jazz-based musical movement – but I suppose that was the point. Philip Cohran put together a crack team of musicians for his inaugural date as a leader, pulling in everyone from early fusion guitarist Pete Cosey (who would subsequently go on to join Miles Davis in his more electric/cocaine fueled pursuits) and a handful of guys who would end up in Earth, Wind & Fire, dubbing them the Artistic Heritage Society and unleashing Cohran’s particular brand of African primitivist inspired jazz upon the world.
On the Beach is an unusual record in many ways: it features an ensemble of some 15 musicians total and is balanced somewhere between the space jazz of Sun Ra, free-playing and traditional African music. The record opens with “The Minstrel” which is an African thumb piano led tune, featuring lots of percussion and chanting, before the horn arrangements come in. In a lot of ways, this music shares a lot of ideas with much of the work Randy Weston was doing throughout the 60s – particularly his “highlife” inspired material. Cohran brought some genuinely great players to the table and the material manages to stay both accessible and edgy. The arrangement of “The Minstrel” sounds like a traditional African tribal number played by a set of crack-Chicago jazz musicians and featuring some incredibly sophisticated horn arrangements. The band turn out some great solos amid the sea of percussion.
Cohran (though he lays the occasional cornet solo) mostly sticks to thumb piano and violin throughout the record, using the two to anchor proceedings. This is an interesting decision and further reinforces the overall African feel to the music. The name of the ensemble is fitting: this is music that both looks forward towards freer jazz improvisation while being firmly rooted in black African tradition.
The second cut, “Unity” is built around a sawing fiddle riff and a counterpoint played on what sounds like a North African double-reed instrument. Intercutting horn arrangements are layered on top of this, as are assorted unusual percussion instruments (finger cymbals) and a sea of polyrhythm. This again features some brilliant, deeply bluesy soloing from tenor-man Charles Williams.
“On the Beach” is another thumb-piano based number and is the center-piece of the album. It is a slower, slightly lop-sided ballad that makes you think of Out To Lunch era Eric Dolphy is it were arranged for big band (and played by African tribesmen). Despite the African feel to proceedings, some of the arrangement brings to mind 20th Century Western classical composition: elements of Bartok, Schoenberg and Stravinsky popping up here and there. Williams is again in great voice on this one, playing a gentle, quietly mournful solo while Cosey interjects unusual, extremely percussive guitar stabs.
This is deeply unusual, exciting and forward thinking music that brings together a whole lot of influences in a way that feels extremely natural and well thought out. Cohran clearly learned well from his time with Sun Ra: bringing together numerous unusual influences in a way that is both bold and experimental as well as lyrical. This record is fairly obscure but deserves to be much better known. It is a classic that, while very much of its time, still manages to feel timeless.
Who Came First is the first solo album by English R&B act the Who’s guitarist/ principle song-writer / creative master-mind, Pete Townshend. For those that absolutely love Pete Townshend’s solipsistic self-indulgence but think that Roger Daltrey’s bluesy bluster, John Entwhistle’s muscular musicality and Keith Moon’s completely bonkers sense of fun manages to blunt the bite of such confessional tosh as “Behind Blue Eyes”, have I got a record for you!
Who Came First was Pete’s first solo album and it was released concurrently with Who’s Next. The cover is a thing of wonder – there a cocky looking Townshend boldly stands on eggs (he is literally walking on egg shells – get it?!), arms akimbo, clad in white jumpsuit and thousand yard stare. The record is very much something of a companion piece to that great Who classic it was released with: offering up a more confessional, acoustic guitar-driven counter-point to the much more electric The Who album.
The record was obviously an extremely personal one for Pete Townshend. The record was partially a tribute to Pete’s recently deceased spiritual guru, the notorious quasi-charlatan Meher Baba (hey, it was the late 60s/ early 70s – everyone had an Indian spiritual leader at one point), and features collaborations with Townshend’s best friend, Faces bassist Ronnie Lane.
There are some genuinely great songs on this record. The opening cut “Pure and Easy” was so good that it would later be colonized - along with the equally sharp “Let’s See Action” - by Pete’s day job. That said, I actually prefer these solo renditions to what the Who alter did to them. As much as I like the Who –I rate them ahead of the Rolling Stones et al in terms of British rock acts rooted in American R&B – the band was always something of a blunt instrument. For all of their many strengths, subtlety was never one of them. Townshend on his own, however, manages to find a certain level of nuance in these performances. Sure, Pete’s not as powerful a singer as Roger Daltrey is, but in a lot of ways, he may be a better singer, at least for this folky material.
The second song “Evolution” (which is curiously played and sung by Ronnie Lane – effectively making it a Ronnie Lane solo number at the beginning of a Pete Townshend solo record!) is a catchy song featuring something of a circular riff and lyrics about the impacts of experience on belief and personal outlook. Like all things Ronnie Lane, the cut is good natured, though unfortunately is hampered by some quasi spiritual, new-age mumbo jumbo. This is followed by “Forever Is No Time At All” which features a catchy electric riff and some charming falsetto from Pete.
The best song on the record is probably “Sheraton Gibson”, a finger-picked, yearning, acoustic number about the loneliness and isolation wrought by time spent on the road. The song is probably one of Townshend’s most affecting, honest and charming. It is accented with the occasional electric guitar overdub or inserted moog bit (Pete was spending a lot of time with synthesizers while recording this).
Also great is Pete’s cover of Jim Reeve’s country classic, “There’s A Heartache Following Me”. Pete allegedly selected the song on the grounds that it was a favorite of the Baba – which should make it a somewhat suspect choice (especially as the greatest misstep on this record is Pete’s attempt to fit the Baba’s universal prayer to music on “Parvardigar”) but Pete does a great job of bringing the melancholy of that song to the front. I actually prefer Pete’s incredibly personal, slightly amateurishly sung (and recorded – it sounds like he cut this thing in his living room on a 4-track) delivery of the song to the original’s slick Nashville professionalism. Take that musical competence!
The record does not feel overly long and is over before you know it. Overall, it’s well sequenced and fun, even if Pete pushes his new-age religious conceits a little more than anyone can really be comfortable with. While this record is slightly self-indulgent, the record is at least up-front about this. It is also disarming and clever enough to put the listener in a charitable frame of mind. It’s not quite up to the standards that Pete would later set for his solo material with the two Scoop rarities collections, but as far as vanity solo projects by members of successful rock groups, this one certainly ranks highly.
Still… Meher Baba… seriously?
The great Brit Pop battle of the mid-1990s is probably something that was more an invention of the NME and Spin Magazine (remember Spin?) than it was anything tangible that anyone really experienced. At the same time, stating a preference in the epic question: Blur or Oasis? - became something of an important point of personal etiquette, that though superficial, (much like its older formulation: The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?) said something important about the tastes, and with it, world view of the answerer.
And there is a correct answer (hint: it’s Pulp).
That said, the choice is really between if you prefer derivative good-timey music mostly about drugs & rock ‘n’ roll delivered by sneering, angry, borderline illiterates (Oasis) or if you prefer said music it delivered by witty, slightly posh Londoners with a feel for weirdness and a sense of humor (Blur). The choice should have been fairly obvious then. The ones that clubbed each other upside the head with cricket bats, obviously.
And so it went until 2000 or so, when it became apparent to most that Oasis were (as they always had been) pretty one note, Blur continued on workmanlike (though less inspired) and people started listening more to America for musical direction again (as our decade-long infatuation with all things Grunge seemed to draw to a close – it turns out this was merely a decade long hiatus).
Then in 2002-2003, Blur did something different. They parted ways with the guitarist (Graham Coxon) who was largely responsible for their trademark Britpop sound and made a record that embraced the weirdness that always lay just below the surface of much of their best work. Singer/guitarist Damon Albarn, bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree made what was effectively the initial Damon Albarn solo-record. A lot of the music on the record was something of a prototype for the lyrical/experimental approach that would characterize Albarn’s later work with Gorrilaz, Mali Music and The Good, the Bad & the Queen but in a way that was a little more focused than any of those projects. It was sort of a hybrid work: sounding a bit like Blur and a bit like what was going to come.
The record was extremely controversial on its release: it included producer Fatboy Slim on a handful of songs (a move that allegedly contributed to Coxon leaving the band), recording time spent in Morocco, cover art by Banksy and a whole lot of generally weird sounds, especially coming from a band that while previously a bit strange, always played it pretty straight. The album was critically divisive at the time, some reviewers savaging it while others embracing the new direction. It was also a bit of a commercial flop, at least by Blur’s standards, but a lot of this may have had to do with the beginning of the (still ongoing) end for the CD market that was already well-underway in 2003. Personally, I think that this is the best work that Blur ever did and I was sad to see the band permanently break-up a year or so after the album’s release.
The record is clearly a singer’s record – Albarn does a lot of layering vocal tracks on top of each other, making the record sound vaguely gospel in a lot of places. The guitar parts are basic, but functional and the music is fleshed out by deep, reggae-influenced bass-lines from Alex James, intelligent percussion work by Rowntree and a lot of ambient (and often vaguely North African) production sounds.
The album opens with the trip-hop come gospel “Ambulance” featuring thumping bass and the aforementioned layered vocals by Albarn. Albarn always had a lovely voice, one of the best and most underrated among rock singers, and it is nice to hear him really get to sing. He imbues the song and the vaguely anti-war (this was the build up to Iraq) second song, “Out of Time” with genuine emotion and tenderness.
The albums lone misstep comes with the first of the Fatboy Slim produced songs “Crazy Beat”. Without the irritating “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah yeah!” refrain, slightly inane lyrical content and trademark Fatboy slim vocoded production ticks, the song would probably have been a lot better. It features a decent guitar riff (reminiscent of something by The Clash). Still, the song is damn annoying, but fortunately it gives way to the generically titled, though gorgeous “Good Song”. Albarn is all over this one, singing with a cracked-voiced, pained emotionalism and even venturing into falsetto for middle-eight.
“On The Way To The Club” is one of Blur’s stranger songs. It is very percussion forward – relying both on Rowntree and apparently a drum machine. The song features lyrics about a surreal evening out by Albarn and a whole lot of vocoder as it slowly comes unhinged towards the end. This careens into the neo-gospel/ blues / hip hop/ vaguely Middle-Eastern, “Brother and Sisters”. The song is largely made up of Albarn’s (often clever) rapped discourse on drugs of all sorts (best line: “Smoking makes you holy”) played against a gospel chorus. This is followed-up by the proto-Sahel Blues of “Caravan”. Albarn was travelling extensively to Mali for his Mali Music side-project and his interest in Ali Farka Toure-esque desert music is obvious here. That said, Blur do a good job of making the form their own, injecting a lot of left-field electronics and production tricks.
The album is extremely well-sequenced. Just as things began to sound a little too mid-tempo, Blur inject a minute and eight seconds of raw-punk meet Moroccan pipes with “We’ve Got A File On You”. This is one of the best rockers the band ever turned out and it is a shame that it is so brief. But no matter because next-up is the hilariously titled reggae “Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club”. The song was clearly written/performed on location in Morocco under the influence of the local “herb” and is one of the most charming things that Blur have ever turned-out. It includes a whole of interesting and varied bits, a strong anti-war sentiment and quite probably Alex James’ finest moment as a bass-player.
The record then ends with a sequence of what is arguably its four best song. Beginning with “Sweet Song” a piano/acoustic guitar ballad with a titular accurate sentiment. The song is a testament to loneliness and a belief in love, and for your sad, love-sick reviewer at least, the song resonates deeply. There are moments where Albarn can make you gush with tears on the strength of his and this is definitely one of them.
This is followed-up with the experimental “Jets”. The song slowly builds, beginning with a simple, repetitive guitar figure, but then adding a second guitar line, bass and drums. The song features curious chanted, chorus interspersed periodically, the whole thing slowly building to… a brilliant jazz saxophone solo by guest musician Mike Smith. This is some fiery, vaguely post-bop playing that, while completely unexpected in the context of the song, turns out to be exactly what was needed. The playfulness of the song manages to transcend what otherwise might have been filler – no matter how many times I listen to it, that sax-bit still sounds fresh and unexpected.
From there we get the second Fatboy Slim produced track, the indelible “Gene by Gene”. The band sound a lot like Combat Rock/Sandinista-era Clash, turning in a memorable and interesting rocker driven by electronics, a trebly 2-note guitar figure, curious squeaky bed/mattress sounds and an infinitely deep sounding bass thump. Albarn’s vocals seem to float over proceedings, accented occasionally by soaring gospel choir.
The song ends with the single song to feature Coxon; “Battery In Your Leg”. The song is an incredibly minimalist piano ballad from Albarn with a disquieting electronic soup behind him. Then Graham Coxon comes in: playing with a ‘Robert Fripp on Here Come The Warm Jets’ tone and proceeds to rip the song a new-asshole. This is curiously experimental Graham Coxon – the like of which we have not seen again anyplace else. Whether it was the internal arguments within the band and the knowledge of his eminent departure that inspired his solo here or some other, unknowable force, either internal or external, this is beautiful, expressive playing. At once, though he wasn’t missed over the rest of the album, you wonder what other elements he might have brought to the other songs. The sheer vapidity of much of Coxon’s solo career also makes you wonder what he was thinking between 2002 (when he left Blur) and the band reuniting for a handful of gigs in 2009. 2012, 2013 and whenever they get together again next.
So that’s Think Tank, featuring some 12 great to classic Blur songs (all in one place, no less) and one that might be salvageable were it not so irritating. These are songs worthy of many of their early left-field classics, “Country House”, “Park Life”, “No Distance Left To Run”, “Tender” and about a dozen others. On the other hand, Oasis had that one good song (no, it’s not fucking “Wonderwall”). The jury is hung then on that eternal Blur vs Oasis question.
Punk’s not dead man! Punk will live forever! Never mind that Bill Drummond guy who actually seems to know what he’s talking about, having been there and all seeming to not buy this argument. Just because a social movement has been transformed into a commodity to be bought and sold, reduced to a fashion set and library of records – the best examples are made by bands that pretty explicitly stopped playing punk music (i.e. The Clash). Never mind that most of what is considered punk: the social movement was effectively related to the socio-economic-political conditions of Britain in the late 70s, much of which was co-opted and distorted by New Labour politics of the late 90s, the equally squalid Tori fight back and that singular aggression (and slagging off the Queen) is hardly sufficient to challenge the pervasive problems of inequality that remain manifest in British (and for that matter, even more so: American) society. Never mind that Johnny Rotten was just out to cynically exploit everyone anyways and that his animosity towards Malcolm McLaren is curious, particularly as the duo shared a unified world view. Never mind that Never Mind the Bollocks by the Sex Pistols was just poorly played heavy metal, anyways. Never mind that anything actually interesting about punk has been so aggressively mainstreamed over the last 30 years that it ceased to hold any meaning or interest whatsoever, such that mall-punk of the late 90s/early 2000s are in many ways more representative of punk that anything Fugazi, Minor Threat or any of the straight edge carriers of the true punk faith ever did. Never mind that you can purchase Misfits shirts at a Hot Topic, a marketing practice for which the band, claiming anti-capitalist cred are being warmly remunerated. Never mind any of that, because as long as a bunch of fuck-up twenty-somethings continue to swill Pabst, wear clothes covered in spikes and safety pins and sneer things like “Punk’s not dead” while managing to affect exactly nothing , then punk is apparently alive and dynamic.
So - a great left-field folk record from the year punk broke…that has absolutely nothing to do with punk!
Michael Hurley is a Pacific Northwest singer/songwriter/ folk singer. Long Journey is a poignant slice of Americana (Americana is like mom’s apple pie – always served in slices – sometimes a la mode, sometimes straight up) featuring some heartfelt, touching, charming, funny, and above all, honest, songs about the American condition and geography as he saw them.
There are a lot of great songs on this record – and Hurley carries them with some strong guitar playing and with genuine warmth. The arrangements are functional but interesting. Hurley typically on acoustic or hollow-body electric guitar and augmented with fiddle, pedal steel, bass, light percussion and other accents where needed. The arrangements are never showy or get in the way of the songs but serve to make the songs feel more fleshed out.
Hurley’s singing is absolutely great here – crisp and clear with accents on all the right places. Latter Hurley records (released on Portland’s Mississippi Records label) have retained the absurdist humor, often taking it to extremes, but Hurley’s pitch and enunciation have become as weathered as the man himself. Hearing him relatively fresh-face and fresh-voiced in 1977, and with a compelling set of songs, you genuinely wonder why he didn’t earn more acclaim. Probably something to do with punk/disco/prog being the dominant musical templates of the era.
The record opens with the languid travel song “Long Journey”. The song is a folk meets country number that does well to hammer home the lightly methodical feeling of travelling long-distances while still retaining its sense of humor. The record is full of stories and jokes: ‘Hog of the Forsaken” for example is a funny ditty about a pork pie of seeming cosmic/metaphysical significance.
Having grown up in Portland, OR, my absolute favorite song has to be “Portland Water” which is about Portland being a bit wet/rainy and all. This song is perfect as a folk-song – deeply entrenching Hurley in the Woody Gurthrie tradition (Woody also had a love affair with the Pacific Northwest). This song is deceptively simple while also revealing something about the geography/ weather/ power of place of Portland. There is something about how Hurley delivers the line: “Up in the canyon/ looking down on the river/ and the wind come blowing/ and it makes me shiver” that gets me every time I hear it. The line about going to the zoo and “seeing the Puma” always makes me chuckle, and I love the bit about the Indians calling the river the “spirit’s daughter”.
Another highlight is “Reconciled to the Blues”, which appears to be the song that Jonathan Richman has spent his entire post Modern Lovers career unsuccessfully trying to write. That said, the songs on this record alternate between “very strong” and “classic”, so you can’t really go wrong.
Like the great Captain Beefheart, Hurley is an American who has done things his own way, regardless of popular trends. I managed to catch Hurley at a music festival in Asheville, North Carolina (of all places) a couple of weeks ago and what was really incredible is that even the most tossed-off sounding songs that he played tend to pick up a certain resonance. They are songs that, for all of their apparent weirdness sometimes, manage to stick with you. Hurley may be last surviving throw-back to Old, Weird America (perhaps John Darnielle’s The Mountain Goats are the most recent carriers of the torch of this tradition). Hurley’s music is iconoclastic simply by virtue of Hurley simply being weird in his own way. Without putting on a uniform and aligning himself with a social movement, Hurley ends up coming off as more ‘punk’ than anyone currently calling themselves ‘punk’ and probably many of the original punks at the time this record first came out as well.
So how’s that for the spirit of 1977? I’m also pretty sure that Joe Strummer would really would have dug Michael Hurley…
When I sit down to write these reviews, my perception of self has to be, quite pretentiously (or perhaps portentously) that of critic as surgeon. The hope is that I may dissect a work as if with scalpel: delicately extracting the good, the bad, the facets of cultural importance, the harbingers of future musical change and the places where an ill-conceived masturbation joke might be inserted.
In reality, the practice of criticism is a lot more like playing whack-a-mole with a large blunt object and real moles. You try to hammer on a lot of different things that all seem to pop up at once in a musical piece, probably miss most of them, and end up with a godawful mess on your hands. Cultural dissection is more about wildly flailing around, mashing mole guts and gore all over the place, chunks of vermin splattered every which way, full of cursing, recriminations and sorrow.
In short, it is a game for demented lunatics with possible dangerous, psychotic tendencies. And anyways, the question should perhaps be less of what is innovative or authentic, but merely what is good and you don’t really need a surgeon to determine that, just someone with an idiots IQ and a congealing mole blood all over them. This entirely devalues the critic as we all make those decisions for ourselves every day anyways, but critics are just assholes with the arrogance to think they understand cultural capital better than the culture as a whole.
So how’s that for a little peak behind the scenes? You should have gone on that sausage factory tour instead - less emotional wreckage to navigate.
Anyhow…. what an unbelievable guitarist Bola Sete is! Sete’s playing fully embodies everything I like about Brazilian music - and particularly about Bossa Nova. He brings an obvious, sultry romanticism (and joy!) to his playing while also bringing a very clear intelligence. He is subtle in his experimentations rhythmically, harmonically and melodically, with every note he plays being in some way interesting. Also, it’s great pop music that people like to dance to.
There are a lot of strong classical notes that underlie Sete’s playing. It is fairly obvious that he has been classically trained, but he brings a lot of the Baroque aesthetic, along with the requirement for problem solving incumbent in classical guitar playing (guitarist Marc Ribot once likened playing a classical guitar piece as like trying to solve 100 different complicated math problems at once in real time) to a bossa tradition. Sete is playful, with melody, with rhythm and with the references he chooses to sprinkle his solos with.
The record opens with “Brejeiro”, which is an engaging upbeat bossa. The tune moves through some tasty modulations. While Sete is also highly regarded as a solo guitarist, he is exemplary here in a trio format, demonstrating intelligent interplay with the bass and drums. With Sete the only soloist here, the rhythm section are he largely unsung heroes here, providing Sete a subtlety shifting, polyrhythmic sea to sail across. While the main thematic elements are determined by Sete, drummer Paulinho and bassist (and future Sergio Mendes mainstay) Sebastiao Neto provide their own subtle, slightly hypnotic, accents.
“Soul Samba" is also great and gives Sete an opportunity to really dig in. Here he inflects bop guitar lines with his classical and bossa predilections, creating a a stellar melange of the two. Sete goes on an absolute tear, the ideas never seem to stop and he plays like a man possessed, trying to get them all across.
"Coisa" is another highlight, featuring a minor-key ballad that borrows elements from "Nature Boy" which features perfect group interplay. For Sete, the ideas never really seem to stop, while Neto and Paulinho shift the terrain just so to coax further subtle experimentation. This piece goes in a lot of different directions musically, but feels completely controlled and tuneful at the same time. Bossa is all about slow burn, that controlled passion that is made all the more intense by being spooned out rather than poured.
Also great is “Baion Blues" whereby Sete dusts off his (before unknown) T-Bone Walker chops and delivers a hybrid of jump blues, rockabilly and bossa. The tune is completely unexpected but still manages to fit seamlessly with the rest of the record. It almost seems to suggest an alternative world in which Chuck Berry was from Rio rather than St. Louis. This is followed-up with the carnival-beat driven "Pau De Arara"
This whole record is a non-stop joy. I like to listen to it while I try to clean caked-on moll remains off of my carpet. You may want to listen to it differently.
I have a particularly irritating friend on Facebook (or my preferred construction, “The Book of Faces” which makes it sound even more perverse) who peppers his feed with a series of ‘observations’. These largely consist of inane statements of the obvious whereby any deviation from the young man’s own highly parochial expectations (all of which are normal occurrences in a medium to large sized city) are treated as if they belong to some bizarre mutant occult ritual, worthy of much hemming and hawing. And so, we have a dim procession of charmless observations paired with what can only be described as a tin ear for wit.
In short, my friend is a verifiable Anti-Proust: capable of draining the life from even the most lively and rendering even the most interesting as a damp and flabby mass. His daily insights are like chewing a ball of damp wool. Rather than infuse the quotidian with wit, soul or insight, he instead manages to drain them of any possible joy or imagination. One would hope that such abject navel gazing might eventually (accidentally?) yield some fruit of self-examination. Instead, we are only offered-up a front-row seat to observe a feast of self-abuse. Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is probably a record that he likes a great deal.
Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a record that is probably extremely controversial to criticize because of the vast cultural capital now attached to it. It is an album that I quite liked in my early 20s, but which has not in any way aged well to my ears (though it remains popular among my generation (and probably Gen-Xers as well) as a “very important album that speaks to the human condition”. The record was portrayed as edgy and experimental when it was released, which is confusing on the grounds that it never sounded much of either then or now.
Much of this cultural capital stems from the conditions under which the record was recorded and eventually released. Wilco had undergone a line-up shift (bringing in talented and genuinely musical drummer Glenn Kotche for whoever they had before) while the band’s two founders: Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett were at each other’s throats throughout based on different views on the musical direction the band should go. Bennett wanted more middlebrow alt-country roots rock with a few odd production elements (see Wilco’s preceding three records) while Tweedy-favored his particular brand of middlebrow high school notebook poetry augmented by skeletal pop alt-country song structures and various production bleeps and bloops, making the band something of a cow pie splattered Radiohead-lite. The bleeps and bloops were provided by famed indie-music musicians and producer Jim O’Rourke (who on his own makes record more interesting music than anything Wilco has thus far managed). The fall out from this great debate resulted in Bennett exciting the band upon completion of the record.
On top of this creative strife, came the almost comical decision of Wilco’s record label to drop the band on the grounds that (according to the band – the record company executives have been curiously silent) Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was too “difficult”, “experimental” and “non-commercial”. The group released the album for free on the Internet and began to tour behind it anyways. The humor was compounded a few months later when the band was resigned by a different subsidiary of the same label and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was released to great critical acclaim.
And what acclaim: Pitchfork famously gave the record a much coveted perfect 10, all but guaranteeing through its roll at the time as ascendant determiner of cultural importance that the next decade would be colored by endless rehashes of YHF (as it came to be abbreviated). The sales were brisk (for a relatively indie-rock record) and this record, as much as anything is responsible for the mainstreaming of the indie rock sound, which is now largely inescapable. The success of this record paved the way for the dominance of The Broken Social Scene, The Arcade Fire, The XX and others. The record was an instant and obvious NPR crossover and in 2002 (when the record was released) its particular brand of middle-brow, non-specific though slightly ‘hurt’ emotionalism (delivered though Jeff Tweedy’s slightly precious restrained tantrums in miniature) and soothing computer sounds meets equally soothing acoustic guitars was exactly what the country needed to recover from the trauma of 9/11 and the onset of the neoconservative war in Afghanistan (and soon Iraq). Unsurprisingly, this was the same period in which tonally similar and now equally inescapable, “Mumblecore” cinema started making its big in-roads.
This then leaves an important question: did anyone find this record difficult at the time? I rather liked it when it came out, but I never found it willfully experimental per se. It’s easy crossover success further cements this notion that this was not the type of bold, genre defying, difficult artistic statement that would result in a band being dropped by their label on the grounds that they could not possibly release so commercially irredeemable an album. Never mind that it’s basically just a bunch of kinda-catchy alt-Country pop songs dressed up with a little Nigel Godrich styled production. The incredible record sales that accompanied OK Computer, Kid A and Amnesiac had all demonstrated that indie rock listeners for this same aesthetic (slightly fractured pop songs with computer/technology-derived production sounds). The addition of acoustic guitars was never going to be a stretch.
You sort of wonder if a lot of the controversy was electioneered as a means of hyping and album that, while kind of interesting, and having a few good pop moments, is mostly held up by Jim O’Rouke’s blips and boops. That the whole process of the uneasy gestation, third trimester record label drama and eventual birth of ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ was captured as a surprisingly rather dull, (though artistically shot in black and white) documentary for posterity almost lends credence to the theory that many of the machinations behind this release were in some way designed to cultivate critics and social justice aware indie rock/NPR crossover fans.
The album opens with “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” which opens amid a sea of chiming bell sounds, whooshing electronics, slightly out of tune piano and slightly polyrhythmic drumming, before acoustic guitars and Jeff Tweedy’s half-trite half-profound (ish) poetry emerge. He swipes lines/lyrical concepts from Gary Numan and pushes some really trite rhymes. Poor Jeff Tweedy, it sounds like he is having some non-specific relationship issues, though he seems to have a cursory, though quite cold relationship with his wife in the documentary. If you can grit your teeth through some of Tweedy’s more agonizing formulations (i.e. “I’m hiding out in the big city blinking” or “Take off your Band-Aid because I don’t believe in touchdowns”) then this isn’t a bad song.
The second song, “Kamera” is also ok. I wish Jeff Tweedy would learn how to spell the word ‘camera’ correctly and also that he would stop telling us that it’s “not ok” but whatever. The song is driven by a acoustic guitars and proceeds at a pleasant enough clip. It is light, catchy fun – see also the song “Heavy Metal Drummer” which pulls of the same trick slightly better, creating an acoustic anthem about high school Kiss cover bands. This of course only leads on to believe that perhaps Tweedy visited his high school notebooks as the source of the lyrics, but the song is fun enough that the juvenilia doesn’t manage to grate. Also, “War on War” is more of the same type of thing, only less effective, but including some neat shortwave radio sounds and electric piano.
“Radio Cure” on the other hand is just awful. Slow, plodding slop peppered with navel-gazing, solipsistic lyrical conceits and absolutely awful delivery from Tweedy. He sounds at once drunk, like he his on verge of tears and like he really doesn’t give a shit about actually hitting the notes he is singing. Demanding that the subject to whom the song is addressed “cheer up” repeatedly, when this is clearly the antithesis of what Tweedy clearly actually would like from the song is a pretty irritating construction.
Surprisingly, the best song on the album is the love song that is ostensibly about Jesus – and this coming from a self-described atheist. “Jesus, Etc” features an elegiac string arrangement and sounds like a more mature, fully written song than the rest of the record. In many ways, it feels out of place with the rest of the album. Gone is the gurgling, dense production draped over the skeleton of a pop track and instead we get a fully written, clear bit of chamber pop. The song is mature, well thought-out and complete. The ecclesiastical themes, while minor, actually work well to add additional ballast to the song. As I said, it really doesn’t fit with the rest of YHF: it’s almost as if Tweedy and Jay Bennett sat down and wrote this song, then after they started fighting, decided that actually writing songs was a lot of work (and they couldn’t stand to be around each other anyways), and so Tweedy pulled out his high school notebooks and got Jim O’Rourke, et al to jam over the cracks.
Unfortunately, “Jesus, Etc” is followed-up by one of the most extreme examples of kind of laziness that creeps across the rest of the record with, “The Ashes of American Flags”. This song is often singled out for praise, and I never quite got it. The song seeks profundity by trying to ascribe epic attributes to the mundane, but fails to actually do this. Over the course of the song, Tweedy documents his journey from ATM to gas station convenience store; to making an overly specific purchase (Tweedy drinks “Diet Coke”) before inserting some vaguely depressed musings, and then declares the demise of the American Dream (saluting the titular ashes of American Flags). Apparently this is supposed to be about general apathy for issues of import and Tweedy’s disappointment with this, but Tweedy himself comes off as so self-involved that I don’t know how effective this actually comes off as. Tweedy sort of comes off as a parody of himself here. I appreciate the risk of the opening gambit; I just wish the song were more effective. To the songs credit, it has a decent descending guitar figure and one or two decent lines (“shake like a toothache” is a genuinely unique formulation). I also like it that it collapses into weird vacuum cleaning sounds before segueing into a sunny pop song.
“I’m The Man That Loves You” is also pretty good (and probably comes closest to replicating the quality of ‘Jesus, Etc’). I likely the slight psychedelic bits and the krautrock influenced guitar solos (though they go on a little too long). Also, the horn arrangements are interesting and clever. They remind me of a lot of the things that I really like about the Beta Band’s seminal 3-EPs, but then I just end of wishing I were listening to the Beta Band instead.
The rest of the record is largely more of what we’ve already head – upbeat, pentatonic acoustic guitar rock or brooding Jim O’Rourke sounds plus Tweedy vocalizations about something or other non-specific. A lot of this would be more effective if Tweedy were a better poet, but many of his formulations sound so forced that you have to make an effort to distance yourself and enjoy what is going on, occasionally despite Tweedy. Because the songs are so skeletal, there isn’t a lot to hold on to with any of them. The melodies where they appear sound coincidental and are pretty forgettable (with the exception of “Jesus, Etc”). Forcing the production to do the heavy lifting largely works for this album, but it also makes it sound slightly hollow. Beneath all of Radiohead’s turn and computer sounds, they usually had pretty strongly composed music. Here, you strip away the production and all you are left with is a sketch. So maybe you can say, this record is effective as sound collage, but then the lion share of the credit for it must go to O’Rourke as opposed to Wilco.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an album that works extremely hard to be taken as a serious piece of art without actually having put in the work to do so. Despite all of Tweedy’s self-conscious lyrics, there is a real lack of introspection to the lyrics. This would be ok had Wilco delivered a strong set of songs. Instead we get some dimly defined (though slightly catchy) chord changes and a sea of interesting production. You just wish that this production had been paired with material genuinely worthy of it, or perhaps just presented on its own. Much like my friend’s irritating ‘observations’ that I mentioned at the start of this review, the record comes up short in actually delivering much in the way of genuine introspection.
Now if only I could find a way to de-friend Wilco on Facebook without them noticing. I wouldn’t want to hurt Jeff Tweedy’s feelings - he seems like he’s already under a lot of stress. Maybe Wilco could write a non-specific song about that.