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Siouxsie and the Banshees - Peepshow (1988)
Producer: Mike Hedges, Siouxsie and the Banshees
The Killing Jar
Ornaments of Gold
Turn to Stone
Rawhead and Bloodybones
The Last Beat of My Heart
Released in 1988, Peepshow is the ninth studio album by the female-fronted Siouxsie and the Banshees.
Firstly, I would like all my readers to imagine the scene:
Your career is stunning, thus far, and almost entirely without fault. You closed the 1970s with one of the fieriest debuts in recent memory. You began the 1980s with a trio of well-respected albums, two of which are stunning examples of the genre's best. You thought your ghoulish outfit to be without imperfection. You have slowly built up a legion of fans and you push boundaries, gathering respect with each new release.
And then, well, it all seemed to go a bit wrong.
Somewhere between recruiting Robert Smith (The Cure) as guitarist for their 1984 album Hyaena and producing the covers-only album Through the Looking Glass in 1987, Siouxsie and the Banshees' seemingly lost their way and their output varied from the merely very good to the dreadfully banal. In the ever-changing face of the 1980s' music scene, relevancy could be lost with ease and many artists found it then hard to buy back into public and critical adoration, once it was gone.
But in 1988 the band released Peepshow. At once the record was mischievous, sonically daring, highly-melodic and Siouxsie Sioux smashes every performance with an almost operatic vocal capability throughout. (See the enthralling closing track, Rhapsody. To call it highly thrilling seems to do the band a great disservice.) Each song has at least one undeniably great vocal or instrumental hook which most bands would be happy to come up with over the course of an entire career. Yes, Siouxsie and the Banshees had found their voice again.
The choppy Peek-a-Boo and its platoon of disorientating lunges forcibly enters your life and then refuses to leave. A concurrence of various instrumentation weaves in and out of the studio, the band chucking everything available at the wall of sound. Thankfully, it all sticks. The accordion still haunts me now, bookending Siouxsie's chilling, delirium-inducing prances, swimming in and out of earshot, from one speaker to the other. Second single, The Killing Jar, comes next and provides a more steady rhythm for the listener to cling to. A delightful slice of pop wonderment, its musical bridges literally make me want to scream in frustration, knowing I will never craft something as perfect as this.
And then comes something for the older fans, given a bit of a twist. Scarecrow is the band's typical 'chiller' - which had been perfected on 1981's Juju - but now given the Peepshow treatment. The production is more refined, the band members doing their very minimalist best, with all focus placed upon the band's greatest asset - Siouxsie's theatrical voice. "Listen to his body moan, make a wish and send us home. To spin the gold and silver stitches, we can turn his rags to riches," Siouxsie erupts, over a barrage of rolling guitars. I guarantee you will be caught up in the performance. My personal favourite, however, is the morbidly amusing Burn-Up. The band crafts a winning combination of rockabilly drama and harmonica hooks, to titivate this crazy tale of a pyromaniac on a killing spree and make it acceptable to the general consumer. No mean feat.
Arguably, this midsection of the album is the most credible from a critical point of view. There's so many different styles at play here all being executed flawlessly that the band has my absolute kudos. You usually just don't get this level of experimentation coming off as listenable as it is. Not that the album lets up here onwards, though, as each track is as listenable as the last. Case in question: Rawhead and Bloodybones is a gentle lullaby, doubling as a cruelly enchanting soundtrack to the doll's house from hell. Its properties are mystifying and I'm still left not entirely sure what I am listening to. But some things are best left unexplained.
Naturally, I've left Peepshow's - and indeed the band's - magnum opus to last, The Last Beat of My Heart. It's extremely rare to find such a restrained love song, especially from a band who previously would hammer home their point with an increase in volume. Its soundscape is so fleeting and faint that it almost falls from view a couple of times, only to be elevated again by the strongest vocal performance of Siouxsie's entire career. This is romance, exemplified and defined.
Siouxsie and the Banshees would never reach these dizzy heights again and while their output during the 1990s was still enjoyable, this listener views The Last Beat of My Heart as their swansong, both lyrically and in terms of quality of their future productions. That said, no band could hope to reach the highs set by this most majestic of love songs.
I personally feel that Peepshow is a successful juxtaposition of styles you would never typically put together, especially from a band who - while keen for experimentation - always stuck firmly to their gothic and punk blueprint. There's an air of playfulness about Peepshow which is devilishly funny when considering the often morbid lyrical content. The fact the songwriters successfully pulled off a pop album in the process smart enough to make Robert Smith blush makes it all the more resonant. And that is why it is Siouxsie and the Banshees' best album.
(Actually, smash that, right now it's my favourite album of all time.)
David Bowie - Reality (2003)
Producer: David Bowie, Tony Visconti
New Killer Star
Never Get Old
The Loneliest Guy
Looking for Water
She'll Drive the Big Car
Fall Dog Bombs the Moon
Try Some, Buy Some
Bring Me the Disco King
Released in 2003, Reality is the twenty-third album by British musician David Bowie. After his unlikely comeback the previous year with the much-loved Heathen, it was once again OK to like David Bowie (for perhaps the first time since he styled his hair like a Cornish-pasty in the Let's Dance video in 1983). Seemingly unwilling to allow this unexpected resurgence in quality and popularity pass him by, he quickly arranged for producer Tony Visconti to again rendezvous with him for a period of time in the recording studio. Obviously, the aim was to recreate the successes of Heathen and to earn him another portion of respect back.
And the boy done good. Real good. The end result is an understandably rougher around the edges affair than Heathen - a reasonable concession given the reduction in time between albums. But where Heathen informed us that Bowie was back with a bang, as his frail voice awesomely skulked in amongst the anguish of the new millenium; Reality is keen to re-establish the youthful exuberance he once exhibited during his glam-period - while the tender song-writing and mortal heart of Heathen still remains, beating loud and as regular as clockwork.
The debut single from the album also starts proceedings. New Killer Star finds Bowie reciting some of the catchiest couplets of his career, as the choppy guitars and strangled strings stringently divide the pithy verses from the impressive chorus. And when the chorus inevitably falls back in on itself and reverts back to the bite-size codas of the verses, you'll be tapping your feet and bopping your head along to this infectious sing-along. It is this persuasion which the defiant second single, Never Get Old, carries effortlessly. Bowie keeps his tongue firmly within his cheek as the song reaches its final division. "Never, ever gonna' get old," screams the ageing hipster - you will no doubt join in, too.
The themes of loneliness and social segregation touched upon during Heathen are given front-row tickets during Reality. I may not have much time for the minimalist and self-indulgent The Loneliest Guy, however, the acoustic Days could melt the heart of even the most soulless, luckless individual. There's nothing remotely spontaneous about Days: it's been meticulously crafted deep within the bowels of the studio and, as such, is Reality's best produced moment - the gentle chimes of percussion ring clearly, as does the momentous saxophone which is the perfect supplement to Bowie's soulful vocal delivery.
No review of Reality would be complete without a discussion over the all out rockers of the set. A cover of The Modern Lovers' Pablo Picasso steals the show during the first half of the record, which injects the original's subdued tempo with a much-welcomed shot of adrenalin. To call it better than the already superb original would be a crime so let's just settle for calling it a thrilling, alternate take. The Bowie originals are no slackers, either - Looking for Water hypnotically spirals ever-downwards, approaching its inevitable crescendo, and when it hits, it hits hard, delivering a powerful blow to the sternum of this aural body. Unbelievably, Bowie surpasses this dizzying high with the title-track and achieves unexpected levels of energy throughout, sounding thirty years younger than his near-senile self.
Now, anybody around here seen my snare drum? I think the sucker just went and bust it up.
The only time the album truly loses its way is on a cover of George Harrison's Try Some, Buy Some. Where The Pixies' Cactus was the perfect vehicle for Bowie's unconventional singing style and slightly off-key delivery, Try Some, Buy Some does his vocal chords no such favours. Bowie sheepishly attempts to fend off the song's running time, bless him, but ultimately fails because the style of the song is simply not for him or his limited vocal-range.
A jazzy little number with more vocal overdubs than you can shake a stick at, Bring Me the Disco King is the most fitting end to a Bowie record since Ziggy Stardust took a bow during Rock 'n' Roll Suicide back in 1972. "Bring me the Disco King," mutters Bowie, perhaps feeling his mortality for the first time in his prolific recording career. "Don't let me know when you're opening the doors, close me in the dark, let me disappear... soon, they'll be nothing left of me."
And maybe that was what Reality was all about for David Bowie. It was his form of catharsis - a release of a higher, self-informed emotional energy - after twenty years of music swaying erratically from the merely listenable to the downright unbearable. Foremost, it was his way of saying, "I can still do this. This is the Reality of the situation. One day, I'm going to be gone and this is what my eulogy sounds like."
Needless to say, then, I highly recommend Reality - following on from Heathen's example, it's another honest record from one of the industry's most obscure performers, and for that reason alone it should be treated as gold dust. Also note that Reality is the perfect partner to 2002's Heathen - the two could easily have been released together as a double-album set and everybody would have thought it made perfect sense.
And if, God forbid, David Bowie were to drop dead tomorrow morning, he could rest peacefully, knowing that his final two studio albums did away with twenty years of difficult releases and that this fan - along with many others - felt that he was back on top of the world.
I'm going to unapologetically give this one another nine, then.
David Bowie - Heathen (2002)
Producer: Tony Visconti
I've Been Waiting for You
I Would Be Your Slave
I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship
5.15 the Angels Have Gone
Everyone Says "Hi"
A Better Future
Heathen (The Rays)
Released in 2002, Heathen is the twenty-second album by British musician David Bowie (and yes, that is omitting album counts with the dreadful Tin Machine project). At time of release, Heathen was heralded as a return to form for the once musical chameleon.
Bearing in mind that Bowie had been wallowing in a musical mire, and that he had lost but all affinity with his muse for going on twenty years, this record was nothing short of a revelation. Heathen should, then, go down in the history books as one of the all time greatest comebacks, as demonstrative in its field as Muhammad Ali's comeback was in the professional boxing circuit - that of a self-appointed underdog biting back.
Heathen's greatest facet is its deconstruction of one of the industries greatest 'fakers'. For possibly the first time in his recording career, we may just be getting an honest and frank David Bowie, baring his soul for the world to see. (You could argue that 1999's Hours did this long before Heathen but there was a faint scent of kippers in the air as he crooned his way through Thursday's Child, that just didn't wash with me.)
But to hear a middle-aged Bowie - closer to sixty than fifty years of age - plea and reminisce on Slip Away (one of Heathen's improbable high-points) is enough to make a grown man cry. It took the man five recording decades to achieve but he finally made the crossover into sincere singer-songwriter territory.
Teaming up again with producer Tony Visconti- who had helmed the majority of his classic 1970s' albums - is another great attribute. Some producers know how to get the very best out of certain musicians and this has always been true of the Bowie/Visconti partnership. The two working together is still as an exciting proposal as when the duo forged the classic Berlin Trilogy, as the 1970s were drawing to a close. Arguably, Heathen is also Bowie's hardest rock album, even out-riffing the best moments of his stomping glam period, while at all times remaining strangely personal - see the superior cover of Neil Young's I've Been Waiting for You.
But I hear you say, "And what of the songs, Danny K"? Well, my friends, the songs are amongst Bowie's best. As a whole, the album is punchy and muscular, memorable and modern, while always keeping an eye on what made his past successes. In the emerging months after the September 11th attacks, the world's sorry state of affairs seemingly bled into the lifeblood of Heathen, as seen on the opening Sunday. A perfectly restrained use of modern recording equipment highlights some of Bowie's finest vocals, while mirroring the fears which seeped into the new millennium. "In your fear, seek only peace. In your fear, seek only love." Sunday is a cryptic but resonant start to the record.
The album's covers play a large part in making Heathen what it is. I have no time for the zany I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship, although I understand the relevance of this song to Bowie - Ziggy Stardust was inspired by the name of the song's author, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. The other two covers, an inspiringly filthy rendition of The Pixies' Cactus and the aforementioned reading of Neil Young's I've Been Waiting for You, may as well have been written for Bowie, such is the conviction of his performances as he makes both pieces of music his own. The former especially, suits his bad-ass, off-kilter vocal kicks and deliberate pangs of lust.
Rarely is an album blemish free, and Heathen is not perfect by any means. In his twilight years, Bowie's vocals have struggled on more than one occasion and their straining reaches a limit on Afraid. On a record which generally plays to his strengths and not his weaknesses, it's a laughable attempt at reminiscing over memories and only fails where Slip Away had succeeded previously. Similarly, the twee A Better Future is more disposable Christmas jingle than a prime cut of what's on offer here, and would be better suited to an elevator playlist than fleshing out Heathen's already ample playtime.
In much the same way as the record started, modern production techniques emphasise the quality of the closing song, Heathen (The Rays), with shimmering production and gentle electronic chimes amidst the ethereal backing. As with Sunday, the song works as a musical piece above all else, and is pleasantly ornamented with Bowie's introspective vocals. "Waiting for something, looking for someone," Bowie soon shares his doubts, "Is there no reason? Have I stared too long?"
Bowie followed up Heathen the following year with the equally enjoyable Reality, before being set back by a number of health problems while touring the record. It's been almost ten years, then, since Bowie's been away - a hell of a long time, if you ask me. This is a crying shame as he was onto recording the finest sequence of albums in his career since the 1970s - I can only hope his muse was captured in stasis and whenever he chooses to return to the studio, he will pick up where he left off.
But for the meantime I'd highly recommend a purchase of Heathen and enjoy the comeback of a lifetime, yes, a record which effortlessly captures the daily struggles which get the better of us, through a thematically sound and immersive record. He certainly took his time, but it's a pleasure to have a modern Bowie record which can compete with the days of yore.
Al Green - Al Green Explores Your Mind (1974)
Producer: Willie Mitchell
Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy)
Take Me to the River
God Blessed Our Love
One Nite Stand
I'm Hooked on You
Stay with Me Forever
Released in 1974, Al Green Explores Your Mind is the eighth album by soul musician Al Green. A little research into Al Green's life will explain that he was one of the more troubled musicians of his ilk, eventually culminating in a complete turnaround in lifestyle choice and being promoted to an ordained preacher. I chose to review this album in particular as it finds Green on the cusp of this turnaround - its release coincided with his then girlfriend assaulting Green and then committing suicide. As regular readers will note, I find that these personal torments often make for the more interesting listen, if not the most genuine form of entertainment in a world fixated with showbiz and fake celebrity personalities.
To get things started, let me say that I'm not the biggest fan of Al Green's vocals from an industry standard point of view. He isn't as technically reliable as, say, Marvin Gaye. But boy does the man know how to write a brilliant melody and marry it to a series of achingly earnest heartfelt vocals. Some of his peers would literally die for the authenticity displayed throughout this record. It is this which carries each Al Green record and is also his signature hallmark, his defining characteristic.
Al Green's vocals enter the equation in such an understated manner, and ease their way alongside the instrumentation with such simplicity, that if you blink, you'll miss it. Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy) is easily one of the greatest love songs ever recorded. Unsurprisingly, this isn't the last time the theme of love is captured on Al Green Explores Your Mind - God Bless Our Love is such a powerful testament to unity in a relationship that it's hard not to be affected as Al Green's vocals tenderly break over the steady rhythm. For me, the album is already sold on this track alone.
The hot, sultry funk of Take Me to the River would later be beaten by the weird stick by Talking Heads but here - in its original form - it's an endearing paean to pleasure, with easily as much momentum as when it was first recorded. "Love is a notion that I can't forget, my sweet sixteen, I will never regret." In comes the sex, out goes respect, everyone's a winner, what did you expect?
It is with sadness and regret that the critic in me has to tell you that the second act of the album does not live up to the flawless first. Disappointingly, the entire mid-section of this record sags and ultimately withholds Al Green Explores Your Mind from truly classic status. A nadir is reached on the throwaway The City, which comes across as an afterthought and would struggle to make a competent b-side, let alone hold its own in the centre of an album. One Nite Stand and I'm Hooked On You - while not nearly as offensive - are similarly below par and are less memorable than they should be, on an album full of heavy hitters.
Thankfully, the final, thrilling third of the album more than makes up for these slight missteps. Yes, Stay with Me Forever is a return to the satisfying soul of the start of the record, delivering hooks aplenty and a fiery piano jaunt. Similarly, Hangin' On brings back the organ and string sections in a big way, Al Green himself firing on all cylinders and sounding in fine voice.
And then we have the closing School Days, which is, in a word, faultless. Al Green effectively evokes reminiscing over your childhood sweetheart and of a time when the pretensions and struggles of adulthood where absent. These times free from care are captured brilliantly, with as much definition and clarity as any physical photo could ever achieve. Just, brilliant.
For your money, then, you get nine songs - one of which is intolerable, while two are solid if unremarkable. Sound like a bad deal? Think again, as the other six really raise the bar in terms of earnestness within a genre full of empty promises and screaming divas. There's not much to dislike here.
Once you go Green, you'll know what I mean.
Lady Gaga - Born This Way (2011)
Marry the Night
Born This Way
Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)
Heavy Metal Love
You and I
The Edge of Glory
Released in May 2011, Born This Way is the second album by pop star Lady Gaga. For the past couple of years Lady Gaga has been demolishing everything in her path, going from commercial strength to commercial strength, to the point where she now has complete artistic freedom and individuality - something which is increasingly rare in the spoon-fed musical climate we have currently become accustomed to.
Having caught everyone's attention with her debut, The Fame, and its tremendous salvo of singles, Gaga then went on to augment her debut with an eight-track expansion entitled The Fame Monster. With this move Gaga perfected her brand of electronic pop and infused it with a sense of theatre and flair which hasn't been seen since... well, forever. The last pop stars to truly fashion such extravagant performances - both in the studio and live - were David Bowie, Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson, all of which would see you casting an eye back several decades.
Yes, the music industry was ready for another diva, if not crying out for it.
Easily the most anticipated album of the decade, Born This Way - for the best part - manages to live up to the hype placed upon it. I was extremely nervous upon hearing the record for the first time but with the exception of a few sidesteps and unnecessary filler, the album is a tight electro workout, which is as likely to influence future artists as it is to decimate the careers of her lacklustre peers.
Marry the Night fires a flare into the starry skies and becomes the beacon to which this fan warms. Better highlights would come later but as far as room-shakingly brilliant openers come, Marry the Night has few rivals. Leave your prejudice at the door and there is no reason why you, too, will not enjoy this pleasingly disposable euro-trash and its lavish production values. It's quickly becoming apparent that Gaga can dispense these big-budget 'hit the dance floor' monsters with little-to-no-effort and still come up smelling of roses.
I do, however, contest that Gaga is releasing a peculiar choice of singles from the album. One can reason why the 'be happy in your own skin' title-track was chosen as the launch anthem, but as to why one would choose the uninspiring and controversial wrecking-ball Judas over the dominating electroclash likes of Government Hooker - which positively sizzles with filth and features a chorus to get genuinely hot under the collar about - is beyond me. Likewise, The Edge of Glory makes perfect sense within the context of the album but outside of its proper circumstances it becomes little more than a harmless pop ditty.
Americano ties unstable flamenco rhythms together with Gaga's seductive Spanish-speaking talents. Gaga's once attention-seeking holler becomes a full on guttural roar during the chorus, a transformation which truly has to be heard to be believed and defines the majestic levels of stage drama so often achieved throughout the album. That said, as a man without a chromosome imbalance, there is simply no way I can fully enjoy the next track, Hair, without cracking a wry smile. What more can be said other than it's superfluous - a guilty pleasure - but fundamentally harmless and falls just the right side of the 'cheese' fence.
Scheiße is my personal favourite from Born This Way. "When I'm on a mission, I rebuke my condition; if you're a strong female you don't need permission!" 'YES, I'M A STRONG FEMALE AND I REBUKE MY CONDITION!' *cough*, sorry, lost myself for a moment there. Back to the music, Gaga devises a dense musical landscape full to the brim with shifting synths and cutting edge techno expertise, delivering a skull-rattlingly awesome musical maelstrom which rips up all debris in its path.
Alas, it's about time we discussed some of those sidesteps I mentioned earlier, most of which take place during the latter third of Born This Way. Electric Chapel lacks the amps to push along the volts it aspires to incur upon the listener, with an uninspiring 'rising' chorus bridge technique which we have heard many times before. Not even the dirty guitar shreds can save this insipid mess. Similarly, You and I shines a disappointingly dim light but will no doubt be adopted by stadium goers everywhere because if ever there was a lighters aloft anthem, this is it. Oh, and apparently Brian May of Queen plays guitar on the song. Not that you'd notice.
The Edge of Glory is an end-of-album cool-down and draws the curtains with an emotional high, providing a reminder that Gaga has a voice to match her ambition. Just as you think the chorus has hit its final crescendo, Gaga belts out one more sentimental war cry and takes this listener to cloud nine. You'll soon be there with me, too.
My only real beef with the album is the erratic nature of the censorship throughout. I'm not one for needless profanities throughout an album, however, the scales which deem what is and is not shocking seems to be off the wall here and inattentive. Why would swearing - integral to songs such as Government Hooker and Bad Kids - be censored but the lyrics, "I want your whiskey mouth all over my blonde south," (Heavy Metal Lover) be left untouched? Even stranger, Scheiße slips under the radar without any sort of condemnation! I must have forgotten that SWEARING DOESN'T COUNT IF IT'S IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE! It simply makes no sense and makes a mockery of the entire censorship system - roll on the inevitable uncensored edition of Born This Way, I say.
Yet, despite my ranting, the censorship is implemented tastefully, so much so that it actually took me several listens before actually realising that Born This Way has only been released as a non-explicit version.
And that, folks, is Born This Way. Taken as a sum total - as all albums should be - it arguably lacks the standout singles which made The Fame stand out from the crowd, but it more than makes up for this by being a more mature and wholly rounded affair, yes, a more consistent record.
I can only hope Lady Gaga now releases the Born This Way Monster.
Marvin Gaye - Let's Get It On (1973)
Producer: Marvin Gaye, Ed Townsend
Let's Get It On
Please Stay (Once You Go Away)
If I Should Die Tonight
Keep Getting' It On
Come Get to This
You Sure Love to Ball
Just to Keep You Satisfied
Released in 1973, Let's Get It On is the twelfth album by Marvin Gaye, and immediately follows his classic war and poverty-stricken cum drug abuse concept album of 1971, What's Going On. That album had afforded Gaye freedom in the studio and had won him many new fans, as well as reaffirming the love of his established fan base. Next on the cards would be something sultry - even a bit naughty - but nevertheless approached with the same intensity that was applied to his rich political statement previously.
All of the greatest music has taken form amongst either the breakdown or glorification of a passionate relationship - it's simply the way it has always been. In the wake of his failed marriage, Isaac Hayes' conquered the double-album market with his brutally honest arrangement of various covers on Black Moses in 1971; The Cure, despite prolifically delving into the realms of mope-rock where albums are concerned, had a string of singles in the 1980s pronouncing true love, all of which have stood the test of time (bet you thought I couldn't shoehorn a Cure reference into a Tamla/Motown review, right?). Marvin Gaye's 1973 album, Let's Get On, assumes the role of fulfilling the latter statement, making for one of the all time great albums, which, almost forty years on, still manages to stir both romance in the bedroom and interest from critics.
I'd be hard pressed to find a more sexual album than this. Let's Get It On is carried by its sensuality and wry nods towards innuendo, but is rarely crude or brash. 'I contend that sex is sex and love is love. When combined, they work well together, if two people are of about the same mind,' is but one statement proclaimed by Marvin Gaye within the liner-notes accompanying the album. It is this notion that love is almighty that indulges the listener and fuels the fires which undoubtedly elevate Let's Get It On to classic status.
The title-track will need no introduction. Whereas Gaye would later win mass-appeal with the brazen hit single Sexual Healing in the 1980s, it is here that you will find a deft hand turned towards subtlety and true seduction as an art form. As Gaye proclaims, "Giving yourself to me can never be wrong, if the love is true," he delivers one of the most brilliantly yearning vocal performances ever captured in the recording studio. The guitars carry a fair degree of promiscuity on their notation, while the rising strings which reoccur throughout diligently inspire wanton desires. The song is later reprised by Keep Getting' It On, originally closing side one of the vinyl.
In between the two parts of the title-track, you will find Please Stay (Once You Go Away), one of the most achingly beautiful melodies ever composed. As Gaye's partner takes flight after their single steamy encounter, he pleads to her to remain forevermore, yes, to keep the restless nights at bay. If I Should Die Tonight follows in a similar vein, declaring utmost love and the intolerable loneliness which must be encountered without the comfort that a partner brings.
Yet another winner in our midst, Distant Lover's light flickers in the foreground, all shimmering and silky, washing over you like that of a sea of honey. Its fluid grooves are dappled with a pulsating lust, setting a stellar example of the genre which has been studied intently ever since. The multi-tracked vocals from Gaye cascade ever downwards, tweaked to absolute perfection. Such production adornments lend themselves well to Distant Lover.
If you ask me (which you obviously do or else you wouldn't be reading my review), the only time the album overcooks it is the smoking hot You Sure Love to Ball. This track attempts to take the sexual themes of the album to boiling point but becomes a parody of the subject when Gaye decides to introduce the sound of a copulating couple into the fray. Maybe I'm missing something but I didn't really appreciate that, thank you.
As the painful reminiscing of Just to Keep You Satisfied reveals a broken man at a loss without his wife, the curtains are drawn upon this revealing journal documenting the fire in Marvin Gaye's loins. "It's too late for you and I," pines Gaye, without a hope in the world, "much too late for you to cry." If using this album as a backdrop to a first date, ensure that you do not play this track first as it will kill the mood, albeit in a most spectacular fashion.
Much to my father's dismay, I actually prefer Let's Get It On to What's Going On. What's Going On probably betters this record where artistic statements are concerned but the album ultimately prevails when it boils down to the music which is on offer. Marvin Gaye poured his everything into this album and the result is that Let's Get It On has a beating heart at its centre, even a living spirit and sensitivity towards the subject matter. It's honest and bare, resonant and meaningful. Yes, Let's Get It On could well be the most *soulful* album ever recorded, which is surely the main objective for an artist such as Gaye.
With this in mind, I will let Marvin have the final word: 'I hope the music that I present makes you lucky.'
Prince & the Revolution - Purple Rain (1984)
Producer: Prince and the Revolution
Let's Go Crazy
Take Me with U
The Beautiful Ones
When Doves Cry
I Would Die 4 U
Baby I'm a Star
Released in 1984, Purple Rain is the sixth studio album by the musician Prince, and his first album with backing band The Revolution. Let's get right down to business because, for me, the words Purple Rain are as relevant today as they were back in 1984 - the year that Prince unveiled what would ultimately become one of the most highly revered soundtrack albums of all time.
Everyone knew he was working on something brilliant. The three albums that came before the purple downpour - Dirty Mind, Controversy and 1999 - were classic examples of Prince's talent in the studio, with an attention to pop hooks and undiluted musicality rarely seen in the genres that Prince pursued. Was it rock and roll? Was it disco? Was it funk? Was it soul? His distinctive sound was all of those things and more. It was something new, it was fundamentally Prince music. And do not allow yourself to be fooled by the inclusion of a backing band in the shape of The Revolution - Prince still plays, arranges and composes much of the music himself.
Add to this the unprecedented two years he was away between albums and it doesn't take a genius to tell you that the firecracker from Minneapolis was going to do something very special indeed (two years between records might not sound like a big deal these days but this was before artists rested on their laurels, toured an album for six billion years and released every song from an album as a single - excluding Michael Jackson, who was an early adopter of the 'Make the Fans Buy Every Song Twice' theory).*
Truth be told, time has been extremely kind to the soundtrack of Purple Rain, a semi-biopic based upon the upbringing and early years of Prince (even if it's been less kind to the unfortunate piece of cinema itself). The story is simple and goes a little like this: a down on his luck youngster from the ghetto - The Kid - struggles to make it in the music industry but he stays true to his unique and inimitable sound despite strong opposition from both friends and business partners, and finally gets his big break and the recognition he deserves, along with the girl (but not before making her strip naked, jump in a lake, and then ride off on his big Purple motorcycle. Yes, Prince leaves all the girls wet). The music is as a convincing monument to Prince's genius as it ever was.
But it is at this point I want to make it clear that the film and accompanying music should never be uttered together in the same sentence, not unless you enjoy awkward silences and want to cause friction between yourself and every sensible person in the immediate vicinity. There is no doubt that Prince disappeared up his own backside around the time of filming Purple Rain and the mad footage caught on film only confirms this. That said, it is this crazed sense of enthusiasm and self-importance that fuels the music to the soundtrack and lends itself well to the nine flawless pop songs within.
"Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life," it is with those few words that Purple Rain begins, besides a deathly organ solo. But this isn't a sad eulogy - this is a party, people. Therefore Let's Go Crazy wastes no time in developing into a psychedelic dance number, all neon-lights and sparklers, protest banners and more. "Let's go crazy! Let's go nuts!" The production is a product of its era but the goods still manage to shine through.
I'm going to talk about Darling Nikki, next, because, well, Prince needs to reclaim some of the controversy that he lost in what are best referred to as his twilight years. The song has an unsophisticated sound, thanks largely to the misshapen guitar riffs and underhanded keyboard work. It's a devious piece of music that stands out from the more lavishly produced numbers on Purple Rain. But it's the lyrics that will always be Darling Nikki's claim to fame. "I knew a girl called Nikki, I guess you could say she was a sex fiend. I met her in a hotel lobby, masturbating with a magazine." Prince, you absolute shocker, you! And you are also the reason the 'Parental Advisory' sticker was born. True story, Google it (Daniel Kemp does not endorse one search engine other another).**
When Doves Cry was Prince's first number one single in America and I couldn't think of a more worthy release, either. In structure it reflects Prince's earlier, sparser arrangements, so it comes as no surprise to find that he plays all of the instruments on When Doves Cry. The electric guitar introduction is entirely irrelevant to the following six minutes of music but it throws your auditory compass off course for a moment and once you've recovered you have the unforgettable piano refrains battering you into submission. When Doves Cry is an impossibly simple musical concept but its execution is magnificently grand.
Even the album's shortest song, I Would Die 4 U, is grandiose and characteristic of the flamboyancy one has come to expect from Prince. "You're just a sinner I am told, (I'll) be your fire when you're cold, make you happy when you're sad, make you good when you are bad." I Would Die 4 U is a strangely euphoric revelation - it makes its mark and is then gone in a flash.
It's by no mistake that the epic title-track closes Purple Rain. If you are still to be convinced, then this edgy, towering finale to the record will no doubt do the trick. For what is essentially insincere musical theatre (is not all theatre insincere?), Prince ensures that every last verse is oozing with unexpected emotion and candour. Yes, the aggrieved cries that Prince unleashes during the final act of the song even evoke a personal sense of loss.
It's no surprise, then, that Purple Rain comes highly recommended from me. It's not his best album - I'd give that accolade to either Controversy or the seminal Sign 'O' the Times - but please note that Prince released so many top records during his 'peak' period, that topping that list was always going to be difficult. As it stands, Purple Rain is simply one of the best albums of the 1980s and possibly the greatest soundtrack album... ever
I could quite happily stay here all day and rave about the delights of each track but the only real way to appreciate Purple Rain is to listen to it for yourself, multiple times, dressed up as grape and wearing high-heels. Oh, and make sure you have a cravat on too. And sunglasses.
* I do realise five singles were released from Purple Rain but it's nothing compared to some artists' records. And Michael, no offence son, you were good back in the day too, when you were of a darker persuasion... or alive for that matter.
** Google is clearly the best search engine. Bing, you suck.
Grinderman - Grinderman 2 (2010)
Producer: Nick Launay, Grinderman
Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man
When My Baby Comes
What I Know
Palaces of Montezuma
Released in 2010, this is the second self-titled album by the garage-rock, Nick Cave fronted outfit, Grinderman. The album is affectionately known around these here parts as Grinderman 2.
Allow me to just say it from the off: the entire Grinderman project is the kind of ill-conceived idea that would see most musicians dead and buried, especially after rolling such a proposal out as you begin to fall the wrong side of fifty years of age. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' brilliantly consistent career has rarely dipped in quality of output, and has at the very worst tripped at the occasional hurdle (Nocturama, anyone?), so I was as surprised as anyone, when, in 2007, the first Grinderman album hurtled into our hi-fis and raised a few eyebrows. The question on the tip of many a fan's tongue, was this to be the end of the Bad Seeds?
Thankfully not, as the following year saw the Bad Seeds' Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! top many critics' shortlists for best album of the year, and while the record had clearly drawn inspiration from the laid-back garage-rock approach of Grinderman, it remained a defiantly classical Bad Seeds record, pondering over the usual topics that beg Nick Cave's wonderment: a twist on Biblical events and a raging lust for the fairer sex.
Two years on, Grinderman once again took the reigns of their musical steed in hand. Early reports indicated that this would be a more polished and elegant recording, and early reports were right. But just how far can you polish a turd? Grinderman are frickin' awesome but are the aural equivalent of being tied down, naked, inside a cattery and having cat-nip all over your person. It's just not very pleasant. So, while Nick Cave's merry men have learnt a thing or two where production is concerned, this is clearly the uglier recording, and no amount of spit and shine was able to change that.
Yes, to reiterate, Grinderman 2 is an unsightly recording but is all the better for it. It takes the raw energy which made the original project so captivating and gives it a shot of unadulterated adrenalin and testosterone. The subject of each song seems to zig-zag wildly between licentious cravings and Neanderthal instincts, to the point where I'm sure that some of these songs are illegal in certain countries (the gang-rape of a male teenage protagonist as featured in When My Baby Comes will be enough to make your blood run cold, if not, then the extensive musical outro will).
"I woke up this morning and thought, 'what am I doing here?' Well, I saw my brother and he starts raging," is but the start of this hellish affair, as Nick Cave denotes a violent experience capable of committing arson upon the senses. The sharp bass refrain burrows itself deep inside your consciousness, as Cave's distasteful rapture makes the Dead Weather look like Justin Bieber. Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man will rattle your cage and more.
The sleazy Worm Tamer could only have been written by the Grinderman outfit, containing a redoubtable three minutes of instrumentation and yet memorable and h-i-l-a-r-i-o-u-s lyrics. "Well, my baby calls me the Loch Ness monster, two great big humps and then I'm gone!" By the time the considered introduction to Heathen Child revs its engines you're most likely to be a quivering, hysterical heap upon the floor. A shame, really, as Heathen Child provides the very antithesis to most people's expectations of popular music - mystifying lyrics and a rhythm section that could raise the dead.
The only time the album can afford you time to breathe is for the beautifully composed Palaces of Montezuma. Palaces is a musical and lyrical masterpiece - shot through with dark humour - that can capably rival the best Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds moments. It's these conscientiously sculpted vignettes that ensure Grinderman 2 is a record that you'll want to play again and again. "The epic of Gilgamesh, a pretty little black A-line dress, I give to you. The spinal cord of JFK, wrapped in Marilyn Monroe's negligee, I give to you." In fact, it's such a beautiful paean to love, that you almost forget that much of the song's focus is on that of an obsessive lover, who'd go to the end of the world to please the sole object of their desire. This view is cemented by this closing refrain to the second verse: "I want nothing in return, just the softest little breathless word, I ask of you."
Bellringer Blues is the final word on Grinderman 2. It's these long, drawn out cogitations that Nick Cave has been perfecting over a career spanning more than thirty years, and as expected, it's a masterful close to a passionately fierce album, burning with simmering guitars and sly organ trickery. The wall of sound hits you and your senses, immediately revoking any wishes for a happy ending.
Here we are again at the end of the review. What can I say that I haven't said before? Nick Cave comes out fighting with a rapturous album that will have you savouring its nine-tracks at least until Grinderman 3 is released from its captivity. In the meantime, Nick has stated that a new Bad Seeds album will be released in 2011, so rest assured that the busiest man in the music industry will be back before long.
PJ Harvey - Let England Shake (2011)
Producer: PJ Harvey, Mick Harvey, John Parish, Flood
Let England Shake
The Last Living Rose
The Glorious Land
The Words That Maketh Murder
All and Everyone
On Battleship Hill
In the Dark Places
Hanging in the Wire
Written on the Forehead
The Colour of the Earth
Released in 2011, Let England Shake is the eighth album by British musician PJ Harvey. It's been four years since the last solo PJ Harvey album, White Chalk. That record saw the ever-changing Harvey release a slender eleven song set which clocked in at just over half an hour. Even more memorable was that she had ditched her guitar and the sexual exuberance which had once empowered her music and had instead, aesthetically, adopted a more ordinary singer-songwriter template, of the lady in the white dress, sitting down at her piano, telling us how cruel the world is to the beauty that is woman.
The songs, however, were not ordinary. For such a brief affair, White Chalk practically smothered you, after drugging and date-raping you. Harvey - having assumed a banshee's wail which drove her higher register - literally dragged you down to the floor with her songs of death and disappointment and then proceeded to lay an anvil's weight worth of loss upon you. What should have been a walk in the park soon became her most underrated and difficult album to pin a label upon.
And it is because of that I had real difficulty drawing the line between White Chalk and Let England Shake - most probably because there isn't one. Here, as usual, John Parish lends a hand in the studio, together with former Bad Seeds member, Mick Harvey. Even with the tried and tested formula of having the same backing roster, this three piece unit have cheated fate once more and emerged with a brand new sound. Each song brings with it a timeless melody and ethereal recitation of how many lives were lain to waste in yet another pointless bout of warfare. I have no interest in politics or military history - man cannot successfully govern himself, inspiring nothing but despondence in me - but it's hard to not get involved with the songs here. You will live them, you will breathe them, and you will be listening to them for years to come, surely.
Even if the journey towards Let England Shake is hard to trace, the album itself is not so hard to brand as White Chalk. It's commonly known that the concept album is a tricky beast to tame but Harvey - together with aforementioned collaborators John Parish and Mick Harvey - have turned a masterful hand towards Let England Shake. The record does not become weighted down alongside its concept, instead it provides a brand new vehicle for PJ Harvey to drive her songs of dejection into our hearts, as with a stake.
The Last Living Rose would make a terrific single from the album. The deliriously catchy saxophone bridge between the first and second verses is perfectly equalised by the crisp final verse and, ultimately, the deathly and sombre guitar which closes this brief silhouette of timeless Britain. "Let me walk through the stinking alleys, to the music of drunken beatings, past the Thames River glistening like gold, hastily sold for nothing." Despite the deep subject matter many of the songs would make fine singles. This is true of next song, The Glorious Land, in which Mick Harvey picks up vocals alongside PJ, for one of the most winning vocal combinations I am yet to come across. "How is our glorious country ploughed? Not by iron ploughs, our land is ploughed by tanks and feet marching."
First single, The Words That Maketh Murder, provides a strange paradox against its chosen topic. "I saw a Corporal whose nerves were shot," calls Harvey, "flesh quivering in the heat!" The real genius sets in when the song is brought to a sardonic close by the Summertime Blues lyrics "I'm going to take my problems to the United Nations!" PJ and Mick Harvey revel in this volatile mixture of at once sympathy and a strange lack of compassion, repeating the aforesaid line many times with extreme joviality before the song is up.
The trauma doesn't stop there, however. On Battleship Hill further cripples the hope that the album would soon provide respite, instead opting to relish the bitter taste of bloodshed once more. As PJ and Mick Harvey recount that "cruel nature has won again", piano notes begin to descend heavy upon the listener. Lyrically and vocally, this is a crushingly beautiful hymn.
In the Dark Places does indeed inhabit dark places. "We... passed through the damned mountains... and some of us returned, and some of us did not." The melody slowly elevates itself until it looms over Harvey, before collapsing in on itself throughout the final third. The sedate guitar riffs begin to encroach upon your happy place, as driving rain upon an open, blood-soaked battlefield, before claiming another victory.
Mick Harvey takes lead vocals on album closer, The Colour of the Earth. A poignant remembrance song for a fallen soldier, whose dear friend recollects how he ran forwards from the trench line and was never seen again. This is as a brutal reminder as any that war is never a justifiable solution, only a heartless endeavour. "Later in the dark," narrates Mick, "I thought I heard Louis' voice, calling for his mother, then me." A fitting close to Let England Shake - no matter the devoted wartime stories which soldiers bring home, it always ends in someone's death.
This is one of the most unashamedly British albums you're ever likely to hear yet Let England Shake is also the warmest and most inviting album I have heard for some time. Through the medium of music, Harvey has crafted a more empathetic and soulful reminder of the personal cost of war than a billion media-stories have been able to, and in the current war-torn state the world finds itself in, it's more relevant than ever.
Yes, PJ Harvey's determination to not repeat past achievements is a noble cause, all the more so when she wins a landslide victory in the shape of Let England Shake. With this, she is undoubtedly the most important female musician currently active in the industry.
Lady Gaga aside, obviously.
Daft Punk - Human After All (2005)
Producer: Daft Punk, Cédric Hervet, Gildas Loaëc
Human After All
The Prime Time of Your Life
Television Rules the Nation
Released in 2005, Human After All is the third album by French electronica group Daft Punk. After two very well received albums - the unforgettable house music of their first record, Homework, and the blissful disco-esque synth-pop of their second, Discovery - it would have appeared that Daft Punk could have turned their deft hand to absolutely anything they wanted to on their third.
But this magnificent journey that Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter had been taking us on was unfortunately about to take a wrong turn, in the sorry form of Human After All. The warning signs were all there - a four long wait between albums to only dedicate a reported six weeks of recording time to Human After All, and Bangalter going on record as saying that they were deliberately trying to achieve a more stripped back and less lavish recording than Discovery - but if only we had taken heed, then the wretched disappointment that followed could have been easily avoided.
The disgraceful monotony of the album wastes no time in introducing itself via the crudely written title-track. "We are human, after all", sing Daft Punk, admitting to being mere mortals in their professional field, from the very beginning. This melancholy intonation of simply being 'human, after all' seems to set the entire album up to fail. This is swiftly followed by the four minute pillaging of your senses that is The Prime Time of Your Life, which will soon come to be known as yet another track to make you wince in disgust.
The main focal point of the album is first single and third track Robot Rock, which is nigh-upon a five minute loop of the greatest riff you have ever heard in your entire life. Excellent! Perhaps things are starting to look up... but then my disappointment came upon learning that the riff was sampled from a little-known funk band named Breakwater (in the style of Funkadelic), from their song Release the Beast. So, what's my problem, electronica/dance acts sample all the time, right?! True, there is nothing wrong with taking an element from another musician's work and expanding upon it, but I am yet to hear such a shameless rip off as Robot Rock, which is simply stealing somebody else's idea and then claiming all the praise for yourself. This is plagiarism, folks, and it makes me mad. What affirms this is that what should have been Human After All's saving grace is in fact Daft Punk's artistic nadir.
Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.
The mellow and melodious Make Love meets us halfway through the tracklisting, providing a comedown from all the high-energy nonsense. Almost hypnotic in its rich reverberations, and at times tranquil and bringing on a sense of self-security, Make Love perhaps is the aural embodiment of the act its namesake reaches out for. And for this brief moment, Daft Punk successfully reclaims the glory that was prematurely lost.
Likewise, Television Rules the Nation hints at the best moments from their past records, while paying respects to one of their musical influences - a Gary Numan-esque riff strides into the foreground and is as menacing as it is alluring, a la The Pleasure Principle. Ever since the track Teachers from 1997's Homework, Daft Punk has not been shy to pay respects where they were due. I can only assume it was a mistake not to mention Breakwater, though.
Technologic does its best to bring the 'cool' back to the Punk. "Buy it, use it, break it, fix it, trash it, change it, mail - upgrade it!" And for the first couple of minutes I'm sold on the idea, but then the unnecessary repetition sets in, which seems to plague so many of the album's best ideas. Soon after, the album ends with the ear-piercingly horrid synths of Emotion, and I remember just why it is that I hate Human After All: the whole affair is a farce, a con. From a band that once were pioneers in their field, not a single note rings true.
For all Daft Punk's efforts upon release to try and sell to us that Human After All is an essential exploration of human emotions, we ended up with a strangely cold and robotic album. Something is amiss when you're declaring that you've touched upon strong emotions with your music, while writing songs named Robot Rock, Television Rules the Nation and Technologic. Perhaps Daft Punk were just as confused as we were by this aural disarray.
Seemingly, the songs translated better to the live circuit and Daft Punk delivered one of the all time great live albums in the shape of Alive 2007. Still, all is not forgiven, and the 2010 Tron soundtrack aside, it has been six long years and we are still yet to have an album of new material from Daft Punk.
But if they return with another pile of raw silage equal to Human After All, I'm out, neon lights, robot costumes and all.
*Did You Know?* Volume: II
The Busta Rhymes song Touch It samples from the track Technologic
Soul II Soul - Club Classics Vol. One (1989)
Producer: Jazzie B, Nellee Hooper
Keep on Movin'
Back to Life (a cappella)
Released in 1989, Club Classics Vol. One is the debut album by British soul and dance group Soul II Soul. A little over twenty years ago, this record breathed life into the dying flames of the British soul music scene, and reignited a passion for the genre which had not been seen for decades. The group crafted a successful juxtaposition of floor-filling dance anthems and soulful rhythm and blues, ultimately making it their 'soul' objective to get you off your backside and onto the dancefloor.
A quick glance at various 'Top Albums of the 1980s' establishes that the album has its fair share of winners (as will taking a peek at chart positions for the album's singles), but how has the overall package fared after being left in the darkroom for a couple of decades to mature? Personally, I cannot quite see what all the fuss was about. I can understand that hot on the heels of the 1990s this was just that which the dance scene needed, but as with many albums from this genre and period in time, the production has unfortunately dated, more-or-less, overnight. And naming your album Club Classics is just asking for trouble, right?
That being said Soul II Soul, in their first formation, had some serious talent on board. Credit to the man who founded the band, Jazzie B., as he continued to take the lead as the band underwent member changes and found their footing in the ever-changing club scene of the 1990s (their final album being released in 1997). A recent band reformation perhaps also means that Jazzie B. is once again ready to tackle the music scene.
However, my favourite success story is that of band member Nellee Hooper, who went on to be a first-rate producer, most notably for his work with Massive Attack (Blue Lines) and on various Bjork albums; his work on the album Debut is a particular highlight in a long and varied career. You can feel Hooper's paw-prints all over Club Classics Vol. One, to the point that certain production accoutrements start to sound like he's test-riding methods before meeting and greeting Bjork and showing her the way. Listening to certain cuts of Club Classics Vol. One and Debut back-to-back is an eye-opening experience.
"Stay in my life, my life always/ yellow is the colour of sun rays," ah, for it must almost be the 1990s with lyrics as inspired as that. Keep on Movin', possibly the most commercially viable single on Club Classics Vol. One, features a cheerful and engaging performance from vocalist Caron Wheeler. I'd call her obligatory straining for the higher notes a little on the superficial side, but I don't want to face the well-deserved backlash.
Other singles, Fairplay and Back to Life, are complete write-offs in the new millennium. Fairplay sounds hideously outdated, its production a victim of its own era. You know you've done something wrong when you make Technotronic look as inspired as The Beatles at their creative best. Back to Life, which had previously taken to the skies in its original single form, has been reduced to an unbearably dreary a cappella version.
My money is on Holdin' On for best floor-filler. The MC takes to unleashing a well-rehearsed but defiantly free-form rap, raising the roof together with your spirits. "In my imagination, running wild, I feel the time has passed us by," he intones, before plugging equal rights and universal harmony. Not much makes me want to leap into an old shell suit and hit the dance floor with a couple of glow-sticks but I feel the time is now.
African Dance and Dance sit alongside one another on the tracklisting. Not necessarily a bad thing, or at least until you realise that the latter is exactly the same as the instrumental former, but with nonsensical lyrics added for your 'pleasure'. "Modern people tend to dance/with this music I'll put you in a trance." Oh God. Kill me. Kill me, now.
My final choice cut from the album is Happiness. A fascinating and well distinguished keyboard riff rises and falls, providing the vertebrae to the song, while the fabulous, declamatory vocal stylings of singer Do'reen capture, for a moment, everything Soul II Soul were striving to achieve musically. Credible, interesting and standing up to repeated listens, Happiness is without a doubt the best song here.
So, does Club Classics do what it says on the tin and allow the listener ten classic, memorable anthems which get your feet moving and your mind thinking? Huh, don't make me vomit into my own scorn. What you do get, though, is a once culturally relevant album which gave birth to two reasonably large musical figures. I never promote downloading individual songs over buying an entire album but if any such record was made for just such a practice, Club Classics Vol. One is it.
*Did you know?* Issue: I
Melissa Bell, who used to be a member of Soul II Soul, is mother to 2008 X Factor winner Alexandra Burke.
Daft Punk - Homework (1997)
Producer: Thomas Bangalter, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo
WDPK 83.7 FM
Around the World
Rollin' & Scratchin'
Rock 'n' Roll
Indo Silver Club
Released in 1997, Homework is the debut album by French electronica band Daft Punk. Homework had been a long time coming. Band members Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo (say whaaaat?) had always been on the cusp of something brilliant, they were just awaiting their musical awakening. The beginning of their career got off to a bit of a false-start, with a prudish rock band named Darlin', which featured both Daft Punk members together with Laurent Brancowitz on drums (later guitarist of the band Phoenix). A couple of dud songs later - released on an associated act's EP - and then the band split.
Bangalter and Homem-Christo were soon to reconcile, though, and the mid-'90s would see them take on the moniker of Daft Punk and release a couple of singles, however, it wouldn't be until 1996 that they would sign with Virgin Records and start building their musical legacy. They would release their first album, Homework, the following year.
Now, I apologise for perhaps going off-topic so early on, but I need to stress that Daft Punk's Homework got me through some pretty tough times; most notably, my thirteen hour long car journey from Merseyside to the Isle of Skye. I had only just passed my driving test (in the Outer Hebrides no less, where all you need to avoid is sheep and the odd seagull) and I was merely seventeen years of age. I was faced with the challenge of driving myself, overnight, all the way to this much-maligned peninsula in the British Isles, from the beaming metropolis of holiness that is Birkenhead. I could have wept - instead I chucked myself head-first into the challenge and buried my negative thoughts in the only album I had in the car - Homework by Daft Punk (bought earlier that week, for the princely sum of £5).
Now, strange things happen when you listen to one album on repeat for thirteen hours. You begin to merge with the music and become a distorted superhuman version of yourself. Instead of blood coursing through your veins, you start pumping snare drums and electronic blood cells throughout your arteries. Once you hit the eight hour mark and it's 4.00am, the bent out of shape keyboard riffs start to reverberate in your soul and you transform into your demon-slaying alter-ego, who possesses more driving skills than Lewis Hamilton and has a stale taste of Red Bull in his mouth (don't ask). This many repeated listens of one album in such close proximity of one another could have spelt disaster of a lesser album, but Homework proudly stood up to the challenge and provided me with one of the best experiences of my life. There's nothing quite like speeding around the Highlands, half conscious while listening to Daft Punk. More interestingly, the album still entertains to this day.
Revolution 909 begins with the sound of police officers shutting down a rave; ironic, then, that the real fun starts here. Revolution 909's insistent rhythms and musical backdrop constantly shifts, moulding itself very capably around the listener's requirements for having a good time. Much of Homework follows suit, with many of the songs taking unpredictable diversions into unexplored territory. By all means, try to forecast where Daft Punk will take you, but you shall only fail. Phoenix proves this point perfectly. Oh, how glorious a moment it is when the rudimentary drum samples of the introduction open the flood gates for one of the greatest synth loops this side of the apocalypse. Certainly, the song presents itself as a phoenix rising from the flames.
They had you fooled for a moment there, didn't they? It's okay, baby, you can tell Uncle Dan. He was fooled his first time too.
"Around the world, around the world. Around the world, around the world." Sound familiar? It's only the sound of, uh, Around the World, with its immortal repetition of said lyrics, beckoning you across some of the best hooks the album has to offer - a la the glitzy bass line and the achingly cool, towering keyboard riffs. Also, if you haven't seen it, the music video is well worth seeking out. Of course, the album version comes off better than the single pressing, due to its seven minute long running time. This just about gives Around the World enough time to uncoil itself and release its talons
Rollin' & Scratchin' sounds like, well, rolling and scratching. Possibly the slowest burner on the album, it begins in classic Homework fashion by deceiving you into thinking it is nothing more than a excuse to chuck some demo-like quality drum loops at the listener. But once the 'scratching' part of the song enters the equation (part vehicle burning rubber, part scratching vinyls in Satan's courtyard) it sends your estimations of Daft Punk into the stratosphere. Brilliant stuff, this is.
The acidic frequencies of Teachers and Oh Yeah have their place on Homework, despite being the two shortest tracks on an album full of lengthy, heterogeneous anthems. The former gives credit to a long list of legendary music producers, while the latter serves as a reinvention of hip-hop bricolage, just as it used to be before commercialism pillaged our senses.
Ignoring the closing Funk Ad, the album properly finishes with Alive (later the title of their epic 2007 live album), which is probably the best demonstration of Daft Punk's ability to bridge the differences between fans of mainstream, established rave music and diverse music collectors.
All of a sudden, it was okay to listen to electronica again without being embarrassed (despite The Prodigy hitting their nadir the same year and releasing Fat of the Land. Urgh), all thanks to two French men dressed as futuristic robots.
Are you too ready to join the revolution? Sign up here.
Flight of the Conchords (2008)
Producer: Mickey Petralia
Foux du Fafa
Inner City Pressure
Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymnoceros
Think About It
Ladies of the World
Prince of Parties
A Kiss Is Not a Contract
The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room)
Released in 2008, this is the self-titled debut album by New Zealand parody band Flight of the Conchords. A TV series of the same name was first aired in 2007 and it has since spawned a second series, both of which follow the misfortune which clings to band members Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement as they seek fame and fortune. Alas, this is not a review of the series, so we shall instead focus on the music, except where necessary.
The format of the series takes shape in the form of a loose narrative documenting the calamities which befall our unlucky musical duo. Really, the sequence of events is entirely irrelevant, but more importantly it provides several opportunities per episode to shoehorn in musical sequences. Some of these songs parody famous musicians, while others can be identified as Jemaine and Bret's own twisted take on pop.
Now, I want to convey to you just how much I wanted to dislike Flight of the Conchords. The little devil which sits upon my shoulder and monitors which music makes it into my collection was pleading with me, "No, stay away, you can do better, for Morrissey has just reissued Bona Drag!" But I was curious. So curious, in fact, that it led me to spend £12 following a spur of the moment decision in a popular high-street music shop chain (that is £2 pounds more than the Morrissey album, I will have you know).
Well, I rarely spend that kind of money on albums, but I was very pleasantly surprised by my purchase. I will freely admit that I had billed Flight of the Conchords as a novelty act and had taken a conscious effort to avoid their TV series and music. Do not follow in my footsteps, instead take note: the songs are more often than not uproariously good fun. I was initially worried that this formula of simply telling jokes on record would wear thin but I can happily report that Flight of the Conchords endures repeated listens. This is simply down to the fact that Bret and Jemaine are actually a pair of very accomplished musicians and they know their source material very well, so whether they are performing a comical David Bowie medley (Bowie) in a freaky English accent, or parodying artists who feel the need to ram social-commentary nonsense down our throats (Think About It), as a music critic you can sit back, relax and smile, in the comfort that Flight of the Conchords love their classics just as much as you.
I've since watched a number of episodes from the first series of Flight of the Conchords and in most instances it is - surprisingly - the album versions which come off the best. Remarkably, the songs actually still work outside the context of the episodes, while possessing a stronger body of music, thanks to a keen eye for production and additional instrumental inclusions from the band.
The Pet Shop Boys-esque Inner City Pressure comes complete with a doctored chorus and more synthesizers than any reasonable human-being can handle, meanwhile Robots pays homage to the 1980s electronica acts, while laughably pointing a finger at the eccentric seriousness of Kraftwerk. "The world is quite different since the robotic uprising of the late '90s... there is no more unethical treatment of the elephants... well, there are no more elephants."
Fan favourite, Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymnoceros, is pretty much a one-joke song. "They call me the Hiphopopotamus, my lyrics are bottomless... *long-pause*" Ho-ho! Thankfully it's only two minutes long and these unforgivable acts of frivolity are few and far between. Actually, it is worth mentioning that many of the songs here only last a couple of minutes, so do not be alarmed by the large tracklisting. It is mostly a tightly-edited affair.
Mutha'uckas is fantastic, it really is. Gangster-rap gets sent up throughout this song, most notably the race-wars which artists such as Ice Cube acknowledged throughout their early career. "The mutha'ucka runs a racist 'uckin' grocery, the mutha'ucka won't sell an apple to a Kiwi!" It is Bret's verse which makes the song, with the heavily censored cursing, but culminating in the hilarious statement "he's gonna' wake up in a smoothie!" Steady on now, lads.
Even when the pair are crooning on such moments as The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room) and placing Prince under a figurative microscope, they nail each one of their target's nuances perfectly. But it is the slow acoustic jam of the Barry White informed Business Time which steals the show time and time again (the pair even going so far as to credit him with thanks in the liner notes). "Girl, tonight we are gonna make love. Do you know how I know?" Growls Jemaine in a deep, husky voice, "because it's Wednesday." This song is going to completely blow your mind, honestly, just give it a try, baby.
All in all, Flight of the Conchords probably is the finest parody album of all time. Musically, it is a bold step away from its parent TV series and the songs have been suitably fleshed out. It's then that it strikes you that even without the comedy, Flight of the Conchords could undoubtedly stand on their own two feet. As a final word, it is worth mentioning that if you recognise what has influenced their songs you're going to appreciate Flight of the Conchords a hell of a lot more. The songs still work without said awareness, but the pair do rely on you having a fairly wide-reaching musical knowledge for ultimate enjoyment.
Morrissey - Years of Refusal (2009)
Producer: Jerry Finn
Something Is Squeezing My Skull
Mama Lay Softly on the Riverbed
I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris
All You Need Is Me
When Last I Spoke to Carol
That's How People Grow Up
One Day Goodbye Will Be Farewell
It's Not Your Birthday Anymore
You Were Good in Your Time
Sorry Doesn't Help
I'm OK by Myself
Released in 2009, Years of Refusal is the ninth solo album by Morrissey. Let me begin by saying that the restoration of Morrissey's popularity has been most remarkable. There was a time there in the mid-to-late 1990s where you'd be forgiven for thinking that Morrissey was dead and buried. After entering the 1990s with a swelteringly accomplished set of albums, Your Arsenal and Vauxhall & I, Morrissey then immediately caused himself harm by releasing the lacklustre Southpaw Grammar and Maladjusted. This act, of course, gave ammunition to all the angry Smiths fans who had lamented from the beginning that without Johnny Marr, Morrissey was merely a lyricist without any musical talent.
But then in 2004, after a seven year long hiatus, Morrissey released what was arguably the best album of his entire career, You Are the Quarry. That album brought Morrissey into the new century with an explosion and silenced the many critics. Throughout You Are the Quarry, producer Jerry Finn was to lend modern production flourishes to adorn this master wordsmith's written prose, while portraying Morrissey as a strong, resilient individual. The album was chocabloc with classics and any traces of Morrissey's connection with the Smiths were dead and buried. The year 2006 saw Morrissey deliver another belter, Ringleader of the Tormentors, after teaming up with legendary producer Tony Visconti. While the majority of songs were not as well-rounded or as developed as those on You Are the Quarry, it packed an equally heavy punch, thanks to Visconti's no-nonsense approach to production.
This takes us right up to date and in 2009 Morrissey released the tour de force of cynicism that is Years of Refusal. Once again teaming up with Jerry Finn, Morrissey has rounded off his finest trio of albums in any one decade in some style. The first thing to strike you about Years of Refusal is simply how mean it is. This is Morrissey's hardest rock album to date. The guitars thunder and spark, the drums roar with a brutal ferocity and the bass will literally shake your room. Typically, Morrissey is in fine voice and stands up to the occasion. The second thing which manifests itself is Morrissey's brutal intent to scare the hell out of you. In the past, Morrissey's words caused you to believe that he would fit the bill of the unluckiest sod in all the earth, but now he has mutated into a chief misanthrope, avoiding all humanity, simply because he can.
The poignant tale of revenge that is Mama Lay Softly on the Riverbed is Years of Refusal's strongest selling point. "Mama, why did you do it? Mama who drove you to it?" insists Morrissey, time after time, "bailiffs with bad breath - I will slit their throats for you!" The final minute of the song features one of Morrissey's best ever vocal performances, together with characteristically heart-rending lyrics. Morrissey settles the score on his own terms in an undeniably great way.
Black Cloud could have been but a novelty inclusion, what with its guitar contributions from Jeff Beck and short running time. But then Morrissey opens his mouth and drives you into the corner of the room with one of his more intimidating vocal performances. This is truly coruscant stuff, especially how Mozza drives each pained "black cloud" of the chorus to a higher notch on the octave register, until the music crashes in on itself with one of the finest paced acoustic breakdowns I'm yet to hear. Awesome.
The album boasted four singles, two of which had previously been heard on 2008's Greatest Hits compilation. The best of which is All You Need Is Me. One of the less musically complicated moments on Years of Refusal, All You Need Is Me is a straight-laced rocker, but paired with some of Morrissey's most frivolous lyrics of the decade. "There's a soft voice singing in your head. Who could this be? I do believe it's me... there's a naked man, standing, laughing in your dreams, you know who it is but you don't like what it means!" Good times Mozza, good times.
The album's two quieter moments, It's Not Your Birthday Anymore and You Were Good In Your Time, back onto each other. The former delivers one of Morrissey's most acerbic and vindictive choruses. "It's not your birthday anymore! Did you really think we meant all of those, syrupy, sentimental things we said?" While the wordless vocal bridge half way through - which sees Morrissey hit the higher notes - makes me melt. You Were Good In Your Time is the most considered chapter of the record, with speckles of those production techniques which made You Are the Quarry so appealing.
The final song, I'm OK By Myself, has Morrissey crack your skull against the wall, for he has nothing left to prove. There are more than a few quotable lyrics here. "Then came an arm around my shoulder, well, surely the hand holds a revolver?!" Ah, a keen eye for clever wordplay there, Morrissey. Let me now bring this review to a close. I needn't tell you anything else about Years or Refusal, just go out there and get yourself a copy of one of the best albums of the decade. Morrissey will have to go some way to top Years of Refusal, but I'm very interested to see his next move.
Finally, I think I'll let Morrissey have the last word. "After all these years, I find I'm okay by myself, and I don't need you or your homespun philosophy, noooooo!!"
PJ Harvey - To Bring You My Love (1995)
Producer: Flood, PJ Harvey, John Parish
To Bring You My Love
Meet Ze Monsta
Working for the Man
Long Snake Moan
Down by the Water
I Think I'm a Mother
Send His Love to Me
To Bring You My Love is the third studio album by British musician PJ Harvey (that's if we overlook her 1993 effort, 4-Track Demos, which predominantly featured stripped back versions of songs from her second album, Rid of Me). Up until 1993, 'PJ Harvey' was a collective name for the artist as well as her backing band, however, after the release of their 1993 album, Rid of Me, the group scattered and PJ Harvey became very much a solo affair, albeit with the inclusion of necessary session musicians, as is featured here.
As a whole, To Bring You My Love oozes filth and sexuality from its every aperture. After all, Harvey is the woman who seductively shrieked 'lick my legs, I'm on fire' throughout Rid of Me, so we wouldn't expect anything less from her. If anything, To Bring You My Love's stripped back production and coarsely captured vocals make for an even more endearing listen than its predecessor, which on occasions became too indebted to the grunge genre whence it was born from.
There's just something about the introduction to the title-track which appeals to your most carnal desires, be it the waist deep bluesy riffs which you find yourself in, or perhaps it's the slow fade-in which makes the soundscape impossibly intense and almost hard to breathe in. This is all before Harvey has even said a single word. It only gets better, though, once she has aired her discrepancies. "I was born in the desert, I've been down for years, Jesus come closer... I think my time is near." Visceral vocals and an unrivalled sense of zeal are what carry this opener.
Working for the Man continues in very much the same vain. Harvey's whispered vocals slowly permeate through the dense diastolic throbs of the bass and literally straddle the mucky guitar riffs.
The production is a lot clearer throughout To Bring You My Love than on past records. This results in a couple of the songs successfully crossing over into commercial territory without sacrificing any of what makes PJ Harvey so fascinating. C'mon Billy is pretty much a straight up acoustic number with a crisp and well defined vocal performance from Harvey. For what it lacks in sonic force it makes up for in a clearly passionate recital from Harvey. However, it is the colourful and vivid soundscape of Down by the Water which really generates positive responses. A truly menacing listen, it accomplishes much in its short running time, from the hair-raising string section which bridges the verses, through to the vibrant vocal readings which demand your full attention. "That blue eyed girl became blue eyed whore, down by the water... I heard her holler, hear her moan, my lovely daughter, I took her home." It's the moments like this which show clear artistic growth and that Harvey is clearly becoming her own woman.
In amongst these two stellar performances comes the slow burning Teclo. Really, this song is the quintessential moment from the album and best represents what is available here. The earthy guitars and scattered vocals culminate in the filthy chorus, "let me ride on his grace, for a while," whilst Harvey's vocals do nothing to hide that she is a woman lusting only after fleshly pleasures.
Send His Love to Me is the second acoustic number on To Bring You My Love, and for my money is the better of the two. Much emphasis is brought upon the words of the song and their meaning. "How long must I suffer, dear God I've served my time," pleads Harvey, 'this love becomes my torture, this love my only crime!" Throughout much of the album it is these baptism-by-fire moments of raw intensity and barbed-wire like serration which will ensure you keep coming back for more.
In a smart move, Harvey ends the album on its most sexually intense number, The Dancer. The music is just as potent as it has been throughout the rest of To Bring You My Love, the difference being that there's a more polished shine to much of the instrumentation. Sure enough, The Dancer is the album's finest moment. High on theatrics, low on egotistical posturing - all winning material. And you can't tell me that, regardless of gender, you are not at least slightly aroused by Harvey's bewitched moaning. "I've prayed days, I've prayed nights, for the Lord to send me home some sign,' entreats Harvey to the greater number, 'I've looked long, I've looked far, to bring peace to my black and empty heart!" There's nothing like some good old misery and suffering to start the day.
To Bring You My Love is not an album which I listen to often. In fact, there are PJ Harvey albums which I hold in much less regard but play more regularly. This is due to the fact that To Bring You My Love doesn't even make for remotely easy listening and is as intense as records come. Occasionally, though, I'll give it a spin and it all comes flooding back to me, just why I rate it amongst Harvey's best ever material. There's far worse places you could start a PJ Harvey collection.
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