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Unfortunately, it is a fitting tragedy that not nearly enough people are familiar with the music of Townes Van Zandt. Van Zandt died on New Years Day 1997, aged 52, when a heart decimated by alcohol abuse stopped beating during a routine hip operation. Having hardly any success during his lifetime, except through royalty-stuffed covers by more established artists like Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris, posthumously his star seems even more descendent: never appearing in classic rock lists and only celebrated by fellow country musicians and a few knowing cult heroes. 'Texas Troubadour' is a box set that consists of the seven albums Townes Van Zandt recorded for the Poppy and Tomato labels, from 1968-78. As he recorded only two more after this, before his death in 1997, then this collection represents the bulk of his career, and all his 'best-known' songs, if such a thing is possible.
For The Sake Of The Song (1968) is his debut album, and probably the most idiosyncratic record here. Compared to what follows, the sound is massive - co-producer 'Cowboy' Jack Clement allows for the grand mix of multiple pianos, drums, percussion and guitars on every songs that would rarely appear again. Although the recorder on the title track will appear regularly throughout this collection, it won't have the same innocent, jaunty tone. Indeed, this is clearly a very 60s record: an upbeat, pacy sound, with vocals pushed so far forward that Van Zandt appears to be almost shouting. None of this really seems to suit the subtle, thoughtful melancholia of Townes songs - and the fact he re-recorded 7 of the 11 tracks here in more intimate settings later suggests he thought so too. However, it is interesting to hear the songs played out on a grander stage, and hushed backing vocals help add depth to the more plodding songs such as 'Many A Fine Lady', which is all but crushed under its banal and needless band arrangement. The tracks re-recorded later will be improved; of the rest, 'The Velvet Voices' has an orgasmic opening of choral voices, before landing in a pleasant country groove (this is probably TVZ's most obviously 'country' album, due to the instruments used), and 'All Your Young Servants' fails to distinguish itself from the other contemplative cuts. Townes wrote many 'Talking Blues' in his career, popular with live audience due to their humorous words, but the only properly recorded one here is 'Talkin' Karate Blues', not the most politically correct song ever, but he tries his best: "'Yankee don't like my race'/I said, there's a mistake and that's true/...[and earlier].../Felt about half an inch tall under that old slanted stare [Pause]... Aw, you think he was yellow". Fortunately this is followed by 'Sixteen Summers, Fifteen Falls': easily the best track here, as each instrument carefully adds to the ominous undertow of the tune, and the strong backing vocals accentuate the despair of the singer, who's involved in a doomed romance with the (too?) young woman referenced in the title. Here, music and lyrics are definitely in harmony, for the first, but not the last, time.
Our Mother The Mountain (1969) could possibly be the best album here: certainly a good place for the uninitiated to start. Cowboy Jack is still co-producing, but the sound, for the most part, is clear and simple, and offers a better setting for Townes's lyrics. And so TVZ is allowed to settle into his natural performing environment: a sad, hushed whisper of a sound that can successfully transfix the solitary listener (and Van Zandt's music is a lonely, but endlessly rewarding, pursuit). 'Kathleen' is a good case in point. Mainly carried by TVZ's skeletal finger-picked guitar and echoing vocals, with the occasional bass guitar thud: the only other colour needed is a swooning string section that perfectly holds the attention and brilliantly reflects the lyrical content. This is the case throughout the record. 'She Came And She Touched Me', an exquisitely romantic ode, has a simple, almost jolly backing that just helps to highlight its distraught edges touchingly.
Townes lyrics are more striking too, perhaps due to this new backdrop: "My lover comes to me with a rose on her bosom/The moon's dancing purple all through her black hair", warns the opening lines of the title track, a desolate flute adding the only other significant accompaniment to another broken, haunted love song: "I reach for her hand and her eyes turn to poison/And her hair turns to splinters and her flesh turns to brine/[...]/Screams that my first born must surely be blind". The music has moved from more obvious 'country' to moody 'folk', sounding almost classical in places, with the mix of woodwind and acoustic guitar. The boundaries between folk and country are easily blurred here: after all, both rely on story-telling lyrics that talk of lost souls and ruined lives. 'Tecumseh', re-recorded from the first album, is still too fussily arranged to work however (a later live version is stunning), but the albums penultimate song, 'My Proud Mountains', may be its zenith. It unfolds slowly over 5 minutes and allows a real focus on Van Zandt's guitar and voice. Such musical simplicity, matched with poetic lyrics, is the reason why other artists began to take notice of Townes Van Zandt now, why country artists see him as "the songwriter's songwriter", and why it is so criminal that he is still so unknown outside of the music genre he is associated with.
Townes Van Zandt (1970) picks up where Our Mother The Mountain left off. Re-recorded opener 'For The Sake Of The Song' is possibly the best song here, a magnificent slow-building epic that never even hints at becoming overblown, as the music always compliments that yearning, lost voice. Of the other re-recorded songs, 'Waitin' Around To Die' is a desolate masterpiece, driven by Townes guitar and dark lyrics ("Now I'm out of prison, I've got me a friend at last/[...]/He name's codeine, he's the nicest thing I've seen/Well, together we're gonna wait around and die"); 'I'll Be Here In The Morning' chugs along prettily and '(Quicksilver Daydreams Of) Maria' is... quite boring really, and clearly inferior to the original version.
It's one of the few minus points here really. 'Colombine' and 'Colorado Girl' are both beautiful folk-country laments, filled with peaceful grace. 'Lungs' is a darker proposition, as Townes batters the life out of his guitar, a lone tambourine sings its death-rattle throughout, and a bone-dry slide guitar scrapes and drills its way inside your head. Recently, a particular favourite has been 'Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel', reminiscent of Dylan in its arrangement and thoughtful, intriguing listen. But this is surpassed by the finale, 'None But The Rain', where a simple descending chord sequence allows Townes to yearn for a missing love, against melodic woodwind. There's just something about its simplicity, and its brevity, that makes the song a quietly devastating ending, and an achingly suitable goodbye.
Delta Momma Blues (1971) sees TVZ recording in New York, not that he'd let such metropolitan surroundings affect his vision too much. 'F.F.V',apparently a traditional song, starts the album and is the perfect signpost to the bluesy, homely sound that runs through this record. 'Delta Momma Blues' and 'Brand New Companion' are the two most similar tracks, fitting this move into a more straightforward blues/country homage to Townes' influences: and both fall a little flat as they swerve unconsciously towards unneeded parody and pastiche. 'Turnstyled, Junkpiled' and 'Come Tomorrow' narrowly escape the same fate by virtue of sharing a more genuine sound, and appealing arrangements. 'Turnstyled...' in particular has an attractive country bounce, with fiddles and banjo fighting for attention against Townes' lyrics, which offer hope in the face of his usual problems, as he admits that none of it matters because "I'm still in love with you".
Continuing this pairing of songs that we've slipped into then: 'Only Him Or Me' and 'Tower Song' offer the more familiar 'quiet' TVZ sound of the previous two records, as his finger-picked guitar is brought to the fore. As you can probably guess, both songs are great, although the latter definitely stands out, as Townes tries to communicate with the women he loves.
That just leaves us with the last three songs of the album. 'Where I Lead Me' is Townes's most 'rocking' track so far, and so does very little for me. 'Rake' begins unusually, with an eerily sustained hum, before guitars start to pick out a nostalgically driven ode to the author's carefree past. The track then builds like none before it, as strings and brass are added, and the track is moved to a more effective level, breaking from its own internal world to connect more readily with the listener. And we end with 'Nothin''; and I guess the title says it all: "Your back ain't strong enough/For burdens double-fold/They'll crush you down/Down into nothing".
Two albums from 1972 now.
High, Low And In Between is the first. As is his wont, TVZ has wondered into a Los Angeles recording studio, and the songs have a kind of glossy Californian sheen now. Surprisingly, The first sound we hear is a bouncy piano, before a banging bass drum brings everyone else in: Townes's vocals being complimented by heavenly harmonies, whilst his guitar is almost nowhere to be seen. The sound is warm, more welcoming than before, and 'Two Hands', like the later 'When He Offers His Hand', is a gospel-tinged country shuffle: a declaration to a higher power that mines a popular and rich seam many of Townes's predecessors have always dug from. 'You Are Not Needed Now' keeps the piano to the fore, before drum whacks stir every other instrument into action again. This is TVZ's first true 'band' album, and such a definition brings with it all the positives and negatives you might expect. On this album, Townes's songs on the whole work in this new setting, at times creating a positive sound most unusual, but very becoming. 'Greensboro Women' could be the typical dour guitar and vox piece, but a simple band arrangement, with a gentle swirl of percussion and plodding bass, helps elevate in towards something more memorable. 'Mr Mudd And Mr Gold' has a similar energy: a brilliant folk tale set at a poker table hurtles by at a fantastic pace that never lets up; not until Townes has delivered his moral at the story's end. Not that the old Townes has disappeared completely. 'Highway Kind' is as stunningly bleak as anything taped previously: "My days they are the highway kind/They only come to leave".
When playing live, TVZ would sugar the gaps between songs with incongruous jokes, and the lovely Heartworn Highways film shows him constantly playing up and playing the fool for the amusement of others. 'No Deal' is one of the few tunes that reveal this other side of his personality, as Tonwes tries to overcome the various setbacks placed in his way: "Well, when true love knocked on my door, she'd just barely turned 15/And I was just a little bit nervous, if you know just what I mean/But I'd heard somewhere that true love conquers all and I figured that was that/Then I started having dreams 'bout big chased out of town wearing nothing but my cowboy hat". Well, it's a humour of a kind. And it contributes to Townes's most 'positive' album to date, where its upbeat nature pushes the listener through its weaker moments.
Excellently titled, The Late Great Townes Van Zandt is close to being his best album. Fans see it as his greatest record, and it contains some of his best-loved songs; but there's problems with the sequencing. His most popular (and financially rewarding) song, 'Pancho and Lefty', is tucked away on the second side, right next to another well-loved creation, 'If I Needed You'. Needless to say, both songs are fantastic tributes to the talent Townes had for creating memorable, melancholic country songs that are simultaneously sad and joyous, and they deserve to be known by a mass audience. 'If I Needed You' highlights that fact that the music seems best when at its simplest; just Townes finger-picking folky melodies whilst his expressive voice sticks to a simple tessitura to allow the poignancy of the lyrics to shine through. But this doesn't mean his more orchestrated music is any less affecting: 'Panco and Lefty' appears to be an even bleaker variant on the 'Butch Cassidy' myth, with one of the outlaws already dead and the other surviving only "out of kindness, I suppose". The dignity of the words is matched by the mournful strings and the Mariachi fanfares, all judiciously pivoting on the minor chords of the chorus.
Anyway, back to the start. 'No Lonesome Tune' seems a strangely low-key way to start, and its extended outro leaves me cold. Similarly, the re-recorded 'Sad Cinderella' fails to make an impact, and the bluesy, slide-guitar of 'German Mustard (A Clapalong)' makes the song unique in Townes's catalogue, but not especially in a good way. So, the cover of Gene Clark's 'Don't Let The Sunshine Fool You' is the first stand out on the album, its sound tying in with the gospel-country tumble of the previous album. Followed up by Hank Williams's 'Honky Tonkin', all shimmering pedal steel and country drawl (but with added distorted lead guitar and bizarre clanking percussion), and it seems possible that this is to be the record where Townes most clearly celebrates his influences and roots. The fragile 'Snow Don't Fall' breaks this up though; its stately, paino-led grave a perfect reminder of Townes's own talent, and he develops another bruised love song: "My love lies 'neath frozen skies/And waits in sweet repose for me". Lawton Williams's 'Fraulein' takes us back into Townes's past, as his father only agreed to buy him a guitar if he learned to play this song. Here, the debt is repaid respectfully, even if the song itself pales against Townes's own compositions.
Which takes us back to 'Pancho and Lefty'. So we'll jump ahead slightly, to the 'Silver Ships Of Andilar', an astonishing song that sounds like nothing else here. A softly picked ballad that slowly explodes into an epic, 5-minute burst of orchestration, the song poetically charts the doomed journey of a fleet of warships caught in a storm, as the man on boards begin to lose their minds: "For a soldier denied his battle plain on a comrade soon must turn".
Interestingly, the naval references lead us to the last, well-loved, song, 'Heavenly Houseboat Blues'; an understated goodbye to the world, and to a girl. With this simple and subtle folk song, I guess the record has pretty much gone full circle and we're back where we started: except hopefully we've realised just what the late, great Townes Van Zandt had to offer us.
Flyin' Shoes was Townes Van Zandt's first studio record in six years, the time in-between filled with endless touring (which we will come back to later). We're back in Nashville, home of his first two albums, and Townes is switching between writing songs and drinking his life away. His voice shows the effects of this lifestyle, all cracked and broken.
As an artist, Townes appears almost lost now, certainly out of time. The songs are still mostly there, but the band arrangements don't fit, leaving the sound mostly flat and smothered by unsuitability. 'Loretta' fades in, a wailing harmonica introducing Townes, soon joined by cooing female backing vocals. It's not a bad song, but it doesn't particularly excite either. The pace is slow, almost predictable, and the musicianship is slick but hollow. 'No Place To Fall' suffers a similar fate, lifted only by its waltz-time beat and carefully crafted chorus. But the band go through familiar paces; the same old moves being rehearsed again. 'Flyin' Shoes' is the first great song here, hampered by its arrangement. It begins with the solo harmonica, whose loneliness is emphasised by a ghostly pedal guitar, before unnecessary guitar and fussy piano enter. A second guitar sounds out of tune. Townes's weary vocals begin: "Days full of rain/The skies coming down again/I get so tired of these same old blues". Perhaps the over-playing is there just to annoy him further, make him want to leave just that little bit sooner: "Same old song/Baby it won't be long/Till I'll be tying on my flying shoes".
More tasteful songs pass us. Suddenly, something utterly bizarre. Townes's guitar has a cheap octave effect leaked onto it. And then so does his voice. The normal voice is there, up front, but so is this chipmonk monstrosity, and its hard to tell where its there for comedy of menace: "Well her mother was a golden girl/Slit her throat just to get her pearls". Evil fuzz guitar starts up, and widdles its way to the end. And yet... I find something fascinating about this song. Perhaps its just because of that cringeworthy effect.
Its juxtaposed against 'Rex's Blues', the best song here. Rex himself shows up in a scene cut from Heartworn Highways, ludicrously threatening the film crew with an air rifle and revealing his fingernails are painted to remind him what strings to play on his bass. For once, Townes sings about someone else's woes, apart from his own. It works, because he personalises the story, and sets it against one of his prettiest tunes ever (the band do their best to ruin it, but...): "Tell my baby I said so long/Tell my mother I did no wrong/Tell my brother to watch his own/Tell my friends to mourn me none".
We're near the end. 'Pueblo Waltz' is what it is: a 3/4 dance for a girl. 'Brother Flower' has an attractive tune, a yearning quality and a simplicity that makes it work. Finally, 'Snake Song' reminds of previous albums, at least to begin with. Townes's guitar is pushed forwards, bending strings and breaking through the speakers, before the band is allowed to dull its rage. Again.
Let's go back in time. The anthology is now in mopping up mode, and moves towards four Studio Outtakes c.1972/3. Clearly a busy period for Townes. The songs sound like they're coming from the past, a cracked vinyl, which is definitely no bad thing. 'The Spider Song' is fantastic, even if the structure seems a touch underwritten. It's worth it just for the spooky humming of the backing vocals. 'Buckskin Stallion Blues' is 'Brother Flower' with different words and a calmer vocal. 'At My Window' almost works but is too familiar at this stage to justify its length. It correctly remained an outtake, although it is well developed and orchestrated fully.
The last 8 tracks here are live, and focus exclusively on songs never studio recorded. Live albums are usually lesser artefacts, "you had to be there" moments, but it might just be the environment that Townes and his guitar work best in. Released in 1977, Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas had actually been recorded over 5 nights in July 1973. The tracks here don't truly represent the brilliant intimacy of the full album, due mainly because of the justification behind their inclusion: they're mainly simple blues songs or covers. The latter seem to work out best, really: Merle Travis's 'Nine Pound Hammer' makes a virtue out of its naive tune, Townes skilfully finger picking out the melody, whilst bass runs on the guitar comfortably support him. It's simple, and leaves space for his warm, welcoming voice to fill. The traditional 'Cocaine Blues' achieves a similar effortless, but as the title may suggest, this is more pained and bare (in a good way), Townes keening and hurt voice really tapping into the listener's emotions: "Get out of here Momma, I thought you understood/You've got no connections and you're no damn good/Cocaine". At one point, someone in the crowd appears to softly echo Townes's "cocaine" plea, intimating that he understands exactly what the singer's singing. It's amazing, a real hairs on the back of the neck moment. And, if you've read all I've written in this review so far, you might be able to guess what my last words will be but, believe me when I say: It's by no means the only one.
NB: Review also available on Ciao
Even in an age of such constant artistic recycling, it still seems strange to release a 3-CD box-set of rarities celebrating such a relatively obscure musician. But Luke Haines has always thrived on such aesthetic left-turns, and appears to delight in confounding expectations and confusing his audience. The hubris continues in Haines's own myth-taking sleeve notes, and the inclusion of a nonsensically pretentious 'essay' by critic Paul Morley just adds to the contrary, paradoxical image of a man who enjoys baiting his fans: the very people who keep his status as an artist alive.
After spending time as the guitarist in The Servants (where he met bassist Alice Readman and got the chance to indulge a life-long fascination with the Go-Betweens), Haines first appeared as a bandleader in 1992, charismatically fronting The Auteurs. As far as the indie music press were concerned The Auteurs, along with the more popular Suede, represented a new breakthrough in British music, against the dominance of the US grunge and alternative scenes. The Auteurs first strike was 'Showgirl', although this compilation (which incidentally takes its name from a Vichy Government song) properly starts with a take on 'Bailed Out', which was originally slated to be the debut single. It's good, but sounds better on the album, and has nothing like the impact and uniqueness that 'Showgirl' has.
Both Suede and The Auteurs had a sound that was firmly rooted in the glam rock of the early 70s, although I would argue that the latter band were more subtle in developing this influence. The guitars are suitably trashy, but have a wonderfully bright, unique sound that has yet to be truly repeated. The lyrics also appear to take glam as a starting point before moving on to something more perspicacious. Appearing to celebrate the kind of glamorous, sophisticated lifestyle many pine for and want to be part of, Haines avoids the grasping sentiments of needing to be part of a community that plague similar songs (contrast with Suedes call-to-arms debut, 'The Drowners'), the song's seemingly iconic images ("I took a showgirl for my bride Took her bowling, got her high") instead hiding a seething undercurrent of distaste and such self-obsessed and inflated behaviour, the preening fancies of a moneyed middle-class left unchecked in their behaviour. The songs final line, "don't you recognise us?" is ironic: a ridiculous, self-aggrandising statement that ties the whole song together. The characters in the song may appear unblemished and unattainable sophisticates, but why would anyone want to associate with such pompous, venal characters? The B-sides for the single continue with this imagery, investigating the undercurrent of sleaze and ridiculousness manifested in the most glamorous of creations. 'Glad To Be Gone' is a fiery waltz, Haines unleashing his fury and disgust at an unnamed target, while 'Staying Power' is the perfect summation of Haines's career, hilariously written by the man himself before he's even released a song: although he may never be popular with a mass audience, his music has the grace and longevity to appeal after other bands have fizzled out (and, indeed, time appears to have shown this to be the case).
New Wave, the debut album from '93, expanded on these themes, cementing their importance in Haines's career. Various songs are represented here, in alternate and single versions: 'Junk Shop Clothes' pours scorn on those who think their faux-artistic temperament can be revealed and developed purely by the cheap garments they wear ("Lenny Bruce never walked in a dead man's shoes, even for one night"). That such bile is attached to a gorgeous descending chord sequence is a masterstroke that adds an impossibly appealing edge to lyrics that could otherwise be distancing and unpalatable. The Auteurs's strengths definitely lie in these juxtapositions: they're present in 'Subcultcha', a litany of ridiculous behaviour set to driven drums and catchy melody. Perhaps Haines's voice is one of his weak point; a thin wisp that some listeners never quite grasp, but he makes the most of it and connects it to the music and lyrics. 'Housebreaker' and 'Valet Parking' both push glamour into criminal and mundane jobs, portraying Haines as a gentleman thief and the smirking brains behind the murder of a celebrity, perhaps?
The games continue of 'How Could I Be Wrong' and 'Starstruck', referencing the lunacy of showbiz fixations; and the constant talk of 'stars' throughout the album accumulates on both tracks, a deliberate device highlight the obsession in society with the rise (and especially the fall) of the celebrity (and this was released in 1993 remember; it's only got much worse since then!). 'Home Again' shows Haines as a stalker breaking into an ex-girlfriends house, cataloguing what she own. It could almost be a love song, the way the lyrics are constructed ("It's better than drugs to be in your home again"). The acoustic version included here doesn't do the song justice, highlighting one of the major problems with this compilation. It appears to be aimed a completists who would want to own such things, and yet rare B-sides are missing , making it unsatisfactory for dedicated and the newcomer alike. Perhaps if you truly want to get into The Auteurs, New Wave is the place to start.
Now I'm A Cowboy, the follow up, came only a year later, and represents possibly the only time Haines has rested on his laurels in his career as opposed to moving onto something new. Perhaps because of the speed it was created, it ends up mainly as a re-tread of the debut, with all the commercial aspects now pushed to the fore. Needless to say, this doesn't work. The biggest hit was the first single Lenny Valentino (almost a UK top 40 hit!) which could be Haines's best-loved song. It's a superbly catchy song that never outstays its welcome, blasting through three verses on a typically obscure subject (the title character being a melding of comic Lenny Bruce and actor Rudolph Valentino which ties in with New Waves's striking cover image) in record time. The music sounds beefed up, and the 3 recordings of the single available suggests that Haines is pushing (or has been pushed by his ersatz-'indie' record label, Hut) down a more commercial route. Wisely, this is something he wouldn't try again and, in truth, he'd never be able to water down his lyrics content enough. Haines takes his eye of the ball for 'Chinese Bakery' (catchy, but completely meaningless) and 'New French Girlfriend' is going nowhere very slowly (except onto the soundtrack of an obscure American film maybe that was the point?).
Elsewhere, the anger remains intact. 'I'm A Rich Man's Toy' is a blast, and if this was the song intially intended for Vanessa Paradis to sing, then it is a shame this genius piece of casting remained incomplete. 'The Upper Classes' is an amazing collage of character assassination, an investigation into a vacuous lifestyle that allows the band to stretch across an extended outro, the kind of thing severely restricted in future, as Haines sharpens his attacks. Now I'm a Cowboy also foregrounds Haines's melancholic side. 'A Sister Like You', 'Modern History' and B-side 'Government Bookstore' all emphasise an air of loss and have a warmth in their structure that only rarely appears again: perhaps one of the more obvious drawbacks to the intelligent assaults that make Haines so entertaining as an artists.
1995 was a quiet year, very effectively broken in December by the startling release of the 'Back With The Killer' EP. the very height of Britpop, Haines turned his back on the glam rock sound, instead enlisting Steve Albini to craft the third Auteurs album. Albini is the American producer behind many classic albums, including Nirvana's In Utero; the exact opposite of the heady joyous sounds of Blur, Oasis, et al. All four tracks from this EP are here, still exceptional in their musical rawness and lyrical nastiness. The title track is self-explanatory, but 'Unsolved Child Murder' is the true genius here. A matter-of-fact narration ("People round here don't like to talk about it ") set to a wonderfully simple Beatles-esque tune, it almost beggars belief how successful the track is, as the music changes a possibly controversial and distasteful subject into something even starker and heart-wrenching than should be possible. An undeniable highpoint here, it is also at the centre of the 1996 album, 'After Murder Park'. Haines at the height of his powers, it could be his masterpiece.
'Light Aircraft On Fire', 'New Brat In Town', Tombstone': these are not songs to be taken lightly; the latter begins with Haines destroying the Colombia hotel (as well-known musicians hangout) "Baader Meinhof style". The lyrics are heavy and the music sharp and punchy, with vocals being usurped by dissonant, vicious guitars. The songs are underrepresented here by tamer, unreleased versions, so if you like what you hear, then definitely get the original album. Haines also prunes back the songs, cutting unnecessary fat from the music to focus on the increasingly complex words; themes mixing and repeating to create a lyrical coherence that matches the pointed music. This period ends with a John Peel sessions. Produced by Albini instead of the typical BBC engineer, all four tracks are cut through with unspeakable menace, ominous keyboards that sound broken, vocals choking on murderous images, and bizarrely mournful cello played by the underrated James Banbury (an important sideman for Haines for the rest of the compilation). The simplicity of the recordings (due to necessary time limits) only adds to the foreboding, the horror, the majesty. I can't think of a single artist working during the same time period who was creating anything as aurally exciting as these tracks.
'96 also saw Haines's first solo album, under the pseudonym Baader Meinhof. A concept record about 1970s terrorists set to a funk influenced indie groove that includes Eastern-sounding strings and tablas, the lyrics are so incomprehensible as to make the whole thing almost incoherent. It's either the work of a genius or the raving of a madman. What's including here is interesting, if only for it's rarity, but the remixes are mostly dated rubbish.
Haines then moved onto Black Box Recorder (sadly, thought understandably, not represent here), and so The Auteurs necessarily became a solo side-project to the pop wickedness of his new day job. The Auteurs fourth album, How I Learned To Love The Bootboys, moved back to the 70s influences mostly discarded on 'After Murder Park', bring along some Baader Meinhof developed electronics. This was the start of Haines's love affair with 'anti-nostalgia', as scathingly heard on single 'The Rubettes'. 'Future Generations', like 'Staying Power' before it, riotously sends up his own career, casting the Auteurs as a Velvet Underground in waiting, ripe for re-discovery. The unreleased tracks from this period are the most interesting here, showing a different direction the album could have taken had Haines stuck with his original concept based around 'telekinetic youths'. In particular, 'Politics' is fantastic, and it is good that such a well-realised song has now got an official release. If only there were more unknown gems like this on the compilation. Highlight of the Bootboys album is 'Johnny and the Hurricanes', which cleverly and imperceptibly changes key at the start of every verse, creating an unstoppable rising tension in the music as it weaves its way through the fantastically evocative, 70s-set lyrics ("English tarmac, English rain . The Future's 1955").
Haines's next two releases came finally under his own name, where he has comfortably stayed ever since. Companion pieces, the two albums work better together than alone, and see him starting to put more modern, dance and R&B influences into the melting pot. Mostly satisfactory, the period perhaps occasionally sacrifices the music in favour of the words, and the unreleased stuff here fails to completely convince. 'Discomania' and 'The Oliver Twist Manifesto' are both great though, combining various previous interests and astute lyrical observations to build confident, seething diatribes that are amongst Haines's most effective songs. And 'How The Hate The Working Classes' and 'Never Work' both showcase the writer's other side: the music sadder and reined in, the vocals softer, but the content still successfully scolds.
The last three tracks on Luke Haines Is Dead are taken from a previous compilation the arbitrary and largely unexciting Best Of, Das Capital, whereby previously released songs were re-recorded with string and brass sections. It's hard to tell whether this album was Haines's wickedest joke yet or not. Nevertheless, the tracks here, written and recorded specially for the Best Of, helpfully represent the best of worst of Luke Haines. 'Bugger Bognor' doesn't work because the music isn't up to stratch. So no matter the quality of the words, they flounder without a decent backing: proving without doubt something that is frequently underestimated by critics that it's as much the music as the lyrics that makes the songs work (I'd say you could apply this to any musician too). A good example of this is 'The Mitford Sisters', which moves brilliantly from a moody, haunting verse and chorus into a descending, fast-paced middle section, always carefully evoking a rotting war-time setting in the lyrics and gliding strings. All this is wonderful, and the mix of anger, humour and a little sadness in the uniquely, always developing music and lyrics is exactly what has kept Haines such an exciting prospect since the early '90s. Luke Haine Is Dead may not fully represent his self styled (and, I'd say, proven) 'genius', as unique as it is. But it definitely shows what a brilliant, underrated and, above all, consistent writer he is. Although Haines may not like it, I guess the rest is up to history.
NB: This review is also posted on Ciao
Review also posted on Ciao
As the 80s dragged itself into the 90s, one ill-looking band ruled the insular indie roost: My Bloody Valentine, who had the utter misfortune to become the unfortunate forefathers and harbingers of the 'shoegazing' scene. The Boo Radleys, although never completely seen as shoegazers, released their debut mini-album, Ichabod and I, on a small Northern indie label called Action Records, and were clearly held in thrall by the crazed sounds that their guitar pedals could create. Listening to the tracks that open this chronological collection ('Catweazle' and 'Happens To Us All'), this doesnt seem such a good start. There are tunes here somewhere but, like the dull vocals, they're buried under harsh, trebly distorted guitars and splashy drums which (like other shoegazers, and unlike originators My Bloody Valentine) fail to do anything interesting and original to justify their use. The early EPs (Kaleidoscope, Every Heaven and Boo Up!), released by Rough Trade throughout 1991, follow a similar well-trodden path, with the simple production ruining Sice's usually sweetly melodious vocals. An attempt is made to improve the 'pop' quota in this period, most successfully on the chorus of 'The Finest Kiss', and the group continued with this positive direction on their Creation Records debut, Everything's Alright Forever (1992).
Perhaps it was this signing to the influential indie label run by the chalk-and-cheese co-owners Dick Green and Alan McGee that gave guitarist and songwriter Martin Carr the confidence boost he needed to start stretching himself. Tracks like the splenetic 'Lazy Day' and the flamenco-styled opener 'Spaniard' showed how Carr was endeavouring to develop his sound, even in the face of the cheap and primitive recordings they were still producing due to budgetary restraints. His artistic (if not commercial... it originally peaked at No.76) breakthrough came at the end of 1992, with the release of the 'Lazarus' single. The atmospheric, dub-influenced opening completely wrong-foots the listener, allowing snatches of the chorus melody to weave in and out of the music practically unobserved until, around the three-minute mark, a euphoric upward surge on the organ introduces a blaring trumpet, playing the most simple and perfect pop riff ever. The effect at the change is astounding, and is echoed again through the piece: a flawless aural metaphor for the bands own development.
Although not originally slated to appear on the album, the fact that the monumental 'Lazarus' doesn't stand head and shoulders above the rest of Giant Steps is testament to Carr's ever-expanding songwriting sophistication. Tracks such as 'Best Lose The Fear' and 'Barney (...And Me) successfully push the pop aspects of the music to the fore and thrillingly showcase the sometimes fantastically elaborately vocal to the full, without sacrificing the immensity of the band's sound. Other songs, such as 'Upon 9th And Fairchild' and 'I've Lost The Reason' showcase the symphonic and wide-ranging influences now happily inhabiting Carr's music, whilst still allowing for the experimental and the commercial to be effectively and effortlessly balanced. Unsurprisingly, the album went Top 20 by the end of the year, a first for the band and a portent of the future.
1995's Wake Up! took a slight side-step towards Britpop, the band feeling and reacting to the change of mood and attitude in the air at the time, and acting accordingly to the high-profile success they fleetingly gained. The mammoth albatross that is Wake Up Boo! is, at first glance, perhaps surprisingly represented here by the 9-minute 'Music For Astronauts' remix but, as the contemporaneous 'Blues For George Michael' shows, the band had by no means become an utterly commercially-minded enterprise. Indeed, leave aside the other two singles (the rousing 'Find The Answer Within' and the execrable 'It's Lulu') and the album turns into a far more interesting prospect, with the stunning 'Joel' and the subtle effectiveness of 'Reaching Out From Here' being the obvious high points. The accompanying 4-track EP, From The Bench At Belvidere, continued this pop brilliance to the year's end.
And so to C'mon Kids, amazingly released only 12 months after the previous album. Here, the band coalesced around a cornucopia of chameleon-like rock music, allowing brash, abrasive Townshend-esque electric guitars to mingle with Tribal drums and muted brass. The Boo Radleys final album, Kingsize, eventually appeared in 1998, and revealed Carr's confused and disinterested state of mind at the time: he simply isn't sure what he wants the band to be anymore. The album does contain some highpoints, such as the title track and the opener 'Blue Room In Archway', but the rest of it can't decide what it wants to be, and features too many tracks that feel dreary, overworked and overlong. Carr finally split the band when the album was released, which allowed him to concentrate on his solo recordings, released under the pseudonym Brave Captain. But the music hes made since has come nowhere near reaching the great peaks that can be heard on this compilation.