Saturday, 26 April 2014

1981: Queen - Greatest Hits I

I listened to this a lot. A lot. From around the time of Freddie Mercury's death, or just before in fact, when I was 13, to at least two years later, if not more, I liked Queen. And not much else. I listened to Queen. And not much else. Well, that's not quite true; I listened to the radio and watched Top of the Pops and liked some other imaginary idea of music which I hadn't heard yet, but, if ever I chose to listen to music, I chose to listen to the two cassettes I purloined from my sister's room, Queen Greatest Hits and, for good measure, Queen Greatest Hits II. Really, that was it. Just Queen, or once in a blue moon, my childhood favourite, Madness.My friend James Kesner tried to get me to listen to Suede, The Manics, The Levellers (who he thought I'd like, I'm glad I resisted that one), but I knew Queen were better than all of them and I'd keep on listening to Queen, thank you very much.

I wasn't the only person listening to them. This album, Queen Greatest Hits, is the bestselling album in UK history, the only album to sell more than 6 million copies in the UK. So there's a good chance you already know it. You may choose to listen to it as a result of my prompting. I won't. I can't bear it.

You may have already read here about my musical awakening, prompted by The Jam's 'Going Underground', when I was 15. The Jam chimed somewhat with Madness, who'd been my favourite pre-Queen, and from there, away I went. The 80s, then new wave, then Beatles and Bowie and  Bruce and Bob and Blur and Britpop and all the rest of it, with my trusty NME by my side. Somewhere within that, Queen got lost, No, they didn't get lost, they got forcibly ejected. My regal period ended with a revolution.

I read a lot of opinionated angry men then, I read to my horror that Queen were the anti-punk, I read to my horror all kinds of reasons why Queen were not where it's at, some of which looking back was pretty repellent character assassionation. Was it just that I was highly susceptible to propaganda for people who can't play their instruments well? Either way, there has been no comeback.

I've even made a conscious effort in recent years to get back in touch with what I once loved, to hear the good in Queen again. But I really can't. I can't bear it.

It's not that I'm not interested or impressed. I'll happily watch a documentary about them, read an article about them, watch footage of their extraordinary powers in concert, in particularly their famous Live Aid set, often seen as one of the greatest (short) gigs ever. Hell, Freddie Mercury went to Art School in Ealing, what's not to love?

Just the music in and of itself, listening to the music, the songs that I listened to over and over and over again for month after month. I look at the track listing now for Queen Greatest Hits I and nearly every single song looks utterly vapid and silly. God, I sound like such a rock snob. You know I like so many songs and bands which are way more vapid and silly than Queen. It's not that. It's just ...

...  I cope better with going back to Greatest Hits II. I sometimes hear real soul in that. Obviously, really. There's real anger and sadness and mortality. There's still plenty that's naff, but I don't crumble in the face of my self-imposed shame.

What's wrong with it? What's wrong with me? The tracklisting of Queen Greatest Hits I is a gallery of some of the most entertaining, recognisable songs in the history of rock music, from Don't Stop Me Now, We are the Champions, Killer Queen, We Will Rock You to the monster of them all, Bohemian Rhapsody. But, really, the only two songs on the album I can deal with are Somebody to Love, which has the bones of a beautiful song in there and just about manages not to put tooooo much meat on those bones, and Flash, because ... well, because it's awesome, obviously. No,  because it's so silly, it's a comedy song, and no one need pretend otherwise.

God, they've got tunes, so many, so many ideas, so much virtuosity, but that's the problem. It's all showing off. Bohemian Rhapsody is the perfect example, where there you could probably make three really good songs out of it, but instead you makes one bloated horror show ... or what most people would say was one masterpiece. Yes, I listened to it about 200 times in 1992, yes, I know that the chances are it's still a masterpiece, I just made myself irreversibly sick of it, I get that.

And yes, some people are born to play stadiums, and yes, exhibitionism and virtuosity are not per se bad things, and yes, Brian May seems lovely and Freddie Mercury had one of the most extraordinary voices and yes John Deacon ... John Deacon, but, forgive me, I can't bear it.

What else is there for me to say? I've got little coherent to add, just that there are various, if you will, Platonic ideas of what rock music is, and Queen are the embodiment of one of them, but it's not mine, and I just can't quite fit them into my balloon any more.

I'm going to do a Queen compilation, and it will be a Queen compilation for D McG aged 15 rather than 35. Bear in mind I've basically only ever listened to the Greatest Hits over and over again, and there may well be a huge pile of downbeat, relaxed, pastoral album tracks I've never listened to which would totally change my mind back. Hmm ... perhaps.

Under Pressure (which has never not been tremendous)
Somebody to Love
It's a Hard Life
Killer Queen
These Are The Days of Our Lives
The Show Must Go On
Friends Will Be Friends
Who Wants to live Forever?
Hammer to Fall

I know, that's a pathetic excuse for a proper Queen compilation and it's also dishonest, because it's not me aged 15, it's me now, only including the ones I liked when I was 15 which I can still just about tolerate now. Sorry, Queen's Greatest Hits. Sorry, fans of it. But, you know, what if i'm right?

Thursday, 24 April 2014

1988: Public Enemy - It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

This is often described as the Greatest Hip-Hop Album of All Time, certainly by people who don't know much about hip-hop, like me. Public Enemy have, since their emergence in the late 80s been the hip-hop band beloved of serious rock fans and indie kids. They have two avowed masterworks, this and its follow-up, 'Fear of a Black Planet'. They're still going to this day.

Their leader, Chuck D, is the go-to guy for people who want a right-on rap hero, fearsomely articulate and thoughtful, with the stentorian bellow of a preacher and the fierce zeal of a missionary. Jeez, even Michael Gove likes him, as this unbearable clip demonstrates.

I like hip-hop. I own quite a lot, probably more than most people. I have a fair few albums and an awful lot of tracks. The truth is, though, that it's something I enjoy more in small doses. There aren't many hip-hop albums I've listened to repeatedly all the way through. This one I have, but not many others.

I used to make lots of compilation tapes, and I'd always put a rap track or two on them, sometimes in slightly alarming juxtaposition with a folk ballad or some such. But, usually, that's how it works best for me.

I've had a think about why that is. One reason emerged as I was listening to 'It Takes a Nation of Millions ...' recently. It's so demanding! It demands your attention, that you listen to the words, it jabs you with its beats and its samples, its a hundred different things within a song. It made me realise that even if I think I'm giving some album of acoustic flammery my full attention, it gives plenty of opportunities to switch off, to lose oneself within the music (the moment, you own it etc).

One of the many impressive things is just what a honed operation they were - everyone had a role, from the producers who found the music samples to the DJ, Terminator X, to Professor Griff to Chuck D himself who found the vocal samples and provided the powerful lead. And then there was Flavor Flav, the original hype man, one of the most original and unusual characters in modern music, an authentic loon (sometimes not in a good way) whose yapping vocals dovetailed perfectly with Chuck D's.

And then there's the music, jabbing, screaming, always completely original (as original as sampled music can be), eclectic, hardly ever a smooth ride.

There's a real rock sensibility to Public Enemy, and no wonder they were beloved of everyone from Nirvana to the Manics to Anthrax.

This album is from 1988 - hip-hop had had a decade beforehand but arguably this is its Bob Dylan moment or it's Beatles moment - when it grows up and becomes a serious force. That's not to say a) that Public Enemy were every wildly successful - they've sold millions but not multi-millions. They've hardly ever made anything close to pop music. b) that this album is even, sadly, that influential. Righteous, positive hip-hop and sweet hippy hip-hop (represented by De La Soul) had their moment but were swept away by the gangsta rap of NWA which would become the dominant commercial hip-hop of the 90s and beyond.

This album is meticulously put together and constantly on the move - it's 16 tracks, 2 halves, a full hour. Lots of preaching, a bit of humour, lots of Flavor Flav saying everyone's name, including his own. It even begins, incongruously, with Dave Pearce.

Chuck D's lyrics are impressive throughout, and the album saves arguably its two strongest moments for the second half - Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos and Rebel Without a Pause.

Like I say - they're still going strong - I saw them on TV at Glastonbury last year (minus Flavor Flav, an absence keenly felt). We're entering the age of heritage hip-hop acts. Bizarrely, they had their biggest ever UK single in 2012 when their late track ' Harder than You Think' was used by Channel 4 for the Paralympics.

These would be my favourites.

Bring the Noise
Fight the Power
Brothers Gonna Work it Out
He Got Game
911 is a Joke
Give it Up
Prophets of Rage
Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos
Don't Believe the Hype
Harder Than You Think
Night of the Living Baseheads
By the Time I get to Arizona
Public Enemy No. 1
Rebel Without a Pause

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

1989: The Pixies - Doolittle

I'm going to level with you, this isn't an album I actually bought in 1989. In 1989 I bought 'Wild!' by Erasure and an instrumental selection of the Greatest Hits of Andrew Lloyd Webber - I was disappointed when I took it home that it was instrumental - I should have known from the £1.99   price tag. However, even then, I must have had some sense that there was a hierarchy of cool in music, because I almost bought 'Kylie' (the classic debut) but thought it wasn't cool enough for me and I might be teased.

But somewhere in the world, far, far from 'Our Price' in Ealing Broadway Centre, these four American kooks were releasing their breakthrough third album, generally considered their best and one of the most important in the history of alternative music.

My Pixies experience is pretty limited - I've got 'Doolittle', a Best of and a few other bits. I'm lucky enough to have seen them live, at Benicassim in 2006 (near the start of their second incarnation which, bizarrely, has lasted longer than their original run). They were tremendous, exhilarating for 60,000 people. The show had to stop for 20 minutes as it was getting a bit dicy down the front and people needed to calm down a bit. At that stage I knew about 15 Pixies songs and they played all of them and they were all awesome.

About half of those were from 'Doolittle' - which I bought soon afterwards. A rattling 15 songs with no pause for breath. It hardly follows the album formula I described in my previous post on the Pernice Brothers, as it puts its biggest number up front - 'Debaser', beloved of the indie disco, which could dwarf a lesser album. In fact, the first half probably contains the stronger, certainly the more well known, songs. The second half is fun, I wouldn't say it sags, but I'd say the album is slightly top-heavy.

To me, the Pixies are a pop band. Their best moments make me feel exhilaration,  but I wouldn't say there's anything beyond that for me. They don't move me, sadden me, enrage me, even intrigue me. I know they intrigue some people. Their geeky weirdness, the biblical and surrealist imagery, the dark story-telling, it's all great stuff, I know they meant a lot to people. Frank Black being a chubby, balding rock god is great and, if you will, empowering; the scream of rage, the cry of the outsider, I get all that.

I also hear their influence - whether it's on Nirvana or a pop-punk band like Ash. The quiet-loud dynamic, the surf guitar sound, the heaviness allied to sweet pop tunes, the use of Kim Deal's backing vocals, it's all there.

I don't dismiss them by calling them a pop band - they mastered that thing that a few of the alternative bands who've developed a massive following have managed down the years - being clever while getting the kids to dance. In that sense, their successors are the likes of Blur, The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, Pavement, dare I say it, even the Killers (without the clever bit ...).

Their best songs sound great, on your headphones, on the radio, everywhere. This album, 'Doolittle', has their cleanest, poppiest production, and I think that really suits them. They've their first album of new material for 20 odd years coming out next week, and I think there's a general sense of "I wish they wouldn't" (including from Kim Deal, who left the band because she didn't want to record new stuff), and early reviews suggest it's all too clean, almost like a Pixies covers band, but, who knows, it's all perception, isn't it? To me, they're a band at their best when they're most "mainstream" (musically not lyrically), most melodic and sweet. I haven't decided if I'll get the new album, but i'm not ruling it out.

My Pixies compilation will be frankly a little disappointing, not far from just being a Best Of.

Here Comes Your Man
Where is My Mind?
Crackity Jones
Wave of Mutilation
Monkey Gone to Heaven
Nimrod's Son
Planet of Sound

Monday, 21 April 2014

2001: Pernice Brothers - The World Won't End

For several years, I'd describe this as my favourite album in the world. Perhaps, more than I'd admit, to be wilfully obscure, because I enjoyed my favourite album being something other people hadn't heard of, or perhaps just because I felt this album deserved a light shone on it.

It doesn't sit quite so high in my estimation anymore. It's a minor album, a classy, neat, minor album, free of fluff, short on faults, maybe a tiny bit short on truly memorable melodies. Its creator, Joe Pernice (for the Pernice Brothers - though it did contain his brother Bob amongst others - is very much the vision of one Joe Pernice, who has also recorded under his own name, as Chappaquidick Skyline, as lead singer of alt-country middleweights The Scud Mountain Boys, as  part of the New Mendicants with Teenage Fanclub's Norman Blake) is a master songwriter, one of those cult men hanging around for decades who's never quite famous.

He's made loads of other really strong albums of strong songs, but this one stands out in my estimation by a long mile. Why is that? Is it truly better than his other works such as 'Big Tobacco', 'Overcome by Happiness' and 'Yours, Mine and Ours', or is it just that it's my album, the one I've chosen to love and cherish?

2001 was a pretty good year for music for me, in fact probably my favourite. I was buying and listening to a lot of albums, some of which are seen as classics, yet this is the album that stands out. What else was there? Off the top of my head, I enjoyed Elbow's debut, Ash's Free All Angels,  Mercury Rev's All is Dream, Roots Manuva's Run Come Save Me, Bob Dylan's Love and Theft, Ryan Adam's Gold, The Strokes' Is This It, The White Stripes' Red Blood Cells, Matthew Jay's Draw, Ed Harcourt and Tom McRae's debuts, The Furries' Rings Around the World, PJ Harvey's Stories from the Cities, Stories from the Sea, Spiritualized's Let it Come Down, Spearmint's A Different Lifetime, and i'm sure, plenty more. A lot of indie pop, a lot of singer-songwriter, that's where I was at back then.

It's probably 'Is This It' by the Strokes which defines the year. It was set up to be a "classic", mythologised before it even came out. To me, as with the rest of their career, though they are a band whose songs I like, it was a mild disappointmen, The best songs were those on the EPs which we'd all already heard. The album was more of the same, but less. That's not the band or the album's fault, but it's just an aspect of why some albums fulfil,  thrill or let down.

The Pernice Brothers' 'The World Won't End' had nothing to live up to with me, I'd never heard of them, I liked a song I heard by them on an Uncut free CD, I think they had another song getting occasional airplay on XFM, I liked the sound of the review I read, I bought it, I liked it.

Not wildly, to start with. I just liked it. But gradually I noticed it was a great album. What makes a great album? I've told you before, all the songs should be good and you can feel a sense of unity running through it. Simple.  The first two should be good but not so amazing that everything that follows will be a let-down, then when you expect to lose momentum, the 3rd, 4th and 5th should be better, then the 3rd quarter should be strong too in a slightly different way, and it ends with a proper ending and maybe something a little lullabylike. Formula! There's a fuckin' formula. Why doesn't everyone follow it?

This album follows the great album formula (well, let's be honest, it kind of defines my hastily concocted great album formula ...). The first two songs are upbeat chamber-pop with a dark undercurrent, the third quarter is a bit more rocking, the final chapter is wistful and sad. And the key, as so often, is the second quarter of the album, songs 3, 4 and 5, the loving, beating, heart. The songs are called 'Our Time Has Passed', 'She Heightened Everything' 'Bryte Side'. They're all bitter-sweet love songs, almost a song suite really. The first two are delightful, the third you will recognise, if you are a regular reader of this blog, as my favourite song in the world, in an even more long-lasting way than its parent album was, for a while, my favourite album.

Now, I've been on holiday so it's been a while since my last post, so I've had a good long time of re-listening to this album and the whole Pernice oeuvre and getting to grips with it all. I've listened to 'Bryte Side' a lot, more than for years. It's been lovely to revisit this old friend, and find it as healthy as ever.

It's a very slight song, just three minutes but pretty much over in the first two, just three short verses and not much of a chorus. It also has an alarming lyrical moment which I'm still uncomfortable with - the first verse ends with the line "another year does suicide" which is ugly and could surely have been avoided. Joe Pernice's writing is generally so free of lyrical awkwardness I feel it must be on purpose as it's not like there aren't other options of sorts  which would scan ok. So, uneasily, I let it be.

The title - 'Bryte Side' - I love. The hint of irony which is all important. The song is about a love that has been and gone - weak fireworks eclipsed in the trauma ...the first two verses set that up.

And then, the third verse, which I easily and happily state is my favourite moment in the history of recorded music and is precisely the definition of what I love in pop music.

Strings are a cliche, but when they're right ... so as the verse begins, the swell, which seems to announce that something important is about to happen. This seems to be confirmed by the first half line - "I hope I never love anybody ..." then a momentary break "... the way we never really tried". The hint at grand heartbreak, then the bathos - just perfect. Then the image, the placing, which brings it to life "Skin tanning in a hot flash summer - I never was so terrified". Perhaps I myself particularly loved the song because the lyric implies the tanning is part of the terror - something any pale skinned dude can well understand!

But this, this verse here, is just the most perfect, most evocative moment I've come across. The title makes perfect sense now - 'Bryte Side', the tacky greetings card disavowal of true feelings, the sneer and shrug which makes thew heartbreak all the more evident. Kurt Cobain said it even more succintly 10 years earlier - "Oh well, whatever, never mind ..."

So there - a little insight into what I love in a song. The album contains more lovely moments - the fierce summer haze features throughout - how could i not love an album with a song called 'The Ballad of Bjorn Borg'.

I'd really give it a try. This is the highpoint for Joe Pernice, I'd say, though there are many more classy songs - there's been a novella based on the Smiths' Meat is Murder and a novel of his own (which I haven't read yet).

The voice is breathy and detached, the music is often more anglocentric than countrified - more in the jangly indie-pop sphere really. My compilation would be

Overcome by Happiness
Massachusetts - Scud Mountain Boys
Our Time Has Passed
She Heightened Everything
Bryte Side
Grudge - Scud Mountain Boys
Weaker Shade of Blue
Conscience Clean (I Went to Spain)
Prince Valium - Joe Pernice
High as a Kite
Bum Leg - Joe Pernice
Newport News
Endless Supply
Chicken Wire
Cronulla Breakdown

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

1965: Otis Redding - Otis Blue

'Otis Blue' is widely considered one of the all-time great soul albums, along with Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On' and a few others. It's seen as the definitive masterpiece of a definitive master. Makes you think. The whole album contains 11 tracks - 3 originals, 3 by his idol Sam Cooke (who'd died months before), and 5 other covers. It was recorded in 24 hours and was one of four studio albums Otis Redding released in a two year period. Kanye West claims to have spent 5000 hours composing one song, 'Power'. Even if he's added a zero by mistake or for effect, hell, even if he's added two zeros, that says an awful lot about the way the music industry's changed and what can be "great".

Don't get me wrong, this is a great album. It's wonderful to listen to, every song's lush and provokes an emotion, there's light and shade and hope and pain all the way through. Otis Redding had a few things helping him along which most people didn't have 1. the best backing band in the history of the world, including the likes of Steve Cropper, Donald Dunn and Isaac Hayes. 2. the best voice in the history of the world ... if you like that sort of thing.

Otis Redding's voice, this beloved instrument, rasping and rocking, soulful and strong. Pretty different from the other great soul voices of the 60s, but arguably more influential, in particular on rock singers. Otis Redding is a bit hick, a bit country. Where the great Motown artists were pop singers, he's a rock singer. The music is looser and grittier and somehow more moving.

He had something else going for him, of course - he was a tremendous writer - Dock of the Bay was  still to come, but this album contains Ole Man Trouble, Respect and the marvellous I've Been Loving You Too Long. Just three of his own though, and how funny that one of those, Respect, has been taken from him and is not associated with him at all anymore. Likewise, there's a strange thing when you look at various of the most famous songs on 'Otis Blue' - Respect, Wonderful World, My Girl, Change Gonna Come, Satisfaction ... the definitive, most famous versions of these songs are all by someone else - respectively Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, the Temptations, Sam Cooke and the Rolling Stones. He didn't succeed in claiming these songs for his own, however highly this album is thought of.

If it comes to it, I prefer Otis Redding's versions to Sam Cooke's - Otis sounds more authentic on Wonderful World - Sam Cooke is so smooth and schooled, you think he knows plenty about algebra, trigonometry and the French he took. Shake is one of my favourites and A Change is Gonna Come is one of the greatest songs of all time, but I just tip to Redding's over the original.

You wouldn't necessarily say he improves on the original 'My Girl' or 'Satisfaction'. The fact of him covering 'Satisfaction' says it all though. Even now, genuine crossover is quite rare, but Otis Redding crossed over effortlessly, whether on record or at events like the Monterey Pop Festival.

Anyway, I mentioned it before when writing about Gram Parson's 'Grievous Angel', but sometimes a great album is a happy accident, a thrown together ragbag - how much time went into the song selection and  sequencing here? Who knows? Maybe a few days, maybe a few hours? Yet now it's faultless, timeless, definitive, classic, etc ...

Was everything just way better in the good old days? Of course not.  Here's a thing, Paolo Nutini sounds like Otis Redding. Deny it all you want, he does. Half the people who'd scoff at that wouldn't be able to tell the difference. Paolo Nutini could sound even more like Otis Redding if he didn't keep his own Scottish accent, yet he never gets praised for authenticity.

I've found myself watching a live set of Paolo Nutini at a festival - I'd have rather been somewhere else, but it was pretty good. There was no way I could get past my innate music snobbery to actually "enjoy" it but he sang great, the band were great, at least one song was really good and several were good. He sells plenty of records but he can't catch a break when it comes to "authenticity". He might as well be James Blunt.  I'm not now going to tell you that James Blunt sounds like Marvin Gaye, don't worry.

People love Otis Redding because he just sang and there was none more real. I thought a fair bit about why this has come to be seen as the definitive soul album - why soul music is more often at the top of Greatest Singles lists than Greatest Albums, likewise disco, hip-hop etc, and why only certain black artists have been able to break through in terms of being seen as great albums artists.  I don't have an answer right now. I'm going to think about it and one day write an essay on it. But for now, here's an Otis Redding compilation you should really listen to.

Hard to Handle
Try a Little Tenderness
Cigarettes and Coffee
That's How Strong My Love Is
I've Been Loving You Too Long
You Don't Miss Your Water
Ole Man Trouble
Mr Pitiful
(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay
Love Man
These Arms of Mine
Change Gonna Come

Sunday, 6 April 2014

1972: Nick Drake - Pink Moon

Another imposingly tall and elegant cult man of song, another album with the whiff of perfection about it. Nick Drake's 'Pink Moon' was the first album with which I saw the phrase "haiku-like perfection" associated. I get the point, but it bothers me to see a verse form used as an analogy for another art form which does involve verse of a different sort. So, perhaps "Big Mac-like perfection" is a better term. Or, if that's controversial, certainly "cup of tea-like perfection". 'Pink Moon' is possessed of a cup of tea-like perfection.

There's not too much that Nicks Cave and Drake have in common besides their name (which can get an awful lot of folk confused) - one is Aussie, the other Brit, one alive, the other dead, one survived multiple overdoses of a drug considered damaging and evil, the other was finished off by just one overdose of a drug intended to be helpful, one has a voice like thunder, the other a voice like a gentle breeze, one is a piano man, the other a guitar man, one is a man infused with monotheology, the other's vision is pantheistic, paganistic almost, one has a huge body of work over three decades, one has just three albums and a few bits and bobs.

What of the three Nick Drake albums? All are considered classics but 'Pink Moon' is by far my favourite. His debut, 'Five Leaves Left' is warm and wise, pastoral, dopey, beautifully orchestrated. There's no real despair on it, far from it. There's a lot to love about it, but it lacks great songs. I think. It has many fine songs.

'Bryter Layter',  the second one, has great songs. Like 'Five Leaves Left' it is beaufully orchestrated and accompanied by several greats of British music from Richard Thompson to John Cale. It was, really, the big attempt to "break" Nick Drake. It's poppy - with 'Poor Boy', 'Hazey Jane II', 'One of These Things First' and the classic 'Northern Sky' (the 4th greatest song of all time, of course).

There are 10 songs, of which three are instrumentals - they're very pretty instrumentals but they do sound a little like they could be theme tunes to mid-afternoon art shows on Channel 4. They bring the album down, I think. Again,  there is no overt despair on this album. There's wry humour, and self-mockery on the likes  of 'Poor Boy' and 'One of these Things First'. These are wonderful tunes, as are 'Fly' and 'At the Chime of a City Clock'.

It flopped, totally, to Nick Drake's apparent despair.

No one expected any more from him, he disappeared from view. It's all terribly sad, and for whatever reason, his last few years were a gradual deterioration.  But, there was more. Without anyone knowing, just with one sound engineer, he recorded another album  and delivered it to Island Records. 'Pink Moon'. Just him and his guitar, apart from one piano line on the album's title track.

15 years after I first heard it, Nick Drake's music still has the power to make me stop and regather my equilibrium while listening to it on my headphones in the supermarket. Stop and take my breath,  stop myself from crumpling. In this case, in this aisled place, it was the song 'Place to Be', though there are others on this album. This is a blues album, an English blues album. The instrumental track on this album 'Horn' could not be further from the florid instrumentals of 'Bryter Layter'. I'm not really a man who often hears emotion coming through an instrument's tone, but 'Horn' is painful to listen to, the rawest, simplest piece of guitar playing you'll ever hear.

At this stage, there are numerous competitors for the position of being the most devastatingly sad Nick Drake song.  One of them is not on this album. 'Black Eyed Dog' was recorded in some aborted sessions in the year of Drake's death, 1974. Now,  if you want an extra dose of unbearably, eerily sad, how about this - a music video made by another tall handsome brilliant performer who slipped away far far too soon through prescription drugs, a man so obsessed with Nick Drake he made a video for 'Black Eyed Dog' which he also starred in. The full video is not, I think, in the public view, but this is cut together from what people do have. Make sure you have the haiku-like perfection of a strong cup of tea while watching Black Eyed Dog - Nick Drake (directed by Heath Ledger)

If 'Pink Moon' contained 'Black Eyed Dog', it would be a very different album, for, despite all I've said, the mood is not entirely bleak. This album is more than that, better than that, despite running to less than half an hour.

'Pink Moon', the song, is a little beauty, both ominous and enticing. 'Road' is defiant, 'Things Behind the Sun' is one of the best melodies he wrote, and the album closes with 'From the Morning'. My favourite. When all is obliterated by nuclear cataclysm or whatever else should choose to obliterate all, 'From the Morning' will remain. "A day once dawned and it was beautiful ..."

Nick Drake's tombstone in his home village of Tanworth-in-Arden, where he died in November 1974, is inscribed with the epitaph "Now we rise/and we are everywhere" another line from this song. People have written pages and pages about Nick Drake's vision of the world, the best I've read being Ian McDonald's article 'Exiled from Heaven' in his book 'The People's Music'. You can get too hung up on all this stuff if you're young and impressionable or old and impressionable and it's not healthy - Nick Drake wasn't a prophet, just a talented posh boy that didn't get any of the breaks. In death, he's sold hundreds of thousands of records, and that's excellent. People have come to Nick Drake at different times through different things - for some people, it's a butter ad, and that's fine. For me, it was Paul Weller, funnily enough, whose (best) solo album 'Wild Wood' has a lot of the spirit of Nick Drake in it.

As with Joni Mitchell's 'Blue', when an artist's currency is albums of cup of tea-like perfection (see, that works!), it's a bit daft to do a compilation, but here we go anyway ...

Northern Sky
Saturday Sun
Place to Be
One of these things First
Things Behind the Sun
I Was Made to Love Magic
River Man
At the Chime of a City Clock
Hazy Jane II
Hanging on a Star
Time has Told Me
Pink Moon
Black Eyed Dog
Cello Song
From the Morning

Thursday, 3 April 2014

1997: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - The Boatman's Call

Does this album now sound and look so much like Nick Cave was trying to make it a classic album because it is a classic album? Did he will it to be so? Or did he happen upon it by chance, by magic? To me, it is the benchmark and the watershed in Nick Cave's career, the turning point in the road, but then again, maybe that's just because it was the first Nick Cave album I got into.

But it's not just that. There it stands, now halfway through his recording career, just before he quit heroin for good, around the time he married his current wife, the album where he became an acceptable figure, a writer of wedding songs. Maybe this is the first album of the resurrection of Nick Cave ... or, like I say, maybe I think that because it's the first one I got into.

It's not like he hadn't written beautiful piano ballads before, nor like he wouldn't write more obscene, infernal rock songs. It's not actually like this is the commercial breakthrough. The previous album, 'Murder Ballads', was marginally more successful and also contained his highest charting single, 'When the Wild Roses Grow' (with Kylie, of course). And in fact, really, Nick Cave just seems to become more and more successful every album since then. Slightly. As if, every album, he doesn't lose any fans, he just gains a few extra thousand, a few  extra thousand people realise how awesome he is. On his last two albums, he's finally cracking America. He's kind of mainstream. By the time he's 70, he'll be the new Justin Bieber.

 I wasn't ready for Nick Cave when 'Murder Ballads' came out, at the height of Britpop. To be honest, I'm still not a massive fan of that album, though it certainly has its mean motherfucking moments called Stagger Lee. Yeah, yeah, murder ballads, nice idea ... give me god and love ballads any day.

God and Love. That's this album. God is Love, they say, those Christians. But here, they're kind of separate, kind of battling.

It's well known that romance with PJ Harvey is starkly written within, sometimes cruelly, and also that the album picks over the bones of a previous, longer-lasting romance. It's also known that this is Nick Cave's religious album, and, you know, it really is - though certain kinds of religion infuse his work before and after, this is really his C of E album, it's a beautiful, warm, loving religion, not hellfire and damnation at all.

Now, I don't know if Nick Cave has ever actually believed in God (well, we can be pretty sure he don't believe in an interventionist God), but that's not quite the point. The album is infused with knowledge of faith, of church, respect for the Bible and for the practices of worship.

Somehow, he places that comfortably alongside hopelessness, bitterness and carnal longing.  Not a song is wasted.

I'm thinking a lot about the album form, what makes a great album for me. A unity. Sticking with that. Blood on the Tracks. Blue, Astral Weeks, Blue, The Boatman's Call. I think he knew what he was saying. This is my classic. This is one for the archive.

I happen to enjoy the successor, And No More Shall We Part, more. I love the songs on that, the lyricism, the wit, the surges of adrenaline and the moments of reflection, the tunes. That's really one of my favourite albums to listen to. But, if pushed, i'd accept that this is the great work.  It's not on the way anywhere. It's exactly where it is.

I love Nick Cave, obviously, and I know he's got a full career, indeed two careers, before The Boatman's Call, but i'm not tempted, no I refuse, to investigate. I'm New Testament Nick all the way. I've heard a few of the prophets, Ship Song, Straight to You, The Mercy Seat, but god knows what I'll find deep in the dark Old Testament.

So, the songs on this album? How are they? They're good. They're piano ballads, they never speed up, there's no real humour, they can be mean. The best tunes are on the first half, but some of the most striking  and unusual stuff is on the second half. Into My Arms you could build a marriage on, People Ain't No Good you could build a philosophy on, Lime Tree Arbour who could build an ... orchard on ... Brompton Oratory, you could ... oh, you know.

I wrote about Into My Arms before, so that'll do for now. Here is my Nick Cave compilation

Into My Arms
No Pussy Blues (Grinderman)
Stagger Lee
The Mercy Seat
O My Lord
Brompton Oratory
God is in the House
Love Letter
There She Goes My Beautiful World
The Sorrowful Wife
Still in Love
People Ain't No Good
We Call Upon the Author
The Ship Song
Straight to you
Far From You
Higgs Boson Blues
We Know Who U R
Darker With the Day

That was a difficult compilation to draw a line under. Not as hard as the Beatles or Bob Dylan, but not far off, and bear in mind, I'm actually dealing with significantly less than half his recorded output... pretty good

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

2005: The National - Alligator

This was the first album I heard, first I bought, by The National. who've been consistently one of my favourite bands ever since. To me, this is both their breakthrough album and their best album.

The National are one of those American bands for adults, you know, a big deal in a limited sphere, big enough to have Top 5 albums on both sides of the Atlantic, to headline mid-sized British festivals, not big enough for most people to have heard of them.

They're respected and liked, though some folk don't get what the big deal is. They have two sets of instrumentalist brothers who are all seriously expert and a tall, mumbly baritone lead singer who looks a bit like James Dreyfus from Gimme Gimme Gimme.

They don't sound like Wilco, not to me, but you could say they occupy the same space.

What makes the National great? What makes this album their best album?

I'm going to start somewhere I don't usually start - drumming. There are various knowledgeable folk who insist that a good drummer is key to a rock band, and I think I often ignore the truth in that. But I remember loving the drumming on 'Alligator' right from the start, the unusual rhythms which the vocal lines seemed to have a uncommon relationship with.

I loved the production on the record, you could hear the room it was recorded in. And it had lyrics that grabbed me. Lyrics you don't often hear. 'Karen'  is the second song on the album. It contains the line "It's a common fetish for a doting man to ballerina on the coffee table cock in hand". Well,  they got my attention, at the very least ...

Matt Berninger's vocals can sound debonair then desperate in the same sentence. He's deep, and murmurs but occasionally roars. The times I've seen them live (a few years ago now) he's been a man possessed on occasion. I imagine that gets harder to pull off when you're a successful man in his 40s.

What else? Rockin' rock anthems, of course. This album alone has three monstrous singalong rock anthems, in 'Lit Up', 'Abel' and 'Mr November'. These are songs to lose your mind to. If there's one thing the National aren't doing quite as well as they get older it's the derangement of the likes of 'Mr November' and 'Abel'. Their rock anthems have become more swooping and swooning.

The standout tracks sit really well in the album without dwarfing it. 'Secret Meeting' and 'Karen' would be standouts themselves on most albums, as would 'All the Wine'. Dissolute, eloquent despair, seedy living, beautifully rendered.

This album is a big step forward from its predecessor 'Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers', which is pretty standard American rock by comparison. Then, the next album 'Boxer' was even more of a commercial breakthrough, but a bit of a letdown for me. There have been two more, 'High Violet' and 2013's 'Trouble Will Find Me' which maintain standards of excellence. 'High Violet' is almost as good as 'Alligator'.

This is a band I like a lot. They probably had a brief period as my favourite band in the world. This is a compilation ...

Bloodbuzz Ohio
Secret Meeting
Lit Up
Conversation 16
Fake Empire
Afraid of Everyone
Mr November
Think You Can Wait
All the Wine
Slipping Husband
Mistaken for Strangers
Sea of Love
Pink Rabbits