Saturday, 31 May 2014

2003: Rufus Wainwright - Want One

I  have often described 'Want Two' by Rufus Wainwright as one of the most disappointing albums of all time, but listening back to it for the first time in years recently, I realised that wasn't a fitting description - it is simply one of the worst albums ever made, a dreary, portentous yet trivial collection of poorly written nothings dressed up as art. There are no good songs on the albums - there are bad songs with terrible lyrics where the subject matter and title piques interest and then dwindles to nothing.

Thankfully, I won't be writing about 'Want Two'. I'll be writing about 'Want One', its predecessor, one of the most glorious, imaginative, moving and beautiful albums of this century.

There are different ways of looking at the fact that people have vastly differing tastes in music - and I can cope with pretty much all of it, without resorting to the idea that "mine is better". Without being that way inclined myself, I can hear and understand how people are fans of everything from classical to jazz to house music to cheesy pop to overblown power balladeering. I get where the kicks are got. But the fact that anyone, any single person on the planet, might prefer 'Want Two' to 'Want One' (as is definitely the case, as I once casually mentioned on a music comments page what a poor follow up 'Want Two' was, to be met by several affronted responses) makes me only believe that some people are aliens. Aliens without ears sent to corrupt and destroy.

I heard you, Rufus. I heard you say how 'Want Two' highlighted a different side to your songwriting, something darker, more atmospheric, more experimental, but how, how can it be anything but the shabby, half-written offcuts, when so many songs from 'Want One' are so grand and perfectly formed and nothing from 'Want Two' is remotely memorable, when the lyrics seem tossed off and cheap, when everything fades to a miserable blur.

It pretty much killed Rufus for me. There've been three more self-written albums since, two mediocre collections intended to be grand fully formed statements 'Release the Stars' and 'Out of the Game', one a spare collection of piano ballads 'Songs for Lulu'. The latter has several lovely affecting moments, is twice the album with half the fuss of 'Want Two', but, in all, nothing he's done since has touched 'Want One'.

Why am I being negative? What's the problem? Maybe Rufus isn't as much of a polymath as he thinks, maybe he has a problem with quality control. There was a documentary where he collaborated with Robbie Williams' writing partner Guy Chambers to write a song, and at one point, in conversation about the song's progression, Chambers just said "Don't bore us, get to the chorus". At which point Rufus stopped in his tracks and said something along the lines of "That's brilliant, let's build the song around that". Now I'm not saying it's wrong of him not to be aware of the Greatest Hits of Roxette, which bear that famously daft moniker, but i'm saying that somewhere along the line, something should have happened to stop the resulting song, with that refrain all over it, appearing on an actual album. Maybe cool and naff shouldn't matter, but hearing it, I just felt that the whole world was in on a joke Rufus Wainwright wasn't in on. Oh, I don't know.

Let's get back to the positives. 'Want One' is the third solo album. I loved the first half of the debut, self-titled one, but I felt it tailed off. The second one, 'Poses', was, though critically acclaimed and a breakthrough of sorts, a bit disappointing for me, a bit saggy in the middle. 'Want One' is the one, the one where he gets it all right, where he is both his parents' child, his sister's brother, the prodigy, the showtuner, the crossover man, the heartbreaker, the orchestrator and the chronicler of the times.

It starts wonderfully and ends even better. 'Dinner at Eight', the closing track about an awkward meal with his father, gets me every time. It's the best song Andrew Lloyd Webber never wrote. It epitomises what Rufus Wainwright is good at - confession in a grand form.

The album shows that same gift in various different modes, from sharp powerpop to laconic singer-songwriter and grand torch song.

There are almost no underweight songs on the album - I could do without 'Natasha' and personally am not a massive fan of 'Vibrate', which I find pretty trite, but I know it's a bit of a fan favourite.

It's an album which strikingly captures New York - it came out three or four years before I went there for the first time, but the reality of it certainly chimed with that album for me. '11.11' explicitly references the 9/11 attacks, but not in a maudlin or obvious way.

At the time, I assumed Rufus Wainwright the pop songwriter has found his niche and would go from strength to strength, but it hasn't really happened like that. This is, in some ways, his most opulent and ambitious album, but often it's that same opulence and ambition that brings him down elsewhere. He also writes rubbish songs about other famous people who aren't members of his family, whether it's Tulsa (Brandon Flowers), Me and Liza (Minnelli) or Memphis Skyline (Jeff Buckley). What could be better than a Rufus Wainwright song about Jeff Buckley? What, in truth, is worse? Almost nothing, ever.

OK, there we go, a bit of a gripey Saturday moan for a fine artist. Here's a big, fun compilation to make us all feel better about Rufus Wainwright.

Foolish Love
14th Street
In My Arms
Danny Boy
Going to a Town
One Man Guy
Sonnet 20
I Don't Know What It Is
April Fools
Movies of Myself
Oh What a World
Vicious World
Dinner at Eight

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

2004: Rilo Kiley - More Adventurous

I've had a tricky run on the last few posts. The albums selected were mainly not instantly familiar to me - I needed to give them a good listen and develop a line of thought on them. It was a pleasure, but it didn't always come easily. From here to the end, they're almost entirely albums which are identifiably part of my taste, which I've listened to many many times and still do today. Not entirely - I've still set myself one or two challenges to come, but mainly.

This, 'More Adventurous' by Rilo Kiley, if you know me, you'll know this is an album I like. I spent a lot of time trying to persuade other people it was the best thing since  ... [tried to think of a band which sounded vaguely like "Sliced Bread". Couldn't] Sliced Bread [who I'm now going to pretend were an obscure tuneful early 90s American female-fronted indie rock band], you know, Sliced Bread, they were great weren't they?   So influential. That works on two levels. How serendipitous.

Responses were mixed. Well, no, not that mixed, often quite uniform, along the lines of "Yes, I really liked it,  but, I don't know, it began to bother me after a while. It's good, but ...". Arguably, the response in the music press was similar - I remember it coming out to a spurt of glowing reviews, but it was nowhere to be seen in the End of Year Polls for 2005.

Just to be clear, it was released in the US in late 2004, in the UK, in very early 2005. It was the first Rilo Kiley album I bought, though I'd heard one or two songs before, and I was first listened to it, oddly, on my headphones in my flat while watching a Six Nations Rugby Match. As the album went on, I realised I was concentrating more on the music than the sport ... the two factors fighting constantly for attention in my life!

So, what's the ambivalence about? About this album, about Rilo Kiley as a whole, a band now defunct and, to be honest, a mere footnote in the history of this thing we call indie pop slash rock with mild country influences.

Does it get annoying? Does she, Jenny Lewis, the frontwoman to Rilo Kiley, get a bit annoying? Is it hard to work out quite what her angle is, whether she's trying too hard to be too clever, both cult and populist, both real and fake, are there too many words, is there too much effort?

There's a story about the recording of 'More Adventurous' which exemplifies this dichotomy, and finding it acceptable or not may be the key to whether you think 'More Adventurous' is a great album or not. There's a song on the album called 'I Never', which is really a torch song, a big country-soul showtune which requires Lewis to sing like Dusty Springfield, like Candi Staton, like the best singer she can possibly be, to carry it off, to stop it tipping over into absurdity. And, arguably, she does manage it. Out of context, it's a fabulous, flawless vocal performance, of a song that was clearly very personal to her. Lovely.
And in interviews surrounding the album's release, she mentioned that in recording the song, to get the performance the song needed, she sang, in the recording studio, naked. Well, ok. I'm sure that's true. But why are you mentioning it in a press interview, like the journalist is your best friend? Maybe because you're so eager to show how real you really are, maybe also because you're kind of aware it's a titillating tidbit for the salivating serious music press. Maybe there's too much that is too knowing here, or maybe it's just a great song.

How does the album hold up in general?  Still really good, though not flawless as i'd once have said. It has that wonderful thing of having its best songs in the middle, though the first three are perhaps the "poppiest". 'Portions for Foxes' was the one that got the airplay, got them a guest slot on 'The OC'. Here again you wonder quite what their game is. As one music journo said, if they'd called it 'Bad News' (as it's hook goes) they could have had a massive hit. Why call it 'Portions for Foxes'? Trying to be dark and clever. The album as a whole has a slightly faux-profound young adult's obsession with growing up, growing old and mortality - this isn't a criticism, it's rather wonderful for the most part.

After the big trio to start, there's a song called 'Ripchord' sung by the band's putative co-leader Blake Sennett. You can tolerate it as a breath of fresh air, but, jeez, his voice is weak. Time taken up on the album with this guy singing is time wasted. I was trying to think of other bands with both a male and female vocalist where it's so obvious they should give all the songs to the woman - Arcade Fire the obvious example, Camera Obscura (who've rectified the error of their first album), but not, actually, Ash (middle period) or Belle and Sebastian.

Sennett and Lewis' past relationship and creative partnership clearly gave the band a significant tension which ultimately led to what appears to have been a pretty acrimonious split.

Her solo career is fairly acclaimed, fairly successful, I personally prefer Rilo Kiley. Above all else, they were a really sharp band. 'More Adventurous' and its predecessor 'The Execution of All Things' are very much their best, and their final album 'Under the Blacklight' is a strange concoction which takes that relationship between "real" and "fake" to a pretty explicit level. The production is very clean, very r'n'b and the subject matter is seedy Californian life and pornography. It's a pretty uneasy listen, with a few good tracks but, none, if you ask me, touching the heights of 'More Adventurous'.

My favourite songs, by the way, the ones I still listen to all the time, are the simplest, least clever, least adorned, 'The Absence of God' and the title track 'More Adventurous' which are just lovely country-tinged rambling ruminations on the trials of young adulthood, full of sweet and saddening lines. That is as good as Rilo Kiley could get, when it was all kept simple.

Here's a Best of, including Jenny Lewis solo albums. I must say, going through the catalogue, there were loads of songs I didn't want to leave off, loads of good ones. I do contend this is one of the most underrated bands of the last 20 years, whatever flaws they may have had.

The Execution of all Things
A Better Son/Daughter
More Adventurous
The Absence of God
The Charging Sky - Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins
I Never
Portions for Foxes
Godspeed - Jenny Lewis
With Arms Outstretched
Rise Up With Fists!!! - Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins
Paint's Peeling
Spectacular Views
Under the Blacklight
Pictures of Success
Breakin' Up
Does He Love You?
Jenny, You're Barely Alive

Friday, 16 May 2014

2007: Richard Hawley - Lady's Bridge

Another slightly odd choice, perhaps, for 2007. I barely listened to this album at the time. I bought it and almost immediately regretted buying it, and knew I wouldn't buy another Richard Hawley album in full. This is his 4th full studio solo album (fifth if you count his debut mini-album) and I really already knew before I bought it that any long player he put out did not sustain my interest all the way through.

Perhaps I do too much of asking why that's the case. The fact is I drift if I listen to Richard Hawley for too long. That's just how it is. Lots of people love music they can drift to, but I'd rather be regularly hooked back in.

I've found the same thing listening back to the album now. Fine, but I'm drifting. Listening back to everything he's done that I own, though, I'm reminded what a pleasure it is, and also I'm impressed that there clearly is a significant development in songwriting, that he's attempted to break out a little from his box.

What's the box? I first heard Richard Hawley on a free CD in 2001, instantly liked it, and thought I was listening to some old-school American making a comeback. It was the song 'Coming Home' and I suppose I was reminded of Ricky Nelson's 'Lonesome Town'.

I was shocked, however, to discover that Hawley wasn't some US old crooner, he was that guy who was in the Longpigs. Not that guy, but, you know, the other guy. The guitarist. Here, perhaps, is the reason I chose Richard Hawley for 2007, because I saw it as an opportunity to mention the Longpigs, "the band that Radiohead could have been" as I indie-Partridgesquely describe them.

The Longpigs were one of those "Britpop"-no-"Britrock" bands  who were a little different, had real promise but just blew themselves up and out through poor timing and hedonism. You wouldn't find anything that sounds much more different from Richard Hawley the solo artist. They were a grandstanding, yelping, epic rock band, the singer Crispin Hunt was like Thom Yorke's Kevin the Teenager little brother, his voice flying off in all kinds of unlikely directions. Not to everyone's taste.

There was talent in the band. Various of them have gone on to further musical careers, either as high-ranking bandmates for hire or, as Hunt now is, as a damn successful songwriter for hire, co-writing the Jake Bugg album and that song 'Dream Catch Me' by Newton Faulkner, amongst many others.

There was never any doubt about the songwriting really. Go back and listen to their biggest hit, 'On and On'. That's just a lovely song. Any era, any singer. You'd expect, having written that, to be made for life.

Their second album came out well after the Britpop bubble burst and I remember them incongruously appearing on CD:UK with a certain sense of doon and doing press interviews with frankly fairly disturbing intimations of dark excess. The second album was not a success. It's actually really good, I think. Try 'Free Toy'.

Anyway, Hawley went away, played with Pulp, played on All Saints hits, then went solo when people told him just how good his voice was. As for Hunt, he somewhat disappeared (I think he even did some work in politics) before his recent songwriting comeback. I once happened to espy him bumping into fellow Britpop survivor/casualty Brett Anderson at the bar of the Royal Festival Hall when Brian Wilson was doing 'Pet Sounds' there. I can exclusively reveal the conversation went "Hey, Brett!" "...Crispin. How're you doing?" "Yeah, good." I'd like to think this epochal rock meeting was directly responsible for the comeback of sorts that both men have made. Magic dust ...

Safe to say it's Richard Hawley who's gone on to the greatest things though, as one of the most consistently revered men in the British music industry. Twice nominated for the Mercury Prize, when fellow Sheffield band Arctic Monkeys won ahead of them they famously said "Call 999. Richard Hawley's been robbed". So, some people must think he can do a good album ...

He's played with Pulp, started a band with Jarvis Cocker, duetted with the Manics, with Elbow, he's all together at the centre of that generation of Brit indieishness. A fine generation, if you ask me.

Michael Parkinson was not a fan though. Observer Music Monthly (a fine supplement, though not hitting the heights of Observer Sport Monthly, remember, back in the time when newspapers were good) used to do a thing called 'Record Doctor' where folk would get recommendations according to their own taste. Parkinson, slighty erroneously, was recommended Richard Hawley's 'Cole's Corner' as he was a fan of Frank Sinatra. Not impressed. He may not have exactly said this, but I'll recreate roughly what he said (please read this in our very own Parkinson impression, it'll make more sense) "No, no, no. Sinatra was a stylist, you see, a stylist. This guy's not in the same league. No, he doesn't have the phrasing. Now, Ladies and Gentlemen, one of the most talented young musicians in Britain, Mr Jamie Cullum ..." you see, Michael Parkinson has never knowingly had a correct or worthwhile opinion ... I choose my targets well, don't I ... today, I will lambast a dignified and intelligent elderly gentleman ... still, Parkinson's always done my head in.

To be fair, Parky was sold a bum steer there, Richard Hawley's less like Frank Sinatra than the Longpigs. His croon is still, on repeated exposure, recognisably that of an English tough guy, his sound includes rockabilly, chansonery, touches of epic rock atmospherics, and in later years, even a hint of psychedelia.

I have struggled with him over the long format, perhaps because of repeated lyrical motifs, the slightly soporific nature of his voice,  perhaps simply because each album seems reliably  to contain two or three crackers but a fair bit which is just more of the same. His most successful (artistically, certainly not comercially) LP was probably the motorbike-themed 'Lowedges', the first of five in a row to be named after locations in his hometown of Sheffield - Lowedges, Cole's Corner, Lady's Bridge and Truelove's Gutter and Standing on the Sky's Edge (which is actually, apparently, a huge departure into more adventurous territory, so perhaps I should reconsider).

Some of his songs are really great, and with varying degrees of simplicity. I once saw him play 'Baby You're My Light' at Benicassim whilst overhearing an English girl trying to persuade her boyfriend that this was the most beautiful song of all time. His shrug of indifference told its own story. [gosh, i'm doing a lot of eavesdropping in this post!]. That's a simple song, but the likes of 'The Ocean' and 'Open Up Your Door' are far more expansive.

I suddenly have the urge to compare Richard Hawley to Jamie Carragher ... I'm just going to leave that there, and let you join the dots yourselves, it works almost perfectly.

Anyway, as with Regina Spektor, a Richard Hawley 'compilation' is a perfect showcase for his talents, more so than any one album. Couldn't resist throwing in a bit of Longpigs too, because it's my game and my rules ...

Coming Home
Run for Me
Cole's Corner
Baby You're My Light
On and On - The Longpigs
The Ocean
Lost Myself - The Longpigs
Free Toy - The Longpigs
For Your Lover Give Some Time
Tonight the Streets are Ours
Something Is...!
Open Up Your Door
Gangstas - The Longpigs
Oh my Love
Blue Skies - The Longpigs
Seek It

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

1984: The Replacements - Let it Be

If you're going to give your album the same name as a Beatles LP, how very clever to name it after one of the least acclaimed. 'Let it Be' by the Replacements is, I believe, the finest ever album called 'Let it Be'. And, as was their avowed intention, the Beatles were just a band.

The Replacements are a significant American cult band - in a certain version of the story of rock'n'roll, the one which my own taste probably adheres to most closely, they're one of the most significant bands of all time.

How to describe them in trite terms? The missing link between Big Star and Nirvana? The common thread linking Wilco and Nirvana? The first modern Americana band? The greatest bar band of all time? Pick your favourite.

They're loved by those that love them, but that's not all that many. They're back together recently but not to sell out arenas like The Pixies or Blur or any number of inferior bands.

What makes the so significant? Well, I'm not saying the 80s were all shit, but just supposing that, in a way, the 80s were all shit, something was needed to keep the flame alive. If you do love that kind of scuzzy sweet jangly punky melodic rock'n'roll, if you love everything from Neil Young to Nirvana to Ryan Adams, it was the Replacements who did that in a desert.

They're both a post-punk band and a pre-indie band. They started out making a racket but then realised they wanted to write tunes too. Paul Westerberg is the frontman and he has a voice which is an archetype, hoarse, tuneful, raucous and heartbreaking. It's one of the ten essential voices of all time.

OK, look, the 80s weren't all shit, of course not, there were quite a few bands making different types of great music in the 80s, but it was certainly an odd time, especially the late 80s. In the UK, that's when the charts were irreparably damaged - I mean, look at the all the great Number 1 in 1980-1982, and then look what's Number 1 from 1985 to 1989. And sure, there was C86, there was the Smiths and the Stone Roses, and yes, in the US, the Pixies, REM, Public Enemy, the Replacements were not the only great alternative band of the late 80s, but, like I say, there weren't many.

Talking of REM, Peter Buck plays guitar on the first track of this album and also helped out on production a bit. 'Let it Be' is the most acclaimed Replacements album, it was the one where they took flight. You know when there's a limited band who suddenly take a giant leap - "I didn't know they could do that ..." (think Modern Life is Rubbish or the Alligator or , why not, Help!). This was the Replacements' moment.

The album has two classic songs. The first is that opening track 'I Will Dare'. I'm going to  use the word archetypal again. It's an archetypal song. If I  wanted a song constructed from magic beans, this is how I'd like it. It has guitar, mandolin, it's got the jingle-jangle, sweet, bold, seedy intentions and a burstingly lovely chorus.

The other classic song is 'Unsatisfied' which is an epic rock ballad. One of my all-time favourite American indie teen flicks is 'Adventureland', a period piece so well-observed and real it puts most of the genre to shame. Set in lifeless hopeless grim mid-America in the late 80s, the Replacements are all over the soundtrack. When 'Unsastisfied' turned up for the feelgood denouement, yes, I loved the film all the more.

The rest of the album veers between obscenely raucous and sweet and affecting - made by young adults about the trials of teenhood. Titles include 'Androgynous', 'Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out' and 'Gary's Got a Boner'.  It's not all classic songcraft, obviously.  But it's all great fun.

I'd really recommend The Replacements if you've never listened. There's something faultless and unimpeachable about them. If you remember, I did a post about a certain kind of "Great British Band" if I was to do a similar post about a small number of "Great American Bands" linked by a thread, they's definitely be among them.

Westerberg's solo work is usually pretty lo-fi, but often great. He started off a janitor who talked his way into a dodgy punk band, but ended up one of the great songwriters. In particular, he has a gift for attention-grabbing first lines of albums

"Baby learns to crawl watching daddy's skin"
"Get up from a dream and I look for rain, take an amphetamine and a crushed rat's brain"
"How young are you? How old am I? Let's count the rings around my eyes"

Anyway, here's the compilation

I Will Dare
It's a Wonderful Lie - Paul Westerberg
Bastards of Young
Alex Chilton
Looking Out Forever - Paul Westerberg
Sadly Beautiful
Kiss Me On the Bus
Merry Go Round
My Favorite Thing
Here Comes a Regular
Baby Learns To Crawl - Paul Westerberg
Mr Rabbit - Mr Westerberg
Only Lie Worth Telling - Paul Westerberg
Looking Up in Heaven - Paul Westerberg

Friday, 9 May 2014

2009: Regina Spektor - Far

 Curse that Radiohead! If not for them, I'd be explaining how clever I was for going from Queen to Regina (indeed!) and from one album I find I cannot rave about to another. Curse them. So, yes, 'Far' by Regina Spektor, an odd choice for 2009, but it's interesting to talk about what it's like to be disappointed by an album and whether that disappointment is fair, and what makes an artist I like who just doesn't appear to be capable of a great album.

To me, 'Far' is, at least, the most even, most album-like of Regina Spektor albums. Up to a point, that's a good thing, but  the problem is that those other albums of hers are dwarfed by great songs. This album has no great songs to dwarf it.

In a way, it is the closest to what I would hope Regina Spektor would do, which is cut down on the kook and concentrate on the songs. But then you realise that the kook is an integral part of even some of her finest straight songs. Without the kook, she can be like Samson without the hair.

Enough negatives. Let's talk about the positives with Regina Spektor. The beautiful, clear, characterful voice, the warmth, the humour, and, bien sur (as one can imagine her interjecting), the songs, the indie piano ballads which play merrily on the heart strings and soundtrack that episode from Scrubs, that film with Zooey Deschanel, that film with Jesse Eisenberg, that episode of Girls, those things that us vaguely indie, vaguely romantic folk watch and love. Aah, that's a Regina Spektor song, I now enjoy this slightly average indie flick a little bit more than it deserves ...

Which songs in particular? Let's not beat about the bush, you're plain wrong if your favourite Regina Spektor songs, the ones that make you think she's really capable of greatness, aren't Fidelity, On the Radio, How and the daddy of them all, the 2000s indie ballad of 2000s indie ballads, Us. (None of these, by the way, are on 'Far').

'Us' was the first Regina Spektor song I heard, I think. Her first couple of albums were US-only and then the best of them were collected on an album called Mary Ann Meets the Gravediggers and Other Stories. She was a New York scenester, duetting with the Strokes, linked to the "anti-folk" movement, whatever the gracious that was. Maybe I first heard 'Us' on the radio. It didn't need more than one listen to make me think this was the song I'd been waiting for all my life. The album was a different story though. Stories and weirdness, tics and turns, changing time signatures, rapping, growling. Yes, I get it, Regina, Regina, Regina-a-a-, but it's a little exhausting.

And the next album, Begin to Hope, it kicked off like the greatest album ever -  Fidelity, Better, Samson, On the Radio - a run of four marvellous, engaging songs, and then ... nothing. I mean nothing. The rest of the album never gave me one little thing, not one hook, not one smile, nothing. For shame.

Still, surely, 'Far', from 2009, would step up from that ... but somehow, no. She was clearly trying, aiming for consistency and quality. A lot of the tics and idiosyncrasies were ironed out, but the yen for storytelling remained, and well, without the tics, some of the storytelling seemed a little pretentious and facile. I gave the album plenty of listens, it was not unpleasant to have on in the background, but on about the 10th listen I realised that Regina Spektor would never be able to create a great album.

For me.

Clearly not for everyone. She does very well. Her last two albums went Number 3 in America - that's what happens if you write heartbreaking songs which appear on the soundtrack to kooky indie romcoms. After 'Far' came 'What We Saw From the Cheap Seats' which didn't really work for me on release, and was entirely dwarfed by one song, 'How', which is her straightest heartbreaker ever. The album also contained her most annoying bit of kookiness ever, 'Oh Marcello', which, you know, shouldn't have been allowed. Actually, relistening to all her work as I've been doing in the last week, 'Cheap Seats' is the strongest set yet, the best marriage of the different elements of her craft. Still not a great  album, but I can, at least, begin to hope.

Anyway, there will be one great Regina Spektor album, so long as she doesn't make totally rogue choices. It will be called The Best of Regina Spektor, and perhaps it'll go a little like this ...

On the Radio
The Call
Carbon Monoxide
Blue Lips
Human of the Year
Ne Me Quitte Pas
Patron Saint
Daniel Cowman
Small Town Moon

Saturday, 3 May 2014

1995: Radiohead - The Bends

Coldplay (or One Direction) may be Britain's biggest band, Oasis may still be the Band of the People, whatever that means, Arctic Monkeys may be the current favourites, but it's Radiohead that occupy the most rarefied air, almost universally acclaimed for 20 years, commercially successful on both sides of the Atlantic, in a league of their own almost outside the general sphere of rock music.

At times, I've found that annoying. I've always encountered plenty of people who weren't necessarily massive music fans, but solemnly declared their respect and admiration for Radiohead, as if somehow they were the only band deserving of such plaudits. So I jumped off the Radiohead ship.

At some point, if I was ever on it. There are bands whose corner you're in, who you buy into to the extent you're prepared to give time and care, support them and defend them, as they develop and extend and do things differently from what you first liked about them. For me, bands like Blur and Wilco, I went with wholeheartedly and was rewarded by, other bands, like Midlake, Super Furry Animals, Iron and Wine, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, I went with to the extent of giving new work of a different style a full chance, before not quite being convinced by it.

Radiohead, I didn't go with at all. I didn't buy Kid A, or Amnesiac or Hail to the Thief. I was a little dismissive of the extent of the adoration they received. "Radiohead? Just a band."

But maybe I was never with them at all. Thom Yorke was the cover star of the first music magazine I bought, Vox(the predecessor to Uncut) in early 1995, just as I was taking a full interest in all that Britpop stuff. New to how music journalism worked, I was put off. I'm not sure I even read the interview, but all the highlighted text  from Thom Yorke seemed to be angry and whiny and moany and self-justificatory. I didn't quite get that all the vaguely "interesting" statements were being pulled out of context.

Anyway, The Bends was a prominent gatecrasher in that prime Britpop year. The singles received  airplay on the radio, they were on Top of the Pops, but I couldn't quite see the wood for the trees.  I liked songs about London and characters and gritty realism.

Looking back, The Bends was by far the most influential British album of that year, for good or bad. In terms of its own forebears, I suppose there's a bit of US alt-rock, though not exactly grunge, there's Jeff Buckley, of course, but The Bends itself set the template, in the immediate and distant future, for anthemic British rock balladry - anyone from contemporaries the Longpigs to Coldplay, Keane and everything that came from that.They all wanted to be like Radiohead.

Listening to it now (I didn't actually buy The Bends till a few years ago), it's obvious that none of them got close. Common thought has it (not incorrectly) that Radiohead made two "classic rock" albums, The Bends and OK Computer, then moved on to something else, something a little more obscure, and they were so beloved that most of their fans (not me, though!) went with them.

And, yes, The Bends sounds fairly conventional. It was acclaimed at the time, but it's the follow-up, OK Computer, that immediately was hailed as a massive step forward and one of the greatest albums of all time. The comparison I've heard of, as the relationship between the two albums being somewhat like that between Revolver and Sgt Pepper's works well up to a point. Perhaps The Bends, years down the line, is more entirely of itself than OK Computer, more comfortable in its own skin. Having said that, I think the songs on OK Computer are a fair bit better than those on Sgt Pepper.

For I appear to find myself a Radiohead repenter. I hadn't really been looking forward to writing this particular post, I just thought it was the appropriate album for 1995, but I have found, on relistening to The Bends, many times, OK Computer, and everything else of Radiohead that I have, marvels and feelings I wasn't fully expecting.

I'm quite sure that if I heard The Bends or OK Computer now, as a new album by a relatively new artist, I would think they were by far the best English rock albums I'd heard for a long time.  At the time of its release, I did listen to OK Computer a lot, but just as quickly fell out of love with it, for reasons I'm unsure of.
[Incidentally, 1997 is an interesting musical year, isn't it? Commonly seen as the post-Britpop comedown, the year it all went sour, symbolised by Oasis' hopeless, bloated Be Here Now and various chancers on the bandwagon too late, perhaps it was the best year of the lot. It was a year I had a 7 month gap in my new music listening, being out of the country, so when I came back there was a lot to catch up on, but there was Blur's self-titled 5th album, often now seen as their finest, there was The Verve's Urban Hymns (not for me, but for many others), there was Spiritualized's Ladies and Gentlemen ..., a singularly great album, and there was OK Computer (not to mention Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind, the first album of his renaissance)]

Anyway, I knew what to expect listening back to OK Computer. The Bends, yes, I've listened to it, but I'm not sure I'd ever really given it my full attention. I hadn't quite got how good every single song is, how the non-singles are the prettiest, how it rises and swells, how there's not a dull moment,  how many lovely tunes there are. Gosh, they had great tunes back then.

I've realised that the thing that has probably stood in the way for me and Radiohead is the lyrics - the lack of a lightness, of a skip and a jump and a dazzling wordplay - there are slogans and there's pain and there's anger and occasionally there's something a little clumsy. Whatever I don't warm to lyrically doesn't seem to matter on The Bends - it really works here. The occasional glimpses of naivety, of callowness, are rather charming, as if it's hard to believe Radiohead were ever callow. This was the band who'd done Creep not long before, though.

Anyway, I've really failed them with this post. I haven't got to grips with the issue at all, and I can't seem to form sentences at the moment for some reason. Sorry about that. Suffice to say, I'm really glad I chose this album for 1995. It was an unexpected delight.

Accept my Radiohead compilation in light of my fairweather fandom

No Surprises
Fake Plastic Trees
[Nice Dream]
Let Down
Exit Music (for a film)
Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
i wish is was bulletproof
Planet Telex
My Iron Lung
Karma Police

But I assure you, there'll be more Radiohead listening for me. I feel like a fool!