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20 albums that shaped my life February 26, 2009

Posted by sjroby in Canadian content, Life in general, Music.
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Kate Bush: The Kick Inside (Canadian LP cover)

Kate Bush: The Kick Inside (Canadian LP cover)

Inspired by Kevin and Allyn and Geoff:

List the first favorite albums that come to your mind. This is NOT a list of music you feel is of critical importance or value. By noting the ones that come to mind first, you should get a picture of the music that shaped your life in your formative years.

I know I’m going to forget things and want to change things, but here goes. This is in roughly the order I encountered these albums.

1. Electric Light Orchestra: Out of the Blue. One of the first proper albums I ever got, and the first by a band that I was fairly obsessed by for a year or two, getting several more of their albums.It was probably the combination of catchy pop, prog, rock and roll, and the occasional synth that intrigued me.

2. Kate Bush: The Kick Inside. It was a while before I got the album, and not just the 45 of “Wuthering Heights,” but it was the beginning of a lifelong love for the distinctive and groundbreaking music of Kate Bush. It can beautiful, or weird, or both at the same time. There was nothing else like it at the time, and by the end of 1979 this and the next album, very different though it may be, helped set the course for my taste in music.

3. Sex Pistols: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. I didn’t like the Sex Pistols when I first heard them, being too fond of the over-the-top production of artists like ELO, Queen, and Alan Parsons Project to like anything this raw and harsh. It took the more smoothed-off edges of new wave to lead me into the less compromising punk sound. Once it clicked, I realized it was nothing more or less than rock and roll in its purest form. My favourite punk rock is generally the first wave of late ’70s UK punk, but there are still bands doing fresh new takes on the sound. They’re just not the ones you’ve heard of.

4. David Bowie: Stage. My first Bowie LP. Sort of a stepping stone from the vaguely proggy rock I liked to the stranger end of new wave, this was a concert album from the time of Bowie’s Heroes album. From Station to Station through Scary Monsters is my fave run of Bowie albums, though there’s plenty of great stuff before and after that era. This was probably one of my first Eno-related experiences, too.

5. Gary Numan and Tubeway Army: Replicas. Mixing punk/new wave with synthesizers, alienation, and the science fiction of JG Ballard and Philip K. Dick, Numan created an album that was influential in its own right but also brought to my attention the band he happily admitted was his top influence, Ultravox. Ultravox and its founder, John Foxx, have since eclipsed my interest in Numan to a considerable extent, but this is still a fine album and I might have taken longer to discover Ultravox without it.

6. Brian Eno: Music for Films. Heard it playing in a record store: sparse, eerie instrumental electronic music a million miles away from the usual, more florid electronic music of the time. Plus he got bonus points for working with Roxy Music, David Bowie, Devo, etc etc. I’ve got lots of his albums, love most of them, but this is still my fave.

7. Wire: 154. Former punk band demonstrating just how far this whole new wave/postpunk thing could go. A masterpiece by a great band I’ve already blathered about here.

8. Joy Division: Closer. The first album, Unknown Pleasures, didn’t click with me when I first heard it. This did (and then so did Unknown Pleasures). And from this came New Order and so much more.

9. Killing Joke: Killing Joke. Bought this after reading about them in Creem: too punk for metal fans, too metal for punk fans, but using synthesizers too and ending up in the Billboard disco charts? They’re still around and still confounding expectations, after influencing everyone from Metallica to Ministry to Nine Inch Nails. This album showed a different way to incorporate synths: instead of weird noises, or imitating other instruments, or just layering pretty chords on top of everything, this album had abrasive synth sounds that were as aggressive sounding as the guitars.

10. Siouxsie and the Banshees: Juju. Siouxsie practically invented goth but didn’t let it become a straitjacket. Pounding tribal drums, swirling guitars, melodic basslines, and Siouxsie’s voice… another postpunk classic.

11. Cocteau Twins: Head Over Heels. My first exposure to the 4AD sound dreamy and ethereal but also loud and banging. One of the forerunners to the shoegazer scene.

12. Husker Du: New Day Rising. Punk seemed to have been abandoned by the major labels and headed itself into a dead end of faster harder louder dumber. Husker Du was fast, hard, loud, and smart, and weren’t afraid to slow things down occasionally or use acoustic guitars and piano.

13. The Smiths: Hatful of Hollow. Like REM, another fave, the Smiths were jangly guitar-based rock with melodies to die for, lyrics to ponder, and a frontman who was very much not the usual rock singer.

14. Jesus and Mary Chain: Psychocandy. The Beach Boys playing through a slow motion car crash of guitar feedback, this was a renewal of punk and another of the foundations of shoegazer. Noise = pop.

15. Jr Gone Wild: Less Art, More Pop. Friends of mine release their first LP, a mix of punk, ’60s, country, and other influences, especially Bob Dylan, the Byrds, and possibly Elvis Costello. A friend of mine once heard the critics’ darlings Uncle Tupelo, who are credited with kicking off the No Depression/alt.country scene, and said they were just Jr with all the fun sucked out. He wasn’t entirely wrong, though Uncle Tupelo probably never heard Jr.  think their next two albums are arguably better in many respects, but this is the first time friends of mine put out an actual album. I had a single, a compilation LP with a couple of songs, and a couple of tapes of stuff by some of the guys who later became Jr, but an album… especially one I actually liked… that’s a big deal.

16. My Bloody Valentine: Loveless. The pinnacle of shoegazer, layer upon layer of distorted guitar sound and distant vocals, sounding nothing like rock music as that term is generally understood. There were a lot of great bands in that scene (Ride, Lush, Slowdive, etc), but this is the most important and influential album from that scene. And I love it.

17. Various artists: Pimps, Players, and Private Eyes. Ice-T helped compile this collection of funk and soul songs from blaxploitation movies, which helped reignite my interest in those styles. And not just in the context of blaxploitation.

18. Culture: Two Sevens Clash. This is a roots reggae album from the late 1970s that was reportedly a favourite on the UK punk scene (I read about it in a couple of books on punk). The punk clubs didn’t have enough punk albums to play, so DJ Don Letts introduced the punk scene to reggae — a more hardcore version of the sound than Bob Marley’s. This is heavy on the rasta stuff, but also accessible and catchy, and helped get me more into reggae.

19. Interpol: Turn on the Bright Lights. New but drawing on the likes of Joy Division and other postpunk and pre-grunge alternative bands as influences, this helped revive interesting guitar rock for the 21st century. See also Editors, Bloc Party, Kaiser Chiefs, etc.

20. Burial: Burial. Boxcutter’s Oneiric was the first dubstep album I heard, if memory serves, but this one sealed the deal. It may have evolved out of UK scenes I wasn’t familiar with (2-step, garage), but I could hear elements of ambient and dub making something unique, like a soundtrack for a low budget third world Blade Runner. It’s strange, atmospheric, and oddly affecting.

Various artists: The Last Pogo (1978) February 18, 2009

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The Last Pogo LP and DVD

The Last Pogo LP and DVD

The Toronto punk scene gathered at the Horseshoe Tavern in 1978 for two nights of music, an event called The Last Pogo. Fortunately, some of that history was preserved on record and on film. These days, when anyone can record an album on a PC and burn CDs or upload mp3s to a myspace page, it’s hard to believe how difficult it used to be for unsigned bands to record and release their music. Without The Last Pogo, some of these songs would have gone unheard for decades, and the bands would be… well, even more obscure and unknown than they are now.

The LP has seventeen songs: punk, quirky new wave, straight up rock and roll, and roots reggae from The Secrets, Drastic Measures, Cardboard Brains, The Scenics, The Mods, The Everglades, The Ugly, and Ishan Band. (A 2004 CD reissue, which I don’t have, apparently drops a couple of songs and adds songs by the Viletones and Teenage Head, who were the bands with the highest profile at the time, and who were at The Last Pogo.) As an album, it’s a good-sounding collection of the various styles in the early punk scene, with the usual caveat that it was probably more fun if you were actually there.

And that’s why it’s a good thing the DVD exists. Although it has less than half an hour of music footage from The Last Pogo, it nonetheless captures the vitality and excitement of a burgeoning new scene. You get to see several of the bands performing, and you get to see the cops shut the show down, and you get to see the aftermath of the riot (no, they didn’t film the riot itself). There’s also some interview footage of the show’s promoters and other interested parties. There’s so much happening that it’s surprising the film’s so short. To make up for that, there’s a half hour cable TV show featuring one of the bands, and you can watch the main feature with a video commentary by Chris Haight of the Viletones.

You can order the DVD for C$12 plus shipping. If you’re interested in the history of punk or of the evolution of the Canadian music scene, it’s a must. Meanwhile, the filmmaker, Colin Brunton, is working on a follow-up documentary The Last Pogo Jumps Again, revisiting all the musicians and fans who were there at The Last Pogo.

Richard Hawley: Coles Corner (2005) February 17, 2009

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Richard Hawley: Coles Corner

Richard Hawley: Coles Corner

On the front cover a man stands, waiting and looking for someone, holding flowers. On the back cover the flowers are stuffed into a trashcan. This, then, may be an album of love songs, but they aren’t happy and upbeat.

Coles Corner is where, years ago, people in Sheffield used to go to meet their dates for an evening out. Fittingly, this album has a strongly nostalgic feel, as though it could almost have been recorded in the 1950s.

The album starts with the title song’s swelling strings, fading out to make way for a loungey arrangement of drums, bass, and piano, with occasional string accents, over which Hawley’s baritone croon enters. The chorus sticks in my mind every time I play this:  “I’m going downtown where there’s music, I’m going where voices fill the air, maybe there’s someone waitin’ for me, with a smile and a flower in her hair. I’m going downtown where there’s people, my loneliness hangs in the air. No one there real waitin’ for me, no smile, no flower, nowhere.” It’s something like the downbeat, morose songs that the Smiths and Morrissey sometimes did about love and loneliness, but played absolutely straight and without the least hint of rock, indie or otherwise.

The next song, “Just Like the Rain,” starts out with guitars and bass and a more upbeat feel, an almost country/pop crossover from the 1950s or 1960s. It’s followed by the ’50s slow dance tune “Hotel Room,” and then by the somewhat Chris Isaak-like “Darlin’ Wait for Me,” a slow song with an electric guitar lead that could soundtrack a David Lynch scene. The strings are back for the epic “The Ocean,” a slow burner that builds up to a dramatic conclusion over it’s five and a half minutes. On an LP, this would be the climax to side one.

The second half of the album starts with the catchy (but still not quite upbeat) “Born Under a Bad Sign,” another of those songs with rock band instrumentation (electric and acoustic guitars, bass, drums), with a feel both reminiscent of the ’50s and yet timeless, again a little like Chris Isaak at his best. “I Sleep Alone,” driven by strummed acoustic guitars, picks up the pace a little. “Tonight” is back in ballad territory, and this time it’s not too hard to imagine Nelson Riddle or Gordon Jenkins arranging a version of this for Sinatra. “(Wading Through) The Waters of my Time,” by contrast, is an old-fashioned, acoustic country song that Johnny Cash could have sung. “Who’s Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet?” is a stripped down lullaby, mainly Hawley’s echoing voice and a little accompaniment from an acoustic guitar. The final song, “Last Orders,” starts with some slow reverbed piano notes, revealing itself slowly as a strangely fitting atmospheric, ambient instrumental to close out the album’s journey into night.

So, I’ve mentioned a few points of comparison; I can also hear a hint of Ricky Nelson (it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Hawley’s covered the latter’s song “Lonesome Town” elsewhere). But it doesn’t come across as a series of imitations; the album flows very well and takes you into its own world.

Hawley’s albums before and after this one are very, very good. This one, though, is perfect.

School of Seven Bells: Alpinisms (2008) February 17, 2009

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School of Seven Bells: Alpinisms

Alpinisms is a fresh and enjoyable new take on the 4AD/dreampop/shoegazer scenes. There are echoes of the past, but they’re not remaking the Cocteau Twins’ Heaven or Las Vegas or My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. School of Seven Bells is developing its own distinctive style.

There have been hundreds of bands, at least, who’ve tried to recapture the magic of the 4AD sound exemplified by the Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil, and Dead Can Dance. Whole record companies have been formed to do just that (Projekt, for example), and even the 4AD label itself released music by Cocteau Twins wannabes Swallow. Even when those bands actually had people who’d worked with This Mortal Coil and Dead Can Dance, like the shortlived project Heavenly Bodies, the result was a pastiche that was briefly enjoyable but had none of the substance or staying power of the real thing. The same thing has been happening with the revival of the shoegazer scene, with no shortage of people trying to be the next Slowdive, Ride, or My Bloody Valentine.

School of Seven Bells was formed by members of the bands Secret Machines and On! Air! Library! SVIIB, as it’s abbreviated, is more accessible than its more experimental predecessors. The clear, clean vocals of sisters Alejandra and Claudia Deheza would sound appropriate on a ’70s British folk album or an ’80s This Mortal Coil album, not unlike the latter’s Rutkowski sisters. I’m also reminded a bit of some of the singers from His Name Is Alive’s early 4AD albums. But the music offers a wider mix of styles, some songs with more of an electronic dance music feel, some more ethereal, some closer to mainstreamish alternative pop. Throughout the musical variety, the album nonetheless has a consistent feel, unified by the Dehezas’ vocals.

“Half Asleep” is neo-shoegazer with a danceable beat that would sound good alongside something by melodic electronica/shoegazer crossover specialists M83 and Ulrich Schnauss. “Wired for Light” starts with a bit of an ethnotechno feel but adds more of a rock electric guitar sound through the course of the song. “Prince of Peace” is an upbeat but subtly ominous song, reminding me of Jarboe’s 13 Masks album.

It can be frustrating to read reviews that talk about a band or an album as a bit of this other band with a bit of that other band playing a cross between this style of music and that, but when discussing a new band with a distinctive sound that nonetheless has some obvious influences, what else can you do? This band, at least, is definitely more than just the sum of its influences.

Vangelis: Blade Runner Trilogy (2007) February 17, 2009

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Vangelis: Blade Runner Trilogy

Vangelis: Blade Runner Trilogy

Just as Blade Runner’s mix of film noir and science fiction styles made the movie visually stunning, so too did the mix of electronic music, jazz, and other styles make the soundtrack a classic…. which makes it frustrating that the music has been so poorly served by official soundtrack releases.

The first official soundtrack didn’t even use the movie’s actual music; it was a rerecording by the New American Orchestra, and it didn’t capture the score at all well. But that’s all there was, aside from bootlegs. Until 1994, when Vangelis put together the first official release including his music from the film. It was a major improvement, but it still wasn’t quite what fans were waiting for. A lot of the film’s music was absent. New music was added. Most annoyingly, dialogue snippets were sprinkled across the album.

Before too long, though, Blade Runner fans had access to a whole new world of Blade Runner music through the Internet. Difficult-to-find bootlegs started popping up online. My own first discovery was a fan site with mp3s from the so-called Gongo and Offworld bootlegs. Those disks added a few tracks, including some non-Vangelis material that was used only briefly in the film, but were still missing a lot. Still, they gave an idea or two of what should be possible in a Blade Runner soundtrack.

There were also mp3s of Frank Klepacki’s soundtrack from the 1997 Blade Runner computer game. Klepacki emulated Vangelis’s style for the game, which I spent a lot of time playing — it does capture a lot of the movie’s atmosphere.

Then I discovered the Yahoo Blade Runner soundtrack group, which led to finding the Deck Art version as high quality mp3s. More music than the Offworld/Gongo, and better quality. And then the LA November 2019 CD, not a musical soundtrack but an ambient sound composition made up of sound effects from the movie and the game with occasional bits of music. And now I have the two CD Esper Edition, which is one of the most complete versions yet. (Not an original, of course, as there were only ten copies. But thanks to the digital nature of CDs, even if it’s a tenth generation copy, it’ll do nicely.)

All of those bootlegs are cool, but there are always some flaws, imperfections, bits of music missing due to lack of access to the original tapes, and so on. So imagine the excitement when it was announced that Vangelis was compiling a three-disc, 25th anniversary special edition of the soundtrack.

Then imagine the confusion when we heard what was going to be on those three discs. Instead of a full score, we were getting three distinct CDs. The first is the 1994 release, unchanged. The second is a collection of “previously unreleased and bonus material.” The third is “BR 25,” all new Vangelis music with voiceovers by random people.

Disc 2 is the main reason for Blade Runner fans who have the 1994 soundtrack to get this album. Unfortunately, most of the music on this disc is quieter and less dynamic and dramatic than what’s on disc 1, and isolating it here out of the context of the score as a whole makes it a bit of a dull slog at times. Also, according to some reviews, Vangelis has again tinkered with tracks, adding sound effects and other tweaks that once again defeat the goal of getting a real and complete Blade Runner soundtrack.

Disc 3, BR 25, is…. odd. If you want to hear Roman Polanski muttering some Polish poetry, or something from the Chinese ambassador to Cyprus, this disc has them. What they have to do with Blade Runner, I don’t really know. In theory, the idea of Vangelis going back to Blade Runner and creating a suite of new music inspired by the film is a good one. In reality, it’s a rather dull Vangelis album that sinks close to new age and lite jazz fusion territory while incorporating brief snatches of music that remind the listener of better music on the real soundtrack. The best thing I can say about the voiceovers is that they’re sometimes almost inaudible. Some people, to be fair, were quite happy with this disc, but I suspect it marks the dividing line between people who love Blade Runner but aren’t Vangelis fans in general, and people who love the Blade Runner soundtrack because they love Vangelis. Personally, I’ve tried listening to other Vangelis albums, but they just don’t click for me. Blade Runner is special.

So, can I recommend this CD? If you don’t have the time or interest to try to track down torrents of bootlegs, if you’re not a purist, and if you can find it for a reasonable price, then sure, the first two discs are worthwhile, especially if you resequence the tracks a bit in your preferred media player. If you’re a Vangelis fan you’ve already bought this.

Here’s some good background information on the Blade Runner soundtrack saga:

I Dreamt Music. This article, from 2002, provides a much more detailed history of the various releases of Blade Runner music up to that time. Outdated somewhat but still worth reading.

Visions in Sound. Bentley Ousley, author of the above article, is interviewed on radio about the Blade Runner soundtrack. The full discussion is available as a series of mp3s.

Tom Jones: Reload (1999) February 17, 2009

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Tom Jones: Reload

Tom Jones: Reload

For some people, there’s a wall between cool and uncool, and Tom Jones is on the wrong side of it. Reload destroys that wall and makes the whole idea irrelevant, because whatever else it may be, it is fun.

This is an album of duets featuring a variety of singers and bands, covering just as wide a variety of songs. There’s hipster bait (Portishead, Divine Comedy), pop stars (Natalie Imbruglia, Cerys from Catatonia, the Cardigans, Robbie Williams, the Barenaked Ladies), a few vets who’ve been around for decades rather than years (Van Morrison, the Pretenders), some rockers (Stereophonics, James Dean Bradfield from the Manic Street Preachers), and a couple of “maybe they’re big in Europe” types (Mousse T, Zucchero). And more.

The artists whose songs are being covered span just as wide a spectrum: the Talking Heads, Portishead (but not the song they appear on), the Kinks, INXS, Fine Young Cannibals, Lenny Kravitz, Iggy Pop, and Three Dog Night, among others.

So what unites this weird combination of musicians and songs? Simple: Tom Jones meeting other musicians on their playing ground, and having a blast doing it. I used to dismiss Jones as a kitschmeister like Engelbert Humperdinck, but married a Tom Jones fan. Actually listening to his greatest hits album made it clear that, despite the often deeply unhip material and arrangements, the man has real talent and presence. And a willingness to try anything. His ’80s cover of Prince’s “Kiss,” produced by the Art of Noise, is something of a forerunner to this album; so’s a duet he did with Tori Amos in 1994.

There are certainly surprises here. “You’re Right, I’m Left, She’s Gone,” best known as an Elvis song, has an almost punk edge, and Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way” gains some horns and synths but retains its guitar lines. The Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House,” featuring Cerys, is a big, fun dance tune.

But it’s not just party songs. The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon swaps verses with Jones on a faithful take on Portishead’s powerful “All Mine,” and Jones and Imbruglia bring drama to INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart.”

So you get dance pop, triphop, rock and roll, and  ballads. Many of the guest musicians sound like they’re consciously trying to raise their game to keep from being blown out by Jones’s voice, and they usually succeed. And they often sound like they’re having a lot of fun doing it, like Chrissie Hynde on Iggy’s “Lust for Life.”

Cool, schmool. It’s fun. And to think it was released in the UK, Europe, Canada… but not the USA. America lost out on that one. At least Jones’s new album, 24 Hours (about which more later, probably), was properly released there.

Dälek: Gutter Tactics (2009) February 16, 2009

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Gutter Tactics

dälek: Gutter Tactics

First things first: it’s pronounced dialect and it has nothing to do with Doctor Who.

If I described the Dälek sound as something like a mix of Scorn, My Bloody Valentine, and Public Enemy, there are people who’d get a good sense of what it’s like. Somewhere.

Let’s just say that Dälek is a mix of heavy beats, layers of noise, and someone rapping over the top of it, sometimes like someone trying to be heard through a squall of noise. It’s a confrontational album lyrically, too. The first track, “Blessed Are They Who Bash Your Children’s Heads Against A Rock,” doesn’t feature the rapper Dälek; the words are from one of the controversial speeches by Jeremiah Wright condemning what he describes as American terrorism. The music and beat are more subdued than usual for a Dälek track, never drowning out Wright’s words.

It’s often difficult to make out what Dälek is rapping over Oktopus’s backing tracks, and that continues here. Gutter Tactics is not a major stylistic departure from predecessors like Absence and Abandoned Language (though it lacks anything like the dissonant, nightmarish instrumental “Lynch” from the latter). The harsh and abrasive sound is guaranteed to keep it off mainstream radio stations; it’s as likely to appeal to fans of extreme metal and other noisy musical forms as it is to fans of hiphop.

This is intense, intelligent, richly textured, powerful music, and there’s nothing else quite like it — except for some of Dälek’s earlier albums. And they have more variety to offer than you might think, especially on their rarities compilation Deadverse Massive Volume One and their collaboration with experimental German band Faust, Derbe Respect, Alder. If you’ve ever wanted to hear a cross between hiphop and avant garde rock that goes a lot farther than Chuck D muttering on Sonic Youth’s “Kool Thing,” this is where to go.

Frank Sinatra: No One Cares (1959) February 16, 2009

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No One Cares

Frank Sinatra: No One Cares

Having been born a few years after this album came out, I became aware of Sinatra in a later phase of his career: one in which it seemed he was supposed to be revered because he was a legend, not because he could still sing the way he used to, not because he was picking great material, not because he was working with the right people. He was a larger  than life persona with an easily parodied style, and it was hard to figure out why he was such a big deal.

No One Cares is not considered his best album, or even in his top ten, but it’s part of his run of albums for Capitol Records in the 1950s — considered his best era — and it’s the first Sinatra album I ever sat down and listened to. And it made a believer out of me.

The album begins with delicate woodwinds and lush strings playing a melodic phrase, and then a subdued Sinatra sings “When no one cares, and the phone never rings, the nights are endless things….” The music is dramatic but subtle, never taking attention away from Sinatra’s perfectly phrased singing. This was so far removed from the bombast I thought he was about that I had to keep listening.

The other songs continue in the same vein, with Gordon Jenkin’s orchestral arrangements feeling almost like the soundtrack from a movie, the album’s cover photo letting you picture the story of a broken romance. The song titles are enough to give you the arc of the story: “When No One Cares,” “A Cottage for Sale,” “Stormy Weather,” “Where Do You Go?,” “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You,” “Here’s That Rainy Day,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “Why Try to Change Me Now?,” “Just Friends,” “I’ll Never Smile Again,” and “None But the Lonely Heart.” (I also have a CD reissue with some appropriate bonus tracks: “The One I Love (Belongs to Someone Else),” “This Was My Love,” “I Could Have Told You,” and “You Forgot All the Words (While I Still Remember the Tune.”)

As I eventually learned, reading about Sinatra, that consistent theme was very much intentional, and Sinatra is credited with creating the concept album, selecting and sequencing a set of songs on a particular theme. No One Cares is one of his saloon albums, as he called them; the kind of album that tells you the story of that man alone at the bar, drink in hand, downcast, surrounded by happy couples. Sinatra recorded four albums of ballads like this for Capitol in the 1950s. No One Cares was preceded by In the Wee Small Hours (arranged by Nelson Riddle, 1955), Where Are You? (Gordon Jenkins, 1957), and Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely (Nelson Riddle, 1958). Critics seem to prefer the Riddle-arranged albums, as Jenkins seems to be considered more tasteful middle of the road stuff, with Riddle apparently more in tune with the jazz side of the music. They’re all good albums, especially for those late nights when you’re wondering where it all went wrong.

Sinatra also did several equally strong albums of upbeat, swinging tunes in the ’50s; strangely enough, what got me to start buying those as well was the character of Vic Fontaine, the Vegas lounge singer, on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. James Darren, who played Fontaine, released an album of the kinds of classic songs he sang on the show, many of them famously recorded by Sinatra, and I wanted to hear more. But that’s a story for another day.

The Big Takeover February 10, 2009

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The Big Takeover

The Big Takeover

I used to buy a lot of music magazines. It used to be the main way I could find out about music that might interest me, because radio wasn’t doing that. Commercial radio didn’t play much I cared for, and though campus radio stations often did, DJs would too often play endless sets without breaks, so by the time they bothered to tell us what we’d heard (assuming they actually did) I’d have no idea which artist name and song title went with a song I might have liked.

So, magazines. I liked Creem back around 1980; they covered mainstream rock, but they also covered a lot of punk and other underground/independent music. Heavy Metal is an adult comic book, but for a while around 1980-81 Lou Stathis had one of the best music review columns going. I also picked up the occasional UK music paper (NME, Melody Maker, Record Mirror, Sounds), and in 1985 a new magazine started publication: Spin. I bought and read every issue up to 1999 or so. I bought Alternative Press for years, until it dropped its diversity of coverage and focused on nu-metal and mall punk. I read Option until it went under, and Reflex until it disappeared. I occasionally picked up issues of more specialized magazines dealing with punk, goth, electronic music, alt country, even swing revival. I still pick up XLR8R when I can find it, and Magnet’s a worthwhile alt/indie rock magazine.

But The Big Takeover is something special.

The Big Takeover 33 (1993)

The Big Takeover 33 (1993)

I first heard about it in Alternative Press. BT editor/writer Jack Rabid had a column there for a while, and it mentioned his own magazine. When I finally saw a copy, it had a cover story on the great and underappreciated Kitchens of Distinction, plus features on various other shoegazer, punk, and new wave bands. That was in 1993 and I haven’t missed an issue since.

BT is not your average music mag. It’s dense, with long feature interviews by people who really know the music of the people they’re interviewing. It’s fanzinelike in its devotion and dedication to the bands who fit the magazine’s description of “music with heart.” Their cover features over the last few years include Death Cab for Cutie, REM, the New Pornographers, the Shins, the Decemberists, Franz Ferdinand, Interpol, Wilco, Stereolab, and Belle and Sebastian. Each issue also has a massive reviews section starting with Rabid’s top 40 releases since the last issue, a few dozen more reviews by Rabid, and then hundreds more by a gradually shifting group of reviewers.

You could argue that the kind of music BT covers is also covered by a lot of blogs and websites, like Pitchfork, but that’s really not the same sort of thing. Because it only publishes twice a year, BT isn’t about being on top of the band that’s going to be the biggest thing on Earth five minutes from now and history ten minutes from now. There’s coverage of classic ’60s rock bands, ’70s and ’80s punk/new wave/postpunk bands, bands that have been around for years but are still going strong, and new bands that don’t just look like flashes in the pan. It’s also about enthusiasm, not snark. It’s the kind of magazine you read and put on a bookshelf to go back to later, not the kind that goes into the recycling a few days after you buy it.

It’s not perfect. As Rabid has added more reviewers to his mag, he’s included some whose writing styles annoy the hell out of me, and he’s included one or two who cover the occasional prog or hair metal album, which to me seems diametrically opposed to the point of the magazine. There are also fewer really long interview features than there used to be, and too many short front-of-book interviews that could as easily have appeared in a weekly urban listings guide. And, inevitably, I’ve developed other musical interests that just aren’t covered in BT.

But it’s still always something to enjoy. This time around there’s the second half of a two-part article on the 50 best roots reggae albums, and most of the big feature articles look good, especially Devo and Johnny Rotten. The web may be the place to keep up with what’s happening in, say, dubstep, but I’ll keep buying BT as long as it comes out on paper.

Raymond Scott: Manhattan Research Inc. (2000) February 8, 2009

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews, Music.
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Manhattan Research Inc.

Raymond Scott: Manhattan Research Inc.

The first exposure most people have to the music of Raymond Scott is through Carl Stallings’s rearrangements of his music for Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies cartoons. He was a popular bandleader whose music sounded like jazz but wasn’t, exactly — Scott didn’t want his musicians to improvise, he wanted them to play exactly what he told them to. That may be one of the reasons why Scott changed his focus to electronic music in the late 1950s.

But Scott’s electronic music wasn’t made with the top 40 in mind; it was made for radio and TV commercials and short experimental films. So this album is not like the usual early electronic music album from the likes of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, who created so much exciting and innovative electronic music for Doctor Who. Here you’ll find jingles with vocals and spoken voiceovers. They sound dated but surprisingly fresh as well, because Scott’s dream of synthesized music in commercials never happened quite the way he hoped. It’s the musical equivalent of 1950s magazine articles about the wonders of the space age, exemplified by a spot for “Bendix: The Tomorrow People.”

Musicians from a broad range of electronic music backgrounds have lavished a great deal of praise on Scott’s work presented here. One of them is Robert Moog, the inventor of the Moog synthesizer, who worked for Scott before setting up his own company. Another person who played a part in the Manhattan Research (Scott’s company) story was Jim Henson of Muppet fame; he worked on an experimental film and a TV commercial represented here.

There are three important things to know about this album: first, anyone seriously interested in electronic music needs to hear it. Second, don’t download it. You need the physical object. Not only for the two CDs; worth of music, but for the packaging they come in: a small hardcover book with a hundred pages of text and photos, giving the whole story of Scott’s Manhattan research project and giving plenty of track-by-track detail on the 69 pieces of music (commercial jingles, equipment tests, short film soundtracks, and more) here. Third: this is historic and important, sure, but most of all, it’s fun.

Harold Budd and Clive Wright: A Song for Lost Blossoms (2008) February 7, 2009

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A Song for Lost Blossoms

Harold Budd and Clive Wright: A Song for Lost Blossoms

Ambient music is a tricky genre. Keep it too simple and austere and you may end up with simple drone music, where it’s up to the textures alone to keep your interest; add too many frills and you get either sweetly insipid new age music or ambient techno, which is essentially oxymoronic.

Harold Budd has been at the forefront of ambient music since his classic album Ambient 2: The Plateaux of  Mirror (1980) with Brian Eno, who pioneered the genre. Eno’s not the only one of my favourite musicians Budd has worked with; he’s collaborated with the Cocteau Twins, XTC’s Andy Partridge, Bill Nelson, John Foxx, and the Cocteau Twins’ guitarist Robin Guthrie. Oddly enough, he’s never worked with Robert Fripp, whose No Pussyfooting album with Eno was a forerunner of ambient, and who has covered similar ground with his Frippertronics and soundscapes albums. But now we have an idea what that collaboration might have sounded like.

I’m not familiar with guitarist Clive Wright or his former band Cock Robin, but on this album his guitar playing is very much in line with Fripp’s work on his Eno collaborations and some of his solo work. It’s more about e-bowed sustained tones than fiery fretwork, and accompanies Budd’s meditative piano melodies very well. There are textures and subtle melodies, but the album stays safely on the ambient side of the ambient/new age divide (a line that Budd, more than anyone else I listen to, has a tendency to straddle).

The album doesn’t see Budd breaking new ground, but it’s sufficiently different from past albums to be worthwhile for fans, and I think it would be accessible enough for newcomers to the style. More so than the much more austere Plateaux of Mirrors, or the albums (thankfully few) on which Budd recites poetry.

Budd and Wright have a new album, Candylion, coming in March, which reportedly includes drums, harps, and other instruments. I feel some trepidation, as it sounds like it may dive into Andreas Vollenweider territory, and I don’t want to go there.

Urban Verbs on NPR February 6, 2009

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Urban Verbs

Urban Verbs

The Urban Verbs were one of many bands to produce a couple of great albums in the new wave era and then disappear into obscurity. Their first album, released in 1980, wasn’t released on CD until 2003; their 1981 follow-up, Early Damage, didn’t make it to CD until 2008.

They should have been bigger. They were on a major label (Warner Brothers), their first album was produced by Mike Thorne, who’d produced Wire and would soon produce albums by John Cale, Soft Cell, and many others; their second was produced by Steve Lillywhite, whose production style added a lot to the early albums of U2 and Big Country, among many others. They had a connection to the Talking Heads (lead singer Roddy Frantz was the brother of Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz). They had a unique but accessible sound, with great interplay between the lead guitar and synthesizer lines, that could generate aggressive rock songs like “Angry Young Men,” blissful love songs like “The Only One of You,” and beat-driven tunes like “Jar My Blood.” But the Talking Heads connection proved to be a bit of a curse, and Frantz’s vocals were described as an imitation of David Byrne’s, so the band were too often unfairly dismissed as Talking Heads Light.

There was a reunion show in 1997 and apparently a couple of songs made it onto a compilation, but basically there was nothing between 1981 and 2008. Until NPR broadcast an interview and live concert in May of 2008, anyway. I had a hard time trying to record the audio stream, but it wasn’t necessary; the interview and concert — nearly two hours of music — from All Songs Considered, as well as an interview from All Things Considered, are available as mp3s from NPR’s website. (You can listen to the files online, or do a view source to find the address of the actual mp3s.)

There’s even some new songs in the concert. It’d be great to hear properly produced studio versions of these songs, because the live mix isn’t quite as good as it could be. Nonetheless, it’s great to see the band get this chance to have their music heard again.

1979: from ELO to the Sex Pistols February 6, 2009

Posted by sjroby in Life in general, Music.
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Out of the Blue

Electric Light Orchestra: Out of the Blue

Boy howdy, it’s another recycled and revised entry from an old blog of mine!

In 1979, I still loved the Electric Light Orchestra’s Out of the Blue LP, which I’d had for a year or so, and thought the new one, Discovery, was where it all went wrong. After all, Out of the Blue had a string of hits like “Turn to Stone,” “Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” and “Mr. Blue Sky.” Discovery had simplistic pop rock stomper “Don’t Bring Me Down” and disco tune “Shine a Little Love.”

But listening to Out of the Blue again for the first time in years was… interesting. I don’t think I’ve heard some of the sides of this double LP since maybe the early 1980s. The roots of Discovery (that Bee Gees disco sound) are very much present here. I’m still finding some wonderful album tracks like “Summer and Lightning,” and I still really like “Turn to Stone”, but there’s a lot of dreadful filler, too. Come to think of it, dreadful filler is much too kind a categorization for “The Jungle”, to take the most egregious example.

I realize now that the ELO LP I’ve never really stopped listening to is New World Record, the one that preceded Out of the Blue and generated the hit singles “Do Ya”, “Livin’ Thing”, and “Telephone Line.” Keeping it down to a single LP no doubt helped curbed the excess that swamps Out of the Blue. There’s also more rock guitar on a few tracks, especially “Do Ya”, that’s all but gone on the much more pop-oriented Out of the Blue. Discovery, on the other hand, I didn’t connect with at the time and haven’t reconnected with since.

The reason I didn’t connect with Discovery is that it came out in 1979. I was discovering Kate Bush, Blondie, the Police, and then actual punk music. My taste in music really changed during the last few months of the year, because by the time I got the records I’d asked for for Christmas, they weren’t what I was interested in any more. Two albums by Canadian prog rockers FM, two albums by the Alan Parsons Project, two earlier albums by ELO, Queen’s A Night at the Opera, and Kate Bush’s The Kick Inside. Actually, I played the hell out of most of those records, and never lost my affection for Kate Bush, but around Christmas I was already buying albums by the Sex Pistols, Devo, Gary Numan, and Kraftwerk. (It’s funny, I felt like I was late getting into the Sex Pistols, who’d already broken up by then, but the album was only two years old.) Prog was on the way out, punk, new wave, and electronic music were my new focus. Next Christmas I got a couple more Kate Bush albums plus two punk albums by the Clash, one by postpunk legends Magazine, and one by new wave power poppers Bram Tchaikovsky.

There’s something about the music I discovered after that change in musical consciousness: a lot of the music from before feels fossilized in time. The music from afterwards, even when it’s more than 25 years old now, like the Sex Pistols, still feels fresh and current. I think it’s because much more of the music I like from the last 25 years has been in some kind of dialogue with the ideals of the punk/new wave explosion, whether the music sounds like it or not. It’s not that that music begins in the late 1970s with punk; on the contrary, it has significant roots in the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, David Bowie, Roxy Music… but 1979 is my own moment of transition.

The Cramps’ Lux Interior, RIP February 4, 2009

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Psychedelic Jungle/Gravest Hits

The Cramps: Psychedelic Jungle/Gravest Hits

Various sources are reporting that Lux Interior, frontman of the Cramps, has died. If you’ve ever had much of an interest in rockabilly, punk, or goth, chances are you’ve heard the Cramps (or someone influenced by them).

The Cramps started getting people’s attention in the early days of the punk scene, but they were never exactly punk. Instead, they created a blend of rockabilly, punk, and garage rock that owed a lot to 1950s trash culture, horror movies, and generally sleaziness. They were, in short, a lot of fun, and they came close to getting the mainstream’s attention occasionally (particularly with their classic “Bikini Girls With Machine Guns” video).

I only ever had one album of theirs, the CD combining the 1981 album Psychedelic Jungle and the 1979 Gravest Hits EP. It’s swampy and sludgy, many of the songs dimly recognizeable as covers of ’50s rock’n’roll songs, with echoed vocals, distorted guitars, pounding drums, and no bass guitar. It’s what’s playing at the zombies’ sock hop.

I never got around to buying more of their music. Like certain other great bands, like the Ramones or the Rolling Stones, they didn’t take long to find what they were good at and they kept on doing it, so you didn’t really need to get everything. But some of their stuff is on eMusic, so tonight I’m buying their near-breakthrough album Stay Sick!, the one with “Bikini Girls With Machine Guns” and “Creature From the Black Leather Lagoon.” It’s just too bad it took Lux Interior’s death to remind me to add this album to my collection.

Belbury Poly: From an Ancient Star (2009) February 3, 2009

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From an Ancient Star

Belbury Poly: From an Ancient Star

There was a time when electronic music seemed like the sound of the future, so it’s ironic how dated some early electronic music sounds. This album, for instance, sounds like it could have soundtracked some early ’70s educational TV program, or a special about the history of astronomy, but the odd thing is that this is new.

Over the last few years, there’s been something of a cult of early electronica, overlapping with a cult of library music. If you’re making a new movie or TV series but can’t afford having someone compose and produce new music for it, library music is the way to go. Want something quirky and jazzy, or something funky, or something spooky, to support a scene? Someone’s already done it for you. Even Doctor Who sometimes used library music, in addition to the work done by the Radiophonic Workshop and others.

Anyway, there are a lot of blogs out there now devoted to sharing old library music; most of the ones I’ve seen focus on the 1960s and 1970s, and some specialize in a certain genre. I can’t help but think there’s a lot of overlap between library music fans and Belbury Poly fans. And, no doubt, Belbury Poly themselves. This doesn’t sound like a 21st century album. It sounds like pieces from a variety of early 1970s educational TV programs, documentaries, and SF movies. To add to the corporate demo reel feel, the album starts with a very brief track called “Belbury Poly Logotone.”

There’s actually a lot of musical variety here, though it all shares the retro/nostalgia feel. There’s a lot of old-fashioned electronic music, but there are also significant elements of psychedelia, progressive rock, folk, and children’s music. A few tracks have vocals, some spoken.

What this reminds me of a bit is Logan’s Sanctuary, the fake soundtrack for a sequel to Logan’s Run that never existed (a topic for another day). But this is a stronger and far less cheesy affair.