Tuesday, 20 December 2011

I'm still alive

I can't believe I've managed to pick up a new Follower ( hi Harry! ) when I've done nothing here for 8 (!) months. This lack of blogging is indefensible, really. I'm determined to at least finish Volume 1
( the first set of 15 albums ) soon. The picture above should give you some clue as to what the next album is. After that, I don't know. Should I continue this ridiculously infrequent blog or move it across to The Glass Walking-Stick? I'll have to give it some thought...

Friday, 27 May 2011

Deserter's Songs by Mercury Rev

"Bands, those funny little plans
That never were quite right"

Those sentiments can also apply equally to this perpetually-late blog. My apologies to all my legions of Followers ( seven makes up a legion, right? ) but the dreaded "real" world has got in the way of this blog yet again - not to mention my spending ( slightly ) more time over at the mothership.....

So, anyway, when Deserter's Songs came out in 1998 I'd only been vaguely aware of Mercury Rev. They had been around since the late '80s and I'd heard one or two of their songs, like Carwash Hair and Very Sleepy Rivers, but had just put them in a box labelled Self-Consciously Whacky American College Radio Bands and left it at that. But then I heard the fantastic Goddess On A Hiway single with its soaring, sky-scraping chorus, Neil Young-esque vocals and general awesomeness, and realised there was more to this bunch of Catskills misfits than was first apparent.....

Next thing I knew, that arbiter of good taste Noel Gallagher (!) was going around saying that the Rev's Holes was his favourite song of that year, which was unusual for the mono-browed Mancunian as the song wasn't his usual brand of warmed-over Beatles/Faces dad rock, but something entirely more subtle and magical.

Holes is where Mercury Rev set out their stall for Deserter's Songs. From a quiet, low-key intro they pile on keyboards, horns, strings and the eerie sound of the bowed-saw, to build up a warm but atmospheric sound collage, which doesn't once sound overdone. Jonathan Donahue's fragile, high-register voice leads us into the strange, uncertain world of the Rev, recalling ( for me at least ) the surrealism of Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol.....

"Holes, dug by little moles
Angry, jealous spies
Got telephones for eyes
Come to you as friends"

More lush soundscapes follow in the form of such wonderful, dreamlike songs as Tonite It Shows and Endlessly, with its snatches of Silent Night weaving in and out of the melody. Backwoods neighbours Levon Helm and Garth Hudson of The Band show up to help cement Mercury Rev's membership in the lineage of what Greil Marcus called the "old, weird Americana". And for every ( almost ) traditional rock song, there is a fractured instrumental like I Collect Coins, which could almost be the soundtrack from some lost, experimental film from the 1920s.

And beneath the surface textures, the elusive, allusive lyrics hint at the hard times and virtual psychosis Mercury Rev suffered through on the road to this extraordinary album:

"Catskill mansions, buried screams
I'm alive she cried but I don't know what it means"

"You had to choose a side to lose and divide yourself in two
The way you were, long before, you were a walking civil war"

Finally we reach the catharsis of Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp, in which the Rev may be "waving goodbye ( I'm not ) sayin' hello" but they're doing it in the most exuberant, rollickin', bluesy way, in a track which almost lurches into a sun-kissed Balearic Beat vibe. With harpsichords.

Deserter's Songs ( named for some forgotten music critic's sniffy dismissal of The Band's 2nd album ) is a waking dream of Cosmic American Music from which you might not want to awaken.

Song to play air-saxophone to: The Hudson Line

( If you're interested - and why wouldn't you be if you got this far? - I mentioned the one time I saw the Rev, with the Flaming Lips, here as one of my irregular series of Favourite Gig Fridays. )

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Odds and ends

"Odds and ends, odds and ends
Lost time will not come again"

So said the mighty Bob Dylan and he could have been talking about this permanently-late blog. I've got no real excuse for the lack of posts here, other than laziness and lack of imagination, but I hope to be back very soon with some thoughts on Mercury Rev's modern Psychedelia and some older stuff by a little-known band called The Beatles.....

While you're waiting you could check out a recent post over at The Glass Walking-Stick where I ramble on about seeing the reformed Big Audio Dynamite last Saturday.

Also, a very late "Hi!" to new Followers csmith2884 and Joanne Casey. Thanks for your support, guys!

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Physical Graffiti by Led Zeppelin

As part of what seems to be a recurring theme on this 'ere blog, Led Zeppelin were one of those bands ( like the Beach Boys ) that I just didn't get when I was younger. To tell the truth I probably never gave them a chance.

I did go through a Heavy Metal / Rock phase as a teenager but Zeppelin were never a part of it. This was the era of the so-called New Wave Of British Heavy Metal when the singles charts were frequently raided by new bands like Saxon, Iron Maiden and Def Leppard, all incongruously competing for space on Top Of The Pops with the likes of Bucks Fizz and Spandau Ballet. The old guard metal bands had a resurgence too, with Ozzy Osbourne, Rainbow, Judas Priest, Motorhead and Gillan all having hits and appearing on telly - unlike Zeppelin who famously didn't release singles and didn't "do" TV. It didn't help that Led Zep had effectively died along with their heavy-drinking drummer, John Bonham, in 1980; although you wouldn't have thought that at the time, when the Zeppelin logo and "Swan Song" symbol was still covering T-shirts, jackets and schoolbags across the land. Around this time I discovered another defunct band, Deep Purple, whose compilation album Deepest Purple became a real favourite for head-banging and air-guitar. They, along with Motorhead, became the only Metal bands to outlive my short-lived 'ed-bangin' phase, at least until Metallica and Anthrax came along some time later.....

The only Led Zep songs I knew at the time were Whole Lotta Love which I quite liked and Stairway To Heaven which I thought was the worst kind of cod-mystical, hippy tripe. I also got it into my head that Jimmy Page's guitar was permanently out of tune ( that's how it sounded to me, anyway ) and decided to stick with Richie Blackmore instead.

Years pass, pages are ripped from the calendar, leaves fall from trees etc. etc.

After seeing old black and white footage of Zeppelin performing Communication Breakdown on some late-night rock programme, and realising i'd been missing something, I decided to shelve my age-old prejudice and give 'em a go. I bought the first two albums on dodgy old vinyl and was knocked out by their hard rockin', bluesy power: subtle as a flying brick but compelling and electric. Typically for me, I then became obsessed with the band and went out to buy as much of their music as I could find - even the DVD of The Song Remains The Same which I still haven't managed to watch all the way through.

All the Zeppelin albums have their great songs, riffs and performances ( especially Led Zeppelin IV, their most iconic record ) but my personal favourite is Physical Graffiti, because it's such a sprawling, confident document of a band at the peak of their powers. ( Not bad for a double album featuring seven songs left off previous records. )

What's it got? It's got the lot. To start with, you've got yer full-on, brutal rockers like Custard Pie, The Rover and The Wanton Song which could be the blueprint for an entire career for a lesser band ( Hi AC/DC! Hi ZZ Top! ) but are just the starting point for Led Zep. There are more chilled-out, mellow tracks such as the country-fied Down By The Seaside and the acoustic workout Bron-Yr-Aur - which I think is Welsh for "getting stoned in a cottage somewhere". And then you have the epics like Ten Years Gone, In The Light and the awesome, exotic Kashmir. After all that they still find time for some rock 'n' roll tomfoolery in Boogie With Stu, gritty funk-rock in Trampled Underfoot and the monolithic, slide-guitar blues explosion of In My Time Of Dying.

Needless to say the musicianship is faultless but never too slick or bland. The sheer power and variety of the music on display here is dazzling, with every member contributing something vital to the big picture. My only real complaint with this album, and Zeppelin's work as a whole, is the relative weakness of the lyrics.
( Not to mention the rampant sexism! )
Kashmir and Night Flight are the stand-outs for me, but a lot of the words of other songs don't stand up to much scrutiny. I tend to think of the lyrics as just another component of the overall sound, and just enjoy Robert Plant's lascivious, lung-busting vocals as if they were an instrument in their own right.

It took me a long time but I think I finally "get" Led Zeppelin, and they've "got" me. For life.

Song to play when you book that package holiday: Kashmir

Monday, 31 January 2011

Exodus by Bob Marley and The Wailers

Exodus is the first album from my 15 Albums list that nearly didn't make the blog. Not because it's not good enough ( far from it! ) but because I was torn between Exodus and Uprising, the first Bob Marley album I ever owned. Uprising has that iconic cover, a very sharp, bright sound and such wonderful songs as Could You Be Loved?, Redemption Song and Coming In From The Cold. BUT Exodus was the first Marley album to pop into my head when compiling the list and, thanks to my hard and fast rules, had to be the one.

Exodus was mostly recorded in England in 1977, when Marley was hiding out in London after a failed assassination attempt on him and his family. Bob was far more than just a reggae star in Jamaica; he was also an important, if controversial, political figure, who was seen to represent the ghettos and the rastas - and so had made himself a target. Unknown gunmen ( possibly opponents of Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley ) attacked Marley's home, wounding Rita Marley, manager Don Taylor and Marley himself. Amazingly, after all this chaos and upheaval Marley still produced, in a harsh environment thousands of miles from home, a true masterpiece of Jamaican music, Exodus.

The album alternates between the religious, Rastafarian themes in songs like the title track, Natural Mystic and The Heathen, and the more Lovers' Rock-orientated songs such as Waiting In Vain and Turn Your Lights Down Low. Not as angry and militant an album as Natty Dread, for example, but still righteous, Exodus is a classic of roots reggae, with Marley searching for meaning and finding it in love, friendship and Jah.

"Open your eyes and look within
Are you satisfied with the life you're living?"

The singles from this album took Bob's career to the next level and became some of his most popular songs, with the poppier tracks like Jamming and Three Little Birds being inescapable in the summer of 1977. The Wailers were on top form throughout, locking into some serious, laid-back grooves and generating much positive vibes, especially on the anthemic One Love / People Get Ready and the beautifully summery Three Little Birds. With sublime vocals from the I Threes and the "Tuff Gong" himself, the album is pure class.

Exodus itself is the killer track, an epic of Rastafarian empowerment in which Marley casts himself as a Black Moses
( shades of Isaac Hayes! ) leading his people out of oppression in "Babylon" and delivering them to "Zion" and Utopia:

"We know where we're going
We know where we're from
We're leaving Babylon
Heading to our fathers' land"

Time magazine even named Exodus the Best Album Of The Century, something which is obviously debatable, but it's easily up there with the greats of 20th century music. Even though it's hard to believe that Bob Marley will have been gone for thirty years this May, his legacy lives on.

Song with probably the best bass guitar riff in history: Exodus

Friday, 7 January 2011

Are You Experienced by The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Unusually for me, I can pinpoint the exact moment I first, er, experienced the music of Jimi Hendrix. Well, I say "exact", but it was actually some time in 1980, so not that exact but I know it was on BBC 2, on the Old Grey Whistle Test and it was this awesome demolition of the Troggs' Wild Thing. What I wanted to know was - who was that flamboyant, exciting guitarist, and why was he shagging his guitar..... and not getting arrested?

I'm pretty sure that piece of footage showed up a few times over the years and I even managed to record it on audio cassette ( yes, it was the dark ages! ) and played it until the tape wore out. I had to find more of the man's music. Luckily for me Radio 1 produced a few documentaries like 25 Years Of Rock, which featured more of Jimi's music, and a special on the Hendrix story by legendarily gravel-voiced DJ, Tommy Vance. I was hooked! I went out and bought all the second-hand Hendrix singles I could find, then it was album time.....

Sadly, Hendrix only released three studio albums in his tragically short life. In reverse order they are:

Electric Ladyland - the ambitious, self-indulgent but brilliant double-album, showcasing Jimi's new-found recording-studio skills ( in his brand-new studio! ), long trippy jams, and lyrics about voodoo children and mermen.....

Axis: Bold As Love - Jimi as High Priest of psychedelia and Hindu love god (!) ( see album cover ) dispensing beautiful songs of love 'n' peace 'n' good vibes.....

Are You Experienced ( no question mark required ) - the album in, er, question, one of the greatest debut albums ever, the Experience seemingly fully-formed and firing on all four cylinders.....

Although hinting at the full-on psychedelia to come, with plentiful distorted, backwards and feeding-back guitar, this album is much harder and angrier than its successors, with a distinct lack of mellow good vibes. Hendrix was still indebted to his previous employers from his hired-hand days on the "chitlin' circuit" and beyond - Jackie Wilson, The Isley Brothers, Little Richard, Curtis Knight and more. From these hard-working days for tough bosses in front of wild audiences Jimi acquired his stage-moves, showmanship and an understanding of r 'n' b and the blues.

The blues permeates Are You Experienced, giving the album its bite. Song titles like Manic Depression, Love Or Confusion and I Don't Live Today tell their own tales, hard luck stories of the pitfalls of life and love. The classic Red House is an out-and-out blues, albeit one with a sense of humour - after returning to the "red house over yonder" to find his girl vanished, Jimi concludes:
"If my baby don't love me no more
I know her sister will"

Apart from hard times the other main preoccupation of the blues is, of course, sex. And this album has that in spades. From the suggestive album title itself, through Hendrix's sensual, smouldering guitar playing and on through his languid, laid-back vocals, this album is one big come-on, playing on Jimi's sex-symbol status and his perceived "threat" - at least as far as the institutionally-racist media of the day were concerned.

"Listen here, baby / Stop acting so crazy
You say your mom ain't home / that ain't my concern
Just don't play with me / And you won't get burned
I have only one burning desire / Let me stand next to your fire"

A melting-pot of soul, r 'n' b, blues and the new psych-rock, Are You Experienced was so far ahead of the rest of the rock world in 1967 ( yes, even the Beatles too ) that it was as if its creator had just landed from some distant, freaked-out planet in a far-off, multi-coloured universe. And maybe he had.....

"Not necessarily stoned, but beautiful....."

Song to remind you of Wayne's World: Foxey Lady