Madonna has had an interesting career. Her self-titled debut album is a classic of early 1980s dance floor electro-pop. After that, though, she focused on the sensational aspects of her public persona. This often meant a hyper-sexualized one. While there is nothing inherently wrong with that, it often seemed to pander, or at least resort to pandering and filler at album length — she could still knock out great singles. But by the mid-1990s it seemed almost like she was stuck churning out slightly eroticized pop ballads, and she had taken that about as far as she could. So Ray of Light was a somewhat daring turn toward electronica, pairing her with producer William Orbit. The album draws a bit from the down-tempo trip hop scene, but retains a kind of mainstreamed rave dance floor appeal. This turns out to be one of her best album-length statements. Nearly twenty years after release, it still sounds good. Madonna comes to terms with middle age here, in a way. Maybe it avoids some of the exuberance and daring of her early hits, with more brooding and introspective qualities in their place. But at a certain point Neil Hamburger had a point with his joke: “What do you call senior citizens who rub feces on their genitals? Madonna!” Countless musicians have tried to make a mid-career update, to seem more “with it” and adept with current fads. The thing is, Madonna pulls off that feat better than just about anybody here. Nothing about Ray of Light seems like faddish pandering. And she sings as good as ever here — her vocals are much stronger and extend to a much wider array of techniques than back on her debut. Too bad all pop albums aren’t this good!
Del Rey’s second full-length album made strides over her debut Born to Die (and the Paradise EP) in terms of being a bit more consistent, especially from a production standpoint. This is more rock-oriented than her debut. However, the songwriting sometimes falters, or just comes up short, which still makes this seem like a good EP padded out to album length. The best songs are “West Coast” and “Brooklyn Baby.” Lou Reed was supposed to provide guest vocals on the latter, but he passed away before he could record them. A year earlier, she released the song “Young and Beautiful” on the soundtrack to The Great Gatsby, which is more in line with the style of most of her best songs.
Jim O’Rourke has defied expectations his entire career. His pop albums (Eureka, Halfway to a Threeway, Insignificance, and The Visitor), efforts as a producer, and stint in Sonic Youth garnered him the most attention. But he stepped away from the limelight and moved to Japan — get the entire back story in the excellent article “Eureka” in Uncut (July 2015). Simple Songs is another pop album, steeped in 1970s prog rock but done up the O’Rourke way. The music is incredibly intricate. Hardly a second goes by without some sort of shift in meter, instrumentation, lyrical focus…something. Yet O’Rourke never makes the music self-consciously weird. He always keeps the music immediate and catchy. In a way, this album is a kind of tribute to the music of his formative years. Though rather than fawning reenactments, he treat the project with unwavering determination, as if he has to earn the right to indulge his favorite pop-rock idioms by putting extra effort into the production. Lyrically, he is back again with veiled and not-so-veiled misanthropic rants. But these are not really mean spirited so much as they are a device to draw in the audience and build a rapport. Much like trading insults to forge a friendship, O’Rourke alludes to the baseness of humanity, throwing himself in with that ignoble lot too. While I never formally met O’Rourke, many years ago I was at a concert festival where he played bass in a band and then he stood next to me during Borbetomagus‘ set. Unlike one of his band members, who played the role of arrogant star, O’Rourke seemed like a perfectly normal guy. That same normal but talented guy comes through on this record.
Maybe Simple Songs won’t be for everyone. It is pop/rock music, but of a kind of introverted kind. But chances are anyone inclined to like this at all will love it.
The Brazilian musician Tuca (born Valeniza Zagni da Silva) was an enigmatic figure, these days relatively unknown. If at all, she is recognized for her collaborative work writing songs for and playing guitar on Françoise Hardy‘s La question and playing guitar on Nara Leão‘s Dez anos depois (both from 1971). There is little biographical information about her readily available in English. However, Françoise Hardy’s memoir Le désespoir des singes et autres bagatelles recalls how Tuca lived in France in the early 1970s, then, after returning to Brazil, died at age 34 due to complications from an aggressive weight-loss program. Hardy also noted that Tuca (a lesbian) was infatuated with the Italian actress Lea Massari, who was heterosexual and not interested. Tuca also had some type of physical ailment that caused body odor (trimethylaminuria? fistula? diabetes? an overactive thyroid?), leading to self-consciousness. These currents of personal ambition, hope, self-doubt and disappointment contextualize what Tuca’s music was about on Drácula I Love You, her third and final full-length album.
The album was recorded outside Paris at the iconic Château d’Hérouville studio, where a host of well-known Western pop/rock artists made recordings in the early 1970s. The music is pop, in a way. Yet it does not fit neatly into any genre categories though. It draws from the mainstream to more skewed avante-garde rock, melding aspects of Brazilian music — Erasmo Carlos‘ Carlos, Erasmo… and Rita Lee‘s Build Up make somewhat decent reference points — to French chanson and prog rock. The album’s personnel included co-producer Mario de Castro, plus François Cahen (of Magma) on horn arrangements and Christian Chevallier on string arrangements. It oddly relies on a lot of acoustic guitar, with sequencing that shifts between spare acoustic passages and elaborately orchestrated ones. There are occasional electronic effects. Tuca’s vocals are very androgynous. She often sings in a lower register than most female singers.
The tone of the album is often despairing and melancholic — recalling La question and Dez anos depois. But, equally, this has glitzy horns like much Brazilian pop music of the the time. This is also weird personal stuff, the sort of thing found on lo-fi “bedroom” recordings. And there are some strange parallels to The Rocky Horror Show (which was on stage in London the prior year) too, especially the way the album cover shows Tuca in what one review described as “Hammer horror-movie glam[.]” Dracula was apparently “in” for 1974. Even Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr were exploring that theme in music and film that year too.
The strange, incongruous juxtapositions of elements and styles hint at what this album really captures so well — the struggle to balance the public and the private, the introverted and the extroverted. The album’s personality emerges in the way it can’t find any direct expression to capture what it wants to say. So, instead, there is an oscillation between coordinates that kind of surround its center, its core. Also, much like Jim O’Rourke‘s “pop” albums from decades later (Simple Songs, The Visitor, etc.), there is a kind of catharsis in the way the music comes together in spite of a conflicted, ambivalent attitude toward conventional commercial success. Tuca sings and plays guitar with a kind of punky edge, never completely at ease with the grand orchestrations that rise up again and again, persistently returning to raw, truncated guitar strumming and warbled, dispirited vocals. There are up-tempo songs with celebratory rhythms. Tuca seems unable to enjoy them. So she creates her own twisted, downer take on them. Not speaking Portuguese, the lyrics are a mystery, but the music alone conveys a lot.
A strange album that still sounds ahead of its time.
The first CAN album to be recorded with high-fidelity 16-track studio equipment, Landed is mostly a glossier take on the same basic format as its predecessor Soon Over Babaluma. There is a professional slickness in place of the usual relentless ingenuity. Not a bad record at all, but still a sign that the band’s best days were mostly behind them.
!!!Here Are the Sonics!!! is the quintessential garage rock album. The Sonics’ songs touch on such divine subjects as fast cars, dance steps, and cruel women. The lyrics are wonderfully forgettable and !!!Here Are the Sonics!!! gets by through sheer force of will. It’s actually best that the songs just give way to the frenzied power of the band. Nuance wasn’t even remotely the point of The Sonics.
The band blasts you away with pure rock ‘n’ roll power. There are no slow ballads here! Their fuzzy-sounding guitars put a twist on that high energy Little Richard R&B, the big beat rock of Bo Diddley, and the noisy guitar distortion of Link Wray. “The Witch” was the hit single that initially catapulted The Sonics into garage rock lore. It has an eerie organ riff that bubbles under the the driving beat and raucous vocals. Raw energy and visceral drive are more important to this music than finesse. This became sort of a template for punk rock a decade later.
Gerry Roslie is a big part of what made The Sonics so special. He did pound out some nice keyboards, but those vocals were something else. The album took some time to record because Roslie could only do so many songs before his voice gave out from screaming. The results far surpassed his abilities on paper.
Though the group only wrote a few of the album’s songs, the covers are certainly not filler. “Do You Love Me” is one of the hardest rockers on the disc. “Have Love Will Travel” takes on hometown hero Richard Berry’s song with extreme passion. The thundering bass highlights the sound that became so important for bands referred to as “post-punk”. Rave-ups of tunes The Wailers’ “Dirty Robber” also help the album cook. Letting these hooligans into the studio to destroy these songs was part of some greater miracle.
This album is one of the most important releases in defining the rowdy Seattle rock sound. The Sonics made music that makes you want to turn the stereo to full power, not because you have to but because you crave more of that sound. Anyone afraid their ears may bleed need but step aside. The Sonics went against the grain and liked it; perhaps so will you.
Sounds like Ryan Adams joined Arcade Fire, and they listened to a lot of Spacemen 3 before heading to the recording studio. That is to say, this doesn’t exactly break any new ground. But it does manage some quite satisfactory songwriting and solidly delivers from beginning to end. Highlights: “Everything,” “Rest of It” and “Taking Acid and Talking to My Brother.”
While expanding upon the palette of the first two albums, and adding slightly more propulsive rhythms, this still retains the essential prettiness. Many die-hard Belle and Sebastian fans insist this is better than If You’re Feeling Sinister. I’ve long felt that it lacks the poignancy and context of its predecessor, replacing the layered production with punctuation by odd instrumentation of that prior album with a more organically woven sonic fabric. Rotating vocals among band members is sort of ineffective. Still a good one.
Feels like Sun Ra-lite. A blend of somewhat mainstream jazz with more abstract ethno-grooves and a rock-tinged beat. “Night Poem” is the centerpiece of the album, where they take the basic concept the furtherest. The album can be a bit uneven though because of the overly mannered playing (the bane of so much British music — to the extent you can call this “British”).
Continuing Lou Reed’s constant effort to describe struggles for transcendence, he delivers a very average album here. Quite universally panned by critics on release, most have since corrected their underestimation of Berlin, some going too far in the other direction to call this some kind of masterpiece. It’s not his best work, but it’s not his worst either.
Combining brash decadence with bleak misery, Reed crafts an unlikely album. On the surface is over-the-top arena rock and maudlin prog rock. Fueling the fire are Reed’s brilliant songs. Coming off the surprise success of Transformer (an excellent but misunderstood album) Lou Reed had the support to assemble quite a studio band including Jack Bruce, Steve Winwood, and the Brecker brothers.
Berlin tells an ongoing story. It is a concept album. The storyline is very easy to follow. Caroline is the main character. Out of the depths of Berlin nightlife (“Berlin” is Reed’s Barbara Streisand song) she falls in love with Jim. “Men of Good Fortune” contemplates the possibilities of the rich and the poor. Reed finds the glory in both without passing judgment. “How Do You Think It Feels” blasts an indignant reply to the first part of the album. After the odd novelty wears off, Caroline and Jim’s relationship burns out. Jim abuses Caroline and leaves her with the children. In her desperate struggle to cope, she sinks deep into a world of drugs (notably amphetamines). The state takes her children, “The Kids,” as society mocks her existence. Reed fades to Caroline’s suicide on ”The Bed.” “Sad Song” is the climax. Jim never fully grasped the situation. Was Caroline’s life for nothing?
The most singularly amazing aspect of Berlin is how Lou Reed turns unreleased Velvet Underground songs (at least, unreleased on proper studio albums) into the bulk of this entirely new story. “Stephanie Says” (a great Velvet Underground song, likely never released because of John Cale’s abrupt severance from the group) became “Caroline Says II.” “Oh, Gin” formed a good part of “Oh, Jim.” It takes remarkable skill to re-work these songs into an ongoing storyline.
These songs stand alone well, but make something more in the context of the ongoing story. I like to think Berlin turned out exactly as Reed planned, but critics wanted nothing of Reed’s designs. The production does seem out of place, exactly as the characters do. Rather than a hindrance, incorporating songwriting, production, and all aspects of the album into it’s story is remarkable. Few dare like Lou Reed.
This album broke Reed free from his glam-rock period. He now stood alone as the solo artist he always wanted to be. He was not understood yet, but the beauty of Lou Reed is his persistence. His attitude has ruined many possibly great works but it also helped plow ahead with something like this. This record reveals subtle beauty masked with blunt rock and roll. It does find success more than seems apparent at first. But it still sounds kind of shitty in many ways.
[For what it’s worth, Berlin: Live at St Ann’s Warehouse is slightly better, mostly because it ends with three songs not from Berlin.]