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 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.”
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.]
If You’re Feeling Sinister is one of the best expressions of the vacuity of the post-political late 1990s, after the so-called “end of history”. In the UK, the rising “third way” new labour politicians like Tony Blair (and the Democratic Leadership Council new democrat Bill Clinton in the United States) concealed a rightward shift behind benign-sounding “triangulation”-type rhetoric. Rather than a pendulum swinging back leftward after the brutal Carter-Thatcher-Reagan-Major era, there was an impotent shrug of “there is no alternative” (TINA) and a continuation of the swing rightward. So somebody like the girl in the album’s austere cover photo, with a copy of Kafka‘s The Trial conspicuously visible in the background, is left isolated and powerless, in contemplation. The sort of education and erudition implied by the book in the background of the album cover was no substitute for the lack of political power of the album’s core “college rock” audiences (the would-be new “new left” of the day). This feeling is captured well by Belle and Sebastian’s light, melodic, and sometimes whimsical chamber pop music. Stuart Murdoch sings with sensitivity but above all a wispy, unobtrusive breathiness. The music relies on a tension between the upbeat, nearly campy melodies and the literate, melancholic lyricism. This music is the soundtrack to the strongest revolution possible without getting out of bed.
Mostly the album uses folky acoustic instrumentation layered and elaborated upon with studio overdubs and subtle echo that draws from modern pop. That is to say from The Velvet Underground (in the vein of “Sunday Morning,” etc.), to British folk-rock of the 1970s to jangle pop of the 1980s and on to shoegaze rock of the 1990s all contribute influence. (Alt/grunge rock and britpop of the early-to-mid 90s is conspicuously absent). It all contributes to a kind of soft yet connected sonic fabric buoyed by odd drum figures, solitary horn accompaniment, unexpected electric bass lines, and celeste-like keyboards. It all seems fit together. The little subtle touches of eccentric instrumentation — never overused — each cycle through to diversify the proceedings, as if any instrument is capable of filling any role.
Some of the songs are simply lovely and pretty, like the piano ballad “Fox in the Snow” (a re-write of “We Rule the School”). The lonely tranquility and search for escape through fey artistic pursuit recalls Denton Welch‘s unfinished autobiographical novel A Voice Through a Cloud. Just like that book, there is quality of observing surrounding life, as if through a telescope.
“Stars of Track and Field” evidences a deadpan sarcasm — worthy of a Naked Gun film — that surfaces repeatedly throughout the rest of the album. The sarcasms allows the angst underlying the songs to come through in a passive-aggressive way.
“Get Me Away From Here I’m Dying” is probably the centerpiece of the album. The subtle appeal to rescue from unseen outside forces, the casual and polite cynicism, the somewhat smug obscurantism, the passive-aggressive hesitation to make offense: these are all the tools in the kit of “outsider” hipsters of the era. These are much the same techniques found in other indie “twee” pop like Neutral Milk Hotel‘s cult favorite In the Aeroplane Over the Sea from a few years later. And yet, Belle and Sebastian do something subtly different from Neutral Milk Hotel. “Get Me Away From Here I’m Dying” has the lines, “Nobody writes them like they used to / so it may as well be me.” This may be music that self-consciously (and even melodramatically) emphasizes its distance from the “real world” by building up its own private one, but at the same time it underscores doing something, however inchoate, apart from (and often against) those other worlds. So, rather than just being song about a “Romantic tragic hero, narcissistically focused on his own suffering and despair, elevating them to a source of pleasure,” these are songs that establish a larger context of political paralysis and meager responses. There is an emphasis on retaining sensitivity (the lyric: “I always cry at endings”), but also an emphasis on combining that with persistent awareness and action. Available avenues for action were limited at the time, and so naturally this music looks back to the past a bit, and appears quite tentative. While combining reverent/irreverent mash-ups of ironic camp and cutting insights is kind of an old tactic (at the time, most popularly employed by Beck), Belle and Sebastian’s use of the technique was so light as to almost pass by unnoticed. The cynicism almost gets the best of the band sometimes, with their tendency to play “the jaded, hysterical sniveller” holding them back rather than moving them forward as intended — this is evident by the way later work like The Life Pursuit is able to be more decisive and less self-pitying. This all boils down to the band firmly encouraging and arousing a constituency (audience) to recognize its peculiar strengths, but beyond that taking only the smallest of steps here towards deploying those strengths as a political force. The smallness of the steps is measured against what seemed possible.
If You’re Feeling Sinister is an album full of good intentions. It even manages to win over some listeners not usually into this sort of thing.
Lots of excellent commentary has already been written about Parade, the soundtrack to a second film starring Prince, Under the Cherry Moon. The film is terrible in case you are wondering. The soundtrack came along after Prince’s big breakthrough with Purple Rain. He followed that big success with the cathartic (in a self-indulgent way) neo-psychedelic meanderings of Around the World in a Day. Parade was a more concerted effort. And Prince goes big most of the time, with grandiose production concepts mixing together contributions from large sets of musicians. Yet, as my friend Patrick said, “it’s at once too much and not enough.” He piles on the production gimmicks just because he can, and well into the album those efforts hardly ever seem to come to fruition. Side one is all over the place, dragged down by the incongruous marriage of lightweight compositions and jarring recording experiments. It doesn’t offer much except for “Girls & Boys,” and the somewhat mediocre “Under the Cherry Moon.” But side two turns things around completely. There is the big hit “Kiss,” which remains one of Prince’s best. But “Kiss” is part of the great closing sequence of “Kiss” (an insanely infectious and tight dance funk jam), “Anotherloverholenyohead” (a loose yet funky workout) and “Sometimes It Snows in April” (a slow-burning epic ballad). The second side is Prince in his prime and that more than makes up for the meanderings of the first. And the great news is that Prince turned around and took all the best parts and added even more great songs and ideas for his next effort, the magnificent Sign ‘O the Times.
The Paradise EP, released following Del Rey’s breakthrough album Born to Die (and appended as bonus tracks to it on reissues), eschews the trashy dance pop that padded put most of the debut and instead dabbles in romanticized pop with dramatic vocals akin to Jeff Buckley‘s cult classic Grace. (If that seems like an odd comparison, know that Del Rey has expressed admiration for Buckley and one of the songs here shares the name of his former band). But Del Rey is also following the Madonna playbook. Just like Madonna’s second album, Like A Virgin, took the most scandalous elements of her music (as judged by mainstream tastes) and ran with them, Del Rey similarly tries to capitalize on the sensational. Lyrically, Paradise dwells on the ribald and lascivious. It is an awkward approach, leaning too hard on shock value. Throughout, there is a lot of emphasis on traveling and getting away — just the sorts of Americana mythology that has driven so many other musical recordings. She is clearly trying to make music with some amount of substance. But she only partly succeeds. Best tracks: “Gods and Monsters” and “Body Electric.”
Frusciante’s solo debut is too self-consciously weird for its own good. But that doesn’t stop it from being interesting and having a few memorable tracks (“Untitled #2” and “Untitled #6”). Bear in mind that this came before Frusciante learned how to sing and that is a nagging problem. Editing back the run time and editing out the vocals might turn this into something better. As it stands, head for the man’s excellent batch of albums from a decade later, and only return to this if you want lo-fi bedroom recordings that sit on the weirder end of the continuum that includes Todd Rundgren, Jandek, Cody ChesnuTT and Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti.