Another one of those album experiences that are permanently imprinted in the memory. It was a cosy winter’s evening. I had just bought Yes’ Fragile and Close to the Edge and was already roughly familiar with the former. I stick on Close to the Edge and let myself be washed away with the distant utopian sounds, until the jarring polyrythmic sections come clinging and clanging in. Stunned, amazed, I ask myself: ‘What is this crap?!”.
So, I stay with it for its sublime 18-minute lifetime and the piece of grandiose progressive rock reveals itself as a kind of masterpiece. Further listens and I still deem it one of the most transcendent uses of the studio since the inception of recording. Close to the Edge ultimately transcends the stigma of its genre to become something quite momentous.
To those who dismiss prog as utter pretentious tosh (and god knows some of it definitely is), just give this an objective listen. I can think of only a handful of records of this era that use the synthesizer and still sound fresh today without a hint of cheesiness. Of course, the lyrics sometimes smell of stoned teenage poetry, but also make perfect phonetic sense when played with the music. Sort of?…
A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace
And rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace
Deep, man. As for the gatefold on the right, note its careful design – engineered for equal parts philosophical contemplation and herb-rolling. And You and I follows the title track with a gentler, acoustic tone…
Ah. I give up. I just can’t explain it. Maybe that’s why it is so brilliant. You know music has entered the realm of the ineffable when trying to describe it makes you sound like a blubbering idiot, desperately throwing superlatives at it. How about this: when I play it really loud, it boggles my mind that a group of human beings and some reels of tape made it. In other words; good prog.
100,000 Siberian Khatrus out of 10
I leave you in typicaly ostentatious style with John Martin’s The Plains of Heaven:
I remember picking up American Beauty (top left in my cretinous photo) along with a batch of other Grateful Dead CD remasters and having the same kind of revelatory album experience as when I first heard The Band’s 1969 self-titled record. Something about a few guys being able to channel the ghosts of old bluesmen and their ropey guitars through the modern recording process and encapsulating what a hopeless suburban brit romanticizes as the aura of America.
It simply didn’t matter that I couldn’t hear my locked-out brother slamming on the front door over the chiming mandolins of ‘Ripple’. If you look at the cover, you’ll find that it can either say ‘American Beauty’ or ‘American Reality’. Mmm. Psychemedelic.
So began a long interest in ‘roots rock’, which led me to the other 2 albums I reccomend to you, dear reader: Ry Cooder’s ‘Paradise and Lunch’, and Randy Newman’s ’12 Songs’.
Paradise and Lunch (1974)
Ry Cooder’s cover choices for this album are seemingly illogical. Yet he makes every one sound totally natural in the context of a unified album. Whether they be blues standards from the 18th century or Burt Bacharach tracks from the 50’s, he makes each one sound weirder than ever. This presents a problem, though: Cooder’s lack of original material AND lack of any true vocal power means he has to make these obscure covers his own. He does this by modestly fingerpickin’ and bottleneckin’ his way to the great smoky barroom in heaven and ultimately the highest musical prestige in my book. Seriously; the man is a guitar genius. Check out his Old Grey Whistle Test performance of ‘Jesus on the Mainline’:
12 Songs (1970)
On most Randy Newman albums, the cynicism is dry and sarcastic and ultimately counteracted with some faith in humanity. 12 Songs doesn’t have that. It’s the grumpy uncle. Newman reaches a level of casual, humble, infectious misanthropy. He doesn’t ever sing as himself; there’s always some character he speaks through: a unreliable, flawed, stupid, racist narrator, presenting little vignettes of the worst of backwards America. This allows him to release his cynicism subtly and indirectly and, while it sets him up for perceived inhumanity, he had enough confidence in his relative anonymity and wry intellect to not give a shit.
As for the music, it’s pure understated ingeniousness (real word, trust me) and repays infite re-listenings, each accompaniement suited perfectly to the mood of the lyrics. It works both as a basic roots rock record and a piece of smartass singer-songwritery (not a real word).
Turpentine and dandelion wine
I’ve turned the corner and I’m doin’ fine
Shootin’ at the birds on the telephone line
Pickin’ em off with this gun of mine
Fifth and final in a series of posts where I go through some of my favourite albums of the decade which made Ferris Bueller, Jello Pudding Pops and f*cking Bon Jovi*.
Here’s Lou Reed’s ‘The Blue Mask’ from 1982…
By 1982, Lou Reed was slipping out of his 30s. The Blue Mask is the musical result of turning 40 (which I hear can be quite weird), and it’s at times brain-meltingly heavy and sorrowfully mellow; an evocation of both the desperate anger of losing youth and the bittersweet acceptance of it.
By this time, Lou had let go of the New York druggy, androgynous, Warhol-obsessed faux-decadence he had been peddling for the entirety of the 1970s from the detached persona of a sleazy intellectual, and by the 1980’s had actually begun to sing about himself with the kind of scary honesty that we had never seen before. The face of Transformer, as the cover and title shows, is now just a mask. Clean, sober and living in a rural retreat in New Jersey at the time, Reed seems at first glance happy with ‘my house, my motorcycle and my wife’, but on Waves of Fear confesses to ‘cringe at my terror and hate my own smell’. Jee-zuss, Lou. Chill your bean.
The man has a knack for assembling really weird bands, and this one; comprised of highly melodic jazz bassist Fernando Saunders, avant-geetarrist Robert Quine and top notch pro-thrasher Doane Perry can do floaty jazz and industrial rock in equal weird measure, and reach that weird musical alchemy while doing so.
His best album. Yeah, I said it.
9 Heavenly Arms out of 10
*Liiiivvvviiinnn’ on a praaayyyyerrrr
4th in a series of posts in which I go through the finest albums of the 1980s. This time: Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden from 1988…
Spirit of Eden is a record so difficult to write about, that I almost didn’t include it. It’s one of those complete anomalies of rock music; an ambient, floating, psychedelic, incense-laden, baroque, at times overwhelmingly intense and other times borderline narcoleptic. It recalls the challenging prog-ambient epics of the 60s and 70s: Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, or possibly even moments on The Grateful Dead’s Live/Dead album in its deep thoughts and mesmeric undertones.
”It was very, very psychedelic. We had candles and oil wheels, strobes going, sometimes just total darkness in the studio. You’d get totally disorientated, no daylight, no time frame.” says Phill Brown, the engineer of the album. It was recorded by chance, the music being made spur-of-the-moment, pure experimentation in reaction to the moody environment described by Jones.
This tells us that the numbingly beautiful atmospheric journey of Spirit of Eden is not simply manufactured just for the listener; the band is being taken along those unpredictable streams just as you are, and are just as hypnotised by their own music as you are. Whereas playing extended live jams can often produce a sense of being so completely involved in the music that you reach a sort of divine Buddhist-like unawareness, I can think of no studio albums of which this can be said other than Spirit of Eden. “There is no way that I could ever play again a lot of the stuff I played on this album because I just wouldn’t know how to” vocalist Mark Hollis said.
10 Rainbows out of 10
One of those true one-offs.
All music is owned by Universal Music group and Talk Talk and its members
Part 3 in a series of posts in which I go through my choices for the best, most representative (or most anomalous) records of the 1980s. Here’s Steve Earle’s Guitar Town from 1986…
Don’t mistake this album as polished good ol’ boy rockin’, twangin’ country made for hicks. Though it’s production is sharp and glossy (it was among the first entirely digitally recorded country albums), Steve Earle himself isn’t polished, and the stories he tells aren’t romanticized. He manages to subtly pack a significant amount of American myth and character into these simple songs. He disguises them as good-timey patriotism songs, but sneaks in his own razor-sharp statements on Reagan’s America under the guise of the Southern characters he sings as, whom are portrayed with equal parts wry mockery and affection:
Just my luck
I was born in the land of plenty now there ain’t enough
I’ve been told
Nowadays it just don’t pay to be a good ol’ boy
Guitar Town, the title track, opens this LP with vigour; a love letter to life as a travelling musician, that goes through the rough times, the cheap Japanese guitars and the timeless highway spirit. Earle gets a little sentimental with My Old Friend the Blues, one of the only weak points of the experience, though I commend that he approaches it with a genuine blues attitude as opposed to the treacly, bittersweet whine of a Nashville country ballad.
It acts as part of 3 popular albums that I see as a trilogy of ‘heartland rock’ in the 80s; calls to arms for solidarity among simple folk and an older, honest vision of America in reaction to Reagan’s decade and increasing globalization and industrialism: Springsteen’s Born in the USA (1984), John Mellencamp’s Scarecrow (1985), and the album in question. While Guitar Town may not be the most fist-pumpingly arresting, it stands as the dark horse in this trio, and one of the most overlooked of its era.
8 Hillbilly Highways out of 10
Some great guitar hooks as well.
Second in a series of my picks for the best, most representative albums of the 1980s.
Update: As the picture to the left shows, I am using photos of my own copy of the albums in question from now on, through some miracle of image syncing that my feeble brain could not previously comprehend. I am no longer such a cretin with technology! (*the crowd roars*) Here’s R.E.M.’s Murmur from 1983…
When people say ‘R.E.M. are the originators of alternative rock’, they don’t mean that R.E.M. originated the musical nature of alternative rock to come out in the 80s and 90s. They mean that R.E.M. quite simply originated the very idea
and manner of being alternative and ‘indie’ for the 80s and 90s. Stylistically influential, but not musically, which is fine as it makes them that much more unique and inimitable. They defined the state being on the arty perimeters for around 6 years until they broke into that despicable mainstream.
The lyrics on Murmur sound utterly random, and truly weird. Not weird in an exotic, Captain Beefheart way, but weird from the mundane depths of the mind. They make absolutely no sense, which initially I thought was just lazy and stupid. Then I realized that the lyrics make perfect sense phonetically, which is what the highly rhythmic backing asks for. The nervous but measured cadences of Peter Buck’s jangling Rickenbacker are so perfectly congruent with Stipe’s floating melody, with each strange word making perfect musical sense. It’s this blend of endless hooks and cryptic lyrics that makes Murmur endlessly listenable.
You can actually measure the point when R.E.M. lost their way by measuring when Michael Stipe’s lyrics become understandable. This album is their absolute peak, before Stipe fades slowly into comprehensibility.
Note: I know there will be readers who automatically disregard R.E.M. due to excessive exposure to Everybody Hurts. Please forget it. This record is unrelated to that zippo-waving, pseudo-sensitive twaddle
Use this link at your own risk… http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/rem/radiofreeeurope.html