Thursday, November 27, 2008

Albums of the Year Lists. Yay! Nay?

It's that time of year again, when music magazines like Q, Mojo and Uncut release their lists of the best albums of the past year. So here's a look at the top 10's:

Q Magazine:

10. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!
09. The Raconteurs - Consolers Of The Lonely
08. Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid
07. TV On The Radio - Dear Science
06. Duffy - Rockferry
05. Glasvegas - Glasvegas
04. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
03. Coldplay - Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends
02. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
01. Kings Of Leon - Only By The Night


10 Neil Diamond - Home Before Dark
9 The Bug - London Zoo
8 The Week That Was - The Week That Was
7 Glasvegas - Glasvegas
6 The Hold Steady - Stay Positive
5 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!
4 Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
3 Paul Weller - 22 Dreams
2 The Last Shadow Puppets - The Age Of The Understatement
1 Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes


10 Paul Weller - 22 Dreams
9 Kings Of Leon - Only By The Night
8 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!!
7 Neon Neon - Stainless Style
6 Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid
5 Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
4 Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
3 TV On The Radio - Dear Science
2 Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
1 Portishead - Third

And now for the best bit: let's bitch about the lists. It has to be said that the presence of the Kings of Leon at number 1 really is a new low for Q. Only By The Night is an album that moves even further away from their Creedence/Skynyrd-influenced Southern roots and closer to the streamlined, stadium-ready songcraft that seems to attract so many bands who get the sniff of a crossover. Liam Gallagher said it better than I ever could:

"I like Kings Of Leon, but I don't know about this fucking new record. I like the old stuff. I like (Caleb Followill’s) voice. When they first come out I was going, 'Who the fuck is this?' They were cool, and now they've all got their sleeves cut off. It seems to me they've gone for the bucks, man. I'm not dissing them because I fucking really like them, but it's like they've got this U2 sound and you can do better than that."

Exactly, but then that's what makes their presence at number 1 so depressingly predictable: Q, more than any other mainstream publication, rabidly encourages this stadium band nonsense. Just check their blurb on the 'album of the year': 'Kings Of Leon are making big rock music to fill big spaces, without resorting to hot air or empty posturing.' Have you ever heard anything so tedious? The thing about Q is when you actually read the magazine you can see that there's some very good writers on their staff, but for whatever reason (and maybe it's an editorial thing) the overall attitude of the magazine seems to be: 'how mainstream is this band? can they fill stadiums? how accessible is the production?' etc. etc. It's as if this is their only criteria for judging music (it isn't, in fairness, but it's easy to get that impression).

Then there's Coldplay at number 3. You'd think Q would have learned their lesson after raving about the substandard X & Y and giving it the 5-star treatment, but nope, apparently Viva La Vida - an album that was greeted with a resounding 'meh' by most discerning listeners - is 'their Unforgettable Fire. Their first properly great album. U2 arrived next at The Joshua Tree, so expect even better to come'. Ooookay.
Moving on...

It's similarly predictable, if somewhat less disagreeable, to see the strong showing of Fleet Foxes in the Mojo and Uncut lists. As great as the album is, it could conceivably have been made at any stage in the last 20 years, and these magazines do tend to favour music that (a) sounds like it could have been made decades ago, (b) is made by artists who are decades old or (c) falls under the broad term 'Americana'.

You sometimes wonder whether it's too much to ask to have a music magazine that attempts to cover genres and styles of music equally, and not be biased towards stadium rock, Americana or trendy fads (hello NME!). Then you realise that it's no wonder music magazines are losing readers to the internet and websites like Pitchfork and Drowned in Sound.

Anyway, enough bitching, there are some great albums in there, with the likes of Elbow, Nick Cave and Bon Iver getting some fully-deserved approval across the board. Come back here on December 31st for Electric Whipcrack's Top 10 albums of the year. Or maybe early January. I don't like being rushed.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

REVIEW: The Clash - Live at Shea Stadium

Contentious beast, the live album. The standard argument is that a recording of a gig is a poor substitute for the experience of actually being there, while many question the fidelity and authenticity of 'live' recordings: even something like Live and Dangerous, which is widely regarded as one of the best live albums of all time, is said to be only '75% live' (according to some sources, the only 'live' aspects of it are the drums and the crowd). All too often, these kind of records are subjected to the kind of overdubbing and re-recording that renders the whole exercise of releasing a live album completely pointless. I've always been a firm believer that a few out-of-tune vocals and bum notes is a small price to pay for capturing the authentic, warts-and-all energy of a live gig, but most bands (producers?) seem to be more concerned about airbrushing out the kinks: the result doesn't sound like any gig i've ever been to.

The Clash are exactly the kind of band whose live energy you'd hope to capture on record, as integral a part of their reputation as it was - just watch this clip:

1999's From Here to Eternity (8), a compilation of recordings from separate gigs that covered pretty much all the musical phases of the Clash from their debut to Combat Rock (7.5), did an admirable enough job (although surprise surprise, certain tracks were instrumentally overdubbed). That served as the only official live Clash release up until this year's Live at Shea Stadium. Taken from the second night they played at New York's Shea Stadium (Oct. 13th 1982) during an American tour supporting The Who, it's a gig that's long been bootlegged, and the circumstances around the tour are well documented. To cut a long story short, Topper Headon - the drummer who had pretty much penned their biggest hit, 'Rock the Casbah' - had been turfed out of the band due to his continuing heroin addiction, while tensions continued to simmer between Joe Strummer - uncomfortable with the idea of playing large arenas and moving further away from their punk roots - and Mick Jones, who was becoming increasingly alienated from the rest of the group (in part due to internal power struggles involving manager Bernie Rhodes). Within a year Jones would be out of the group and the Clash would be more or less finished. Despite all this, the gig in question was regarded as a triumph, with many present testifying that the Clash well and truly upstaged the headliners.

With all this context in mind, it's all the more surprising that listening to Live at Shea Stadium is such a curiously bland experience: it's neither the sound of a band disintegrating in acrimony nor the sound of a band triumphantly seizing their opportunity to convert the masses; instead it just sounds like a band going about their business with maximum competency but minimum danger: 'going through the motions' might be harsh, but it's hard to know whether the strangely passionless sound of the Clash on this record was a symptom or a cause of the band's discomfort at the new environment they found themselves in.

There are a few undoubted highlights: a storming rendition of 'Police On My Back' and a swinging 'Train in Vain' both translate particularly well (is it a coincidence that they're both sung by Mick Jones, the band member with the most enthusiasm for the arena tour?), while the way they segue from the proto-hip hop 'Magnificent 7' into 'Armagideon Time' is a fairly compelling showcase of the band's stylistic breadth. For the most part, however, you're left frustrated and wondering how classics like 'Spanish Bombs', 'Clampdown' and 'Rock the Casbah' can sound so utterly bloodless : sure, it's tight and focused and all those other words that critics use to describe records that they're never going to listen to once they've filed their review, but there's nothing here as exciting as the early performances included on From Here to Eternity, nothing as spine-tingling as that haunting version of 'Straight to Hell' ('sing in tune, you bastards!'). In short, this record comprehensively fails to capture the essence of the Clash : they weren't a band who played to the bleachers; they were a band who eliminated the barrier between performers and audience, consistently innovating and evolving, and, well, once these things started to be compromised you feel the end was nigh.

Of course, it's hard to know whether the limitations of this record are down to the way the gig was recorded and produced or whether it's to do with the performance itself (i'm certainly not going to argue with people who were actually present at Shea Stadium). Let's just hazard a guess and say it's a bit of both. If you're waiting for the definitive Clash live document, be warned: this ain't it.


Cut Copy's new release

Not content with releasing a heavyweight contender for album of the year (In Ghost Colours (9)) and playing a string of rapturously received shows around Europe and America, Melbourne trio Cut Copy are now releasing album standout 'Far Away' as a single, featuring some tasty-looking remixes and a brand new track ('Sands of Time'). The full tracklisting:

1. Far Away
2. Far Away [Hercules & Love Affair Remix]
3. Far Away [Damn Arms Remix]
4. Far Away [Golden Filter Remix]
5. Hearts on Fire [Aeroplane Pop Mix]
6. So Haunted [Knightlife Sun-Soaked Reprise]
7. Sands of Time

Cut from the same day-glo synthpop cloth that characterises the rest of the album, 'Far Away' is pure sonic seratonin, and was one of the highlights of their superb Electric Picnic set. No matter how many times I hear this bouncy Human League homage, the intro slays me every time; scientifically speaking, if it doesn't fill you with the urge to dance, then you're clinically dead.

Manic Street Preachers : The New Testament?

The Manic Street Preachers recently announced that their next album, tentatively pencilled in for spring 2009, will feature lyrics that were left behind by former member Richey Edwards, who disappeared in 1995. Writing on their official site, the band state:

'All the songs we are recording are lyrics left to us by Richey. Finally it feels like the right time to use them...Musically, in many ways it feels like a follow up to The Holy Bible but there is also an acoustic side – tender, romantic, nihilism, “Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky” esque. It’s a record that celebrates the genius of his words, full of love, anger, intelligence and respect. We have to make this great. Wish us luck.'

Comparisons to 1994's The Holy Bible (9), the last album they recorded as a four-piece, are all the more interesting considering the band are working in the studio with producer Steve Albini, who also worked on Nirvana's In Utero (9.5) - one of the few mainstream albums released during the 1990's that can match The Holy Bible for sheer, uncompromising fury and despair.

However, creating something that can stand comparison with such a monumental piece of work - The Holy Bible is still an absolutely terrifying listen that includes anorexia, concentration camps and the sterilization of rapists among its subject matter - is easier said than done. This is no longer the same band who caused over 25,000 complaints when they appeared on Top of the Pops wearing balaclavas and military gear, but three middle-aged men whose main obsessions these days seem to be (a) hoovering, (b) Motown/Spector homages, and (c) ridiculously expensive consumer products. 'Your Love Alone Is Not Enough' may well have been a stirring single, but last year's Send Away the Tigers (5) was a distinctly average album and certainly not the career-rejuvenating triumph it was painted as in some quarters.

Still, cynicism aside, let's hope they can pull it off, and there'll be nobody happier than me if they do: MOR irrelevance is a sad fate to befall a band once capable of this:

Friday, November 7, 2008

Review: ASH - 1977 (Re-issue) original release : 1996

When you look at the position Ash currently occupy - on the fringes of the mainstream, with good-but-not-great reviews in the press being the order of the day - it's easy to forget just how big a deal they used to be and how phenomenal their initial rise to prominence was. Attracting media and record company interest with their debut single 'Jack Names The Planets' in February 1994, they followed up with the mini-album Trailer and a trio of superb singles - 'Petrol', 'Uncle Pat' and 'Kung Fu'. Their moment truly arrived when 'Girl From Mars' landed at no.11 in the UK top 40 in July 1995, and this was followed by a Glastonbury slot which took place just two days after lead singer/guitarist Tim Wheeler and bassist Mark Hamilton finished their A-levels. The debut album, 1977, released in May 1996, followed hot on the heels of Top 5 single 'Goldfinger', and shot straight in at number 1 on the UK album chart, dislodging Alanis Morrisette. It was an astonishing couple of years, not only in terms of commercial success but also in terms of the staggering quality of output from a group of young men still in their late teens.

Recently the band performed 1977 in its entirety in London's Roundhouse, and demand for tickets was so great that they've now released the album in a deluxe edition, along with Trailer , the Live at the Wireless radio session, a live set from Reading 1996, and a disc of 22 rarities and B-sides. Value for money? You bet. Having long since misplaced my copy of the album (one of the first I ever bought), it's given me the perfect opportunity to re-purchase, and of course get all nostalgic about those times when you'd spend all day writing the names of your favourite bands on your pencil case or school books. Which was doubtlessly one of the things that appealed about Ash: they were exactly the kind of rabid fanboys that you were, their obsessions - Star Wars, Jackie Chan, Hulk Hogan, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Thin Lizzy - all mixed into a compelling brew of breakneck riffs, pop-punk hooks and teenage kicks.

1977 still has a slightly disjointed feel - a third of the tracks had already been released as singles by the time the album came out, and some of the album tracks ('Lost in You', 'Let it Flow') don't quite match up - but it's excellence remains undimmed after 12 years: 'Girl From Mars', still arguably their best song, crackles along with youthful exuberance and a killer chorus; the riotous 'Kung Fu' is a 100mph tribute to Jackie Chan, while 'Oh Yeah' successfully captures the rush of teenage infatuation with a wistfulness beyond their years. Wheeler's remarkable songwriting talent comes to the fore on the grinding 'Goldfinger', where the narrator waits for a girl to 'set the score' ('I got some records on / Some bottles of wine / On this stormy night / The rain is lashing down / And I'm waiting for her'), while Hamilton threatens to upstage him with the distortion-fuelled vortex of 'Innocent Smile', a song that wouldn't sound out of place on Daydream Nation. It mightn't be Ash's best album - that honour goes to Free All Angels (9) in my book - but its got their most definitive songs.

Trailer, the EP that preceded 1977, is by no means a preliminary sketch, standing up as a very good record in its own right: heavier, harder-edged and with more of an obvious debt to grunge than their debut proper, it veers between the Ramones-esque punk-pop of 'Jack Names the Planets', the torrid riffing and morbid lyrics of 'Season', and the apocalyptic 'Petrol', one of those songs whose mysteriousness ('The cars stop outside, they all stay inside / The house is drenched in light, but what have I done wrong?') only adds to its emotional power.

Of the live sets, Live at the Wireless is the real keeper, a positively blistering performance recorded at the Triple J Studios in Australia in 1996. The version of 'Goldfinger' recorded here, shorn of Owen Morris' wall-of-sound production, is even better than on record, there's a terrific version of Ween's 'What Deaner Was Talking About', and 'Girl From Mars' and 'Petrol' are torn through with the energy and conviction of a band seizing their moment. Live at Reading 96 is less essential: while the energy levels are as high as ever, the set feels a bit flat at times on record, and the weaknesses of the three-piece set-up are more in evidence, a situation which would eventually lead to the recruitment of Charlotte Hatherley as second guitarist. Still, it's notable for the frenetic 'Kung Fu' finale - which seems to leave Wheeler breathless and speechless - and the reaction of a clearly adoring crowd.

There's a bit of overlap between the rarities disc included here and the one included with the impeccable singles collection Intergalactic Sonic 7's (10), but only five tracks in all. Unsurprisingly, it's a mixed bag, ranging from the playful to the heavy, but there's plenty of gold to be found. A four-track demo of 'Girl From Mars' brings its classic melody into even sharper relief, 'Don't Know' - one of their earliest tracks - has an endearingly amateurish-but-tuneful quality, while they also try their hand at some interesting covers (a bizarre vocoder-led electro version of 'Gimmie Some Truth', Smokey Robinson's 'Get Ready', 'Does Your Mother Know'). The prize, however, goes to '5am Eternal', a superlative, sinister slice of post-hardcore that sounds like it's been recorded in an echo chamber. And let's not forget the legendary Sick Party: the sound of Mark Hamilton intentionally regurgitating the contents of his stomach to howls of laughter from bandmates and crew, it was originally a hidden track at the end of 1977 and is included here in all its glory. And it's still hilarious.

I remember the thrill me and my best mate felt when Ash first hit the Top 20: it felt like a victory in a way, that this was our band rubbing shoulders with the vacuous mainstream heavyweights. Overly simplistic of course, but when you're that young you tend to romanticise these things, and that's why albums like 1977 hold such nostalgic value for us mid-twenties folk: they represent that sense of conviction and exhilaration that seems to dim with every passing year. Good to see it getting the comprehensive re-issue treatment it deserves.