Friday, 5 March 2010

The Cure, Wish (1992, Fiction)

Wish was The Last Of The Great Cure Albums and a true testament to their artistic and commercial peak.

By the early Nineties, The Cure had become one of the biggest bands on earth. A succession of outstanding records, The Head On The Door, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me and, above all, Disintegration, introduced the band to vast audiences worldwide and turned it almost into a cult, something The Cure achieved without particularly bowing down to any passing trend.

When Wish came out in 1992, it was billed as a departure from the epic, dark and orchestral atmospheres of Disintegration.

The slight wink at early 90s outfits such as Ride, Curve and My Bloody Valentine is audible in the band's extensive use of distorted, wall-of-sound, noisy guitars which sit on slightly dance-y basslines and drumbeats.

Which is how Wish starts. The aptly titled Open is a loud, brutal, 6-minute-long event, possibly the most guitar-laden Cure track up to that point in their career. Based on multi-layered distorted guitars, tons of feedback as well as a heavy, solid drumbeat, Open strikes a unique balance. It's relentless, intense and claustrophobic, but also strangely hypnotic and captivating, with Robert Smit's voice at its most spell-binding: smooth and passionate, melodic and strained at the same time.

As the first track ends, it's apparent that in no way is this a more light-hearted affair than Disintegration.

The mood, however, changes with the second track, the stunning first single High, probably the last Cure single to display their trademark chiming guitar lines (think Pictures of You but also In Between Days except more polished and refined).

When the dark and gentle Apart breezes in, it's quite clear that Wish is much more diverse than Disintegration. This is almost a bipolar album: an emotional rollercoaster of intense, relentless, almost violent tracks sitting alongside catchy singles but also resigned and minimalistic melodies.

From The Edge of The Deep Green Sea is textbook in the way a heavy, repetitive, layered, and reverberant sound can still come across as strangely melodic. This is Robert Smith at his most inspired, displaying a strong sense of melody that unfortunately won't be seen again in his career.

Another outstanding track is the grand, mood boosting Doing The Unstuck: "Tear out the pages with all the bad news/Pull down the mirrors and pull down the walls/Tear up the stairs and tear up the floors", sings Smith.

Friday I'm In Love is the album's most popular track and possibly the most radio-friendly stuff The Cure ever released bar The Lovecats. Its jangly proto-Shiny Happy People-era REM mood explains why it spent most of 1992 on air, but it's also remarkably irritating - with its demented spelling out of the seven days of the week sitting too much at odds with an otherwise perfect album.

Trust and A Letter To Elise both take Wish back to more meaningful territory, displaying the band's more subdued side and a partial departure from the guitar-driven mood that permeates the album.

And then Cut kicks in, hitting you with a bang and grabbing you by the jaffas. Loud, violent and noisy, it anticipates the template for the latter stage of their career, in particular 2004's Ross Robinson-produced album The Cure. "When I look at you/I see face like stone/Eyes of ice/Mouth so sweetly telling lies/I wish you felt the way that I still do", tortured lyrics that leave you wondering who may have pissed Robert Smith off so much.

Things calm down again with the quiet-after-the-storm To Wish Impossible Things, one of the album's finest moments. Driven by a melancholic viola, and coloured by a slightly oriental tinge, this gem of a song gently explores the themes of absence, loss and regret.

End, you may have guessed, is the final song. Possibly one of the most claustrophobic tracks ever produced in rock music, it could have come straight from the band's Pornography period. Marked by an incessant guitar refrain, noisy feedback played backwards and seriously agonising vocals, End is basically Robert Smith explaining why he's had enough: "I think I've reached that point/Where giving up and going on/Are both the same dead end to me/Are both the same old song". A superb track, but one to handle with care.

In short, aside from enjoying immense commercial success, Wish was The Last Of The Great Cure Albums and a true testament to their artistic and commercial peak. Soon after, unfortunately, a combination of line-up changes, the advent of Britpop and who knows what else meant The Cure ran out of steam.

Wish, however I will always remember with particular affection as it punctuated my teenage years and contributed to shaping my taste in music. I bought the vinyl on release and I still own it. It is literally worn out.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Roxy Music, Manifesto (1979, Polydor)

Bryan Ferry's forgotten gem setting the template for the 'New Romantic' generation.

Whenever music magazines run their typical Best of British Bands or Top 100 Most Influential singles features, Roxy Music are mentioned as one of the most outstanding bands in British history. Rightly so.

However, reviewers tend to almost exclusively refer to their early 70s period, the 'glam rock' years of their debut album and follow-up For Your Pleasure. Roxy Music then split in 1975 and reformed four years later, but despite their enormous latter day-success, their comeback period is often overlooked or played down as irrelevant.

Manifesto, their 1979 album, is a case in point. Roxy Music may not have been aware, but they were defining a genre, setting the template for the so-called 'new romantic' movement and pointing the direction for many of Roxy's '80s proteges.

Featuring one of the best album covers of all time, the Bryan Ferry and Antony Price-designed club dancefloor full of mannequins looking dapper, sensual and creepily expressionless at once, Manifesto picked up the remains of early 70s glam and added new life by experimenting with soul and disco. When writing about Manifesto, reviewers tend to concentrate on Bryan Ferry's crooning and the band's sophisticated layers as opposed to the raw energy of Roxy's early years yet they don't pick up on how uniquely dark and elegantly claustrophobic Manifesto sounds.

The title itself suggests a band still eager to make a statement within a profoundly changed music scene. The arrival of punk may have run the risk of brushing Roxy aside as obsolete and out of touch. But right from the bold, spectral titletrack, with its dark crescendo drenched in backward sounds and imposing drums, it's quite obvious that Roxy Music are there to leave their mark. The intro provides Ferry with the perfect vehicle for his theatrics, almost like a crowd-teaser as he slowly walks into the limelight, waiting ages until he finally picks up the microphone and unveil his comeback "I am for a life around the corner/ That takes you by surprise".

The eccentric Trash is the closest to early-Roxy you get on Manifesto, with a swirl of odd sounds creating the background to Bryan Ferry's swipe at the latest music fads: "Teenage fever oh you've got it bad/ Caught the flavour want it all/ Only seventeen/ Bet you know the trash I mean". At the other end of the spectrum, the soulful My Little Girl and Still Falls The Rain are delicate yet intense and emotional statements, songs that just could not have been created by any artists other than Roxy Music.

Angel Eyes is Ferry & co. treading on disco territory but with the fascinating result that, no matter which style Roxy are dabbling with, their trademark steely sound still comes on top.

Manifesto climaxes with the hit single Dance Away, a sexy, heartbroken, end-of-the-party ballad where Ferry pours his heart out as he pens one of the most soulful moments in pop: "Loneliness is a crowded room, full of open hearts turned to stone...all together, all alone..." - now you know where the inspiration for the album sleeve came from.

The resigned tone of Spin Me Round is the perfect conclusion. Seductive and elegant, its haunting quality sows the seeds for Ferry's trademark balladry as it became known in the 1980s.

Someone once said that Roxy Music "practically invented the sound of the '80s a decade early": Manifesto is testament to that.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Suede, Suede (1993, Nude)

Suede's crucial contribution in reviving England's ailing music scene and jump-starting Britpop is completely glossed over.

Nothing epitomises the cannibalistic nature of the British music press like the way Suede were treated. While music magazines are still struggling to let go of the 90s and its most celebrated sacred cows (Oasis, Blur and Verve in particular), it is almost universally forgotten that the past decade's musical renaissance was jumpstarted by the rise of Suede.It's important to remember how dreary the UK music scene looked in the early 90s.

Anybody who was a schoolkid back then knows how the music menu resembled a pre-Jamie Oliver school canteen. A binge of American imports for starters (those were the days of grunge and the Seattle scene - along with the back end of hair metal). The rank Madchester scene as a main, a side choice of Neds Atomic Dustbin or Carter USM and a dessert consisting of some atrocious bored-looking indie bands dubbed as "shoegazing scene".

Then in 1992 rumour had it that a brand new band of failed students and Haywards Heath- émigrés who stuck out like a sore thumb were turning a head or two. The initial reviews talked of an electrifying four-piece that was attempting to bring songwriting back to the fore in the guise of a captivating hybrid between Bowie and The Smiths and stage theatrics that only someone aware of being in for the big time would be able to pull off.

By the time their eponymous album came out in 1993, Suede were the talk of the town. Their attention to detail seemed to stem from a different era. Every sleeve and every song told a seductive story, with a musical background that struck a fine balance between Brett Anderson's tormented vocals and Bernard Butler's sublime guitars and arrangements. For the first time since the 1970s, tasteful guitar solos and glam hooks were being brought back into a pop context. Here was a band unashamed of a record collection consisting mainly of Bowie, Roxy Music and Velvet Underground. It was also the first time since The Smiths that someone attempted to channel bed-sit angst into provocative lyrics. Suede wrote snapshots of satellite town dreariness. The press, simply, loved it. "The new Morrissey & Marr" became the cliché tag. Suede went straight to no.1.

So enamoured were the press that they were quite happy to turn a blind eye on some of Suede's most naïve aspects (the irritatingly tinny production or Butler's penchant for overindulging in guitar overdubs), choosing instead to read them as endearing qualities. Whichever angle, the combination worked a treat, allowing Suede to stand out from their peers. The album alternated moments of pure energy with moody, theatrical flashes. The teasing 3-minute trash pop of Metal Mickey or Moving epitomise the band's almost raw energy - almost punkish at times. Animal Nitrate too, the student anthem of 1993, while depicting images of an abusive relationship, was peerless in the way it sneaked in references to council estates and broken homes as well as the political controversy surrounding the age of consent (which, back in the tail-end days of the Tory administration, was causing a real storm). Similarly, debut single The Drowners is the perfect vehicle for Butler's grinding guitar and Anderson's vocals to ride along a contagious rhythm.

Suede's darker, more introspective side was on the display on The Next Life, led by a haunting piano, the nocturnal She's Not Dead or the decadent, almost histrionic Pantomime Horse. Suede ended 1993 as the band to love.

Which is when the UK music press paraded their absolute state of neurosis. By the time Suede's follow-up, Dog Man Star came out in 1994, the band were literally being ripped apart. The very same papers that a few months before couldn't keep Suede out of their front pages were now scorning their "pretentiousness" and ridiculed them as a fake, derivative, whining, irritating bunch. Damon Albarn's mock Cockney accent and sudden love for Chelsea FC was deemed more "authentic" and the Gallaghers family spats much easier on the brain than Brett Anderson's existential dilemmas.

To this date, Suede's crucial contribution in reviving England's ailing music scene and jump-starting Britpop is completely glossed over. As revivals come in waves of fifteen to twenty years, however, expect the tables to be turned.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Sex Pistols, Never Mind The Bollocks (1977, Virgin)

If there's one revolution the Pistols kickstarted, it was the idea that anything shocking - no matter how dumb, vacant, or closer to the lowest common denominator - is going to generate cash.

The Sex Pistols are routinely cited as one of the greatest bands in history, along with their debut (and only) album Never Mind the Bollocks. The truth is the Pistols had nothing to do with music or youth culture. They were simply one of the greatest marketing operations of all time, whose rise to fame was made immensely easier by the shockingly backward state of 1977's society. What better marketing tool, in fact, then headlines everywhere about this ugly, loud, "dangerous" new band that has been banned from the BBC?

But if there's one revolution the Pistols kickstarted, it was the idea that anything shocking - no matter how dumb, vacant, or closer to the lowest common denominator - is going to generate cash, and that's the harvest we're still reaping to this day with gems a-la Pete Doherty or even Jade Goody. Get your name in the paper throughout whatever stunt or nonsense, look wasted, wear the right clothes and wag that oh-so-rebellious finger and half the job's done. Nevermind your music and generation-defining 'pronouncements' are both utter shite. Not many, especially the younger generations, are aware that the Sex Pistols were the first proper 'boy band' to ever make it into the market.

Literally assembled together by Malcolm McLaren (Simon Cowell's true precursor) with the crucial help of fashion designer Vivienne Westwood (and her clothes), the Pistols -in the words of Clash bassist Paul Simonon- "had it all sewn up for them, quite literally", and ended up a glorious coincidence of casting and timing. You had the ginger singer with silly poses and mad eyes, a bassist with good hair that teenage girls would fancy and a couple of other mock-menacing punks in bondage trousers, ripped T-shirts and spiked dog collars. Add some spitting and swearing in a world where David Essex was still considered cool and you get the winning formula. The Sex Pistols were a typical tabloids' wet dream.

Just look at the publicity generated by one of the most hilarious moments in the history of British telly, the Bill Grundy interview in which the affected young clowns make the presenter's job stupidly easy. "Go on, you've got another ten seconds. Say something outrageous." "You dirty bastard". "Go on, again". "You dirty facker! You facking rotta!". If you've got a pet dog at home you may know exactly how it works.

The Pistols had none of the depth of some of their peers. When The Clash or Sham 69 were playing Rock Against Racism, the Pistols were preening around wearing swastikas and society's looks of outrage gave them exactly the attention they were craving for. In the words of McLaren himself: "I thought the fashion was much more important than the music", he said last year.

As you can see, when you talk about the Pistols, music is relegated to the smallprint. To start off, another complete myth about them is that they allegedly invented punk. You find it generally stems from those who've never heard of the Ramones, the New York Dolls and the Stooges. Which was certainly not Malcolm McLaren's case. The cunning man had obvioulsy taken note and understood that, in the UK, that enormous market potential had not yet been fully exploited.

And so, finally, to their songs, all you need to describe them is two words. Piss. And poor.
God Save The Queen is intrinsically linked to the genius picture of Elizabeth II and the safety pin through her nose. If the recording of a fart had been wrapped in that sleeve it'd have sold exactly the same way. The lyrics of Pretty Vacant are the epitome of this general nothingness: "I dont believe illusions cos too much is real/So stop your cheap comment/Cos we know what we feel/Were pretty pretty vacant/Were pretty pretty vay-cunt/And we dont care". Bodies features the career defining refrain "Fuck this and Fuck that" just in case you still harboured any doubts about what a bunch of bad boys the Pistols were. As far as Anarchy In The UK is concerned, it's just a succession of words that rhyme with UK pitched at -yawn- making it as controversial as possible. It makes you chuckle when you think how snug John Lydon looked thirty years later in I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here.

Not to mention the other commonplace about 'raw energy'. The Pistols were positively tame, both lyrically and musically, compared to most of their peers. And they had to be if they were to be the Backstreet Boys of punk and generate piles of wad.

In that respect, they most certainly succeeded.

Friday, 29 August 2008

Pink Floyd, Animals (1977, EMI Harvest)

The press say it's crap. We say it's great.

Pink Floyd are universally acclaimed as one of the Top Bands of all time. Out of all their albums, Dark Side of The Moon and The Wall are generally those held as the most representative bodies of work. And, in fact, they are absolute masterpieces.

1977's Animals, however, is their most underrated. With a sleeve featuring the post industrial desolation of decaying Battersea Power Station as a poignant depiction of 70s Britain, Animals is often slated as too bitter, suffocating and difficult. Instead, it contains some of their edgiest, most stripped-down, innovative and inspired music - adding an extra dimension to their sound.

It has been written that Animals' guitar-laden, raw atmosphere was Pink Floyd's way of winking at punk. But that would be at odds with the fact it contains five tracks only, with some stretching to over 10 minutes which, by punk's standards, would be absolute sacrilege. So, more likely it was Pink Floyd's two fingers at punk - or any fad.

Lyrically, Roger Waters powerfully dissects, regurgitates and develops George Orwell's Animal Farm in the satire of mankind portrayed as dogs, pigs and sheep. As opposed to The Wall and The Final Cut which blend caustic, vitriolic lyrics with a fairly muted and sombre atmosphere, on Animals Waters' anger, cynicism and internal turmoil all lend themselves well to the stifling, hard-edged music.

Part of its charm consists in its extremely moody quality, as it alternates jumpy tempos, brutal stabs and violent guitars with dark, repetitive, claustrophobic sections, along with a haze of electronic experimentation (the use of vocoder and talkbox, for instance, mangling words for extra-choking effect).

Dogs is one of the heaviest tracks in Pink Floyd's career and contains some of David Gilmour's finest and most neurotic guitar work. Waters is spot-on in his savage portrait of capitalism, yuppies' ruthless ambition and the stab-in-the-back ethos of social climbers:

"After a while you can work on points for style/Like the club tie and the firm handshake/A certain look in the eye and an easy smile/You have to be trusted by the people that you lie to /So that when they turn their back on you/You'll have the chance to put the knife in"

Pigs (Three Different Ones) is Waters' critique of stuck-up, out-of-touch authority. Containing some fine keyboards from Rick Wright (indeed, some consider Animals his last tangible contributions to a Floyd album), it sketches three scornful portraits. There's Mary Whitehouse, guard dogs of old British morals and high priest of censorship; the then-Opposition Leader Margaret Thatcher (though her name isn't directly mentioned) and finally then-Prime Minister James Callaghan. Each of them is described as "nearly a laugh...but really a cry". Gilmour's brutal solo as a round-off to Pigs (Three Different Ones) is easily one of his career's best.

The tempo picks up again with Sheep, a scathing depiction of the passive multitudes, the blind followers who are "only faintly aware of a certain unease in the air" when they're ready for capitalistic slaughter. For each accusation of extreme negativity and defeatism, there's the fact that Sheep offers - in typical Floyd fashion- some blunt social and political commentary.

"What do you get for pretending the dangers not real/
Meek and obedient you follow the leader/
Down well trodden corridors into the valley of steel"

Also included is a parody of Psalm 23 and the bollocks of Promised Lands that the masses have been promised since day one while they're queuing for their metaphorical slaughterhouse.

"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me down to lie, Through pastures green, He leadeth me the silent waters by. With bright knives, He releaseth my soul. He maketh me to hang on hooks in high places. He converteth me to lamb cutlets. For lo! He hath great power and great hunger. When cometh the day we lowly ones, Through quiet reflection and great dedication, Master the art of karate, Lo! we shall rise up/ And then we'll make the bugger's eyes water."

Animals is hardly radio-friendly material and the lack of a single makes it even more obvious. It was never likely to emerge as their easiest album to get into. But the fact remains, Pink Floyd were never about MOR and Animals makes some clever and moving statements while the music shows a totally different angle of their most popular works.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Oasis, Definitely Maybe (1994, Creation)

The press say it's great. We say it sucks completely.

Definitely Maybe was an immediate critical success in the UK, becoming the fastest selling debut album of all time, hitting the no.1 spot, as well as regularly being hailed as one of the greatest albums ever. This world's so fucked up that some are even prepared to put it up there with The Beatles, The Stones and Pink Floyd. What a load of Billy Bollocks.

Had it not been for their well-publicised internal feuds, Oasis would now be a footnote in contemporary music. Say, as popular as Northern Uproar. Half of Oasis' publicity came straight from the family tussles between Liam and Noel Gallagher. Right from the get-go, they were involved in constant confrontations, name-calling and walking away from tours. The British press loves all that. What better than a bit of Manc rough? Actually listening to the songs and elaborating a coherent idea from the band's message is too much hassle. Write about the Gallaghers calling each other "wanker", dissing their wives and walking out on each other and copies are sold by the shedload.

Not to mention the bad that Oasis did to British music. Some even claim Oasis killed the musical renaissance known by many as Britpop by injecting industrial doses of lad culture to the scene. In the words of Kele Okoreke, singer of Bloc Party: "Why is it bad to better yourself? It's all about the weird way in which this country chooses to view the working classes. It is really daft to reinforce the idea that there is something cool about being dumb. The idea that your ambitions shouldn’t extend beyond getting pissed and watching the football really irks me. It's the idea that to be authentically working class you need to be untainted by the airy-fairy ephemera of education".

Nothing better came to epitomise the posture of "hip stupidity" than the phenomenal rise to stardom of pop group Oasis. In his book Everything, pop critic Simon Price described the Manchester band as "amusingly stereotypical oiks or belligerent beer boys, "anti-education, anti-intelligence […] pro-getting wasted. Oasis was a worst case scenario, lowest-common-denominator cliché of what the working classes can be, encouraged by a southern bourgeois media clearly aroused by a northern bit of rough".

It's not a question of music taste. Nor is anyone advocating the idea that bands should sing about post-modernism or harbour intellectual delusions. The fact remains Oasis played thicker-than-they-actually-are, cranked it up and proudly wagged their fingers. It worked. It sold in shed loads.

In his book The Last Party, John Harris elucidates the "bottom line" nature of Oasis. The more they sneered at anything they'd label 'arty-farty', the stronger their proletarian credentials. In the words of guitarist Noel Gallagher, the explanation was straightforward: "We're not preaching about Ye Olde England or how it was in the 60s. We're not preaching about our sexuality, we're not telling kids how to act. You want to write about shagging and taking drugs and being in a band…It's just about a feeling, you just get up and play it".

In the otherwise dreary film Live Forever (John Dower, 2003), a documentary about the Britpop years, singer Liam Gallagher's dense postures are quite possibly the film's only laugh-out-loud lease of life. Asked to comment on his "androgynous appeal", the swaggering singer repeated retort is "what's that mean?" The word, androgynous, is just too long and the temptation to brag ignorance, so cool, is just impossible to fend off.

I asked Simon Price why Oasis' calculated posture proved so popular amongst kids in the first place. The phrase 'lowest common denominator' came back in. "There's a certain kind of person who doesn’t feel alive unless they're bonding with thousands of others" he told me, "and the thing that bond them are necessarily the most basic. They will happily strip away the trappings of erudition, education and civilisation and reduce themselves to slouching, shouting, pissing, drinking, fighting, shagging beasts as long as it means they are not alone".

As for the music, the only tracks that stand the test of time are Live Forever and Rock'n'Roll Star. Much has been written about these two songs, but it's certainly true that they combined raw power, great melodies and lyrics effective enough to catch some people's imagination. However, the album contains 9 other tracks and the word "samey" doesn't go far enough to describe the dreariness of this "masterpiece". To make matters worse, Oasis' subsequent five studio albums followed exactly the same template: distorted guitars, lyrics about hedonism, a singing 'style' so bored it'd make you feel as if Liam was doing you a favour to be standing in front of the mic, and even lazier chord structures. Well into the 21st century and Oasis were still selling their new albums off the back of Definitely Maybe, which in turn had sold off the back of tabloid-friendly fisticuffs.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Morrissey, "Vauxhall And I" (1994, Parlophone)

The press ignores it? We think it's a masterpiece

Like him or not, Morrissey is one of the most dissected living artists in Britain. Too often, however, critics bypass Morrissey's peak as a solo artist, 1994's Vauxhall And I. They would go on about his successful solo debut Viva Hate or the slump of Kill Uncle, the immigration controversy years and the triumphant come back of 2004. But, amazingly, Vauxhall And I is treated like a mere footnote in his career.

Instead it should be considered his most triumphant of comebacks. In 1992-93, Britain had decided that Morrissey had lost it. Emerging from a barrage of criticism after the infamous Finsbury Park incident of 1992, a few dubious interviews and a string of personal losses that included legendary producer Mark Ronson, Morrissey proved all his critics wrong.

Vauxhall and I is his superb response. The album (the title itself a tribute to seminal 80s film "Withnail and I"), is defined by a sombre mood in its entirety, an exercise in perfect arrangements, acoustic atmospheres and the notion that 'less is more'.

Morrissey's most devoted fans would tell you about the remorseful Used to Be A Sweet Boy ; the subdued self-therapy of Now My Heart Is Full ("there's gonna be some trouble/ a whole house will need rebuilding/ and everyone I love in the house/ is reclined on an analyst's couch quite soon") containing one of the last literary references of his career (Brighton Rock's Dallow, Spicer, Pinkie and Cubit); the gently sinister atmosphere of Lifeguard Sleeping, Girl Drowning; and the tender resignation of Why Don't You Find Out For Yourself.

If Morrissey's current state of form leaves a lot to be desired, there's no need to hark back to his Smiths days. Vauxhall And I is possibly the most mature work of his career. And without the slightest inclination to sell out.