Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Queen Is Dead - The Smiths

Attacking the British monarchy through vinyl was nothing new when The Smiths released their third studio album in 1986. Less than a decade previously an Irish immigrant's son had sarcastically snarled “God Save The Queen” as part of the Sex Pistols' assault on British culture. Yet even Johnny Rotten's most daring barbs at the House of Windsor fell short in shock value to Morrissey's tale of breaking in to the palace and confronting the Queen “with a sponge and a rusty spanner”.

The Queen Is Dead captures The Smiths at their creative best. Morrissey and Marr are documented as saying they believe Strangeways Here We Come is their best work, while there's also a good argument to be made for the Hatful Of Hollow compilation, but for me the band at no other time achieved the kind of consistency throughout a group of songs as the ten offerings on The Queen Is Dead.

Beginning with a segment from a bawdy sing-a-long of “Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty” taken from the 1962 film The L-Shaped room – a film which influenced much of Morrissey's work – the boozy nostalgia gives way to piercing feedback, a shudder of wah, and a menacing tribal beat; a cymbal swell, and disorientating spectral voices before The Smiths launch into the most aggressive track in their canon. Andy Rourke's bass propulses with relentless gnawing tension while Johnny Marr slashes agitated rhythms deep in to the track. Morrissey's lyrics launch pointed blows on the monarchy, and cultural bastions beyond, deriding “the pubs that wreck your body and the church all they want is your money”.

A theme of isolation threads the album as Morrissey mourns his status as a misfit in a culture he feels no connection to. “Life is so lonely on a limb”, “Life is very long when you're lonely” he declares in the opening track.

Frankly, Mr.Shankly is an unexpected change of direction after such a bracing opener. It would be a relatively flimsy effort were it not for the redemption of Morrissey's lyrical wit. The rich sense of humour which characterizes his writing is often overlooked by critics of the band, but if you're not tickled by a line such as “I'd like to catch something that I might be ashamed of” then The Smiths are never going to float your boat.

The Smiths are no strangers to litigation and the release of this album was delayed by six months due to contractual wrangles between the band and their record label, Rough Trade. They had been unhappy with Rough Trade for a while, and it has been reported that Frankly, Mr Shankly is a dig at label boss Geoff Travis.

Musically there is a template in the rhythm of the Frankly, Mr Shankly verses which Johnny Marr returned to for the opening of Girlfriend In A Coma on the Strangeways Here We Come album.

Track three on the album is one of the band's career high points. There is no irony, innuendo or playfulness in the lyrics of I Know Its Over. This is a song of bald fear, suffering and ardour - again at being the outcast. Wit, charm and beauty are more burden than gift without a stage to showcase them. The despair of this circumstance leaves Morrissey helplessly calling for his mother as the accompaniment builds from a sparse rim shot arrangement to a crescendo of drum fills and melodies rich in empathy.

The Smiths general writing arrangement was that Johnny Marr wrote the music and made instrumental recordings for Morrissey. The singer would then set to work on words, melody and phrasing. A consequence of this arrangement was that neither Marr, the rest of the band, nor engineer Stephen Street knew what to expect once Morrissey stepped in to the recording booth. With the red button pressed to record, only Morrissey knew what was to come with I Know Its Over. It's a moment that both Marr and Street have fondly remembered in a number of interviews. Marr was feeling under pressure at the time to deliver a brilliant album, and with Morrissey's performance on this track he knew they were a lot closer to their goal.

Never Had No One Ever presents Morrissey at his most self pitying. He has stated in interviews that the song is rooted in him growing up in Manchester as the son of an immigrant and feeling no connection to his surroundings or peers. The bass line plods weary tentative steps, looking apprehensively over your shoulder on dark sinister streets. The spectral voices heard in the album's opening track return here and add to the ominous atmosphere of alienation and menace.

Marr's lead guitar tone over each refrain is a deep rockabilly twang evoking the tension of spaghetti western stand-offs. This versatile guitar sound has amusingly also helped make hit records with songs as diametrically opposed to this as Ricky Martin's 'La Vida Loca' and Britney Spears' 'Toxic'.

Sobs and wails colour a hopelessly unsettling fade to the track. The effect is uncannily reminiscent of the fade out on Suffer Little Children from The Smiths first album; though here the chilling laughter of child murderers is replaced by the acheing groans of depressive solitude.

Cemetry Gates and Vicar In A Tutu both find Morrissey in a playful mood and cast some slivers of light between the prevailing mood of darkness. Perhaps only in The Smiths catalogue could a song with a title like Cemetry Gates be considered a light number. Morrissey was frequently criticized by the music press for borrowing too deeply from his pool of influences - the works of playwright Shelagh Delaney had coloured many of his lyrics, with the "I dream't about you last night, and I fell out of bed twice" line in Reel Around The Fountain a direct lift from her play "A Taste Of Honey". As Morrissey points out: "There's always someone somewhere with a big nose who knows" so his advice now is "don't plaguerize or take on loan" while he plays a game of literary Top Trumps between the cemetry headstones. Morrissey wins the game on account of Oscar Wilde being on his side - seemingly the trump to trump them all.

Some of the money that we were told the church was keen to separate us from in The Queen Is Dead has made its way in to the cannister of parish do-gooder Rose. All seems normal in this parochial scene until a transvestite vicar shocks all gathered by sliding down the bannister wearing a tutu. Morrissey finds a kindred spirit in the vicar, excusing his improbable behaviour on the grounds that "the fabric of a tutu, any man could get used to, and I am a living sign".

Marr works off some of his favourite rockabilly riffs in this track, there's a Beatles For Sale era George Harrison tone to much of the playing. The guitars on songs such as I Don't Want To Spoil The Party and Honey Don't can be heard as an influence here, while Words Of Love the Buddy Holly song on the same Beatles album is an obvious precursor to the jangly style which Marr is most associated with.

The tracks from the album released as singles were Big Mouth Strikes Again and The Boy With The Thorn In His Side. Both are excellent efforts. There is a vibrant and energtic quality to Big Mouth that the band seldom matched. Johnny Marr has spoken of his idea that this song should carry some of the attitude of The Rolling Stones' Jumping Jack Flash, and he certainly achieved in delivering that type of feel. The guitar riff built around a three chord sequence is a deal more complicated than a generic Stones lick but it is every bit as memorable and effective.

The strange voices which are interspersed across the album are most prominent on Big Mouth Strikes Again, where a helium backing vocal is very noticeable in the mix. Credited in the sleeve notes as backing vocals by "Ann Coates", this is Morrissey's voice played through an AMS harmoniser with a pitch shift which Stephen Street was enamoured with at the time. It's not an effect that has dated terribly well, but the song is much too good to be spoiled by this over-egging. The Ann Coates reference is a bit of wordplay on Ancoats, an area of Manchester. 

There Is A Light That Never Goes Out is one of the most popular songs The Smiths ever recorded. It topped John Peel's songs of the year list in 1986 and has endured a multitude of cover versions. However it was only released as a single in 1992, some five years after the band split up. The song is ultimately one of hope though I always connect the song to my father shouting ''turn that depressing bastard off'' whenever the ''10 tonne truck'' part was sung. Morrissey's acceptance of death is casual, bordering on comical. 

The song's account of being gripped by a "strange fear" when presented with a long yearned for opportunity is probably the most evocative line Morrissey has ever written.
Short of budget and not keen on having non-Smiths in the studio, Marr used an emulator for the string section in the song and credited them as "The Hated Salford Ensemble" - perhaps joking at the band photo taken outside the Salford Lads Club inside the gatefold LP, or perhaps acknowledging the fact that Morrissey wasn't keen on the idea.

The album concludes with Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others, amidst a wash of sparkly hypnotic arpeggios that conjures an unlikely comparison to Jon and Vangelis syrupy hit of 1981 “I'll Find My Way Home”.

The spacious chiming arrangement of guitars infuses the track with a mystical quality and Marr considered it a standout effort - instrumentally. There are stories of the guitarist being less than pleased with the frivolous lyric delivered by Morrissey to complete the number. At play is an element of the Carry On films much loved by Morrissey with their hallmark of mucky double entendre. Whatever meaning the listener confers upon the lyrics is merely a reflection of their own thoughts, and so the Carry On team gloriously evaded the snip of the censor everytime, and Morrissey repeats the trick here. The Cleopatra reference is the giveaway to the Carry On homage, while the ''ooohh I say!” line could have been delivered by Kenneth Williams himself.

One minor gripe with what is one of the strongest musical arrangements the band accomplished, is the song's double fade in. It must have seemed a very good idea at the time for the music to fade in, then out, and then back in once more in a matter of 15 seconds but it sounds ill-judged and clunky now. Apparently the idea was that it would sound like listening to the song in different rooms – the first fade is saturated in a reverb that is absent when the song returns. Perhaps its a case of Marr and Stephen Street being a little too clever; or maybe they were just reminding us that they were but men, not gods.

All of The Smiths albums have something special to offer. Their relatively thin output of four studio albums plus a few compilations counts against them in the all time rankings of great bands, but if the quantity was lacking, the quality certainly wasn't. If you haven't found your way in to The Smiths yet, then The Queen Is Dead is probably the best place to start.
Derek Jarman made a short film including two of the tracks from this album, below is The Queen Is Dead section...enjoy:

Track Listing:
1. The Queen Is Dead
2. Frankly, Mr Shankly
3. I Know Its Over
4. Never Had No One Ever
5. Cemetry Gates
6. Big Mouth Strikes Again
7. The Boy With The Thorn In His Side
8. Vicar In A Tutu
9. There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
10. Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others

The Smiths are:
Andy Rourke: The Bass Guitar
Morrissey: Voice
Johnny Marr: Guitars
Mike Joyce: The Drums

All words by Morrissey
All music by Johnny Marr

Produced by Morrissey and Marr
Engineered by Stephen Street

Recorded in England, Winter 1985

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Modern Life Is Rubbish - Blur

The investment that facilitates the professional production and promotion of new art is seldom the fruit of philantropy. For every De Medici, Guggenheim and Carnegie there is a small nation of opportunists, entrepreneurs and hardnosed shake down merchants that will attempt to bleed an artist to the marrow in the hope of transforming creativity to a more tangible asset.

Countless are the cautionary tales of young bands who signed to record labels, enjoyed the first fumes of success that they dreamed of, but soon found themselves entrenched in acrimonious squabbling with the money men.

In a post ''She Loves You'' Britain every guitar band with a modicum of talent - or a pretty singer - was swiftly mop-topped and sent for a suit fitting. The Beatles were the big fish, but there was still plenty of opportunity to shift units in their slipstream.

The piggyback-the-fashion strategy has worked out marvellously for many acts through the history of popular music. You can only admire the gall of a group as influenced by 60's music - and particularly The Doors - as The Stranglers to succeed in passing themselves off as a punk band when that was what was required for them to find an audience. The jangly psychedelia that inspired them to play gave way to power chords and overdrive pedals. Subtlety run out of town by bombast, but that's revolution for you. 

If you were playing in a guitar band as the decade flipped from 80's to 90's you may have got away with a mid 60's Rubber Soul haircut but the focus of attention had switched between north of England towns. Manchester was now where it was at. The look was baggy. The signature beat a hypnotic shuffle.

The scene arguably peaked not far past its dawn with The Stone Roses debut album, but still there was chart success to be found in the trusted piggyback. The Mock Turtles, The Soup Dragons and the cynically contrived cover of Dizzy by The Wonderstuff and Vic Reeves all pleased the bean counters with their chart entries.

Against this backdrop, in the south of England somebody was drawing a hump on a thoroughbred's back and calling it a camel.

Finding themselves with a young guitar band at their disposal Food Records, a small record company set up by former Teadrop Explodes keyboardist, Dave Balfe, and distributed through EMI, set about turning Blur in to big players in the lucrative baggy scene.

The result was the 1991 album, "Leisure". But the party was already winding down in Manchester, and aside from the promising single "There's No Other Way", the southerners sounding like northerners made little significant impact on the mainstream. Unlike many bands who largely failed in their attempt to ride the piggy, Blur got a second bite at the cherry. This time they would step out of the slipstream and face the headwind.

Modern Life Is Rubbish is neither Blur's most acclaimed or successful album. It is however among the most brilliant albums of its time and shows how a band standing on the abyss of debt, inertia and mediocrity played an ace that kept them in the game long enough to become principals of Britpop in the years to come.

The improvement between Blur's first two albums is astonishing. The inane repeated rhymes of 'say/play/day' which undermine Leisure had been consigned to the dustbin in Blur's only release of 1992, the single-only release Popscene. The track was a commercial failure but it undoubtedly serves as the overture to the Modern Life Is Rubbish album, and with hindsight should have found a spot on the album.

Damon Albarn began to write in a more observational way, channeling a particularly British form of songwriting guided by the footprints of Ray Davies, Steve Marriott, Syd Barrett and Paul Weller among others. He wrote his first 'character song' worthy of album inclusion with 'Colin Zeal', in the tradition of 'David Watts', and 'Arnold Layne'. This was to become a significant feature of Albarn's songs over the Britpop years with futher efforts in this vein such as 'Tracy Jacks', 'Jubilee', 'Ernold Same' and of course the eponomously anagrammed 'Dan Abnormal'. There were some earlier ventures into character songs with 'Mr Briggs' and 'Badgeman Brown' but neither were deemed of sufficient quality to be anything but B-Sides, and were probably too Barrettesque to be credible.

He wrote about London, with namechecks in 'For Tomorrow' and 'Blue Jeans'. There was also the first mention of America in a song title, with the woozy hangover paean 'Miss America'. This again was the first shapings of a pattern that would be repeated with 'Magic America' on Parklife and 'Look Inside America' on the 'Blur' album. It's perhaps more habit than obsession that sees Albarn include America in song titles in unusual proportion. Most feasible is that he finds a comfortable rhythmical musicality with the word 'America' rather than having any lingering preoccupation with the nation.

The scope of the album's music is rich and varied. Acoustic guitars were about as welcome as a Hacienda drug-bust in the 'Madchester' scene. The reverse reverb opening Modern Life Is Rubbish can be heard as a bracing inhalation before Graham Coxon's sparkly acoustic delivers four broad staccato blows to the dying horse of baggy. And so begins the critique of early 90's Britain.

Modern life is panned and a young couple, cold, and despairing of the bleakness of London's shared isolation hold on 'For Tomorrow'. The sighing Duke String Quartet add to an arrangement that is alien for its time when Seattle grunge is becoming the fashion of the moment. Chirpy la la la backing vocals counterpoint descriptions of freezing toes, disorientation and nausea. Coxon's electric guitar is cleaner and more melodic than at any time on 'Leisure'. The rhythm pattern he uses in the verses of this opening track is perhaps a signpost towards his later playing on Parklife's 'To The End'.

The frustrating circular inanity of TV advertisements are the next aspect of modern life to be given both barrells in 'Advert'. The 'Food processers are great' intro is a grab from The Shopping Channel. Exasperated at the relentless pushing of products and panaceas ranging from holidays to painkillers, Albarn screams 'Say something else'. Symptomatic of the numbing of thought brought on by exposure to pressure selling, the band bypass the opportunity to deliver a middle eight, change section or solo and fill the gap by counting out 16 uninformative bars of punked A to G.

Competing with 'For Tomorrow' as the album's killer track is the brilliant 'Chemical World'. This song is college-pop perfection. The stop-start intro demands immediate attention from the listener. Following in the album's running order from the laconic and pensive 'Blue Jeans', it's the kind of unexpected blast that triggers the 'turn-it-down' reflex in unenthusiastic parents, partners and flatmates. Those who turn it down will know not enough of this world on their deathbeds. As the intro decays, Coxon steps into the cadence with a magnificent flanging melody in the pitch of a tenor ice-cream van counterpointing the monotone call, and bouncy response vocal throughout the verses.

The chorus too is charged by the melody of the guitar. The vocal carries the melancholy weariness and dull pitch that is often characteristic of Albarn, and brings to mind The Specials' frontman Terry Hall of whom Albarn is a big fan. It demands every bit of Coxon's invention, and he delivers in spades with some of the most imaginative and melodic playing of his career. His line is allowed an extended airing through the coda; these moments are the zenith of Blur.

Having delivered their finest melodic work in the opening tracks of the album, Blur immediately veer away from anything that might be considered a predictable closer to side one of the album. Instead they indulge themselves in a piece of anarchic instrumental vaudeville that merges German musichall piano with howls of feedback and reckless acceleration. There's little regard for the ears of the audience, or intent to shift units as the ghost of a past incarnation, 'Seymour', possesses 'Intermission'. It's not a track for the ipod generation. On its own 'Intermission' means nothing. In the context of the Blur story and this album in particular, it makes perfect sense.

The bulk of Blur's trump cards are played on side one of the album, but there are a few excellent tracks on the flipside.

The overt Britishness of the band's music takes centre stage on 'Sunday, Sunday' with references to the BBC's weekly worship hymn-a-long 'Songs of Praise', a war veteran nostalgic for 'old' England and talk of Sunday roasts - not unlike the one featured in the 'There's No Other Way' video. Perhaps feeling that their enthusiastic satire of an English Sunday afternoon would be lost on their audience, the album's sleevenotes define beneath the track title: 'Legislated nostaligia: to force a body of people to have memories they do not actually possess'.

'Oily Water' sees Albarn deliver his vocal through a 'Shopping Precinct Tannoy', drummer Dave Rowntree beats a jarring downtempo rhythm that rises to a wild crescendo against a backdrop of screeching and white noise. Coxon frequently cited 'My Bloody Valentine' as an influence and Kevin Shields' trademark layers of grinding distortion can be heard here.

The album's weak spot is 'Turn It Up'. Albarn has been quoted saying it was a mistake to include this song on the album, and he's not wrong. Apparently he, and the band, were overruled by Food Records boss Dave Balfe who (incorrectly) believed the American market might bite at the song. There were certainly better songs from the time left off the album that ended up as B-Sides such as 'Into Another' and 'Peach', or as mentioned earlier the single release, 'Popscene'. That being said, 14 tracks - excluding 'Intermission' and 'Commerical Break' with only one dud certainly offers value for money.   

'Villa Rosie' is a track that deserves a special mention. Presumably a homage to some manner of a bordello or gentleman's club, the lines of its verses climb through a scale to peak with a 'woo-hoo' and repeat the pattern before bursting in to one of the most melodic choruses in the band's entire catalogue. Again Coxon is in top form and his playing in both the choruses and also the similar guitar break is heavily stamped by his signature technique of morphing the rhythm guitar's chord sequence in to bursts of lead playing.

The album closes with a reprise of the 'Intermission' idea of unwelcome interruptions with an escalating angry ridicule of elevator music in 'Commercial Break'.

'Concept album' is a maligned phrase conjuring images of self indulgent cape-wearing prog-rockers, but there is undoubtedly a consistent vision throughout 'Modern Life Is Rubbish'. A commonality of themes, sounds and subject matter delivers one of the most coherent, inventive, colourful and clever albums of the 1990's.

There is a school of thought - though its students may be few - that had Blur released this album after 'Parklife' it would be widely regarded as their most important album, and an all-time classic.

Track Listing:
  1. For Tomorrow
  2. Advert
  3. Colin Zeal 
  4. Pressure on Julian
  5. Starshaped
  6. Blue Jeans
  7. Chemical World
  8. Sunday, Sunday
  9. Oily Water
  10. Miss America
  11. Villa Rosie
  12. Coping
  13. Turn It Up
  14. Resigned
    Commercial Break
All songs written by Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon, Alex James and Dave Rowntree

Vocals and Keyboards: Damon Albarn
Guitar: Graham Coxon
Bass: Alex James
Drums: Dave Rowntree
Producers: Stephen Street, Steve Lovell, Blur, John Smith

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Ocean Rain - Echo & The Bunnymen

The fickle scales which balance talent against recognition treated Echo and The Bunnymen with an uncommon cruelty. Musically, they had it all but somehow never reached the commercial heights of the big hitters throughout the 1980s. 

The brand of guitar-driven post-punk they presented with their debut album Crocodiles, four years prior to Ocean Rain, carried a menace that by this album had been tempered by their growing mastery of melody and arrangement. Clearly their ears were wide open to the music of their 1960’s childhoods in Liverpool as well as David Bowie's finest moments of the 70's.  By the time they recorded this, their fourth studio album, the four piece had reached their pinnacle. 

Ocean Rain was released in May 1984 to claims of being the 'greatest album ever made'. Thankfully more thought went in to the album's music than its promotional strategy. Even hard core Bunnymen fans will acknowledge that there is some case of overselling to be answered, however it is the Bunnymen's best effort, and indeed one of the best albums of that decade. 

Crocodiles is also essential listening, though it doesn’t have the same poise or consideration in arrangement as this nine track masterpiece - nor being a debut release did it have the budget.

Orchestral strings feature heavily throughout this work, as they had done since The Cutter launched their Porcupine album the previous year. Crocodiles featured no strings whatsoever, while the vast majority of tracks on Ocean Rain carry a prominent string section (My Kingdom and Thorn Of Crowns the exceptions), making the contrast between the band's two most acclaimed albums all the more pronounced. Rather than aggressively driving every track, Will Sergeant's guitar now jangles and grinds its way between the melodic spaces allowed by the bowsmiths.

Sergeant is one of the master guitarists of his era. His playing throughout Ocean Rain frequently reveals a tasteful leaning towards eastern music, notably the guitar breaks of Silver, Killing Moon and Thorn of Crowns. His lead passages are invariably relevant, modest and effective.

There is a sense of epic cinema about the entire album. The strings in the album’s second track, Nocturnal Me wouldn’t be out of place in a remake of Lawrence of Arabia, while lyrically the album calls on imagery of seas, oceans, hurricanes and ‘My Kingdom’.

Admittedly many of Ian McCulloch’s lyrics though magnificently delivered, are inscrutable, with little continuity from verse to verse in several songs. The tone conjured by his choice of words is relentlessly brooding, dark and ominous, with precedence given to atmosphere and mood over narrative. 

Killing Moon is perhaps the best known track on the album and maybe even the best known of all the Bunnymen's catalogue. It reached number nine in the UK charts and still gets occasional mainstream - and plenty of indie - airplay. It is a solemn and mysterious tune, the scene of unease set within Sergeant's first few picked notes. McCulloch's dark lyrics alluding to a romantic sacrifice could have been penned by Edgar Allen Poe. It is a gothic triumph, eerily punctuated with atmospheric shrieks and scrapes from the cellos and dissonant piano. 

The track which gives the album its name is probably the most considered recording the band ever produced. Its delicate treatment and beautifully controlled escalation throughout its five minutes shows a group at the very top of their game. Starting with slow pendular bass notes, McCulloch's deep, reverberating vocal sounds as if its being delivered from the fragile rowboat slowly navigating the otherworldly cavelake on the album cover.  

A brilliant moment comes as the song moves in to its fourth minute. The rich string arrangement is starting to move through the gears towards its climax as the refrain begins again "I'm at sea again, and now my hurricanes have brought down this ocean rain". The strings - for the only time in the song - ring out a falling slide that makes the feeling of resignation in torrential rain magically vivid. A magnificent closer to a monumental album.

Track Listing:
  1. Silver
  2. Nocturnal Me
  3. Crystal Days
  4. The Yo Yo Man
  5. Thorn of Crowns 
  6. The Killing Moon
  7. Seven Seas
  8. My Kingdom
  9. Ocean Rain
Vocals: Ian McCulloch
Guitar: Will Sergeant
Bass: Les Pattinson
Drums: Pete De Frietas
Producers: Gil Norton, Henri Lonstan and Echo & The Bunnymen
Orchestral Arrangements: Adam Peters