Tired but wiser for the time… Five From: The Black Crowes

This blog has, somewhat sporadically at times I’ll admit, been in service now for close to seven and a half years.

In that time I’ve mentioned The Black Crowes three times and only one of those was accompanied with an actual song. Shocking considering I really dig this band. I should say ‘dug’ really because despite reuniting in 2006, after a five year hiatus, to critical acclaim the band are listed as ‘were an American rock band’…  With a turbulent history and many a lineup change, in 2015 guitarist Rich Robinson issued a statement: “I love my brother and respect his talent, but his present demand that I must give up my equal share of the band and that our drummer for 28 years and original partner, Steve Gorman, relinquish 100 percent of his share, reducing him to a salaried employee, is not something I could agree to.”

Looked like curtains…. until now. 30 years on from their debut it looks like a reunion is on the cards with show posters for 2020 announcing that Shake Your Money Maker will be played in its entirety “plus all the hits”.

For me this is great news – whether it’s the lure of moolah or simply having settled differences, it’s good to think that the band are a going concern again. They were one of the first bands I saw live – supporting Aerosmith while they (the Crowes) toured their fifth album By Your Side at Wembley Stadium- and they were fucking awesome live. Singer Chris Robinson played the festival out behind my house this summer, on a weekend afternoon…. I heard part of it as I walked past and hearing ‘Remedy’ played as a tag on an another song as part of an 8 song set in a tent in a field in Kent….. the band needed to get back together.

So, here are five from The Black Crowes that I really enjoy and hope feature on future setlists:

Thick N’ Thin

Man… Shake Your Money Maker is a slab of great from start to finish. ‘Hard To Handle’ got em on MTV but ‘She Talks To Angels’, ‘Jealous Again’, ‘Twice as Hard’… this guys were here to blow the bloody roof off with riffs and bluesy swagger to spare. ‘Thick N’ Thin’ is the shortest track on the album and is just a real fun blast.

Remedy

Second album The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion upped the blues and soul at the same time… new guitarist Marc Ford and keyboard player Eddie Harsch rounding out the sound as it leaned in a more bluesy, mature direction… and topped the charts too.

Wiser Time

The one with the pubes… I really liked Amorica. Rolling Stones’ review (pilfered from Wikipedia)  sums it up nicely “”The Crowes haven’t ceased their cocky pillaging of the universal jukebox – echoes of the Stones and Led Zep abound.” I love ‘Wiser Time’… from the opening riff and hook to the breakdown that starts about minute three, takes in some guitar soloing, some soulful keys and then a real ripper of another guitar lead…

Kickin’ My Heart Around

By Your Side was the first Black Crowes album I bought. While not as consistent or rich as Southern Harmony… or Amorica it’s a step up from Three Snakes And One Charm (which seemed like, in reaction to the disgust at that album’s pubes – which meant some stores refused to stock it – they made the same album again without the tunes). It’s closer to Shake Your Money Maker and is still worth a listen.

She Talks To Angels

Speaking of the debut… here’s another standout from that, taking a breather from the blues rock attack and proving they could handle a ballad just as well.

I haven’t spent much time with the two albums the band put out between their 2006 reunion and 2013 return to hiatus – and demise… perhaps now is as good a time as any.

Pages Turned

It occurs to me that, as we head into the final quarter of the year, I haven’t really talked much about what I’ve been reading this year outside of the larger reviews.

While I set myself a target of 40 books again this year (currently reading number 31), I really wanted to get a specific couple of books off of the ‘to read’ list and absorbed, I think I’ve done that.

First such book on the wish list was finishing James Ellroy’s LA Quartet. White Jazz differs somewhat from its predecessors as it’s very much a single-thread narrative in the style of Black Dahlia. Massively rewarding and full of Ellroy guts and power as Lieutenant David Klein unravels the biggest of puzzles – some real heavy stuff even for Ellroy. I loved every fucking page of this book and the entirety of the LA Quartet. I find it strange to think it came out in 1992 – Ellroy’s take on late 50’s LA is so vital. It also introduced Pete Bondurant who is one of main narratives in American Tabloid – which was another tick on the list as I wanted to go from the LA Quartet to Ellroy’s Underwold USA Trilogy. American Tabloid makes a smooth transition from the LA focus to a fuller, corrupt take on American History (with a fair few artistic licenses) right up to the gun shots in Texas. I’d like to get to The Cold Six Thousand but there’s a few more on the list first..

Another tick on my reading goals for the year was to catch up with Arkady Renko – the Russian detective from Gorky Park, one of my favourite historical fiction / thrillers. Took a while to find – not often kept in stock new and I went the ebay route for a used copy – but worth it; Polar Star takes place pretty much completely at sea. Renko is basically in exile and hiding from the state and finds himself thrust into solving a murder  on board a fish processing ship in the Bering Sea. I really have a thing for this cold war stuff and Martin Cruz Smith does a faultless job of making a thriller a literary work and combining a genuine mystery with enough genuine historical and political framing to tick all my boxes.

Speaking of historical references… I’ve fancied reading Maus for longer than I can remember not wanting to.  My wife has a copy of it but my reading of French isn’t up to it so I was happy to pick up an English version at a good price not too long ago. I don’t usually get on with the graphic novel thing but this one is staggering in both its power and its honesty. Well worthy of the acclaim it still receives and an important read.

I also picked up with that bloke called Reacher again but The Midnight Line didn’t really do it for me. Much like Personal it almost feels like Child is treading water here, the formula isn’t anything new and there’s no real stakes here – just ticking the boxes: Reacher gets intrigued about something, follows a trial, cracks a few skulls, things still make no sense, cracks a few more, solves a minor riddle, goes on his way.  A couple of years ago I enthused about All The Light You Cannot See by Anthoy Doerr… I still do; it’s a great book. I’d had his About Grace on the shelf for a while and finally go to it at the tail end of summer. It’s… not bad. There’s a couple of really good chunks in there but it’s not on the same level.

A few years further back I similarly enthused about Louis De Bernieres’ The Dust That Falls From Dreams,  the first in a planned trilogy. I read the second this year: So Much Life Left OverA little more focused in terms of characters, predominantly following the arc of Rosie and Daniel’s life, this slightly slimmer book is no less grand in terms of its reach or impact. De Bernieres one of those few writers with the ability to genuinely hit every emotion in the space of a few chapters. It takes a little adjusting each time as De Bernieres’ previous trilogy and novels took place in more exotic and poetic locations than this series but I really look forward to the final novel which will probably be no earlier than late 2020 at my guess.

Non-fiction wise there’s only been two hits on the list, one of which – Mark Blake’s Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd – has already been touched on. The other was a reread of one of my favourite non-fiction books: Herbert A. Werner’s Iron Coffins: A U-Boart Commander’s War, 1939-1945 which I’d first read some ten years ago, lent out and never got back. I managed to find a copy at a recent air show and it’s always worth reading and will no doubt feature in an upcoming Top Ten Non-Fiction post.

This seems like a good place to leave it for now… back to that Springsteen series.

 

Musical words…. A Top Ten Music Book List

Alrighty, lets see about combing the two usual focuses of this blog into one post –  music and books, books about music.

A good book about music or musicians isn’t as common as you’d think. There are shit loads of duffers out there – poorly researched and badly written fluff pieces. Some musicians who you’d expect a really good book out of tend to spend more time talking about their model railway collection than about the making of After The Gold Rush and some make it a little too obvious that they have an ulterior motive in a book release other than just a memoir – Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band, for example.

But, there are some bloody belters out there and there’s a reason that a good chunk of my library is given over to a ‘music’ section. I’m sticking close to this blog’s wheelhouse here, obviously, but honourable mentions should go to The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross and Peter Doggett’s There’s a Riot Going on: Revolutionaries, Rock Stars, and the Rise and Fall of 60s Counter-culture.

In no particular order, then, are my ten favourite music biogs / auto-biogs / books etc…

Pearl Jam – Twenty

Put out as part of the celebrations surrounding the band’s twentieth anniversary – the clue is in the title – which included a Cameron Crowe helmed documentary, CD, live album, two-day festival and short tour… Pearl Jam Twenty is a year-by-year oral history of the band’s career. Stuffed to the bindings with imagery and photos, this is as intimate and candid as you’ll get for Pearl Jam, notoriously shy of publicity and exceedingly unlikely to offer anything resembling an official biography. There’s a wealth of humour and details in here given the format and it’s fuelled many a post on this blog and every time I open it up to refresh my memory I end up absorbed again.

Keith Richards – Life

Did you know Mick Jagger started an autobiography? Sometime in the 80’s – presumably during the lull in Stones activity, he got quite far with his book but promptly forgot about it – when he was later approached by a publisher he could neither remember writing it or let it be published. Somehow, Keith Richards remembered even more and not only finished but published his autobiography, Life. Could have been something to do with the publisher giving an advance of $7m based on a short extract, but Life is an essential read for even a minor Stones fan like me. Yes there’s the thrills and vicarious spirit of rock ‘n’ roll excess – but it’s his honesty and unflinching and everlasting love for music that really comes across, you understand how he became known as the human riff. Worth following up with the Netflix doc on Keith too if you’re in the mood.

Mark Yarm – Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge

This book is, frankly, immense. In its scope, its telling and impact. Just reading it you can feel how much work and love has gone into this telling of the Seattle music scene – from its origins to its current status. The highs (both natural and chemical) and lows – some of which are pretty fucking dark and were a real discovery for me – are all covered in a forthright manner that manages to remain factual and detailed while also a clearly affectionate chronicle, sometimes gossipy, often hilarious and regularly revealing. It can’t be easy to build a narrative from so many and often conflicting memories (The Melvins’ Buzz Osborne comes across as a bit of a contrary prick) but Yarm has created what can only be described as the Bible of the scene here.

Bob Dylan – Chronicles Vol. One

“I’d been on an eighteen month tour with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. It would be my last. I had no connection to any kind of inspiration. Whatever was there to begin with had all vanished and shrunk. Tom was at the top of his game and I was at the bottom of mine.”

Wait, what? Nobody was expecting it, but Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Volume One appeared like a revelatory bolt from the blue in 2004 after he got ‘carried away’ writing linear notes for planned reissues of Bob DylanNew Morning and Oh Mercy. The memoir – apparently the first of three (who know when) – is a detailed and candid insight into Dylan’s life, thinking and writing at the time of those three albums. The dejection and lack of direction he felt for his career while on tour with Petty is pre- Oh Mercy which, it turns out, came about thanks to Bono, an obscure singer with a little-known Irish band called U2* who, for some reason, Dylan showed the songs he’d started putting together and, while old Bob thought about burning them, suggested he call Daniel Lanois instead…

There’s a lot to discover in these three ‘vignettes’ considering the brevity of the periods covered and it’s a vital read for any Dylan fan. For a less personal and fuller Dylan read, Howard Sounes’ Down The Highway does a comprehensive and enjoyable job of telling Dylan’s story while keeping clear of the myth(s).

Speaking of stripping away the myth..

Peter Guralnick – Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of AND Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley 

This isn’t a double-header, I’m not sneaking two books into one slot, both deserve a spot on this list but as you just can’t read one and not the other I’ll cover both in one go. I bought these books a long time before I got to reading them. I’m not a big fan of Elvis, I can quite quickly name a Top Ten but I don’t go deep with the King. These books do and I’d mark them as essential.

Last Train to Memphis does a magnificent job in detailing – and I mean detailing – the rise of Elvis Presley right up to the point where he’s shipped out to Germany in 1958. Where he’s from, who he was as a person, his love for music, getting started, this book is rich in detail and interview and a real eye-opener. Guralnick finds the truth behind what has become a much retold and embellished story that’s become so familiar that the truth of a poor young truck driver who loved nothing above his mother and music and came out of nowhere to become the biggest thing the world had seen is far too often forgotten. Take, as an example, the words of Marion Keisker, the secretary at Sun records who recognised something special in the polite teenager’s voice, words on the enigma surrounding Elvis: “He was like a mirror in a way: whatever you were looking for, you were going to find in him. It was not in him to say anything malicious. He had all the intricacy of the very simple.”

The degree to which Last Train to Memphis manages to deliver the real Elvis Presley makes Careless Love all the more affecting. Once again – the demise of Elvis’ career and the man himself are too often mistold and the stock of parody: fat Elvis dying on the throne trying to take a dump surrounded by hamburgers and tv sets….

Careless Love gets underway with Elvis’ time in the army in ’58 and chronicles the gradual unravelling of the dream that had burnt so bright in Last Train To Memphis and details in disturbing detail the complex playing-out of Elvis’s relationship with his plotting, money-grabbing and manipulative manager, Colonel Tom Parker. The lying Dutchman’s desperate attempts to stop Elvis returning to the road after his comeback special (he’d have less control of him on the road), his continual pushing of terrible movie after terrible movie, the appalling contract and commission he took which fuelled his greed…. it wasn’t drugs that did for Elvis if you ask me. Written with a grace and affection for its subject, Careless Love is the real deal, a true insight into the end of one of the biggest and misunderstood figures of the 20th century.

While neither made me run out and buy anything beyond the couple of compilations that sit on my shelves, both of these books changed how I thought about Elvis.

Oddly, looking back as I write this, it’s not an Elvis song that comes to mind here:

George Harrison – I, Me, Mine

My love for this book isn’t so much down to what’s revealed or any ‘shocking truths’ – this aren’t necessary really. Though apparently John Lennon was pissed off (it came out a few months before he was murdered) and claimed to be hurt as the book doesn’t refer to Lennon as being a musical influence. What I love is the warmth and feel of I, Me, Mine. My version is that which was published in 2002, not long after Harrison had passed, with a new forward from his wife Olivia.  The autobiography itself isn’t essentially long or detailed but it’s everything else about this book I love – the bounty of photos and the song lyrics- copies of handwritten lyrics included – with details on the writing of each: “‘What is Life’ was written for Billy Preston in 1969. I wrote it very quickly, fifteen minutes or half an hour maybe…. it seemed too difficult to go in there and say ‘Hey I wrote this catch pop sing; while Billy was playing his funky stuff. I did it myself later on All Things Must Pass.”

 

Aerosmith – Walk This Way

My first taste of musical bios is a pretty extreme one. I bought this when it came out (first edition hardback still sitting on my shelves looking rather well read) and I was really starting to get into Aerosmith. Written by Stephen Davis and the band, Walk This Way was the first official telling of the Aerosmith story, from the band members’ origins and the formation of the group through to its early rise and debauchery to its drug-fuelled collapse and nadir before being reborn via sobriety in the mid-80s – much is given over to this process and the resentment Tyler felt at the time, Perry being involved in the intervention while still using etc and the troubles that nearly caused another break up prior to Nine Lives.

Since publication three of members have written their own memoirs (oddly I’ve only read Steven Tyler’s) and have suggested that Walk This Way is perhaps a little… sanitised and glosses over a few things. Odd considering just how shocking some of what this covers …

Mark Blake – Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd

I mentioned this one recently and I still believe it deserves a place in my Top 10. While there’s never likely to be as complete and comprehensive a Pink Floyd autobiography as desired – Nick Mason’s Inside Out comes close but is obviously his own story – as a) Gilmour and Waters don’t really get on and b) Syd Barrett and Richard Wright are no longer with us… Pigs Might Fly is a thoroughly detailed and researched ‘as close as you’ll ever get’.

Bruce Springsteen – Born To Run

Of course this is bloody well going to be on here. This is pretty much top of the list and sets a new benchmark for how autobiographies should be written. I wasn’t expecting this one to be written so well or so candidly. In my original review for this, which was extensive so I won’t go overboard here, I said: It is an absolute blast to read. Written completely solo and without the assistance of a ghost-writer, the voice is clearly that of Bruce – at times cuttingly honest, at others poetic and then written as though delivering a sermon from the stage on the LIFE SAVING POWERS OF ROCK AND ROLL!!! (yes, the caps-lock button is Bruce’s friend). Contained within its five hundred or so pages is the story of how a young man from a poor, working class family in the town of Freehold, New Jersey, fell in love with music, got a guitar, learned how to make it talk, refined his craft and cracked the code. It’s fascinating and joyous stuff.

 

*If there isn’t a tribute band called ‘Not You Too’ then I’ll bloody well start one.

Oh, by the way, which one’s Pink?

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks lost in a very comfortable and enjoyable Pink Floyd trip.

It all started with an article in an actual printed music magazine that I bought for the first time in more years than I can count. Well written, the article in ‘Uncut’ detailed the years between Syd Barrett’s departure and the commencement of Dark Side of the Moon. How, in just four years they went from being Barrett’s backing band on songs like ‘Bike’ – via the addition of Gilmour – to writing what is arguably* one of the greatest albums of all time.

From there I needed more. So a quick search punt about on eBay and two quid later (yup, bargain) Mark Blake’s Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd was in my hands for what would become a deep dive into the story and music of those five chaps from Cambridge**.

A good music biog is a hard thing to achieve***; for every Crosstown Traffic there’s at least five Scuse Me While I Kiss the Skys. Especially with a band so reticent to deal with the press during their peak as Pink Floyd were. Pigs Might Fly, falls firmly into the former camp. While not as painstakingly researched and deep as, say, Peter Guralnick’s Last Train To Memphis it documents in insightful detail how The Pink Floyd Experience (though there will always be debate on where and when the name formed) came together around the creative nucleus of Syd Barrett – enforcing my opinion that, at the time, it was really Barrett and Friends, the shocking and painful disintegration of the poor guy, Gilmour’s arrival, Waters’ gradual take over and journey up his own arse and efforts to shoot his own band in the kneecaps before Gilmour pulled it free and moved it forward for a final two albums.

There’s plenty in Pigs Might Fly to enjoy. While it eases up and speeds up as success takes hold – there’s no real detail on song creation etc beyond DSOTM – there’s plenty in terms of the crumbling relationships within the band. That the book takes a very neutral stance means it manages to point more effectively to just what a skid mark Waters became. Despite his later claims that none of the band came out of that period well, it’s abundantly clear that Gilmour, Mason and the revived Wright did an awful lot better than he did. It did make me chuckle that the late Barrett’s neighbour recalled a time in the late 80’s when Syd was heard shouting “Fucking Roger Waters! I’ll fucking kill him!”

Another highlight was the discovery of how the band dealt with a negative review for the album which was their then biggest step forward and into the realms of ‘new’ Floyd, Meddle – which Melody Maker’s Michael Watts (a long-time fan) described as ‘Muddle’ and featuring ‘vocals that verged on the drippy and instrumental workouts that are decidedly old hat’. When Watt’s took delivery of a parcel at his office a month later a he assumed it was a Christmas gift from some record company’s PR dept. Instead he found a bright red hardwood box with a lid held in place with a little catch. When he flipped the catch he jumped back as a spring-loaded boxing glove shot out, just missing his face. It was a Christmas gift from Pink Floyd.

While Pigs Might Fly now sits amongst the other music biogs in my library, I thought it worth running down my Top Ten Pink Floyd albums. I’m not up to doing another Least to Most series so I’ll make this a monster post and go for it now. This is in order and, as per all on here, is my own opinion rather than arguing it’s definitive.

More

The band’s first album without any involvement from Syd Barret and their first soundtrack album, More is a slight listen but one that’s still worth digging out. Somewhat scattershot in style – from their heaviest , Zep-like recordings to pastoral folk and abstract instrumentals, More contains a few nods of the directions the band would later take. Most important, though, is Gilmour coming out of his shell – free’d from this previous requirements to ape Syd’s parts, this is the first time he’s really let loose and ‘The Nile Song’ shows the way out of songs like ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ and toward the Gilmour / Waters collabs that would later prove so powerful.

Atom Heart Mother

While More pointed at any number of directions, it would be a while before Floyd followed them up. Umagumma doesn’t rank here because it’s two strong tracks are set amongst a quagmire of misfires. Atom Heart Mother, though, is a strong slab of music that, while there are still a couple of duds (‘Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast’) is more consistent in quality and was the band’s first Number 1 album. The suite itself – mired by recording and production setbacks – is a 23 minute bombast (which Stanley Kubrick asked, and received a ‘no’, to use in A Clockwork Orange) that’s followed by some great early gems like Waters’ ‘If’ and Gilmour’s ‘Fat Old Sun’.

A Momentary Lapse of Reason

The first of two Gilmour-led Floyd albums is the weaker of the two but still a strong album. Having made the decision to push ahead with a Waters-less Pink Floyd was one thing, the legal battles and arguments that followed meant recording A Momentary Lapse of Reason a dogged process. Bringing in co-writers was no longer new for a Pink Floyd album and Gilmour used all the help he could with lyrics. But Gilmour was keen to avoid too many lyrics, telling the press that the last albums by the Waters-led Floyd had lost focus on music over words. He was also determinedly avoiding the use of a ‘concept’, Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason is an odd beast as a result and is more of a collection of songs as a result – much like an album by most other bands so why it became a big deal is beyond me – and while some (‘Learning to Fly’ and ‘A New Machine’) sound rooted to 1987 – the distinctive Pink Floyd feel is still there in the mix and songs like ‘Sorrow’ punch in the Floyd’s old weight division.

Unfortunately, the pressure of carrying all the responsibility for Pink Floyd on his shoulders would push Gilmour deeper into use of cocaine and it would be some time before he could shake the weight.

The Wall

One of Pink Floyd’s best known and biggest selling albums doesn’t make the Top Five. The Wall is one of those albums that I always think is great but then – having revisited it so much again recently – realised that my version of The Wall is only five songs long and two of those are ‘Comfortably Numb’ because I always have to play that twice. The others – ‘Mother’, ‘Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)’ and ‘Hey You’ are of such strength as to be outright classics. Thing is though, 4 out of 26 tracks is not a good ratio but these really are gold, proof that even when strained to the point of breaking the Gilmour / Waters partnership was one of songwriting’s finest.

The rest, though… for fuck sake, Roger, have a word with yourself before thinking we need to be tortured. Drop any of them on in isolation and tell me if ‘The Trial’ or ‘Vera’ have any place in the list of great Pink Floyd songs. That Roger demanded – and received – such control over The Wall as part of the agreement to drop legal actions shows just how much his project / vanity this album really is. It took Bob Ezrin to navigate it away from being Rogers’ rant and life story into something as near to generic as it became but The Wall and Waters’ determined dominance over sessions and direction that was the tolling of the bell for the band as it was (recording sessions saw Richard Wright booted out).

Obscured by Clouds

This is one of those gems of an album that is so often overlooked as to be criminal. Recorded in quick sessions against a ticking clock as the band were both on tour and in the midst of working up DSTOTM – working under pressure and without the time to indulge proved benefical: Obscured by Clouds contains some great tunes. The instrumentals – benefiting from the great leaps the band were making – contain touches of the album that would follow while songs like ‘Free Four’ and the brilliant ‘Wot’s… Uh the Deal?’ are classics. Yes, there are some songs best skipped but the ratio of solid to tosh puts this higher than The Wall in my listening rota.

Meddle

Overhead the albatross hangs motionless upon the air… Before Meddle, Pink Floyd were – as Nick Mason would later put it – in danger of being bored to death with their existing material. The direction their psychedelic roots had pointed on was hitting something of a dead end and they were reaching for a new sound. That new, now ‘classic’ Pink Floyd sound arrived on Meddle.  A trio of three cracking little tunes (best forget ‘Seamus’ to be honest) sandwiched between the bass-driven corker that is ‘One of These Days’ and the absolute epic ‘Echoes’ with Gilmour and Wright’s vocals blending perfectly. Meddle – and Echoes – is majestic, airy and introduces that sense of overworldliness that would be the benchmark of the classic Floyd sound. Oh, and it’s stuffed full of weird, dark sounds that punctuate it all – it’s the precursor to all that would follow and it’s sodding brilliant. “Give us a ‘ping’ Richard!”

Animals

I’ll be honest – it took me a long time to dig Animals. It didn’t hook me as much as the rest of the Top Five for some time but when it did…. oh boy. ‘Punk Floyd’ as one reviewer at the time put it, Animals is the bridge between the anger that was boiling up in some of Wish You Were Here‘s songs and the self-indulgent ranting of The Wall only clearly still with full band involvement and enjoyment. The music is stronger and rewards with each listen. Gilmour’s guitar work is amongst his finest and Waters’ lyrics are as on-point as they’d ever be:

“And 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 backs on you,
You’ll get the chance to put the knife in”

The Division Bell

The last studio album proper from Pink Floyd is one of their finest and much underrated. The Division Bell – recorded free of the legal stress and pressure of A Momentary Lapse.. is closer to the classic Floyd sound since anything pre-Animals, perhaps in part as some of Richard Wright’s vintage organs and instruments were hauled out from storage for use and, more likely, as the music was born out of long improvised jam sessions between the then three members of the band. With the exception of ‘Take it Back’ (tellingly the only song with music written with outside assist) there’s not a duff track on here.

I also seem to recall reading that at some point, with the road behind them, Gilmour approached Waters with the idea of his taking part on what he, rightly, believed would be the final Pink Floyd album. Waters’ response is the inspiration for the line in ‘Lost for Words’:

Wish You Were Here

Ok, look at that track list: ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ in all it’s spectacular parts, ‘Have A Cigar’, ‘Wish You Were Here’… perfection. I’m not a huge fan of ‘Welcome to the Machine’ but I’ll take it over a thousand other songs any day. Much has been said of the appearance of Syd Barrett – shaven of eyebrows and hair and overweight – and none can agree if it really was while ‘Shine On..’ was being recorded.

Apparently Gilmour didn’t sing the vocals on ‘Have a Cigar’ because he couldn’t get on the same page as Waters’ anger at the music business…. the start of many a disagreement… so Roy Harper gladly volunteered. He told Roger at the time he’d take a lifetime season ticket to Lords which, despite his prompting, he never received. At one point years later he suggested that, based on the album’s success, he’d settle for (I think) £30k. He never got it, Roger was long gone up his own rectum by then.

The Dark Side of the Moon

It would be impossible for this to not be at number one. It would be impossible to sum this up sufficiently in a short manner too. This album has never failed to hold me and move me since I first heard it so many years ago.

Their most accessible concept – no anger or political ranting. It’s about the fears, worries and process of life. The band are at their peak in terms of songwriting and playing. Every decision made in terms of the sounds, the mix, the samples, even the fucking cover… is absolutely spot on. From Wright switching from the use of organ live to piano for the recording of ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’, to Gilmour winning out on having the voice recordings lower in the mix (Roger Waters took it upon himself to interview as many people as he could find and record their answers to a series of questions such as ‘when were you last violent?’ – the McCartney’s were recording in the same studio but their forced attempts at ‘funny’ answers failed to make the cut) and the choice of those voices. From the heartbeat that starts and ends the album to the beautiful interplay of lyrics about suddenly finding yourself ‘one day to closer to death’ and war ‘forward he cried, from the rear, and the front rank died’ to the dark, decidedly British, humour that keeps it on the right side up – I fucking love this album.

 

*In that you could try and say it isn’t but you’d have no leg to stand on.

**Well, three of them anyway – Nick Mason and Rick Wright being from Birmingham and Essex respectively but you get the idea.

***Upcoming blog on my preferred music biogs / reads

And in the quick of a knife, they reach for their moment… Springsteen’s Lyrics (Part 3)

Right, finally – Part Trois.

What started off as a two-part look at my favourite Springsteen’s lyrics grew into an easy three-parter as every time I worked on the list it grew when I remembered another lyric. I could have stretched this to four but this Springsteen Series is already long and it’s time to wrap it up. I reckon I’ve still got at least a couple of these BIG BRUCE BLOGS in the works though, so let’s move forward and get into the final part of this one, complete with playlist.

Seeds

“Well I swear if I could spare the spit, I’d lay one on your shiny chrome, and send you on your way back home”

When Bruce started expanding his lyrical framework beyond his immediate locales, his social and political consciousness began growing too. In place of songs about Jersey boardwalks and fortune tellers came lyrics about real people and their struggles in failing economies where ‘lately there ain’t been much work’. ‘Seeds’ is one of these early tunes to plow this awareness into his songwriting.  Oft-overlooked as it never made it to a studio album (it joins the list of those culled form Born In The USA*) and was only officially released on Live 1975-85 it would feature in Springsteen’s sets for a reason – it was a mainstay during the Reagan years and it would slip back into Springsteen’s set lists in 2009, when America’s economy started to circle the u-bend.

You can feel the anger in this one, another story of how betting everything on following the American dream (chasing the oil boom just after it went bust) fucked someone over, scathing lyrics set against a thumping E Street rhythm and heavy chords.

Human Touch, Better Days & Living Proof

“You can’t shut off the risk and the pain, without losing the love that remains”

“But it’s a sad man, my friend, who’s livin’ in his own skin, and can’t stand the company”

“Life is just a house of cards, as fragile as each and every breath as this boy sleepin’ in our bed”

It’s not cheating – to me these are both three great individual songs but their lyrics and arc belong in the same write-up.

They complete a story arc that’s clearly autobiographical and highlight one of those elements that – even when a large part of the album’s they’re on are tosh – makes Springsteen a great writer is that he’s able to take that look into himself,  and what’s in all of us, and carve it into something that you actually want to listen to.

At the end of the 80’s Springsteen’s first marriage was over and he’d already been fighting depression. The arc represented by these songs shows characters who – in ‘Human Touch’ – have been bruised by former experiences (‘so you’ve been broken and you’ve been hurt, show me somebody who aint’) but are still willing to lay it on the line for a second chance – but , as Springsteen put it: “to receive what love delivers, they have to surrender themselves to each other and accept fate.”

In Better Days those “characters return from broken love affairs and self-doubt and find the tempered optimism to take another shot,” – Bruce pointed out in ‘Songs’ – having “taken a piss, at fortune’s sweet kiss”, realised what passes by while you sit “listening to the hours and minutes tickin’ away” and find the redemption that’s out there.

There’s an undeniable sense of promise and positivity to the song and it doesn’t hurt that the lyrics are strapped to one of the better tunes in terms of production on the two albums.

Despite being the song that kicked off writing for Lucky Town, ‘Living Proof’ serves as the final chapter in a way as Bruce reflects on fatherhood and the joy and sense of completion that delivers – children being the living proof that “love is real. They are faith and hope transformed into flesh and blood.”

The song has meant more to me withe each passing year since my own son arrived “like the missing words to some prayer that I could never make” and will remain a lyrical favourite for just that reason. Springsteen obviously felt pretty similarly about it as it’s the sole song from Human Touch and Lucky Town to have been selected for the ‘autobiographical’ collection Chapter and Verse.

I think any of us that have every fought that black dog can recognise and appreciate Springsteen’s lyrics across these three tunes – that there is a light there if you’re willing to give it a shot but you gotta be willing to the chance – nor deny his right to apply this more personal light to his lyrics (even if the overall albums and production fall flat).

Last to Die

“Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake, whose blood will spill, whose heart will break”

Magic is one of Springsteen’s finest collections of songs and easily the strongest of his post-reunion albums. It’s certainly his angriest, with Springsteen’s rage against Bush and the cost of war on people – I think it was Bono who said that all of America is Springsteen’s hometown now – burning beneath the surface of so many of it’s tunes. ‘Gypsy Biker’ updates his ‘Nam song ‘Shut Out The Light’ with harsher consequence and ‘Last to Die’ takes takes it’s lyrics directly from John Kerry’s testimony on Vietnam – “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

It’s packed with scathing, bitingly angry lines like ‘We don’t measure the blood we’ve drawn anymore, we just stack the bodies outside the door’ and ‘The wise men were all fools’ and strapped to the blazing sound of the E Street Band in its final peak.

Youngstown

“We sent our sons to Korea and Vietnam
Now we’re wondering what they were dyin’ for”

A stand-out story on an album resplendent with story songs and precise lyrics. ‘Youngstown’ tells the story of that Ohio town from the discovery of the ore that was “linin’ Yellow Creek” in 1803, through wars Civil, First, Second, Vietnam and Korean to the city’s decline as the arse fell out of the steel industry – “the yard’s just scrap and rubble .” The ‘Jenny’ in the chorus is also the nickname for the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company’s Jeanette Blast Furnace – which shut down in ’77 (ta, Wikipedia).

There’s a real poetry to Springsteen’s telling of this potted history and the lyrics work both against the minimal backdrop of The Ghost of Tom Joad and when set alight by Nils Lofgren live:

 

Hey Blue Eyes

“In this house there’s just the dust of bones, the basement’s filled with liars
In this house our sons and daughters are spilled like wine.”

Technically the last ‘new’ Springsteen tune released and testament to the fact that he can still punch above the pack with this lyrics even when not amazing with anything musically, ‘Hey Blue Eyes’ is taken from the American Beauty EP that was released in 2014.

Springsteen has described the track and its allegorical lyrics as “one of my darkest political songs. Written during the Bush years, it’s a metaphor for the house of horrors our government’s actions created in the years following the invasion of Iraq. At its center is the repressed sexuality and abuse of power that characterized Abu Ghraib prison. I feel this is a shadow we as a country have yet to emerge from.”

The Last Carnival

“Moon rise, moon rise, the light that was in your eyes is gone away.
Daybreak, daybreak, the thing in you that made me ache has gone to stay ”

Danny ‘The Phantom’ Federici, founding member of the E Street Band, died April 17, 2008 after a three year fight with melanoma. Working On A Dream, Springsteen’s 2009 album, is dedicated to Federici and ‘The Last Carnival’ is both a reference to ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story’ and a touching tribute to the first of the E-Street Band to slip this mortal coil.

“It started out as a way of making sense of his passing. He was a part of that sound of the boardwalk the band grew up with and that’s something that’s going to be missing now.”

Brothers Under The Bridge

“One minute you’re right there, and something slips”

A tune cut around The Ghost of Tom Joad though left off and included on Tracks – ‘Brothers Under The Bridge’ is a story about a homeless Vietnam veteran living beneath a bridge, with other homeless veterans, “who has a grown daughter that he’s never seen, and she grows up, and she comes looking for her dad. And what he tells her.”  At a time when Springsteen was like a factory churning out great short-story like songs against hushed backgrounds that wouldn’t hide bad lyrics, this is a stand out and one that sits with his finest ‘Nam songs –  with lines like ‘You were just a beautiful light, in your mama’s dark eyes of blue’ and that final line ‘something slips’.

Jungleland

“Beneath the city two hearts beat
Soul engines running through a night so tender”

Of-fucking-course it was gonna be on here. How can Springsteen’s most epic and well-loved ‘story’ song not be? I’ve been using its lyrics for the blog titles after all. There’s nothing that can be said about this one that hasn’t been said by better critics than I – all I’ll say is that you can pick any lyric on here and it’ll not only be gold but will be sung along to passionately by the entire crowed at any given Springsteen show it’s played at.

And….. playlist:

 

*One of those three posts in the pipeline

They just stand back and let it all be… Springsteen’s Lyrics (Part Two)

First up, a disclaimer: This series was supposed to be two parts long. This second installment has taken as long as it has to kick in because I realise whittling down my ‘short list’ to a ‘final list’ has proven impossible. As such… this is now Part 2 of 3.

So Part 3 and Playlist to follow. Let’s get back to it!

Thunder Road

“The screen door slams”

Springsteen has often said that in Born To Run he made a conscious effort to stream down his lyrics and write lyrics that were a little more direct. He didn’t lose the poetry or power in his lyrics, just trimmed the fluff. That’s evinced from the very first line on the album. ‘Thunder Road’ is full of great imagery – like those ‘Skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets’ – but that opening line is as perfect as it gets. There’s a universality to it – this isn’t a song about Jersey or NYC, it could be anywhere – and a sense of romance and promise as the screen door ‘slams’ on the past and Mary looks out and, presumably, pulls out to win.

All I’m Thinkin’ About

“Little boy carrying a fishing pole, little girl picking huckleberries from off of the vine, brown bag filled with a little green toad”

Devils and Dust is the third and most recent of Springsteen’s ‘acoustic’ albums but not as songs aren’t as sparsely accompanied as they are on Ghost Of Tom Joad or Nebraska. As with both of those, Devils.. is a ‘story’ song album and while some songs aren’t as strong as they could be there’s still a lot well crafted lyrics in there – three of my favourite’s come from this late-period collection including ‘All I’m Thinkin About’ which is just chock full of great, poetic visuals that come close to early Springsteen lines.

One Step Up

“Mmm she ain’t lookin’ too married. And me, well, honey I’m pretending”

In its 1987 review of Tunnel of Love, Rolling Stone called it “an unsettled and unsettling collection of hard looks at the perils of commitment. A decade or so ago, Springsteen acquired a reputation for romanticizing his subject matter; on this album he doesn’t even romanticize romance.” The album is one of my favourites and ‘One Step Up’ is full of great lines from the firs ‘Woke up this morning the house was cold’… yeah… the furnace wasn’t burning but this is a song of allegory and Springsteen was finding his house cold and a marriage that wasn’t burning either but that line.. “Me, honey, I’m pretending”… of course, Tunnel.. being the album of uncertain minds that it is it’s followed by “Last night I dreamed I held you in my arms, the music was never-ending. We danced as the evening sky faded to black” as the contrast between dream and reality hits in.

I’m On Fire

“Sometimes it’s like someone took a knife, baby, edgy and dull and cut a six inch valley through the middle of my skull”

As mentioned in Part 1 – the thrill of Springsteen’s archival releases is hearing lyrics being worked on in situ as it were. Catching rough drafts of lyrics that would reach fruition years later attached to very different, musically, tunes. Keen-eared listeners to The Promise will have picked up a huge chunk of ‘I’m On Fire’s lyrics being worked on in ‘Spanish Eyes’. The opening couplet “Hey little girl, is your daddy home, did he go away and leave you all alone” is right there as are the “does he do to you” lines but, somewhere in the intervening few years it became a more brooding song of frustrated desire and that line ‘edgy and dull’ is what transforms it for me. Absolutely love that line.

Lost In The Flood

“The ragamuffin gunner is returnin’ home like a hungry runaway, he walks through town all alone”

Springsteen’s first Vietnam vet reference and on his first album. ‘Lost in the Flood’ is just an all-out lyrical high with some great visuals and stories that I can never get enough of, it’s probably why I’ve kept my ‘Bronx’ Best Apostle’ t-shirt for so long. There’s nuns runnin ‘bald’, Eighth Avenue sailors, street fights and cops putting ‘that cat from the Bronx’ right away. But, as scene setters go, that opening line takes some beating.

Devils and Dust

“Fear’s a powerful thing, it can turn your heart black you can trust. It’ll take your God filled soul and fill it with devils and dust”

Devils and Dust has songs on it that date back to Ghost of Tom Joad and I can’t help but feel that it was writing the title tune that gave Springsteen the ‘key’ he needs for each album to tie them all together – it may will be why this song, written in anger at the end of the Bush years – gave it’s title to the collection. What do you do when what you’re doing to survive kills who you are?

You’re Missing

“Children are asking if it’s alright, will you be in our arms tonight?”

For all it’s songs of finding solace in love and music and each other, The Rising would not be the powerful response to 9/11 if it didn’t handle the overwhelming loss experienced by so many and rendered it as powerfully as it did. ‘You’re Missing’ is a heavy hitter with it’s subtlety and perfectly captures the loss of someone’s physicality when everything else in the world remains. “I thought, ‘What do you miss?’ You miss the physicalness and the ability to touch somebody. I’ve had people close to me who died. I remember when I was young, that aching to touch the person again was very, very strong and it was very painful to realize that it just couldn’t happen.”

Lines like “Coffee cups on the counter, jackets on the chair, papers on the doorstep, you’re not there” get that across but it’s the “children are asking” line that does it. That loss… the kids needing that hug…  man he nails it.

Badlands

“Talk about a dream, try to make it real, you wake up in the night with a fear so real. Spend your life waiting for a moment that just don’t come. Well don’t waste your time waiting!”

Woah oh oh BADLANDS! Darkness.. is my favourite Springsteen album and up there with my favourite albums period. For all its seriousness and samurai approach to songwriting, there are some uplifting, inspirational messages in there just like this and…

Prove It All Night

“Well everybody’s got a hunger, a hunger they can’t resist. There’s so much that you want, you deserve much more than this. Well, if dreams came true, aw, wouldn’t that be nice? But this ain’t no dream, we’re living all through the night. You want it? You take it, you pay the price”

As he’d latter rue himself for doing in ‘Better Days’… don’t sit around waiting for your lift to begin: get up and get it done because the world isn’t going to just give it to you.

Death to My Hometown

“The greedy thieves who came around, and ate the flesh of everything they found
whose crimes have gone unpunished now, who walk the streets as free men now”

Musically and overall this is not even up in my Top 20. Wrecking Ball has some strong songs but I don’t put it too high in Springsteen’s overall catalogue. However – as Aphoristcal commented on the previous installment – even when he’s not at his finest musically, he’s remained a very good lyricist. I’d go a little further and say that as he’s matured and widened his experiences he’s not only gotten better but his lyrics (when he’s not simply repeating lines for emphasis) remain great and Wrecking Ball is full of examples of Springsteen using  a cracking lyric to rage against the 2008 economic crisis. I especially enjoy ‘Death to My Hometown’s use of archaic references to destructive forces like ‘cannonballs’ and blood soaked ground. Not to mention the tying in of ‘My Hometown’ – a song so many associate with warmth – being torn apart.

Over and Out

It’s not the easiest thing to go out on a high note, just ask George Constanza. Seinfeld managed it. So did the Sopranos, come to think of it. Some just drag it out too long. The lifestyle and money too good to turn down after syndication kicks in perhaps. Joseph Heller was once told by a reported that he hadn’t written anything since that was as good as Catch-22, to which he responded “who has?”

It’s even trickier for musicians to do so – very few go into sessions with a definitive “this will be the last time” approach, some call it a day following poor reception to a bad album and others leave this mortal coil with their last recorded output barley touching their former dizzying heights.

Were Dylan to meet Elvis tomorrow, for example, I doubt it could be said that he’d left a great final record in Triplicate. At The Drive In and Refused almost managed it – but then they got back together and managed to slap their legacy in the face with a bloody great fish.

I go these lengths to point out that a good final album isn’t all that common as a build up, of course, to sharing my list of Ten Great Final Albums. Displayed below in no particular order but with two qualifying criteria: ‘only’ albums (Jeff Buckley’s Grace for example) don’t count and nothing posthumously released is eligible.

Nirvana – In Utero

Originally it was going to be called I Hate Myself and I Want To Die as a joke. Cobain’s piss take of how he was so often portrayed as “this pissy, complaining, freaked-out schizophrenic who wants to kill himself all the time.” In an attempt to distance themselves from the overwhelming popularity of Nevermind and sheer off the sound of Vig’s production that – despite loving it at the time – Cobain would slate publicly as too commercial, Nirvana recorded In Utero with Steve Albini.

As raw and uncompromising an album as a major like Geffen would allow. There’s a lot of talk and mumbling about how the label insisted on having it remixed and polished by Scott Litt (known at the time for work with REM and The Replacements) but the band had already approached Albini to remix it but the producer refused – claiming he’d recorded exactly the ‘fuck you’ ablum Kurt had asked for and wouldn’t released the master tapes to be remixed by someone else. After much back and forth he relented and Scott Litt and Andy Wallace were allowed to work on some of the songs.

In Utero ranks as my favourite Nirvana album and would certainly feature high on my all-time list. ‘Serve the Servants’, ‘Scentless Apprentice’, ‘Heart Shaped Box’, ‘Dumb’…. it’s not only stuffed full of killer tunes but the whole album feels so intense and powerful. The only thing that bugs me about it is that it still showed so much more potential for what was to never come. As a final album, though, it takes some beating.

Chances of a follow-up: None. Well, the surviving members of Nirvana could cut some new material with a different vocalist but then they’d probably chose someone crap like a former Beatle and call it something else entirely.

Sonic Youth – The Eternal

Boy does it pain me to talk about Sonic Youth having a final album. However, The Eternal, released in 2009 and their 15th studio album – is Sonic Youth’s final studio album. To quote from a previous post about them, Sonic Youth were one of the greatest things to blow my ears apart, literally; I’m convinced that the hearing in my right ear has never been the same since I was close to front row and very close to intimate with Thurston Moore’s amps as they performed Daydream Nation in its entirety at Camden’s Round House.

Listening to SY for the first time was like getting a key to a room full of ‘next-level music’. It was music that didn’t give a fuck – pure punk in that respect yet somehow effortlessly cool. No regard for standard tuning. No regard for form and traditional structure. No regard for anything but the feel. And it all made sense. Explosive and experimental guitars that powered through songs that always managed to feel both on the brink of collapse yet tight and in control. A three-decades long career stuffed with ground-breaking work based on the guitar work of Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore with vocals from both along those of bass player Kim Gordon. And then, suddenly, it was over as the divorce of Gordon and Moore collapsed amidst rumours of mid-life crisis infidelity on the part of Moore. Their latest album The Eternal very quickly became their final album.

In many ways, even down to the title, it’s a fitting final album. It contains some of their finest songs and showed that, more than 25 years on from their debut EP, they were still evolving and making great music. Songs like ‘Sacred Tricksters’, ‘What We Know’ and ‘Anti-Orgasm’ sit among their best and the album, for all it’s sonic experimentation and guitar freak-outs, is one of their most consistent and accessible as though, no-longer on a major label, they were interested in as many people as possible getting into their songs.

Chances of a follow-up: Very very slim. While drummer Steve Shelley has worked on projects with both Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, the acrimonious dissolution of Moore and Kim Gordon’s marriage points to Sonic Youth as wrapped up.

Jimi Hendrix – Electric Ladyland

Given the sheer amount of posthumous compilations of ‘previously unreleased’ recordings or ‘intended next albums’ you’d think that Jimi Hendrix spent more time in the studio than he did anything else. However, there were only three studio albums released in his lifetime (all recorded with The Jimi Hendrix experience and released within an 18 month period).

Jimi’s final studio album Elecrtic Ladyland is a stone-cold classic. A double album that contains pure gold. Take Hendrix’ reinvention of ‘All Along The Watchtower’ which was so good it overwhelmed Dylan himself, take ‘Crosstown Traffic’, take ‘House Burning Down’ or take the 15 minute long jam of ‘Voodoo Chile’ with Steve Winwood’s organ whirling away – which itself led into what is easily one of the greatest songs ever put to tape: Voodoo Child (Slight Return). Apparently – the Experience returned to the studio the next day to find cameras rolling for a documentary, rather than try and repeat the magic of the previous night’s jam session, they improvised it on the spot and a monster was born:

Chances of a follow-up: got a shovel?

Band of Susans – Here Comes Success

Band of Susans I got into far too late – some 20 years after they called it a day. Born out of the same New York noise rock scene that gave us Sonic Youth but with a more layered, complex sound that saw them draw comparisons to shoegaze bands like My Bloody Valentine woven into an experimental mix. The original lineup had three women named Susan and always had just as many guitarists. In their ten year life as a band, with fairly fluid lineups around the three Susans (which eventually became just the one, Susan Stenger) they put out five stonking albums of guitar-centric music that was markedly different to the field in which they were often lumped but never really found as wide an audience as they deserved.

Here Comes Sucess – complete with sarcastic title – is arguably their finest work and one of the best records I’ve discovered in the last year or so. Nine songs that all kick around the seven minute mark. All slow burning, hypnotic worlds that revolve around Stenger’s bass lines with intricate and explosive guitar workouts.

Chances of a follow-up: All members are still active in music in one way or another but given how little attention was paid to the band, their split or – if the low level of monthly listens the band receive on Spotify is any indication – their back catalogue, I’d say none.

Elliott Smith – Figure 8

If I can bring myself to do so there will be a wider-scoping post on Elliott Smith. However…. there was supposed to be a double album. Something to do with record contract obligations with DreamWorks. Smith had graduated to the major label after the success of Either/Or and his exposure via the Goodwill Hunting soundtrack. But he also fell into depression. Following on from Figure 8, Smith went through a troubled period of addiction, paranoia and all kinds of trouble before cleaning up. He had a clearer state of mind, sessions were underway with a good number of tracks recorded and mixed. However, Smith died on October 21, 2003 at the age of 34 from two stab wounds to the chest (which was reported as suicide but officially left open with the question of homicide). As such Figure 8 remains his final recorded statement and it’s a beauty.

Full of lush production,  pop-like song structures that wear their Beatles influence on their sleeve and pretty much every instrument played by Smith, Figure 8 contains some of Elliott’s finest songs from ‘Son of Sam’ to ‘Everything Means Nothing to Me’, ‘Easy Way Out’, ‘Pretty Mary K’… A real loss.

 

Chances of a follow-up: soon to be released on St. Peter’s Gates Records.

REM – Collapse Into Now

How do you bow out in style? REM’s the closest any act has gotten to following the Seinfeld route of stopping at the top before things go south. Well, if we ignore Around The Sun that is.  Guitarist Peter Buck has said that, as the band entered the studio to record “We got together, and Michael said, ‘I think you guys will understand. I need to be away from this for a long time.’ And I said, ‘How about forever?’ Michael looked at Mike, and Mike said, ‘Sounds right to me.’ That’s how it was decided.”

Collapse Into Now is a great final album, it’s nothing but strength. Following the all-out single-focus return to form of Accelerate, REM’s final album paints with every brush at their disposal – it has the odd effect of listening to a new album as a greatest hits. All of these songs are new yet there are echoes of their finest work across each. I’ve written a full post on this one before so won’t repeat myself but will point out that I still consistently pull Collapse Into Now off the shelves and don’t skip a single track. ‘Discoverer’, ‘All The Best’, ‘Mine Smell Like Honey’, ‘Oh  My Heart’… all gold. Perhaps, most likely probably, because they knew it was their last, the band put their all into this and created a final body of songs they could be proud of. I’m just glad they didn’t decide to call it a day after Around The Sun.

Chances of a follow-up: I mean…. you can never say never, right. Not while all members are still alive and well and engaged musically in some form… there’s group projects and meetings for the ongoing ‘business’ side of REM’s catalogue but I, sadly, don’t see it happening. I don’t think they have anything to prove and if their hearts aren’t in it…

The Replacements – All Shook Down

The Replacements were already kind of over before All Shook Down. It was supposed to be a Paul Westerberg solo album but before recording could get underway his management talked him into making one last Replacements album from the material.

As such All Shook Down features a few session musicians but not to the point of it not being a Replacements record – there are no additional guitarists or bass players listed so it’s a safe bet to assume that Paul Westerberg and Slim Dunlap handled guitar parts with bass either missing from some songs or handled by Westerberg when Tommy Stinson wasn’t about (Westerberg’s solo albums often did away with bass altogether). Perhaps as a side effect of the material’s original intention, it’s one of the most consistent Replacements albums recorded without a single foray into ‘Lay It Down Clown’ territory.

The album is full of strong songs and I’m sure that if such a solidly great album come sooner in their career they would’ve finally secured the attention / success they deserved. As it is, this collection of tunes such as ‘Merry Go Round’, ‘Sadly Beautiful’, ‘When it Began’ and ‘Someone Take The Wheel’ makes for a fantastic swansong.

Chances of a follow-up: unlikely. Original guitarist Bob Stinson died in 1995, replacement Slim Dunlap suffered a severe stroke in 2012 and could not take part in the reunion shows while drummer Chris Mars has given up on music to focus on his art. The well-deserved lap of honour tours that followed the reunion in 2012 of Westerberg and Stinson yielded an aborted attempt at recording new material with the old ‘just didn’t feel right’ results.

The White Stripes – Icky Thump

Ah the White Stripes… while I’ve got no real time in Jack White these days, there’s no denying that The White Stripes generated a great deal of catchy and solid tunes in their 14 year career together. The tour behind their last album, Icky Thump, was called short in 2007 after Meg began suffering acute anxiety. Quits were called by the duo as a band in 2011 after a period of inactivity.

Oddly, Icky Thump is not only the last White Stripes album but also my favourite. I love the title track, the hook of ‘300 M.P.H Torrential Outpour Blues’, the daftness of ‘Rag and Bone’ and stomp of ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do as You’re Told)’. ‘Conquest’ aside, there’s not a song on Icky Thump I don’t enjoy. For my money it’s the strongest entry in their catalogue, a leap on from the already great Get Behind Me Satan and Elephant and I was really hoping they’d continue that trajectory. Ho hum.

Chances of a follow-up: Meh. Jack seems too busy being all kinds of a muppet and Meg… where is Meg?

Nick Drake – Pink Moon

Another career and life cut far too short and another on this list with only three albums left behind. Nick Drake died at just 26 – an overdose of antidepressants that was ruled suicide. He disliked both performing live and giving interviews which helped keep him so under the radar that his albums barely registered during his lifetime; not one of them sold more than 5,000 copies while he still drew breath. His three albums are beautiful, minimal yet deeply affecting records of tender melody and soul that I never tire of and ‘River Man’, ‘Time Has Told Me’ and ‘Place To Be’ would certainly be in the long and short lists of my favourite songs.

There’s no video footage of Nick Drake as an adult – only still photographs. It wasn’t until his albums were released in a box set – Fruit Tree – some five years after his death that the music world began to pay attention. To the point that Drake’s final album – Pink Moon – would be included in Rolling Stones’ list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: “Drake recorded his last album in a couple of nights, delivered the tapes to Island Records and checked himself into a psychiatric ward. If the music were as dark as the lyrics, it might be unlistenable. But Drake’s soothing vocals and unadorned acoustic picking make Moon unfold with supernatural tenderness.”

Chances of a follow-up: I’m running out of pithy comments about resurrection..

Pink Floyd – The Division Bell

Two quotes:

“Pink Floyd is a spent force creatively.” Roger Waters
“Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” The Dude, or His Dudeness … Duder … or El Duderino, if, you know, you’re not into the whole brevity thing.

Man it’s a good thing nobody cares what Roger Waters says as much as he thinks they do. Don’t get me wrong, A Momentary Lapse of Concentration isn’t a great album by any measure but it paved the way forward for a Pink Floyd without that knobhead ordering people around and dictating dreary songs about soldiers and Thatcher. 1994’s Division Bell, though, is a fucking awesome album and ranks in my Top 3 Pink Floyd albums on any day of the week.

Without the legal problems that surrounded the recording of its predecessor, The Division Bell sessions were relaxed and songs were born out of lengthy jams and improvisations with music predominantly coming from Gilmour and Richard Wright – the album would feature his first lead vocal since DSOTM. Which is fitting as The Division Bell, for all its then contemporary touches, is the closest the band had come to sounding like ‘classic’ Floyd since before The Wall. Every time I slip this one into the CD player I find something else to love. The opening trio of songs is unimpeachable, ‘Marooned’ is a great tune, ‘Coming Back to Life’, ‘A Great Day for Freedom’, ‘Lost for Words’ are spot on and underpinned by Gilmour at his finest in terms of both voice and the fluidity and beauty of his playing. Oh, and in ‘High Hopes’ they had the perfect final Pink Floyd song.

Chances of a follow-up: Nah…  While Nick Mason doesn’t consider the band broken up David (never Dave) Gilmour seems content with the odd solo album and colossal tour playing the usual Floyd-heavy quota of tunes to keep him in comfortable retirement. Richard Wright left us in 2008 and Roger Waters has yet to raise sufficient moneys to fund the removal of his head from his own rectum where it’s been stuck since the early 80’s.