Wave after wave after wave… Five from The Cure

The Cure have been around a while now… their debut dropped a few days over 42 years ago now.. after forming about twenty miles from where I’m currently sat.

They’ve come a fair old way since the late seventies in West Crawley and undergone the prerequisite lineup changes and issues that come with a band of that vintage, knocking out 13 albums (though nothing for over 12 years), notching up 30 million plus sales of those and being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019 (and if you haven’t seen Smith’s deadpan response to a very excitable reporter you ought to be popping over to YouTube).

Still often tagged with the ‘goth’ label, their impressive back catalogue swings across a lot of different styles – while you’d be fair for lumping albums like Seventeen Seconds or Faith in the genre, you’d be hard pushed to say the same of songs like ‘The Love Cats’ or ‘The Caterpillar’ in there as they took their manager’s advice to explore different sounds instead of splitting up.

My interest in The Cure is nowhere near as devoted as many of their fans’. I like a good chunk of their stuff but I’m also unfamiliar with vast tracts of it. For me, they’ve made two albums that I think are unimpeachable – Disintegration and Wish – and a shit load of great songs.

So, here are five of my current favourites to get you over that mid-week hump.

All Cats Are Grey

The band’s early goth/post-punk period doesn’t feature much in the listening list for me but there’s something about ‘All Cats Are Grey’ that I always enjoy.

Pictures of You

Disintegration is easily one of the greatest albums The Cure, or anyone else, has made. ‘Pictures of You’ was written after a fire at Smith’s home had him find his wallet – complete with pictures of his wife – while going through the remains.

Plainsong

Is it cheating to have two songs from the same album? I don’t care: Disintegration is brilliant and ‘Plainsong’ is just the perfect album starter.

Bloodflowers

Apparently, Bloodflowers the album was the final instalment of a trilogy that included Pornography and Disintegration. If I’m being cynical I’d say perhaps it was more of an effort from Smith to prop up interest and sales after the reception to Wild Mood Swings wasn’t too favourable. It’s nowhere near as strong as the other members of the ‘trilogy’ but I always enjoy the title track.

From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea

On any day it’s a toss-up between Wish and Disintegration for my favourite Cure album. Wish is just such a strong album and so much more guitar-driven than its predecessor and leans into the alternative-rock sound with real style. ‘Friday I’m in Love’ and even ‘A Letter to Elise’ might be the hits that everyone knows but ‘From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea’ is the album’s centrepiece.

Currently spinning: the new, the coming and the anticipated

It’s been a minute since I dropped a ‘here’s what I’m hearing’ post but there’s no time like the present so, in the immortal words of Marvin Gaye: let’s get it on.

Mogwai – To The Bin My Friend, Tonight We Vacate The Earth

New albums from Mogwai are always gonna be warmly received by me – be it soundtrack or studio – but this year’s As the Love Continues is one of their finest in years. Its’ so fucking good. In fact this, the first track on the album, is good it got my normally ‘post-rock ambivalent’ wife into the album. Just a stunning effort from the band, no doubt helped by the lack of distractions being in lockdown gave them and an easy Best Album of 2021 contender already.

Dinosaur Jr – I Ran Away

Well – another probable contender for that title is already on the way! Dinosaur Jr recently announced their new album Sweep It Into Space is en route (and pre-ordered by me of course). A new slab of Dinosaur Jr is plenty of reason to pay attention (see this post for more proof) but the new one is produced with Kurt Vile and features him on 12-string apparently. It’s the band’s first since 2016.  Can’t wait!

Ben Howard – What A Day

Well, here we are with another hotly-anticipated (by me) album. Ben Howard has been a real mainstay on my stereo for years, there’s something about the vibe he taps into that’s just right up my street. His new album – Collections From the Whiteout –  is produced with The National’s Aaron Dessner – and songs dropped so far feel like a lighter, though no-less adventurous sound than his last album

Jaguar Sun – The Heart

You know Spotify certainly has its drawbacks but it can also lead to great discoveries too. I stumbled by pure chance – having been listening to that fucking great Bleachers tune ‘chinatown’ which features Bruce Springsteen – a few weeks back into a playlist it was recommending me called ‘Dream Pop’ – a genre I hadn’t really paid attention to. What a fucking muppet. There’s so much gold in there that hits so may buttons for me that I’ve spent a long time immersed in it every evening and just drifting off like I’m wrapped in shimmering clouds, man. This Jaguar Sun dude has some great stuff but ‘The Heart’ is the one that I keep finding myself humming.

Philip Sayce – Black Roller Coming

Oh dude – getting back to the grittier guitars and electric blues crunch just in case you worried. I caught a Philip Sayce last year and his album Spirit Rising got a load of plays last year and into this. Loads of that sweet guitar tone and rip for when it needs turning up load.

R.E.M – So Fast So Numb

Even if they’re no longer active as a band in the traditional sense, R.E.M have been outstanding in celebrating the anniversaries of their albums with beefed up takes on all bang on their 25th Anniversary with notable beefed-up editions of their Warner Bros albums especially. This year marks 25 years since the release of my favourite R.E.M album New Adventures in Hi-Fi and I’m eagerly anticipating news of a similar treatment  for it, especially as getting the original on vinyl is pretty priced way out of likelihood.

Pixies – Alec Eiffel

As much as I love new Pixies music arriving, they’re another band that are aware of their legacy and the value it has to fans and have treated us to similar revisiting of their albums, albeit on their 30th anniversary. Expanded takes on Dolittle and Come on Pilgrim… It’s Surfer Rosa were treasure troves of additional material while last year’s Bossanova was a great pressing of a classic. This year marks 30 (shocking) years since the last album in their initial run – Trompe Le Monde and another I’m in eager anticipation for.

 

Side note: while we’re talking new music and spins… I heard the new Foo Fighters album and fell asleep. I’ll leave it at that.

I been starin’, I been starin’ into space.. Five from Dinosaur Jr

Formed in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1984, Dinosaur Jr are one of my favourite bands. Originally setting out to create ‘ear-bleeding country’ music, the band, propelled by J Mascis’ guitar playing, went from being one early proponents of fuzz-laden noise rock to being a massive influence on alt. rock, grunge and countless other players and bands going from indie labels to major and back again via line-up changes and reunions.

It’d be an unenviable task to try and pin point their sound – they’ve shifted quite far from their raucous debut Dinousaur (the band would add the ‘Jr’ shortly after to avoid litigation from) especially as bass player Lou Barlow initially handled most of the vocals – but one thing that’s been consistent across their work is the guitar playing of J Mascis who’s up there in my list of top ten guitar players.

With that in mind, here are five great Dinosaur Jr songs – not ‘the best of’ or even ‘essential’, just five cracking Dinosaur Jr tunes to get your teeth into on a Sunday evening.

Freak Scene

Their first ‘hit’ in the UK when released on Blast First in ’88 and a great example of the early sound of the original trio of Mascis, Barlow and drummer Murph.

Out There

Mascis signed to Sire records in 1989 but Barlow was out of the band by the time of their major label debut Green Mind. ‘Out There’ comes from Where You Been and was a pretty good hit (by Dino standards).

Nothin’s Goin On

Come Hand It Over, Dinosaur Jr’s final of four major-label albums, J Mascis was the only ‘original’ member left. The label, realising by now the band was never going to be another Nirvana, barely even promoted or distributed the album which is a shame because of the band’s ’90’s majors era’ Hand It Over is my favourite.  After the album’s release and tour, Mascis would retire the band’s name and release a couple of solo albums under the J Mascis & The Fog moniker.

All I Came To Do

In 2005 the original lineup of Dinosaur Jr reformed for a series of live shows and, in 2007, a new album Beyond appeared. A powerful album filled to the brim of great tunes and Mascis’ dazzling guitar work.

Said The People

Oddly, the reunion has held. The lineup has now produced more albums than during their first tenure with another expected this year. Their second back-together album Farm was even stronger and highlighted J’s slower-burners more prominently, ‘Said The People’ is a real favourite of mine.

Unsatisfied hearts and murder, incorporated: the ‘other’ Born In The USAs – Part 2

“Halfway though recording the biggest record of my life, Steve Van Zandt left the band. I’ve always felt a combination of personal frustration, internal politics and unhappiness with some of my decisions led to Steve’s departure…. the timing must’ve felt to him like now or never. Looking back today, I think Steve would agree it didn’t have to be that way. We could’ve done it all, but we weren’t the same people then that we are today.”

In the summer of 1982, following the decision to release Nebraska as it was, Steve Van Zandt had visited Bruce in a New York City hotel room to discuss his role their creative partnership. Bruce, though, didn’t feel they were in a “partnership” and steered his ship his way, it’s how it had to be to work the way it did. Van Zandt wanted a more collaborative deal and greater involvement. It couldn’t be. So he bid farewell to E Street. Though a formal announcement wouldn’t be made until May 1984 and he’d grace the linear notes of Born In The USA, Van Zandt’s input from this point forward would be minimal.

I think Springsteen is perhaps more sensitive to feedback than he’d let on. Look at the mixed response that Human Touch and Lucky Town garnered – it meant he ended up ditching a complete album’s worth of material in the 90’s in favour of getting the band back together for a Greatest Hits, as though to remind the public of what they loved about him in the first place. The reaction to Nebraska surprised Springsteen. This quiet set of songs, so far from the sound of The River, was oft-cited as one of the year’s best albums by critics and, while many Springsteen fans were surprised by it, the positive feedback to what was essentially a series of demos meant Bruce paused in his push to Born In The USA‘s thumping beats.

After the release of Nebraska and his ‘Jersey Shore Bar Tour’, and best man duties at Van Zandt’s wedding, Bruce took off west. In search of sun and escaping the Jersey Devil over winter? Maybe. But as ’83 arrived, Bruce was already busy. Through winter he’d worked at ‘Thrill Hill Recording’ – his home studio in his Hollywood Hills studio (though in ’83 this wasn’t the ‘bourgeois house in the Hollywood hills’ bought ‘with a trunkload of hundred thousand dollar bills’) – with yet another album’s worth of material emerging. Only these weren’t of the ‘Glory Days’ ilk, these songs were closer to Nebraska in theme and approach.

Sandwiched oddly appropriately between the recently released ‘classic’ concerts and 2019’s Western Stars in my iTunes is a Springsteen bootleg called Unsatisfied Heart. These dozen songs of surprisingly good quality for something so desperately unofficial, all come from those sessions at Thrill Hill Recording over the winter of 82-83. There’s a longer, better take of ‘Johnny Bye Bye’ and ‘Shut Out The Light’ with ‘County Fair’ making its earliest appearance, but the rest… remain the stuff of vaults and bootlegs (and, perhaps, a Tracks 2, now we know that such a project is in development) and I’m very glad to have these in any form. Why? Well, some of these are among his most compelling to date, even 40 years on.

Take ‘The Klansman’ as an example: never performed live and only one take circulating but while the music is richer than the material on Nebraska (drum beats and synths appearing) the lyrics are pretty heavy “I was ten years old when my Pa said, “Son, some day you will see, when you grow to wear the robes like your brother and me”:

Songs like the two above along with tracks like ‘Richfield Whistle’ – a real hefty story song in the vein of some of The River‘s ‘down on their luck’ character songs – or ‘Sugarland’ are both lost for now in terms of official releases but represented a different tact for Bruce. These are more fleshed out in sounds and found him leaning more toward drum beats and synth sounds that he’d later take further, albeit after Born In The USA had died down and the E Street Band had been parked. It’s a shame but, as is often the way, Bruce was exploring every possible avenue on the road to his next album and was still in the midst of a prolific song writing period.

‘Follow That Dream’, though, seemed to stick out for Bruce and would appear on a few tentative album track lists. Springsteen took Elvis’ 1962 song, changed up the lyrics and rearranged the pacing, slowing it right down:

Having decided that a follow up to Nebraska wasn’t in the works just yet, Springsteen instead returned to the East coast with the idea of combining the work previously recorded with the E Street Band and the best of his Thrill Hill sessions and releasing an album called Murder Incorporated:

  1. Born In The USA
  2. Murder Incorporated
  3. Downbound Train
  4. My Love Will Not Let You Down
  5. Glory Days
  6. This Hard Land
  7. Johnny Bye Bye
  8. Frankie
  9. I’m Going Down
  10. Working On The Highway
  11. I’m On Fire

It’s a stellar track list and he even went so far as to list ‘Sugarland’, ‘Follow That Dream’, ‘Don’t Back Down’, ‘One Love’ and ‘Little Girl (Like You)’ as probable b-sides. Whether or not tracks like the already pretty great ‘Don’t Back Down’ from the Thrill Hill sessions would’ve been re-recorded with the full band… we’ll never know but Murder Incorporated would’ve made one hell of an album. Let’s face it, ‘Born In The USA’ aside, any album with ‘Murder Incorporated’, ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down’, ‘This Hard Land’, ‘Downbound Train’ and ‘I’m On Fire’ on is gonna be a knockout.

Hell, for my money, it would’ve been a more consistent and less ‘grab bag’ album and I’d have rated it a lot higher than I do Born In The USA. Not feeling me? Try it:

See? It fucking kicks.

Instead, though, Bruce decided the timing wasn’t right and – despite the original plan behind getting a four-track to reduce studio time and cost – went for some more studio sessions instead, returning to New York’s Hit Factory in May 1983. Given that Steven Van Zandt – at that point known as ‘Miami Steve’ – was busy working on his second solo album – it would be the band’s first without him and their first sessions in nearly a year.

You’d think they were nearly there but a lot more songs, doubt and writer’s block lay ahead while a good couple of album’s worth of songs lay behind.

 

Out by the gas fires of the refinery – The ‘Other’ Born In The USAs, Part One

In January 1982, just a few months after the final show of  The River Tour, recording sessions for Bruce Springsteen’s next album got under way.

These sessions fell right in the midst of Bruce’s most creative and prolific period. Just look at the sheer bounty of songs that were recorded and cut from Darkness… and The River. Each of those albums has received the lavish archival treatment with a load of previously unreleased gems seeing daylight for the first time – on top of those already released on Tracks!

Born In The U.S.A was no exception – according to Max Weinberg nearly 80 songs were recorded over the course of the entire. Springsteen and co-producer Chuck Plotkin have cited 70 but it’s likely that the Mighty Max Weinberg is counting those ten songs which made up Nebraska – as it’s almost impossible to separate the writing periods for the songs that made up the two albums’ sessions.

Yet while there’s a clamouring for it, it’s unlikely that Born In The USA will ever receive the same treatment as its predecessors. Springsteen has, with the distance of time, grown less effusive in his praise for it – “‘Born in the U.S.A’ more or less stood by itself. The rest of the album contains a group of songs about which I’ve always had some ambivalence” – and Tunnel of Love was a determined move away from the sound and scope of Born In The USA with subsequent albums shying further away from it’s naked, world-conquering ambition.

Either way you look at it, there were several versions of ‘an album’ that were ready to go before we got the Born In The USA we know today. So let’s take a look at ’em.

The story of how Nebraska, Springsteen’s out-of-left-field lofi masterpiece came to be has, by now, been well told. But let’s recap. Tired of spending time and money working songs up on the studio, Bruce got his hands on a 4-track recorder. How much money? Well, in the promotion for Letter To You he pointed out that “learning how to record, we spent all the money we had. At the end of The River album I had $20,000 in the bank.” Well known dodgy deals with former managers aside, considering the success of Born To Run, The Darkness and its tours…. something needed to change. Avoiding studio costs, he laid down some tunes on 3rd January 1982 and then took them to the E Street Band to get loud / flesh out / give some soul. Yet something wasn’t right. The songs didn’t suit the band sound. As Bruce states in ‘Songs’: “I went into the studio, brought in the band, rerecorded, remixed, and succeeded in making the whole thing worse.”

So, after walking around with it in his back pocket (so the story goes), Steven Van Zandt gave The Boss the nudge he needed and those songs were released as they were, mastered from the cassette to vinyl, as Nebraska.

The decision to release ten songs from his January tape was made in May 1982. Nebraska features ten songs. The January tape had – depending on whose account you take as gospel – 15 or 17 songs on it. Not all of the ‘Electric Nebraska’ sessions made things ‘worse’. For of those initial January 1982 tape, songs including ‘Born In The USA’, ‘Working On The Highway’ ‘Downbound Train’, ‘Pink Cadillac’ and a song then called ‘Down, Down, Down’ (to become ‘I’m Goin’ Down’) came about.

It will come as little surprise to realise that between January and May of 1982, Bruce had managed to put together two albums worth of material. He toyed with putting them both out as a double album – the acoustic Nebraska songs would make up one half, with the other ‘electric’ side made up of both reworked songs from the January tape and newer songs written since:

Side One Side Two
BORN IN THE U.S.A. WORKING ON THE HIGHWAY
MURDER INCORPORATED DARLINGTON COUNTY
DOWNBOUND TRAIN FRANKIE
DOWN, DOWN, DOWN (a.k.a. I’m Goin’ Down) I’M ON FIRE
GLORY DAYS THIS HARD LAND
MY LOVE WILL NOT LET YOU DOWN

Just look at that track list. As early as May 1982 Springsteen was ready to go with two albums. This first ‘what could have been’ Born In The USA already has seven of the twelve songs that would make the final album. But look at those others…. ‘This Hard Land’ is a stone-cold Springsteen classic, Max Wienberg’s favourite from the sessions and one that wouldn’t see the light until it was re-recorded 1995’s Greatest Hits. The original ’82 version is just as fine.

‘Murder Incorporated’ would have to wait with ‘This Hard Land’ until 1995’s Greatest Hits with ‘Frankie’ and ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down’ – both of which are absolute gems – a little longer for 1998’s Tracks for their day in the sun. Until then they were assigned to the vault as Springsteen continued working on the album, which wasn’t immediate.

Instead, the decision to release Nebraska ‘as is’ in 1982 effectively put a hold on recording sessions. Recording would have to wait as Springsteen oversaw the final preparations for Nebraska and would spend the summer on his ‘1982 Jersey Shore Bar Tour’ – making guest appearances throughout New Jersey. Given that Nebraska featured very little fanfare and wasn’t accompanied by a tour, the break in writing and recording may have been down to another factor: Steve Van Zandt was no longer a member of The E Street Band.

Springsteen would resume work on his next album in April 1983 but there would be a few more versions of Born In The U.S.A to go through before he was done.

Albums of my years – 2000

See the tuna fleets clearing the sea out? Yeah, great. See the Bedouin fires at night? You do, cool. Now look at the stars, see how they shine for you? It’s 2000; the year that was for the ones who stood their ground, for Tommy and Gina who never backed down. It was the year LeAnn Rimes couldn’t fight the moonlight, Linkin Park were one step closer to the shape of the Backstreet Boys’ heart, Limp Bizkit wanted us to take a look around – probably because someone let the dogs out (though Shaggy assured us it wasn’t him) – and Eminem wrote us even if we still ain’t callin.

Lesson one of 2000: there was no millennium bug.

So, 2000: Prince saw in the new year by playing what he promised would be the last performance of ‘1999’ and Sharon Osborne promptly quit after three months as the Smashing Pumpkins’ manager “for medical reasons: Billy Corgan was making me sick.” Nice. It was also the year that CD sales reached their peak, apparently, with sales declining yearly ever since. In an effort to stop the rise of the alternative – downloads and mp3s – Metallica decided to sue Napster.

Rage Against The Machine were petering out – bass player Tim Commerford was arrested for climbing onstage at the MTV VMAs when their ‘Sleep Now In The Fire’ video lost out to Limp Bizkit. Apparently he was ‘just bored’ of the show. Not to worry though – NSYNC performed ‘Bye Bye Bye’.  A month or so later Zach De La Rocha left RATM, he said the band’s “decision making process” had completely failed. They’d be back but they got out just in time – their bastard spawn genre ‘nu metal’ was making bands like Limp Bizkit, Papa Roach and Mudvayne monstrously dominant.

Ben Folds Five, Candlebox, Sceaming Trees and Smashing Pumpkins all joined Rage Against The Machine in calling it a day in 2000.

I think I did my bit for CD sales in 2000 – I was at university and doing the sensible and responsible thing of spending big chunks of my student loan instalments at the multitude of music shops in Canterbury at the time. So what’s worth grabbing from the stack from the start of the new millennium?

It was double-bubble from at least two bands in 2000. The Smashing Pumpkins graced us with two instalments of their ‘Machina’ albums: Machina / The Machines of God and Machina II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music with the first released traditionally and the latter – a double album packaged with 3 eps full of b-sides and alternative versions – released online only after plans for a physical release got buggered by legal wranglings. Both are better in retrospect than I remember but Machina / The Machines of God was definitely the strongest and stronger than Adore for my money.

The other double came from Everclear who released their two-parts of the same concept Songs From An American Movie Vol One:  Learning How To Smile and Songs from an American Movie Vol. Two: Good Time for a Bad Attitude some four months or so apart. Another lesson in how one good album was sacrificed for the sake of two ‘ok’ albums it also pretty much killed off the original run of the band thanks to the fact that the band and label were still promoting Vol One when the second was released and songs from Vol Two were used in films so were then added back as bonus tracks to Vol One… it was a mess that meant both albums stalled and the band kinda stalled with em.

Lesson two of 2000: no two album concept releases. 

Then again… one of two albums recorded at the same time, Radiohead’s Kid A was released in 2000. Wisely decided the material would be too dense if served up as a double, the sound of Kid A were a massive leap in a ‘definitely not OK Computer Part 2 direction. More samples, more loops, more processed guitars and disjointed lyrics. Having nearly been broken by the strain of touring and promoting OK Computer (see ‘Meeting People Is Easy’), Radiohead took a leaf out of Pearl Jam’s book and said ‘no’ a lot more: no singles, no videos, minimal promotion and photos. Garnering a massively mixed reception at the time, if you ask me: Kid A is a fucking triumph:

The Go-Betweens released their first album in 12 years, The Friends of Rachel Worth and Cat Power’s The Covers Record gave Chan Marshall a reprieve from the pressure of following up Moon Pix as she added her unique take on a series of classics from the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and more.

2000 was another great year for the growing post-rock genre with the debut from Explosions In The Sky How Strange Innocence arriving – one of last year’s finest re-releases – along with Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s astonishing masterpiece Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven. Not content with releasing one of the genre’s finest albums to this day, some of Godpseed’s members kickstarted a new band, A Silver Mt Zion (now having swapped ‘A’ for ‘Thee’) with the release of another great album; He Has Left Us Alone but Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms…

Things were happening out in Nebraska – Omaha based label Wichita was at the forefront of another ‘scene’ with releases in 2000 including Cursive’s Domestica and Bright Eyes’ Fevers and Mirrors. I listened to both again recently and it’s now Cursive’s that holds up stronger. 

Warren Zevon figured Life’ll Kill Ya in 2000 – a return to new music and form – released just a couple of years before Zevon was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Aimee Mann released Bachelor No 2 and PJ Harvey gave us Stories From The City, Stories From the Sea One that I found via ‘The Sopranos’ from 2000 and still enjoy is Kasey Chambers’ The Captain.

The Cure’s Bloodflowers was a real strong effort as was Eel’s Daisies of the Galaxy and Death Cab For Cutie’s We Have The Facts and We’re Voting Yes.  Elliott released their album False Cathedrals in 2000. A band born of Slowdive, Mojave 3 released Excuses For Travellers and one of the most famous duos in music, The White Stripes dropped their second effort De Stijl. There were great albums to be found at the heavier end of the shelves with A Perfect Circle’s Mer De Noms, Queens of the Stone Age’s Rated R with its famous shopping list of drugs and the phenomenal Relationship of Command by At The Drive-In.

Two big guns in my collection released strong efforts in 2000: Pearl Jam released their much-overlooked Binaural, their first effort with a new producer after an amazing four-album run with Brendan O’Brien. But I’ve already covered that a couple of times. Sonic Youth released a similarly much-overlooked album: NYC Ghosts and Flowers. In 1999 a huge amount of the band’s gear – including guitars and effects pedals – was stolen in the middle of the night while they were on tour in California. Pretty much having to start from scratch after years of building up effects and tunings, NYC Ghosts and Flowers is a much more experimental album than expected and has aged really well. Oddly enough they’d join Pearl Jam for the start of the Binaural tour in 2000. By 2012 they’d managed to recover 8 of the guitars which were stolen. 

Modest Mouse released an absolute classic with The Moon & Antartica, Coldplay arrived with Parachutes, Placebo began the climb down after two amazing albums with the ‘it’s ok’ Black Market Music and Jets to Brazil released another brilliant album with Four Cornered Night.

It’s interesting just how big a sway less than amazing feedback can have on artists used to being covered in praise. Take the reaction to Lucky Town and Human Touch – it pushed Springsteen’s confidence back so much he barely released anything else for the decade despite working a couple of albums’ worth of material in that time. On the plus side it drove him back to the E Street Band and the reunion tour that was still underway in 2000. Then there’s U2 – the response to Pop was such that the band pulled back on the experimentation and released a ‘Best Of’ of their first decade then chose 2000 for a ‘comeback’ with All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Songs like ‘Beautiful Day’ and ‘Stuck In A Moment That You Can’t Get Out Of’ helped it leap up to monster figures and drive them back to the adulation they’d grown accustomed to but listening back to it, it’s not aged as well and now as then I find it more ‘twee’ and too singular in its approach, like they were scared to give anything any of that bite they’d discovered in time for the 90s. They’d find it again by the next album though. 

Speaking of comebacks, after a four year break taken up with soundtrack work, Mark Knopfler released Sailing to Philadelphia in 2000. Managing to both break away from yoke of Dire Straits while also recall some of its finer moments, Sailing to Philadelphia was probably the last time MK”s solo work received such attention, while Golden Heart found him wavering in direction, as if he was expecting to find the same level of success,  this one sounds a lot more relaxed and confident in its boots and managed to set the template for what his solo work would be for a while to come and it’s a bloody solid album too. 

So if it’s not Radiohead, Sonic Youth or Pearl Jam, what’s my pick for 2000?

Elliott Smith – Figure 8

You know, I listened to this again in its entirety yesterday. And probably a week or so before that too and goodness knows how many times since Elliott Smith released what would be his final album in April 2000. Listening to it now is not only a reminder of what a joyously great album it is but also a kick in the balls as it’s such a crying fucking shame that he’s no longer with us.

But back to the album. Between XO and Figure 8 Elliott Smith had moved from Brooklyn to LA where he’d play regular intimate and acoustic shows in bars around the Silver Lake area. You’d be forgiven then for thinking his next album would be a return to his former hushed sounds but then there’s a cover of the Beatles’  ‘Because’ that appeared on the ‘American Beauty’ (can anyone watch Kevin Spacey in that now?) soundtrack that was a better indication – Figure 8 is Smith’s lushest, most fully-fleshed sounding record with a big ‘Fab Four’ influence in its arrangements, instruments and textures while unmistakably Elliott Smith.

There’s something so much more…. positive and upbeat to Figure 8. It’s not as strong as XO but it’s a definite progression in sound and Smith’s writing was going from strength to strength. Listening to it I get the feeling he was really having fun in the studio and being able to build up his songs into these great arrangements, I’m sure that upset people who only wanted their Elliott Smith records to feature an acoustic guitar, but there’s so much to love about the sound of Figure 8.

It got in early but Figure 8 is one of the best albums of the 2000s, it’s both enjoyable and accessible while rewarding on multiple listens with so many little hidden elements that can be missed at first.

Albums of my years – 1999

We were livin’ la vida loca as there seemed to be an explosion of polished pop taking over once again – Christina Aguilera wanted us to rub her up the right way (at least it wasn’t as fucking awful a message to be sending out to kids as WAP) and Britney Spears told us we were driving her crazy. Dr Dre was still D.R.E – has anyone checked what his doctorate is in? – and Blink 182 wanted to check their age, again. Apparently we stole Len’s sunshine but it didn’t matter because everybody was free to wear sunscreen while finding it impossible to escape from Rob Thomas crooning about how ‘Smooth’ it all is over Santana’s guitar toss-offs  – that’s right: it’s 1999! Prepare to party as this series does what I’ve never managed to do: say goodbye to the 90s.

With the new Millennium (or Willenium – I see what you did there, Big Will) approaching, music was in a weeeiiiird place, man. It felt like there was a real rush to shrug off the sound that had been so prevalent in the decades early stages and embrace all things gloss and Y2K – I point the cannon of blame firmly at MTV’s TRL era. There’s only so much Backstreet Boys and Britney guff the world can take before it starts to seep out…

Mark Sandman – bass player and singer for the fantastic Morphine – collapsed on stage in Italy in July. He was pronounced dead shortly after – a heart attack likely due to heavy stress and the heat had killed him at age 46. Morphine disbanded.

Gary Cherone said farewell to the Van Halen brothers and The Artist Formerly Known As Prince (as he was then going by) filed a lawsuit against 9 websites for copyright and trademark infringement starting a pattern of strict and total control over the presence of his songs anywhere that would continue until his passing. Oh, and the music world said ‘alright, how’s it goin?’ to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival when the first event was held on October 9th – Tool, Beck, The Chemical Brothers, The Racist Prick Formerly Known As Morrissey and Rage Against The Machine all featured on the lineup.

So – leaving aside the pop tarts of the era, was anything decent released in 1999? Well….  it’ wasn’t a huge year but The Black Crowes kicked things off with a pretty good stab at it with By Your Side, produced by Kevin Shirley and sounding much like the Crowes of old with plenty of biting riffs and soul. Blondie released their first album in 17 years – No Exit shifted pretty well on the back of their hit ‘Maria’ and everybody’s favourite Anal Cunt released that album that everyone owns at least two copies of –  It Just Keeps Getting Worse.

Sparklehorse’s second album Good Morning Spider was a real slice of the good stuff and Jimmy Eat World achieved a great album with Clarity – I hate the ’emo’ tag – with songs like ‘Lucky Denver Mint’, ‘Table for Glasses’, ‘Goodbye Sky Harbour’ and ‘Believe In What You Want’ it’s a real solid slab of alt-gold.

Silverchair released their third album Neon Ballroom which is one my wife wanted to add to the record shelves not too long ago and the first I’d really heard by them, it’s not shabby at all though still feeling more like a callback to those bands from a certain Pacific North West area of America that they loved.

Wilco dropped their third album Summerteeth and received praised from pretty much every critical outlet and The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin – featuring ‘Race for the Prize’ and ‘Waitin’ for a Superman’ – met an equally ecstatic reaction. At some point I remember watching one of the music channels and catching a video for ‘The Dolphin’s Cry’ and was so taken with it that I went out and got hold of Live’s The Distance To Here, the band’s fourth album. It’s got a real strong and cool vibe that I dig a lot though it wasn’t as successful for them as previous efforts like Throwing Copper.

On the post-rock front there were another pair of stone-cold classics released in 1999 – three if you count Godspeed You Black Emperor’s Slow Riot For Kanada EP – Mogwai released their fucking amazing second studio album Come On Die Young which featured a deliberately sparser sound to Young Team and still gets thrown into my cd player on a regular basis. Oh and a band from Iceland released their second album too: Sigur Rós’ Ágætis byrjun proved to be both their breakthrough and a benchmark for both the genre and the band – it’s just a thing of beauty:

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released Echo their last with Rick Rubin and bass player Howie Epstein who was absent from both many a session and the cover photo shoot. A much more sombre collection of tunes, it’s Petty’s ‘divorce’ album and one the band didn’t touch much live but it’s very much worth a listen and songs like ‘Room At The Top’ and ‘Free Girl Now’ always a joy to hear.  Another Tom – Tom Waits released his thirteenth album, Mule Variations which was his first in six years.

Red Hot Chili Peppers, now featuring the return of John Frusciante, released the album that threw them into the megasphere: Californication. A massive success and loaded with singles like ‘Otherside’, ‘Scar Tissue’ and the title track, it gave the band another lease of life and success and its songs are still played on radio, it’s pretty good too.

There was a trio of great third albums too in 1999 – Rage Against The Machine’s third and final album Battle of Los Angeles was another slab of their fiery great stuff (to be honest, they had a pretty perfect run in the studio album department so it’s not surprising they don’t want to taint it by pushing for more) and Dave Grohl and his mates figured There Was Nothing Left To Lose which went bonkers thanks to hits like ‘Learn to Fly’ and ‘ Generator’. It’s got a real different vibe to most everything else in their catalogue – a bit softer, almost Police-like at times – and is a real highlight. Oh and Counting Crows’ This Desert Life arrived just two years after their second. It’s another fine effort from the band though not as strong as Recovering The Satellites with songs like ‘Mrs Potter’s Lullaby’, ‘I Wish I Was A Girl’ and ‘Colorblind’ standing out for me.

For me, the album of 1999 goes to:

Built to Spill – Keep It Like A Secret

Built to Spill often feel like a secret in themselves, I honestly don’t think they get the audience they deserver (or that their major label Warner Bros would like) but they remain one of the finest purveyors of guitar-driven ‘alt’ out there and have a massively strong back catalogue of albums which include Keep It Like A Secret and its predecessor Perfect From Now On both of which are oft-heralded by those list-compilers as essential.

Perfect From Now On is was the band’s first on a major label and  in a move that surprised everyone, and showed Warner’s faith in them, the shortest song on it was still over five minutes long – it’s a song of long, experimental tunes with philosophical lyrics all hinged on Doug Martsch’s guitar playing. No doubt knackered after crafting such an epic, Keep It Like A Secret is a deliberate direction, Martsch made a concerted effort to create shorter, more concise tunes – most of which were born during a week of jamming. Maybe they looked around, saw how quickly the majors could cast aside bands and decided to tighten things up.

Well – to an extent. What I love about this album is that, yes, it’s more concise and accessible but even here Built To Spill wouldn’t be constrained – the songs start out like streamlined, massively catchy indie tunes but then Martsch still manages to shake loose and throw in bundles of guitar histrionics, twists and turns while maintaining a tightness and directness that keep them rooted in tighter time frames – even with the glorious time signature changes.

The lyrics are more immediate and catchy too and I’ve got a real love for the humour on this album, perhaps most evident in the cliche-mocking ‘You Were Right’ which borrows lines from the ‘classic rock’ school that the indie-rock scene at the time was so keen to distances itself from and not even approach ironically: “You were right when you said all that glitters isn’t gold,  You were right when you said all we are is dust in the wind, you were right when you said we are all just bricks in the wall.”

That’s the other thing I love about Built To Spill both in general and on this album – they manage to keep their music open and breathing as openly as bands like Pavement and other ‘indie rock’ bands that sites like Pitchfork used to fawn over. BUT they’re not afraid to simply fucking have it when it comes to amazing guitar solos and playing – classic rock elements and executions in an alt-rock sound. Doug Martsch clearly knows how to make people like me go “ooooohhhh BABY!” It’s the sort of stuff that I think Thurston Moore would love to do but doesn’t quite have Martsch’s guitar chops.

See: aside from how little an audience this band has compared to what they deserve – Doug Martsch is a massively underrated guitar player. Throughout Built To Spill’s career (I can no longer refer to them as BTS anymore as that throws up an all together different band on Google), which is still going and still on a major label, Martsch is not only the only mainstay of a band but the lineup and sound is built around his guitar playing in a way that makes me think of a less fuzz-buried J Mascis. Whereas it feels like J can just plug in and rip out a riff into a song and Martsch deliberates a lot more over structures (hence the increasing gap between studio albums), there’s plenty of similarities and I’d hold them both up as the genre’s greatest players.

I’d happily dig into any Built To Spill album and lose myself in it but Keep It Like A Secret is like the most perfect encapsulation of their sound and easily its classic lineup and manages to be what’s got to be the decade’s last great 90s album.

Unfortunately I guess Warner Bros. has a strange relationship with the streaming service beginning with an S and this is one of the band’s albums not available on it. However:

 

I Hung My Head – 3 Versions

“Early one morning
With time to kill
I borrowed Jebb’s rifle
And sat on a hill
I saw a lone rider
Crossing the plain
I drew a bead on him
To practice my aim”

The magnificent and multi-talented Jim of Music Enthusiast (if you don’t read it, you’re missing out) has kindly permitted me to half-inch his One Song / Three Versions format for a mo so I better make sure and do this as well as I can.

I Hung My Head was originally, and this surprised me greatly, a song by Mr Gordon Sumner – or Sting as he’s been called for more decades than not. It was featured on his fine 1996 album Mercury Falling and was written from both his fondness for Westerns and his interest in country music – which is also pretty notable on one of the album’s singles, ‘I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying’.

A somewhat dark tune in narrative, it’s the story of a young man who, having borrowed his brother’s rifle, shoots a stranger while practicing his aim. Whether the shot is fired by accident / on purpose isn’t really clear but it’s about facing the consequences – “I orphaned his children, I widowed his wife” – as much as anything else. Anyone familiar with this blog knows that I’m gonna dig a song like that.

So, the original:

It’s a fine song in its writer’s hands but…. I don’t know. There’s something about the narrative vs Sting’s arrangement on record that clashes a little too much for me. The music is very much a… 90’s Hugh Padgham & Sting sound with too much bounce, synth and brass to work with the song as a western or story like this. It’s almost like Nick Cave doing a reggae version of Red Right Hand.

For a good western style song about murder and begging for God’s mercy there’s really only once voice that you think of… a voice that sounds like it was hewed from granite, gargled gravel for breakfast to wash away the pain of life itself and still carry a tune…. the Man in Black himself; Johnny Cash. American IV, the final album Johnny Cash released during his lifetime and features his own rendition of Sting’s song.

The production is minimal, the sound stripped to just an acoustic guitar, the odd sustained piano chord and Cash’s aged, world-weary voice taking the song into a different time signature and turning into a starker, more direct and hard-hitting tale.

There’s a change in lyrics here too as with some of Cash’s over readings – the rifle in Cash’s take is thrown “into the sheen” and the rider “kept on runnin’ into the south lands” rather than Sting’s “salt lands”. It so suits him that I thought this was a Cash original at first – his voice and approach means that it’s one of those rare times that a cover version feels to have more authenticity than the original. Here:

In a strange connect-the-dots way, American V, released after Cash’s death in 2003, featured his take on Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Further On Up The Road’. It wasn’t the first time he’d covered Bruce – notable takes on ‘Johnny 99’ and ‘Highway Patrolman’ were included on Cash’s 1983 album Johnny 99 and there’s a cracking version of ‘I’m On Fire’ on the Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album.

Springsteen and Sting are also pretty firm friends, with the two sharing a mic on many occasion and a drink on even more. So, in 2014 when Sting was made a Kennedy Center Honoree and the time came for the obligatory performance of one of his songs by another artist…. it was Bruce Springsteen that stepped up to provide a highlight and bring the house down  with ‘I Hung My Head’, a song he’d already been playing (Sting’s songs were also performed by Lady Gaga, Esperanza Spalding and Bruno Mars) with a song that seemed as perfectly suited to late-career Bruce as it did Johnny Cash.

Before I drop spill into Bruce’s version, here – for reference – is Sting’s reaction to hearing one of his songs played… perhaps not as favourably:

Thing is, I think it’s fair to say that when Bruce covers a song he kind of makes it his own and it’s certainly the case with ‘I Hung My Head’ – his reading is closer to Cash’s take and he seems to get caught up in the emotion of the narrative but then he also gives it the full band treatment and turns it into a Springsteen song much, it’s clear, to the delight of the song’s writer. Again, Bruce makes a few lyrical changes in his take – substituting “I beg their forgiveness” with “I ask no forgiveness” along with the ending “I pray for God’s mercy” giving way to “I ask for no mercy” because in Springsteen’s songs his characters own their crimes and face the consequences.

Personally I think Bruce – in his charged and committed performance – pretty much takes the prize. But that’s just my opinion…

Tracks: Camouflage

“And then a big marine, a giant with a pair of friendly eyes
Appeared there at my shoulder and said ‘Wait!’
When he came in close beside me he said ‘Don’t worry, son, I’m here’
‘If Charlie wants to tangle now they’ll have two to dodge'”

After a brief back and forth in a comment section with CB over at Cincinnati Babyhead and ahead of a post on war (what is it good for?) I felt the need to dust off my Tracks format  wherein I spotlight a particular song that stands out in my mental jukebox and sits amongst my favourites – I feel a Spotify playlist coming on…

Stan Ridgway’s ‘Camouflage’ was taken from his 1986 album The Big Heat. It was a hit over here in the UK (hitting number 4 in the chart – I’ve still got a cassette of the Top 40 from some point in the year and it’s on there alongside things like Robert Palmer’s ‘I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On’ and Gwen Guthrie’s ‘Ain’t Nothing Going On But The Rent’ as a slab of my childhood in the back seat of my parent’s car on family drives) but didn’t chart in Ridgway’s native US where he’d previously found success in Wall of Voodoo.

Sung from the pov of a young, inexperience Private First Class cut off from his patrol in ‘the jungle war of ’65’ and finding himself surrounded… until ‘that big marine named Camouflage’ saves him…  Sure, it’s over-the-top and not exactly realistic, but it’s a cracker in my book:

This song cuts on a personal level. When I was a kid growing up my Dad’s best friend Charlie was a regular presence in our lives. He’d been a ‘weekend soldier’ in the TA and, with my Dad, part of an RAF volunteer service called the ROC. This was one of his favourites, I guess the Vietnam story appealed to him, and so it became lodged in my mind and the connection between the song and him makes it a bit of an emotional one too: he was killed while riding his motorbike in 1992 when a lorry hit him.

Aside from that emotional connection – my father can’t listen to it anymore – I really dig the tune and can see why it was a favourite. The story is like something from Catch 22, the sound has that 80’s New Wave / Alternative vibe and Ridgway’s delivery, like some strange film noir narrative, is unique.

Spinning Some Newer Things

Stepping out of the mid-90s for a moment, I thought it high time to throw a few things up here to show what else – during this long-arse pause in the ‘norm’ – has been going through my ears lately.

Daughter – Youth

So… anyone else catch Ricky Gervais’ ‘Afterlife’ on Netflix? We powered through both seasons earlier this year. Not what I was expecting – gutting at times… jesus. Hell of a soundtrack though and sent me off exploring a lot of new artists and many I’d heard of but not heard. This particularly stood out and I’ve been enjoying Daughter’s catalogue since.

Eliot Sumner – Information 

Some time back I took a punt on Destroyer’s Kaputt having seen it on sale for £5.99 and found out I really dug it. The same thing happened with Eliot Sumner’s album Information: I saw it in a sale for £6.99 and thought ‘why is a double lp so cheap?’, checked reviews / information, not a lot them about so pinged it up on Spotify and… holy shit! The name didn’t click at first but the voice…. it’s like the same timbre of her father and she’s singing with such confidence and there’s a real power to it… really enjoying this album from Gordon’s daughter even if, or perhaps because, it’s not what would normally be in my wheelhouse.

School Is Cool – Close

Another new discovery – these guys hail from Belgium. Their new album Things That Don’t Go Right is a pretty good mix of the same sun-kissed guitar tones and vibes that The War On Drugs have perfected along with some cool vocal harmonies and those 80’s sci-fi synths that Stranger Things seems to have revived.

Turnover – Cutting My Fingers Off

I’d seen this album so many times on ‘the ‘gram’ and for some reason thought it was something entirely different – I thought it was one of those stone-metal albums like Sleep…. However; took the opportunity afforded by not having to get up for work (only as an acting teacher to my son at least) to listen in on headphones in the evenings and have been hooked on Turnover since.

Gary Clark Jr – This Land

Holy shit did I sleep on this one. I mean, I’ve always dug Gary Clark Jr’s playing – his Live album is a frequent spinner even if I haven’t found his studio albums as rewarding – but this is just something else and, right now, still, essential.

Philp Sayce – Burning Out

Again – new to me, this guy, but I’ve been digging what I’ve heard thus far and, much like Gary Clark Jr, this guy drew a lot of ears playing at one of Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festivals.

Pearl Jam – Quick Escape

March seems like a decade ago already doesn’t it? Without being able to tour and promote it’s easy to forget Pearl Jam had a new album out this year – which sucks especially when you consider how long we had to wait for it! Still, Gigaton is an absolute beast – one of their most ‘on’, diverse and consistently strong albums in a long time and I enjoy it more with every spin. ‘Quick Escape’ is a thumper! “Crossed the border to Morocco , Kashmir to Marrakesh . The lengths we had to go to then to find a place Trump hadn’t fucked up yet.”