Saturday, 22 December 2007

Top 100 Albums - #48: You Could Have It So Much Better (2005)

Franz Ferdinand's second and final chart entry comes at number 48 with their second, and so far last, album.

The release of Franz Ferdinand (#84) in February 2004 made Franz Ferdinand global superstars. It was listed in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die; it won the 2004 Mercury Prize; and it spawned 5 hit singles, including 'Take Me Out' which hit #3 in the UK. Faced with such a monolithic success - something not usually accorded to debut albums - the band spent the remainder of 2004 consolidating their success on the live circuit, playing festivals and touring at a frenetic pace. In 2005, having stated in interviews their intention to follow up rapidly, the band retreated to the studio, demoing new material at the V Festival in August.

We open this much-anticipated follow-up with 'The Fallen'. At once, all the characteristics of Franz Ferdinand at their best are there: Paul Thompson's dynamic drumming, razor-sharp riffs, art school sensibility and a sense of humour. Here the lyrics are cleverer than before: Some say ya' troubled boy/ Just because you like to destroy/ All the things that bring the idiots joy/ Well, what's wrong with a little destruction? This is a brilliant, vibrant and lively start, which entertains you enough to make you dance, but treats you as an erudite human being instead of just some thug in tight jeans.

'Do You Want To' is another fine example of bombastic pop-rock, something which Franz Ferdinand do better than most in the 21st century. As on 'Take Me Out', there is a monumental tempo change part way through, but once again it's completely seamless. Alex Kapranos simplifies the lyrics but his delivery comes with a sense of purpose and sophistication, hidden behind a cheeky smile. Nick McCarthy's riffs are excellent and Bob Hardy's bass work on the verses is very effective. It's an intelligent pop song, one which flatters you as you bounce around the room.

Having made you dance incessantly until now, you are barely given time to breathe before it starts all over again. 'This Boy' begins with some lightning-quick snare work from Thompson over McCarthy's guitar, before cutting out as Kapranos strides up and drawls Yeah into the mike. It's effortlessly cool and yet relentless - while Franz Ferdinand carries you along at a steady pace, this feels like you're being kicked along like a football - and, unlike in real life, it feels good.

'Walk Away' is the second single culled from the album, and again it's a very fine effort. This has a 1960s feel to it; Kapranos is singing like his hero Ray Davies. McCarthy and Thompson are again on fine form, and leave sufficient space for both Kapranos and the acoustic part which creeps into the mix under all the electric paraphernalia. The final lines are quite strange, mind: The stab of a stiletto on a silent night/ Stalin smiles and Hitler laughs/ Churchill claps Mao Tse Tung on the back. I'm sorry?

'Evil And A Heathen' continues the promising trend set by its predecessors, as bombastics and heavy as the others. However, it's perhaps a good thing that this is only 2:05 long, as this is the first song in which we see the effect and the mood of the song overtaking the actual content. Because it's such a short and punchy song this doesn't really matter; had the band chosen to make this one of the longer track, it would have run out of steam pretty quickly.

'You're The Reason I'm Leaving' falls into a different kind of trap. This may have all the guitar- and drum-based ingredients of a Franz classic, but it has nowhere near enough substance. Many of the lyrics are padded out by repitition, and the riffs are a lot less eye- (or ear-)catching. McCarthy seems to have detuned his guitar because his solo from 1:27 onwards sounds terrible. This track is like a lot of modern indie music - all about looks and prancing around in an arty pair of skintight jeans, with no room for proper musicianship.

No matter, though, because it's soon over. Now we come to something completely different. 'Eleanor Put Your Boots On' sees the introduction of a piano alongside the acoustic. This creates a down-toned mood, which is brilliant for two reasons. One, it demonstrates the range of Franz Ferdinand as a band - it shows that they are not all about snazzy pop music. And two, this creates the perfect space for Kapranos' voice, with its Glaswegian tinge and inherent awkwardness. It becomes tender. This is like a better, more sophisticated version of 'Move On Now' by Hard-Fi, not just because Kapranos can sing better, but because it's completely unexpected. It's a marvellous track.

'Well That Was Easy' is yet another 3-minute indie pop song. They may well be trying harder here than on 'You're The Reason I'm Leaving', but throwing in a token change in time signature won't do it alone. As before, it feels way too casual - you can't dance to this one. But the worst bit about this track comes in the last minute - the repetition of that was easy, but I still miss you becomes so stependously garbled that you want to rip the CD in half as if it had been rinsed.

'What You Meant' is heaps better, returning us to the killer licks and lyrics of Franz at their best. Hardy is brutally strong on the bass, Thompson's drumming is energetic and the whole band is tight and flamboyant at the same time. The chorus may well be simple, but sometimes being overcomplicated spoils things. The third verse is a cracker: If we were feckless we'd be fine/ Sucking hard on our innocence/ But we've been bright enough to climb/ Been left as bleckened filament. Kapranos drawls these lines out with such grace and brio, it's a joy to listen to.

One of the more over-used tracks on here, 'I'm Your Villain' has a great, if now hackneyed intro. Again the bass is more prominent than before; again it's dragged along by McCarthy's razor-sharp strumming; and again it packs a few surprises along the way. No sooner have you gotten used to the snails'-pace verse than the 'chorus' comes at you at machine-gun speed, knocking you back about two feet. Drumming connoisseurs will notice that Thompson gets a lot more room to improvise his fills here, and while they don't always work, they do at least add variety.

The title track is yet another punchy, stricken number. The lyrics are like a drawn-out version of '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction' in the way that Kapranos decries the media and advertising: Because she wears this and/ He said that and/ If you get some of these/ It'll all be alright. But while that had an ostentatious air to it - it was the 1960s, remember - at the heart of this track is an arty sense of humour; the very way Kapranos says the word earpiece is bizarre.

'Fade Together' takes the successful musicality of 'Eleanor Put Your Boots On' (i.e. acoustic guitar and piano) and combines them again in a slightly different proportion. This creates another wonderful song, but not just because it's against type. Taken outside of the album, the song is an outstanding testament to British music. It has the eccentricity and tenderness of Nick Drake, with the melodic qualities of Paul McCartney at his peak. 'Outsiders', meanwhile, is overblown, over-complicated and over-long. The very production of this feels sprawling and drawn out, and the wierd, annoying electronica touches are just plain... stupid.

Although it received nowhere near as enough critical acclaim as its predecessor, You Could Have It So Much Better is an improvement from Franz Ferdinand. Partially, this is because the sound which made them a success in 2004 has been consolidated and nailed down, making the outfit as tight as possible. The big danger with bands at this stage is that their output tends to become formulaic, with albums becoming more about mood and style, and less about good songs. It happened to ELO, it's happening to Hard-Fi, but here it is avoided. Just. If this album did not have such brilliant tracks as 'Eleanor Put Your Boots On' and 'Fade Together', then listeners would feel cheated of Franz' real quality, and the album would live up to its name. In all, though, this is a bombastic, brilliant effort from Kapranos et al, which only goes to prove how much British music needs them to bring out a new album soon.

3.85 out of 5

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Top 100 Albums - #49: The Final Cut (1983)

Pink Floyd's second of eight entries is The Final Cut, the unofficial sequel to The Wall (1979) and Roger Waters' last effort with the band.
The Wall tour of 1980-81 had taken a serious toll on Pink Floyd. But it wasn't physical exhaustion - the cumbersome nature of the show had meant only 32 performances over two years. Financially, the tour had made a huge loss which was footed by the three remaining band members (Rick Wright, fired during recording, ironically made a profit after being hired back as a session player). The group spent the remainder of 1981 and most of 1982 working on the film version of The Wall, directed by Alan Parker and starring Bob Geldof as Pink. Pink Floyd The Wall went on general release in July 1982 to the bemusement of many in the film industry; to this day it remains as divisive as the album which spawned it. Throughout all this the feud between Roger Waters and David Gilmour grew, and as clamour for a new record grew, the situation did not look promising.

'The Post War Dream' opens the album, and already we are encountered by one of the fixtures of Floyd albums - the sampling of voices and noises from the real world. Opening with the döpplered sound of a car whizzing past and then ever-more-bleak radio snippets, the track then dovetails into Waters lyrics. As usual these are dark, but there is a deep sense of mourning in them - instead of just paying lip service to his father (killed in WWII), he turns it around into an attack on the modern world. His voice shifts from creepy to a scream as only he can. It's a very emotive start to this controversial album.

'Your Possible Pasts' is more melodic, backed as it is with some thoughtful distortion from David Gilmour. Waters delivery is always caustic, but it shifts from a sarcastic whisper to a full-blown rant. The chorus - Do you remember me,/ How we used to be?/ Do you think we should be closer? - works because of this. Sonically this is like 'Mother' from The Wall, except louder and more in-your-face. As a result it's as good as 'Mother', being as it is hewn from the same block of sulphur. 'One Of The Few', meanwhile, falls short if nothing else because it goes against the positive example of the last two tracks. It's Waters on his own with an acoustic and a ticking clock, and it feels lazxy and self-indulgent. Being only 1:11 long, it's the shortest track, and it has the feeling of being inserted between songs as if to continue the narrative.

Now we come to 'When The Tigers Broke Free'. Written especially for Pink Floyd The Wall, it was included in the 2004 remaster and slots in nicely. Here Waters is atoning with his father's passing at Anzio, by making a barbed pass at the establishment which sent him to his death: the very way that he sings the phrase And kind old King George send Mother a note, when he heard that Father was gone conveys all the pain and hatred that sprang from that loss and has since permeated into his music. It's a very moving song, backed with a very good male voice choir, and Waters is reigning himself in from endlessly and pointlessly screaming, as he would do on The Pros & Cons Of Hitch Hiking (1984). It is not just a good song because it's so personal, it's also honest and a fantastic indictment of war.

Soon the whispers fade, replaced by the wailing of Gilmour's guitar on full angry setting. On 'The Hero's Return', Waters is back in rage mode, only this time he is decrying the younger generation, railing against the punks and politicians who have neglected all the war fought for. Look at the opening verse: Jesus, Jesus, what's it all about?/ Trying to clout these little ingrates into shape/ When I was their age, all the lights went out/ There was no time to whine and mope about. Waters in turning into his parents, in a manner of speaking, and without good grace - much to our delight.

The next track, 'The Gunner's Dream', is one of the most indicative songs on the album. It begins with an explosion, then gives way to a tragic-sounding piano - like the album as a whole, it oscillates between being a expression of regret and sorrow and an horrific indictment of modern Britain. Waters again takes lead vocals as both Gilmour and Nick Mason are pushed to the sidelines - this is without doubt Waters' album. Lyrically this is splendid. To some lines about dreams seem sentimental; here they serve as a desperate plea from Waters, for us to hang on to our humanity and the desire for a better world. It's not the greatest track on the album, as we shall see, but there are many nice touches, like the saxophone part, something which vanished from Pink Floyd after Wish You Were Here (1975).

Having expressed the sentiments of the older generation on 'The Hero's Return', Waters then turns it on its head in 'Paranoid Eyes'. This slow-mover zeroes in on the veterans who survive conflicts and are left with their lives hollow, revolving entirely around the past. Gilmour's acoustic work is very subtle and intelligent, but once again Waters is the centre of intention. This is no bad thing, though, when he is writing verses as good as this: You believed in their stories of fame, fortune and glory/ Now you're lost in a haze of alcohol, soft middle-age/ The pie-in-the-sky turned out to miles to high/ And you hide, hide, hide/ Behind brown and mild eyes.

So far, then, The Final Cut could easily have passed off as a sterling Pink Floyd album, despite Waters' megalomania. Sadly for him, and for the band, the next track are seriously below-par. 'Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Desert' is but an excuse to play around with the effects controls in the studio, create explosions and unnecessary echoes. And there is little substance to the lyrics, which are an attack on Margaret Thatcher as obvious (and thereby as useless) as Green Day's snipes against George Bush.

'The Fletcher Memorial Home' has often been derided by critics as proof of, amongst other things, Waters' total inability to sing. All such comments are ridiculous. True, Waters not have the vocal range of someone like Roy Orbison or Jon Anderson, but both of these are anodyne pop singers with an inability to convey feeling in what they do. Waters' voice is not pure, but it's snarling, raspy, brimming with irony and perfect for the Floyd's lyrics. To return to the song itself, again it's very good quality, one reason being that Nick Mason comes out of his shell and in the instrumental section duels a blinder with Gilmour. His drums are as heavy, as potent and as angry as Waters' lyrics are acrid in their criticism of the war leaders.

'Southampton Dock', on the other hand, sees Waters trying to sound romantic, crooning the lines. As we have just established, neither his voice nor his songwriting is suited to this style. As a result, his delivery is flat and quite slurry - like a lot of stuff on the album, there is no visible hook to drag you in - you have to give it your undivided attention to find something good. This song is actually closer to Pros & Cons in its use of double-tracking - having Waters sing the low part with his high part on echo above it features a lot. Perhaps it belongs there more.

Having sifted through all this acrid smoke and bitterness, we come to the title track. This is absolutely mind-blowing. In his vocal performance Waters concentrates all the bitterness, the malice, the fear and the regret that his subject has heaped upon him. He then channels it into the lyrics, which are completely from the heart (and yes, contrary to popular belief he has one). There are hints of Pink's fate in here - it is unclear whether Pink died at the end of The Wall, but here there are signs that he is still there, and still mad. Lines like Can anybody love you/ Or is it just a crazy dream? are utterly inspired, like something out of the pages of Nietzsche; equally, Would you sell your story to Rolling Stone?/ Would you take the children away/ And leave me alone? are beautiful in conveying the singer's loneliness - Thom Yorke aside, no-one does it better. Add in an equisite solo from Gilmour, and you have one of the best Floyd tracks, certainly in the later era.

If 'The Final Cut' was a song for the death of hope which left you weeping for all that was lost, then 'Not Now John' is a potent, bombastic number, inciting you to go out fighting. It's unusual on the album in that it's sung, for the most part, by Gilmour. He makes a great job of it on the choruses, while Waters creeps you out on the 'verses'. What this lacks in McCartney-style structure it makes up for in sheer power. Waters' bass lines are thundery and atmospheric, Mason has an understated field day and Gilmour, having been given his chance, shines. In the final chorus, Waters steals the limelight and makes a fascinating indictment about realpolitik and Thatcher, whom Waters sees as responsible for the betrayal of the post-war dream.

Against the run of play, the album closes with a slow-moving, almost calming number in the shape of 'Two Suns In The Sunset'. Waters may have quietened down, but there is still a sting in the tail - this song expresses his fear of a future nuclear holocaust, which he wraps in his socialist rhetoric in the closing lines: Ashes and diamonds/ Foe and friend/ We were all equal in the end. The drumming is distinctingly different, because it is not Nick Mason - not feeling confident in his abilities, Waters replaced him with session drummer Andy Newmark, who would later drum on Pros & Cons. Be that as it may, it's a good closer to a reasonable album.

The Final Cut is shot from the same gun barrel as The Wall, both in its genesis and its working title of Spare Bricks. All the material is from the original demoes, with the anti-Falklands vibes sewn over the top. Many Floyd fans who hate this record have a point: compared to The Wall, and its predecessors, it is a poor relation, in part because of the absence of Rick Wright. However, when taken outside of the Floyd context, it holds together very well, with a clear message and some lovely touches, if you choose to give it enough attention. Rolling Stone went as far as calling it "art rock's crowning masterpiece... Not since Bob Dylan's 'Masters of War'... has a popular artist unleashed upon the world political order a moral contempt so corrosively convincing, or a life-loving hatred so bracing and brilliantly sustained."¹ In all, then, The Final Cut is a very thorough effort from the Floyd, not their best album by any standards but a damn good effort. And when you consider that the band was tearing itself apart almost as the album was being recorded, you realise that's really saying something.

3.85 out of 5


¹ Kurt Loder, 'The Final Cut', Accessed on December 22 2007.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Top 100 Albums - #50: The Blue Café (1998)

Chris Rea kicks off the second half of our chart with The Blue Café, his second of three entries. After the success of The Road To Hell (1989), Rea sought to consolidate the sound that had made him a transatlantic superstar. Both Auberge (1991) and God's Great Banana Skin (1992) sought to replicate the dark, rocky sound; however, while Auberge barely deviated from the dark formula and subject matter of The Road To Hell, God's Great Banana Skin was a lighter, more pop-oriented effort that divided the critics. The following year Espresso Logic (1993) continued his foray into pop, just as had done with dance in the mid-1980s, and while it produced two hits singles it was not as well received. The next five years saw Rea in ill health, with no new material beyond a soundtrack album, La Passione (1996), and a greatest hits compilation in 1994.

'Square Peg, Round Hole' kicks us off, and already we noticed a return to the classic blues guitar sound. But here it is backed by very modern, electronic drums - it's like he borrowed the rhythm section from Mike + The Mechanics. This is the first time that Rea has brought these two divergent versions of himself together, proving that blues and pop can easily go to get. In reality, this is a proper 1990s rocker, replete with echoey power chords, powerful and just a little bit of shredding. It's a very, very good start.

Mind you, 'Miss Your Kiss' isn't all that bad either. It begins with a five-note distorted riff which drills into your brain, earworming its way in until you form a symbiotic relationship with it. Rea's gravelly baritone, contrary to expectations, hardly seems to clash with his studio-synthesised background noise. The lyrics may be basic - I miss your kiss/ I miss your touch/ Can't get used to it baby/ I miss you so much - but they more than work. Listening to this you feel like you are cruising through America at sunset in an open-top Ferrari - and it's a brilliant feeling.

So far the album has buoyed us up, made us feel good about ourselves. But now things take a dark turn and Rea reveals why he is among the best at what he does, and why The Road To Hell was as good as was said. 'Shadows Of The Big Man' has Rea's creepy voice all over it, a voice which slowly tears you limb from limb while you stand and take it all in. The keyboard parts are perfectly balanced, one low and sinister, the other high and edgy. It's a proper atmospheric rock song, right out of its time but without any of the slushy trappings.

'Where Do We Go From Here?' is an indictment of the consumer culture, set against a muzak-esque backing track. The lyrics successfully depict people being alienated from each other and obsessed with possessions. Lines like They're 34, they're 45/ They're so obsessed with the car they drive/ "Where do they go?" she said,/ "Where do we go from here?" have a subtle bite to them, which might take a few spins to come out but at least they are not preachy. Look out also for the silky smooth bass guitar in the middle section.

'Since I Found You' returns to the feel-good formula, having spent the last two tracks trying to shock us out of our nightmarish stuppor. This is a classic love song, complete with harmonious piano, ride cymbals and bright, melodic chord progressions. Some may call this cloyed or clichéd, but look closer and you'll realise that is isn't. And unlike his work pre-Shamrock Diaries (1985, #91), his voice is not the only get-out-of-jail-free card. His guitar work, which has a lot more slide on it, is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face and a nod to your head.

So far, then, Rea has presented us with four very good and one great examples of pop rock without pretentions, slush or nonsense wrapped up with it. 'Thinking Of You' is another four-star song; it may not have the direction of the other five, but it features the same glorious slide guitar (on what sounds like a Fender Stratocaster - and judging from the album cover, probably is). It's a similar story on 'As Long As I Have Your Love'. Here we have some very attractive bass work, some interesting percussion and, as always, Rea's throaty tones. All create a very nice feel despite being relatively insubstantive tracks.

'Anyone Quite Like You' is quite brooding, with its prominent and slide guitar. But before you can catch your breath, it transforms into a deep-hearted pop song with electric drums and synthesisers. The rhythms are bluesy despite the melody having a quite rocky feel to them, it's almost edgy in a controlled sense of the word. The first real sense of error only comes with 'Sweet Summer Day'. This does sound fake and hollow, not just in the drum parts at the start, but the guitar feels lazy. It's like airport music, being played on Spinal Tap's amps. Compared to all that has gone before, it's rubbish.

Despite the obvious blues touches on 'Stick By You', don't be fooled - this is just as guilty. The lyrics are even weaker than usual, and Rea's delivery gives the impression that he not only doesn't care, but that he doesn't care to try. The licks are short and tepid, reminscent of the crap that graced the charts in this period. This is definitely one to avoid, skip over or record over.

'I'm Still Holding On' is a (very welcome) return to form. The guitar is understated, with the electric howling in the background while the acoustic plucks the rhythm part away. The drums are suave, and the cymbal crashes add a jazzy, sophisticated feel to things. Most importantly of all, Rea is putting some effort into the vocals and the lyrics. It's another long-driving song, albeit with a less transatlantic feel to it. If only the title track, the closer, were as good. Instead, it's a continental-style guitar workout, with vocals from the 1940s and guitar work straight out of a tacky Spanish restaurant. It's a poor way to end the album - very poor instead.

The Blue Café is one of Rea's best and most consistent efforts, taking a song structure and sustaining its best features throughout, in the absence of any lyrical concept. Rea's critics will seize upon this and claim that this is Rea in a holding pattern, maufacturing pop rock songs that exist only to replicate his early commercial success. They may have a point which its successor, The Road To Hell Part 2 (1999), but this album is very different. In the first two thirds at least, it's vibrant, it's relaxing, it's compelling - every that Rea can be and is at his best. Things definitely turn sour towards the end, and indeed the album could have done with being a bit shorter, both in the number of song and the song lengths themselves. But overall this is a fine effort from Rea which will stand the test of time.

3.83 out of 5

+++++ Intermission +++++

We have reached the halfway point in the countdown, making it as good a time as any to pause for reflection on a number of matters.First off the top of my head, many of you who have been following this countdown (and I hope there are more than I imagine) will have been bemused by my choices on a number of occasions. Only the only day, I got into a discussion with a Dylan fan after I reviewed Time Out Of Mind (#53) quite scathingly. Why, he asked, if I am so critical of Dylan's work, did I plump for that album instead of something like Blonde On Blonde (1966) or Blood On The Tracks (1975)? A few of my choices have been compilations, and there are a few more to come, which many would not count as proper albums and therefore not eligible for the chart.

Sometimes, I admit, the choice comes from ignorance. In the case of Dylan, when I compiled this chart I had had little contact with his earlier work, no great sweeping knowledge of his oeuvre - that album simply happened to be in that position. Other times, my tastes would change as I wrote the entries, either because of new albums coming in or just changing my mind about songs upon closer inspection. It's an interesting process, even for someone without considerable technical knowledge such as I, to go through your music collection and justify to tastes, as if all the world were a jury.

This brings me on to the matter of late entries. I compiled this chart in August 2007, around the date of the first entry, funnily enough. Being a slow writer and an even slower critic, I did not expect to finish it by Christmas, as has become plainly obvious by the fact that, on December 15th, we are only at #51. I had to devise a system therefore to accomodate new music that I would doubtlessly absorb while this rundown was being completed. New albums coming in were scored and examined in the same way as every other, the rating derived by giving each song a score out of 5 and then averaging over the number of tracks. To have included new entries on the chart, as they surpassed existing ones, would have been both unfair and impractical, until it would have gotten to the stage where I had lost count of how many albums I had reviewed because the numbers would not correlate.

Looking at my current music collection - which stands at a meagre 4,165 songs - there are so many records which I have come to in the past few months which I wished I could have included. My fascination with Pink Floyd has led me to the solo work of Roger Waters (and David Gilmour, for entirely different reasons). Once you have experienced the psychosis of The Pros And Cons Of Hitch Hiking (1984) or the acrid, poetic treatise that is Amused To Death (1992), you are compelled to share it. David Bowie's "Heroes" (1977) was another step into the unknown - I have referenced it before but only once you have heard Eno's soundscape on that album do you really get a sense of how important an album it is. Then there is The Blue Nile, whose later efforts - Peace At Last (1996) and High (2004) - are both sublime; alas, too late. Finally, only yesterday I was exposed to Janis Joplin for the first time - I fell in love with Pearl (1971) and am scouring the net for more.

What is more, many will question the omission on my chart of so many albums which are considered 'classics'. Precisely which classic are missing I shall not say, for fear of giving the game away and thereby making the second half pointless. But I will say this. I am a great believer in subjectivity, especially when it comes to music. I don't believe that you can differentiate between songs according to absolute rules of melody, rhythm and production. These are all useful guides in their own right, but if they become the rules they serve only to mechanise music, removing all the life from it and rendering the whole process of music rather anodyne and dull.

What matters to me is what music says to different people. A piece of music, a good album for that matter, should resonate with you, describe you, challenge you and engross you. It is much the same with the choices on my chart. Some of the albums have blown me away at a single listen; others have summed me up at a particular point in my life and thereby have an historical quality; others still are good occassional listeners and mood setters. What connects them all is that they have an emotional resonance, an empathy or shock value, which puts them and keeps them close to my heart. All have their foibles, for there is no such thing as a perfect album - none of the records on here have the coveted '5 out of 5' rating. But these flaws, which become all the more miniscule as we climb, only serve to keep me interested.

The great thing about this is that people can get away with having completely incompatible tastes, both within their own collections and between each other. Some people might have a CD collection crammed to the brim with country & western - the kind of music I shudder to when it comes on. But that's okay - if they can justify their choices, just as I have done in my own small way here, then that's fine. Anything goes for anyone, so long as we accept that we have a right to be different and to disagree.

This chart, then, is not designed to be an all-encompassing, infallible judgement on music - no-one ever has or ever will manage such a feat, which is why these endless polls by the likes of Rolling Stone produce such endless and wonderful debate. This is designed to explain to you, if you will let me, my musical tastes and why these albums mean so much. I chose not to write in a personal tone ('I like this because...') since that might come across as preachy and petty; I like to have a professional air to my work, even if I have no aspirations (as yet) to pursue this field as a career.

Having got that out of the way, we must press on with the chart...

Friday, 14 December 2007

Top 100 Albums - #51: The Man Machine (1978)

Electronica pioneers Kraftwerk make their only appearance on the chart with The Man Machine, an album which produced their biggest hit in 'The Model'. Kraftwerk formed in 1970 out of the wreckage of the quintet Organisation, who released their only album, Tone Float, before splitting. Comprised originally of Florian Schneider-Esleben and Ralf Hütter, throughout the first four years the band reheased in a rented loft. It had a constantly fluctuating line-up, recruiting many sessions musicians for their sporadic live performances. After being introduced to producer-engineer Konrad 'Conny' Plank, the band began recording at his studio in Cologne. After producing the first three, largely forgotten albums, Plank left after their breakthrough Autobahn (1974) over a contract dispute. By now the band had a steady line-up of Wolfgang Flür, Karl Bartos, Schneider and Hütter. Over the next three years, the quartet steady toured and produced two critically acclaimed albums - Radio-Activity (1975), a concept album about radio, and Trans-Europe Express (1977), about Europe and the disparities between imagination and reality.

The opening track, 'The Robots', kicks the album off in supreme style. With its metallic percussion and great use of stereo, it creates the perfect soundscape for the computerised vocals. What makes this superior to anything on Trans-Europe Express - widely touted as their masterpiece - is that has a kind of sense of humour. While 'Europe Endless' or its counterparts successfully conveyed their themes by being metallic and sterile, this does the same but twists it, giving it a pop edge and thereby making it a bit more fun. The lyrics, about the futurist synthesis of man and machine, are heaps more memorable (catchy isn't the word) because they are engineered in this mildly tongue-in-cheek way. It's a masterpiece which neither drags nor cuts out too soon, and a brilliant beginning to the album.

'Spacelab' begins with the kind of wierd, electronic noises that characterised Radio-Activity. But while these were often used to form the, erm, melody in itself, here they provide a hypnotic pulse over which the keyboards and drum pads can be overlaid. And boy, does it work. The keyboards sing and shimmer their way along the bars as the riffs tumble out, creating something which is rare in electronica - a hook. If there's one thing wrong whith this song, it's that the (tinny) drum machines are a little too loud in the mix. In reality, however, this is so well put together that you most likely won't notice, or care.

Having covered man, machinery and space travel thus far, 'Metropolis' shifts the theme again, this time to urbanisation. It's clear that, as on Trans-Europe Express, Kraftwerk are trying to cram in as much as possible onto an album. This is darker, more driven, and spookier than the previous two numbers. The long, leering keyboard parts take you onto a dimly lit street, with wiry figures peering out of the shadows. Like 'Hall Of Mirrors', it's a strange and scary number, very edgy and yet so mechanical and predetermined - just how Kraftwerk should be.

'The Model' is probably Kraftwerk's most well-known and accessible song, surpassing even their (severely) edited version of 'Autobahn'. Unlike the full-flung 'Autobahn' - a humungous 22:43 - this is a much more accessible 3:43. The lyrics, as before, are in English, which is a great help; not only that, they have a inexplicable catchiness. Kraftwerk were never the most biting social commentators, but this indictment of the fashion industry is as good as anything around at the time. Above all, it's insanely danceable, being underscored as it is with a great bass line over which the higher keyboards dance.

Having been on course for a total masterpiece, we slip up on 'Neon Lights'. This reworks the same themes of 'Metropolis', only with more lyrics and less musical variation; which means that all the good bits of the previous effort are somewhat compromised. What is more, it's the longest track at 8:54, and once you put that together with its retreading of old ground, you come to see it as superfluous, a drawn-out, dishevelled half-caste in contrast to its highly refined, gleamingly efficient predecessors.

The title track closes the album in equally unsure terms. The rhythms are more attractive, the sounds are interesting, and the high-tech vocals work just as they did on 'The Robots'. But again, as the title gives away, it's retreading a theme which has already been explored. This is one flaw of the so-called 'split concept album' which Kraftwerk pioneered. Because you are dividing attention to two, often mutually exclusive subjects, there is an enormous temptation to focus too heavily on one field in each subject, underming the whole idea.

Of the classic era, The Man Machine is easily the most accessible album Kraftwerk ever made. Both Autobahn and Radio-Activity are esoteric, alienating and sterile; Trans-Europe Express is too grand, has too much of an aura to it; and Computer World (1981) reeks of self-parody. This pop edge, coming as it did at the birth of new wave music, means that all the melodies are tight and efficient; there is no room for self-indulgent experimentation. That does not mean, however, that it lacks flair; on the contrary, you can clearly sense that Hütter et al are in their prime and enjoying themselves. It's this sense of humour which lifts the record, making it more than just a standard piece of Krautrock. The Man Machine may not have the presence or grandeur of its predecessor, but's the only time when everything worked for Kraftwerk in just the right measure, before the pop world and its imitators made the innovators obsolete.

3.83 out of 5

Top 100 Albums - #52: Devoted (2004)

Christian singer Liz Fitzgibbon makes a surprise appearance on the chart with Devoted, her most recent effort.Liz Fitzgibbon was born and raised in County Cork, Ireland. Through her early years she became an in-demand soloist, and began writing songs in 1997. She first came to the attention of the Christian music industry through her involvement in worship at her local church. Her synthesis of traditional Celtic motifs with modern worship attracted the powers that be at Kingsway Music, as did her sweet, pure voice. She got her big break appearing on The New Celts Volume 2 (2002). This recording helped to lay the groundwork for both the resulting albums and her work across the UK and USA, joining the likes of Iona at the forefront of contemporary Celtic Christian music.

Devoted opens with 'You Are My Strong Tower', the only track on here from The New Celts Volume 2. And it's a good choice to begin with. The beautiful piano and flute parts provide the ideal opening into which Fitzgibbon's voice fits so serenely. Her voice is purer than Iona's Joanne Hogg without losing any of its character or power. And it's better than Enya because it's authentic; you don't get the impression that every note has been tweaked and passed through a synthesiser, and you become confident that the sound will be as good live as it is on here. The production itself is tight, the lyrics are masterful and the whole product is a work of art, an ethereal start to the album.

Few artists in any genre can follow genius with genius, but that is precisely what Fitzgibbon does on 'Show Mercy'. This is slightly more conventional, insofar as it could be conceivably used as a worship song. But although it has a simple refrain and even simpler lyrics, it loses none of the power instilled by the previous track. The flute is again out in glory, and the drums are a very nice touch - like Franz van Essen in Iona, they are dynamic without being imposing. It's a glorious song, the perfect showcase for Fitzgibbon's range and her natural grace with words, as the lines tumble out of her lips like bells chiming.

On the basis of the last two tracks, 'I Need You More' might come across as a letdown. But it's not. It's a track which manages to strike a good balance between emotional tenderness and strength. It's set out in the same verse-chorus pattern of 'Show Mercy', and the lyrics are just as overtly spiritual. But the delivery of such lyrics works because it is not being done by or like a random guy with a badly tuned guitar. Equally good is 'Wash Me Clean Lord Jesus'. This is acoustic-based and bereft of drums or anything else which benefitted the last track. There is an attractive violin part put in on the quiet (and it is quiet), but once again the vocals are put at the centre, and the end result is brilliant.

'Come Down O Holy One' not only continues this trend of brilliance, but it extrapolates it. This track is closer to Iona in terms of the background music - the long, yearning strings and keyboards. And yet Fitzgibbon's voice shines through resolutely, beaming through the mix like a laser in a blizzard. Her voice is so pure and so unobtrusive that it's very hard to hate this performance, as with everything that has gone before.

The first real letdown on Devoted in 'Every Knee Shall Bow'. To describe this as 'obvious' is to do it something of a disservice, since it is a worship song and therefore is meant to be. The problem is more that the music is very flat - the drums especially - and as such there is nothing to cushion and support the vocals. It does sound like an award-winning singer, backed by a worship band which only rehearses every other month. It has a kind of Hillsongs feel to it which renders it just a bit... old hat. 'Won't You Come Lord Jesus' suffers from the same maladies. Although this is quite beautiful, especially the organ part, it just feels that bit too forced to work completely - at least set alongside its rivals.

The title track is a step back in the right direction, being as it is a return to so-called Celtic production devices. The lyrics are a little simpler this time round, but nothing is lost in the performance. The flutes here are deeper and subtler, allowing more room for the blossoming vocals. She sings about her relationship with God, and you don't have to think twice to understand the honesty which resounds from her performance.

The last third of the album proves to be a little shaky. 'What A Friend I've Found' is a rehash of a standard worship song. Delirious? covered this on King Of Fools (1997), and did a terrible job dressing it up in indie-style vocals and sub-standard guitar work. But this rendition is more freewheeling; Fitzgibbon is not boxed in or confined by the original lyrics, instead she improvises over and around them. This makes it more personal, making you satisfied that it is more than just a lazy cover of a worship song sung so many times before.

'How Long O Lord' meanwhile is below par, mostly because of its percussion section. It's way too loud for this kind of song and this kind of subject (being forsaken by God). Clearly the percussionist was getting carried away in recording, or the producer forgot to turn the volume down when putting the mix together and mastering the album. 'Sing To The Lord' is just as inferior, thought on this occassion it is because it feels too much like a rehashed worship song. It's got an acoustic guitar with regular chords, it sounds like it's being played with a rictus on its player's face, and - worst of all - it has some terrible harmonies which jar awfully.

It is a welcome relief, then, that we finish on 'Here Is Love'. Yes, it's another worship song; but yes, Fitzgibbon makes it her own. Doing the first verse in Gaelic is... sublime, even before you hear it confirmed in her voice. A beautiful song in its own right, it is lifted onto a different plane by these Celtic touches. It may be the longest track (at 5:40), but you certainly won't be bored. You might even be prompted to join in, even if reaching her registers is a physical impossibilty.

So many albums in Christian music suffer from a profound and perpetual cheesiness - their music, and their lyrics in particular, are so oblique and repetitive that they alienate all but the seasoned evangelical. Devoted, like so much of Celtic music, goes against the flow. It may be uneven in places - especially in the final third - but it's stunningly beautiful, and very well-produced. This is exactly how Christian music should be - honest, sophisticated, and not in the least sense cheesy. Not all of these songs are suited to church worship, but all are superbly well-constructed. True, compared to the likes of Iona, Devoted falls short from a musical perspective - compared to the works of Dave Bainbridge, the melodies here are quite flatlined. But Devoted still stands as one of the finest Christian records made in the last decade.

3.83 out of 5

Monday, 10 December 2007

Top 100 Albums - #53: Time Out Of Mind (1997)

Bob Dylan's only entry comes at number 53, with Time Out Of Mind, widely considered to be the root of his modern-day comeback.The 1980s had not been kind for Bob Dylan. After converting to Christianity, which spawned the album Slow Train Coming (1979), he went through a 'gospel phase', releasing albums which won him audiences in the Bible Belt but few critical plaudits elsewhere. Throughout the rest of the decade his output oscillated from the acclaimed Infidels (1983) to the tiresome Knocked Out Loaded (1986). While the 1990s saw a continuation of Dylan's hectic touring schedule, it saw no new material, only endless compilations, a live album for MTV and a brace of albums containing covers of traditional roots and folk songs. This lack of new material led many to questions whether the sun had finally set on Dylan's career.

We begin with 'Love Sick', and from the start it is clear how much Dylan's voice has changed in thirty years. It's pretty ravaged, retaining its nasal character but coming across as much more weathered and its range reduced quite considerably. As indiscernable as the lyrics are becoming, the tone of the piece is more sceptical, as Dylan himself admitted: "the songs on Time Out of Mind... share a certain skepticism. They're more concerned with the dread realities of life than the bright and rosy idealism popular today."¹

Having started well, we come to 'Dirt Road Blues'. As the title suggests, this has a more transatlantic bluesy feel to it, but this is counterpointed by the strange use of an electronic organ. The sound is very distant and echoey - you feel like you are sitting in the back row of a concert where the microphones are all broken. That aside, it's a fairly run-of-the-mill 12-bar affair, and Dylan has written way too many of those in his time.

We get back on form with the next track, however. 'Standing In The Doorway' has better sound, better vocals and a better use of the organ. It's very relaxing, winding you down as you drive the long way home. Unlike earlier Dylan releases, perhaps going as far back as Highway 61 Revisited (1965), the vocals do not crowd out the (simple) isntrumental parts - the guitar and organ, not to mention the drums, are given plenty of room in this slow-tempoed number to expound their delights.

The album remains shaky, however, with 'Million Miles'. The production is again very distant; Daniel Lanois, who produced U2's The Joshua Tree (1987), demonstrates that he is at his best with rock, not folk. In fact the dodgy production prompted Dylan to self-produce all his subsequent efforts. The song itself suffers from the same calamaties as 'Dirt Road Blues': it's too formulaic, and it's too slow to produce the desire to get up and sway to a forgettable 3-minute song. Had this been quicker, it might have better.

'Tryin' To Get To Heaven' is quicker, more mellow and heaps better for it. Dylan's voice is strained to keep up, and on the higher registers he does sound a bit too much like Bluebottle from The Goon Show. Nevertheless, this is relatively catchy and has a nice refrain. Lines like When you think that you've lost everything/ You find out you can always lose a little more are the kind of lines that we have come to expect from Dylan - it's the sort that he moulded in his 1960s prime and which he has not crafted so well since 'Gotta Serve Somebody'.

''Til I Fell In Love With You' may be guilty of the echoey production of previous turkeys, but this actually works here. It makes the song more laid back, more American. It certainly makes a change for those of us who quickly tire of Dylan's shouty protest songs. The guitar sounds like it's being playing by a broken violin bow, which creates a wierd, distorted effect, juxtaposing the bluesy folk with electronic touches.

'Not Dark Yet' eclipses all that has gone before on this album. It's not so much that everything has been fixed; it's more that all the flaws - the production, the guitars, etc. - have been ironed out and turned on their heads to work. Critics have drawned comparisons between this and John Keats' 'Ode To A Nightingale'², and it's true since Dylan, in his hushed and raspy sort of way, expresses fortitude against death (ironically, since he nearly died after the album was released.). Like all Dylan classics, the lyrics become more memorable and warmer the more you listen to them and examine them. This is a classic song, which soothes you into a state of contentment as the sun goes down.

'Cold Irons Bound' has a harder, more metallic guitar as its anchor. The licks are more powerful, the drums are more powerful (if a little tinny), and Dylan growls the lyrics as best he can. Like a lot of songs on this album, this is quite a lot longer than it needs to be. However, the mood and tone of the sound is more than satisfactory in holding your interest. The only downer is that the same cannot be said for the lyrics. 'Make You Feel My Love' comes close to 'Not Dark Yet' in quality. At 3:32 it's the shortest track on the album, making it the most accessible; also, it's as heartfelt as the other tracks, and Dylan pushes his voice to convey this, even when he is clearly in pain from doing so.

The penultimate track, 'Can't Wait', falls into the same traps as 'Dirt Road Blues' and 'Million Miles' and as such falls short. It's repetitive, the production is too distant, it's Dylan in a holding pattern. Above all, it just isn't as compelling or as interesting as Dylan should be or has been on the rest of the album. We close with the mammoth 'Highlands'. This is the longest track Dylan has ever recorded, at a whopping 16:30 - so not one for the faint-hearted or the casual listener. That aside, giving the chance it's a reasonable song, a song which you think follows the straight blues formula and then subverts it just a little to make you keep listening, even with only one ear.

Time Out Of Mind is a problematic album, made all the moreso by the fact that Dylan himself has attacked it. The production is a big problem - the sound is mediocre at best, and even on the tracks where this is used to the song's advantage, it remains frustrated. Dylan's voice is still in good nick, but he chooses to sprawl out the lyrics in many slow moving songs, in contrast to Modern Times (2006), where everything is faster and tighter. The main problem with Time Out Of Mind is its pace - it's too slow, it's too long and it becomes tiresome. Nonetheless, it deserves a place in the chart because it is consistent - something which cannot be said of Dylan's career as a whole - and has a grace or fortitude to it where most of his contemporaries became weak. It should not be considered his best work, but it ranks alonside Achtung Baby as one of the best comebacks in music.

3.82 out of 5

¹ Bob Dylan, cited in 'Time out of Mind', Accessed on December 14 2007.

² Christopher Ricks, cited in ibid.

Top 100 Albums - #54: Big Calm (1998)

Morcheeba's first of three appearances on the chart comes in the shape of Big Calm, their critical and commercial breakthrough which marked their departure from 'the Bristol sound'.Morcheeba formed in the winter of 1995 by brothers Ross and Paul Godfrey, former griddle chefs from Kent. Teaming up with session vocalist Shirley Klarisse Yonavive Edwards, better known as Skye. Their debut album, Who Can You Trust? (1996) came at the height of 'the Bristol sound' (also known as trip-hop), pioneered by Massive Attack on their album Blue Lines (1991). Critical reception was warm but sales dragged while more established acts, like Massive Attack, continued to dominate. Feeling that trip-hop posed a dead end, the trio retreated to the studio to dream it all up again.

'The Sea', the album's opener, really does give a flavour of the new sound. While Who Can You Trust? was all about sterile tape loops and dark background noise, this begins with some wailing bluesy guitar and keyboards. Then the party piece comes out - Skye. Her voice is sweet, seductive and full to the brim of soul. It's not imposing, it gently warms you up, so that by the chorus you are utterly enchanted. You enjoy listening to her delivery so much that you almost overlook the copious production features, like the smooth string section on the second chorus.

Having started so well, Morcheeba continue the trend on 'Shoulder Holster'. Featuring the vocals of rapper Spikey T, this is a complete different kettle of fish. Instead of massaging you while you lie on a comfy chair, this wakes you up with its intelligent percussion and groovy beat. The lyrics are quite oblique, but that doesn't matter because the mix is just so immaculate - it's as precise as a late Steely Dan record, with an added dollop of carefree attitude. You never get bored or frustrated because it's so well-put together and yet so cool.

'Part Of The Process' is one of Morcheeba's best known songs. Although it begins with the sound of somebody farting through a keyboard, there's some lovely acoustic guitar. It also has a suave chorus: It's all part of the process/ We all love looking down/ All we want is some success/ But the chance is never around. As if this wasn't enough, this track is topped off by some at-first subtle, then flamboyant violins. It's one of those tracks which belongs on Later... with Jools Holland - it's laid back, sophisticated, interesting, and you listen with the knowledge that these are some of the best in their field.

'Blindfold' changes the mood of the album quite drastically. After some industrial-style sound effects muffled in the mix, Skye comes into her own. One interviewer once described her as "a singer... who could draw tears with her throat"¹, and he wasn't far off. Here she's not designed to chill you out or warm you up: she's in mourning, world-weary and struggling to go on. It's an amazing shift, not because it's obvious, but because it is not in the least sense artificial - you still feel that it's her, not just her being tweaked with in a studio.

But Skye cannot stay sad for long, and before you know it we've come to one of the liveliest tracks on the album. 'Let Me See' is bouncy, bold and very catchy. Skye is singing with a smile on her face, and the combined efforts of keyboard and drums on this serve to make this a clinching track on the album. There is also, for the tuned ear, a brief flute part, which sets off on the chorus and then is given an extended run in the fade-out. But never fear - Morcheeba have not magically changed into Genesis, it does nothing to damage the sound.

For those among us that are not dance-hall fanatics, 'Bullet Proof' will come as a disappointment. It's vocal-free (losing points already), it's based on a repeating loop (which becomes very annoying considering what it's a loop of), and relies on some ridiculous scratching for variety. After such a buoyant first half, this is a crushing let-down. More reminiscent of Who Can You Trust?, it has a sterile, traffic jam feel to it.

It's both a reward and a relief, then, that this song eventually gives way to 'Over & Over'. This is a splendidly different song, one of two truly five-star songs on here. With just an acoustic to accompany her (at least to start with) Skye sings so sweetly and so honesty that you cannot help but fall for her. The synthesised male vocals and the strings only add to this atmosphere, and while the lyrics are simple they are not bland, plain or synthetic, like so many half-baked numbers from this genre. It's a beautiful piece of craftsmanship.

If you're a Tangerine Dream fan, you might recognise the drums at the start of 'Friction' - they must almost certainly be lifted from 'White Clouds' (see my review of The Essential Collection (2006, #86). But then the Godfrey brothers dressed up in funky drums, honky-tonk keyboards and a brass section to create almost a ska kind of a feel. The chorus to this may not have the best lyrics - Friction is turning to fire/ Friction is burning much high - but it's insanely catchy nonetheless.

We come now to 'Diggin' A Watery Grave'. Now, where the last instrumental, 'Bullet Proof', let us down, this compensates and then some. This is a dark, desolate and very atmospheric piece. With its brooding bass lines and wailing blues guitars - both acoustic and electric - you find yourself in John Steinbeck's America. You can feel the dust all around you and the rain falling in sheet with the harmonica.

It's a great piece of music, but it can't be made to match 'Fear & Love'. You might think that the strings in its intro make it too vulgar and grandiose - but Skye again proves you wrong. It's a tender masterpiece, where once again the chorus is beautiful, both in the lines themselves and the way in which Skye delivers them: Fear can stop you loving/ Love can stop your fear/ Fear can stop you loving/ But it's not always that clear. The cornet part is exquisite, matching the yearning in the singer's voice. It's the best track on the album, not just a match for 'Over & Over' but the perfect track to outshine it.

It is a great shame, with all that has gone before, that we finish on a complete turkey. The title track is another instrumental-of-sorts which lasts precisely 6 minutes - and all of them are awful. While the other ten tracks on this album have the feeling of being perfectly constructed, endlessly tinkered with until they were satisfied, this sounds like an outtake from a jamming section, being drowned in a toilet. It's a pathetic piece of self-indulgence, all echoes and effects which serve no purpose at all, except to annoy you.

As we shall discover, Big Calm is by no means and criteria Morcheeba's best album. However, there is so much good stuff on here that stands up on its own that no self-respecting critic can sweep this aside as a stopgap between the trip hop of Who Can You Trust? and the high-paced pop of Fragments Of Freedom (2000). All the elements which made Morcheeba a transatlantic success are here - the meticulous textures in the music, the serene and soulful voice of Skye, and the dedication to technical perfection which keeps them so refreshing and so lasting. Big Calm is an album that will either chill you into a nirvanic state or make you put your head close to the speakers, just to hear the sheer genius of what the Godfrey brothers have achieved.

3.82 out of 5
¹ 'Morcheeba Biography' (2000) - Accessed on December 11 2007.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Top 100 Albums - #55: The Ill-Tempered Klavier (2007)

At number 55 is classically-trained jazz pianist Chris Lyons, with his first solo offering, The Ill-Tempered Klavier. The title is a reference to J. S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier (1722), reflecting his classical influences. Chris Lyons was born in Dalkeith, Scotland in 1987. A child progidy, he began winning national composition competitions at the age of 7, and by age 10 he was performing his work for the Edinburgh Contemporary Arts Trust. Outside of music, he won the acclaimed Pushkin Prize for Poetry. After he graduated from the City of Edinburgh Music School - the youngest person ever to do so - he began working on a novel. His fascinations with jazz and the state of modern music in general has made him a bright young hopeful in the jazz scene, as proved by the performance of his Trio at the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival in July 2007.

The Ill-Tempered Klavier, therefore, has a potential genius at its helm, a man whose training and expertise is otuflanked only by his dedication to music. We begin, appropriately, with '(Intro) Der Klavierspieler'. Beginning with some scintillating cascades down the keys, it's pretty harmless stuff, and at 1:22 it's the shortest track on the album. But what you do get from this is the sense of poise and the elegance which Lyons brings to the instrument.

Before you allowed to muse and mull over this any further, though, you are through up-tempo and head-first into 'Pterodactylic Hexameters' (answers on a postcard how to pronounce this). Here the vibrant dynamic drums come into play, rocking the whole thing up and about. Having demonstrated his classical prestige on the opener, Lyons uses this track to blow away all notions that he has just another stuffy chold prodigy. True, it's not the catchiest piece you'll ever hear, but it's unpredictable and doesn't get boring - just as jazz should be. And, there's some very graceful guitar at the end.

Having set the bar notoriously high, Lyons comes just a little unstuck with 'Molly's Blooming'. This does not invoke the same dignified, sophisticated rush that the previous two pieces. This has a flavour of self-indulgence to it - had this been played on something like a Minimoog, it would not have felt out of place in the ELP-end of prog rock (an area we shall we return to in due course.). It's less dynamic, it's slower and it's generally a lot less compelling. What is more, the drum part is littered with annoying bell rolls (repeatedly hitting the bell of the ride cymbal) in that stereotypical jazz fashion.

Thank goodness then that the trend is discontinued. 'Free Market Orgonomics' is an incredibly pleasant tune - you feel like you're walking in Central Park with the sun out and the flowers in bloom. But then the mood grows more cagey, just enough to quicken your step and prick up your ears so that you don't doze off, like you were listening to Eddi Reader. Here the drums and piano combine beautifully, taking what The Bad Plus pioneered and twisting around to give a refreshing, relaxing tune.

'Autotheism (Etude For Piano And Pianist)' begins like a concerto by Sergei Prokofiev, before transmuting into an uptight but balmy piano workout. Again, Lyons has chsen a cumbersome title which may serve to dissade many the casual listener. But pray, continue listening, and once you get past 1:37 the whole piece moves up the registers and becomes a great deal more playful. The 6/8 time signature is a refreshing break, if nothing else, from the 4/4 tedium of much modern music, especially from the pages of MySpace.

'Offa's Dyke' begins like the best kind of dinner party music - the kind which conjures to mind champagne and Ferrero Rocher, and finds your guests constantly inquiring as to the origins of what is playing behind them. This is a very graceful number; from the moment you hit the play button your head is soothed and your ears massaged by the sweet tones of Lyons' piano. Having said that, he doesn't let you get bored, he lulls you into a false sense of security, before the crash cymbals and off-set tom-toms let rip and make you listen all the more inquisitively.

The only other time that Lyons fall short on this album is on the next track. 'Thus Swung Zarathustra (Execution Soundtrack For A Bad Artist)' has one of the most pretentious titles since the songs of Ron Geesin's The Body (1970). Not only that, it's pretty formulaic, sounding like a relic of the Ray Ellington quartet with a Fender Stratocaster's effects overdubbed by a very clumsy editor. The piano work is not so much sloppy as indifferent, and the vibe of the piece is not one that makes you cry for more; it's one that makes you want to shout "Get on with it!".

No matter, though, because the remaining three tracks are all a delight. 'Never Crushing The Yellow Flower' has a summery romantic feel to it, the kind of music you'd listen to in a field of dandelions. Or the kind of stuff you'll see on mobile phone adverts by the middle of next year. It's a great deal punchier that a lot of its counterparts, and it rolls along like its title in the wind. Part of its appeal, without beign too derogatory, is the total absence of drums. That might make it plain, but no - instead it creates a sound that just smacks of honesty and devotion. It's a bit like the Red House Painters, but without the dreary vocals.

If you're left pining for the drums however, don't despair. 'Everything You Know (I Taught You)' is a great chance for the drum section to show off, which it does in spades - there are some beautiful rock triplets near the start. The rhythm is often displaced but in a very good way - rather than startle you like it might in rock, because this is jazz you are more relaxed by it. The feeling that no-one is in control lifts you to a different state, and you go from strolling around Paris to reclining in the clouds. (True, there are no accords to make it completely Parissian, but then Lyons is no Yann Tiersen).

To close this remarkable album, we have 'The Advent Of The Artist Tyrants'. While most of the preceding tracks have been flung right at you, this is quieter - it creeps up on slowly with its low minor chords and then rocks you gently in its arms - like you're in a hammock under the full moon. The drums are again given a back seat, reduced to cymbals and soft toms only, but this only heightens the mood - until the piece goes through another motion and it all changes. All of which serves to create something truly great.

Lyons may not have the sense of humour in his playing as his contemporaries The Bad Plus (listen to their rendition of 'Chariots Of Fire' on Suspicious Activity? (2005) if you need convincing). But that does not reduce him to a dour, troubled and mind-numbingly serious composer, doing this project to off-set the tedium of a marketing degree.² The Ill-Tempered Klavier is the perfect combination of classical finesse with the improvised nature of jazz and the groove of rock. In an interview with The Herald in July, Lyons was compared to Gentle Giant, the forgotten pioneers of prog rock. And yes, the talent and the sounds are quite similar. But the most appealing thing about this album is that it's forward thinking. This is not a record designed to buy time while its composer goes off and reinvents jazz in his head. This is him reinventing it now, on paper and on record. This combination of talent and ambition is why Chris Lyons is destined become one of the most important figures in 21st-century jazz.

3.80 out of 5

¹ Rob Adams, 'Mane man roars about his inviting vision of jazz' (July 27 2007) - Accessed on December 10 2007.
² Ibid.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Top 100 Albums - #56: Aladdin Sane (1973)

Bowie's sixth and penultimate entry is Aladdin Sane, the follow-up to The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (1972) and the closing chapter of his glam rock phase.Ziggy Stardust, both the album and the personality, had turned Bowie into a glam rock superstar. Having had some small flirtations with fame in the three years preceding - 'Space Oddity' and 'The Man Who Sold The World' being singles highlights - he had until now remained a kooky figure, sought after by producers but on the commercial sidelines. Ziggy Stardust changed that, producing five hit singles and a series of extravagant, sell-out tours, featuring Bowie in his now-trademark red hair and androgynous, flared outfits. Between tours, Bowie turned producer on Transformer (1972) - Lou Reed's solo breakthrough - and The Stooges' Raw Power (1972), both artists being icons of Bowie. After frenetic touring, the Spiders from Mars finally returned to the studio after Christmas.

'Watch That Man' kicks the album off. It's a great guitar-driven glam rock song in the same vein as 'Suffragette City'. It sounds very similar in its pattern of verses and choruses, and Bowie's delivery is almost identical. Then again, it is supposed to, being the sequel to Ziggy Stardust (albeit without a storyline). Plus, there is some stylish piano from guest Mike Garson, and the female vocals stand very well with the harder, rockier sound.

Having disposed in a single track of all the folk-induced whimsy he had acquired over the past two years, Bowie changes gear on the title track. 'Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)' may have one of the strangest (full) titles in the business - outside of psychedelic music, that is. The dates in the title refer to Bowie's belief in an impending World War III (the character is 'born' before both WWI and WWII). This is slower, more piano-driven and features some lovely saxophone, played by Brian Wilshaw. In the instrumental section, both combine alternately to produce an excellent piece of avant-garde jazz. The witty title disguises the increasingly unhinged nature of Bowie's lyrics, to the extent that you feel like he is singing about himself.

However masterful these changes of direction may be, they are put to shame by the next track. 'Drive-In Saturday' is a tribute to Bowie's taste for strange concepts driven by the lyrics. The words depict a world where people are having to learn to have sex again by watching old pornography. It's a piece of 'futuristic nostalgia', that is, people in the future longing for the past (presumably, it was an influence on ELO, whose album Time (1981) addresses the same themes). But the success, or brilliance, of this song, does not have to come with an understanding of the lyrics; you can sit there and not comprehend a word Bowie is saying, and yet the chord progression will reel you in. It's a staggering song, jazzy, pop-worthy but also of so much substance.

'Panic In Detroit' is a big step backward on the album. As its title suggests, it is much closer to American rock of the time, and as a result all of Bowie's English charm is drowned out by distortion. The lyrics are as indiscernable as they are uncompelling. Sure, it manages to create a nice rhythm, leading to you to nod your head: but it's bottom heavy, there is nothing coming from Bowie to bolster and conflict with the armour-plated Spiders From Mars.

'Cracked Actor' is, to be perfectly honest, rubbish. It's a combined rip-off of The Rolling Stones (guitars and boring drums) and Bob Dylan (terrible harmonica), while Bowie gurns his lines about an ageing film star having a homosexual encounter. If you can bear this long enough to peer through the pea soup, you might be surprised by its quality. Most, however, will be too frustrated to care because of this song's complacency.

Such blemishes aside, 'Time' is a good way to get the album back on track. While perhaps not as famous as its namesake (released a month earlier by a certain band), it does feature some great lyrics. The most celebrated, Time... falls wanking to the floor serves to intrigue only, while in general they provide a beeline to Bowie's motivation, desiring to change with mind of his impending end. The sniper in the brain/... incestuous and vain provides a fairly good example of this. Where the music is concerned, Garson's piano is thunderous and atmospheric, and Mick Ronson's guitar tragedian, producing a song that would have sat just as well on Diamond Dogs (1974).

'The Prettiest Star' is a trashy, thrashy, self-indulgent piece of nonsense. It's a relic of 1960s doo-wop with its 'bah, bah' backing vocals, with contemporary guitar shoved over the top in an attempt to continue the album's style. Not only that, but it's not original to the album - the single was an unsuccessful follow-up to 'Space Oddity' in 1970, which featured Marc 'T.Rex' Bolan on guitar. It's as if Bowie was so short on time that he just picked the most convenient sounding item out of his back catalogue and shoved it inbetween two throughly decent songs. (The stripped-down acoustic version, found on The Platinum Collection (2005), is a mild improvement).

Maybe "thoroughly decent" is underdoing it. 'Let's Spend The Night Together' is a cover, from The Rolling Stones, so it already has the flavour of the album. But this is miles better than the Stones version. While that was just a snail's-pace R&B workout with lazy work from Mick Jagger, this is a high-speed, high-octane rampage which tears apart your ears and then reassembles them as you jive away. It throws you around the room with the jaunty piano, Ronson's loud distortion acting as a plunger on a stack of dynamite. Mike Woodmansey's work on the drums is brilliant, and with Bowie on the best of form the four-piece create a piece of musical ecstacy.

'The Jean Genie', the first single to be culled from the album, is billed as a combination of the R&B hooks of The Yardbirds with the "stylised sleaze" of The Velvet Underground.¹ It features a great riff, executed to perfection by Ronson, and for once the harmonica part on the record doesn't make your toes curl so much that they end up on the other side of your heels. It's a great, thundery piece of pop rock, including a very melodic bass line, something which most pop is without.

What a shame then, that on this most divisive of albums, Bowie chooses to end with something as stupid as 'Lady Grinning Soul'. This song's comparison with a Bond theme (and the similarities are obvious) don't serve to elevate it; instead it is reduced to cult status for some, mediocrity for the rest. It drags Bowie down to the same level as Duran Duran and, for heaven's sake, Madonna. Who the hell wants to bracketed alongside them?! To take a more objective criticm, the production is terribly skewed towards the Franz Liszt-induced piano, drowning Bowie out at almost every turn.

Bowie described Aladdin Sane as "Ziggy goes to America", on account of the fact that all the songs were written while the band was on the road.² That might help to explain both why the album was very popular in America, and why the press have always been in two minds about it. For some, it is a great departure from the glam rock era; for others, it is an album with style but no substance, the musical equivalent of David Cameron. The best way to pass judgement on it is to compare it with its predecessor. The character may be effectively the same, but Aladdin Sane has no overlying concept - it's not a rock opera. But it's better than Ziggy Stardust because musically it has a lot more substance and variety, even at the cost of being a more united album. It may not have a concept, but then the storyline on Ziggy Stardust was so convoluted that it became lost in the melody. Here, the melody is within set boundaries which allow the lyrics to burst forth and create something a lot more memorable, and a lot more enduring.

3.80 out of 5


¹ Roy Carr & Charles Shaar Murray, Bowie: An Illustrated Record (London: Avon Books, 1981), p.52 - cited in 'The Jean Genie', Accessed on December 9 2007.

² Nicholas Pegg, The Complete David Bowie (London: Reynolds & Hearn, 2000), pp.281-3 - cited in 'Aladdin Sane', Accessed on December 8 2007.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Top 100 Albums - #57: Scary Monsters (1980)

David Bowie's fifth appearance is in the form of Scary Monsters, the album which ended the 'classic era' and which is often called his last great album.¹Having reached the apex of his cocaine-induced madness on Station To Station (1976, #100), Bowie relocated to Berlin to dry out and live with Brian Eno. Over the next three years Bowie produced a series of albums with Eno as producer which became known as the Berlin Trilogy. The first offering, Low (1977), was a introspective onslaught, showcasing Bowie's fears of addiction and repeating himself ('Always Crashing In The Same Car'). "Heroes", which followed later in the same year, combined jagged rock songs with unhinged, edgy soundscapes, utilising Eno's love of ambient music. The final album, Lodger (1979), was more pop-friendly and combined the innovations of the last two records with the pop edge which would be embraced by the New Wave in the early-1980s. Having battled his demons and won, Bowie sought to draw together this new, edgy sound with the modified glam rock which had made him a star.

If, then, this album is supposed to epitomise the best of Bowie in every way, we begin by getting the full brunt of his strange(st) side. After a serious of strange noises, 'It's No Game (Part 1)' screeches into life with frenetic Japanese. Bowie, too, is screeching, screaming the lines from beyond the top of his range in what amounts to a failed Roger Waters impression. It's an off-putting start to the record, chiefly because of the horrible vocal delivery, but then because the rhythm section is so good that you realise that he's really ballsed it up.

Having set through the self-indulgent guitar solo at the end of the last track, we are rewarded for our patience in leaps and bounds. Not only is 'Up The Hill Backwards' miles more focussed, working in harmony with the rhythm section instead of straining against it with every chord. It is also a much better effort from a lyrical perspective. The beginning of the second verse - While we sleep, they go to work/ We're legally crippled, it's the death of love - does not make the most sense, but like all of Bowie's best work it's not so much that it is easily comprehendible, but it has a poetic, philosophical quality to it.

The title track, 'Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)', corrects the self-indulgent guitar of 'It's No Game (Part 1)' by imprisoning it behind simple but aggressive acoustic guitar, just as he had done on Hunky Dory (1971). Bowie channels into his voice all the paranoia of the Berlin era and then uses the cow bell to create a heightened sense of alarm - all the while producing a more-than-adequate pop song. Wait until 3:12 and you will hear the beginning of a great siren guitar. The only problem with this song is, unless the radio edit, it comes equipped with an annoying, self-reverential guitar solo and some irritating vocals to boot.

But fear not, for already we have reached the album's best track. 'Ashes To Ashes' is, quite simply, amazing. It's splendidly produced: everything is tight and in proportion without feeling artificial - there are no drum machines, noise gates or looped soloes here. The guitar and keyboard parts manage to be incredibly kooky and yet are insanely catchy. And lyrically, this is Bowie at his best. He is pouring out his soul, dressed as a clown to hide his inner uncertainty. The best lines are found before the second chorus: I've never done good things/ I've never done bad things/ I never did anything out of the blue, woo-oh/ Want an axe to break the ice/ Want to come down right now. The words are laced with irony and yet are so tender, they perfectly portray the tortured genius, shapeshifting from one personality to another and still haunted by his past.

'Fashion' is a much more overt pop song. Just like Pete Townshend did on 'Slip Kid', Bowie takes an unusual rhythm and them, against prediction, sets the guitar and drums on the off-beats. It's brilliant, compromised only by some flatter lyrics from Bowie - you shout it while you're dancing on the-he dance floor has never sounded right and never will. Again, there's an annoying outro, but at least this one has the courtesy to have some structure, as well as a New Wave edge.

'Teenage Wildlife' sees Bowie finally getting the guitars properly reigned in, with multiple and layered parts. At first listen, it's a meandering ramble through Bowie's anxious subconscious. After a few spins, however, the lyrics begin to unravel themselves and leap out as you. Again, we find Bowie in a combined state of anxiety and self-reverrence, passing himself off as, in his own words, same old thing in brand new drag. This is a stand-out track for the reason that it doesn't stand out - unless 'Fashion' it has no pop preachiness to it, it rests in the background and lets you examine it for yourself with open minds and ears.

So far, then, Scary Monsters, has been an album of very few genuine slip-ups. No sooner have I said that, however, than we come to the turkey that is 'Scream Like A Baby'. It's roughly the same length as 'Up The Hill Backwards', but it's no way as accessible. Beginning like a ZZ Top B-side, it can't decide what it is - the bass is heavy enough for it to be lite punk, but there are pop rock keyboards and obnoxious harmonies. It's a land of confusion for Bowie, almost as much as 'Kingdom Come' is. At the outset, this would appear to be better - but it isn't. Bowie's delivery is so nasal you could have sworn it was Dylan. The backing vocals are clichéd and serve little purpose except to remind us of the lesser side of Young Americans (1975, #73). Definitely one, or two, to skip over.

'Because You're Young' features Pete Townshend on guitar (hence the link earlier), overlaid with a strange kind of falsetto organ and fairly standard drums. Bowie's delivery on this one is graver, more formal, and a lot less nasal, thank heavens. Unlike the others, this is a toe-tapper which sustains your interests despite the lack of a heavy beat or prominent guitar hooks (Townshend's role is reduced, either by the song itself or his substance abuse). And yes, hearing Bowie holler A millions scar-ar-ar-ar-ar-ar-ar-ars is well worth it.

The album is wrapped up with 'It's No Game (Part 2)'. Here the Japanese vocalist and high-pitched screeching have been removed, leaving behind a pop rock song with a relaxed feel to it. Bowie almost mouths the lyrics, with hardly a care in the world. During the verse, at least. The chorus feels a lot better for these production changes, the lyrics have more time to resonate, and we get an extra verse in there as well - even if it is bookended by more strange tumbling objects.

Scary Monsters is one of Bowie's more consistent albums, mainly because it takes the best bits of everything he had done previously and layered them into new creations. Because of this it could be seen in turn as a greatest hits-in-kind, the first 'neo-classical' album, and a brilliant record in its own right. It doesn't just take all the best riffs and beats and reassemble them into something resembling a song - this is not the album equivalent of 'Los Endos' (see my review of A Trick Of The Tail (1976, #76)). Instead, it takes the best elements of the old and reinvents them to create a new sound, a welcome, if uncertain, departure from Lodger - in that respect it's quite close to Genesis' Duke, released the same year. But perhaps Scary Monsters is best viewed in its context - as the closing chapter to an extremely innovative decade of music, with a Bowie poised on the brink of another reinvention.

3.80 out of 5

¹ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, 'Scary Monsters', Accessed on November 29 2007.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Top 100 Albums - #58: White Ladder (1999)

At number 58 is David Gray's White Ladder, the album that made him an international success and his most critically acclaimed effort to date. After graduating from the University of Liverpool, Sale-born Gray began his career as a folk rocker. In the early days of obscurity, he relied on his fanbase in the Republic of Ireland, which he had earned thanks to the patronage of comic playwright Pat Ingoldsby. In 1993 Gray signed to EMI and released his debut, A Century Ends. Both this and its successors, Flesh (1994) and Sell, Sell, Sell (1996), were folk-rock albums which received a lukewarm reception from the critics and sold relatively poorly. Following this poor showing, Gray was dropped from EMI. Over the next two years he signed to Iht Records before going in hiatus.

This much-hyped album starts off with the piano-laden 'Please Forgive Me'. Once you overlook the overactive drum section and the off-putting fake strings, this actually becomes a very pleasant song. The vocals and the speed of the song suit Gray's raspy voice to the letters. The minimal feel to the piece brings out the personality of his delivery where so many others have simply rippled into the background. As the piece wears on - and it is a little too long - the acoustic guitar which defined his early work comes into the mix at just the right juncture and warms the cockles of your heart.

Having set you up, 'Babylon' manages and then some to carry the momentum of the record. If 'Please Forgive Me' was designed to make you curl up in a comfy chair, then this will bring a smile to your face as you sink deeper into a satisfied state of semi-consciousness. This is more up-tempo, it must be said, but it achieves the perfect compromise of being a showcase for Gray's passion without being shouty. It takes the laid-back folk of someone like Eddi Reader, overlays some keyboards and drum machines and creates a pop masterpiece.

With the tone of the album so firmly established, Gray changes direction with 'My Oh My'. This is reliant on his guitar and double-tracked vocals, which serve only to make it more middle-on-the-road. There is a good reason why Gray didn't sell many records before this own - when he's not doing piano-heavy stuff that he's difficult to discern from the next singer-songwriter. This track is like what Peace At Last (1996) was in the career of The Blue Nile - having established a brilliant sound on the first two installments, they changed course and lose many listeners on the way.

The tedium continues with 'We're Not Right'. The guitar is there again, only this time it's backed by some incredibly irritating sound effects. The horrible-sounding backing track provides rhythm but little else. It's not just the subject of the song that isn't right, it's the song as a whole - it feels so fake, so superficial, so shallow.

On these criteria, 'Nightblindness' should also fall by the wayside. But it doesn't, because although this is guitar-led, it's stripped back, so that Gray is singing bare. With no fancy effects to rely on, at least at first, he's forced to focus. This track is very similar to 'The Other Side' (the closer to the follow-up, A New Day At Midnight (2002)) - it's introspective, it builds naturally and doesn't try to overimpose itself on the listener. It works, simple as.

Both 'Silver Lining' and the title track are exercises in studio tedium, I'm afraid. The former is simply a drum machine track overdubbed with an annoying two-note riff on electric guitar and some substandard acoustic work. Gray's voice is completely uncompelling, and because of this the entire piece falls flat for the reasons I have hinted at before. With 'White Ladder' itself, its shortcomings are a combination of overproduction (especially at the start) and the fact that it demonstrates the limits of Gray's voice. Just because he can hit the higher registers doesn't make him any less annoying when he does it.

If you have been determined enough to get this far, well done. We are now rewarded with the two best pieces on the album, in direct succession. 'This Year's Love' is an incredibly emotive piece, and like all the best songs of its type, it's simple in both its message and its chord progression. Gray is at his most clear and open in the entire album, delivering perfect lines while the bittersweet chords tumble out of the grand piano. Everything comes in at just the right moment - from the individual vocals to the synthesised strings, nothing is rushed or allowed to overstay its welcome. It's brilliant. 'Sail Away' matches this brilliant track by bringing in some percussion and, unlike on 'Please Forgive Me', keeping it under control. The acoustic returns, welcomed back and restored to its rightful place, providing the understated chords while Gray echoes over the mix. Listening to this sounds like you are in a concert hall and you are the only spectator - it's so distant-sounding but it doesn't disappear into some kind of solemn mess.

With his credentials signed and sealed with these two masterstrokes, it is perhaps fitting that Gray finishes things off with a cover. His rendition of Marc Almond's 'Say Hello, Wave Goodbye' is a monolithic 8:58 long, but it has a couple of big advantages over the original. One is that Gray is a much better sing, provided a richer sound to lyrics which Almond's voice delivered so tinnily. The other is that the acoustic and bright production remove this song from its context - 1980s pop - and breathe new life into it without passing it off as a hollow pop exercise.

As we have seen, not all of the hype White Ladder received should have been so readily granted it. On many occassions Gray gets it spot on, but, frustratingly, there are too many moments where cracks appear into the folky techno plaster. It should be a vital part of anyone's collection, largely because of the optimism which radiates from it, something that modern pop so often reduces to shameless pap in the shape of Sandi Thom. Like all good albums, White Ladder will reveal more of itself the more times you listen to it. But as with A New Day At Midnight, its success or failure hinges on whether people lose patience with all the chaff before they get to the wheat.

3.80 out of 5

Friday, 9 November 2007

Top 100 Albums - #59: Campfire Punkrock EP (2006)

Folk musician Frank Turner has his first and last entry in the shape of his solo debut, Campfire Punkrock EP.Born Francis Turner in Bahrain, Turner was educated at Eton and entered the music business in 2001 as the vocalist for hardcore punk band Million Dead. The group, which included Turner's old friend Ben Dawson on drums, lasted four years and released two albums. But after the loss of guitarist Dean Cameron in late 2004, the band's fortunes and finances dwindled, and they parted ways at the end of a tour in September 2005. Capitalising upon well-received solo gigs in 2004 - intended to expose Million Dead rather than undermine them - Turner began a full-time solo career and relocated to Oxford to compose material for an EP.

Campfire Punkrock is the result. It opens with 'Nashville Tennessee', a bright track with a country-ish tinge to it. Turner is not the best singer, but he makes up for this in some very sharp lyrics and a "punk rock sense of honesty." This does sound very much like how country and western would have sounded if it had been invented in Britain. It has a folkish sensibility, combined with some nice blues-sounding chords in the middle. It's a very decent opening which establishs the tone and style of both the EP and Turner's oeuvre.

Having marked himself out as being at the more intelligent end of the singer-songwriter scale, Turner now gets political with 'Thatcher Fucked The Kids'. Here the lyrics are barbed, expletive and, most importantly of all, right on the button. This song is truly Dylan-esque in that it sums up the predicament of a new generation, coping with the turmoils of 2006. You only have to look at the first few lines of the bridge to realise his lyrical brilliance:

A generation raised on the welfare state
Enjoyed all of its benefits and did just great
But as soon as they were settled as the richest of the rich
They kicked away the ladder,
Told the rest of us that life's a bitch

Sadly, however, that's where the praise temporarily grinds to a halt. 'This Town Ain't Big Enough For The One Of Me' is a run-of-the-mill stripped-back indie punk number, reminiscent of early Green Day synthesised awkwardly with The Undertones. Turner shouts the lyrics over the flatlined melody, in a effort to disguise their relative shallowness. The structure of the chorus is pinched straight from The Buzzcocks' 'Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn't Have' and it's just generally unoriginal.

But the great thing about Turner, as it turns out, is that he learns from his mistakes. 'Casanova Lament' may be the shortest track at only 2:14, but it still manages to tell a story and cram a lot in without seeming top-heavy or slushy. If it were done by anyone else, this kind of gentle strummer sounds like the theme song for a perfume advert. Turner, on the other hand, makes this a honest love song of regret through his delivery, first and foremost, but through his precise playing too.

The EP closes with 'I Really Don't Care What You Did On Your Gap Year', whose title sounds like either a disillusioned student anthem or a Panic! At The Disco offcut. Like 'Casanova Lament', this is a romantic number, with all the brutal honesty of the morning after a one-night stand. Again, it's down-tempo, guitar heavy and honestly delivered, but this is only to be expected since Turner is still finding his sound. If the entire record had consistently of regurgitations of this, it might not have fared so well. As it is, it's pretty damn good.

As folk records go, Campfire Punkrock veers closer to the political barbs of Bob Dylan than the glossy nostalgia of Show Of Hands or the heart-wrenching spirituality of Martyn Joseph (see my review of Deep Blue (2005), #94). There are traces of Turner's punk-tinged upbringing both in its brutal honesty and blunt delivery, and it is where these two come to height at the same time that the record is truly great. The downside to the EP are the genre-hopping slip-ups along the way - very few of the experiments, especially the middle track, reward the listener's patience. In the final analysis, however, this is a wonderfully piquant record which should reward its creator with the success he deserves.

3.80 out of 5