Friday, 31 August 2007

Top 100 Albums - #69: Abattoir Blues (2004)

The first appearance of post-punk maestros Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds comes in Abattoir Blues, the first half of their most recent double album, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus (2004, counted as two albums).The mid-1990s had been a good time for the Bad Seeds. Albums like Murder Ballads (1996) and its follow-up The Boatman's Call (1997) had received very positive reviews, with the latter being pronounced their masterpiece. But after the release of a best-of compilation in 1998, the Bad Seeds took a prolongued break as Cave struggled to overcome his heroin addiction. After going cold turkey over two years, Cave restarted work in 2000, writing songs for what would become No More Shall We Part (2001). But while this received similar acclaim to The Boatman's Call, their next effort, entitled Nocturama (2003), was uniformally panned. After guitarist Blixa Bargeld quit after nearly 20 years, many questioned whether the band was still a viable creative force.

Abattoir Blues is the result of all the confusion and pandemonium caused by Nocturama and Blixa's departure. It is hardly surprising then that the band would come out guns blazing. 'Get Ready For Love' is a complete break from the minimalist introspection of The Boatman's Call and parts of The Good Son (1990). As soon as the band begins, all expecting gentle piano tinged with whispered lyrics are thrown backwards off their chairs. This is a fascinating fusion of gospel with rock 'n' roll, with Cave in stupendous form. Butr most impressive of all is the guitar. You would have thought that without Blixa, this would have left a gaping hole in the band's sound. Instead, his replacement, Mick Harvey, both leads the song and gives sufficent room for James Johnston's organ work. In a word - brilliant.

Having set the bar very high at the outset, 'Cannibal's Hymn' returns to more familiar ground. It's quieter, more piano-heavy and gives Cave the room he needs to reach the sepulchral apogees which make his work so compellingly unique. Unlike the last song, this also gives sufficient space for Martyn P. Casey's bass; sadly drowned out by the gospel choir before, here it murmurs and pounds under Cave's dark ramblings. This is the kind of song that would have been at home on Murder Ballads, and for that reasons it's another Cave godsend.

'Hiding All Away' sees the band slip up, and for the first time the cracks peep through. Instead of being driven by guitar or piano, we are 'treated' to this wierd interference or background noise, over which Cave attempts a rockability drawl coupled with a stripped back gospel choir. It feels chaotic, like a forgotten half-processed outtake. It's trying to mix elements of 'The Carny' with American rock, and it just doesn't work in doing it.

Those new to Cave might have been sufficiently deterred to switch off. Those who were either brave or sensible to continue will count their blessings with 'Messiah Ward'. Opening with some very amenable piano, this has the same catchy refrain as something like 'The Hammer Song', only with a less obtrusive sound. Cave has rightly thrown into the mix some sweeter females vocals to counter his own idiosyncratic delivery. And while the lyrics are not the easiest to see through, the general feel of the song is carried across more than sufficiently for most.

For fans of the first track, 'There She Goes, My Beautiful World' will be perceived as a worthy rival. And they may well have a point. Cave's songs are never the catchiest to say the least, but when he does attempt a 'rambling rocker' he gets the hooks right, or at least enough to keep the casual listener vaguely entertained. If 'Get Ready For Love' was the ideal opener for what become the Abattoir Blues tour, this would have been the ideal closer. Just as good is 'Nature Boy'. With the feel of a Bruce Springsteen number, this song about a girl and nature is very well executed, even if, as before, the lyrics are not so memorable as we might expect from Cave. But, as I say, this is musically accomplished enough to more than carry it to its conclusion.

The title track is a strange beast. Opening with heavy piano and drums, Cave comes in with the placid line Sun is high up in the sky, I'm in my car/ Drifting down into the abattoir. What begins like 'Brompton Oratory' tinged with extra desperation gives way to airy female vocals and such inane lines as I woke up this morning with a frappachino in my hand. And yet - it's not damn bad. With a little patience, you get the hang of the drums and female parts, and you leave feeling contented.

Up until now, there have only been hints of a dominant genre in the Bad Seeds' electicism, save on a couple of tracks. But 'Let The Bells Ring' sounds resolutely bluesy from the start, with that sweetly singing guitar reminsicent of someone like Steve Earle. But Cave isn't the type to cut a straight 12-bar piece of humdrum. Instead, he takes that Western sound and uses it as a prism for his fascination with American music. Soon we see hints of country music, a mandolin (?!) and bits which sound reminiscent of a Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac. On top of all this, Cave wails and moans as only he can. And that isn't bad either.

It's a shame, then, that the album ends on such an obvious whimper as 'Fable Of The Brown Ape'. Half-rambling Paul Simon ballad, half-storming metal tribute, this can't make it up its mind what it is. But the worst part is, because of this (and Cave's nerve-stretching vocal performance) the storyline is lost - well, not so much lost as rendered obsolete and superfluous. And this in turn renders this so pointless that you are glad when it all dries up.

To the seasoned Bad Seeds listener, Abattoir Blues could be described as 'neo-classical', in the same vein as David Bowie's later work. As I have covered, if you listen carefully enough there are hints, riffs and motifs culled or sampled from the band's finest work. Whether this was deliberate, to show that they could cut it without Blixa, or simply the result of working together for 20 years, we don't know. Either would seem to justify both this album's low position and Cave's decision to form Grinderman as a means of escape. Don't get me wrong, Abattoir Blues is not a bad album, either on its own or taken alongside the lesser, more mellow The Lyre Of Orpheus. However, this is not as compelling as the band was in its prime - dare I say it, when a certain guitarist was present. That is something for the band to ponder should they choose to work together again.

3.78 out of 5

Sunday, 26 August 2007

Top 100 Albums - #70: Peacetime (2007)

Eddi Reader makes her second and final appearance on the chart with Peacetime, her most recent offering.After the release of her BRIT Award-winning self-titled second album (#75), Eddi Reader continued to release a steady stream of albums which received less attention in the press but were well-received by critics. Their quality ranged from the fragmented and formulaic (Candyfloss and Medicine (1996)) to the sublime and enchanting (Angels & Electricity (1998)). After a wave of studio and live releases in the first years of the 21st century, in 2003 Reader teamed up with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. The resulting album, Sings The Songs Of Robert Burns (2003), featured music set to the Scottish 'bard''s lyrics and led to a resurgence in interest in the figure. After being awarded an MBE for services to music and spending most of 2006 touring in Australia, Reader returned to the studio to record Peacetime, her first non-live release in four years.

The album opens with the cleverly titled 'Baron's Heir and Sadenia's Air'. Beginning with a wonderful accordion, this has a more overtly Celtic flavour than any of the pre-Burns material. There are some lovely multiple acoustic guitars layered over each other, each of which compliments Reader's voice. Her voice has aged extraordinary well, with the accent as endearing as before. The production is immaculate, as John McCusker balances the ornate layering of instruments with a laid-back folk feel.

'Muddy Water' continues the focus on acoustic and vocals, to its benefit. This is more repetitive, and just as rigidly structured as the opener. But this does not make it a bad song. If anything it creates hooks to prevent the listener drifting into a satisfied daze. This in turn means that some of the more comprehensible of Boo Hewerdine's lyrics - Who said anything about time?/ Well, it's not yours and it's not mine - to break out of the confines of the melody.

'Mary And The Soldier' is a traditional classic which benefits from Reader's unique delivery. The combined efforts of the guitar and mandolin create a jolly atmosphere over which Reader can croon the Glaswegian lyrics oh-so sweetly. This is folk of the quality and style that bands like Show Of Hands have maintained so well. Reader here takes this successful, well-kept format and adds a Scottish twist to create something which is absolutely charming.

Despite all the praise which 'Mary And The Soldier' deserves, the honour of best track must go to 'Aye Waukin-O'. The reason? Aside from anything else, this is the first number to achieve completely that which the album is meant for. The whole of Peacetime is an intended synthesis of Eddi's earlier solo work - like Eddi Reader (1994) - designed to chill you out, with her Robert Burns work. This achieves both in spades - it's irresistably Celtic and at the same time it avoids being overpowering, allowing you to drift into a welcome slumber without a hint of boredom or dejection.

Both 'Prisons' and 'The Shepherd's Song' continue and extend the aim of relaxation. The former is littered with simple rhymes and ever simpler guitar, over which Reader and Hewerdine harmonise the forgetable but soothing melody. The latter has somewhat more substance to it, thanks to a brass section - perhaps the Black Dyke Mills Band, who knows? It's a little longer, too, which allows the listener sufficient time to get the message even if drifting in and out of a soft slumber.

'Ye Banks And Braes O' Bonnie Doon' is the first real slip-up on the album. It begins with more upbeat folk reminiscent of Martin Joseph's 'Can't Breathe' (see my review of Deep Blue (2005), #94). This suffers from the same problem - the faster tempo does not suit Reader's voice, certainly at this age. And the pipe instrumentals over the (relatively) loud drums make this sound a little too like Big Country to be taken seriously.

'Should I Pray?' restores focus. With an opening reminiscent of later efforts by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, this makes good use of the piano and violin, complimented by the gentle brushes on the drums. Reader is on top form in this very gentle, soothing number about faith and doubt, which concludes with the exquisite line Lose a life, lose a love, lose it all my friend. Equally deserving of praise is 'The Afton', though in a different way. Here, the guitar returns to the foreground to accompany the violin, and the drums are heavier. This rolls along very gently, giving an incident of what it would have been like if Rick Wright had been into folk instead of jazz.

'Leezie Lindsay' is a second step backward. It's a little too laid back, even for Reader. And that's not all that's wrong with it. Here the Scottish dialect is a little strong for all but the experienced listener, and musically this is quite stripped back. While on many folk tracks this may work well, with Reader it does not when we have been thus far exposed to a delightfully polished studio sound.

Thankfully, 'Safe As Houses' takes the record back where it belongs, at the apex of Reader's repertoire. As on 'Muddy Water', the lyrics are a lot more memorable here; you could almost call the chorus catchy. Almost. With some gentle, understated percussion and a silkish delivery from Reader, it's a good return to form. But, as it turns out, it's wasted because 'Galileo (Someone Like You)' falls back into the same traps as the other tracks did. It's rambling both lyrically and musically, with little to salvage it on either count which has not been heard at least half a dozen times before.

The closer and title track is a good choice, an ideal choice to sum up the album. It sees Reader completely at ease, contented with the niche she has carved for herself in her late-middle-age. Here the accordions return to the mix over the guitars to create some sort of musical motif to link this rather sprawling album. But, as we discover, it is not the end. The hidden track - 'The Calton Weaver or Nancy Whisky' - is a full-blown reel, a more down-to-earth version of the Irish reels which Peter Gabriel sampled on OVO (2000). It's catchy, very repetitive, and will make you want to arise from your place of rest and dance around your coffee table.

As a summary of Reader's later career - post-Burns, that is - Peacetime achieves its tasks. It does, with a few notable and overblown exceptions, synthesise her earlier 'ambient' folk with the Celtic tinges of her work in the 21st century. As on Eddi Reader, there are several points where Reader slips up or becomes downright self-indulgent, but these are the outright minority of cases. For the best part, Peacetime is a record that will sooth you through and through, calming the casual listener and providing enough meet for the devoted folkist. One criticism would be that the album is too long; then again, if you're not a music critic, you won't really want to care.

3.77 out of 5

Monday, 20 August 2007

Top 100 Albums - #71: Peter Gabriel 1 (1977)

Peter Gabriel's fifth appearance on the chart is his first solo offering, released nearly two years after leaving Genesis in 1975. Gabriel founded Genesis in 1967 with classmates Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford, Anthony Phillips and Chris Stewart. Taking their lead from psycheldelic contempories Procol Harum, Genesis became famous throughout Western Europe through Gabriel's flamboyant costumes and the use of ultraviolet light in concerts. After their first two albums were slated, the band found fame and form with Nursery Crime (1971). This and its follow-ups, Foxtrot (1972) and Selling England By The Pound (1973), established Genesis as quintessentially English rockers, coated in a rich combination of psychedelia and eccentricity. But tensions soon emerged. The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974) was a postmodern, dystopian double album rock opera, chronicling the story of an immigrant called Rael trying to survive in the nightmare that is New York City. The tour saw Gabriel dressed even more ostentatiously - to hide his stage fright - and the group's collective attitude was undermined by his insistence on writing all the lyrics. Breaking point came with the difficult pregnancy and birth of Anna Gabriel. When Gabriel refused to record or tour with the band in order to look after his family, he realised that he had to leave.

Two years on, we come to this. 'Moribund The Burgermeister' opens the show and from the start it looks like a hard listener. The title is verbose, for a start. After the lengthy-ish intro, however, we begin to get going. Gabriel half-whispers, half-screams the lyrics as one started off as a brooding little tune has turned into a fully-flung rocker. The lyrics may be difficult to understand, and are even mythical in places. Nevertheless, given the space it needs, this is a great song. If nothing else, it's a good break from the Genesis sound while retaining the best aspects of Gabriel's previous work.

'Solsbury Hill' was the first single Gabriel released as a solo artist (with 'Moribund' as the B-side). Everything is here to make this a classic - great acoustic guitar, lovely flutes - played by Gabriel himself, I dare say - , Gabriel's angelic voice and splendid vocals. From any other artist, you might expect a song about going solo to be a clunky affair used to slag off their former bandmates. With Gabriel, what you get instead is a lyrical delight. You only have to look at the second verse to see how talented he is: To keep in silence I resigned/ My friends would think I was a nut/ Turning water into wine/ Open doors would soon be shut.

'Modern Love' is another hard-rocking joy, replete with loud guitars and swirling keyboards. The lyrics are less cohesive and clear here than on 'Solsbury Hill', and like on the opener they do go down the mystical path a bit too far; I worship Diana by the light of the moon/ When I pull out my pipe, she screamed out of tune is the kind of couplet you'd expect on a Led Zeppelin album. But this aside, it's a catchy, intelligent song, and Gabriel is on proper form with the vocals. He's at the top of his range without straining or strangling a cat.

So far Gabriel's experiments with different genres has paid off. 'Excuse Me' is the first point at which he comes unstuck. With its doo-wop, almost barbership introduction and general kookiness, it's listenable, but that doesn't make it good. Gabriel is trying too hard to show that he call do a lot more with art rock than just prance around in a flower costume. It might grow on you, but many will not take the chance.

Much better is 'Humdrum'. This is quieter, eerier and has some wonderful keyboard echoes on it, courtesy of producer Bob Ezrin. Even though the lyrics are difficult to follow, there is some quality to the music which leads them to grip you. You listen so intently that duff lines like You got me cookin'/ I'm a hard boiled egg are overlooked, almost corrected by the general feel of the piece. This means that that the good lines, like Empty my mind/ I find it hard to cope/ Listen, my heart/ Don't need no stethoscope, get through. The ending, with its Nick Mason-like drumming, is the beginning of the path down the anthem trail, which we will revisit shortly.

The first song on this album which comes close to an anthem is 'Slowburn'. Beginning with some rather standard-sounding piano, it swells with guitar and burgeons with the drums to create a song which pulls you in all the right directions and in all the right ways. There are some intriguing lines in here - We tried a handful of bills and a handful of pills/ We tried making movies from a volume of stills - but again the main focus is on the music. And in this case, the music is good enough to make that okay.

The last proper slip-up on the album comes next. 'Waiting For The Big One' clocks in at an epic 7:13. It's a jazz number with blues influences which feels like it's lifted straight out of a late-night cabaret. What this means is that it's gentle, muffled, and very, very slow. In fact, 'slow' does not do it justice. For a piece which only has two verses, it feels strung out ad infinitum. You are made to fell like this will never end and so only the dedicated fan will avoid skipping over this one.

From the worst track on the album to what is undoubtedly the best, the most anthemic. 'Down The Dolce Vita' opens with a full orchestra to set the grandiosity, before giving way to some great drums and disco-tinged guitars. The lyrics, to the attuned ear, are some of the clearest on the album. It's a gem which never fails to surprise you, and always comes at you at an unrelenting pace. It doesn't force the music down your throat, but it grips you by the scruff of the neck right until the drums die down.

We then segue straight into the closer, 'Here Comes The Flood'. So far, Ezrin's production has been near flawless. Here is the first time that he slips up. This feels very overproduced - even to those not attuned to spotting this will admit the 1990 version is better (see my review of Hit, #72). In its favour, this is a deeply emotional song, with lyrics which both flow along melodiously and hook you in. The trouble is that Ezrin has layered so much stuff on top of them that it sound that it is pulling at your heartstrings in such a superficial way. It's as if he wasn't sure that this was a good song, and threw the stuff in to be sure.

When compared to the work Genesis were churning out at the same time - A Trick Of The Tail (1976) and Wind And Wuthering (1977) - Peter Gabriel 1 achieves the task of setting a departure from 'the Genesis sound'. This was the thing Gabriel most needed. It doesn't matter that he was unsure where to go at first: the experimentation comes as a refreshing relief instead of sounding like a cry for help. On one or two songs - 'Excuse Me' and 'Waiting For The Big One' - the experiments go awry, and lyrically this isn't the clearest record he would ever put out. Nevertheless, while Peter Gabriel 1 is by no means a perfect album, it still stands as a testament to Gabriel's abilities and, for the dedicated listener, hints at greater things to come.

3.77 out of 5

Sunday, 19 August 2007

Top 100 Albums - #72: Hit (2003)

Peter Gabriel's most recent... 'offering' is the compilation Hit, a comprehensive double album of all his hits and personal favourites. Like a Kate Bush offering, Hit is essentially two albums in one: the side subtitled 'Hit' contains all of his most commercially successful songs, while 'Miss' comprises of less successful songs which also met with critical acclaim.Gabriel has had a solo career spanning three decades and yet has only released two 'greatest hits'. Both Hit and its predecessor, Shaking The Tree (1990), came at times when Gabriel had come into or returned to the public eye, and both sought to remind listeners that there was a lot more to him than just 'Sledgehammer'. Shaking The Tree came four years after So (1986), Gabriel's most commercial successful offering. At this time it was clear that his output was not only slowing, but changing in its intentions and focus. In between So and the wholly different Us (1992), Gabriel had gone into world music overdrive with Passion (1989), the soundtrack to The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988). This influence would show prominently on Us. Hit, in the same way, came just a year after his 'comeback' Up (2002), a shift to minimalist and acute introspection and a complete departure from the days of So.

The 'Hit' side opens with 'Solsbury Hill'. This song, written about leaving Genesis, is taken from Peter Gabriel 1 (1977). It opens with some of the finest acoustic guitar on record, a simple enough riff which carries all the power of a Dylan classic. Then the flutes kick in to make room for Gabriel's angelic tones. And that is not hyperbole - Gabriel's voice here is melodious and mellifulous. Few others could deliver a song about falling out with the people who made you famous and yet make it a very happy listen.

'Shock The Monkey', from Peter Gabriel 4 (1982, #80), is a step backward after such a great start. As I said before in my review of PG4, this song about primitive urges of jealousy has vast ambitious; it is a very inventive metaphor to use in describing that most basic of human emotions. But while 'Solsbury Hill' was a brilliant effort which just happened to become a pop hit, 'Shock The Monkey' feels like it was deliberately written as a pop song. Considering what he had to compete with in the early-1980s, this is almost by default a number that is at best a hard listen and at worse just plain annoying.

'Sledgehammer' and 'Don't Give Up' are both from So and are a return to form if not formula (see what I did there?). Being a collection of singles, this version of 'Sledgehammer' has disposed of the rather annoying flute introduction contained on the original album. But this song is still not perfect, for one reason. While the original version was fresh but let down by the annoying flutes, this radio edit is flawed because it has been relentlessly overplayed, so that it now feels a little too 1980s to be considered a proper masterpiece. 'Don't Give Up', on the other hand, is more heartfelt and thought-provoking. It has in its favour both the gorgeous instrumentalism and an in-form Peter. The let-down is the female vocals: Kate Bush, fresh from Hound Of Love (1985), sounds too kooky for this song, undermining its emotional impact. (Gabriel connoisseurs, or anyone who has seen the Secret World film, will know that Paula Cole does it way better).

Bush is also the problem on the next track. 'Games Without Frontiers' was never one of Gabriel's better songs, at least when compared to some of the stuff on Peter Gabriel 3 (1980). While the musical side of things is very attractive, Gabriel is again trying to hard to do pop while neglecting the purpose of this song about warfare. What is also annoying is that he has subtletly tweaked the lyrics to be more politically correct. Sure, Whistle me tunes/ We piss on the goons in the jungle is hardly suited to the 21st-century lexicon, but then this is supposed to be an historical record of Gabriel's work, not an opportunity for him to correct his mistakes.

'Big Time', also from So, is a carbon copy of the album original. Clocking in at 4:29, there was no need to create an FM-friendly version. This was an ironic hit, in that became successful by attacking the very thing which made it successful. It's a savage attack on 80s narcissism and greed, told through a man with a big head and bigger ego - everything is big, from the words he speaks to the pillow on his bed. With lines as sublime as When I show them round my house to my bed/ I had it made like a mountain range, with a snow-white pillow for my big fate head, it's a caustically catchy song and one of the better tracks on So.

Next comes a real oddity. 'Burn You Up, Burn You Down' is a new track, which could be described as a 'non-LP single' in the sense that it sound like an offcut from Peter Gabriel 4. It's insanely catching from outset and the lyrics are easy to pick up on: Pilgrim knows the road to go/ And many times we told you so may not be the most intelligible lines ever written, but they fit very well. Having said all that, in the final third this song runs completely of steam, slowly fading out into a vocal exercise for all involved. By the end, you've gone from tapping your toe and singing along to wondering what the hell just happened.

A truncated version of 'Growing Up' is the first song taken from Up. While the original, which is over 7 minutes long, enticed you with long and atmospheric instrumentals to build you up, this cuts straight to the chase and as such that feel of an obsessive masterwork is lost. But the strength of 'Growing Up' is that, like a lot of Gabriel's singles, they are idiosyncratic and as such instantly recognisable.

This is certainly the case with the next two songs. 'Digging In The Dirt' and 'Blood Of Eden', both taken from Us, are more subtle if no less atmospheric. 'Digging In The Dirt' begins with a subdued, slightly sinister opening, before becoming a full-blown world-rocker. It's angry yet tender, aggressive and yet restrained by the textures brewing in the background. It's a very fine piece which both stands well on its own and slots well into the album. 'Blood Of Eden', featuring the vocals of Sinéad O'Connor, is a deeply emotional number complete with crooning violins and sensitive guitar. Gabriel is on top form vocally, as is O'Connor, which creates another heart-surger. Again, it's annoyingly truncated, loosing an entire verse, and yet none of the emotion or passion is lost.

If only the same could be said for 'More Than This'. Lifted straight out of Up, this is not a good song either in its original, 6-minute form or the short version included here. It's a little uninspiring, considering all the stuff that is going on. That serves to make it more choatic and incoherent, rendering the whole thing a let-down.

But before long, we turn back the clock to 1980 and 'Biko', the closer to Peter Gabriel 3. Again, it's a little shorter to make room for all the tracks. But this is a coup because the song sounds almost exactly the same. All the experiments work - the humanitarian lyrics are untouched, so that lines like When I try and sleep at night/ I can only dream in red/ The outside world is black and white/ With only one colour dead still resonate. 'Steam' is lifted straight from Us and retains its impact. Critics at the time put this down as a rehash of 'Sledgehammer'; while the themes of this song are similar, this actually feels fresher, if only because it wasn't as overplayed as 'Sledgehammer' (how could it be?). While this is better performed live - see Secret World - it's still a great song and deserves its place on this compilation.

The last two songs on the 'Hit' side both send the other 13 into the shade. 'Red Rain', the finest track on So, is absolutely majestic. It pushes every button on a Gabriel fan: it's introspective, it's rich in texture, it's openly emotional, and it's highly intelligent when it comes to lyrics. Gabriel sings at the top of his range without straining, and as such this song about a recurring dream filled with blood is given the full treatment it deserves. Even better is 'Here Comes The Flood'. But this is not the overproduced, pulling-at-the-heartstrings original. This is taken from Shaking The Tree, and it's scaled back to just piano and vocals. This, and the slower tempo, makes it both easier to understand the lyrics and more powerful. It's the best track thus far.

'Miss' begins with 'San Jacinto'. A welcome return to Peter Gabriel 4, this is a catalogue of world music: Asian instrumentals to set the tone, mild amounts of African drumming just after the 2-minute mark, and Native Americans are the subject of the lyrics. It's a subtle number, hinting at his later work, which makes you see why this didn't become a hit. It wouldn't have work as a single simply because it is too intelligent to be considered chart-worthy.

No Self-Control', from its predecessor, open aggressively with the multiple synthesisers and xylophone parts. This is one of the few occassions when xylophones can be described as moody or sinister. Gabriel conveys in his delivery a feeling of utter desperation and claustrophobia. The repeating line I don't know how to stop/ I don't know how to stop. Once again Kate Bush is on hand to prevent this from being a complete triumph, but this is a very mature and atmospheric marvel which provides, if nothing else, the ideal introduction to Gabriel's best album.

'Cloudless', featuring the Blind Boys of Alabama, is the first and only track from Long Walk Home (2002), the soundtrack from the film Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) about Australian aborigines escaping correction programmes into the 1930s. The basic rhythms were sampled and put to better use on 'Sky Blue' on Up. Here, although Gabriel does contribute, this feels like a world track without his art rock motifs. As a result we are led to question both the quality of the song and its purpose on the album.

Order is restored by 'The Rhythm Of The Heat'. Another track from Peter Gabriel 4, it's untweaked and as such retains all the original's benefits and qualities. The musique concrète of the ticking clock, Gabriel's whispering scream-of-a-delivery, the meticulous production, the drumming pandemonium - it 's all brilliant stuff (see my review of the album at #80 for more details). The same can't be said for 'I Have The Touch'. Here, all the African influences have been stripped away. The opening has been replaced by backwards speech and distinctly Western drumming; the ending lacks the charm of the original by replacing it with an exhibition of self-indulgent guitar-plucking. As such this misses the mark by a very long way.

To join a long list of those to quote Monty Python: "And now for something completely different." 'I Grieve' is another track culled from Up, and so you would expect it to be different. Written in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, this does the subject matter justice even at the expense of becoming a vocal workout for Gabriel. It does sound at points like a means for him to prove that, at 52, he can still deliver vocals with the power and strength needed. Frankly, he didn't need to - it's obvious.

'D.I.Y.' is the only song liften from Peter Gabriel 2 (1978), which entered out chart at #85. As I more or less said before, this is a simple exercise in late-1970s pop which is too simplistic to be considered a classic - "minimalism with a distinct indifference to [texture]", or something along those lines. Sure, it's a good pop song - but Gabriel didn't get as good as he is by writing good pop songs, did he? The next song is another strange choice. 'A Different Drum' is lifted out of Passion and feels distinctly out of place, just like 'Cloudless'. In the context of the entire soundtrack, this is a very good song, which like the whole album grows on you the more you listen to it. Here, it's completely at see amid the rock-world hybrids. It might make you want to hear it in its proper context, but that's about it.

Back to Up now with 'The Drop'. The closer on its album is a very solemn affair. Like 'Here Comes The Flood' it's just Peter and a piano, but the difference is that this is completely void of any message of hope or a future. It's a song about death, the kind of thing you'd listen to lying on your back amid a sea of candles. The lyrics are almost morbid, and even if they're indistinct at times, after a few listens they dwell deep inside you.

The reputation of 'The Tower That Ate People', taken from OVO (2000, #81), should mean that any different version would tarnish the quality of the song, let alone a fully-blown remix. Here, I am glad to say, I was wrong. Sure, the more industrial, Robert Fripp-inspired influences are gone, but their place is amply filled by angry keyboards, strange screeches and heavy drums. The lyrics are more processed, but this doesn't matter; and the instrumental section in the middle really create the image of machinery and chaos which made the original so compelling.

From one of the best songs included on the album, to one of the worst. 'Lovetown', taken from the soundtrack to Philadelphia (1994), is by all standards rubbish. It's Gabriel's attempt at soul music, which he just can't manage. The song just isn't suited to his vocal range - it's all wrong in all ways. The guitar is lazy, the lyrics are lacklustre and the result is the least compelling track he has ever produced.

Thankfully, the next two songs reward our perseverance so that we almost forget 'Lovetown' ever existed. 'Father Son' is straight out of OVO and as I said before is an excellent song. Like all his good soundtrack stuff, it both stands up on its own and relates part of the story. Gabriel's delivery gels well with the Black Dyke Mills Band, and the feeling you get from listening to it as a deeply satisfying one. The other, 'Signal To Noise', is one of the best songs on Up. Beginning with the atmospheric drum and violins, Gabriel half-croons, half-sneers the lyrics before blossoming into some wonderfully contained screams. By the end the energy level is critical and the whole thing explodes with the words Receive and transmit! so that you are absolutely blown away.

'Downside Up' is the only live track on the album, and it's just as well. Melanie Gabriel, Peter's daughter, delivers the female vocals a lot better than Elizabeth Frazer, whose original version on OVO sounded downright prissy and horrible. But the result of this is that everything good about the original piece is lost - the guitars, for instance - and replaced by something gratituous and awful. The annoying violins add nothing, nor does David Rhodes' guitar; Peter sounds weak where Paul Buchanan was so strong; and the OVO, OVO, OVO chant at the end is incredibly annoying.

It's just as well then that we finish on a high. 'Washing Of The Water', from Us, is a tender, sombre and swelling number which again sees Gabriel reaching exhilirating vocal peaks. It's mellow up to a point, with the drumming gentle, but there are always subtle hints of something brooding under the surface. It's a great finisher, although fans might want to avoid the dodgy version recorded with Jools Holland in 2003.

Gabriel's work is not suited to compilations, and so Hit is a frustrating collection for all but the casual listener. Those who have studied his music in greater depth than simply buying his singles will be disappointed by some of the inclusions. Where, I might ask, are such heights of genius as 'Secret World', 'That Voice Again', or 'Down The Dolce Vita'? The soundtrack inclusions, barring those from OVO, as generally below-far; there is not enough from Peter Gabriel 2 and it focusses too much on his post-So career to make it a truly definitive collection. On the other hand, this is not just an album for casual fans. The versions of 'Here Comes The Flood' and 'The Tower That Ate People' are brilliant enough to make you buy this for them alone. In short, Hit is a good collection released at an appropriate time in Peter's career. If nothing else, it reassures the more impatient among us that Gabriel has at least spent his time meticulously creating albums instead of approving endless compilations.

3.77 out of 5

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Top 100 Albums - #73: Young Americans (1975)

David Bowie makes his fourth appearance on our chart with Young Americans, the album which brought him great success in the States for the first time, and the record which created the genre of 'plastic soul' - that is, soul music done tongue-in-cheek by white musicians.After breaking up the Spiders from Mars on stage in July 1973 and completing the cover album Pin-Ups, Bowie rekindled his earlier interests in the stage by attempting to create a dystopian musical based loosely on George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). But problems with Orwell's estate meant that neither the musical nor the film that he planned got far. With clarion calls for a new record, he combined the music that he had produced thus far to create the fragmented Diamond Dogs (1974), taking on the character of Hallowe'en Jack. But as the following tour progressed - producing the live album David Live (1974) - Bowie began to be more interested by the 'Philly Soul' sound, to the extent that he both moved to Philadelphia, and suspended the tour so that he could write some soul numbers to include in the second leg of what became known as the Philly Dogs tour.

Young Americans, then, is the culmination of Bowie's fascination with so-called 'plastic soul'. The title track, which kicks us off, begins with a very finely orchestrated combination of drums, piano and saxophone. We are coated in a luscious layer of American soul sound before Bowie comes in for the first time. And this is a different kind of Bowie voice. While his work in the early-1970s - from Hunky Dory to Diamond Dogs - had cast him as an edgy, slightly awkward rocker, here he comes across as a suave, sensitive and sophisticated performer with no room for vocal error. With a delivery more reminiscent of The Man Who Sold The World (1970), and very witty lyrics, this is a very worthy introduction and a smooth departure from his previous incarnations.

'Win' seeks to consolidate this new, luscious and textured feel, and does so in the clever use of bass, saxophones and the ever-present female harmonies. This is more laid-back, allowing Bowie to croon and slide over the guitar parts. The chorus is perfectly executed, and there is some clever question-and-answer - almost banter - between Bowie and the saxophone by the time the second verse is running its course. At the same time, it retains the Bowie motif of changes in time signature and strange choice of notes.

With its darker, more brooding sound, 'Fascination' opens like a cross between a Peter Frampton live album and an offcut from "Heroes" (1977). Still, Bowie's delivery and the female vocals quickly transmute this into a more complex soul workout than the other two provided. Bowie seems here to be singing about himself and his inability to stand still when it comes to music. Lines like I know that people think that I'm a little crazy and the chorus (Fascination/ Showing off/ Takes a part of me etc.) are a clear message to his earlier fans, still distressed at the 'retirement' of Ziggy Stardust and confused by Bowie's choice of direction.

'Right' is the first track on the album to fail to complete justify its place. Coming at the halfway point, it finds Bowie experimenting with his vocal ranges and being increasingly irritating in the process. The quickfire sections of the song barely make any sense, and the tempo is too regular to half-justify them. Add in some underused alto sax and some equally pointless female vocals and you have a big let-down on your hands.

It doesn't take long for Bowie to pull himself together, however, and 'Somebody Up There Likes Me' is a sparkling return to form. The joint graft of piano and sax is great, and there is a firm bass part to underscore it all in true soul style. Admittedly, this does take a bit longer to reach its objective than some of the songs on the album, but when it does, you're instantly hooked. 'Across The Universe', with its acoustic opening, turns back the clock to the days of Space Oddity (1969) and Hunky Dory, and is littered with wonderfully ironic lines like Nothing's going to change my world. Bowie is faintly pre-Ziggy in his choice of registers, and this has a rockier feel to it - not least in the distinctive hi-hat work, which has a Buddy Rich feel to it.

'Can You Hear Me' takes the successful formula of the title track and attempts to replicate it while slowing the tempo down quick drastically. Cynics may scoff at this, but in fact it's one of the better tracks on the album. Not the best, mind - that honour goes to 'Fascination'. In its favour, the lyrics on this song are much easier to pick up, without rendering them vacuous; and Bowie's voice has rarely sounded better when strenched over such as a range. It's a great song, a little long perhaps, but the extra space is amply filled by Bowie's improvisations.

Critics raved about 'Fame' when it was released as a single, describing it as an accurate portrayal of the life of an artist stretched to the brink, working relentlessly just to avoid bankruptcy. With all this reputation to live up to, it is a little disappointing. It will grow on you, particularly as you explore Bowie's later efforts of this period, but its main flaw is that it jars with the rest of the album. While the rest of the record has been a homage to the Philadephia sound, with some tongue-in-cheek stuff thrown in for good measure, this is pure introspective, albeit in a funky sort of way. On any other album, this would have been a great song - just not here.

Young Americans came as a shock to Bowie's fans: even those who saw him move towards R&B in the Philly Dogs tour found the transition a little hard to stomach. Critics were equally unsure about the album, although there came an eventual consensus that it was not enough of a departure from any given sound to warrant the title of a Bowie masterpiece. As puts it, "even at his most passionate, Bowie sounds like a commentator, as if the entire album was a genre exercise... Young Americans is more enjoyable as a stylistic adventure than as a substantive record."¹ And yet, this is a deeply sophisticated record. It hangs together like a soul record, it sounds like a soul record - but the difference is that Bowie has peppered this with his own charm, wit and pretension. The result is an erudite, educated and informed effort which is highly enjoyable. At the very least, it's a damn-sight better than Diamond Dogs.

3.75 out of 5


¹ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, 'Young Americans', Accessed on August 18 2007.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Top 100 Albums - #74: Heathen (2002)

David Bowie's third chart entry is Heathen, the second record of his 'neo-classical' period and the darker follow-up to the comeback effort 'hours...' (1999). It became Bowie's biggest chart success of recent years and was nominated for the Mercury Prize.Despite the departure of his guitarist Reeve Gabrels - who described the music on 'hours...' as "too soft"¹ - Bowie was on a bounce after abandoning the electronica and drum and bass he had dabbled with in the mid-1990s. His next project, entitled Toy, was scheduled as an album containing new editions of old classics plus three new songs - perhaps like a self-referencing version of his cover album Pin-Ups (1973), or a studio album with a live setlist. Recording began in 2000 but was quickly abandoned. In 2001 Bowie appeared in the Concert for New York City following the 9/11 attacks, before returning to the studio once again under the successful eye of producer Tony Visconti.

The album begins with 'Sunday'. The choral harmonies and eerie guitar create the atmosphere before Bowie's ageing voice counterpoints it perfectly. The lyrics are not as distinct as you might expect, but their delivery is thankfully absence of the sentimentality that plagued 'hours...'. Lines like Nothing has changed/ Everything has changed manage to sum up his predicament: he is still producing what the fans want, but the rest of the world has moved on, leaving him in what could be called the musical graveyard. Bowie sounds depressed, almost despondant, and it works very well, even with the odd-fitting drums at the end.

'Cactus', a cover of the song by The Pixies, begins with some irritating cymbals and continues with Bowie being even more so. Being a cover, it doesn't fit well, and being a alt-rock/ pre-grunge song, it is of a style that Bowie has so far been unable to master. The lyrics are almost unlistenable, especially with Bowie's tinny drawing out of the refrain. Before long, we return to sanity in the form of 'Slip Away'. Also called 'Uncle Floyd', this is more minimalist and again features some eerie guitar. With piano reminiscent of Hunky Dory (1971), the production at the start has a vinyl-ish feel to it - much like Kanute (#77) - and features some nice, if underused, strings in the background. Bowie delivers the cloudy lyrics in a cross between despair and desperation, until he has you by the scruff of the ears.

'Slow Burn' brings both bass and guitar to the forefront while maintaining the brooding atmosphere. Pete Townshend (The Who) and Tony Levin (King Crimson) add an aggressive edge to Bowie's vocals, which as before betray despondency and uncertainty about the future. It's a fine vocal performance which serves, if nothing else, to silence critics claiming that Bowie's voice had deteriorated. The prominent guitar continues on 'Afraid', another ornate string piece made complete with some strong drums. There is a mild sense of paranoia apparent in this song, although the lyric I'm still so afraid/ On my own may be a hint at his marriage to Somali model Imam.

'I've Been Waiting For You' is another cover, this time of Neil Young. It's one of the shortest tracks on the albun, and also the slightest. There are some interesting rhythms, for sure, but it sounds like Bowie is fumbling around for an alternative to Young's Canadian brogue. Generally it's a less impressive effort, which tries to be atmospheric and yet tries so hard that it is destined to fall short.

'I Will Be Your Slave' is a return to the standard we have come to expect. It's a song of submission and acceptance of one's fate, which may sound a little hollow to the untrained ear. On closer inspection however, there are some decent strings and synthesised effects. For the really careful listener, one can detect some deeply pitched pedal steel guitar murmuring in the background.

'I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship' is the third and final cover on the album. Considering the insipidness of the other two attempts, it doesn't have much going for it - especially when we discover that it was originally done by the a-melodious drawling that is The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, an American one-'hit' wonder who lent his name (more than anything else) to Bowie's most famous incarnation. The song opens like a standardised dance song, the kind of rubbish that graces inner city clubs. We are then forced to listen to Bowie mumble along while the background noise dominates. This song is awful because it doesn't do justice on two counts. One, it doesn't sound remotely like the original (though, one could hazard a guess, that would be worse). And two, it is not of the kind of quality Bowie should be giving his fans.

Rant over. Bowie's favourite song on the album, '5:15 The Angels Have Gone', is a thousand times better. It's focussed, comprehensive and has a clear sense of emotion. Where the previous track adopted the dance philosophy (deafen people so much that they don't care and become irrationally happy), this doesn't force you to feel anything; it merely sets the appropriate atmosphere to hint at how you should feel. There is some wonderful drumming on this, not because it is especially impressive on a technical level, but because it's inobtrusive, unlike a lot of modern rock.

'Everyone Says 'Hi'' is the last real slip-up on the album. It's begins like a cheapened version of one of the instrumentals of "Heroes" (1977). But then it transforms into a tinny outtake from Hunky Dory or The Man Who Sold The World (1970). No, wait, it's a Berlin era piece with the background synthesisers. Or is it a middle-of-the-road pop-rock song? It just can't make up its mind, and as a result this is a piece of aimless cacophony.

'A Better Future' sets out to be a new piece in the style of the Berlin era, only with lighter touches, and of course modern production. Lyrically speaking, this is a repetitive effort from Bowie, and his delivery is relatively timid. Nonetheless, this is a very good song depending on how you read it. Lines like I demand a better future/ Or I might just stop needing you good be about his family or, more likely, his career. Maybe this is a statement to his new label to get things right from the start.

After all this tossing and turning, we come to 'Heathen (The Rays)'. This is a superlative composition. This has a funereal feel to it, not in the sense that it is dirgeful, but in that it is steeped in melancholy (not unlike Wish You Were Here (1975)). Bowie is at his most exposed for a long time, delivering lines like Waiting for something/ Looking for someone/ Is there no reason?/ Have I stayed too long? with an almost galling amount of deadpan. It's a brilliant song, no question.

Heathen is a good effort from Bowie. 'Good' is the word, because neither is this magnificent on the scale of his work in the 1970s, nor is it an insipid shot at commercial success like in the mid-1980s. It's a two-faced album in many ways: it's a document both of Bowie's sentimental, at-ease feelings at this stage of his career, and his feelings of despair at the modern world and towards himself. At ease with the past, uncertain of the present. That is not to say that this is a desperate album; unlike Low (1977) this is not forceful and brooding, and where there are Berlin-era influences that are counterbalanced with washes of electronica. If nothing else, Heathen is testament to Bowie's lasting talent as a songwriter - proved, ironically, by the direness of the covers. Let's just hope that he gets the message for his next comeback, which is, incidentally, long overdue.

¹ 'David Bowie', Accessed on August 10 2007.

3.75 out of 5

Friday, 3 August 2007

Top 100 Albums - #75: Eddi Reader (1994)

Eddi Reader makes her first of two appearances on the chart which her self-titled second solo album, for which she won 'Best Female Singer' at the 1994 BRIT Awards.

Eddi Reader began her career with punk band Gang Of Four, leaving after their next tour of the US. After spending the next few years as a session vocalist, in 1984 she began to collaborate with guitarist Mark E. Levin. The two formed Fairport Convention with the help of acoustic bass (guitaron) player Simon Edwards and drummer Roy Dodds, and released an album, The First Of A Million Kisses (1988). After a No. 1 single in the shape of 'Perfect', a second album was planned but the band soon folded. Reader returned to Scotland to have her first child and try her hand at acting, before signing to RCA Records and releasing her solo debut, Mirmama (1992).

'The Right Place' opens the album gracefully, appropriately easing you into Reader's assuredly relaxed folk. Her decidedly Glaswegian voice fits serenely into the mix against both the violins and acoustic guitar. The lyrics are also part of a greater soundscape, like so many female vocalists. The occassional lines slip out and make a stand - Five or ten lifetimes ago/ They lived a girl that you don't know/ She walked about and answered to my name - but in general Reader focuses on the music. In this instance, this pays off well and you end up with a fine example of easy-listening folk, complete with great doubletracked harmonies.

'Patience Of Angels' begans like a waltz overlaid with a catchy accordion part, and is more upbeat and attention-seeking. This has a Corrs-ish feel to it, which would normally do for even the best artists. But here the absence of meaning doesn't matter because Reader's delivery is so enchanting. The refrain is very well put together, and this feels like a complete product in the way that 'The Right Place' seemed a little loose. 'Dear John' scales things back to just Eddi and a guitar, creating a slightly haunting sound which would have been amplified more given some induced echo. Written about a break-up, this doesn't feel overdone or clichéd for, despite the addition of a string section halfway in, this is cancelled out by the accordian part at the end, creating a quaint little gem.

Things soon begin to go awry, I'm afraid. 'Scarecrow' opens with a tinny guitar riff which digs deep into soul and ties your brain in knots. It then meanders along for much too long, littered with jerky guitar parts and Reader's unwanted attempts at falsetto. She also provides an irritating, Beach Boys-style harmony that is deeply annoying. 'East Of Us' opens with her descending a scale and producing a vacuous noise of the kind that Mariah Carey is a certified professor of. All the accordian parts in the whole world can't salvage this humdrum effort. Thinking about it, neither could Ms. Carey.

Thankfully, before the temptation to switch off becomes too great, we come into 'Joke (I'm Laughing)'. This is a brighter number which despite its lyrics - which are both quirky and jerky - has some very good piano on it which justifies its place on the album. Indeed, some of the lyrics are quite intelligent, for instance the opening of the second verse: D'you hear the one about/ The one who fell from space/ One minute in the stars/ The next minute lyin' on their face. Again, Reader does come across a bit too much like one of the Corrs to achieve complete credibility, but this is easily the most jovial track on the album.

No sooner have I said that, when it is trumped by 'The Exception'. This song about fame and the grandiosity which it brings is very folky in that its lyrics are both earthy and have a wry, satirical bite. Lines like No pain, no gain, that's what they say/ And it's hard to disagree/ But I thought somehow they weren't including me slot perfectly into place, sticking to the subject matter without trying to be ostentious or over-metaphorical like many folk rockers do.

But if it's more the loving crooner that you crave, then you need 'Red Face Big Sky'. Despite its decidedly ill-fitting title, this features glorious harmonies which are almost whispered or breathed to instantly soothe you. These in turn provide the perfect foil to Reader's vocal workout. Throw in some sensitive drumming, emotive piano and subtle bass and you have a winner.

'Howling In Ojai' is the last track to truly fall short (in more ways than one), considering the expectations set by the previous three tracks. Not only is it too brief at only 1:29, but it's also another Carey-style, self-indulgent workout which could pass off as awful world music. Instead, to the more discerning listener, this is a middle-aged Scottish lady wailing stupefying to some embarrassing guitar. Thankfully, this is quickly over, and I am reminded of the immortal words of The Muppets: "Just when you think the show is terrible, something wonderful happens." "What's that?" "It ends."

'While I Watch You Sleeping' has a lead over the other tracks because it provides a hook on the guitar. Reader crafts a delightful riff which is well-suited both to her yearning vocals and the brushes lingering in the background. This is a great 'darkness' song - i.e. one that will influence you a lot more if you listen to it in the dark. Reader here has achieved a great balance of vocal restraint and instrumental prowess. Without letting either dominate, she creates the most underrated track on the album.

'Wonderful Lie' switches to exotic means of percussion as an alternative way to get you interested. And while it may not have been wise to group these with 1980s-style keyboards, you do shuffle yourself slowly in your chair and take notice. There are three-part harmonies here that just (and I mean just) avoid being garish, and the electric guitar and drums are a little more imposing than before - which makes a nice change.

'Siren' is the closer, and it's a strange one. Not strange as the choice for the closer, oh no. The strange side of this is the song itself, which can't make up its mind over whether it's an acoustic Roxy Music ballad or a cabaret-esque passion song with a jazz fusion feel to it. The vocal parts are also a little unusual for Reader, whose delivery can become overly tired when her albums are overplayed. It's an intriguing piece, the difficult child of the album - it's hard to get used to, but it's an intelligent and experimental adventure once you do.

Depending on your view, it's either much easier or much harder to knock an album with the kind of plaudits which Eddi Reader has received. Critically speaking, it's her most consistently top-rated work, and even to the casual fan it has a feeling of completeness which many of her later albums did not (the follow-up, for instance, Candyfloss And Medicine (1996), is disastrously fractious). And to a extent the critics got it right. This has, to borrow someone else's phrase, "a certain je ne sais quoi that will have you going around hugging all your friends after the album's over."¹ Like all good Reader albums, this will send you into a state of complete relaxation and serenity. You won't be bored by it, you'll just want to sink into a comfy chair and forget about your worries. And in this world of speed and hyperactivity, any album that can make you want to sit still and relax is more than worthy of a place in the chart.

¹ Rick Anderson, 'Eddi Reader', Accessed on August 5 2007.

3.75 out of 5

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Top 100 Albums - #76: A Trick Of The Tail (1976)

Genesis' only entry on the chart is A Trick Of The Tail, their first album with Phil Collins at the helm which marked a return to the English eccentricity and psychedelia of Foxtrot (1972) and Selling England By The Pound (1973).By 1974, Genesis had become stalwarts of the progressive rock scene in Britain. Their early albums had a disarmingly psychedelic quality which became increasingly experimental as the 1970s wore on. By 1974, singer Peter Gabriel had caused tensions in the band; while the group philosophy had always been to write and perform as a collective unit, Gabriel was appearing ever more flamboyantly to hide his stage fright. In the studio he was increasingly absent due to difficulties with his wife's pregnancy, and yet insisted on writing the bulk of their lyrics. After the tour for their rock opera masterpiece, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974) - which brought both to the fore - Gabriel left the group to look after his family and pursue a solo career. After auditions proved fruitless, Phil Collins took over vocal duties and the band became a four-piece.

'Dance On A Volcano', the album's opener, is in many ways indicative of the album's sound. Opening with Steve Hackett's gentle strumming and Collins' clever tom-tom work, we get a very amiable instrumental section. When Collins kicks in, the tempo quickens - tempo changes are one of the great features of this album, though arguably the division of songs into 'movements' is a key motif of all prog rock, good and bad. Contrary to perceptions, Collins' lyrics and delivery are nothing like his ghastly pop efforts in the 1980s - maybe he is deliberately trying to sound like Gabriel to provide continuity, but whether or not that is the case he sings very well.

'Entangled' continues this gently flowing vibe, with Hackett switching to acoustic. The lyrics, even if a little peculiar and incomprehensible, fit with the texture of the whole song. The opening lines, When you're asleep they may show you/ Aerial views of the ground,/ Freudian slumber empty of sound blend serenely into the mix, producing something which makes it increasingly possible to believe that (a) Genesis could manage without Gabriel; and (b) at one point in his life, Collins could actually write good songs instead of producing ones designed to make you haemorrage.

'Squonk' is the first slip-up on the album, and is also the first song Genesis recorded with Collins as the vocalist. Before he comes in, we get the faint sound of an oboe, hinting that this is to more a more ambitious piece. As is so common with ambitious pieces, the end product is a disappointment. The lyrics seem like a hotch-potch of ill-fitting influences, including nursery rhymes - All the King's horses and all the King's men/ Could never put a smile on that face - which sound hopelessly cloyed. For all the impressive efforts of Tony Banks on keyboards and Mike Rutherford on bass, this is rather directionless.

With the faults of that in mind, 'Mad Man Moon', is a great rebound. Beginning with the wonderful combination of piano and flute, this is tender, stripped-back and in no way cloyed or clichéd. The verses and chorus see Collins under control on the vocals and drums, neither of which are imposing enough to crowd out the wonderful arrangements. Rutherford's presence is less here than on 'Squonk', but if you listen carefully you will spot his talent. The chorus is fairly catchy, unusual for a prog song, but the best part of this song is the middle section. With simple percussion to back him, Banks run riot on the keyboards like he is gliding through keys made of water. The lyrics here are witty and upbeat, catchy in a strange and unexplainable way:

Hey man, I'm the sand man,
And boy have I news for you;
They're gonna throw you in gaol
And you know they can't fail
'Cos sand is thicker than blood.
But a prison in sand is a haven in hell,
For a gaol can give you a goal
And a goal can find you a role
On a muddy pitch in Newcastle,
Where it rains so much, you can't wait for a touch
Of sun and sand.

Despite the many great qualities of 'Mad Man Moon', the true masterpiece of the album is 'Robbery, Assault And Battery'. Another Banks masterpiece, this song about a petty criminal opens with a wonderful passage in 7/8 time. The great thing about the lyrics is not (just) that they tell a clear story - but that they flow in such a way that they appear to rhyme seamlessly, even though it becomes obvious that they don't. Once again, amidst the glorious riffs there is a sumptuous middle section devoted to Banks' solos, and while his contemporary Rick Wakeman tended to lose the plot somewhere along the way, this is relatively tight, creating a very likeable little number.

No sooner have we reached such heights, though, that we are brought back down to earth with a bump in the form of 'Ripples'. This sounds rather pointless. It's the complete opposite of the previous track: while the former didn't see the need to rhyme and yet sounded fantastic, this is a deliberate attempt at extended pop, where the rhymes are forced and frequent. The chorus is no better - Sail away, away/ Ripples never come back/ Gone to the other side/ Sail away, away would be more at home in any 1980s mediocre pop song. It's a lazy effort and a worryingly accurate harbinger of things to come.

The title track is punchier and rockier. Rutherford and Banks have achieved a better balance between themselves, even though Hackett remains underused. The lyrics are reminiscent of Syd Barrett's work in that they have a strange charm to them which is impossible to pinpoint or explain. Sure, They've got no horns and they've got no tail/ They don't even know of our existence is hardly a match for Take a couple if you wish/ They're on the dish ('Bike'), but they're both decidedly English and dignified.

'Los Endos' ends the album on what amounts to a whimper. Beginning like an outtake from a long-forgotten Yes album, this ends up a mish-mash of half-baked phrases welded together with the best riffs from all the previous songs. This might have worked better, had this been a concept album or a song cycle. But because A Trick Of The Tail is neither of these things, it has the essence of a bolt-on outtake, something for cultists to unravel while the rest of us fall asleep.

Considering the quality of Gabriel's output both with Genesis and his subsequent solo career, A Trick Of The Tail already gets some points for demonstrating that the band could not only carry on without him, but produce something decent along the way. Rather than extending the themes of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway - racism, modernity and nightmare - this is a regression back to the earlier, more eccentric sound. And yet this doesn't feel like treading water. The songs will grow on you as you give them space and attention. There are some times when we glimpse worrying hints of a certain member's disastrous venture into the mainstream, and Rutherford is often drowned out by the other instruments, only coming into his own on 'Squonk'. In short, this is an amicable effort, but in hindsight it is no surprise that Steve Hackett left after the Seconds Out tour.

3.75 out of 5

Top 100 Albums - #77: Kanute EP (2007)

At number 77 is the most recent EP from Leamington-based electro-alternative band Kanute.

[N.B. Actual album cover not available. Image is of 'Viper' single/ 7" vinyl to give a general impression. For more details see]

Kanute formed in 2006 as a duo between singer-songwriter Rachael Gray and producer-engineer Rob Overseer - a similar make up to Frou Frou, who appear later on up the chart. The pair first collaborated on the track 'Sparks' for Overseer's album Wreckage (2003). The combination seemed to work well and the two embarked on a joint project which became Kanute. After releasing a limited edition 7" vinyl and single via Rough Trade Records, the due began to play gigs in Oxford. Disastified with their live reputation, Gray put together 'Kanute 2.0', comprising her and six other members, which form the live act and the bulk of this recording.

The EP opens with 'Tapeworm', a track which sets the tone for the record. By juxtaposing the violin and cello with a very synthetic production, we get the impression of an electronica band which also sound very authentic live. Rather than just a vocalist performing to a series of backing tapes, like a concert by Basement Jaxx or The Chemical Brothers, this has an orchestral, studio feel to it, achieving the perfect synthesis of what could loosely be called 'the two Kanutes'. The song itself is distinctive for Gray's melancholy vocals backed by piano and guitar parts which are simple but effective. Whereas in live shows the violin and cello have often been drowned out, here they are given proper space, which is certainly welcome.

'Heartless' picks up on a motif of earlier singles like 'Viper': the use of looped male vocals treated to sound like a grammaphone record, creating a more experimental sound. Although this appears in the final third of 'Tapeworm', it is only here that it comes to the fore. Back by the strings, it opens the pieces like a music hall number from the Edwardian period, only to deceive you by breaking into 4/4 soft rock. The drums are very prominent here, with great work on the crash and bass drum providing a hook before Gray opens up. The best part of this song is the harmony between Gray and the loop, which feels ill-at-ease and yet works very well indeed.

'Academy' keeps the strong drums and adds an easy hooking bass line in an attempt to change the sound a little. In reality the bass doesn't really compliment Gray's voice in the high registers in which she chooses oto set the chorus. While the verse sounds like a lighter, more emotive version of Amy Lea from Evanescence, the chorus sounds quite inane because, although she can easily manage the registers, they don't allow room for the vocals. Kanute have tried to compensate both through the bass and piano on the chorus. However they don't really add anything to the piece, certainly not enough to shift it up to the quality of the others.

Already, we have come to the last track, and boy, it's a good'un. 'Seventeen' opens with some delightful bluesy guitar coupled with a drum part that is very basic and yet manages to add a different side to what otherwise could have sounded like a very slow, rather average indie track. Gray soars to a new high of ethereal melancholy, supported as always by a strong cello part. The drumming is very sensitive, with no showboating even on the livelier chorus. The only flaw to this piece is the male vocals after the second chorus. A grammaphone dub would not have worked, but the part as it is sounds stunted and almost throws the whole thing off balance.

Being part of the MySpace generation of budding musicians, the less observant listener may think that there is nothing especially remarkable about this EP. It's a pleasant listen, but doesn't exactly grip you like a lot of bands. In reality, there is a lot of potential here which will reward the more devoted fellower of 'the Leamington sound'. While she may not be the most biting lyricist around, Rachael Gray is a great singer, who conveys a great sense of sadness in her delivery. For fans of the processed, electronica sound of Kanute Mark I, the sampling and 'grammaphone' work will be a source of great interest; for fans of the live act, the string session and drum parts will make you listen more intently. Kanute EP is a very pleasant release from a band who have the potential to go very far.

3.75 out of 5