Monday, 22 October 2007

Top 100 Albums - #61: Hotel (2005)

Moby's only effort to make the countdown is Hotel, a loose concept album and his most recent offering.Moby's musical career can be loosely divided into three periods. The first period - the long years of obscurity - began in the punk of The Vatican Commandos in the early-1980s, leading to his involvement in house, drum'n'bass and finally electronica. The second period - the forgotten albums - kicks off with the release of 'Go' (a Top 10 hit in 1991) , his signing to Mute Records and the release of albums like Everything Is Wrong (1995) which received critical acclaim but little in the way of sales. The third period - the years of rapid fame - saw the release of Play (1999) and its follow-up 18 (2002), which established Moby as a pioneer in mainstream electronica and made him a global superstar. These albums saw the consolidation of Moby's trademark use of sampling and blues riffs to create truly memorable soundscapes.

Hotel is a departure from the start, being a concept album; whilst before fans relied on Moby's sleeve notes to gain an insight into his workings, here the unified structure of the songs around a theme - what hotels symbolise in the modern world - provide a way into that intelligence. It opens with, unsurprisingly, 'Hotel Intro'. At once the familiar motifs of Moby's work are apparent - the use of a simple riff as a base, the slow layering in of instruments as diverse as violins and drum machines. This creates a great opening feel to the album, introducing you to the comtemplative mood of the album.

When I say 'contemplative', that is not to say that there are up-tempo moments. 'Raining Again' is one of them. Although the lyrics don't make the most sense in the world, the mood of piece is enough to carry it. Whereas the last track tended toward ambient music - of the kind you might here in hotels - this is a more danceable, electronica number.

'Beautiful' continues the genre-hopping, utilising the brash guitars to create a rock feel. Sadly, however, this is an otherwise empty track. The riffs and hooks are there, but there is no substance to the lyrics beyond that found in a vacuous pop song (e.g. Hanson, say) - and that is not the standard which Moby fans have come to expect. Thank goodness, then, that 'Lift Me Up' is a cracker. This combines the fake violin keyboards of some things off Play, overlays them with some decent drums and catchy lyrics. This is an infectious, highly danceable song, which showcases Moby's range as both a composer and a singer. It's one of his greatest tracks.

'Where You End' is the first real song on the album to bring out the themes of the album. The lyrics, especially in the chorus, speak of relationships and the fleeting nature of humanity:

If I could kiss you now
Oh, I could kiss you now again and again
'Til I don't know where I begin
And where you end

The fade-out is taken straight from 'We Are All Made Of Stars' - his hit single from 18 - and the whole product is very touching.

'Temptation' is a cover of the New Order song, and is sung by singer-songwriter and political activist Laura Dawn. Unlike the trashy, Hacienda original, this is done down-tempo, sung sultrily by Dawn and backed by soft and elegant strings. Normally speaking, because this is a dance song, it doesn't really matter about the speed at which you play it, it will be pretty hollow and meaningless. But choosing to do it as this speed has managed to flesh out Bernard Sumner's (albeit dodgy) lyrics and if nothing else it compliments the pace and feel of the rest of the album.

With 'Spiders', Moby tries to tease the listener with a series of off-set phrases which then give way to his flat-ish delivery. This is a weird track, a song which tires to be a rocker while maintaining its electro-pop roots. Again, the lyrics are very vacuous, but again the sonic washes are enough to make you at best like this track without caring and at worst ignore them.

'Dream About Me' is another showcase for Dawn, and another repetitive, slow-beat dance song. Dawn's delivery is breathy and distracting, like she's trying to emulate Imogen Heap but coming across like someone who's just run a half-marathon. Nevertheless, the 'background noise' which Moby layers in once more provides the necessary cushion.

'Very', however, is a step too far. Dawn is fuller here, which is a relief. The trouble is that the multiple drum machines plastered over the mix reduce this attempt at music to a humdrum disco tune, the sort of tune you'd drink lager to in a crowded club without paying it a second thought. Not the sort of music that belongs on a Moby album.

As Graham Chapman said, "now for a complete change of mood". 'I Like It' is a sultry, faintly erotic song. With its siren song in the background and the breathy duet of Moby and Dawn, it's incredibly arousing, especially in the final third. This is the kind of song whose feel and (blatent) lyrics) puts pictures in your head - perhaps the rose-petal scene in American Beauty (1999)? Dawn is on top form, and Moby's contribution is very reasonable, if only because he is able to restrain the excessive instrumentation of the previous track.

Apart from 'Lift Me Up', 'Love Should' is the only truly brilliant track on this album. Like '18' before it, it's a poignant, piano-heavy track whose production is lush. It starts with a sparse click before the rich chords blend in seamlessly. Moby's classic monotone doesn't grate here, on the contrary, it brings out the emotion of the lyrics. Again, these are simplistic - I know how it rains/ I know how it pours/ I never could feel this way/ For anyone but you - but they do their job without overstaying their welcome.

'Slipping Away' has a similar opening to 'Dream About Me'. In fact, it's similar in many ways to its predecessor. But Moby is not in a holding pattern. It's another bright, generally melodious song, with the hooks being provided by the vocals in true electronica style. 'Forever', however, is another one of these wierd, ambient-esque tracks which the texture of the tracks is so flat as to allow Moby to let himself slide with the lyrics. Few of them are genuinely engaging, it has to be said.

'Homeward Angel' is an instrumental which opens with some interesting use of clicks and echoes, of what sounds like a squash court. Over this is planted some simple keyboards to create a calming feel. In terms of sound, it's not quite ethereal by any standards, but it's as close as Moby has come on this album. The closer, meanwhile - the hidden track, '35 Minutes' - begins like Samuel Barber's 'Adagio for Strings' played on a keyboard, somewhere between the original composition and William Orbit's pop-hungry meddling. It's a sweet, balletical kind of a piece, perhaps what you would hear if you played an ambient album by Brian Eno though a pair of Marshall Stacks with the volume on max.

Most of the critics in the music world ravaged Hotel upon its release. The kindest word it got was when Rolling Stone described it as "a sensible way to come down from a multi-platinum high."¹ And that's the point. The critics saw this album in a bad light because its true predeccesors were such big commercial successes - and if anything is true in the music business, it is that commercial success and critical acclaim are often completely unrelated entities. True, the concept is often lost in the slightly more clich├ęd elements of the record. But, on the other hand, it remains a deeply personal record. Because Moby is so open about his political and religious views, the whole experience is rendered a little hollow. But if anything this album and its themes adds a new dimension to the thinking person's DJ.
3.80 out of 5
References
¹ Christian Hoard, 'Moby: Hotel', http://www.rollingstone.com/reviews/album/7202549/hotel. Accessed on November 6 2007.

Top 100 Albums - #62: A Momentary Lapse Of Reason (1987)

Pink Floyd make their first appearance on the chart with A Momentary Lapse Of Reason, the band's first album following the departure of bassist, lyricist and vocalist Roger Waters.After the release of The Final Cut in March 1983, Pink Floyd slowly tore itself apart. Chief among the reasons was the feud between Waters and guitarist and vocalist David Gilmour. Gilmour was aggrieved by the creative control Waters had laid/ lay claim to, which over the course of their last three albums had shifted the emphasis too much towards the lyrics and the concepts over the music. He also resented Waters' decision to fire keyboardist Rick Wright during the recording of The Wall (1979) on the ground of being unco-operative. Waters responded that Gilmour had all but shut him out of the creative process before Meddle (1971), and that his lyrics were the reason for their commercial and critical success throughout the 1970s. After devoting time off to solo projects - Waters' The Pros And Cons Of Hitch Hiking, Gilmour's About Face, Wright's Identity (as part of Zee) (all 1984) and Nick Mason's Profiles (1985) - in 1985 Waters announced that Pink Floyd was over and left. After a year's hiatus, the surviving members regrouped and, amid a flurry of legal threats from Waters, attempted to record another album.

The album opens with 'Signs Of Life', an instrumental piece. It opens with the sound of a rowing boat and then slowly morphs into a synthesiser-heavy exercise. The keyboard tones Wright creates set the tone for the album, both in the simplicity of the phrases - signifying a retreat from the complexity of Waters - and the forbidding sounds they create, reflecting the general theme of unknown territory and losing control of the senses. Aside from the confusing and garbled vocal contributions from Nick Mason - allegedly a poem about both Waters and Syd Barrett¹ - this is a good introductory piece, reminiscent of earlier Pink Floyd work.

For all its assets, however, it cannot compete with 'Learning To Fly'. Written about Gilmour's (and Mason's) love of flying, this is a rip-roaring 1980s rocker with an art-rock twist. Like a lot of stuff on The Division Bell (1994), the lyrics reflect the sense of beginning afresh and dealing with the departure of Waters; although there are no direct references, you can sense what the song is really about (even if stringently denied by the band). Gilmour's angelic delivery perfectly counterpoints Mason's simple and effective drumming, while the guitar solo is a textbook classic. And, for the second time in as many songs, Mason appears in a vocal capacity, this time describing pre-flight checks. This is a great song right out of the top drawer from the band.

'The Dogs Of War' is a darker, more aggressive piece. While it lacks the sinister and brooding feel of the earlier 'Dogs' - taken from Animals (1977) -, it shares both the political and anti-war themes which sustained the band at its lyrical peak. Here, Gilmour attempts to write tough lyrics, perhaps as an affront to Waters' efforts both with the band and in his solo work (the band were touring the album at the same time as Waters toured his second solo album, Radio K.A.O.S. (1987) - suffice to say the two parties took great pains to avoid each other). This doesn't really come close on that level, but it hardly forgetable, thanks to the atmosphere created by the drums and Gilmour's snarling delivery.

'One Slip' begins with an obvious rip-off of 'Time' in the form of alarm bells ringing. From then on in, it's a fairly straightforward song about lust and regret. This is the fastest song on the album, and the chorus is quite good at summing up the message of the song:

One slip, and down the hole we fall
It seems to take no time at all
A momentary lapse of reason
That binds a life to a life
A small regret, you won't forget
There'll be no sleeping here tonight

The track relies on some heavy guitars and bass, creating an almost hard-rock feel. As a result both Gilmour's signature guitars and Wright's keyboards are undermined, albeit by not enough to damage the track.

'On The Turning Away' is another very decent effort by the Floyd, not least because it is a much better showcase for Gilmour's voice, still very much in its prime. From a cynical view, this song is another attempt at relevancy, this time tackling the tendency of people to ignore or 'turn away' from issues likes global poverty. Speaking less cynically, it is a very well-executed song on a subject which is so often the resting place of rubbish ballads and charity singles (compare to Waters' 'The Tide Is Turning' to see what I mean). This is a power ballad which eventually comes into its own as Gilmour finally unleases his cleverly controlled hell through his guitar.

So far, so palpable. Unfortunately, from here on in the album turns a bit sour. 'Yet Another Movie/ Round And Around' begins with some strange noise effects which will no doubt serve to drive many the casual listener away. For those that stay, we encounter some snails'-pace ramblings about the film industry through the medium of tedious lyrics, of which the only discernable thing is a vision of an empty bed - which explaisn the cover art (this involved dragging 700 NHS beds onto a Devon beach.)² After the (unexplained) excerpt from Casablanca (1942) - at roughly 5:57 the mix gives way to Gilmour is full majestic mode, providing the bridge into the rotating instrumental. The point with this is that, although this short phrase is enough to make you listen all the way through, you leave wishing the rest of the song had been like that.

'A New Machine (Part 1)' is complete filler, featuring Gilmour reciting into a synthesiser to vaguely alter his voice. In this brief discourse about mortality, he addresses the listener in terms already well-worn. Equally off-putting is the high note with permeates throughout - until you realise that it provides the segeuing intro into 'Terminal Frost', another instrumental. This, on the other hand, is splendid. Although like 'Round And Around' it is essentially a repeating phrase played an tweaked slightly differently each time, unlike its predecessor it develops into a thought-out piece. The instrumental side of things was always Gilmour and Wright's forte, and this proves it undoubtedly.

'A New Machine (Part 2)' needs little saying about it save that it's thankfully short enough to pass the listener by without sufficient irritation. Now we are at the closer, and the other truly great song on the album. 'Sorrow' is one of Gilmour's strongest efforts lyrically by his own admission, and even if it does borrow heavily from John Steinbeck, it is still gripping. The drumming and use of a Steinberger GL 'headless' guitar add to the feeling of melancholy and depression which surround this song. It's a proper arena rocker with the sombre sense of loss reflected in the band - and the Floyd were at their best when their music reflected not just the world around them, but their own situation. It's a great way to close the album after such a rocky middle section.

Often called 'a David Gilmour solo album in all-but-name', A Momentary Lapse Of Reason has suffered heavily at the hands of the public since its release. Fans, especially Waters devotees, mourn the lack of lyrical depth and direction, while critics attacked both the album for its stereotypical production and the reforming of Pin Floyd as a neo-oldies act, only continuing to earn money from touring. Look past the politics and emotion surrounding the album and actually there are glimpse of brilliance here, both of the kind that the Floyd exhibited in their prime and of the like which was showcased years later on The Division Bell. True, this is not the most well-directed Floyd effort; and true, we have to sit through a lot to get to the good stuff. But considering the circumstances that Gilmour and Mason were in in 1987 (Wright was legally not allowed to return as a member), this is a damn-fine effort. Now that the dust has settled 20 years on, maybe the time has come for revision.

3.80 out of 5
References
¹ 'Signs of Life (Pink Floyd song)', http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Signs_of_Life_(Pink_Floyd_song). Accessed on October 22 2007.
² 'A Momentary Lapse of Reason', http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Momentary_Lapse_of_Reason. Accessed on October 22 2007.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Top 100 Albums - #63: Then And Now: 1964-2004 (2004)

The Who's second appearance comes in the form of a compilation, released to mark the 40th anniversary of the band from the release of 'I Can't Explain'. It is also the source of the first new Who recordings for 22 years.
After Keith Moon's untimely death in 1978, The Who continued with the help of keyboardist John 'Rabbit' Bundrick and former Small Faces drummer Kenney Jones. The group released two more albums, the pop rock Face Dances (1981) and the cry for help It's Hard (1982), but it was clear that, on the live circuit especially, something had gone out of the band, perhaps permanently. After the release of the delapitated live album Who's Last (1984) to commemorate the 'farewell tour', the band called it quits. There were subsequent reunions - a half-arsed set for Live Aid in 1985, a 25th Anniversary tour in 1989, a revival of Quadrophenia in 1996 and concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in 1999 and 2000 - but none of them produced any new material. Following the death of John Entwistle in 2002 - on the eve of a sell-out US tour - surviving members Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey began to consider the possibilities of recording together again.

But before we can get to the new stuff, we have to sit back and review 18 of The Who's biggest hits and most memorable songs. We begin with 'I Can't Explain', their first single released as The Who under the management of Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp. It's a very punchy little number, which sees Townshend and Entwistle merging the guitar and bass parts together so that they are almost indiscernable. As a Mod song, this is a very good song, even if Townshend's knack for summing up his generation doesn't especially come through. It is also interesting to see Daltrey sing in his early, awkward style.

It is easy in the 21st century to write off 'My Generation' as, amongst other things, one of the most over-played tracks of the 1960s. But give it more than half a chance, and it's a treat. Entwistle's bass chords are simply brilliant, serving more than enough proof to his claim as the man who revolutionised bass guitar. The first hints of Moon's breakneck speed and mad fills are also present, and Daltrey's stutter is perfectly executed. Even if the message of the lyrics became an albatross around the band's necks - I hope I die before I get old and all that - at the time this was one of the most radical songs around.

Unfortunately, we also get the bad side of the 1960s in this early assortment of singles. The first slip-up of this compilation is 'The Kids Are Alright'. Taken from My Generation (1965), the use of harmonies is reminsicent of the surf music which Townshend hated (and Moon loved), and the sound of the piece means that, Moon aside, all that is distinctive of The Who is lost in the mix of a better-than-average 3-minute pop song. 'Substitute' is a great deal better, not least because it grows on you instead of coming across like so much throwaway pop of the days. Daltrey and Townshend vie for the vocals while managing to sustain a very nice melody. It's a much better effort lyrically as well from Townshend, just look at the second chorus:

(Substitute) Me for him
(Substitute) My coke for gin
(Substitute) You for my Mum
At least I'll get my washing done

'I'm A Boy', the first single from A Quick One (1966), is the first real hint of concept from Townshend. This song, about a mother with four girls and designating one of them as a boy, actually had its origins in a musical he had been writing called Quads; set in the year 2000, it takes place in an age where "you can order the sex of your children, and this women orders four girls and one of them turns out to be a boy, so she pretends it's a girl... horrifying!"¹ Primitive rock opera aside, this is another good song because of two things. One, lyrically it's a return to form for Townshend insofar as he is writing about society rather than fantasising. And two, musically, it's an insight into the chemistry of the band. Daltrey has an air of aggression and swagger about him as he bellows the lines over Keith's crash.

No sooner had he returned to form, though, than Townshend returns down Kooky Lane and creates havoc in the process. And this is not the kind of autodestructive havoic for which the Who became rightly renowned. 'Happy Jack' is another relic of the 1960s pop scene which makes little sense, a waste of the energies of Messrs. Moon and Entwistle. (For the trained ear amongst us, listen out for the cry of "I saw you!". This is Townshend shouting at Moon. After Keith insisted on singing on the tracks, he was locked out of the studio during the vocal take, but responded by pulling faces at Townshend throughout the successful takes).

'I Can See For Miles', the only number on here from The Who Sell Out (1967) is often called the peak of The Who's output.² Released as their initial onslaught on the States got underway and the Mod scene had well and truly disappeared, it is better-than-average at best. Daltrey's delivery is very off-putting, since this rather psychedelic, swirling number is more suited to Townshend's voice. Moon's fills drown out the bass in this mix and overall it's too forgettable to justify its reputation. 'Magic Bus' is below-par but for a different reason. This is the Who's attempt at late-1960s psychedelic folk - well, 'folk' as in acoustic guitars and the drum kit swapped for a couple of percussion instruments. Entwistle was never fond of this song, and he had a point. While the version on Live At Leeds (1970) benefitted from Townshend's echoey guitars and Daltrey's braggadachio³, here it's tinny, irritating and just plain stupid.

And so we enter into the classic era, leaving 60s pop behind us for good. The two offerings from Tommy (1969) are mixed. 'Pinball Wizard' is, of course, well-known, well-loved, and well-deserving of a place in any Who collection. Before Who Are You (1978), it features some of the best acoustic guitar Townshend every laid down. Daltrey has finally found that majestic voice which would put him right up there with great rival Robert Plant in the league of the best rock singers. Just by hearing it, you get the impression of the band going up a gear - the trapping of the singles market are wisely cast aside and replaced by the slight grandeur of early rock opera.

'See Me, Feel Me', on the other hand, is, not to put too fine a point on it, cheating a bit. This 'quiet section' of the opera - so called because Roger could finally hear himself sing on stage - belongs at the end of 'We're Not Gonna Take It' (although the phrase of music is a motif throughout the album). Though within the context of both the rest of the song and the album this works great - as does the version in the film from 1975 - here it feels stilted and out of place.

'Summertime Blues' is lifted from Live At Leeds and speaks pretty much for itself. It's the only non-Townshend song on the album - it was written by Blues legend Eddie Cochran - but like the rest of the concert it's raw power is unassailable. Here Entwistle returns to prominence on both bass and vocals. You can feel the energy coming off Daltrey as he drives through Townshend's power chord, while, in all this time, Moon is on another planet busy with his cymbals.

Out of all the songs on Who's Next (1971), 'Behind Blue Eyes' seems a strange choice when put alongside 'Baba O'Riley' or 'My Wife'. However, as one of Townshend's more tender numbers - in the era predating The Who By Numbers, at any rate - this is a very good effort. Daltrey proves his range, keeping the volume down and allowing room for Townshend on both vocals and acoustic, resisting the temptation to pounce and scream the lyrics. Cometh the hour, cometh the Moon; in the last third he showcases his talent with his witty improvisations over the lyrics with a bravado that John Bonham never matched.

And of course, there is room here for 'Won't Get Fooled Again'. Indeed, how could there not be? If something like 'I Can See For Miles' was typical of The Who during their mod and post-mod years, then this, aside from anything else, is the benchmark against which all their 1970s output must be measured. Everything that made The Who exciting, progressive, raucous and rivetting is here. Moon's drumming is both tight and flamboyant; you listen to his drums and imagine him with a smile on his face as he plays like a lunatic. Entwistle anchors the song while finding time to cram in notes in his fills where you never thought there was room. Townshend is flying high on the guitar, backed by the revolutionary synthesisers. And Daltrey - well, the scream says it all. Eight-and-a-half minutes of unbeatable genius.

Out of all The Who's subsequent output, Quadrophenia (1973) is the only album which has ever stood a chance of matching it. If the stuff included on here is anything to go by, it's pretty much true. '5:15' is a riot, full stop. Townshend starts the song off tenderly with his guitar and vocals, but from then on in, it's Moon, Moon, Moon. Here he is in his element, as backed by Entwistle's horns he swings around the kit hitting everything in range. Daltrey's vocal delivery is impeccable considering most of it is outside his natural range. The whole piece is absolutely splendid, and nothing more needs to be said.

'Love, Reign O'er Me' is equally majestic, though again for different reasons. It's a lot shorted than the album version, and the ordering of the verses and choruses are swapped for some reason. But even without the rain, the extended intro and the proper verses, this is still one of the greatest love songs ever written, certainly ever written by Townshend. Here he lets the guitar and strings lay the perfect groundwork for Daltrey, who delivers with gusto and passion a performance which again extends his range, producing a magical piece of music.

Having reached such heights, we are brought down to the realities of band life with a jaunty bump. 'Squeeze Box' is the only track from The Who By Numbers, and it's a poor choice. It was out of kiltre on the album and it's out of kiltre here. While Townshend's other more merry numbers of this period - like 'Blue, Red And Gray' - had substance, this is just a minefield of innuendo strung together like a pop song for a period long gone.

The title track of Who Are You is a damn-sight better, least not because it is bereft of any banjo. The familiar crash and synthesiser combinations have been written off as cliched by the more nostalgic of fans, this is still a very fine effort. Although Moon's abilities had by this stage all-but deserted him - thanks to a lethal cocktail of drink, drugs and much fine food - he is really trying, and in the process he comes up trumps on a few great occassions. Daltrey's bluster is a little off-putting, but it's not a tiresome or self-indulgent song, whichever way you look at it.

There is only one offering from the immediate post-Moon era on here. That's perhaps for the best. 'You Better You Bet' is taken from Face Dances and is a middle-brow pop song which tries a little too hard to recapture something lost forever. As hard as Kenney Jones might try, there is a massive hole in the mix where Moon once thundered along. Having slated it thus, this is still a pretty reasonable song; the big flaw is not the song on its terms, it's just that it doesn't have the same gripping, memorable feel to it as the classic era output did.

Finally, we come to the new stuff. Both 'Real Good Looking Boy' and 'Old Red Wine' were recorded in 2004. The former, described by Rolling Stone as "a soaring mix of swing, crash and an explicit touch of Elvis Presley"³, it's an affectionate and heartfelt number from a Townshend who has disposed of all the demons which guided the original Who, and turned them into contentment and a song of thanks to rock'n'roll. 'Old Red Wine', on the other hand, is a sweeping elegy to John Entwistle, poking fun at his foibles and contributions to the band which helped to make it great. Daltrey's voice is huskier, as it is throughout on Endless Wire (2006), but it's a great job and proof of the life left in this great band, despite the loss of two core members.

Then And Now is not to be viewed as just another Who compilation designed to introduce you to the band in a hotchpotch, commercially-biased way. The chief advantage of this is that it both brings Who fans and the casual listener (almost) bang up to date. By adding on the two new tracks - which seems to be a trend in the world of greatest hits collections - it sets the tone for the recordings on Endless Wire, thereby helping a whole new generation get into The Who. Some of the choices are a little odd - most of the best stuff from Who's Next and The Who By Numbers is lost in favour of the songs the general public are more familiar with. However, considering the role of the album is to introduce you to a band without being comprehensive, this does its job amicably, with few slip-ups along the way - save where individual tastes are concerned.

3.80 out of 5
References
¹ Pete Townshend, quoted in Andy Neill & Matt Kent, Anyway Anyhow Anywhere: The Complete Chronicle of The Who, 1958-1978 (London: Virgin Books, 2007), p.107.
² Ibid, p.149.
³ David Fricke, 'The Who: Then And Now', http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/thewho/albums/album/5188887/review/5943634/then_and_now. Accessed on October 22 2007.