Thursday, 29 November 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.80 out of 5

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

Monday, 12 November 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.80 out of 5

Friday, 9 November 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.80 out of 5

Top 100 Albums - #60: Jaffa Minute? EP (2005)

Warwick impressarios Jaffa Rose make their only appearance on the chart with their first EP, Jaffa Minute?The story of Jaffa's formation is a rich tapesty of mutual friends and conflicting musical tastes. Nick Dugdale (saxophone) and 'Tall' Steve Henry (keyboards) met in Rootes, Warwick University, being introduced through mutual friends. In their search for a bassist, they came across a double bassist without a bow who couldnt read sheet music - a man by the name of Rowan Gifford. After barging in on him jamming, the duo recruited him and, through more tenuous connections, their dynamic drummer 'Little' Steve Kiddle. In his own words, "the lack of other drummers and my obvious enthusiasm got me the job."¹ After a brief and unsucessful audition for a jazz guitarist - "who clearly considered herself way too good for us"² - the group settled on Laurie Ainley, partly for his blues and soul creditials, partly for his inherent hatred of jazz. Anna Frodsham completed the line-up in vocals and the band - which took its name from a portmanteau of Jaffa Cakes and Salvador Dalì's Rose - began rehearsing in a dusty basement in Leamington.

Jaffa Minute? EP kicks off with 'Porcupine'. This is the only track on the 'album' not penned by Dugdale - "'Porcupine' was a cover of ones [sic] of Nick's friends A level music rap. We took the riff and the chorus and did our own thing with it."³ That does not automatically make it a bad thing, such is the nature of jazz. Certainly, there is a lot of good going on here - Kiddle and Henry provide some great rhymic hooks on drums and piano, Frodsham's voice is sultry and Dugdale's sax solo is pretty impressive. However, this track is just way too long. Being essentially a jam piece, it feels quite strung out on record, and for all the intelligent musicianship this is one of those tracks which falls flat on record but comes into its own on the stage.

'Night At The Fairground' is where things start getting good. Gifford's five-note opening bass riff is charming, and it provides the perfect lead-in to Frodsham, who really comes into her own here. Her voice is made for these kind of vocals - there is no straining at the vocal chords for effect or anything. The rest of the band capture the mood of this piece brilliantly, with Ainley and Henry soloing beautifully. Dugdale's repeating phrases hold the piece together which Kiddle slots fill in where other drummers would fail to find room.

'FNUK' (however it is pronounced) is devoid of Frodsham's soulful tones, being an instrumental. But this is not really a problem. Henry is allowed more room on this piece, anchoring it as Kiddle plays a jazzy waltz. While Gifford strums away in the background, the sax and guitar meld together to create a very listenable melody. But, as with all Jaffa music, just as soon as you're comfortable, a massive change happens. It goes from 3/4-jazz to 4/4-funk, and back again. Ainley especially is on form here; unlike most student guitarists, he doesn't see the effects box as an excuse to have fun and in the process to look self-indulgent. Instead he gives Dugdale the room he needs in the mix before blasting through with a sweet, transatlantic sound. Sweet.

'Collecting Dust' is the most studio- and radio-friendly track on the album, relying as it does on Henry's washes of electronica. This is what Snow Patrol would sound like if they had a female singer - and could write songs. And play instruments. Taking a leaf out of Paul Buchanan's book, Frodsham's vocal delivery is yearning, crying out across what to most seems a rather sterile background. Kiddle's drums inject some rhythm just where it's needed, and Dugdale's sax enters the fray to complete the picture. The only snag with such a treble-heavy song is that Gifford is lost in the mix, but listen hard enough and you'll find him, doing what he does best. Add Ainley's crying guitar song in the last 45 seconds and you have a classic.

The closer, 'Waffles', is another instrumental and is probably the funnest song on the record. After such a mournful number, it's just what is needed. Henry's keyboards are pushed backward as Ainley takes over the role of anchorman. Dugdale takes the melody and produces something that will make you involuntarily sway. That's the power of jazz. Kiddle's execution is superb, rhythmically precise and yet so playful to listen to. It's a great way to close the EP.

Jaffa Minute? EP is a great showcase for the band's spectrum. From the melancholy 'Collecting Dust' to the erudite 'Night At The Fairground' and the teasing 'Waffles', it's a splendid document of musicianship. While their second release, Second In Demand EP (2006), was richer in its production and hung together better, the kind of variety wasn't there like it was on here. The main flaw with Jaffa Minute? EP is that a lot of the live energy of Jaffa Rose is lost in the studio, where the parts are recorded individually and then mixed together. Both incarnations of Jaffa Rose - the original and the current one, with Grace Bird taking over from the graduated Frodsham - have their lifeblood in the live act; it is here that their fanbase is, it is how where the most experimentation can take place, and it's here where the best musical experience can be had. Recording a live album is notoriously hard for student bands to accomplish successfully, but considering the credentials that Jaffa Rose display on here, it might not be a bad idea.

3.80 out of 5
¹ Steven Kiddle in 'Jaffa Rose - review on my blog', Accessed on November 9 2007.
² Rowan Gifford in ibid.
³ Steven Kiddle in ibid.