Sunday, 23 March 2008

Top 100 Albums - #40: The Good Son (1990)

The second of four entries from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds is The Good Son, which retells the parable of the two sons from the point of view of the elder son.
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds formed out of the wreckage of post-punk pioneers The Birthday Party, who split in 1983. Former members Nick Cave and Mick Harvey quickly assembed Blixa Bargeld (guitar), Hugo Race (guitar) and Barry Adamson (bass/ piano) and released their debut album, From Her To Eternity (1984). From this a string of albums followed which charted Cave's devout Christianity (The Firstborn Is Dead, 1985), his love of American music (Kicking Against The Pricks, 1986), and his battle with heroin addiction (Your Funeral... My Trial, 1986). The band, like King Crimson and Jethro Tull, had a constantly fluctuating line-up, with only Cave and Harvey remaining throughout. The release of Tender Prey (1988) set the trend for most future Bad Seeds recordings, linking these common strands together for the first time.

'Foi Na Cruz' opens the album, bringing with it some acoustic guitar and multi-dubbed vocals. This is loosely based on a Brazilian hymn, whose title translates as 'it was on the cross'. It's hardly a convincing start, with its slow-strum guitar and ponderous vocals. But eventually Cave's weary baritone rises to the challenge and staggers through the verses drenched in melancholy and bitter abandon. Backed by a Hammond organ part played with the subtle brilliance of Matthew Fisher (ex-Procol Harum), it's not five-star Bad Seeds but this remains a worthy start.

Now to the title track, and oh dear. Not only is the gospel opening enough to grate your nerves to shreds, but then Cave insists on setting his crooked syllables and thought pattern against an irritating snare roll and other more thundery percussion. The chorus drags terribly, lacking inspiration; and while Cave's lyrical style might have worked on something like 'Tupelo' or 'The Carny', here it comes across as all muddled and confused. This is not what we have come to expect from the enigmatic Australian.

Hereoin in, though, things slowly get better. Having vomited up enough gospel for the moment, Cave reverts to what he does best; introspective-sounding, piano-laden ballads with a twist. 'Sorrow's Child' is just this. The style and delivery of this, while a little heavier than his stuff from the late-1990s, is enthralling; as the verses tumble through your ears you are soothed and challenged in equal message. This sounds like the starting point for '(Are You) The One That I've Been Waiting For?' - elegant, soft in its instrumentation and complementary towards Cave's knarled tones.

'The Weeping Song' continues the promising trend with yet more piano. Well, not quite - it's a vibraphone. As well as this, this is not just Cave taking the mike; Bargeld joins him to sing the part of the father. And yet you'd never tell without reading the sleeve notes, since they sound so similar. There are some lovely touches here, like the timpanis which thunder through the off-beats at the end of each stanza, and the mournful-sounding hand claps that lead you teasingly into the chorus. The lyrics are good, too: "Father, why are all the women weeping?"/ "They are all weeping for their men"/ "Then why are all the men there weeping?"/ "They are weeping back at them".

After digging halfway through the unrelenting melancholy, we come across a particle of joy. 'The Ship Song', like its predecessor, is now a Bad Seeds standard - and it doesn't take a music critic to see why. Its tender piano opening comes across as crisp and smooth around the edges. The ghostly male backing vocals are absolutely ethereal, offset against Cave who shakes off the bitterness and irony for just a minute and croons from the gut. The whole band feels tight, allowing the choruses to swell with the drums and the verses to slide down to a crawl as the vibraphone takes control. More than anything else, though, this is an old-fashioned love song, a hymn from Cave to God and his lover, without the trappings of a slushy hit. It's magnificent.

Back to darkness now, and 'The Hammer Song'. This is much more typical of the 1980s Bad Seeds sound - unrelenting in its production, creepy in its vocals and deep and resounding in its percussion. The insistent xylophone and stricken violins only add to this mood as the song swells and reaches its climax. Like a lot of Bad Seeds songs, the meaning of the lyrics (or, for that matter, the lyrics themselves) get lost in the mood. But that doesn't matter so much, because the desired effect is there; this song is designed to shock you out of your senses, which is precisely what it achieves.

On the surface, 'Lament' seems like a calming of the storm, another relaxing love song. In fact, this is the love-child of the last two songs - the stricken violins from 'The Hammer Song' are there, along with the anxious delivery from Cave. But in the midst of this is the soothing, sumptuous chorus:

So dry your eyes
And turn your head away
Now there's nothing more to say
Now you're gone away

It may not be the most accomplished piece of poetry that Cave is capable of. But once again it serves its purpose. And once again, like on 'The Ship Song', we get a chilled-out fade-out to end the song.

After keeping it under lock and key for so long, the gospel gene rears its head again with a vengeance. 'The Witness Song' takes its inspiration from the American gospel number 'Who Will Be A Witness?' and the whole album suffers for it. Not only is this a confused and stupefying number on its own, but it throws the whole record off course. By dressing his performance in every clich
é of the Deep South, the entire romantic and heartfelt atmosphere Cave has painstakingly created is cast aside in favour of a quick dance. It's pathetic.

But fear not, oh ye of little faith, for this is not the end. 'Lucy' closes the album by returning to that mood. And while the recovery can never be complete after that travesty of a song, this is a staggeringly good attempt. Roland Wolf's piano is fuller and richer than Cave's, allowing him to swell and kiss the violins in the heavenmost registers. The lyrics are enchanting in their feel and in their message, when you are distracted enough to make them out. As closers go, this is right up there with the best. Even with the harmonica at the end.

The Good Son, despite its Biblical overtones, should not be seen as a concept album. Cave comes from the post-punk generation which fought to rid the world of such things, and in any case the narrative - if such a feat is attempted - is hard to discern if you don't know the story already. As a collection of songs, then, this album generally comes out very well. The gospel elements don't work, as if to prove that white musicians cannot do black music justice. But above and beyond that, it's beautiful, with some of the finest piano ballads of recent times. Above all though, this album serves as a pivot between the uber-aggressive menace of the 1980s and the calmer introspection of the 1990s. Perhaps it is best to view this album as the grandfather to The Boatman's Call (1997). This is rougher around the edges, but all the emotion, sincerity and grandeur are here, waiting to endlessly enthrall you.

3.89 out of 5

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Top 100 Albums - #41: So (1986)

Peter Gabriel's sixth chart entry comes in the shape of So, his most commercially successful solo offering.

After the release of Peter Gabriel 4 (1982, #80), which fully exhibited his new found love for world music, Gabriel devoted his energies to the creation of World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD), an organisation devoted to the promotion of world music artists. To help fund the project in its initial years, fans were treated to a one-off Genesis reunion in late 1982 at the National Bowl, Milton Keynes; both Gabriel and Steve Hackett (who left the band in 1977) joined the band playing under the name Six of the Best. Gabriel went on to accompany David Bowie on his Let's Dance tour, pausing only to put out Plays Live (1983), culled from the tour of his fourth album. In 1985 Gabriel worked on the soundtrack to Alan Parker's Birdy (1985), produced by Daniel Lanois. A protégé of Brian Eno - who contibuted to The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974) - he would go on to produce both Gabriel's next album and U2's The Joshua Tree (1987).

So opens with the sound of a hi-hat, intricately played by Stewart Copeland, formerly of The Police. 'Red Rain' blossoms forth from it - and 'blossoms' is the word, because this is a sublime start. The first thing you notice is Gabriel's voice - Lanois has managed to capture it at its best, able to crest the high registers yet smoky, raspy and full of emotion. That is something which no Genesis record ever managed. More than that, though, this song is overflowing with emotion even without the delivery. The lyrics take their inspiration from a dream Gabriel had where he was drowning in a sea of red water, and the feeling of defenceless and vulnerability is well conveyed. Add the funky bass of Tony Levin and the sweet keyboards and you have an instant classic.

We now come, inevitably, to 'Sledgehammer', a track which is so overplayed that Gabriel tried to get MTV to pull it. It is almost infamous for the success it brought him, becoming his only US No.1, knocking Genesis off the top spot, and of course everyone remembers the innovative stop-motion video made by Aardman Animations, the brains behind Wallace & Gromit. So is it any good? Well, aside from the oh-so-fake shakuhachi flutes throughout, the short answer is yes. As I said in my review of Hit (2003, #72), the fact this is so overplayed and so 1980s prevents it from being a true five-star track, but it remains compelling in its Motown-esque beat, its suggestive lyrics and its bombastic rhythm section.

Onto something more serious. 'Don't Give Up' has a longer intro than on the single version, but it still features Kate Bush and still scores very highly. The production is crisp and the instrumental section is lush. The keyboards remain bright and Levin's 'funk fingered' bass playing adds a down-to-earth feel to this song about unemployment and dejection. The problem though is Bush; her range might suit the song, but her delivery just doesn't have the emotional clout to completely carry the mood. She is still in 'Running Up That Hill' mode and though it doesn't exactly ruin the song, it never really gels either.

'That Voice Again', co-written by guitarist David Rhodes, is the only song on here that comes to close to matching the brilliance of 'Red Rain'. Unlike 'Red Rain' it's bombastic, bouncy and packed with plenty of punch. And that's fine. But the beauty of this song is that manages to combine a hyperactive drum section (courtesy of Manu Katché) with the sensitivity and power of Gabriel's voice, which comes into its own amidst the shimmering keyboards. The harmonies are sweet, and the lyrics are heartfelt and meaningful. Perhaps it is a little long, but not enough to spoil the wonderful sensation you get from hearing it.

'In Your Eyes' is, again, a commercial sounding song, but unlike others of the day (Genesis included), this is not reduced to a weepy ballad by fancy effects and overzealous production. Instead the jangly keyboards serve as a foil to the world influences and the merry feel of the piece is brought to fruition. On the Secret World tour (1993) this track came into its own with the addition of Paula Cole's vocals, but here the solo from Youssou N'Dour and the creepily low vocals from violinist L. Shankar will do just fine.

From hereon in things get more downbeat and go downhill. 'Mercy Street' retains the cerebral, introspective core without the commercial trappings. The subject matter in question is the American playwright Anne Sexton, and the song copies its title from her 1969 play. It's not so much that this is inpenetrable; instead, the change in texture comes as a bit of a shock (on vinyl, it may have been less so, since this would have been the start of the second side). This is so quiet and acquired that it would seem more at home on Up (2002) than on this otherwise upbeat album.

Speaking of upbeat, 'Big Time' reassures us and returns us to something ressembling the first five songs. This great satire of the yuppie culture became an ironic hit and like 'Sledgehammer' featured an animated video. Its lyrics are a lot simpler than, say, 'Don't Give Up', but the continual emphasis on big allows them to flow well. What is more, the backing to this savaging of narcissism is bubbly, creating something so incredibly catchy you will struggle to keep your head still.

The last two tracks, sadly, fall short. 'We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37)' is almost ghostly in its feel, which is appropriate considering its subject; the song is about the famous Milgram experiments of the 1960s which revealed that humans will generally obey those in authority out of self-preservation, even if their orders are of a most immoral nature. For the most part this is okay, it feels dark and shadowy - and then the mood is ruined by Gabriel's final, robotic lyrics; they feel disjointed and the whole thing suffers as a result. 'This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds)' suffers from a similar problem, which as before derives from the female vocals. This time courtesy of co-writer Laurie Anderson, they sound twee and overly dramatic. If the cowbell doesn't drive you mad by the end of the first minute, then the sell-out simplicity of the verses surely will.

Because of the success which 'Sledgehammer' brought Gabriel, comparison must be drawn to his former bandmates, who were also at the height of their commercial powers. In this comparison, So comes out as the winner on so many levels; while Invisible Touch (1986) comes across as fake, devoid of any real emotion, and pandering to Phil Collins' solo success, So manages to create a more commercial sound than its predecessors while retaining so much in the way of substance. It may not be the most consistent of albums; things really do get uneasy in the second half as the more ponderous side of Gabriel emerges. However the quality of the first half is reason enough to own this album. Over 20 years after its release So still stands as a record which both defined the time in which it emerged and has survived the test of the following decades.

3.89 out of 5

Monday, 10 March 2008

Top 100 Albums - #42: Endless Wire (2006)

At number 42 is Endless Wire, The Who's first album in 24 years and their fourth entry on the chart.The death of John Entwistle in June 2002 on the eve of a US tour left the band depleted of half its members. The tour continued after a short delay with Pino Palladino filling in on bass. The death of Entwistle had the side effect of bringing Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend closer together, as proven by Daltrey's defence of Townshend during the latter's child pornography allegation. In the next few years The Who continued to tour, playing at the Isle of Wight Festival, and recording two new songs for the compilation Then And Now: 1964-2004 (2004, #63). In the face of ecstatic reviews both from critics and pollsters, Pete Townshend announced a new album to be released in Spring 2005, but the release was held back due to the slow pace of recording and drummer Zak Starkey's commitments with Oasis.

Get ready, then, for the longest comeback in the world. This hotly-anticipated album begins with 'Fragments', whose intro takes its inspiration, if not its exact chord progression, from 'Baba O'Riley', the opener to Who's Next (1971). But before the parody even begins to become unbearable, Townshend and Daltrey kick in. Daltrey's voice may be deeper, huskier and a little strained, but the power and presence is still there, even amongst the twinkling piano which backs the song. This doesn't quite feel like a classic Who song, partly because it is co-written with enigmatic composer Lawrence Ball. But it's a bright opener which at the very least does not immediately deter you from listening to the rest of the record.

Like a lot of comeback albums, the pace of songs are slower and the tone more mellow. This is reflected aptly in 'A Man In A Purple Dress', an acoustic, folky number that sounds like a more mature version of 'Blue, Red And Gray' from The Who By Numbers (1975). But for all the borrowing from past albums (and incarnations), this is a great song in its own right. It is a passionate yet unpreachy critique of religious hypocrisy - Townshend wrote it after watching Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004). But look further in the lyrics and you see hints of Townshend's child pornography turmoil. Daltrey vocalises Townshend's anger at his treatment, spitting out lines like How dare you be the one to assess/ Me in this God-foresaken mess? with a mixture of venom and intelligence.

'Mike Post Theme' is the first song on here to really get your pulse racing. Daltrey, as ever, pushes his vocal range right from the first second, and the result is startling. Considering that this is a song about a TV theme tune writer, and considering it's backed by a mandolin for the most part, it still manages to sound like an arena anthem. The soft verses crescendo into the belter-of-a-chorus, which is actually a good laugh, and everything feels tight yet unpredictable, just as The Who were at their peak. On the down side, it's a bit too long and the drums rely too heavily on the cymbals, especially on the middle eight. On the up side, this song stands as proof that the aggressive, dynamic spirit of The Who has been renewed and updated, rather than just being lost to age.

Townshend growls 'In The Ether', literally. Whether for effect or simply because of age, he strums his way through this sounding like Daltrey's early voice, which aped 1950s American Blues singers. An Englishness remains, however, drawn out and extracted by the subtle piano which pervades behind the acoustic. Again, this is not the most catchy song in the world, and again, it's closer to the quiet introspection of The Who By Numbers than the rip-roaring ecstasy of its three predecessors. But there is a lot to like here, even if Townshend's voice isn't one of them.

'Black Widow's Eyes' is a bold move from Townshend, being a song about Stockholm Syndrome and the Beslan Massacre. Coming across as a twisted and sinister love song, it slowly unfolds into quite a merry and pleasing number. This is the only song on the album which features Zak Starkey - Ringo Starr's son - on drums. And it shows. There is a reason why he is described as 'neo-Moon-ish'¹; he comes as close as damnit to the real thing, while producing the polished sound required by the contemporary consumer. His tom-tom fill after the second chorus is simply inspired; the old man would have been proud of it.

With 'Two Thousand Years', we get more mandolin, more Christian imagery and more bravado from Daltrey. This is another song that came out of The Passion of the Christ, but while 'A Man In A Purple Dress' was barbed and vitriolic, this is a song of patience and clarity. The lyrics deal with the role of Judas Iscariot in the 'betrayal' of Jesus; lines like Then I find I can't be perfect/ Not even a perfect snake really leap out of the mix and capture a fragment of his feeling. This is a very dynamic song, in which Townshend's string work is counterpointed beautifully by Daltrey's full-blown bluster.

The first real slip-up on Endless Wire comes with the next track. 'God Speaks Of Marty Robbins' is an example of Townshend at best being facetious and at worst showing that he really does have no sense of humour. This song, sung by Townshend, is about God waking up after the Big Bang and deciding that he should get a move on so he can hear the music of Marty Robbins, his favourite singer. This comes from a Townshend solo demo from 1984, and like a lot of Townshend's solo stuff - like White City (1985), for instance - it's overambitious and way too serious.

Forget about that, though, because we now come to 'It's Not Enough'. This is unreservedly the best song on the entire album. It may begin with an acoustic, but then the amazing electric guitar takes over and Daltrey takes off. He may have been 62 when this was recorded, but he still crests the high notes (and very high notes) with confidence and passion, bringing out all that Townshend intended. Never mind that this song is co-written by Rachel Fuller, Townshend's partner, and never mind that it takes its inspiration from, of all places, Brigitte Bardot. This is a full-on, proper Who song, packed full of rock'n'roll's rebellious spirit. It's an instant classic, outstanding from start to finish, and one of the most overlooked and underplayed tracks of the year.

The main album ends with 'You Stand By Me', Townshend's eulogy to both Fuller and Daltrey. To Who fans, especially those who have followed their relationship through the course of their career, the latter meaning will obviously take prominence. Townshend could never have written this song at the height of The Who's fame in the early-1970s, the conflict in the band was too great. It might come across as sentimental in its lyrics, but musically it feels peaceful and refined.

Now we come to the mini-opera, Wire And Glass. Townshend's overambition and referencing to his past both come to the surface here, as this ten-song suite brings 'A Quick One (While He's Away)' to mind. That was a slight, incredibly awkward and rather twee collection of demos slung together to please Kit Lambert; this begins a lot more promisingly. 'Sound Round' begins with some smashing drums, which serve as the perfect foil for Daltrey just as Keith Moon did in his prime. The song begins the story of Ray High - who cropped up on Townshend's solo records, like Psychoderelict (1993) - who sees a vision in the sky of a future society strangled by communications and wires.

'Sound Round' is very short, at 1:21, and leaves you wanting more. But then to come to 'Pick Up The Peace' and are met with disappointment. Ray High is now an aged rock star, in an isolation room, hallucinating about a band formed out of three kids, a reminiscing of his own beginnings interlaced with modern fantasy. All of that was discerned from reading Townshend's own explanations, not from listening to the indiscernable lyrics. Not good.

The next song, however, begins to show you what you should really be concentrating on. 'Unholy Trinity' begins with the lines Three kids from the nieghbourhood/ Three different lives/ Three different ways to be/ Three identical smiles. At once it dawns on you that, for all the intricacies and ambition of Townshend's suite, this is actually about the band itself. And why not? Why not retrace through and admire the history of the band in such a poetic way?

From hereon in, then we have some idea of the concept in our minds, and the plot serves only to get in the way. Not only does 'Trilby's Piano' come across as irritating, but it throws you off the scent of the deeper, clearer meaning of the songs. It is a total red herring, which is appalling. The title track makes up for this though, being as it is a work of beauty. It may be Townshend singing it (again), but this time he does a seriously good job; the way in which he croons words like paper and caper gives them an enchanting quality. Although the lyrics are conceptual you don't get perturbed because melodically this is absolutely superb, with the bright, brilliant acoustic and sophisticated drums. Definitely recommended.

Once again, though, brilliance is followed by brutal failure. 'Fragments Of Fragments' has nothing really going for it; even the name suggests a lack of inspiration or ingenuity. Just like Mike Oldfield continuing messing with Tubular Bells (1973), here Townshend produces a squashed, shortened and self-parodying version of the opening track. The cymbals are choked, the vocals warbled and it all feels old and fake. 'We Got A Hit' helps to make up for this; even if it only a measy 1:18 long, it's full of punch. Daltrey's vocals are as bright and as swaggering as they were on Quadrophenia (1973). This was a great choice for the first single from the album, even if it underperformed in the charts (predictably, since this is good and nothing in the charts is). Again, however, a duff track comes along in 'They Made My Dream Come True' and ruins the mood. It's a good thing that this is so short, because it feels and sounds way too sentimental. Pete Townshend whines through the lines like Phil Collins, only with three noses.

Once again, though, just when you're about to write them off, the band pull a complete corker out of the bag. 'Mirror Door', a song about musical heaven as one great party, is a tribute to the band's influences and favourite bands, as the likes of Howlin' Wolf, Elvis Presley and Eddie Cochran are all acknowledged in the opening verse. Once again Daltrey pushes his vocal range without sounding either old-aged or old-fashioned. Backed by shimmering organ, great drums (especially at the start), and a dazzling Townshend beating the living daylights out of a Fender Stratocaster, it's a proper Who song, a riot to listen to with a sensitive centre.

But if it's outwardly sensitive that you want, then turn to 'Tea & Theatre', the closer to Wire & Glass and the song which has replaced 'Won't Get Fooled Again' as the closer to The Who's live set. And you can see why. This is as close as Pete has ever come, and perhaps ever will, to writing a love song - certainly it's the most straight ahead he's ever been. The lyrics, with a little leeway, are a great eulogy to the band in its twilight:

We made it work
But one of us failed
That makes it so sad
A great dream derailed
One of us gone
One of us mad
One of us, me
All of us sad

As the song closes, you get a warm sensation, happy at the state the band is in and hopeful for more. And you get more. The final two tracks are extended versions of 'We Got A Hit' (used as the radio edit) and 'Endless Wire'. But unlike the alternative version of songs on Who Are You (1978, #47), these are not offcuts left on the studio floor, rescued to sate and satisfy the sound nerds. Both benefit from their extra verses, which flesh them out and make them more rounded as singles. However, these extensions take none of the charm from the originals, and you keep coming back to them.

Special editions of the album also include a second disk, dubbed Live At Lyon. There is little so say about this, save to say that it serves as evidence of the renewed and lasting live power of the band. 'The Seeker', a single released in March 1970, has a great opening from Townshend and retains its energy throughout. 'Who Are You' is a mild improvement on the Live 8 performance of July 2005, while 'Mike Post Theme' comes across as proof enough that the new material can translate to the live stage. The next three tracks all suffer though - 'Relay' sees Daltrey straining in the higher registers, 'Greyhound Girl' is nonsensically twee, and 'Naked Eye' remains as inadequate as the day it was recorded. The final track, 'Won't Get Fooled Again' is, as ever, pure bliss - Daltrey's performance is still spectacular - and yes, he can still do the famous scream. The track interpolates into a reduced version of 'Old Red Wine', the 2004 eulogy to John Entwistle.

Comeback albums are always difficult to predict. Some, like U2's Achtung Baby (1991) are hailed by the critics and represent a new era for the band; others, like Peter Gabriel's Up (2002), delight the fans but leave the critics divided and confused; and other still, like Billy Idol's Devil's Playground (2005), are just downright atrocious. Endless Wire is difficult since, although the critics were divided upon its release, it has the sense about it of ushering in a new era for the band. Although many of the tracks, like 'Fragments', lift from the band's past glories, this is not just a celebration of the old music like the tours of the reunions of the 1980s and 1990s. There is so much to like here, with a series of brilliant tunes and some hearty subject matter, tarnished only, in the case of Wire & Glass, by Townshend's continuing overambition (and, some might say, inability to explain what he means when it matters). This is a brilliant Who album by any standards, and if recent rumours are anything to go by, this is not the last Who album we shall ever see.²

3.89 out of 5

¹ David Fricke, 'Endless Wire', Accessed on March 18 2008.
² Jonathan Cohen, 'The Who Mulls Next Album, Revisits Classics', Accessed on March 21 2008.