Saturday, 28 June 2008

Top 100 Albums - #34: Hunky Dory (1971)

David Bowie's highest entry on the chart is Hunky Dory, the album which preceded his commercial breakthrough.
After recording a number of forgotten singles under the pseudonym Davy Jones, Bowie signed to Deram Records and released a self-titled album in the autumn of 1967. The album synthesised contemporary psychedelia with his love for music hall, and sold poorly, as did his cult-novelty single, 'The Laughing Gnome'. Bowie spent 1968 writing songs for established artists of the day, only resurfacing (so to speak) with the release of 'Space Oddity'. Recorded and released to coincide with the Moon landing, it became a UK Top 5 hit and made Bowie an overnight success. The resulting album, Space Oddity (1969), took on a much more psychedelic twist, to the extent that commentators saw it (and the single) as an allegory for taking drugs, and Tony Visconti dropped out of producing it. The more rock-heavy The Man Who Sold The World (1970), which followed shortly afterwards, showed the first hints of androgyny emerging in Bowie's image.

We begin with a well-known classic. 'Changes' manages to be whimsical, eccentrically English and a pop song all at the same time. The minute you first hear that eight-note riff on the piano (at 0:12), a series of happy tingles run up your spine. With the intro over, Bowie is free to play around with his words, throwing away amazing lines like So I turned myself to face me in the first verse. But despite this rushed style - and the lyrics tripping over the ends of lines, à la Paul Simon - this is amazingly catchy. The chorus with its Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes takes off The Who's 'My Generation' as Bowie sets out the manifesto for his chameleonic personality, the true magnitude of which was only just becoming clear.

We then go from strength to strength as we move on to 'Oh! You Pretty Things'. The piano remains, and once again we are given a treat with the riff. The lyrics are bizarre, but for all their surrealism and obscure references, they all seem to make sense. Like 'Drive-In Saturday' from Aladdin Sane (1973, #56), they pick up on the theme of a bleak future, where on this occassion the youth have allied with aliens to take over the world. But like 'Drive-In Saturday', you have no real need to understand all these undertones or plot points in order to either enjoy the song or find something meaningful in it. And while the piano dominates the mix, the drums of Woody Woodmansey are perfectly timed and unobtrusive, allowing Bowie to roam freely in his own little world, to the utter delight of everyone listening.

Sadly, however, the run of good luck soon ends. We interpolate straight into 'Eight Line Poem', intended as a sequel of sorts to 'Oh! You Pretty Things'. But this is completely different in feel. With its countryish guitar and more washed-out piano, it has a more American feel. That serves to completely spoil the mood of the album, which so far had immersed itself in late-1960s folk and psychedelia. And even when you lay the lyrics out in front of you, you still have no idea what they mean.

If you can weather this let-down, you will come to one of Bowie's most famous creations. 'Life On Mars?' features Rick Wakeman on keyboards and came indirectly from Bowie's work as a commissioned songwriter. In late 1968 he wrote 'Even A Fool Learns To Love', placing his lyrics over a French song 'Comme d'Habitude'. A year later, in 1969, the same French song had been re-written as 'My Way' for Frank Sinatra; 'Life On Mars?' is Bowie's parody of the Sinatra hit. But although it is underscored by a feeling of bitterness for missing out on that level of success, the overall mood of the piece is one of surreal grandiosity. It was later described by BBC Radio 2 as "a cross between a Broadway musical and a Salvador Dalì painting"¹, and that's not far off. Either way, it's a brilliant song.

'Kooks' is a lot easier on the palate, if Northern accents are your sort of thing. Or French horns, for that matter. Bowie wrote this song for his then-newborn son Duncan Jones (also known as Zowie Bowie). The piano is straight out of music hall and Bowie seems completely relaxed, almost jubilant. The lyrics speak of his growing acceptance of his zany nature; an indicative example is the opening lines of the second verse: And if you ever have to go to school/ Remember how they messed up this old fool. This is very repetitive, but in a hooky, catchy way rather than an irritating one.

While 'Kooks' was droll, laid-back and comforting, 'Quicksand' is full of brooding and wailing. It's Bowie at his most impenetrable yet, with references to Greta Garbo and Friedrich Nietzsche which often don't make sense. But while this is heady and bleak, on the plus side it features some very well-executed string arrangements, the work of guitarist Mick Ronson. These seemingly indistinguishable background features come into their own in the second half of the track and it all appears a little clearer.

Of all the songs on the album, 'Fill Your Heart' is most typical of the mood Bowie tried to create. Which is ironic, considering he didn't write it, and tragic, considering it's rubbish. Crossing flaired-trouser folk with jaunty music-hall piano, this is a cover of a b-side by US novelty act Tiny Tim. But as with 'Life On Mars?', this song has gone through many motions before Bowie got his hands on it, and the result is nearly a complete mess. Bowie shrieks the closing lines of each verse in an effort to sound new and interesting, but in truth this song, like so much rubbish from the 1960s, is cheap, rigid and completely forgetable.

It is good to know, then, that Bowie has chosen his influences more wisely with 'Andy Warhol' and 'Song For Bob Dylan'. The former fades in from the end of 'Fill Your Heart'. For the first 50 seconds or so, we are treated to reverberating saxophones, studio chatter and distant laughter. From then on in, the guitars becomes flamenco and Bowie goes all tongue in cheek about one of his greatest idols. Warhol reportedly disliked the song because it made fun of his physical appearance², but when you actually listen, it comes across a whole lot more endearing, and has a great chorus. 'Song For Bob Dylan' is slightly more serious and respectful about the man with a voice like sand and glue. The guitars are more sneering and snarling than on the previous tracks, and the drums are back with a vengeance, cleverly pandering to Dylan's late-1960s work with The Band and his classic album Nashville Skyline (1969).

The penultimate track is a real belter. 'Queen Bitch' begins with one of the best double-tracked guitar riffs in rock music; it begins on Bowie's acoustic, and then a few seconds later Ronson's Fender barges in on top of it and kicks up the whole piece. Everything about this tribute to The Velvet Underground feels miles, miles better than anything before it; even 'Oh! You Pretty Things' struggles to match it. Trevor Boulder's melodic bass line ripples through the mix beneath the guitars, titillating you throughout, while Woodmansey returns to his best, dynamic yet restrained. At 3:19 this isn't the shortest song on the album, but it has the punchy nature of a motown jive. It's the best track on the album by far, and a cut above anything he created as Ziggy Stardust.

How disappointing it is, then, that we finish on a real bum note. By Bowie's own admission, 'The Bewlay Brothers' was only written to confuse Americans.³ Its garbled, twisted lyrics are specifically designed to have no meaning whatsoever. As a result, once the obvious irony has worn off - which it will very quickly - there is no point to this track. Commentators have read into this being about Bowie's schizophrenic half-brother, or pedalling a homosexual agenda, but you will come away from this feeling that they have wasted their time.

The best Bowie albums are always unpredictable; they change intention and direction when you least expect it, so that you end up with a collection of very different songs, often at the cost of overall consistency. On these grounds, Hunky Dory fits the bill as a great Bowie album. Not all the songs on here are brilliant - some in fact are quite below-par - but each is so charmingly different from the next that there is something for everyone. But unlike a lot of Bowie's albums, here the eclecticism and variety actually serves as a cement to hold it all together. Whereas subsequent albums took a certain style and pulled it in many different directions - as on Young Americans (1975, #73) - on Hunky Dory there are many strange and wonderful genres at work, all blending together to produce something wonderful. This is Bowie's best album without a shadow of doubt, capturing him on the brink of superstardom. It is a fitting testament to his abilities and it remains his most endearing work.

3.91 out of 5

¹ BBC Radio 2, 'Sold On Song - Top 100 - Life On Mars', Accessed on July 18 2008.
² Jon Howell, 'David Bowie FAQ: Hunky Dory (1971)', Accessed on July 19 2008.
³ David Buckley. Strange Fascination - David Bowie: The Definitive Story (London: Virgin Books, 1999) pp.114-115 - cited in 'The Bewlay Brothers', Accessed on July 19 2008.

Top 100 Albums - #35: Woven Cord (1999)

Iona's second entry on the chart is Woven Cord, their second live album. This was recorded with the All Souls Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in London, on May 29th 1999.
Iona's first three releases established them at the forefront of Celtic progressive rock. Their self-titled debut (1990) was a tribute to the island's history and Christian heritage. The follow-ups, The Book Of Kells (1992, #46) and Beyond These Shores (1993) were loose concept albums, the former looking at the eponymous 8th-century manuscript, the latter focussing on the 9th-century voyage of St. Brendan across the Atlantic from Ireland. Between these albums founder member Dave Fitzgerald (saxophone) left the band to concentrate on his teaching career. With sales remaining low, the band's next effort was the more commercial Journey Into The Morn (1996), based around the modern hymn 'Be Thou My Vision'. This was followed by a greatest hits album, Treasures (1996) and a tour to support it, captured on the live album Heaven's Bright Sun (1997). This would be Terl Bryant's last album with the band before Frank van Essen replaced him on drums.

We kick off with 'Overture', a 5-minute instrumental designed to settle us into the feel of the album. Of course, since this was written by Troy Donockley, we get the usual whistles and pipes; but we also get the richer sounds from the string section, something which would feature more prominently on Open Sky (2000). The slight downside to this is that a lot of the traditional Celtic edge is lost in the old-fashioned, haughty grandeur of the arrangements. But overall, you have to say, this compliments the Iona sound very well, raising it to the level of a film score.

Even once you have figured out how to pronounce 'Bi-Sé I Mo Shuìl (Part I)' (say bee-suy i mo-hool), the song itself remains a disappointment. Taken from Journey Into The Morn, this is, aside from anything else, an unsatisfactory way of introducing the great voice of Joanne Hogg. Oh sure, she can do the Gaelic pronounciation no problem, but you are left thinking that her entrance would have been a lot better had the song blended with the orchestral accompaniment. On record, this works; live with an orchestra, it doesn't.

No problem though, because we can now move on to 'Matthew - The Man'. As I said in my review of The Book Of Kells, this is one of the great tracks to have come out of prog in the last decade or so. While the album version began with shimmering keyboards and thumping great bass lines, this is driven by a duel between Dave Bainbridge's wailing guitar and Frank van Essen's thundery, dynamic drumming. This may be even longer than the album version at 13:01, but like the album version there is no room for dragging solos. One unfortunate change is the loss of Bainbridge's tear-inducing acoustic guitar solo, drowned out here by the keyboards. However, van Essen more than makes up for it with his subtle but full-bodied fills - the section from 9:17 to 10:27 is just about the most euphoric drum and guitar section you are ever likely to find. It is utterly spectacular.

After all that drum-and-guitar euphoria, 'White Sands' takes things down a notch. With its oboe and clarinet opening, you are transported to a distant beach and are utterly relaxed when you get there. This track, from Iona, is where Donockley really gets into his stride. Backed by what sounds like a bouzouki (akin to a lute or mandolin), he performs a beautiful piece on whistle. The shrill descant of the whistle rises above the slow gushings of the bouzouki chords, while the violins provide what could be called the alto part. This is perhaps the track where you most notice the production; every note has been captured immaculately by Bainbridge.

'Murlough Bay' is from Beyond These Shores, and begins as brightly as the album version. Hogg is back and in fine form, showing that her performance on record can be perfectly replicated live. No other female voice suits the line And here at last I'm on my own with you so very well. Her voice is pure like cut glass, but unlike many singers of such talents there is emotion as well as quality. There is very little to differentiate this from the album version, but then again Iona are never the sort of band to add in lengthy solos to show off; the audience are already well aware of their talents and respond accordingly.

'Dancing On The Wall' is another "oldie, but goodie" as Peter Frampton would say. In its structure, this is considerably more poppy than anything the band have produced since; it is even more the case when we listen further and see the restraint with which instruments are being used. But that is not really a problem. Although this is for the most part just vocals and an acoustic guitar, this is not singer-songwriter schmaltz. The chords are complex and intricate, and the lyrics a damn sight more merry, as is the finished product.

Hereon in, things get a little more hit and miss. 'Encircling' clocks in at 12:25 and most of that is overkill. The lyrics are not as compelling as before, and we get the first hints of van Essen's irritating tendency towards flashy playing. The drums do way too much in this piece, and Bainbridge has put them right at the forefront of the mix so that their effect is unmitigated. Unlike on previous long tracks, the instrumental sections do drag, turning the whole thing into a bitter disappointment.

If you can endure this superfluous epic, you are duly rewarded with the best track on the album. 'Lindisfarne' begins very tentatively; under a slow murmur from the cellos the higher-pitched instruments one by one poke their heads up above ground, like the first flowers of spring. This again has a film score feel to it, rather than just an orchestrated rock song. It is hard to believe that both this and 'Encircling' came from the same album (Journey Into The Morn), because they are so utterly different. Where that was bloated and drawn out, this blends beautifully from one section to the next, and all the time the musicianship is tight and full of lustre. You don't realise that this is a true gem without listening all the way through. Everything is so modest and subtle that it needs to be appreciated holistically, like looking down on a completed jigsaw. This is a quietly-styled masterpiece.

'Revelation' has a hard act to follow, but it has a pretty good stab at it. As on the version from The Book Of Kells, the star of this song is Hogg, who by now has gotten completely settled into her surroundings. Her delivery and diction are not quite as immaculate here as on the album, but even then she wipes the floor with her rivals (ever wondered why Enya never performs live?). Once again, Bainbridge has tweaked his guitar part so that the jaunty solo has been replaced by a screechy workout, but this is still a very good track.

After so many old classics, we come to something new. The title track is another instrumental, and would become the opener to Open Sky just under a year later. Like a lot of that album, this is hardly throughbred Iona, chiefly because (once again) van Essen goes a bit too mad a bit too often. It is not completely impotent, with Donockley's pipes carrying things along nicely. But the riffs are a lot less agreeable than on previous recordings, and by the end they begin to try your patience.

Thankfully, we end on the great Iona closer, 'Beyond These Shores'. This is longer than the album version by nearly 2 minutes, largely because of the long violin opening and the extended (and deserved) applause at the end. Nevertheless, this remains one of the band's all-time great compositions. For a start, it is perfectly suited to Hogg's range and delivery, allowing her to push herself in the name of passion without any sign of strain or struggle. The instruments are more restrained, with Bainbridge handling the piano like an old master while the violins hum near-silently in the background. The lyrics are pretty damn good too. You reach the end, as the cellos and keyboards mingle with the clapping, and you are left completely fulfilled.

Making a good live album is difficult. Making a good prog live album is even more so. Making a good prog live album with orchestral accompaniment is well-nigh impossible, as so often the music is overshadowed by the grandeur and pretention surrounding big bands. The most immediate example is Procol Harum's Live With The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (1972); all that could have been extracted from a few half-decent songs is ruined by the bloated, stuffy nature of the arrangements (see my review of Procol Harum - The Collection (1985, #67)). With Woven Cord, however, Iona have cracked it. For the most part the orchestra is there to bring out and add to the most emotional parts of songs, rather than just padding out the mix. That said, the best moments are when the band is trying to be as restrained as possible; there is no noodling or shredding of which to speak, but van Essen is not always economical on the drums, too often sounding like a loose cannon. Overall though, you get the sense that Iona did not do this because they had the money, or the egos. They did this because they knew what full orchestration could bring to their work, and the result - for the most part - is profound.

3.91 out of 5

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Top 100 Albums - #36: Graceland (1986)

Legendary singer-songwriter Paul Simon's only entry is Graceland, the album which introduced Ladysmith Black Mambazo to a large European audience.
After Simon & Garfunkel split for the second time in late-1969, their final album, Bridge Over Troubled Waters (1970), won two Grammys (for Best Album and Best Song, for the title track). While Garfunkel largely devoted his energies to acting, Simon began a successful and prolific solo career, beginning with a self-titled effort in 1972. This, along with the follow-ups There Goes Rhymin' Simon (1973) and Still Crazy After All These Years (1975), received universal critical acclaim. With the 1980s, however, Simon's career began to falter - after the poor response to One Trick Pony (1980), he reunited with Garfunkel; what was meant to be a one-off show led to a world tour throughout 1982. After the (again) poor response to Hearts & Bones (1983), Simon was in desperate need of reinvention.

It is this reinvention which is present in Graceland, an album which begins with 'The Boy In The Bubble', as Simon-y as title as ever there was. Everything else, however, is completely uncharacteristic of Simon as he is often remembered. For a start, this is catchy, much catchier than 'Mrs. Robinson' and a lot less old hat. The accordian which kicks things off is jazzy, while the bass line of Bakithi Kumalo is just too cool for words. The drums have a thundery sound to them, and Simon is in great voice. Unlike his recordings of the late-1960s, which now can seem tinny and twee, hear his voice is fuller, more optimistic - and a damn sight more bearable.

The title track may take its inspiration from Elvis Presley, but don't let that put you off. This is not some 1950s take-off, not even slightly. Instead, this has the same burbling bass and lilting guitars which glide through the mix and counterpoint the lyrics as they talk of Memphis and Mississippi. The influence of township jive on Simon is clear, because this is from the start a very bright track, bright enough to make you dance in a dusty street on a hot summer's evening. There is none of the plastic spirit and stricken soul which haunted much European music in this time; instead we are treated to a very reasonable few minutes of pure fun.

Having started so well, Simon comes unstuck on the next two tracks. 'I Know What I Know' sounds inane from the start, with its tacky drums and oh-so-jangly guitar. More than that though, Simon here appears to be using the world influences as a token gesture to liven up a boring love song, instead of melding the two together properly like his contemporaries. The chorus section in particular, with its woop woop woop woops is incredibly tiresome. 'Gumboots', the track which kicked off this whole change in genre, is no better. The accordian is back, but Simon is at his worst lyrically, as his words tumble through the mix in no discernable order. This may be more reasonable on the ears than its predecessor, but like its predecessor it leaves you completely cold.

So with two duffers on our hands, it's Ladysmith to the rescue in the shape of 'Diamonds On The Soles On Her Shoes'. This is a true fusion of Europe and South Africa; the opening gels beautifully as Simon's coy lyrics about a love which bridges rich and poor blend seamlessly with the classic Ladysmith choral work. From then on in, we return to the lilting mood of the opening tracks, and we get the same teasing bass as before. If you listen carefully, you will also spot the clever jazzy drum work from Issac Mtshali; his sticking is quietly crisp, straight out of pre-war jazz.

We now come to the most well-known track on the album. 'You Can Call Me Al' was made famous by its video, starring Chevy Chase, but underneath the publicity that generated there is a fantastic pop song. The synth hook, which comes in right at the start, completely draws you in and soon you find yourself an integral part of what is a very snazzy mix. The lyrics, at first glance, appear as rambling and as unintelligible as any of the other gibberish produced by singer-songwriters. In reality, this is a song with a proper story behind it, namely that of a man searching for whom he is and finding himself in Africa (maybe it's the Third World/ Maybe it's just first time around). There is no one thing that makes this track utterly remarkable, even the bass solo towards the end. It just feels so right, even if we are so unable to say why.

The good news continues as we enter the second half of the album. 'Under African Skies' begins with another tantalising, teasing riff from Ray Phiri's Fender. Once again, this flows and wafts along without a single thing to make it unpleasant or boring. And once again, the vocals are for the most part playing second fiddle to feel, but here there is a difference, in the shape of Linda Ronstadt's backing vocals. On the 'chorus' sections, her wails help to lift the song, preventing it from getting flat; they come in just when it matters.

'Homeless' can only be described as utterly charming. Arguably the track which launched Ladysmith Black Mambazo in Europe, it opens with their delightful harmonies and tongue rolls. In the mix of English and Zulu which follows, you fall completely in love with these remarkable men, whose voices are charming and sweet without seeming weak and pitiful like so many contemporary European singers. Even when Simon comes in and the song changes tack, the beauty and composure is not lost. It is one of the highlights of the album.

'Homeless' may be as a smooth talker, but as a pop song it is very much overshadowed by 'Crazy Love Vol. II'. The drum beat on this is the very definition of infectious, and the guitar so wondrous that even the most embarrassed, lead-footed individual will struggle to sit still when there is so much temptation to get up and jive. The lyrics are ridiculous - ridiculous in a friendly and admirable way. If anyone else began a song with the lines Fat Charlie the archangel sloped into the room/ He said "I have no opinion about this/ And I have no opinion about that.", they would be sent to the songwriters' asylum. But with Simon, everything makes a crazy sort of sense, and the affectionate rhythms mean that it all keeps rolling along nicely.

The penultimate track is another duffer, I'm afraid. 'That Was Your Mother' is distinctly mutton dressed as lamb. It's Simon playing the same trick (or making the same mistake) as he did on 'I Know What I Know', taking token influences from a genre and plastering them over what is essentially a bit of American easy-listening. Had he bothered to craft something which interpolated all the different sounds into something new and exciting, then maybe it would have worked better.

The closer, 'All Around The World, or The Myth Of Fingerprints', is also a case of Simon slacking off, though not with the music per se. Simon allegedly stole this song from his collaborators, Los Lobos; the song came out of a jamming session towards the end of recording, for which the group provided most of the material - but on the final release, Simon gave them no credit, and when questioned why, he replied, "Sue me. You'll see what happens."¹ Litigation aside, this isn't all that bad. Perhaps a bit too easy-listening again, but there is still plenty to stimulate you.

Graceland is by no means unique as a record by a Western artist which introduced world music artists to a European audience. World influences had been creeping in since Joni Mitchell's The Hissing Of Summer Lawns (1975), and Peter Gabriel had been doing much the same thing for four years (see my reviews of Peter Gabriel 4 (1982, #80) and So (1986, #41)). But both Mitchell and Gabriel used the world influences to bring out the darker, sadder, more brooding side of their psyches. With Mitchell, it served as a backdrop for songs about failed relationships and selling out; with Gabriel, it acted as a tool to highlight personal turmoil and concerns about human rights. Graceland, on the other hand, is a distinctly happy record. Rather than being sombre about what could be, it chooses to highlight and celebrate the present. It has within the very fibre of its being an innate optimism, a hope and assurance for the future, which is conveyed by the sheer beauty of what has been created here. Even in its current state, as something of a time capsule of a brighter age, none of the magic has been lost.

3.91 out of 5

¹ 'Rhymin' Simon: Not Welcome in East L.A.', Accessed on June 30 2008.