Thursday, 31 July 2008

Top 100 Albums - #26: Once More With Feeling (2004)

Once More With Feeling is the only entry for alternative rockers Placebo. It is a singles compilation summarising the first eight years of their career.
Placebo were founded in 1994 by Brian Molko (vocals, guitar) and Stefan Olsdal (bass), who had both been educated at the American International School in Luxembourg before meeting up again in South Kensington, London. But while the band soon settled on the name Placebo, they were no so assured with drummers, alternating between two before permanently hiring Steve Hewitt in 1996. The band released its self-titled debut that year and became notorious for its overt sexuality, androgynous image (especially Molko) and drug addiction. While their debut sold well in Britain, critics were less kind about Without You, I'm Nothing (1998), seeing Molko as pretentious. The follow-up, Black Market Music (2000), took nine months to record and consolidated their continental fanbase, hitting the top of the French album charts. Their fourth album, Sleeping With Ghosts (2003), marked a departure, with dancier themes replacing the heavier, American rock sound of old, and returned them to some form of success in Britain.

Like many compilations, we begin at the beginning with '36 Degrees'. Taken from Placebo, it's a good way to introduce us to the sound of the band, and along the way we get the odd lyrical gem, e.g. Allocate your sentiment and stick it in a box from the first verse. Compared to some of the later, darker stuff, this is a bit flat, but at 3:08 it's punchy and (passive-)aggressive enough to pass muster.

'Teenage Boy' has much the same sort of approach. It's very short, it's feisty and it packs a nicely rounded punch. It begins with a simple but effective riff from Molko, who then picks up the ball on the lyrics. Generally they are a little too forgettable to be classic Placebo, but the refrain - Since I was born I started to decay/ Now nothing ever ever goes my way - is very good. It is a very effective piece, with special plaudits for Hewitt's sharp, economical drumming.

On the next two tracks, however, the band start to lose their way. 'Nancy Boy' has none of the imagery or subtlely that the previous two songs had, and as a result it never really comes good. From a lyrical point of view, the subject matter is very clear (Molko's sexual encounters with multiple partners). But soon it falls apart as the band serve up the kind of inane chorus which no average pop song is complete without. This is not what we want, and neither is 'Bruise Pristine'. The riff which kicks things off is empty, the hi-hat a well-worn feature of metal and everything else is plain forgetable. It's not a bad track per se, there is nothing outrageously horrible about it, but neither is there all that much to excite you, making it a big disappointment.

We now move on to the tracks from Without You, I'm Nothing, which is where Placebo start to come good. The lyrics of 'Pure Morning' are among Molko's best: clever, caustic, and brutally honest. From the opening lines - A friend in need's a friend in deed/ A friend with weed is better - you are aware of how much the band have developed and matured in the space of two years. This is musically tighter too, with little room left for showing off on either drums or guitar. The bass is more distinctive, and the whole mood is darker, blacker and resoundingly better.

'You Don't Care About Us' begins with some drumming from Hewitt of which Dave Grohl would have been proud. Oldsal has more room in this track, and the production allows his Gibson Thunderbird to burrow and burn its way deep into your consciousness. This delicate thunder provides an interesting contrast to Molko's yearning, alto-ish vocals, so that the song feels balanced and potent. Good stuff.

With 'Every You, Every Me', things take a turn for the worse. For a start, the sound that Placebo had so carefully built up is completely rent in twain by the acoustic guitar, which plays the kind of empty, inane riff that you would today encounter on a Ting Tings track (think 'Great DJ'). Molko's delivery sounds even more relaxed than usual, to the extent the feeble lyrics become beyond irony and you are quickly driven beyond all realm of patience.

It's a damn good thing, then, that the band follows this up with the title track of their second album. 'Without You, I'm Nothing' features David Bowie on vocals, then in the tail end of his techno phase and fresh from the tour of Earthling (1997). His influence shows; even though he had no part in writing the song, it sounds more professional, more cultured, more all-rounded somehow. His increasingly knarled voice blends superbly with Molko's, again providing a contrast between the high and low registers. And when the songs reaches its climax in the final choruses, it sends a dark shiver down your spine, just the effect Placebo should have on you.

'Taste In Men' is the first track from Black Market Music, and begins with a heady mix of bass and synthesisers underscored with full-sounding drums. The synths are particularly hypnotic, pulsing through your temples like the muffled beats eminating from an underground club. Molko's voice here is more snarly, more embittered, and as a result more exciting; if nothing else, it disguises the repetitive lyrics. Think of it as Massive Attack with an early-teen Johnny Rotten on vocals.

Up to now this is all been a little uneven, but with 'Slave To The Wage' we shift things up a gear or two. This feels so more much professional than the previous tracks. The raw edge displayed in the choppy production may have been dulled, but all the despair and anger remain in full voice, backed by some wonderfully simple guitar work. The drums are thundery, like on an early Rolling Stones record; the bass is loose and jazzy; and Molko is jagged and snarling into the mike like a killer hornet. This isn't exactly the happiest song in the world, but that is not what Placebo are about. They are about creating deep, honest, scarring pieces of music which arouse emotion - and this brilliant track fulfills all these criteria.

'Special K' is one of the more controversial songs included on here. Not controversial because of its selection - it's one of their more successful singles. The controversy lies in its subject matter - namely the use of drugs and in particular ketamine. But of course, Molko is clever in working around the subject, slipping in cultural and religious references along the way - Can the saviour be for real/ Or are you just my seventh seal? Backed by a punk metal rhythm section, he wades through the song so you become sure he is singing about himself.

'Black Eyed' is another good song, simple as. It doesn't have the effortless quality of 'Slave To The Wage' but it's hardly a let-down because of that. The subject matter is well-worn (a boy with a troubled childhood), but that doesn't stop Placebo from trying to find something new about it. And they manage to get away with it, thanks to the lightning-quick snare work of Hewitt. Olsdal's bass work is simpler and more conventional than usual, but to honest you won't care - largely because the only one you're focussing on is Molko.

We now come to the really good stuff, namely the tracks from Sleeping With Ghosts. 'The Bitter End', like all the songs off that album, is about relationships. With a more personal subject matter, the band feels more edgy and aggressive. The songs on here are shorter, punchier and heaps better in quality. The drums are simple and yet clever, as Hewitt combines a simple hi-hat and snare beat with an adrenaline-injected bass drum part. Molko is vocally in full flung form, catapulting you to a dark alley in a dying city. From the very way he sneers at the chorus, you can see the hatred and despair on his face. This is an electric song, a great track from an in-form band.

'This Picture' kicks off with a positively evil bass line, and brings to mind, for some unknown reason, The Portrait of Dorian Gray. This is not as compelling as the previous track, but there is still plenty to like here. It's quite similar to '36 Degrees' in its structure and form, but the addition of synthesisers under the melody help to distinguish it. The lyrics talk about sadomasochism, but unlike a lot of Molko's lyrics it is difficult to pick up on anything for a few listens, save a few references to ashtray girls and growing old.

It is on the next two tracks, however, that the band reach their peak. 'Special Needs' begins with a tender but sinister riff and then it is Molko all the way. He sings like a psychopath, and his lyrics are demented in their feel, serving up a series of gruesome verses, and a simple, drilling chorus:

Just 19, a sucker's dream
I guess I thought you had the flavour
Just 19, and dream obscene
With 6 months off for bad behaviour

The best lyrics are those that instantly put pictures in your head, and here you imagine him stuck in a cell, with only the rain and lightning for company. The band play tightly and rigidly, but there is still a lot of passion in what they do. With 'English Summer Rain', things go the other way. All restraint is gone, all the gloves are off and everything is pumped full of energy to a frightening degree. Once again the lyrics are deceptively simple; they could be almost be called lazy if done by any other band. But with Placebo, they serve as a prism to focus all the darkness into something we can understand. And we get the message, as Molko bears his soul amid the claustrophobic, nightmarish soundscape the other members create. It's an amazing track, so innately simple and yet so full of meaning.

Sadly, the next two tracks fall short of the new bar just installed. 'Protège-Moi' is the French version of 'Protect Me From What I Want'. The English version is a good enough song, which leads you to question why they included this instead. Most people will find the French lyrics off-putting, not having the time or energy to decipher them. That is a big error, since the success of Molko's lyrics has always lain on being easy to understand while being all beautiful and metaphorical at the same time. This doesn't do that. 'I Do', meanwhile, has little better in its favour. The opening riff is sub-standard, Molko is singing in self-parody mode, and the whole thing feels stale. It's a good thing that this is the shortest track (at 2:28), because by the time you get to the second verse you'll really be annoyed.

On 'Twenty Years', the closer, Molko's guitar playing has picked up, adding a lilting, blues feel into the abyss and taking things on an interesting journey. This is a definite departure for the band, back-referencing their career thus far while poking fun at the idea of them going on for as long as the title suggests: But all will pass/ We'll end too fast, you know. The production is a lot clearer here than it has been elsewhere on this compilation, and you end up listening to it with a satisfied half-smile, reassured that this band will go on to greater things.

When it comes down to it, Once More With Feeling is not all that distinctive as a compilation. It follows the herd in the way it is laid out in chronological order, it contains only the band's most well-known work, and it includes a new track as a teaser to satisfy fans. So, on the surface, it is too humdrum to deserve a place on the chart. But if you focus on the music itself, its purpose eventually becomes clear. All Placebo's albums, including Sleeping With Ghosts to an extent, are decidely uneven in quality and feel. They are at heart a singles band, and there is a reason why these particular songs were chosen. These songs are indicative of Placebo at each stage of their career, showcasing how they have improved and altered their sound throughout their first eight year. It's not so much a compilation as a narrow history lesson, which leaves you thinking that if there are twenty years to go, they're bound to produce something special along the way.

3.95 out of 5

Top 100 Albums - #27: Quadrophenia (1973)

At number 27 is Quadrophenia, The Who's second rock opera and their penultimate entry on the chart.
Although Who's Next (1971) had become the band's most critically acclaimed album to date, Pete Townshend remained frustrated. The album had resulted from the collapse and termination of the Lifehouse project, an overambitious multimedia production designed to push the boundaries of rock and film to the limit. The project, which only Townshend ever fully understood, almost claimed his sanity. But The Who returned to the road in good spirits, touring the States over two legs through the remainder of 1971, and being dubbed 'The Greatest Show on Earth' by The Los Angeles Times.¹ By contrast, 1972 was a quiet year for the band. Townshend took six months off to reflect on the band's success, releasing a solo album, Who Came First, and two records dedicated to spiritual leader Meher Baba. Keith Moon's reputation for excess increased no end, punctuated only by his cameo in Frank Zappa's bizarre road movie, 200 Motels. While Roger Daltrey renovated his newly-bought Burwash estate and began recording his first solo album, Daltrey (1973), John Entwistle released Whistle Rhymes (1972) and began initial recordings for Rigor Mortis Sets In (1973). After playing to half a million people in Paris in August 1972, the band returned to the studio to begin recording Townshend's latest project, tentatively titled 'Jimmy'.²

Things don't start well. 'I Am The Sea' is 2-and-a-bit minutes of perfectly produced but rather unsettling sound effects. The sound of the waves may set the scene for this opera - just off the coast of Brighton - but the snippets of brass and echoed vocals that wash up are downright confusing. The success of 'Baba O'Riley' on Who's Next, with its long, radio-unfriendly intro, seems to have prompted Townshend to go further with his overtures. This time, it clearly hasn't worked. The overture to Tommy (1969) was crisp and clear - this is convoluted and bizarre.

Thankfully, this is soon rectified with 'The Real Me'. This is a hell of a track, kicking off with razor sharp guitar work from Townshend. Moon is on proper form, using every last inch of his already sumptuous kit to fill up the sound with fills where no other drummer would find the room. Entwistle is playful and jazzy, hinting at his later work with Alembics to create a wonderful, treble-ish melody. But the true highlight is Daltrey, whose range continues to grow while losing none of its raw power. On the contrary - at times here the energy coming off him as scary.

The title track, which segues in from 'The Real Me', completes the scene-setting as far as we are concerned. It is now clear that this is very different to Tommy; instead of some artistic fantasy, this is grittier, earthier and richer, exploring the often dark roots of the Mod movement which made The Who famous in the first place. The quadrophenia in question is a four-way split personality, to represent the four very different band members fighting under the single personality of The Who. Musically, this is a strange but elegant combination of synthesisers and acoustic, which actually works out quite well.

Having established our setting and the symbolic illness in question, our character can now step forward into the limelight. 'Cut My Hair' introduces us to Jimmy, the quadrophenic London Mod in question, stuck living with his uptight parents in an age of poverty and social change. Townshend takes lead on the verses, backed by smooth piano chords and Moon's ride cymbals. But on the chorus it is Moon and Daltrey all the way, with lines like Dressed right for a beach fight/ But I just can't explain being growled savagely. This song has good lyrics, but sharing them out has made it something of a hotch-potch. Some could say it symbolises the different sides of Jimmy, but if that were really the case, where are Moon and Entwistle?

No such fears abound on 'The Punk And The Godfather'. This bursts forth from the 6 O'Clock News with immense attitude and huge torque; the opening chords will cause you to turn your head as if a gun had fired closed behind. Daltrey is back on lead and is in swaggering form, delivering Townshend's lyrics with a sardonic snarl. His voice is still raw and savage, but his ability to crest high notes with sufficient force has improved no end since Live At Leeds (1970, #68). When things do quieten down, Townshend takes over, but soon Daltrey smashes back with his passionate OKAY! which greets the crowd of Mods dubbed in. This is brilliant stuff.

'I'm One' returns to Townshend and brings acoustic guitar to the fore. Because, or perhaps in spite of this, this is another very, very good song. The riff may be more ponderous and complex, but you're not fooling anyone if you say this is directionless. Even on the quiet opening section, before Moon's snare fires up, you can sense a hidden energy under Townshend's singing. The rest of the song is all Townshend, with Moon subdued but still magical, and the third verse is completely self-deprecating:

I got a Gibson without a case
But I can't get that even-tanned look on my face
Ill-fitting clothes, I blend in the crowd
Fingers too clumsy, voice too loud

After sufficient introspective musings, 'The Dirty Jobs' returns us properly to Jimmy, this time focussing on the dead-end world of working-class work. The synthesisers return to the foreground, and after what seems like a long absence, so does Entwistle. Our hero (or anti-hero) goes from feeding pigs to driving a bus-load of miners and a great deal besides, always being put down and pushed round, but always vowing not to sit and weep again. Daltrey captures this sense of defiance tinged with despair to a tee, and the whole group feels tight and agile. We also get the huge end section from about 3:39 onwards, which completes the package.

The first big slip-up on the album is 'Helpless Dancer', also known as 'Roger's Theme'. Townshend wanted to compose a theme for each of the four members, which is fine as an idea. But the execution of the idea in this case falls short. For a start, we get the same muffled brass section that we had on 'I Am The Sea', and the same oh-so-dramatic piano. Then the piano is reduced to loud, blunt minor chords, and Daltrey's rapid-fire vocals about frustration and identity are severely compromised by the tricksied-up production.

It's a good thing, then, that the next two songs make up for this. 'Is It In My Head?' is chock full of emotion. Here the piano is sweet and saddened, Daltrey is allowed to sing straight-face, and Moon is back with a vengeance. The lyrics describe the mental deterioration of Jimmy, as his addiction to amphetamines begin to mess with his mind and make him act completely out of character. This song is a symbol of what Townshend is capable of if he really concentrates - it's powerful, elegant, unpredictable and honest. As is 'I've Had Enough', for that matter. Moon and Daltrey lead as before, as the former beats the living daylights out his tom-toms in some spectacular fills, and the latter graces the top of his voice with a sense of wrath and cunning. Once again, Entwistle has to take a back seat, but otherwise this is fabulous. Daltrey's scream of LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOVE is the perfect way to end the first half.

The second half begins as tentatively as the first, with the sound of train doors closing. Then the opening chords of '5:15' begin and we launch longingly into the first truly amazing track on here. This is a riot in which all four members are wrestling for control in this section about Jimmy making the trip, in more ways than one, from London to Brighton (Out of my brain on the train). Townshend provides the jangly, dynamic guitars, Entwistle the intelligent horns and subtle bass lines, and Daltrey pushes himself still further with every passing lyric. But in truth, this song is all about Moon. From the first hit of the snare, you have a picture of him wheeling around the kit with a huge grin on his face. It shows so openly in his playing, lighting up the already-potent mix with an impish, rebellious charm, all the time keeping things tightly unpredictable. As we will see, there are many tracks which merit the title of tour de force, and this is surely one of them.

'Sea And Sand' finds Jimmy considering his future. Having been finally kicked out by his parents, he find himself in Brighton, and about to be caught up in the riots of 1965. But for the moment, all he can think of are his parents - who celebrated his eviction by getting drunk - and his perfect dresser girlfriend. This is a great opportunity for Townshend to let loose some more personal potshots, again being self-deprecating about his inability to dress like the 'Ace Face'. Musically, The Who are now fully into their stride, with rip-roaring riffs and toe-tapping drum beats. But now, at last, Entwistle's bass has been cranked back up to the deafening level that it was on 'The Real Me'.

'Drowned' is a big duffer, I'm afraid. The piano which accompanies Townshend at the start is just too twinkling and sanitised. This taints the rest of the sound, which isn't helped by the fact that his lyrics come up short too (I'm travelling down cold metal/ Just a tear in a baby's eye? Come on.). This doesn't feel like a thoroughbred Who song at all. It feels like a sub-standard piece of 1970s piano rock with Keith's part from another song dubbed over it.

Speaking of Keith, we know get back on track with 'Keith's Theme' - 'Bell Boy'. Thanks to Moon's wonderful drumming and tongue-in-cheek vocals, this would become a huge live favourite, as seen on the film from Charlton Football Ground in 1974.³ Moon may not be a singer at heart, but he knows a thing or two about comedy characters and timing, going from the loud-mouthed ex-Ace Face to tender boy wonder and back again. The others are on similar form, particularly Townshend who has finally made the synthesisers blend with The Who's sound as well as they did on Who's Next.

'Doctor Jimmy' is the longest track here, at 8:36. This is partially because it incorporates 'John's Theme', a.k.a. 'Is It Me For A Moment?'. We have heard snippets of it before, but here it is in full, sandwiched with no hint of awkwardness between two fiery salvos from Roger Daltrey. In a flash, all the playfulness of 'Bell Boy' is gone, blown away by the sea breeze at the start of the track. The band start muted, but soon they build, like Jimmy's fury, into something enormous. Daltrey and Jimmy become one huge, angry visceral young man, spitting out lines like insults and retorts made in mid-fight with a Rocker. The chorus is Townshend at his most vitriolic:

What is it?
I'll take it
Who is she?
I'll rape it
Got a bed there?
I'll need it
Getting high?
You can't beat it

It's the last two tracks, though, where things get really good. 'The Rock', which interpolates from 'Doctor Jimmy', is on first impression just a reworking of the title track. The riffs are similar, the tempo is the same, and the time signature is the same. But after the first 13 seconds have passed, all idea of retreading old ground evaporates as Moon comes along and takes control. He famously hated drum solos, and this certainly isn't one. What it is is a wonderful instrumental interplay between drums and guitar, chronicalling Jimmy's journey (or 'trip') to an island off Brighton in a lonely motor boat. Townshend's Les Paul sings out sadly and seriously in the silence that is the middle section, but throughout this is counter-balanced by Keith's endless invention and creative appetite. Any other drummer asked to play along with this would have created something pedestrian - but Keith moves with Townshend, teasing the listener and again making you smile, not just in laughter but in reverence at how euphorically he is playing.

If you want real euphoria though, you want 'Love, Reign O'er Me'. It opens with the distinctive, heavenly piano chords, which thunder down through the pouring rain right into the heart of the listener. Here we end as we began, with Jimmy alone on Brighton Rock, watching his life flash before his eyes, wondering what it all means and who he really is. Townshend surpasses everyone's expectations - including his own - on his 'Theme', and not just on the ethereal opening. After so many snippets of themes and riffs which served to confuse the listener before, here it all comes together; the synthesisers provide the violin-esque backdrop as Daltrey (and Jimmy) bears his soul. And boy, does Daltrey respond, capturing the essence of Townshend's lyrics about empathy and introspection and turning them into one of the greatest love songs ever written. It is never clear whom he is delivering this song to - God, his lover, his parents, the other parts of himself - but what is always clear is that he means it. If the rest of the album made you confused and frustrated, this will give you a deep, spiritual thrill which deepens every time you hear it.

While it may not have translated all that well to the live circuit, there is no doubt that Quadrophenia is a proper Who album, if not the definitive Who album. There is so much in the way of substance on offer, whether in the gnarled, gritty realism of Townshend's London, or in the deep, soul-inspiring poetry which he conjures up in the midst of this. This is certainly superior to Tommy, not because it is more realistic, but because the narrative is never allowed to excessively interfere with the music. While on Tommy we had to put up with songs like 'Miracle Cure' and 'Tommy's Holiday Camp' for the sake of continuity, here the narrative is allowed to weave in and out of the concept as it sees fit. This creates a more exciting, more all-rounded result, still uneven in places but that is the nature of rock opera. Cited by Townshend as the pinacle of The Who's achievements on record, it still stands today as one of the most compelling, intriguing, and thrilling albums of the 1970s. Anyone who cares even faintly about music should own it.

3.94 out of 5

¹ Robert Hilburn, quoted in Andy Neill & Matt Kent, Anyway Anyhow Anywhere: The Complete Chronicle of The Who, 1958-1978 (London: Virgin Books, 2007), p.276.
² Pete Townshend, quoted in Roy Carr, 'Pete Townshend: Who Came First', NME, October 7 1972 - cited in Neill & Kent, Anyway Anyhow Anywhere, p.313.
³ Accessed on August 30 2008.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Top 100 Albums - #28: Beyond These Shores (1993)

Celtic band Iona make their third and final appearance with Beyond These Shores, a concept album of sorts based loosely on the transatlantic voyage of St. Brendan.
Neither of Iona's first two releases - Iona (1990) and The Book Of Kells (1992, #46), had made much impact commercially, and the critics had been largely indifferent. This lack of sales and acclaim prompted the departure of founder member David Fitzgerald, who left at the end of 1992 to pursue a degree in music. His place was filled by saxophonist Mike Haughton, one of a plethora of visiting musicians who would take part on the recording of the third album. Following the tour to support The Book Of Kells, Robert Fripp, of King Crimson fame, became interested in the band, and brought his trademark 'Frippertronic' production and guitar work into the mix. With the live circuit still very much the band's lifeblood, Iona needed to produce something which would satisfy their fans while teasing the critics.

Teasing is the word, actually. 'Prayer On The Mountain' begins with some intriguing, new age-y bells and rainstick. Amidst this menagerie of perusable percussion comes Troy Donockley's ever-splendid flute playing. Just as on 'Lindisfarne' from Journey Into The Morn (1996), this piece is hardly in-your-face: it slowly rises from the ground which bears it, gradually blooming into a sweet and fitting overture (see my review of Woven Cord (1999, #35). Being only 2:53 long it doesn't have as long as 'Lindisfarne' to make an impression, but no time is wasted here and the result is great.

From here we launch straight into 'Treasure', and already we see a more commercial, straightforward Iona. The flutes and bodhrán may still be there, we are still dealing with a celtic band. But the lyrics are more direct and straightforwardly Christian, paraphrasing from Matthew 6 throughout. Look at the first verse:

Consider the flowers of the field
And the beauty
More lovely then even the clothes of a king
Consider the birds of the air
Flying high, flying free
You are precious to me

What is more, this song incorporates conventional rock beats on the drums (Terl Bryant), and Dave Bainbridge's guitar work is more grounded and rocky than his usual swirling majesty. Don't think, however, this is Iona selling out. This is a very, very good song, retaining all the qualities of Iona's most conceptual and beautiful work while being a lot easier on the casual listener. It's really the best of both worlds, particularly since Bainbridge fans get a carefully placed acoustic solo halfway through.

Back to concepts of sorts now, and 'Brendan's Voyage (Navigatio)'. As on the first track, there are plenty of unusual noises which create a pleasant texture. But then just as you have got comfortable, Bainbridge lurches forward and ruins it with a guitar part straight out of an ageing 80s metal band. All the carefully crafted euphoria is lost, and no matter how hard Joanne Hogg tries she cannot rescue this song. The lyrics don't help her in this, but she is also overpowered by the drums, as she would be on later Iona records like The Circling Hour (2006).

'Edge Of The World' is much more like it. The melody is given time to emerge, emerging slowly this time backed by graceful, jazz-inspired piano and bass from Nick Beggs. Hogg seems much more at home, not having to fight the band for dominion. And the vocals suit her voice a lot better. Having made an unsung appearance on 'Treasure', Haughton shines here on both saxophone and whistle. This may be more down-tempo, but it is this kind of graceful, ethereal and timelessly elegant style which have always suited Iona best.

'Today' is a return to pop, of sorts. The rhythms are more staccato, the tempo is quicker, the lyrics are driven by hooks rather than imagery and atmosphere. Which is a shame really, because without these this could have been a good song. With these things in place - at least, the first two - the result comes across as compromised and half-arsed. It feels like a bog-standard worship band, with pedestrian guitar chords; the only thing that seperates it is the overactive percussion. This is not what we have come to expect of Iona.

Neither, for that matter, is 'View From The Islands'. The problem with this is chiefly its length; at 2:30 it's the shortest on the album, but it's hardly a punchy motown number. On the contrary, it's a Bainbridge acoustic workout, and a below-par one at that. Virtually nothing tumbles out of his guitar which will sustain your interests, and then Bainbridge throws in Haughton's flutes with the same riff as 'Prayer On The Mountain' in a vain attempt to rescue it.

But be patient, for with 'Bird Of Heaven' it's clear the band have listened. For starters, it's the longest track here, at 9:12, so there is no danger of being short-changed. Backed by graceful keyboard chords, Haughton begins the piece with a saxophone solo to die for; his soulful, jazzy playing transports you to an empty street in the middle of the night, and you are walking down it with only the lamps to guide you. Soon the walk become a joyful jog as the band lock down for one of their best instrumentals. Everything is tight, measured and yet so elegant - Bainbridge's guitar wails where before he could only make it shriek, at times coming close to the brooding sound Steve Hackett achieved on The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974). And unlike his successor, Frank van Essen, Bryant manages both power and economy on the drums. When we do get to the lyrics, they are a timely reminder of the dangers of locking God in religion to suit our needs. This is much, much more like it.

Moving on to 'Murlough Bay', we find Hogg really getting into her stride. No other female singer is so well suited to these lyrics: she sings the line And here at last I'm on my own with you in a voice so pure that it could be used to tune an orchestra, but with so much feeling and emotion that no fancy effects, not even the echo Bainbridge has added, are necessary to lift her performance. And when she is required to grace the highest registers, she does not flinch or falter, serving up another wonderful effort.

'Burning Like Fire' returns to the more commercial, straight-ahead sound that we saw on 'Treasure' and would later see on Journey Into The Morn. The lyrics are simpler, especially when it comes to the chorus, but once again this is achieved without compromising their unique sound. Bainbridge's guitar is still yearning and Bryant's drumming still thundery. And in the quieter sections, where the drums go all jazzy, Haughton is allowed to flourish again.

'Adrift' is another instrumental, the longest such piece on the album. It's a very textual piece, relying on sweet, high-register piano laid over the softly humming keyboard backdrops. At its heart, this is a chill-out piece, nearly 4 minutes of music designed to completely soothe you. But unlike artists like Eddi Reader, who can chill you out to the point of making you fall asleep, this manages to make you relaxed while constantly sustaining your interests. The changes are not brusque and rapid enough to 'wake' you, but you are never allowed to slip away into sleep.

We now come to 'Beachy Head', which is, quite simply, the greatest song ever written. There is so much which makes this so majestic and magical. For starters, it's a song about suicide which actually lifts your spirits; in this aspect it is almost certainly unique. The band have played tightly before, but here the links between them are almost telepathic; each member, each instrument, knows what the others will do next and knows exactly when to come in and what to do. From the flute's duet with piano at the start to the soaring sax at the end, there is not a single passage which is superfluous or out of place. Bainbridge is astounding - his keyboards are graceful and sweet, while his guitar work burbles with brio. The riff created on the flute is fundamentally inspired, being quirky and ethereal at the same time. Hogg is on the best form of her career, injecting this with so much passion and always hitting the exact notes at the exact right moment. Bryant's drumming is understated, but brilliant - there is nothing too ornate or fancy, just good solid flicks of the sticks. And to cap it all, Bainbridge as producer has captured every sound in perfect harmony, so you can hear in total clarity every single note. This song is above and beyond everything that this band have created before or since. It is just - perfection.

'Machrie Moor' has a huge act to follow, but makes a decent effort of it. It does what it can to follow 'Beachy Head', taking the tempo right down while sustaining that sweetness, that feeling of great pleasure which you get from hearing Iona. The instruments are quieter and more modest; Bainbridge may have the largest part on acoustic, but he is hardly leading from the front. Instead he anchors the piece, allowing Frank van Essen's violins and Donockley's pipes to do their thing, and do it well.

'Healing' will start off as a difficult track to like for some people. It is a more standard piece, with simpler riffs and an even simpler chorus. Simplicity is not in itself a bad thing, but for a band like Iona who create beauty through intricacy, it can be seen as laziness. Hogg is struggling too, butchering the opening line (You've returned like some unsung her-o-oh threatens to throw the whole thing off course). But given time and patience, you will find this as pleasing as most of the other stuff on here. It is not lazy or cheesy, it is simply not what you would normally expect from Iona, at least on the basis of the rest of this album.

'Brendan's Return' is an instrumental reprise of the third track, with almost the same running time. But strangely, this is better than the first one. For a start, the unusual textures used to set the scene have been significantly pared back, so there is less chance of the piece dragging. Then the 80s guitar has been toned down and and made great by the addition of saxophone on harmony part, again adding a jazzy feel. Bryant is allowed a little more room to work his magic, chiefly because there are now no vocals for him to drown out.

We close this great album with the title track, a track which would become the great closer for Iona's live shows. Emerging out of the silence, Hogg returns to form with a set of lyrics and notes bespoke for her range and approach to singing. So while she sings like a siren on the shoreline, the rest of the band are there to paint the canvass surrounding her, with light, subtle touches and fitting riffs. It's a beautiful piece, one of the best tracks on here by a long way (though not as good as 'Beachy Head'). The lyrics pour over the lines like liquid spilling over a floor; they go their own, unique way and gradually fill the sound up. What a great way to finish.

Iona have always been a band to do things their own way, whether live or on record. They have never been afraid to push the boundaries, to explore the limits of what is considered 'Christian rock' and come up with something profoundly different from the cheesy Delirious? norm. Beyond These Shores is the climax of that experimentation. Previous works, like The Book Of Kells, were beautiful and well-written in their own right, but compared to this they sound like a band still finding itself. And later works, including their most recent release, have seen the band either straying too close to the mainstream or the opposite, disappearing into the dark void of showing off, prog-style. This is the only album where everything comes together at the right time and in just the right quantity. It's still flawed, but it retains a certain magic and spirit even at its most disappointing moments. Where many Christian records are off-putting and old hat, this is inviting, intriguing - and always rewarding.

3.93 out of 5

Top 100 Albums - #29: Details (2002)

At number 29 is the only release from ambient electro duo Frou Frou, comprised of singer-songwriter Imogen Heap and producer Guy Sigsworth.
Heap was introduced to Sigsworth during the production of her debut album, I Megaphone (1998). Sigsworth had written and produced songs for the likes of Seal and Madonna, but it was his work with Björk which brought him to the attention of Heap's label, Almo Records. After the end of the tour to support I Megaphone, Almo Records was bought and disbanded, leaving Heap without a record deal and with her protean second album caught up in legal red tape. Sigsworth came to her aid and began writing tracks with her while his own band, Acacia, sorted out its own legal problems. Over the course of 2001 the pair met up spontaneously to record individual songs, so that by December they had officially become a duo. The name Frou Frou came from Arthur Rimbaud's poem 'Ma Bohème', and is onomatopoeia for the swishing noise made by dancing women's skirts. The duo made a tentative first appearance with the track 'Aeroplane' on the Japanese re-release of I Megaphone, testing the water before releasing their own album.

'Let Go' sets the mood on the album, and from the start it is a departure from Heap's previous work. While many of the songs on I Megaphone featured dark, heavy piano ('Come Here Boy' and 'Candlelight' especially), here the feel is a lot more swirling and electronic. When the piano does eventually come in, it's high and dainty, backed by a tinny drum beat. That means that it is entirely up to Heap to deliver the goods in terms of depth, and thankfully she succeeds. The wonderful thing about Heap's voice is that it can dart in and out of notes, without sounding electronically altered. It's a very good start.

But sadly, this is not completely sustained, as the next track shows. 'Breathe In' begins with a hugely frustrating riff, played on a tweaked guitar and backed by an annoying click. With the intro over, Heap is forced to sing over the drums which are too loud and obtrusive. Her voice is not the most powerful in the business, and so she sounds drowned out and distant. It's not massively unpleasant as a track, but it feels just a little too close to the mainstream to be a bona fide Heap track.

Thankfully, the next two tracks are bona fide. On 'It's Good To Be In Love', Heap is given more room, with the keyboards pushed to the back of the mix and the drums muffled into a corner. This is also a lot more satisfying as a set of lyrics; the chorus may be a little cheesy, but everywhere else Heap is getting into her stride. No particular lines leap out, but there is a tight, holistic feel to them, and they flow well with the soundscape created by Sigsworth. 'Must Be Dreaming' is, as the title suggests, more dreamy, more wistful. It opens with the multi-tracked whispered vocals which Heap would utilise on Speak For Yourself (2005), and from then on in, it is Heap's song straight through. Unlike on 'Breathe In', here you get the sense that she is in control, taming the sterile soundscape and shaping it to suit her mood to create something very interesting.

'Psychobabble', however, is something else. From the second the intro begins - on what sounds like treated tubular bells - you realise that the quality levels are creeping up. Sigsworth lays on a snaking, slithering backing track, which wriggles in and out of the foreground inbetween the vocals. Heap is now fully in control, with her unique delivery coming properly into play; even on the opening lines, How did you get this number?/ I can't get my head 'round you, you can hear every word clearly and purely, and yet she is singing with a lot of frustration and fear in her voice. It is difficult to put one's finger of what makes this track such a thrill, but there is an unquestionable magic to it which defies both description and explanation. Suffice to say, it's a brilliant song.

'Only Got One' is not quite up to that standard, but it's hardly a pedestrian effort. The strangely off-set riff in the first 18 seconds creates a laid-back, intellectual atmosphere, over which Heap can gently drift. We will let her off with lines like You are held in a queue/ Someone will be with you shortly, or put them down to irony, because they do not compromise the pleasant mood of this distinctly 21st-century work about living life to the full.

'Shh' gets out of the blocks a lot better than the others. The lyrics come straight in, matching the compressed riff beat for beat throughout the song. The chorus especially is an improvement on previous efforts:

Don't make a sound
Shh and listen
Keep your head down
We're not safe yet
Don't make a sound
And be good for me
'Cos I know they're waiting somewhere out here

This song also sees Sigsworth pulling his weight. At 3:20 he creates a throbbling, pulsating dance beat, like the quiet sections of a Faithless record, which gives the song a lot more character. Finally the Frou Frou sound is beginning to become clear.

If 'Psychobabble' was a great work, 'Hear Me Out' is a masterpiece. Heap is on full-flung form, with brilliant lyrics about a failing relationship, delivered with an air of desperate passion - and yet she still sounds so damn cool. There is nothing to distract you from her wonderful performance, since the accompaniment is generally serene, and when Sigsworth's creations do rear their heads (at about 2:29), Heap is completely at ease, responding with a cleverly-controlled violence that we would later see on songs like 'Daylight Robbery' and 'The Walk' (both from Speak For Yourself). The multi-tracked vocals, with their characteristic echo, generate a wonderful wall of sound (or perhaps Heap of sound?) which is captured in all its radiance by some spot-on production. This is by far the best track on here.

After the best track, we come to the worst. 'Maddening Shroud' begins with a superbly annoying descent down the scale by Heap, making her sound prissy and childish. As the song progresses, you become more forgiving, and the later sections feel good. But the background chimes still get on your nerves and you come away feeling cheated. 'Flicks' is no better, with its messed-up vibraphone and Heap's excrutiating showboating, first heard at 1:09. The lyrics read like student poetry; without form or anything compelling - which is a big worry.

But before you become desperately compelled to cut this experience short, we return to form with the final two tracks. 'The Dumbing Down Of Love' is a sweet, elegant piano ballad. Sigsworth, save for a few well-timed interventions, is out of the picture altogether. What this means is that Heap has more to play with, gently sparring with the violins and piano while all the time presenting something beautiful and heartfelt. It's not quite perfect, being a little too long, but it contains that most truthful of lines: Music is worthless unless it can/ Make a complete stranger/ Break down and cry.

'Old Piano' continues the piano theme, but this time the production is headier, and heavier. It takes a while for any sort of melody to come in from the rain. But when it does, the wait becomes worthwhile. The simple, bittersweet piano chords mingle with the sad saxophone and repressed strings, and Heap comes across as rather spooky, teasing you with her Oh wells. This is a mood piece, make no mistake, but it feels like something more substantial, and it sounds a lot more rewarding. But it still retains every ounce of Heap's elegance and is a very fitting closer.

In many ways, Details is a flawed record. Many of the songs are too long, and the lyrics are generally below-par, making it just a little too mainstream to be a proper Imogen Heap work. A lot of this is naturally down to Sigsworth, who would later go on to produce Madonna's sterile, electro-grounded American Life (2003). His often overbearing touches from the mixing desk either drown Heap out or simply make things too complicated, and as a result the best moments are when Heap is largely left to her own devices. But don't think that this is a complete failure - quite the opposite. For all the filler and falling short, there is some tantalising glimpses of brilliance, both in what these two have created in their own right and in the techniques which would make Speak For Yourself such an amazing record. Details, in short, has an air of frustrated elegance; it's the sort of album you would play in a left-field espresso bar, while you sit at the window and watch the world go by. It's not perfect, but there is plenty on here to make you feel great inside.

3.92 out of 5

Top 100 Albums - #30: Through The Windowpane (2006)

Multi-national indie rockers Guillemots make their only entry on the chart with their full-length debut, Through The Windowpane.
Fyfe Dangerfield began his musical career as the lead singer and songwriter for Senseless Prayer, a pop-rock band whose released a series of obscure EPs and received the support of John Peel. After the group folded in 1999, he began gigging in Birmingham as Fyfe Dangerfield & The Accident. After moving to London in 2002 to work as a music teacher, he recruited Brazilian-born MC Lord Magrão (guitar), Canadian-born Aristazabel Hawkes (double bass) and Londoner Greig Stewart (drums). The newly-formed Guillemots - who took their name from a seabird - released I Saw Such Things In My Sleep EP in September 2005, in a limited edition of 1000. Shortly after they went on tour, opening for Rufus Wainwright on his sell-out UK tour. Two other EPs followed quickly - Of The Night EP (2005) and the more successful From The Cliffs EP (2006), both released on Fantastic Plastic Records. As a result of these the band were included in the BBC Sound of 2006 survey, and clamour for a full-length record began to grow.¹

We kick off this charming slice of modern indie with 'Little Bear'. Anyone who was expecting frantic, highly strung riffs and shouty lyrics will get a big shock, because the first sounds drifting through the speakers are that of violins: violins which create a serene, Vaughan Williams intro. A successful preamble, it means that when Dangerfield does come in on piano, he stands no chance of sounding twee or self-absorbed. Like many indie singers, diction takes a back seat and so at first he is hard to fathom, but once you have negotiated through his brogue you are treated to a wonderful, heartfelt opener.

Having set the bar, the band smash through it with 'Made-Up Lovesong #43'. This song appears on both their previous EPs, so the difference in sound is not a huge surprise. But some features of 'Little Bear' remain, most of them contained in Dangerfield's delivery. His gently burbling organ serves as good juxtaposition for his yearning, passionate delivery. Stewart's drumming begins like squashed jazz before rapidly uncoiling after the first verse. This is not all that strong an effort from a lyrical point of view, but the vibes are good enough to disguise this.

With 'Trains To Brazil', however, there is no need for excuses. Here the drums are loud and funky, kicking up a solid and catchy rhythm over which Magrão can begin to work his magic. This is still Dangerfield's song though, through and through. On keys he provides a driven, 1970s-rock chord progression which again sits at an oddly good angle with his stricken melody. Vocally, he is more careful, reigning himself in from his looser moments; rather than mumble the lyrics, or shout them, he sings them. And he sings better than a lot of his contemporaries. The whole outfit are working together, playing off each other, and while the bass is somehow lost in the swirling mix, once you lock into it you realise how great it sounds.

'Redwings' opens like a Salvation Army band at Christmas, and turns into winter poetry. It may be a return to the tempo of 'Little Bear', but Dangerfield is clearer, in terms of diction and intent. The lyrics read like a poem rather than words to a song, which makes it all the more fitting that they are sung in a breathy, down-tone way. The smooth organ ebbs and flows in the background with the brass band, creating a soundscape within itself. It sounds a bit like 'The Nest That Sailed The Sky' (see my review of OVO (2000, #81)).
There is no sharp Latin beat to kick things up here; even the ending is downbeat and beautiful.

The first time this fourpiece drop the ball is on '
Come Away With Me'. As on previous tracks we get the wierd bird noises and the sumptuous organ soundscape. But unlike before there is nothing rhythmically solid for Dangerfield to lock into; the double bass is too jazzy and loose, and the drums are almost totally out of the picture, appearing in sporodic show-off segments. As a mood piece, this may work, but as a song, it has the feeling of filler. The title track, though, is much more like it. The drums have settled down, been clipped back and made more dynamic. The bass is more playful at the end of lines as Aristazabel creates some lovely touches to lighten the mood. Overall, this is another bright, informal song from a band which never takes itself too seriously.

After this rather childlike number, 'If The World Ends' seems like an overambitious jump. It's like you've come out of a Bangles gig at the interval, and when you came back in they'd been replaced by The Blue Nile. But don't be fooled - everything that made the last six tracks good is still there, albeit with the volume turned down. Dangerfield sounds at home, crooning lyrics about love in a manner akin to Paul Buchanan. And once again, the beautiful organ accompanies him, taking us to the waters' edge where our two lovers are lying in each other's arms.

'We're Here' begins with the same spaced-out, coastal organ that graced the last piece. Only this time, the tempo has been kicked back up, and the mood has changed to one of youthful optimism, perfectly captured in the first verse:

The world is our carpet now
The world is our dance floor now
Remind me how to dance again
The world is our carpet now

It's a song of hope and new beginnings, wrapped up in the blinding language of love. Dangerfield delivers his lyrics with a happy abandon that we have not seen up to now; he is singing with a huge smile on his face, which is exactly what we end up with after this.

'Blue Would Still Be Blue' counters the 'upper' that was the previous track with a series of four-note piano riffs which are designed to completely and utterly chill you. Played on what sounds like an e-piano, the notes bounce through the mix like raindrops rippling the surface of a lake. The lyrics may be trying to be too clever, with lines like
It's not raining cats, it's not raining dogs/ Pigs are not flying, or turning the cogs. But they retain a strange, almost ethereal beauty, due to Dangerfield's honest yearning into the mike.

'Annie, Let's Not Wait', meanwhile, is pure and simple pop. The guitars are jangly, the keyboards are kooky and off-the-wall, and Dangerfield is in happy-throwaway mode. It is only because of these inate and pleasing cheeriness that he can get away with the opening lines, I found something crying, it was my soul/ I fed it milk, so it wouldn't grow old. At heart, this is a cheerful, snappy, midsummer song, just on the right side of mainstream to avoid being instantly forgetable.

We have reached the final two tracks, and they are both distinctly odd. 'And If All...' is the shortest track on here, at only 1:19, and it reads a little like David Bowie's 'Eight Line Poem' (see my review of Hunky Dory (1971, #34). It segues out of the previous track and contains little in the way of interest or substance, reducing it to pure filler. 'São Paulo', on the other hand, is the longest track on the album, at a whopping 11:42. Beginning with waves and tinkling piano which are straight out of Quadrophenia (1973), it then morphs quickly into a Procol Harum-style piano piece backed by flugelhorn and tubular bells. The vast number of different sounds and tempo changes on show here almost make this a prog track, and mean that you need a wealth of patience to last the distance. But if you can, this piece is hugely rewarding, if a little overwhelming.

Through The Windowpane is an album of two halves. On the one hand, we have a selection of elegant, beautiful and avant-garde love songs, drawing inspiration from classical music and downbeat jazz. On the other hand, we have a series of bright, carefree and rich pop songs, still a little different to the indie humdrum, but not enough to make everyone notice. 'Trains To Brazil', the best track, is slap-bang in the middle, being both a great pop song and a remarkable piece of rock craftsmanship. On the follow-up, Red (2008), the band would gradually drift towards the pop end of the spectrum, but here there are still trying to figure out who they are. But despite this, the album never lurches from one style to another; it doesn't feel like a demo tape or a compilation. Much like Hunky Dory, its unity comes in the disparity and variety of the material on offer. The two very different kinds of songs are both played with the same unpredictable grace and hints of madness that the best bands have always had. Thus, even on its most mainstream moments, Through The Windowpane remains leftfield, unusual, and almost completely mad - making it a must-have who anyone interested in music.

3.92 out of 5

¹ 'Sound of 2006: The Top 10', BBC News: Entertainment (January 6 2006), Accessed on July 29 2008.

Top 100 Albums - #31: Echoes - The Best of Pink Floyd (2001)

The Floyd make their third of eight chart entries with Echoes, a double-album compilation compiled by all four members.
Following the release of The Division Bell in March 1994, the three remaining members of Pink Floyd embarked on their largest ever tour. The tour, which took up the rest of the year, was captured on the live album Pulse (1995) and the film shot at Earls Court in October 1994. All three members agree in retrospect that the band were in their prime¹, but after the tour David Gilmour announced that he had no desire to continue and put the band on 'semi-permanent hiatus'.² The next five years were unmarked, save for Rick Wright's second solo album Broken China (1996) and the birth of Gilmour's four children with Polly Samson, whom he married during the tour. In 2000 fans were greeted with Is There Anybody Out There? The Wall Live 1980-1981, a live cut of their groundbreaking shows at Earls Court twenty years before. Though it met with lukewarm reception from the critics, it left the fans eagerly wanting more.

Predictably, we start at the beginning, with two tracks from the Syd Barrett era. The first, 'Astronomy Domine', is the opening track of The Piper At The Gates At Dawn (1967). With its distinctive opening, it is a fitting way to kick off, as we beat, bleep and jaggedly riff our way in. It is tempting in hindsight to tar all pyschedelic rock with the same scornful brush, but this still sounds fresh and left-field forty-one years on. Rick Wright's keyboard and organ chords swirl through the mix to perfectly compliment Barrett's aggressive guitar, and it is all underscored with great, sharp drumming from Nick Mason.

'See Emily Play', meanwhile, is a non-album single and no different in quality. The lyrics may be more accessible - not that that is saying a lot - but they remain quintessentially English, as does Barrett's delivery of them. With this you realise how much Wright is an essential part of the band throughout its lifespan. Here his cascading piano work lifts the chorus out of all accusations of tweeness, kicking the whole piece up its floury, Kenneth Grahame'd backside.

So far, so predictable. But now, the compilation takes an unusual twist. No sooner have we reached the closing Plaaay-aaay-aaay, than we notice the simple but broading bassline of a later work. A few second later, the whirr of a helicopter and the angry cry of a Glaswegian teacher fling us forward 12 years and into the paranoid darkness of The Wall (1979). 'The Happiest Days Of Our Lives' and 'Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)' together form a bitter, personal salvo against the repressive education system through which Roger Waters passed. The former track has a bass line which chisels its way into your skill, with Mason's hi-hat pulsating like an angry wasp. Waters darkly spits out the lyrics, moving from his throaty whisper to the fearsome higher registers with gusto and fright.

The latter is well known for being Pink Floyd's only hit single, becoming the UK Christmas No. 1 of 1979. It's widely seen as a classic, and it isn't hard to see why. From the end of the blood-curdling scream, the simple beat is stuck in your beat. Gilmour's guitar work is subtle and yet very clever, rearing its head at just the right moments in the verses and choruses. The lyrics are wisely shared, which is odd considering Waters' megalomaniacal control of the album (and the band). But the cleverest thing about this song is that it appears to be more complicated than it actually is. Taken outside of the Floyd's image as over-serious and conceptual, the individual parts are all quite straightforward, and the lyrics could almost be called conventional. But together, these simple parts create something which is holistically very intricate, absolutely meticulous - and thoroughly rewarding.

Having gone so well, we segue seamlessly into rather an odd choice. 'Echoes' is undoubtedly significant as a piece within the Floyd catalogue. Gilmour has often gone on record as saying that Meddle (1971), from which this is taken, was the album which focussed the Floyd and decided the direction of all their great work. Be that as it may, the quality never really comes. You get hints of future brilliance, but that's all they are, hints. For example, in the second verse, we get the first inclination of Waters' empathetic lyrics:

Strangers passing in the street
By chance two separate glances meet
And I am you, and what I see is me
And do I take you by the hand
And lead you through the land
And help you understand the best I can?

All the ingredients for classic Floyd are lurking somewhere in this primordial pea-souper, whether it be Gilmour's singing and guitar work, Wright's delicate keyboards or Mason's underated drumming. But all you ever get are frustrating flashes from the abyss, and you come away feeling that your 16-and-a-half minutes could have been better spent.

Listening to the next track, for instance. 'Hey You' is nowhere near as frustrating, confusing or drawn out. This track opens the second half of The Wall, and finds Pink feeling regret for shutting out the world, to protect himself and spite those who made his life a misery. Even in his most bitter and vitriolic compositions - which The Wall definitely is - Waters still expresses empathy, crying out in his lyrics for contact, for help, for something to save him. Gilmour's guitar solo halfway through ensures that this flows musically as well as lyrically, getting us back on track.

'Marooned' is the first track from The Division Bell, and has been abridged to 2:03 to allow enough space for the other tracks. But even if you only get a third of the song, it's worth it, because this is simply gorgeous. This composition, which won Pink Floyd their only Grammy (for
Best Rock Instrumental Performance, in 1994), is a beautifally laid-out guitar piece. The second the first long, yearning chord rings out of Gilmour's Stratocaster, you find yourself on a desert island, surrounded by clear blue water and completely alone. While Gilmour lets rip in the foreground, Wright grounds the piece in some simple but perfectly timed chords. Unlike the guitar instrumentals of say, Joe Satriani, this does not sound too clever for its own good, or like Gilmour is showing off. It's just... sublime.

Sooner or later, we have to come to The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973), so it's just as well we start with a good cut from it. 'The Great Gig In The Sky' is a trademark Rick Wright piece. He strokes the grand piano with such grace and sadness that you are ignorant of Gilmour's pedal steel and the voices echoing around - you just want to listen to him. That is, until Clare Torry comes in. Her famous vocal performance, completely improvised in one take, still sounds as original and as frightening as it did back in 1973. As you listen to it, you feel like you are being sucked down by an unseen current, drowning in a whirlpool of sound. No-one has ever emulated it, and no-one ever will.

Following all this talk of death (so to speak), we step back in time to 'Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun'. Taken from A Saucerful Of Secrets (1968), it's one of the first songs which features Waters on lead vocals. It's a shame, then, that you can't really hear what he's saying - the production places the lyrics right at the back of the mix, behind the drums, bass and hammond organ. It's not a complete disaster, though, because while such practice would be inexcusible among today's producers, here it gives the piece a mysterious texture. Waters has always been an intimidating figure, and this is the first glimpse we get of that.

The last four tracks of the first half are all thoroughbred Floyd magic. First, we have 'Money', undoubtedly one of the greatest songs of the 1970s. Written in 7/8 time, it begins with the famous cash register and tape loops, before giving way to the instantly recognisable bass line. Everything about this track is absolutely tone-perfect. The instruments gel together perfectly, each coming in at the right stage and having a bigger say when the time is right. The rhythm is catchy beyond the point of madness; nobody can resist the beat. The saxophone solo from Dick Parry is elegant, and the jump in time signature (from 7/8 to 4/4) is, quite simply, exceptional; it frees up Mason to go just that little bad more wild, as he wrestles with Gilmour's wailing Strat. Lyrically, it's a playful, ironic and tasteful one-in-the-eye for the fat cats of the day and materialism in general. It is a true work of genius.

'Keep Talking' is also genius, but in an entirely different way. This segues in from 'Money' with no sign of any join, so that we suddenly jump from 1970s materialism to 1990s isolation and sadness. The track gets going with the cameo of Stephen Hawking, culled from the series of adverts he did for BT in the mid-1980s. Backed by his bristling Fender, Gilmour launches into his vocals, in a delivery which crosses the sinister whisper of Waters with the sadness and sense of loss which he has personally mastered. The band feels incredibly tight, with Mason being allowed plenty to room to experiment without going mad. And all the time, Wright keeps things in check, being rewarded with a fleeting solo. The best thing about this track, though, is its sense of honesty. With earlier Floyd tracks - on the previous album, for instance - you could get away with criticising them for pandering to popular feeling and not being genuine. But not with this.

'Sheep' is the only track on here from Animals (1977), a concept album which draws inspiration from George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945). Wright's keyboard part in the opening minute is dark, forbidding and distant, like a singing child in a horror film. Soon he is joined by the menacing burble of Waters' bass, as it slowly scrapes its way into the darkest corners of your mind. The lyrics are Waters in his prime, a bizarre but compelling mix of empathy, vitriol and socialism. He paints the 'sheep', the ignorant masses who are blind to the dark fate which awaits them, as if he is one of them - I've looked over Jordan and I've seen/ Things are not what they seem. Aside from the excellent lyrics, this song is hugely energetic. For the first seven minutes, we get verses like carefully-timed machine-gun volleys. But then, at 8:07, it all kicks off, Mason goes mental and the whole band explode with an energy which had not been seen from since the days of 'Careful With That Axe Eugene'. It's absolutely stunning.

We end the first half with a fourth stonker, in the shape of 'Sorrow'. This is the first track from A Momentary Lapse Of Reason (1987, #62), and it's not hard to spot the difference in sound, let alone tempo. But the darkness, the sadness, the loss and the regret are still there. The guitar part, played on a Steinberger GL ('headless guitar'), cuts in over the fading rampage of 'Sheep', and is deeper, more metallic - more Tangerine Dream than English art rock. The lyrics borrow from John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939); the yearning for a fairer world is still there, but here the pain and anguish is turned inward, so that you are looking at a personal devastation without the blinkers of class war. This is a great arena rock song - it's heavy, it's determined, and as with the best music the Floyd produced, it reflects both the situation of the band and of the world around them, without coming across as simpering or self-obsessed along the way.

The second half begins with the longest track on the compilation. 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond' (Parts I-VII)' clocks in at an almighty 17:32, and for that we don't even get the whole suite. What do we do get is all three verses - split between songs on Wish You Were Here (1975) - and a choice pick of the stuff in between. Purists and sound geeks will scoff at the absence of certain little sections, but for the the rest of us it doesn't really matter. The mood is still one of absence, the subject matter - Syd - is still in the foreground, and it still sounds pretty damn good.

'Time' takes us back two years and plants us back into everyman territory. The opening, parodied in later Floyd records, remains familiar and captivating, with its superb combination of deep clicks, heady guitars and teasing drumming. Waters' lyrics flow perfectly between the chords, especially on the choruses: Wright sings Tired of lying in the sunshine/ Stay and home to watch for rain backed by a glorious foursome of female singers who glide up and down the scales. Despite its philosophical themes - the passage of time and the feeling of being lost in life - it retains an essential Englishness, captured astutely in the line Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way.

Following these genteel musings, we flash forward ten years to more serious times. 'The Fletcher Memorial Home' is the only morsel on here from The Final Cut (1983, #49), and it comes across as a big jump. Where 'Time' was reassuring and titillating, this is direct, angry and despairing. It is a quietly savage attack on the failure of 'the post-war dream'. Waters snarls through the lyrics with this precise thing in mind: his critique is reigned in by the grief he feels for his lost father. It may not be all that easy on the ears, but after a few listens you become fully aware of its power.

'Comfortably Numb' is a classic, easily one of the best known and most-loved Pink Floyd songs. Taken from The Wall, it's also one of the few occassions where Waters and Gilmour collaborated on songwriting. Waters takes the verses, playing the doctor examining Pink and recommending a series of drugs to get the rock star back on his feet:

Just a little pin-prick
They're be no more AAAAAAAAAA-AAAA-AAAH!
But you may feel a little sick

Gilmour meanwhile takes the chorus, singing as a dreamy, lethargic Pink on the brink of turning into a fascist monster. The song is majestic, with its guitar solo that was recently voted the greatest ever - and it's not hard to see why.³ Gilmour soars throughout the song, making his Strat sing and whine and cry in distress like the soul of Pink himself. It is one of their great compositions, better than anything the band threw up in the 1980s, and an art rock anthem which stands the test of time better than anything else of its kind.

Sticking with The Wall, sort of, we now come to 'When The Tigers Broke Free', a track conceived purely for the film version and only released as a seperate entity on the 2004 remaster of The Final Cut. A misfit, lyrically it sticks to the themes of The Wall - in this case the loss of the main character's father in war - but they follow the more sprawling pattern of Waters' solo work. Which is appropriate, really, since this is him atoning for his father's death, in full voice, while swiping at the authorities with his usual vim and venom.

'One Of These Days', meanwhile, is proper old-school Floyd. The duelling basses power their way through the mix as Gilmour doubles up. Wright dashes back and forth, fading in and out organ chords which cut through like scimatars. When the guitars finally arrive, the song erupts, slowly at first, but then everything boils over. This track, from Meddle, is Mason's chance to shine, and he does, taking a simple, repetitive drum part and turning into a wondefully astute solo (N.B. For an even larrier version, see his performance in the film Live At Pompeii (1972)).

As with so many of the choices on this album, 'Us And Them' follows the tried-and-tested method of ordering songs: a loud one, followed by a quiet one. Like a lot of things on The Dark Side Of The Moon, this piano-led, jazzy piece fell into place simply as a result of chords tumbling out of fingers, in this case Wright's. His four chord verse - complete with that magic third chord - creates a lilting, rolling soundscape over which Waters can calmly decry the futility of war. With these two ingredients in place, you slip into a state of summery relaxation, interrupted only by the 'musings' of roadie Roger "The Hat" Manifold.

If, on the off-chance, this has sent you to sleep, then the next track will wake you up like nothing else. 'Learning To Fly' bursts forth, breaking free from its mountings and hurling you head first into the 1980s. Essentially a Floyd take on arena rock, the lyrics speak of starting anew with little certainty of what lies ahead - A Momentary Lapse Of Reason, indeed. Like the aeroplane in the lyrics, Gilmour soars in his delivery, gracing any difficult notes which he encounters with an air of expectant disaffection. Mason, meanwhile, creates another great drum beat to lock into Gilmour, with its quirky tambourine and off-set beats in the third quarter of the phrase. It's another Floyd classic, and one of the highlights of the later years.

'Arnold Layne', as good as it is, cannot compete with the likes of 'Learning To Fly'. The band's first single, sung of course by Syd, is still as quaint, as English and as psychedelic as the date it was conceived. But after such high-quality, spacious production and deep, serious and meaningful subject matter, somehow a playful song about a transvestite seems jarring. No matter, because 'Wish You Were Here' is here to rescue the mood. With its deliberately garbled and muffled opening, you could be forgiven for thinking we have a duffer on our hands. But once the acoustic comes through at 0:53, all your fears are allayed and you settle back into this graceful, earthy tribute to the band's lost singer. The lyrics, well-known and much-parodied, pay tribute without seeming trite, are conceptual without being ridiculous and flow beautifully.

Syd persists, however, as if these last songs were a battle, seeing him reassert his influence in the band's back catalogue. Indeed, the opening lines of 'Jugband Blues' add weight to that theory: It's awfully considerate of you to think of me here/ And I'm most obliged to you for making it clear/ That I'm not here! This was written as Syd was slipping deep into LSD abuse. As a result it's unhinged, honest and incredibly mad. It's a marmite song - if you love it, it's a bizarre gem written as the 1960s began to turn on its children; if you hate it, it's a case study of a druggie losing his mind and wasting our time (cf. Peter Green's The End Of The Game (1970)).

Soon the church bells begin to chime and we come to 'High Hopes', the final song on the Floyd's final album. Once again, Wright's piano creates a mood of melancholy, sadness and regret, while Gilmour's lyrics and delivery are absolutely magnificent. His voice is so perfectly suited to this song that it can barely be put into words. Even at the end of their career, there is no sense of decline or wear to tarnish the result. In many ways, this song is an allegory for the Floyd as they were then, looking back on a long and illustrious life of joys and regrets, before finally deciding that this is the time to retreat into the shadows. This is a fabulous eulogy to their fans and an extraordinary piece of music in its own right, which, like The Division Bell itself, deserves pride of place.

But that isn't the end of proceedings. The spirit of Syd is conjured up once more, in the form of 'Bike', as an impish reminder to later fans that without him, stuff like 'High Hopes' would never have happened. The song, lifted from The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, is a punchy 3-minute single. It plays with your senses, winding down on the chorus before clattering atonally into the next verse. It's a very strange choice for the closer, and the squawking birds at the end don't help.

Any attempt to make a definitive Pink Floyd compilation was always destined to come up short. Not only is the band's material best viewed in terms of albums rather than individual songs, but the task was made harder by getting all four members to agree on the songs and their order. If nothing else, we have here something which is a great deal more thought out, more comprehensive and more purposeful than previous compilations, like Relics (1971) and Works (1983). All the well-known stuff is here so that new and casual listeners can find their way into the band; and to satisfy established ears, we get the odd surprise inclusion and little-known classics. But this is still not a definitive collection - there is nothing from Ummagumma (1969) and Atom Heart Mother (1970), nor is there anything from the band's soundtrack work; while there are relatively esoteric and acquired tastes, without them it is not complete. And yet, Echoes is worthwhile because of the way it is produced. James Guthrie's segueing of the tracks into one another, coupled with their unconventional ordering, gives it a unique sound. As you drift back and forth in time, you chance upon each track in turn, like exploring the rooms of a huge old house, or having a very long, very strange dream. You will need patience (and an open mind) to get through Echoes in one sitting, but if you do you will be rewarded with glimpses of some of the greatest music ever written.

3.92 out of 5

¹ 'P*U*L*S*E Podcast - Part 1', Brain Damage Podcasts, available at Accessed on July 29 2008.
² Nick Mason, Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd, ed. Philip Dodd (London: Phoenix, 2005), p.333.
³ 'Pink Floyd guitar solo sits comfortably at first place', The Guardian, August 28 2006, Accessed on August 15 2008.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Top 100 Albums - #32: The Who By Numbers (1975)

The Who make their fifth entry on the chart with The Who By Numbers, described by one critic of the time as "Pete Townshend's suicide note".¹
Following the release of their second rock opera, Quadrophenia (1973), The Who embarked on a lengthy tour of the States to promote it. The tour went badly, marred by the complexity of the quadrophonic tapes which had become central to the band's set. Keith Moon's health was also becoming an issue - during a show at The Cow Palace, San Francisco in November, he collapsed on stage after taking an overdose of horse tranquilisers. With live performances rapidly curtailed, the band spent the bulk of 1974 working with Ken Russell in adapting Tommy (1969) for the big screen, this absence being interspersed with the release of the rarities album Odds And Sods, compiled by John Entwistle. As he battled with Roger Daltrey through the British press, Townshend constantly questioned The Who's continuing relevance within rock. The occassional live performances didn't help - the May euphoria of Charlton Football Ground was soon replaced with the June depression of Madison Square Garden. With rock entering a mid-life crisis and Tommy scheduled for release, Townshend went back to the drawing board in a desperate bid for reinvention.

'Slip Kid' kicks the album off, and within seconds you have cottoned on to the difference in sound. The opening is complex, with its offset cowbell and the melody which smashes through the middle of the phrase. The melody, contrary to a lot of previous Who material, has a tried-and-tested feel to it; it's not quite formulaic, but there is more emphasis put on refinement and precision and less on raw energy and power. This is perhaps reflected is Daltrey's voice which, as a result of filming Tommy, is more finely tuned, more operatic in nature. This is still a very good song, but the choice of subject matter means that it can hardly be considered a classic.

The next song, on the other hand, most certainly can. 'However Much I Booze' is sung by Townshend himself, and chronicles his helpless struggle with alcoholism. A very close subject, but don't think for a moment that this is some simpering, Cat Stevens acoustic slush. It may begin with an acoustic guitar, but the riff is jagged, and before you know what's going on Moon comes storming through the mix on the drums, supported by Entwistle's percolating bass. From then on in, this song fluctuates from the self-effacing, acrid verses to the frenzied chorus; Townshend tears into himself, the faker, the paper clown, only to consistently conclude that There ain't no way out. You don't even notice the absence of Daltrey, something which under normal circumstances would be sacrilege. Here though, Townshend manages to take a dark, eerie subject and convey precisely what he means without resorting to impossible concepts or mainstream mediocrity (a great achievement for most artists, even moreso for him).

Alas, this wave of brilliance does not last. Along comes 'Squeeze Box' and spoils everything. With its oh-so jaunty melody and tiresome, innuendo-laden lyrics, it manages to throw the whole album off course and out of kiltre. This is at heart, a run-of-the-mill 1970s pop song - cheeky, garish, ever so slightly vulgar and lacking any of the hard substance which The Who brought to rock. And of course, the banjo solo will drive you up the wall.

'Dreaming From The Waist' is more soul-searching from Townshend, this time on the subject of sex. As before, we get a fair bit of aggressive acoustic work, and as before Keith delivers with a subtly apt opening salvo. From then on in, Moon and Daltrey are duelling for dominion - Daltrey leads from the front with a swagger but Moon teasingly plays over his lines in the second half of the verses. The choruses are more subdued, but do wonders in the way of contrast. This is good stuff from The Who.

Which is more than can be said for 'Imagine A Man'. The main problem with this is that it is trying to be like the quieter sections of Tommy ('Amazing Journey', for instance). It's trying too hard, coming across as subdued, weak and overcooked whatever the good intentions surrounding it. It's a shame that a Pete Townshend song about religious belief in the face of adversity could come across as coy and twee - but that's the way it is, without any doubt.

'Success Story' is Entwistle's only contribution to this album and makes no apologies for being an old-fashioned Who song. This has none of Townshend's present self-doubt, conceptual drive or primitive urges about it; instead it is an inward-facing commentary on the band as it approached its 10th birthday. This has a real kick to it, so far matched only by 'However Much I Booze'. The lyrics are self-referencing in extremis, but amazingly, this does not scan as being self-indulgent or pretentious. Entwistle's dark humour and love of parody rescues it, turning a theoretically poor choice of subject into a starkly honest summary of the band's standings. Certainly the lines Back in the studio to make our latest number one/ Take 276, you know this used to be fun are right on the button.

'They Are All In Love' begins with the bright, airy piano of Nicky Hopkins, who also played on Who's Next (1971). But as before, the opening is deceptive, and the first verse appears harmless for reasons which soon become clear. Even the slowest student of lyrics will have cottoned on to the rich sense of irony running through this 3-minute piece - making Daltrey's disgusting raspberry all the more unnecessary. This is Townshend's self-fulfilling retort to punk, Goodbye all you punks, stay young and stay high/ Hand me my cheque book, and I'll crawl off to die. While it may seem quaint now, at the time it was an expression of Townshend's fear that 'the Who myth' would soon be assimilated by those who could not comprehend it.

'Blue, Red And Grey' is without question the strangest song on the album. It's Townshend all on his own, with only a ukelele for company, singing a song about how he likes every minute of the day - so on paper it should be rubbish. But it isn't. Somehow, Townshend has got away with a song which, under normal circumstances, would be too anodyne in its subject matter and too silkly in its execution to suit his tastes. As a result, this is not a thoroughbred Who song by any standards, but it is compelling. The lyrics may be backed by George Formby's preferred instrument of torture, but they flow so beautifully, especially when the horns come in.

'How Many Friends', in a nutshell, is the best track on the album. And it does that by offering something for everyone who has ever loved The Who. For Moon fans, the king of the drummers delivers a series of fills and flams which will resonate around your skull for weeks on end. Daltrey devotees get a commanding performance from the great man; in the verses he is tender and sensitive, perfectly capturing Townshend's self-doubt and curiosity, and in the choruses he is a prancing horse, rearing in the face of extreme paranoia and pure self-hate. Entwistle's bass burbles modestly compared to the other instruments, but turn the dial up to 11 and the man's genius is all there to reward you. And Townshend? Well, we get his most honest set of lyrics to date, coupled with a brilliant rhythm guitar part which grounds the whole piece. This is The Who as they were in their prime - raw, honest, unpredictable and therefore a wonder to behold.

The album closes with 'In A Hand Or A Face', and it's a pretty good choice. Both Moon and Entwistle are on fine form here, the former with a series of tom-tom workouts which completely fill the mix, the latter with a deep, resounding bass line which sends tingles up your spine. In the midst of the tom-toms and the tingling, Daltrey captures Townshend's bizarre ambivalence towards life and music, conveying a mix of inward-facing fear and outward-facing ferocity. In the last 45 seconds, the plughole is pulled and the band slowly fall down the drain into the heart of Townshend's despair.

That is not quite the end, though. The 1996 remaster contains three live tracks from the 'Who Put The Boot In' concert at Swansea Football Ground, recorded on June 12th 1976. Despite this being one of the high points of The Who's live career, the tracks feel tamed and compressed - you can hear every word, and every beat, but the whole thing is a bit hollow. 'Squeeze Box' features some first-rate banter from Moon - in full aristocrat mood - but there are little else which can redeem it. 'Behind Blue Eyes' is better, having been tried and tested on tour since 1971. Daltrey is in fine voice and while the guitar starts headily, eventually the whole band girds its loins and sets off on another great trek. 'Dreaming From The Waist' barely differentiates from the studio version, and feels completely unforced, so you come away feeling a bit cheated. But only a bit - it still sounds great.

The Who By Numbers is somewhere between the rock of a classic, solid Who album and the hard place of a Townshend suicide note. It is not simply the self-pitying whines of a once-great guitarist turning 30 and being mocked by his own words, I hope I die before I get old. Townshend's fear and self-hatred leach through in his lyrics, but he is clever enough not to let his personal qualms overwhelm and override the Who's own particular kind of music. Far from being a resignation and admission of obsolescence, this is a Townshend war cry, an attempt to connect with the new generation while consistently pointing out their fatal flaws. None of the macho, loud-as-jackhammers songs come across as fake, forced or impotent to any great degree. However, it is not a perfect Who album because, on a number of occassions, this ulterior motive, this secret desire of Townshend's to be relevant creeps in and corrupts the nature of the band, 'Squeeze Box' being the ideal example. Like all Townshend's later work, it is frustrating, but there are enough glimpses of brilliance on here to make this record a must-have.

3.92 out of 5

¹ John Swenson, 'The Who By Numbers Liner Notes' (London: Polydor Ltd., 1996), p.9.