Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Top 100 Albums - #21: Peter Gabriel 3 (1980)

At number 21 is Peter Gabriel 3, Peter Gabriel's third solo offering and his highest entry on the chart.
After departing from Genesis in 1975, Gabriel spent the best part of two years in self-imposed isolation at his Surrey home. He spent his time growing vegetables, playing the piano, practicing yoga and raising his new-born daughter. In 1977 he finally returned to the studio under the supervision of Bob Ezrin. The resulting record, Peter Gabriel 1 (1977, #71), was a menagerie of different styles which came together to successfully distance Gabriel's sound from that of his former bandmates. After a short tour, he released Peter Gabriel 2 (1978, #85), produced by Robert Fripp. This was a more transitional affair, with Gabriel still unclear of where he was going musically. Gabriel spent the rest of 1978 and the best part of 1979 on tour, bumping into his old bandmates along the way. He made a guest appearance with Genesis in New York for one date in their tour for And Then There Were Three (1978) and played a set at the Reading Festival where Phil Collins played the drums.

Fittingly, it is with Collins that we start. 'Intruder' is one of the first tracks in music history to employ 'gated reverb' on the drums, the sound that would define Collins' solo work. In layman's terms, the drums are recorded in a very echoey room, captured on condenser microphones and then passed through a noise gate, which cuts out when the sound rises too high. The mood thus created is ideal for the lyrics about someone breaking into a lady's house at night. Amid the atonal guitar chords, Gabriel begins with some distant screams, and then delivers the verses as if he is right next to you in the darkness, whispering in your ear. It's genuinely unnerving.

On 'No Self-Control', this dark mood is taken further. The opening is very distinctive, as the synthesisers dash back and forth between each ear, until your eyes are following them. Then the sinister xylophones come in, which are kooky but sound like they are made of human bone. In the midst of this, Gabriel is a demon unleased, crammed full of claustrophobia and paranoia. The drums on the chorus ring out like machine gun volleys, and in the verses the repeated line I don't know how to stop locks you in to the darkness. Kate Bush provides light relief on backing vocals, but this remains a thick and murky marvel.

'Start' is a short instrumental, lasting 1:21 and segueing into the next track. Although it is a segue piece, it's impressive in its own right. Dick Morrissey's saxophone solo, which dominates it, is very well-written, adding a sad jazzy twinge to the atmospheric art rock on offer elsewhere. It also serves as a 'breathing point' between the terror of 'No Self-Control' and the angry angst of 'I Don't Remember'.

This, on the other hand, cannot be reduced to filler, and it certainly doesn't give you room to breathe. Just like on the opener, the drum beat is relentless, pounding through your skull like a carpenter's chisel while John Giblin's bass rumbles on. Gabriel is at the top of his game, both lyrically and vocally. In the first verse he sets out his new image in complete defiance of the old:

I've got no means to show identification
I've got no papers, show you what I am
You'll have to take me just the way that you find me
What's gone is gone and I do not give a damn

These lyrics work with the scary instrumentation to produce a real gung-ho triumph. Gabriel's first two albums had some great songs on them, but none of them were as upfront as this in distancing him from the light, airy psychedelia that he helped to create in Genesis. This is so completely removed from that sound and era, that it has the initial effect of shocking you. But then as you listen all the way through you are reassured, then pleased, then delighted that the new Gabriel is even better.

'Family Snapshot' is not as gung-ho, and nowhere near as upfront. But it still manages to be brilliant beyond measure. Gabriel is underrated as a pianist, and the intro to this song is among his finest and most ethereal. He would later reuse this riff on Birdy (1985), the soundtrack to the Alan Parker film of the same name. There it is stark and delicate, but here it blends with his calming, raspy voice. Having started slow, it gradually rears its head in rage, carrying so much power without being overwhelming on the ears. The lyrics are based on the book An Assassin's Diary by Arthur Bremer, which chronicle an attempt on a politician's life from the point of view of the killer. Gabriel conveys this theme well, so that you don't have to have read the book to know what is going on. In the climax, the whole thing shrinks down, so that it is just Gabriel and piano as at the start. He croaks lines about a lonely childhood with a gifted honesty which made Us (1992, #39) so wonderful. It is a magical track which was well ahead of its time.

'And Through The Wire' relies more on rhythm than on lyrics, meaning that it cannot match the previous two tracks for quality. On the other hand, this is more catchy and pulsating than 'Family Snapshot', with its solid refrain and call-and-answer of I want you. Where previous tracks were led by drums or keyboards, here you do notice the guitar more. Dave Gregory provides a jagged rhythm part which brings out the chorus, giving it more life. You still notice the drums - Jerry Marotta is not the most understated player of the skins - but this feels more rounded than we have become used to.

The classic mid-album dip arrives on the next two tracks, long overdue. 'Games Without Frontiers' feels like it was written as a quick single, rather than to compliment the feel of the album. It is also the second track to feature Kate Bush, but while on 'No Self-Control' she provided a safety valve, here she sounds inane and superfluous. The result is that the rest of the otherwise passable music is fatally compromised. This in turn makes Gabriel's lyrics hamfisted, and when you are writing about war that is the last thing you want to happen.

'Not One Of Us', on the other hand, has a much more simple problem - it's too damn long. This could have been a good track, if the twisted effects at the start had been put to better use and condensed. Instead, they have the effect of stretching this song beyond the normal realms of patience, so that you are put off even before you get to the tedious chorus.

To get this album back on track, we need a good'un. And that is exactly what we get, in the shape of 'Live A Normal Life'. This makes no bones about being stripped-out and quietened-down for the sake of refocussing the listener. The piano sounds buoyant and the percussion is esoteric, but the dark underbelly is still there, albeit in the distance and muffled beneath effects. When Gabriel finally comes to the surface for air, he doesn't make all that much sense, but he does enough for you to give him another chance.

He doesn't disappoint. We close with 'Biko', one of Gabriel's first songs about human rights; the subject is anti-Apartheid activist Stephen Biko, who was brutally murdered by his interrogators in September 1977. Although it begins with some placid African singing, soon the track goes a lot more Western, the drums are shorter and Gabriel takes control. This is the longest track on here, at 7:33 long, but he has more than enough to say on the subject to sustain your interest. His lyrics are potent and charged, but he sings them with an air of calm defiance:

You can blow out a candle
But you can't blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher

All the ingredients of this album come together properly on this track, making it a good closer. And while the ending is a little messianic, this is a lot less patronising that other such efforts of the 1980s (including that of a certain Mr. Geldof).

Peter Gabriel albums are rarely the place to look if you want consistency. There is always a lot of experimentation and tinkering going on, exemplified by the gaps between albums as his career progressed. But where other albums could feel like a bag of random bolts, Peter Gabriel 3 sounds like a well-oiled machine. It feels more unified and together than anything Gabriel has put out before or since (with the possible exception of Up (2002, #22)). But magically, it manages to feel as collected and strong as it does without coming across as cynically calculated. There is almost no filler here to pad out the themes - because it just isn't needed. And while you do get a couple of less than brilliant tracks, they are not outright howlers. If Peter Gabriel 1, 2 and 4 (1982, #80) are records which you listen to in small chunks, Peter Gabriel 3 is an album you can easily listen to all the way through without getting bored or irritated. It is a feast for the senses, a classic in its time and in ours.

4.00 out of 5

Top 100 Albums - #22: Up (2002)

Peter Gabriel's penultimate chart entry is Up, the long-awaited follow-up to Us (1992, #39).
After the release of Us in September 1992, Gabriel embarked on a massively successful world tour, captured on the album Secret World Live (1994) and on the subsequent DVD. The tour featured a menagerie of the most highly skilled musicians, from long-time collaborators Tony Levin and David Rhodes to newcomer Paula Cole, whose performances helped to kick-start her solo career. Gabriel spent the next few years tying up the loose ends of the tour while beginning the recordings for what would become Big Blue Ball (2008), a multi-national collaboration headed up with Karl Wallinger. In 1997, he embarked on a project for the Millennium Dome, to design a show and compose the music for the celebrations on New Year's Eve, 1999. The project, which ran through two years, eventually produced OVO (2000, #81). In 2002 he composed Long Walk Home, the soundtrack for the award-winning film Rabbit-Proof Fence, about the plight of Australian aborigines.

A good opener should always make the mood of the album clear, and 'Darkness' achieves it in spades. For the first 30 seconds it is tentative, obsessive and scarily quiet; you know that something else is coming, but you also begin to relax. Then the whole mix explodes in front of your eyes. Rhodes' guitar is angry and distorted, Manu Katche's drums are ferocious, and the whole experience sends adrenaline rushing through your veins. Gabriel, meanwhile, sits in the eye of the storm, reciting the lyrics like a poem while his voice is altered as he sees fit. This does make it harder to understand first time out, but after a while you don't really notice.

'Growing Up' is a lot less in-your-face - which comes as a relief - but is hardly worse off where substance is concerned. The deep cello at the start reminds you that we are still dealing with the tragic side of the human condition. While the single version contained on Hit (2003, #72) could have passed for punchy, this is more meticulous and drawn out. It may have a faster beat, but there is a lot more going on; it entices you, it tempts you, but you still have to make your own way in. Gabriel's lyrics are more arty than his mid-80s commercial period. Indeed, the bridge would not have been out of place on Foxtrot (1972):

Well, on the floor, there's a long wooden table
On the table, there's an open book
On the page, is a detailed drawing
And on the drawing is the name I took

If sources are to believed, 'Sky Blue' took twenty years to complete. And yet, at first glance, it is suspiciously familiar. Fans who bought Long Walk Home will be quick to spot the similarities with 'Cloudless' from that album - the almost identical riffs, The Blind Boys of Alabama on backing vocals, and the spacious, pathos-riddled production. On closer inspection, however, this is not just Peter repeating himself. By adding in some electronic paraphernalia at the start, and a decent set of lyrics, he has taken the best elements of a distinctly average track and made them into what they should always have been.

'No Way Out' begins - after a while - with one of the best guitar riffs recorded in the last 10 years. Rhodes plays the four-measure phrase on his Fender Strat with a unique, sinister menace; the reverb is so great and deep that it sound like a bass, and that makes it frightening. This pulsating riff is counterpointed by the fingertippy piano of Gabriel and Levin's funky but unimposing bass. This is the first track to deal solely with death, and it wins the first battle by setting a bleak mood. Gabriel then pulls off a neat second trick with a set of lyrics which stand at an odd angle but eventually become clear. He peruses over the second verse - and the subject of goldfish - as if he is in mourning for a lost friend. Couple all this with the repeating emotion plea - I'm not quitting on you - and you have one of the best songs he has crafted in a long time.

'I Grieve' is often believed to have been written as a response to the 9/11 attacks. Although I stated this in an earlier blog entry, this is actually a myth, since the song was written and completed in its present form as far back as 1998 (I apologise). Despite this, you do sense that Gabriel is singing these words with his loved ones in mind. Just as his elder daughter Anna was the subject of 'Come Talk To Me' on Us, so he could easily be singing this about his younger daughter, Melanie. In any case, he is certainly using this track as a means of silencing critics who were saying that his voice had withered in the intervening years. It has certainly changed, but he can still get upstairs when he needs to and sound bloody amazing in the process.

For 'The Barry Williams Show', however, the words we're looking for are 'bloody stupid'. The whole thing, from start to finish, feels ham-fisted, outdated, corny and sometimes downright embarrassing. This is a case of Gabriel trying to prove that he is still cool, can still keep up with the kids of today. That is a grave error since: (a) they probably don't want to know; and (b) Gabriel's commercial success was never premeditated or packaged - that's what made it so compelling then, and now. This feels fake, really fake - fake enough to make you reach for the off switch and despair that someone of his stature could have sunk so low.

If, on the other hand, you have the patience of a saint (or a album blogger), you will still be around for when the album gets back on track. 'My Head Sounds Like That' is a welcome return or retreat to introspective mood pieces, packed from end to end with solemn soundscapes and dolorous piano. This time we get the Black Dyke Band as well; they lit up OVO and they achieve the same effect here. The tempo may be ponderous, but this is compensated for by Gabriel's performance. He takes the cryptic style of lyrics, as on 'Lay Your Hands On Me', and then strains his vocal chords to shift the piece up a gear (see my review of Peter Gabriel 4 (1982, #80). The break is especially good, as the sounds and words mash together and start messing with your mind.

'More Than This' is the most upbeat we get on Up. Which is a shame, because whether as an album track or as a single, this is not a good song. This is an example Peter is trying too hard - not to be cool, as before, but to be interesting. There are some lovely touches: the opening riff isn't all that bad, and Rhodes' bright phrase at 0:56 could really have gone somewhere in the region of 'Solsbury Hill'. But there is so many little motifs like these going on, that it ends up as a chaotic, incoherent flop.

'Signal To Noise' soon puts that to rights - and some. The distinctive dropping drum in the first few seconds, along with the atmospheric violins, make you realise that this is going to be something special. Gabriel begins the first verse in a downbeat, jazzy sneer, and then goes into a full-blown scream with only the deep strings to keep him tied down. Throughout this wondrous track, you can sense him wanting to break free, wanting to snap and speak his mind. But every time he is trapped by this rich, tantalising vapour of noise, where it be electronic tics, reverberated drums or the solo performance of the late Nusrah Fateh Ali Khan. In the final third of your song, your tried patience is melded with paranoia and fear as the track rises, and rises, and rises. Only now, with both singer and listener at a critical level, does the whole thing explode, blossoming into a frenzied and terrifying finish, with violins duelling Dhol drums and Gabriel in the centre screaming Receive and transmit! You come away completely blown apart, having heard the best and scariest track on the album.

'The Drop' is the closer, and it's just as well that it's a solemn, quiet affair. With only a piano on his person, Gabriel half-croons, half-whispers this song about flying and the brevity of life. You picture yourself either in an aeroplane, looking down on city lights, or else lying on a bed surrounded by naked lights, steadily dimming until the silence becomes complete. The lyrics, brief as they are, dwell deep inside your head; you will be thinking about them for days until their personal meaning becomes clear.

For an album about death and the bleak nature of life, Up is not exactly a hackneyed suicide note or the musings of a sad old man. It's hardly Gabriel's most optimistic work, and so fans of his more commercial stuff will be unpleasantly surprised. For those, on the other hand, who like an album to slowly unwind and reveal itself according to how much attention you give it, this is an inspired work. Like Us, you will hear something new and interesting every time you play it, either all the way through or by sampling its component parts. Unfortunately, there are odd moments where Gabriel goes too far in his introspection, or where he forgets that what made him successful was the quality of his songs rather than any desire to be famous. But while Us occassionally flattered you with reassuring songs, Up is always egging you on, always pushing you deeper and further into the dark areas of your soul. It may take longer to fathom, it may even drive you round the twist - but you emerge at the other end more complete, more inspired, and more fulfilled.

4.00 out of 5

Top 100 Albums - #23: The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973)

Pink Floyd's fourth entry on the chart is The Dark Side Of The Moon, their critical and commercial breakthrough which has so far sold in excess of 40 million copies.¹
Following the departure of Syd Barrett in April 1968, the Floyd entered a period of experimentation and extended pieces, as they struggled to find a new sound. The first post-Barrett album, A Saucerful Of Secrets (1968), contained only one of his compositions ('Jugband Blues') and was poorly received compared to its predecessor. Now settling into life as a fourpiece, the band spent 1969 creating the soundtrack to Barbet Schroeder's More and touring in support of their double album Ummagumma. This and the follow-up, Atom Heart Mother (1970), kept the band in the limelight, the latter being an ornate and overambitious recording employing a full orchestra and conceptual composer Ron Geesin. It became their first No. 1 album in Britain, but has since savaged by the band. Finally, on Meddle (1971), the Pink Floyd sound began to coalesce together, and the fans agreed, heralding the 23-minute 'Echoes' as a masterpiece. After the release of Obscured By Clouds (1972) - another Barbet Schroeder commission - the band were poised to take the world by storm.

Anyone who is even faintly familiar with this album, or the mythology surrounding it, cannot help but feel a strange sensation upon starting it. After a few seconds of agonising, despairing silence, the famous 'heartbeats' kick in and we creep slowly forwards into 'Speak To Me/ Breathe'. The first minute is a sound montage, sampling all the sounds which would become motifs of the album, including the first of the famous 'voices' (I've been mad for fucking years and all that). When 'Breathe' eventually begins, we are exploded out of this madness into a calming, reassuring groove which sees all four instruments working in harmony. Nick Mason keeps the beat simply and solidly, while Roger Waters' bass strums appositely, providing the harmony part for David Gilmour's wailing lap steel. The lyrics serve to delicately introduce the album's purpose, as "an expression of political, philosphical and humanitarian empathy that was desperate to get out".²

With 'On The Run', our pulses are send racing as the mood shifts from one of philosopical balm to deeply seated fear. The song is anchored by the throbbing, distorted synthesiser beat, sampled and sped up. It pulses through the mix like some strange being, whom you are always aware of but is always just out of sight. The voice of a female announcer mumbles around you as footsteps resound and vehicles doppler shift their way across your subconscious. The song was inspired by the band's fear of flying, caused by relentless touring. And sure enough, by the time the aeroplane crashes at the end of the track, your own heartbeat has quickened, you feel frightened, and you begin to understand the album's message - that it's okay, it's natural, it's human to feel this way.

'Time' begins ominously. If you allow yourself to drift into a state of rest, having escaped your fate, your bliss is brutally shattered by the chiming of the clocks. It may have been shamefully parodied on 'One Slip' later in the Floyd's career (see my review of A Momentary Lapse Of Reason (1987, #62), but here it serves its purpose beautifully, creating a delicate, edgy feeling in the listener into which the band can express their feelings. Once Mason has had his minute-and-a-half of freedom, the whole pieces takes on a life of its own. Waters' lyrics about the passage of time and the feeling of being lost in life are beautifully delivered; Gilmour takes the stricken verses, while Rick Wright blends beautifully with the female singers, delivering the killer line Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way with all its inate English charm.

We stick with Wright for the next track, 'The Great Gig In The Sky'. It is a testimony to his abilities that, in a piece packed with beautiful lap steel and that vocal solo from Clare Torry, for the first minute at least you only want to listen to him. He doesn't play the grand piano, so much as stroke it with a series of feathers, ending up with something bittersweet, something graceful - something wonderful. When Torry finally comes in, your concentration does shift, but you are always aware of Wright's organs underneath her. It is as though you are drowning in a sea of sound, and she is the siren mourning your loss. No-one has ever matched her performance live, and on record it remains frighteningly beautiful.

'Money' probably ranks as one of the greatest songs of the 1970s. It is certainly one of the most original and unusual hits, with its unwieldy 7/8 time signature and equally unwieldy length. The opening, with the cash register, tape loops and fabulous bass line, is of course well-known and loved. But there is so much more to it than that. The band sound tight and together across this album, but this takes unity to a new level. There is no excess fat here at all - no drawn-out guitar solos, no overly clever drum fills, no John Entwistle-style bass noodling. Instead, what we get is four musicians playing off each other tone-perfectly, coming and going at the right time without a second's argument or hesitation. Even a seasoned stoic cannot help but be enslaved by the rhythm Waters creates and Mason exemplifies. The saxaphone solo is brilliant, the change in time signature is the very definition of seamless, and the lyrics are simple but sensationally clever, conveying so much by saying so little:

Money, it's a crime
Share it fairly
But don't take a slice of my pie
Money, so they say
Is the root of all evil today
But if you ask for a rise
It's no surprise
That they're giving none away

This is not just the best track on the album; it's arguably one of the greatest tracks of all time.

After railing against materialism, Waters turns his attention to war, as he would often do in his career. 'Us And Them' is more jazzy and nuanced than 'Money', which isn't really suprising when we discover that Wright is behind this one as well. Like so much of the group's compositions for the album, the finished result was almost an accident. Wright composed a similar piece for the film Zabriskie Point (1970), but it was rejected, shelved and then rediscovered during the recording. The piece rolls along gently, creating a summery feel which lulls you into a false sense of security wherein the lyrics can pounce. Mason's drums serve more as a garnish than an anchor, as Wright delivers that magical 'third chord' - a DmM7 - which sets the piece apart. Waters' lyrics are again deceptively simple, but they get the grey cells going so that everyone can find something different in lines like With, without/ And who'll deny it's what the fighting's all about?.

Out of all the tracks on the album, 'Any Colour You Like' is easily the hardest to like. It's not terrible in the traditional sense, and in many ways it's very listenable. But it has the feeling of the band treading water, taking their foot off the pedals and freewheeling while Waters was thinking of something else to say. This has the feel of 'The Travel Sequence', a jam from their live shows which was eventually replaced with 'On The Run'. Like the jam, this feels aimless - there are no lyrics (which is not a problem in itself) but there is little in the way of melody even to reflect the title (a reference to the erroneous words of Henry Ford, "you can have it any colour you like, as long as it's black").

'Brain Damage' is a return to form, or at least to some kind of unified message. As with so much of Pink Floyd's work, the spectre of Syd is hovering over this: the opening lines, The lunatic is on the grass, are both a chilling reminder of his fate and a tirade against conformity. Waters sings for the first time on the album, and his unique voice suits this piece better than Gilmour's or Wright's. Although he had sung on previous Floyd songs - like 'Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun' - he sounds more professional here. More confident as well. This song begins to tie up the themes of the album, returning to some form of empathy and reassurance after ranting against the 'virtues' of the world - and of course, introducing the mystical image of the dark side of the moon as a place of refuge for those who don't quite fit in with what the world expects of them.

'Eclipse' serves as a natural, favourably formed coda to close the album. The lyrics are one long list of reassurances from Waters about the human condition, again seeming to say: It's okay to feel this way. Musically, it sees the climax and coming together of all the ingredients for one last assault on the senses. It rises and rises more and more, becoming richer and brighter all the time until the final shimmering organ chord from Wright brings things slowly to an end. Soon the heartbeats start up again, the music fades out, and we are left with the immortal words of Abbey Road doorman Gerry O'Driscoll: "There is no dark side of the moon, really. Matter of fact it's all dark".

Writing about The Dark Side Of The Moon is a frustrating experience. There is almost nothing which can be said about it which is new, interesting or enlightening. Many claims made about it are becoming less and less contentious: it is one of the greatest albums of all time, in terms of sales and critical reception. It is a hugely significant cultural and musical milestone. It is a masterpiece of production. It is, in many ways, the epitome of Pink Floyd, with all four members working together and coming through with the goods. But one thing it is not is the greatest Floyd album. All the components of a great record are here, and the end result is a sumptuous delight, a thought-provoking, soul-searching three-quarters of an hour wrapped up in the language of arty pop songs. But as we shall soon discover, subsequent Floyd efforts took this formula further, consolidating and developing it into something equally memorable. Hence the best way to view The Dark Side Of The Moon is both as a milestone in its own right, and - more importantly - the foundation for every single one of the Floyd's subsequent creations.

4.00 out of 5

¹ Bill Werde, 'Floyd's 'Dark Side' Celebrates Chart Milestone' (May 5 2006), Accessed on August 20 2008.
² 'The Making of The Dark Side Of The Moon Part 1', Accessed on September 21 2008.

Top 100 Albums - #24: Mind How You Go (2006)

At number 24 is Mind How You Go, the debut solo album from Skye Edwards, ex-singer with Morcheeba.
Shirley Klarisse Yonavive Edwards, better known to the world as Skye, was born in London in 1974. After leaving school, she worked as a session singer before being recruited by The Godfrey Brothers (Ross and Paul). The resulting band would become Morcheeba, with this line-up producing four albums - the tentative and mysterious Who Can You Trust? (1996); the critically acclaimed, chilled-out Big Calm (1998, #54); the bright, poppy Fragments Of Freedom (2000); and the well-rounded, collected Charango (2002). On all four recordings Skye received plaudits for her voice, and in-between she appeared on the all-star re-recording of Lou Reed's 'Perfect Day' for Children in Need in 1997. After the release of the Parts Of The Process compilation in 2003, Skye was asked to leave Morcheeba because of increasing musical differences between the trio. She spent the next two years raising her first child and began to collaborate with producer Gary Clark.

We begin this little-known album with 'Love Show'. All at once, it isn't hard to spot the change in sound from the Morcheeba days. The riffs are lighter, the production more spacious, and the mood a lot more relaxed. Skye's voice has changed as well: all the dark, smoky feel present on Big Calm has gone, and instead she comes across as much happier, more innocent, more content. You could almost call it fluffy. Don't think, though, that all that made Morcheeba great has been lost - the deep bass and fake drums remain, making this track a very skillful, subltle opener. It's hardly the most substantial song ever made, but as a means of introducing this new Skye, there is little on which we can fault it.

'Stop Complaining' keeps the mood up and the tempo down. This time the piano provides the backing to Skye's new-found cheeriness. But unlike a lot of similar singers, her happiness does not come across as vacuous or fake. Skye has never needed a gimmick to sell records - her voice managed that quite well, and it's much the same here. If anyone else sang the chorus - You're here and I'm here/ So I stop complaining/ It could be raining/ And I see the answer's in your eyes - they would be booed off stage and dismissed as a three-a-penny no-hit wonder. But with Skye, you are carried on a warm wave of satisfaction which leaves you unwilling to criticise it.

'Solitary' presents a different side of Skye. Here she is more doubtful, more ponderous of her position. Indeed the lyrics could be reflective of her relationship with her former bandmates - You said the things you said/ And you twisted me up, for instance. Sticking with the lyrics, they do try to be too clever, too full of imagery to pass muster completely. But the chorus is enough to rescue it, ringing out serenely amid the unobtrusive percussion. This is at heart a chillout sound, and a pretty damn good one at that.

Since 'Solitary' and 'Calling' are exactly the same length (4:16 long) you could be forgiven for assuming that the latter is a carbon copy, and just skip over it. I would advise against this, however, since this is another very good song. Skye is pushing her voice harder on this one, melding it with the acoustic on the verses and then fighting feistily against the drums on the chorus. The drums, incidentally, do soundstrange, like the skins are being played with table tennis equipment (listen to the cross-stick snare on the verse to see what I mean).

So far, we have been soothed and we have been entertained, but there have only been hints of any distinctive direction. 'What's Wrong With Me' is the first track where we start to get an idea of where Skye is taking us. Suffice to say, it's a very pleasing direction. The looped, distorted opening is a wonderful pastiche of the dark, throbbing effects we saw on Who Can You Trust?, set against a lovely, yearning series of chords on electric guitar. Skye meanwhile sings as she did in her Morcheeba prime - with a seductive sweetness, which chills you completely and teases you at the same time. This is certainly evident in the way she gently breathes the chorus, and it is exactly what we expect from her. The percussion is kept simple, with quiet electronic drums and hardly any bass, which is just as well since the whole mood would have been runined by some Fender Precision noodling. This is 4-and-a-bit minutes of utterly serene, thoroughly beautiful and surprisingly catchy singer-songwriting. And the rarity of such a thing these days is more than enough to merit its place on the album.

Unfortunately, having laid out a template for success, Skye chooses to ignore it on the next track. 'No Other' tries too hard to be emotional and heartfelt, and as a result ends up as the exact opposite. There is not enough variation in the chords she has created to make the music all that compelling, and her ill-fated attempts at some Roy LaMontaigne-style howling of the higher notes just doesn't scan. 'Tell Me About Your Day' is better, introducing a silky oboe into the mix. Once again Skye is in the foreground of production; there are more drums this time around but they are squashed and pushed way, way back to give the singer more room. The fact that she doesn't really need it leads you to be surprised by how quiet she sounds. This in turn makes you listen more intently - and then the lyrics begin to bring a smile to your face.

'All The Promises', sadly, is more humdrum. As on the last track, Skye is quiet, but unlike before there is almost nothing to fill the gaps around her and drive the track forwards. There is acoustic, but for the most part it is ineffective. For the first 50 seconds, this comes across as a poor relation, or parody, of 'Over & Over'. And even when the drums do come in, on the chorus about a minute in, they are too tinny and restricted to add much life.

Thank heavens, then, for 'Powerful'. The intro is a dream, with wonderful descant strings soaring through our ears while being counterpointed with the simple, lilting guitar part. Skye sings heavenly, still sounding fresh and interesting but utilising a lot of the old tricks she picked up from the earlier stages of her career. The opening lines, Then we both went home/ On separate trains are reminiscent of her performance on the Children in Need record, and she delivers the excellent chorus with the same upbeat teasing that made Fragments Of Freedom so enjoyable. This is a much better effort lyrically than a lot of stuff on here - one could even say that it makes 'What's Wrong With Me' seem lazy in comparison. It all just feels so tight, focussed and together, while maintaining a large amount of lustre. It's like a jazz song, elementally. It may have a time signature, but that does not serve as a self-imposed limit on where the piece can be taken, like it so often does in rock. This is magical.

The final two songs are quieter, more composed and less ethereal than 'Powerful', but they are still impressive in their own way. 'Say Amen' may have a more trip-hop intro, but the melody is closer to soul and is in no way sterile. For the first 2 minutes this has a sound collage feel to it, with the vocals carrying all the melody and little behind it for support. But at 2:16 a drum machine comes in, moving ahead of the tempo and hurrying the whole thing along. This creates an interesting feel which suits Skye's more urgent phrases. 'Jamaica Days', meanwhile, is a fitting eulogy to her Carribean heritage. It's the shortest track, at 2:16, but you do get Skye all to herself. There are no instruments, so there is nothing to distract you from the serenity and beauty of her voice - different, but still beautiful.

To the untrained ear, or non-Morcheeba fans, Mind How You Go can come across badly. With its largely ballad-esque content and soft, laid-back acoustic feel, many will simply disgard it, branding it alongside the efforts of Marc Cohn and Damien Rice - pleasant on the surface, but with little distinctive underneath. While that criticism may well be levelled at Messrs. Cohn and Rice, with Skye it is a different story. Morcheeba fans will obviously pick up on the motifs and techniques contained herein, but even if you come to this record a complete stranger to their sound then you will find something you like very easily. This album is like an Eddi Reader record, insofar as you get a lot of similar songs which chill you out, make you feel good and reveal different little touches to whoever is listening. But you also get a sweetness, a crisp, organic sweetness which Reader's material, along with many others, is lacking. Yes, this is not the deepest, most substantial record ever made, but it is a worthy start for solo Skye, providing hope that her second album will be even better.

4.00 out of 5

Top 100 Albums - #25: All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000)

U2's fifth and final entry on the chart is All That You Can't Leave Behind, widely seen as a return to critical and commercial success after the poor reception of Pop (1997).
While both Achtung Baby (1991) and Zooropa (1993) had won U2 new audiences and critical acclaim, as the 1990s wore on their new image began to turn on them. In 1995, following the end of the Zoo TV Tour, the band collaborated with Brian Eno on Original Soundtracks 1 (1995), a mostly instrumental album of songs for imaginary films. Released under the band name Passengers, the album was spurned by both fans and drummer Larry Mullen Jr., who worried that the band were becoming self-indulgent. These feelings were exacerbated by Pop, an album recorded at breakneck speed because of the pre-arranged tour. Despite being dark and political in places, the album received mixed reception from critics and the cold shoulder from many fans. Following the release of compilation The Best of 1980-1990 (1998), the band returned to the studio in a desperate bid to reinvent itself, just as it had done ten years before.

We begin, of course, with 'Beautiful Day'. It may been merecilessly overplayed on ITV, and reduced to the relative banality of a football theme tune, but this is a still an amazing song. The oscillating keyboards and bass drum are a great way to introduce this new U2 - combining the best from the heavy rock of the 1980s and the more electronic touches of the 1990s. Bono's voice is weaker than it was on, say, The Joshua Tree (1987), but he still wipes the floor with just about every other forty-something rocker on the planet. If anything, the lack of his once-trademark falsetto - for the most part - allows you to discover a new, more pleasant side of him, a side you thought had been lost long ago. The band as a unit feel tight, together and thoroughly modern. They have their pulse on the sound of the day, but still create something new and defining. This gets better every time you hear it, it's a sheer belter.

I have been unkind about the next track before. In my review of The Best of 1990-2000 (2002, #43), I attacked 'Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of', describing it as a bizarre cross between pop rock and lounge music. Some of that is still very true - Bono's lyrics are not his best, fulfilling his own words that There's nothing you can throw at me/ That I haven't already heard. But somehow, in the context of the album as a whole, this comes across a lot better. Being only the second track, we are still getting used to the new sound, and so there are bound to be little things we don't like even in the best tracks.

'Elevation' needs no such excuses, though. It may begin with the e-piano pootlings of a five-year-old, but The Edge's riffs are jagged and distorted, filled with a new metallic potency. Bono begins annoyingly, but soon he settles down into a very bizarre set of lyrics which push the boundaries of what it acceptable as rhyme without being cheesy. It's a proper rock single - not the most substancial thing in the world, but still a great listen. The most interesting section is the bridge - Bono's voice is electronically altered, not something he would have normally allowed.

With 'Walk On', we downstage slightly in terms of subject and take a more spiritual approach. The song provides us with the album's title and is dedicated to Burmese peace activist and 'prisoner of conscience' Aung San Suu Kyi. This does feel more like traditional U2, with The Edge soaring on the choruses on his highly strung Strat and Mullen playing more crisply than on previous songs. The lyrics achieve the rare feat of being both political and spiritual without sounding twisted or compromised. We get our fair share of both in the second verse:

You're packing a suitcase for a place
None of us has been
A place that has to be believed
To be seen
You could have flown away
A singing bird in an open cage
Who will only fly, only fly
For freedom

From this point of view, this is one of the band's finest achievements - though not as fine as 'Kite'. This is a complete heartwrencher, designed to move you beyond what you consider possible. The violins in the opening section are beautifully orchestrated, and The Edge is at the top of his game on slide guitar. Mullen keeps the drumming economical but effective, perhaps conscious that this is Bono's song. The meanings of the lyrics are many and varied, including that of a father letting his children out into the world, lovers getting over a failed relationship, and a eulogy of sorts to Bono's father, Bob Hewson, who passed away during the Elevation tour in 2001. Whichever of these you choose to believe, it is impossible to deny the emotional power of this track, summed up in Bono's breathtaking (and breathless) performance on vocals, his most emotive and exceptional to date. This is a song which you will listen to sparingly, so that you can savour its every perfection; in return, it will always, always, bring you to tears.

After what can only be described as a phenomenal start, the band drop the ball on the next two tracks. 'In A Little While' is about the much less attractive subject of a hangover, picking up the drunk song baton from 'Tryin' To Throw Your Arms Around The World' (from Achtung Baby). This is U2 trying to be funky, incorporating the open hi-hat and scratching sound of hip-hop to create something which at its worst points is, frankly, embarrassing. 'Wild Honey' is equally disparate, beginning with some gut-wrenchingly tinny guitar, such as you would hear on a theatre student's demo tape. And while the chorus might have something to it, it cannot in itself hold your attention for the length of the song. This means you will have to try and understand the verses, exposing yourself full on to the apogee of modern tweeness.

We get back on track with 'Peace On Earth'. Despite the daunting title, this is actually indicative of the relationship between Bono and the rest of the band at its best. Just as on 'October', the other members, especially The Edge, have tied Bono to the ground, stopped his head swelling up and forced him to deliver an honest performance. The result is a very real, pleaful and lifting piece (see my review of October (1981, #87)). The lyrics are very focussed and yet modest, with the digs being subtle and shrouded in principle, e.g. It's already gone too far/ They say that if you go in hard/ You won't get hurt. Then Jesus comes into the equation with no cheesy fanfare, and the honesty factor rises again.

'When I Look At The World' is much in the same vein. We find a U2 more restrained, still potent but trying to reign themselves in to avoid looking like a bunch of rich ageing idiots. The lyrics should be relevant to anyone who has been a Christian for a long period of time. They describe deep-seated doubt, prompted by world events but rooted in questions about the very foundations of one's faith. When Bono sings the chorus, he is so stricken that you really do feel that he is wrestling with God:

So I try to be like you
Try to feel it like you do
Growing up, but it's no use
I can't see what you see
When I look at the world

In the midst of all this soul-searching, The Edge keeps the song rolling along, providing some wonderfully crisp chords on a guitar which sounds like a wasp stuck in a steel pipe. Mullen uses his snare and ride cymbal well to create another dynamic rhythm, and as if by magic Adam Clayton's bass pops up at the most apposite moments, lifting the whole mix. The song concludes with the classic lines of the doubting Christian, Tell me, tell me/ What do you see?/ Tell me, tell me/ What's wrong with me?.

The last major slip-up on this great album is 'New York'. Until now, Messrs. Lanois and Eno had been on sensational form, but here they have taken a good mix and then made a hippo sit on it. As a result the drums, especially the hi-hat, sound tinny and overly funky - and worse still, it is impossible to hear Clayton al. With this in place, Bono may as well have not bothered. In the lower registers especially he sounds like a threepenny crooner. Even when the band kick the tail out at the end, it still sounds impotent.

'Grace', on the other hand, is a gem. Clayton begins the song, with his double-tracked bass taking both the high and low rhythms while The Edge lays down a downbeat, chilled-out series of chords which make you close your eyes and picture a garden full of summer flowers. Despite being very long for a U2 song (a not-so-punchy 5:32), there is hardly any drag here. Bono may be singing in what feels like slow-motion, but he is not slow enough to try your patience to any great degree. Instead, he produces a worthy sequel to the likes of 'One', for this has all the sensitivity and great lyrics of that track, combined with a contemporary feel and much better production.

We round up with 'The Ground Beneath Her Feet'. This is unusual in that it is one of the few songs in the U2 canon without Bono as lyricist. The words come from the pages of Sir Salman Rushdie, which is not hard to pick up on. This does have a more literary feel to it, much more arty and poetic than anything Bono could have created on his own. Despite that, this is easily one of the most accessible songs on here, which is just as well when you consider how good this is. We have an ethereal slide guitar melody from The Edge, counterpointed by Bono's acoustic and captured like rain on a lake by Lanois. We have a vocal performance from Bono to rival anything he has produced thus far at his peak. And we have a finished product which sounds like both a rock song and a piece of orchestral soundtrack work. It is a fabulous way to finish.

In many ways, All That You Can't Leave Behind is like the Rolls Royce Phantom. First, you get the instant impression of quality everywhere you go, from the playing to the production - even the album cover looks like brushed aluminium. Then, when you step inside, you are made to feel as comfortable as humanly possible, cocooned in your own little world with nothing to distract you or disrupt the experience. Leaving the car analogy aside, this album offers you the best of everything U2 have served up thus far, but there is still enough variety among the tracks for you to choose your own favourites. The follow-up could do that too, but How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (2004, #82) suffered from trying to be too political and in doing so saw the band slip into self-parody. Here, though, everything feels genuine, everything sounds new, and everything is worth savouring. It may be quieter and more understated than any U2 album since The Unforgettable Fire (1984), but it is in this meticulous level of restraint and self-control that true beauty emerges, making this truly the Rolls Royce of U2 albums.

4.00 out of 5