Archives for category: Music

Last week I mentioned Maddow and O’Donnell, Penfriend’s Attention Engineer, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, and BBC Radio 4’s Friday Night Comedy. This week I look at more music, some food, and more politics.

Martyn Ware’s Electronically Yours. Ware was a founding member of the Human League and Heaven 17, and his British Electrical Foundation project relaunched Tina Turner’s career in the early 80s. He mostly interviews his own contemporaries (Thomas Dolby, Gary Numan, Vince Jackson), but he’s gone farther afield with Sandie Shaw, and Tony Visconti. Sometimes he’s a little too fond of his own self, or he hasn’t yet decided to edit out his own meanderings, but in general the interviews are fascinating. In his interview with Tony Visconti, Ware admitted early on that Visconti had produced 12 of his 20 all time favourite albums, but he generally did a good job of letting Visconti tell the stories.

Home Cooking with Samin Nosrat (author of Salt Fat Acid Heat) and Hrishikesh Hirway. I learned of this great podcast from Hirway, I’m guessing – I think he must have mentioned at the end of an episode of one of his other podcasts, Song Exploder (which I also love). I didn’t know anything about Nosrat and her amazing cooking journey. The two of them started this podcast at the beginning of the pandemic with the idea that they’d do four episodes talking about their favourite foods and answering listener questions. Four has so far turned into 15. Really delightful and sweet. And mouthwatering.

I said I’d mention a political podcast, but in the last couple of weeks, I’ve not listened to much beyond Rachel and Lawrence. But in the category of longer form political discussion, I really like Stay Tuned with Preet Bharara. Bharara was US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, fired at the beginning of the last administration. He is both articulate (not unexpected in a trial attorney) and an astute interviewer. His discussion with conservative columnist David Frum at the earlier this year was especially interesting.

I spent the second half of 1989 traveling in Europe after finishing up (most of) my BA. I was 22 and after four years in San Francisco, had stowed all my stuff (including a couple hundred CDs, LPs, and tapes) back at my parents’ house in LA before boarding a flight with no music playback device at all. I traveled for six weeks with a friend and after he came back to the US for a job, I really needed some music. I bought a cassette walkman and some tapes. Maybe this blog entry will look back at the dozen or so albums that soundtracked that summer and autumn for me. But, because Cherry Red has graced the world with a 2-CD/1-DVD repackaging of The Stars We Are, I’m going to start there.

The first single, Tears Run Rings, had already been on Live 105’s rotation before I left the states, but I don’t think I’d heard the rest of it. I may have, though, because the interwebs tell me the album came out in 1988. I’m pretty sure I bought my tape of it at a market in Istanbul, but that might be because the song She Took My Soul In Istanbul is so tied up with the week I spent there.

The rockers like the title track, Tears Run Rings, and Bittersweet pull the listener in, but that’s only a part of the skill set Almond brings to the table. We also get some almost cabaret-style pieces (Only the Moment, Your Kisses Burn). To borrow a line from Nina Simone, there are even show tunes for shows that still haven’t been written (Kept Boy, Istanbul).

Aside from Tears Run Rings, what roped me into the album was the macabre knowledge that it contained the result of Nico’s last recording session. I was turned on to the Velvet Underground a few years before and had collected all their albums to that point and started delving into the solo work. Nico’s voice, even when ravaged on late live albums, insinuates itself the way few voices do. And there’s really nothing like the way she slips this between your ears:

I’ll make a fire there in your heart / Made not of love, but only hate
And for the fuel will be your soul / An inferno to consume you whole.

Shudder.

Almond’s cover of Gene Pitney’s hit Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart let the world know that he had the chops. It’s a tossup whether his solo vocal, or the duet with Pitney himself is the better. Initial pressings of the album had the solo version, but it was replaced by the duet which was itself a hit. This deluxe edition relegates the solo version to the CD of remixes.

Almond and Gene Pitney, 1989

Because my first experience of the album was the cassette, I never considered the LP’s closing song She Took My Soul in Istanbul to be the end of the album. Istanbul slides neatly into The Frost Comes Tomorrow (originally the b-side of Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart) and closer Kept Boy.

Kept Boy is something like a demented outtake from Sunset Boulevard in which the male voice admits to being after the riches of the older woman keeping him, until he realizes she’s poisoned him. While not as rich a song as others on the album, it features Agnes Bernelle as the other voice. Bernelle, whose family left Germany in the 30s and settled in London, earned renown during WWII for broadcasts to Germany and to the resistance. After the war, she acted and recorded cabaret songs.

The first CD in the set concludes with three B-sides, Everything I Wanted Love To Be, King of the Fools, and Real Evil. Disc 2 collects the various remixes including three versions of Tears Run Rings and two of Bitter-Sweet. There’s nothing that wasn’t available at the time of release – nothing live or pulled out of the archives or recovered from the cutting room floor. Gorgeous stuff, all of it, but the liner notes mention shows from ‘87 that featured about half of the album’s songs, and a show in ‘86 that featured an entirely different version of the title track. Some of those goodies would definitely have made my heart skip a beat.

After the minor MTV hit that was Mexican Radio, Stan Ridgway left Wall of Voodoo and a couple of years later released his first solo album, 1983’s The Big Heat on IRS Records, the same label that had released Wall of Voodoo’s first three releases. I’m sure I have wonderful things to say about that album. I wore out the grooves on my cassette of it, for certain. In 1989, Ridgway moved to Geffen Records for his second solo album, Mosquitos, a copy of which has found its way to me for the first time in about 20 years. And it holds up. His music always had the feel of the best noir fiction and musically he pulls on the same devices that make up the atmospheres of Dashiell Hammett novels and Bogart movies.

Thematically, Mosquitos works over the same characters, low-lifes with pessimistic outlooks (Can’t Complain) and guys who think the girl is in it for them (Peg and Pete and Me).

In general the whole album is of a piece. Some of it upbeat (Goin’ Southbound, the aforementioned Last Honest Man), some of it more atmospheric (bookends Heat Takes a Walk/Lonely Town and A Mission In Life). 1989 was a weird year, though, for this kind of album. Two years later, he made his last album for the majors, Partyball. Alas, Geffen put out the made-for-Doctor-Demento track I Wanna Be A Boss as the first single. And people who’d followed Ridgway for a few years said, What the hell?

He continues to make great music, but fell off the radar for me at that point. It might be a case of those being the albums I heard when I was that impressionable age. But I absolutely recommend all three of those first solo albums.

While Mosquitos isn’t available on Bandcamp, there’s a veritable scad of Ridgway goodies (including live recordings from the period) available his BC page.

Discogs links: The Big Heat / Mosquitos / Partyball

A look at the new albums by The Killers and Chuck Prophet.

These two albums have little in common except that they were released within a couple of weeks of each other.

First up: The Killers’ Imploding the Mirage. Before I heard this album, I’d read Alexis Petridis’ review of it in the Guardian. His main complaint was that the album had the same musical intensity – straight-up intense – all the way through. This feels like a correct assessment, but that’s not really a problem for me. I’ll happily listen to a death metal or stoner rock album straight through and not have a complaint that the thing doesn’t let up. Noting that the album’s title refers to the demolition of a Las Vegas hotel, it’s not as though we weren’t warned about its intentions.

Opening with My Own Soul’s Warning, a piece of pseudo Bruce Springsteeniana that should rope the listener in, we’re left wanting. When Flowers sings ‘something just didn’t feel right,’ I just ask ‘What? What is it? I’m giving you the space to explain yourself and all you can say is “something”?’ I shouldn’t judge my pop singers so harshly, but if you’re going to channel the poetic muse, you have to give it some words to work with.

Blowback uses the term ‘white trash’ to describe its subject, and it’s not the only time Flowers and company do that on this album. It points out how lazy the band (is Flowers the only lyricist?) is at putting words together. Again, I want to like the album, but leaning on clichés like that rather than working out what you mean gets on my nerves. Caution is the other one. It’s the first track I heard off this album when BBC Radio 2 started playing it a couple of months ago. Musically it’s quite inviting, and catchy as hell, but that phrase doesn’t endear me to it. In addition, the chorus refers to both throwing caution to the wind and the winds of change. Come on, already.

Lightning Fields has the benefit of k.d. lang on vocals on a verse and feels like an 80s-era Daniel Lanois production. This isn’t a bad thing at all. It’s followed by Fire In Bone which feels lifted from a mid-80s Bill Nelson album. The band has never shied away from what they owe to the 80s, but it seems rather serious on this track. Also in its favor is not being lyrically embarrassing.

Running Towards A Place is another track that’s musically earnest, by lyrically lazy. The very serious reading of the lines in the chorus make me feel as though Flowers has never read any actual poetry.

Because we’re running towards a place
Where we’ll walk as one
And the sadness of this life
Will be overcome

But someone has shared a bit of poetry with him because he asks in the bridge about worlds in a grain of sand. Of course, that phrase is cliché now as well.

My God is another really intense one. Knowing in advance that Flowers is a Mormon, and that when he addresses God, it’s a rather more personal relationship than what often happens when God shows up in pop music. That said, he’s also lifting, musically, from 80s era Laurie Anderson, an artist who is rarely amorphous when addressing the forces of the universe.

And the album concludes with the title track, which wants to be a declaration of some kind of superiority. While you were doing X and Y, I was doing the serious work of imploding the mirage. But we don’t get the joy of what this means from the voice of someone who can actually describe what makes this important. Instead we get the same dead metaphors and platitudes that this band always relies on, for example,
Sometimes it takes a little bit of courage and doubt
To push your boundaries out beyond your imagining.

Especially in this song which should bring the album to its apex, I feel let down that they couldn’t do better.

It’s a well-produced affair, and well played. Some years back there was a report that Flowers had said in a tweet that he couldn’t sing. I laughed, because I had never given him much credit in the vocals department. Alas, he wasn’t admitting to an overarching personal failing, just explaining a cancelled gig due to laryngitis. One of the nice things about this album is that Flowers does have a voice that he uses well, and that’s instantly identifiable as his. I just wish his poetry was more polished. I don’t even mind how much the band’s (or the producer’s) influences infuse the workings of the thing. I’ve been listening to pop since the 80s, and I pick up on these weird things that might seem minor. On the other hand, the members of Can and Neu! Get writing credits on Dying Breed and for the life of me there’s not much more than a motorik beat to harken back to those 70s krautrock acts. Wikipedia lets us know that there are samples of Neu!’s Hallogallo and Can’s Moonshake in there somewhere. Could be.

And then there’s Chuck Prophet’s The Land That Time Forget.

This isn’t a flawless album, either. But musically, I think Prophet and his band The Mission Express are more interesting. I fully admit to simply liking the kind of music Prophet does more than the polished pop of the Killers. This album is, like a lot of his work, varied in expression, tempo, and subject matter, but holding on to an overarching theme. In this case, the theme has to do with what modern American life inherits from things as disparate as the dance marathons of the 30s and Richard Nixon’s presidency,

High As Johnny Thunders, the first song released from the album, asks what the world would be like if certain things were true, like Johnny Thunders’ first band, the New York Dolls still being together and Romeo and Juliet having kids (‘Shakespeare would be on the dole’). Interesting to think of things like Johnny Thunders still being alive the week that Walter Lure, the last original member of Thunders’ band the Heartbreakers passed away.

Marathon refers to the dance marathons of the 1930s and features the sweet backing vocals and keyboards of Chuck’s wife Stephanie Finch. It’s danceable the way rock and roll was in the 70s. One of the things Prophet’s doing (the hint’s in the title) is playing with how we deal with nostalgia and how our various shared histories play out in the modern echoes. For a day or so people danced until they dropped because it was a way to maybe win an extra prize to live a little like the world wasn’t in the throes of the Depression.

Paying My Respects to the Train slows the action down with some gorgeous lap steel work. Is there a difference between CP singing “I’ve got my heart in my throat and my ears to the track” and some of the overused metaphors found in Killers lyrics? It might be the juxtaposition with the rhyming line “Somehow I know that you’re not coming back” has the recognition that life isn’t moving forward with everyone hand in hand. It’s also an expression of a personal land that time has forgotten.

Willi and Nilli posits a pair living in a ‘Polk Street SRO’ cranking up the stereo and singing ‘Love me like I want to be loved’ till the neighbors call the cops who usually never come. Though come the last verse, the cops all sing along. One thing I love about this song is the fact that only the fact that they live on Polk Street and Willie claims he ‘could make a man bark all night’ indicate that they’re gay as they remember who they were in a different time. Today it’s my favourite song on the album.

Fast Kid tells of a girl who could have come out of one of the songs on Imploding The Mirage.

She’s a fast kid growing up all wrong
Shaking like a leaf in the golden dawn
Gone with the wind, gone with the moon
Gone like the tar in my silver spoon

Is there a difference in his use of
cliché? Not sure, but ‘Tar in my silver spoon’, with its heroin reference, brings the song down to the ground and into the alleys where Killers characters never seem to go.

Nixonland posits a trip back in time to San Clemente, the home of Richard Nixon’s California retreat. Prophet uses an electric blues arrangement to discuss what Nixon’s presidency and fall were like. Nixon’s life, and presidency, however aren’t that far from where we are now. He doesn’t draw a direct parallel, but crowds calling Jail to the Chief could have been calling that outside of the White House this year or last or the one just before.

Womankind offers the idea that man does all sorts of things but doesn’t do the things a woman does (‘while they short you every hour for the time that you put in’), and says straight up, ‘They think you’re weak Because you’re soft / I know who’s stronger than me’. Yeah, it’s kind of woke, but it’s the kind of heartfelt admission that woman is more than one archetype or another. It’s possible that Prophet is also putting his female characters on various pedestals – they’re just different than the ones Brandon Flowers uses.

Get Off The Stage, a direct attack on the current president repeats the sincere request that he just leave. Prophet compares his own life with a band (‘in an Econoline van’) with Trump’s (‘You have your crew’). On the world stage, though, Trump is just an embarrassment.

‘You’re an obstruction in democracy’s bowel, and the patient is dying.’ But he suggests, ‘come down and we’ll play some John Prine.’ I love the idea that if he just lets go, we can listen to good music and get on with things, in joy.

It’s not loud or otherwise profane. And it pulls all the history he’s plied on the album into the present day. Is it a suggestion that this too will be a land to be forgotten? None of the stories he tells on the album are of things that are completely forgotten, but that if we’d remember a little harder, we might get over the current obstructions as well. This song contains the album’s only moment of what I consider sloppy songwriting – he suggests Trump is going to prison, ‘but don’t worry, the first time is the hardest.’ The oft repeated suggestion that prison is always accompanied by forced sex doesn’t do anyone any favors, even as Prophet has shown he can write about gay characters without judgement.

Released: November, 1982
Lineup: Sioux, Steve Severin (bass), John McGeoch (guitar), Budgie (drums)

Tracklist:
Side 1:
Cascade
Green Fingers
Obsession
She’s a Carnival
Circle

Side 2:
Melt!
Painted Bird
Cocoon
Slowdive

This album has a really strange provenance. In many ways, it’s distinctly not goth at all, and in fact Wikipedia cites its genre as neo-psychedelic, though it has no connection to the west coast neo-psychedelia of the Paisley Underground, for example. There was a lot of tension between the band members themselves as well as their recently fired manager, Nils Stevenson (who the song Obsession might be about). There’s a great interview with Siouxsie that appeared in Uncut about the making of this album.

Lots of drugs, including LSD, but also an insistence that the sound be something new. Roping in real strings and bells to augment the sound rather than using synthesizers. The results are heady and beautiful and unlike anything else in their catalogue.

Lyrically, the songs lean on the emotions of new love, which is not surprising given the newness of Siouxsie’s and Budgie’s relationship. Oh love like liquid falling/Falling in cascades.

Green Fingers seems to be all about someone who can ‘make anything grow / magic in her hands’, but concludes with a repetition of ‘With this ring, I thee wed’. Musically it’s lush and growing and almost slithering out of the speakers.

Obsession, a slow waltz with instrumentation very low in the mix, is indeed about someone’s obsessive behavior, but told almost sympathetically from the point of view of the obsessive, not the object. It bears a strange resemblance to Throbbing Gristle’s Persuasion.

The album picks up speed with She’s A Carnival, which might be my favourite song on the album, except that its swirling mood stops quite suddenly to be replaced in the last minute with a circus organ sort of thing. Those first two and a half minutes are so sweet, though.

Circle is the only song that harkens back to an earlier sound. The minimal repetitive instrumentation with monotonous trap drum as the only percussion backs a song that starts off being about a girl of 16 who gets pregnant and has a baby like her own mother, but as the song progresses, it’s about the repetitions of life and poverty and discipline reflected in the musical repetitions and with references in the middle to the various lines of the London Underground, “Any line you can think of but for the Yellow” (which I’m pretty sure would be the Circle line.

Side two opens with the first of the album’s two singles, Melt!, which had always seemed to be about sex, but the song is also run through with references to death and funerals. But the intertwining of the two is not a new thing.

Painted Bird is another wildly festive song in arrangement, but seems to be about birds who attack their own when they perceive it to be somehow alien. It’s not an obvious point in the song, but the metaphor of society attacking those seen to be different or accused of difference is not hard to miss.

Cocoon is a weird piece of chamber jazz in which the subject wrapped in blankets on a cot imagines herself transforming but isn’t. The arrangement circles around a stand-up bass line and doesn’t (like most of this album) resemble anything they’d previously done. But the evolution it indicates will turn up on Tinderbox and Through The Looking Glass a couple of years later.

And the album concludes with the second single, Slowdive, which should have been a bigger hit given how obviously it is about sex. The slinky violin and viola arrangement draws the listener down into the music.

Sadly, John McGeoch’s excesses where just that much more excessive than those of the rest of the band that he was booted upon the album’s release. Robert Smith joined the band for the following tour and the next Banshees album, Hyaena.

That said, A Kiss in the Dreamhouse is absolutely a five-star album and one I’ve reveled in having on repeat the last couple of weeks.

Next: The Creatures’ Feast.