Archives for category: Rock

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.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wild_Things_(EP)
Recorded 25-27 May 1981
Released: 25 September 1981
Lineup: Siouxsie Sioux, Budgie
Producer: Mike Hedges
Track list:
  1. Mad Eyed Screamer
  2. So Unreal
  3. But Not Them
  4. Wild Thing
  5. Thumb
Recorded just before Juju was released, and released later the same year, Wild Things comprised five songs across two 7” singles, at least one of which (But Not Them) was worked up during the Juju sessions. The idea behind The Creatures was that the ideas worked well as just percussion and voice.
Mad Eyed Screamer seems an appropriate soundtrack fo these times. It seems to describe sideshow preacher or world-bedraggled, drug addled street person. The title phrase also aptly describes this years demonstrators.
So Unreal points at the same dynamics, but from the perspective of having known the titular screamer before? I wish I could feel the way that you feel? No it’s not that, it’s that the person being addressed has gone the way of normalcy. All the traits you had have all gone away / Get up and wash at the right time of day. It might be a guise, but it it’s a desirable one. Get out of the scene and get into the so-called real world?
But Not Them is a classic Siouxsie lyric pointing to a murder (or more) that has occurred. Dead lumps of meat / Melt in this heat.
The cover of the Chip Taylor classic Wild Thing, which gives the EP its title (suggested by Steve Severin as the kind of thing the creatures in Where The Wild Things Are would have danced to), is twisted to one side. A classic declaration of love? No. Wild Thing, I think I hate you / But I want to know for sure / Come and hit me hard / I hate you.
Finally, there’s Thumb, which uses recordings of traffic at the opening and closing for a backing, and describes life mostly from the point of view of a hitchhiker:
One for the road, jump inside little girl take a ride by my side / No end to the ride with this stranger tonight.
The drum/voice nature of the Creatures’ work offers a starkness to Siouxsie’s lyrical approach to the world that is often subsumed in the Banshees’ work. These songs were remastered and included in the 1997 compilation A Bestiary of the Creatures.
Next up: A Kiss in the Dreamhouse

 

Released: June, 1981
Lineup: Sioux, Steve Severin (bass), John McGeoch (guitar), Budgie (drums)

Tracklist:
Side 1:
Spellbound
Into the Light
Arabian Knights
Halloween
Monitor

Side 2:
Night Shift
Sin In My Heart
Head Cut
Voodoo Dolly

Released just 10 months after Kaleidoscope, Nigel Gray is still at the helm.
Juju was preceded by the Spellbound single in May. Arabian Knights was released as a single in July.

After the tour for Kaleidoscope, this is the first album by this incarnation of the Banshees as a tested unit. Musically it’s their most cohesive set yet. The songs are individually different while each obviously contributes to a whole vision. Interestingly the album seems built around Budgie’s percussion and McGeoch’s guitar. Severin’s bass tends to be really low in the mix. (This may be a by-product of listening to the Spotify recording on earbuds, as well.)

And as I delve into the lyrics, which never really sunk in, the repeated themes of death and murder and violent sex are more surprising than I expected them to be. I listened to this album repeatedly in my youth, but never took that dive into what Siouxsie was actually singing about.

Musically, it’s anchored by a continuously maintained eastern atmosphere. This is more obvious on side one, especially on Arabian Knights, but each song feeds on that feeling. The chord changes that anchor Into The Light are another example. Arabian Knights features a minor key thing that feels like it’s being played from under water. I can’t identify what (I think) McGeoch is doing there. The finger cymbals also contribute.

Album opener, Spellbound, which was always one of my favourites, is a pop masterpiece on the one hand, but a horror show on the other. It’s similar in theme to previous work that explored the madness inherent in the family structure. Earlier, Siouxsie might have spun it on the axis of the child, but here she uses the line ‘And when your elders forget to say their prayers / take them by the legs, and throw them down the stairs’ as a counterpoint to the chorus’s ‘Following the footsteps of a rag doll dance / we are entranced.’ On the one hand, it’s revenge (possibly), but balanced by the insanity of childhood.

Halloween, which made onto many of my goth era’s mix tapes, wouldn’t have been out of place on any of the first three albums, but again, McGeoch’s guitar work separates it especially from the first lineup of the band. The toms and vibraslap that anchor the chorus are especially infectious.

Side one closes with Monitor, which I’ve always found to be amongst the strangest of the band’s songs. Musically it’s got this driving rhythm that doesn’t really resemble anything else in the post-punk or goth canon. At five and half minutes, it’s still beat in length by Night Shift and Voodoo Dolly on side 2. There’s something sweet in the fact that they took the time to give the songs the room they need to breathe and express what each one needs to.

Into The Light probably has lyrical depths I’m not plumbing but the song balances on repetitions of the rhymes light, white, sight, night, right. The rhythms pull the listener in as if through an aural spinning spiral. This is similar to the repeating motifs in Voodoo Dolly at the end of the album.

Arabian Nights combines images of oil spills, harems, and the repetition of I heard a rumour / what have you done to her. I’m not sure whether the music triumphs over the lyrics or the repetition is the point. Halloween pulls us again into the arena where the adult addresses the child who was:
The carefree days are distant now /I wear my memories like a shroud
I try to speak, but words collapse / Echoing, echoing “Trick or treat”

Monitor plays with the imagery of violence, possibly of a snuff film, pulling us into its horror:
And we shook with excitement / Then the victim stared up
Looked strangely at the screen / As if her pain was our fault.
Closing out side one with this kind of indictment, there was nothing left to do but flip it over and hear what came next.

Night Shift starts with those slow eastern chords and when Siouxsie enters, it’s in the style of a nursery rhyme. That she’s singing of someone visiting a morgue to commit acts of necrophilia (My night shift sisters / with your nightly visitor), well, we’re in the realm of the gothic after all. Musically, it’s crazy noise wrapped around Siouxsie’s disturbingly restrained vocals.

Sin In My Heart opens with finger-picked rhythms punctuated once with the sound of breaking glass. The minimal lyrics, again about sex, are mostly a placeholder for Budgie to wrap his rolling beats around.

Head Cut. Yeah. I want to take this severed head back to my house and keep it to make up and attract flies. And cook? Possibly. And astoundingly danceable all the same.

And the whole circus closes with mini-epic Voodoo Dolly. The singer addresses someone under the thrall of someone or something (She’s such an ugly little dolly / and she’s making you look very silly…you get paralyzed with her fear). The story part of the song evolves into a crazy repetition of the words listen, listen, listen, to your fear. Again, that hypnotic repetition draws you in. It’s an appropriate way to close the album.

While I’ve got great love for the first three albums (and, really, for most of the catalogue), those are 3 or 3 1/2 star albums. I give Juju five stars.

Next up: Wild Things!

Released:
September, 1979

Lineup: Siouxsie Sioux (vox), Steve Severin (bass), John McKay (guitars), Kenny Morris (drums)

Tracklist Side 1:
Poppy Day
Regal Zone
Placebo Effect
Icon
Premature Burial

Tracklist Side 2:
Playground Twist
Mother/Oh Mein Papa
The Lord’s Prayer

Following the release of non-album single The Staircase (Mystery) in March, Join Hands was recorded in May and June. Lead single Playground Twist was released in June, and the album three months later. I first heard it in ‘83 or so and found it beastly difficult listening. Opening track, Poppy Day was actually composed to fill the two minutes silence observed in Britain on Remembrance Day.

Saxophones introduce Regal Zone, but instead of playful glam effect they added to songs on The Scream, in this instance, they’re more like blasts of a war trumpet. With imagery that includes helmets of blood and squirming bodies, we’re still in realms of death that don’t really let up for most of the album, either lyrically or musically. Placebo Effect and side one closer Premature Burial (the latter based on an Edgar Allan Poe story) continue this imagery.

Icon, in its second half offers side one’s musical ease from the album’s musical intensity. I was listening to this album while stretching after my run and found the rolling toms easy to listen to. Lyrically, we’re still in arenas of conflict.

Those rolling toms, so reminiscent of Maureen Tucker’s work in the Velvet Underground suggest that the structure of Join Hands owes something to the Velvet’s White Light/White Heat. Side one contains relatively short songs with recognizable pop structures, whereas side two contains one pop song succeeded by nearly 20 minutes of what Laurie Anderson would have called ‘difficult listening’. (I know this argument assumes that The Gift on side one of White Light/White Heat has a recognizable pop structure. It doesn’t. But that’s a topic for another essay.)

By the time the original listeners flipped this over to side two, the bells of Playground Twist, already a top 40 hit and performed on Top of the Pops, must have been a welcome respite. Its waltz-time signature however puts the listener on guard that this isn’t going to be any easier. Mother/Oh Mein Papa, recited mostly to the sound of a music box, has new lyrics to a German music hall song later a hit in English for Eddie Fisher, among others. Rather than the nostalgic memories of ‘my father, the clown’, Siouxsie sings of the suffocating parent who wants to mold the child. ‘She’ll stunt your mind til you emulate her kind’ is eerily similar to Pink Floyd’s Mother, released later the same year, ‘She won’t let you fly, but she might let you sing.’

The original release’s closer is a 14-minute tour de force rendition of The Lord’s Prayer. Noting that the Banshees’ first performance (the only performance of the lineup that featured Marco Pirroni on guitar and Sid Vicious on drums) was an extended rendition of this song. Does its inclusion on this album suggest that they were at a loss for material? It’s possible, but given how prolific the band was, this is unlikely. Troubles within the band, whatever those things that precipitated the departures of McKay and Morris on the eve of the tour might have been, are more likely. The words of the prayer are interspersed with snippets of other pop songs (Twist and Shout, Knocking on Heaven’s Door), show tunes, and wordless wails and yodels. The inclusion of Tomorrow Belongs To Me, repurposed from Cabaret, brings the war references of the opening of the album full circle.

Even though Kenny Morris and John McKay would leave the band before the next album, Kaleidoscope, Morris’ drum sound on this album defined their sound in many ways. the toms in Icon are especially emblematic of the Banshees’ sound.

The 2006 reissue follows The Lord’s Prayer with the punk single Love In A Void (the b-side to the next single, Mittageisen) and closes with Infantry, an instrumental originally meant to close the album, but left off the original release. (Wikipedia indicates there’s a Record Store Day edition from 2015 that includes Infantry after The Lord’s Prayer. That would be a nice version to have.) Infantry is a slow, echo-laden piece for solo guitar and effects pedals with a repeated motif that slowly fades out. I think this track makes for a more appropriate, purposeful closing to a very difficult and worthwhile album.

Next up: Kaleidoscope

In between other things, I’ll be sharing my views on the music of Siouxsie and the Banshees, including the Creatures and Glove side projects. As with the other catalogues I’ve reviewed, I’ll be looking at the original album releases as opposed to the bonus-track laden reissues (not that those bonus tracks aren’t without merit).

Released: November, 1978

Lineup: Siouxsie Sioux (vox), Steve Severin (bass), John McKay (guitars), Kenny Morris (drums)

Tracklist Side 1:
Pure
Jigsaw Feeling
Overground
Carcass
Helter Skelter

Tracklist Side 2:
Mirage
Metal Postcard
Nicotine Stain
Suburban Relapse
Switch

Recorded after the release of debut single, Hong Kong Garden, and also produced by Steve Lilywhite. One of the first salvos of the post-punk era, The Scream contains elements of punk and glam, and with elements of the macabre, it set the stage for what became goth. And did so a year before Bauhaus hit the stands with Bela Lugosi’s Dead.

In terms of subject matter, the lyrics run from the mundane (Nicotine Stain) to, indeed, the macabre (Carcass, Suburban Relapse). I first got into the Banshees in ‘81 or ‘82 and started collecting their singles and having friends tape their albums. I’m sure I had this on a cassette with the second LP, Join Hands, on the other side. I listened to their music a lot, but the full albums I found really difficult to get into. Listening to this one now, I find it almost comforting in its familiarity, but surprising at the same time. The buried saxophones in Suburban Relapse and Switch feel lifted from a Roxy Music song (which kind of makes sense – Sioux and Severin, the band’s only stable members from start to finish, met at a Roxy gig in ‘75). Kenny Morris’ spacious drumming leaves so much room for the other members to thrive as well. I think Severin is underrated as a bassist, possibly because he makes the rhythms feel so obvious.

In between there’s the almost obviously punk cover of the Beatles’ Helter Skelter and the almost Can-like Metal Postcard. I’ve always found the English version of Metal Postcard a little strange, because the version I had, and played steadily for several years, was the German-language 45 (Mittageisen) released the following year.

Overground and Suburban Relapse are both about the trades between outward normality and an interior that doesn’t match expectations. This acknowledgement of the human balancing act was one of those things that fueled the goth aesthetic. Jigsaw Feeling almost foregoes the outward normality and addresses the splits inside, “One day I’m feeling total / the next I’m split in two.”

The album’s opening track, Pure, fades in with a slow build of bass, then guitar, then a wordless moan from Siouxsie that sounds as though it’s coming from down a long hallway. Jigsaw Feeling comes in with bass triplets and a single repeated guitar chord for the first 40 seconds. Combined with the almost two minutes of Pure, it’s two and half minutes before the album’s first words, ‘Send me forwards, say my feelings.’ A bold move for a debut album. David Bowie didn’t try the same trick until StationToStation, 12 years into his career.

By the time the album concludes with the 7-minute Switch, an indictment of science, medicine and religion for the ways in which they direct and confuse and experiment with no real understanding of how people work, the listener has been on a journey. A deeper lyrical analysis might reveal an inner-directed childhood point of view in some tracks followed by the more adult concerns (infused with that childhood confusion) found in the last three tracks.

Next up: Join Hands