Archives for category: rock and roll

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.

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: August, 1980
Lineup: Sioux, Steve Severin (bass), John McGeoch (guitar), Budgie (drums)

Tracklist:
Side 1:
Happy House
Tenant
Trophy
Hybrid
Clockface
Lunar Camel

Side 2:
Christine
Desert Kisses
Red Light
Paradise Place
Skin

Recorded in 1980 with Nigel Gray, who produced the first two Police albums, and would shortly go on to produce the third, Kaleidoscope is a nearly perfect pop album. It’s more interesting and more diverse, and has a more mature sound than that heard on the first two albums. The two singles from the album, side openers Happy House and Christine were released in March and May. Musically the sound is tight and clean with a greater focus on dynamics than on grabbing the listener by the collar. And it doesn’t sound like anything else from the period, either.

A lot of this is down to the skills of guitarist John McGeoch. There are some musicians who might point to four albums over the course of an entire career and say, ‘Yeah, those were real high points. I got what I was after.’ McGeoch recorded four such in 1980. He left Magazine after recording their third, The Correct Use of Soap; He also provided most of the guitar on Generation X’s Kiss Me Deadly, and Visage’s debut (alongside Magazine colleague Dave Formula and Midge Ure and Billy Currie who would go on to form Ultravox) before Kaleidoscope.

New drummer Budgie, who had taken over for Kenny Morris for the Join Hands tour, stayed with the Banshees until they broke up in 1996. Previously he’d played with Liverpool bands the Spitfire Boys (with Paul Rutherford, later of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Pete Wylie, later of the Mighty Wah), Big In Japan (with Bill Drummond, later of The KLF, Holly Johnson, later of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and Ian Broudie of The Lightning Seeds), and played on the Slits’ debut album Cut (including the single Typical Girls).

I bring all this history in to suggest that the new additions to the lineup (who would also record the next two albums, before changing guitarists twice more) brought a certain experience and firepower, and the results show.

Side 1 is smoother listening than side 2, and there seems to have been a real effort at a thematic organization with the music speaking directly to the lyrical content.

Some songs, such as Lunar Camel and Red Light retain the synth/drum machine arrangements of the original demos and seem too sparse. I think this adds to the variety of the album’s color (as hinted in the title).

Happy House, which always felt to me like a report from inside an asylum, describes the differences between the public personas of nuclear family members and the insanity behind closed doors. This might still be a report from inside the asylum.

Tenant is a thematically logical extension of Happy House wherein the subject is trapped inside. ‘we crawl into corners — ignore any callers… Still they cling to the walls and knock on our doors… But they have eyes at the keyholes and ears at the walls.
The madness inherent in the nuclear family envelopes any who find no means of escape.

Trophy is about those mementos of a successful youth which we hang, but no longer live up to.

Hybrid is my favourite track on side one. While musically more complex than most of the songs on the album (the exception being Paradise Place, my favourite track on side 2 and for the same reason), it’s lyrically really obscure in a way the other songs aren’t. I like the tone poetry of it. The more I read the words, the more it seems to reflect a relationship between two people who were friends but aren’t anymore due to those things that break people up, but are hard to explain…

When you walked through the door / Marked “enter if you dare”
Reasoned with a friend marked “do not bend” / Bit on that finger marked “handle with care”

It’s more emotionally complex than I expected, even though I’ve been listening to this album for a long time.

The wordless Clockface and Lunar Camel, which seems to be about just what the title says, but I’m not sure. round out side one.

https://youtu.be/uktcCvhRGXA

The single Christine, about a woman with (what was then called) multiple personality disorder, opens side two. Danceable and strange, it flows into the rest of the album, but is somewhat apart from it thematically. Desert Kisses has this gorgeous layered feel, in which the guitar effects and bass provide an almost psychedelic backdrop for Sioux’s lyrics of (possibly) ship wreck and sun stroked hallucination. Red Light pulls us back into the present and the modern with the vocals played only against synths, drum machines, and samples of a camera taking photos. This is appropriate to lyrics about a pornographic photo shoot. There’s a certain psychedelia to Paradise Place as well as we hear disjointed lyrics describing, a plastic surgeon’s practice (You can hide your genetics under drastic cosmetics). The original LP closed with the double-time percussion of Skin, which describes wearing fur and leather with a certain ambivalence (cover me with skin / accuse me of sin). It’s an odd closer, but fits nicely, especially with the two songs that precede it.

Next up: Juju

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