Bruce Springsteen – Darkness on the Edge of Town (Columbia – 1978)

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The impetuosity of youth led to a pseudo-rebellion which dismissed Springsteen, nay ‘The Boss’, as some kind of relic of eighties excess and saccharine stadium rock and as a covert representative of The Man, jeans manufacturers and a gauche shiny commercialism. That could never sit well with first my teenage allegiance to Britpop’s fey heroes and later the post-rock cult champions which would define my attempts at defining a casual outsider chic in place of a personality. How could it not? The arrogance of the cover of ‘Born in the USA’; the gasping, seemingly outmoded saxophone which sounded nothing like anything that would possibly reach into a musical era enamoured with the whimsy of The Kinks or reimagining The Beatles through Noddy Holder’s nonsensical lense of communal stomp. There was also sense that this may well be a man who your mother found deeply sexually attractive. It said nothing to me about my life as The Smiths nearly sang, yet Springsteen’s career peak could just about be one the most quintessential albums that would connect with a young man growing up in a crumbling post-industrial town and a faltering desire to explore a romanticism he could barely articulate.

While ‘Born to Run’ was of course my way in, for not loving the title track is probably akin to saying you dislike the laughter of children or the concept of joy, replete with a groove the jet propulsion of a fifties B-movie soundtracked by Phil Spector, it’s the innate questioning of what comes after the first rush of romance that runs central to ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’, for as sure as that first teenage love is the greatest rush of your life, the sickening come down and facing up to reality of life in a chokingly small town is just as necessary to growing up. ‘Born to Run’ may have adrenaline rush of ‘She’s The One’, but the melancholic sob for the barely realised expectations of a youth filled with a desire to escape in ‘Racing in the Street’ spoke far more of life’s realities. Yet irrespective of the lyrical concerns, it seems implausible that an album which glistens in reverb and irrepressible energy could have not moved a teenage heart so intent on discovering the new, had it only been given a chance.

One of the album’s most striking qualities is the sense of yearning which shoots through its heart, be that for an escape from small town blues or sheer sexual energy. Opener ‘Badlands’ plays like a fanfare but reads like call to arms against forces of greed and self-interest, while ‘Adam Raised a Cain’ is a furious portrait of working class life, with violence bred from desperation and an inability to articulate fury at the world. The title track and album closer explores this same theme with an inescapable melancholy of a town falling apart and the working man of ‘Factory’ losing his identity at the hands of an ever changing economic landscape. It’s of course a theme which seems a relevant now as it ever did then but the North East of England has been in decline from my earliest memory, so why couldn’t that have had a resonance with my instinctually and indoctrinated teenage socialist self?

Of course what that version of myself could not have possibly come to terms with is the fact that this album, for all it has a dark heart, has a sexual energy to it that I’ll perhaps never be able to articulate. The adrenaline rush as the drums kick in on ‘Candy’s Room’, the way that Bruce croons ‘I’m a liar’ on ‘Streets on Fire’ like he’s just invented seduction and that he can get away with singing ‘Prove It All Night’ without resorting to leather trousers, yet still we believe him as we suspend our disbelief and listen on slack-jawed and incredulous. Generational issues aside, could this have been a barrier? When growing up faced with notions of a Britpop England I recognised but barely felt a part of, that was often laddishly confrontational or meekly apologetic, could I really have taken a now middle aged man tell me he’d ‘prove it all night’? I suspect not but then I was almost certainly afraid of Prince too.

However, at its core, this is an album for whom the reoccurring motifs of ‘darkness’, ‘work’ and ‘dreams’ hint at the insecurity at the heart of us all. His much derided populism is of course his greatest strength, as even now at the age of 63 he and the E Street Band remain one of the most thrilling live bands whose music actually makes sense at the stadium of your local underperforming sports team. But nearly 35 years on and as he, just like some of his illustrious near peers he undergoes a relative creative revival, it seems unlikely that the first person narratives of this album, both brittle yet cocksure will ever speak a greater truth about what it’s like to be a confronted with the reality of accepting the tribulations of an uncertain future. No great philosophical introspection, just ‘the working life.

James Tiernan

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Rage Against The Machine – Evil Empire (Epic – 1996)

Their eponymous debut may have may have made triple-platinum them counter-cultural must haves, something any teenager could adopt and where as a badge of non-conformity no matter how much of the subject matter was appreciated, but it was a deeply flawed work. While strong tracks were exceptional they were not the rule. By the time of the arrival of the album’s second half the going had become leaden and unrelenting, in this reviewer’s mind for one reason; production. Debates (dull ones) abound about who first or best or absolutely fucking whatever about the fusion of rap and metal but RATM: The Album arrived in the context of Metallica’s ‘black album’ the year before, a sound both typifying and defining the sound of metal in that period.

Everything was thick and compressed so that all sustained notes were of the same volume as the initial strike, the ‘studio sound’ was all, drums resonate for a clinically uncomfortable amount of time with any trace of live playing squashed. All this was during choruses and verses, metal, when looking to be authentic (thanks guys) would replicate the ‘live’ sound by not having a guitar double the bass during solos, Pantera records and RATM’s first are prime examples of the ‘solo shitifier’, a technique by which all inertia and weight could disappear from a track as soon as soon as the guitarist wanted to ‘flash his blade’.  This was a particular gripe of mine on RATM’s debut given that all the sound collapsed at the same time a rock guitarist was about to do something interesting for the first time in about a decade. It was claustrophobic in a negative way, it wasn’t making a point it was just what it sounded like, and it sounded like 1992. If your early 90s metal album didn’t sound like your voice the interior of a waste paper bin when worn as a knight’s helmet then something had gone amiss. While RATM’s innovative nature can be argued (see ‘absolutely fucking whatever’ from earlier) it would seem that in this instance they had gone with convention.

When Evil Empire emerged four years later it was clear from the first note that this heavy woolly sound had been banished.  It sounded like the guitar was being played in the same room as the drums at the same time, the tone was lively, it sounded like a thing that was actually happened and was captured, it was exciting, it was fresh, it was vital and yet paradoxically it was all of these things because finally someone had gotten the whole ‘just sound loads like Zeppelin’ thing immaculately right. Metal had in the late 80s/early 90s become obsessed with mid range and distortion, this had been seen as the quickest route to the heaviest sound (along with palm muting), Zeppelin were never that heavy in tone, their heavy secret, was to operate as unit. In doing this RATM allowed groove to become a tool as available to them just as it was to the mighty Zeppelin. In the main metal had gone route one distortion and straight-laced fast tight drumming, this gave RATM’s sound of defiance another dimension with which to separate itself before the vocals have even been factored.

Trying to sound like Zeppelin isn’t a new idea so comparing RATM to Aerosmith and Soundgarden is unnecessary (well maybe Soundgarden, maybe) as the vocals completely eschew them. While De La Rocha was not calm on the first album this time he’s Howard Beale in Network, not only because he’s mad as hell and his isn’t going to take it any more is convenient and so hackneyed I have to include it, but his spirit of possession, possibly unhinged, saying dangerous things, lifting the lid on the backstage processes of the modern world, the power and conviction, all the weary last ditch flailing which Peter Finch brought to the role are in the voice this time, the sense that anger can bring about change, that it was believable, that it was well portrayed. The vocals could not have worked if they were not a) well written and b) well delivered. This might seem trite but mainstream music is normally as conservative as RATM aren’t so getting a record featuring songs about the Christian Right’s influence on mainstream media output, social inequality, the US military-industrial complex or the Zapatista revolution then it needs to be both good and cool when you do it.  You need conviction, authority and talent, De La Rocha was always this and fiercely so, more Chuck D or KRS-One (yeah, lazy and I’ve already cited Network, but in my defence if I named some other similar rappers you’d just have to Google them) than James Hetfield or Axl Rose of conventional rock, he was able to say more, more angrily and more substantive than rock’s norms of comforting ambiguity.

The Battle for Los Angles (to date their last album proper) would see the band build on this groove and tone it would never be as simple as it was here as Morello moved yet further towards utilising the guitar as technological interface rather than an instrument of pure riff, a device to be used in conjunction Wilk and Commerford. But thankfully the road map marked ‘production’ used on Evil Empire was used again. Maybe it’s just an unnecessary complaint on my part that I feel my favourite album by a particular band is often the one that seems to be either omitted from their collection or the one bought last. Sixteen years on Evil Empire is not only still lyrically relevant but a lively and vital sounding record that perhaps should be held up as a benchmark in the place of its predecessor.

Adam Hiles

 

 

 

 

 

Faith No More – Angel Dust (Slash – 1992)

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries cynicism in music was seen as bad.  Anything devised or calculated was frowned upon, in their obsession with ‘proper music’ fans and critics seemingly thought that only records that appears written, recorded, mixed, mastered, packaged, promoted and distributed in the space of 24 hours were authentic.  Cynicism was even worse than that, it was an attempt by deceitful to tag themselves on to some other movement or trend.  Cynical was working with Mark Ronson.  Cynical was anything Robbie Williams did post Take That.  But this was always cynicism about music, not cynical music.  It was marketing.  This mix on ‘Angel Dust’ sneers in its ugliness, tones lack sympathy for one another, beats are wrong, samples are comically loud, Mike Patton’s lyrics and overly dramatised vocal styling more like Zappa on Joe’s Garage than a band carving a career following the success of ‘The Real Thing’.  This cynicism manifested in a rejection of many rock norms, incorporation of the new and a fearless delivery of them.  It was all done like this on purpose, a taunt of a record, pitying our cruel lives then ending with covers of ‘Midnight Cowboy’ and ‘Easy’.  It isn’t a form of cynicism that is common in music and as a result can be one that people are uncomfortable with.

Faith No More themselves looked like they’d been the result of brainstorm session by a label, where the outcome was to intended to be the band with the broadest appeal.  The guitar guy had a Flying V and long hair and a beard, metal people will love that.  The bass player slaps now and again, how many did BloodSugarSexMagik sell?  Keyboards you say? Girls love them.  The drummer has dreadlocks and plays the drums?  The stoners will be on board.  The singer looks like he’s like one of those hip-hop skater kids, everyone will identify with him!  They looked they they’d been put together in order to secure the maximum musical instrument endorsement deals.  You can’t help but empathise with the record label upon receipt of the completed ‘Angel Dust’.  Even the title was provocative.  They’d played up to this ramshackle it shouldn’t work image by delivering a record that sounded what they look like at their worst.  While everything that was on this record was so Lalapolloza/MTV zeitgeist it was perfect, it was all there in a fashion so extreme that perhaps it was not.

‘A Small Victory’ achieved constant rotation as a four minute fade out, verses choruses chanting whispering air raid sirens and falsetto, in the end a network of rhythm, volume and pitch entirely unlike anything else on MTV at the time.  ‘Midlife Crisis’ started with a drum loop from Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Cecilia’ over which Patton told “My head is like lettuce, go on and dig your thumbs in, I cannot stop giving in, I’m thirty something”, it is uncomfortable, like when a comedy routine turns pained confessional.  ‘Land of Sunshine’ starts the album in that manner, “And life to you is a dashing, bold adventure, So sing and rejoice, sing and rejoice”, FNM put themselves above the listener, perhaps even mocking them, instead of funk-rock-pop its brash and harsh, it’s nearly right, it’s dressed to emphasise its flaws, maybe you’re in on the joke, with a chorus of “Does life seem worthwhile to you?”.  They had not held back in the extremity of their rejection.

Disgust is a keystone of this album, being fixated by it possibly equally so.  While this is no dumb frat party album it is filled with moments akin to Johnny Knoxville laughing at blood.  ‘Caffeine’, ‘Malpractice’ and ‘Smaller and Smaller’ are all filled with vocal inwards and (genuinely) grinding riffs that recall Pantera but are nastier, even unhinged to have done this on purpose, lyrically more so, ‘Smaller and Smaller’ referencing Taxi Driver with “Someday the rains will come, My blistered hands tell me, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow”.  ‘RV’ is a take-off on slick Hollywood Country and Western behind a rambling white trash narrative whose indignation spills all over the middle 8. A sense of actual bodily harm level violence stalks parts of this record, made more disconcerting given we’re use to other genres more sensational approach.

Though disgust is present throughout this album is essentially of moments of light pouring through cloud, melodies rarely do anything other than soar, vocal inflections beg to be mimicked, all the music thinks it’s big and it’s clever.  The greatest trick the devil ever played was pulling it off, this could easily have gone awry but instead it remains fresh in its difference.  No one since seems to have managed to have been both absurd and influential to this extent, to have been so earnest and humorous, to make something so ugly and beautiful.  For all the rejection and subversion Faith No More had maintained the inherent joy that can be had in rock.  While posting videos may not have been a trend here before the video for ‘Everything’s Ruined’ pretty much sums it all up http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5irHyoRNcR
Adam Hiles

Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds (Columbia – 1978)

To paraphrase the concerned Nun at the start of The Sound of Music, how do you solve a problem like reviewing a prog rock double album interpretation of a classic science fiction novel that features the vocal talents of a world renowned actor, two stars of a hit West End Musical and Phil Lynott out of Thin Lizzy within a self imposed 5 paragraph structure? The short answer is that you can’t. It’s impossible. You cannot convey all that is great and all that is wrong with such an artistic endeavor within such constraints. So how did we do it? As with any of life’s problems we turn to Captain James Tiberius Kirk for our solution. We tackled this as our own Kobayashi Maru. Cheat? No, we just don’t believe in the no-win situation. Here is our solution… Two reviews of the same album each looking at different aspects of it; the music and the narrative structure. And no this paragraph doesn’t count; it’s a preface.

The Music

D minor D minor A7; A7 A7 D minor. Orchestral strings usher an invasion. The chord sequence staggers to a dramatic climax before the theme is picked up and propelled up by smooth disco hi-hats, fuzzed out guitars and layers of synths expanding in a firmament of wow and flutter. There is no great skill in applying some strings to a pop record to try and implant in the listener a dignity and maturity otherwise missing but Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds (now shortened to ‘War of the Worlds’[now shortened to WotW]) was obviously written and conceived with orchestration in mind, paying homage as it does to traditions of Romanticism in its vision and portrayal. Listen to that ominous intro again and you can hear traces of Wagner’s dark bombast, concentrating as it does on the low violins, cellos and contra-bass for its throaty and Gothic representation of the Martian military operation. The layers of harmony, the inspiration from the fantastic, from a subject matter from an art other than music are all Romantic traits. This a canny move by Wayne given that the Romantic movement would’ve been a contemporary of this Martian invasion, giving its setting an air of authenticity. While telling a story with an orchestra was nothing new in 1978 its incongruous combination of that with the rock aesthetic of the time was, making this a baffling millions selling album.

The use of leitmotifs and instruments being assigned characters reveals further this classical aspiration. While Grieg, Prokofiev and Saint-Saens have endured beyond their years, giving us themes that we forever associate with a particular animal or place, rock musicians have often suffered when attempting such lofty feats. Wayne’s overture is already punctuation for threat in pop culture. Perhaps the vocodered ‘Ul-la’ of the Martians equally so, however, it would be folly to think that characterisation ran that shallow. On ‘Forever Autumn’ the hope of the hopes of humanity’s survival are voiced the traditional and Earthy muted drums, acoustic guitar, flute and mandolin. The Martians by the comparatively modern heavily effected guitar, synthesizers and drum setup, the 16th playing hi-hats in particular signal that Martian craft are nearby, in doing so preparing the listener for danger of some form, like the low bass rumbles that pre-echo attacks in ‘Jaws’. The opening bars of Horsell Common and the Heat Ray have the alien invaders seemingly stumble to life as the bass line comes to terms with the effects of Earth’s gravity, the rest of the tracks awash with new sounds, none of whom are particularly comfortable on the ear.

It would be foolish to think that entire of this undertaking is executed successfully. For a double album it is at least one side (possibly even one disc) too long. While fans of prog-rock may have been long accustomed to long songs and story-telling this is often simply too repetitive to maintain interest, WotW suffers in the same way as its neo-rock-classical cousin Tubular Bells, the rapid expansion in technology both in instrumentation and recording is embraced with open arms rather than used to full effect to further the narrative. Synths slightly different to last answer the strings, a newly effected guitar tones, such as phasers, chorus, fuzz and vox-wah are frequently introduced into the already sonically crowded diorama seemingly only there to pass time between the narrated passages. Playing, particularly from the rock side of things, seem to lack emotion, hitting the notes rather than creating the mood. While the chilling introduction and ‘Ul-la’ have gone on to be timeless certain sections seem ill-judged, even the keyboard breakdown of The Eve of War may act to add some light to the threatening shade of the rest of the piece, it goes too far, being reminiscent of a 70s cop show, specifically the part where it shows the protagonist’s skill in attracting the ladies or giving an example of their likeable humour and charisma. Unfortunately this trend continues throughout the record, from sections of Forever Autumn then through much of the 2nd disc the terror of the rout of man fail to convey the battle, underselling the immensity of the scene at hand. This recalls sci-fi wrier Brian Aldiss’ criticisms of his peer John Wyndham; ‘An invasion in a tea cup’, the trend of chocolate box funk and introspective synth jazz give no gravitas to this imagined alien holocaust, instead the listener wonders if for all the copies of this album sold, many of the 2nd discs are listened to only once.

With Brave New World, the central piece to disc 2 the lines of menace previously established are blurred as we hear the threat that Man poses to the Earth, how the hopes for the future may not be preferable to Earth under the Martians (coming as it does before the narrator decides to throw himself to his inevitable death in front of a Martian machine) and this is shown as the backing to David Essex’s main feature is scored in a way similar to that of the Martians, but one with all threat of a Paul McCartney Bond theme. Interesting as this is the track is it also makes this critic wonder if rather than classical Romanticism the main influence on this endeavor is the West End musical, with David Essex and Julie Covington at the time starring in Evita and this interpolation of the previous themes being a mainstay of musical theatre. This could go some way to explain the album’s otherwise confusing success, musical theatre (rather than opera) has been much derided as being of low cultural value while simultaneously selling out both live performances and recorded versions, ultimately for this album’s veneer of ‘newness’ it is a conservative record obeying various musical rules that even then were decades old. What is it about records telling stories that we just cannot get enough of? Whether this is Cats, Peter and Wolf or WotW it seems that listeners respond most to directed listening, while Tubular Bells (for the sake of this example) may have been a success, it pales next to the no more plausible concept of WotW.

As the story ends with Dead London it is one of fatigue not joy that overwhelms the listener, the return of the main theme, now with added fanfare as the humans have ‘won’, confuses the narrative more. Was this ever a Martian theme? Was it ever a human theme? Was this just a melody for the piece? Perhaps Wayne was simply just aware that the theme is one of the album’s strongest melodic sequences and after 80+ minutes which precede it, asking the listener to try and comprehend another new theme could be a step too far. The sense of disappointment is highlighted in the two epilogues, both punctuated by treated radio static percussion, teasing the listener with a flourish of creativity that had it been incorporated throughout could have resulted in a much more even weighted album. However, much like Mike Oldfield before him, Jeff Wayne may well laugh off this criticism while diving into his swimming pool from the elevated height of his wallet. That this curio of an album continues to sell despite all its flaws is disconcerting, that few similar projects have been undertaken since is reassuring. If like the animated Lord of the Rings feature of 1978 Wayne had been forced to abandon the project due to lack of funds after disc 1, this record would no doubt be a cult classic but instead as a whole of uneven quality it has become classic in its own right, thankfully without peers.

The Adam Hiles

The Narrative

No one would have believed, in the last years of the 1970’s that Richard Burton would appear on a Prog-Rock album. Why? How? Richard Burton? Seriously? These are all legitimate questions when it comes to WotW. It would be easy to write off my love of this album as childhood sentimentality and indeed I have fond memories listening to my Dad’s worn out cassette tape repeatedly as a child, scaring the bejesus out of myself even though I knew it almost word for word. But this record has prevailed where other Prog-Rock imaginings of other fantasy/sci-fi classics have not. On paper this is no more ridiculous that Rick Wakeman’s Henry VIII/ Centre of the Earth/ King Arthur trilogy and yet copies of those records now take up huge amounts of shelf space in charity shop warehouses whereas live performances of WotW can pack out arenas.

Success is perhaps due largely to the source material and Wayne’s reluctance to alter Wells’ prose. Indeed the record is split in the same manner of the book, the first disc (2 sides) dealing with The Coming of the Martians and the second The Earth Under the Martians. All Wayne has done is to edit down the text so that all that remains is key to the plot. Strip away the music and what you’re left with is a version of Wells’ original re-written as a Graham Greene short story; no syllable or consonant used unless absolutely necessary. Wayne resists the temptation of filling in the blanks of the source material. The Martians here still have no purpose, their invasion of Earth a meaningless assault on an inferior race. We the listeners are allowed to draw our own inferences, meaning the themes of Wells’ original book are not lost. How easy it could have been to add and embellish as in the 1953 Cold War influenced B-Movie version of the book which presents the invasion as an unprovoked pre-emptive strike. Wayne also allows the Science vs. Religion point of the book to play out in full. Phil Lynott’s maniacal Parson unable to stop the Martians with prayer and cross; the aliens eventually defeated by micro organisms. The 1953 Movie doesn’t credit it’s viewers with any intelligence and refuses to accept that Science may have won the day pointing out that the Martians had been defeated by the tiniest of creatures that “God in His wisdom had put upon this Earth.” That Wayne has continued to resist the temptation to play around with this record to cash in on its continuing popularity is commendable. Yes, there are remixes, live shows, outakes and documentaries but the original body of work remains intact, the audience given the choice of whether to access these extras or not. Parallels might be drawn with Star Wars released a year earlier. In its original form A New Hope allowed the viewer to interpret concepts such as The Force, parsecs and the Kessler Run within their own imaginations. Since the Phantom Menace most of us now know more about The Force and midi-chlorians than necessary and one can only assume that the next edition released by George Lucas will have Han Solo delivering a PowerPoint presentation on the Millennium Falcon’s schematics to Obi Wan and Luke in the Mos Eisley Cantina.

Even taking into account the above, the album’s continued success, not just commercial but artistic, owes much to Richard Burton in his role as the Journalist. In the hands of another actor (or musician), it’s easy to see how the rest of the album might fall apart. Here though Burton treats his script with the same reverence as he might treat Shakespeare. His delivery is earnest and wired, never tongue in cheek, never overplayed and never verging on pastiche. When a Martian claw grabs his boot in the dark of a coal cellar we feel his fear and when he walks into a deserted London and offers himself to the Martians his desperation and sense of loss are palpable, regardless of what the music may be doing in the background. Sadly I cannot find reason to praise either David Essex or Phil Lynott, the latter reeking of stunt casting. There is nothing necessarily wrong with either but like the gas station attendant at the end of Wayne’s World 2 you wish they’d put more effort into the casting.

The telling of the story is by no means perfect throughout. There are two particular points where Wayne and lyricist Gary Osborne misread the tone. Thunderchild sounds like a prog-creation but the name of the warship is lifted directly from Wells’ text. It offers hope that Man might overcome the Martians and their machines and this is echoed in the driving promise of the music. The hope of the people watching is captured well enough in the lyrics but when the Journalist reveals that the ship has been brought down there is no change in either the tone of the music or the manner in which the lyrics are delivered. This “mighty metal War-Lord” that once promised to deliver the Earth from Martian dominance has been defeated, the last hope of Man sunk without a trace… “Lashing ropes and flashing timbers/ Flashing heat rays pierced the deck/ Dashing hopes for our deliverance/ as we watched the sinking wreck.” From the music and almost joyous singing you wouldn’t know that all hope had been lost and so the lyrics become an almost Pythonesque parody of all that has gone before. The same can be said of David Essex’s plans to repopulate the Earth in Brave New World. Essex’s character tells the Journalist that with “just a handful of men, we’ll start all over again.” Biological impossibility aside, it is hard to ignore the homo erotic undertones; Essex, with raised expectant eyebrows, propositioning the Journalist when he sings “it’s going to have to start with me and you.”

This record is far from perfect and there are times when the Wayne over indulges himself, adding little to the telling of the story. However when listened to in its entirety, with the lights turned down or driving through winter fog, it still has an ability to scare the bejesus out of me. It’s difficult to know whether this is psychological trauma retained from my childhood or perhaps it’s because, aside from the Journalist’s opening monologue, there is nothing within the telling of the story that dates it (although one might wonder why David Essex has to walk to headquarters to report back rather than picking up a radio or satellite phone). Maybe this, most of all, is why the record still affects me as a listener. This could happen. It really could. Tomorrow. Or the next day. Maybe you’re sceptical? What are the chances of anything coming from Mars? A million to one? Ha. D minor D minor A7; A7 A7. D minor.

The Cameron R. Black

Alice Cooper – School’s Out (Warner Bros – 1979)

June 1972.  There’s still hope that The Beatles will reform, no matter what they say.  Pink Floyd have not yet visited The Dark Side of the Moon.  David Bowie has just released Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.  Alice Cooper releases School’s Out.  While Alice and David may shared much both in terms of heritage style, it was always Alice who was most conflicted.  While David was the outsider, deconstructing rock ‘n roll and giving it a future, Alice blurred the lines more, incorporating humour and more topical references.  Simply put David was serious, Alice might be a clown.  While David’s stage shows would be art, Alice’s would be entertainment.  From the beginning of his career Cooper wanted to play the villain not the hero, while Ziggy became so successful the band broke up and he was ‘killed’ onstage, Alice was disinterested in circumstance making actions evil, he was evil to start with, he’d been killing and getting killed on stage for years. It was unjustified.  He was uninvited. He was shocking.  He was winking.  He was joking.  While David’s opening salvo may have been concerned with the death of our planet, Alice saw fit open his album with a chorus of children’s voices declaring that ‘school’s been blown to pieces’, Alice was the light to David’s shade. While David was paralyzed by the magnitude of what he must comprehend, Alice reminded us of the glorious days when comprehension only applied one way, the world had to understand us and bow to our whims.  David’s concern was one of escape and its impossibility.  Alice’s was of escape and its inevitability and with it an unknown freedom.

It’s perhaps odd then that one of Cooper’s most successful works contains few of the lyrical references to the world of horror with which he went on to become associated with.  The themes for this record are all teenage, universal in the Western world; hatred of school, passion, gangs, rebellion, wide horizons, confining walls.  In the verse of Public Animal #9 Alice tells of the limited vista, ‘Me and GB we ain’t never gonna confess, we carved some dirty words in our desk, we cheated at the math test, and now it’s time for recess’ while on My Stars is over wrought, hyper-sensitive, ‘All I need is a holocaust to make my day complete’, it’s an album willfully fuelled by hormonal imbalance lacking perspective, imbued with the feeling that these are the greatest days of your life and the feeling that others’ days are greater than yours. Perhaps the most shocking part of the lyrics is just how witty and considerate they are, it is truly an album of nostalgia but the fears of a teenager are not belittled, instead the bar room blues easiness of the band thrown together Bob Ezrin’s (both the album’s producer and keyboard player) lush orchestral arrangements mean that with the delivery of ‘I can’t find the exit, I quit looking for ghosts, I stole a razor from the commissary, I just couldn’t take it no more’ you’re there with him, overreacting, that teenage desolation crystallized, the immaturity of such a statement juxtaposed against your adult self now being immune to feelings of such extremity.

Unsurprisingly for vocal music it is Alice’s voice that is the centre point of this album.  Much of the small scale comedy and the tragedy is a result of Cooper’s control and judgment.  Not only does Cooper have  sweetness to his voice that prevents Rod Stewart styled ‘rock’ typicality but he has a willingness to ‘act’ that sets him apart.  While dictating a narrative from the perspective of a character is nothing new, Cooper’s change in delivery, often within a few lines, allows him a depth of emotion that seems missing from his classmate Bowie’s masterpiece.  While Bowie has always been some kind of alien the conceit in this record is inclusion, Cooper details shared experiences; people thrown together with little in common but age and locality.  An experience both individual and universal.  Everyone has been to school.  Everyone had a good time.  Everyone wanted it to finish.  That said, the final ‘joke’ of the album sees Alice directly speaking to his class mates on the last day of school, while the verses detail a litany of teenage high jinx it ends ‘I hope I see you again some time, don’t forget me or nothing, remember the Coop’, Cooper’s voice moving from a warm nostalgia to an unnerving fear, as if the ballsy punk of the previous seven tracks is now aware that far from being popular, was merely tolerated, the people he considered peers are happy to have a future without him, Cooper will be left, some kind of Fonz character, out of time, only good at goofing around.   After school everyone wants to go back.

While Alice Cooper is no doubt central to any Alice Cooper record, its success cannot be attributed to one man alone, the musicianship and production are all exceptional, everyone sounds like they are having a good time.  From the swinging rat pack bass of ‘Blue Turk’ to the half time groove with  bar of a snare roll that is the opening to ‘My Stars’, playing is fresh and lively.  Bowie comparisons continue as the backing vocals and guitars throughout pre-echo ‘Lust For Life’ by a cool five years while the ever building twisted groove of the album’s closer ‘Grand Finale’ and ‘Public Animal #9’ as call to mind both the instrumental work of Isaac Hayes or David Axelrod and the dark, stark funk that Bowie would inhabit from Station to Station and not leave until after Heroes. It is a school a young Sparks may have attended.  Faith No More scratching their name on the same desk.  Comedy and subversion is a strong theme in the music, aside from the still hilarious brass section fart noise that, try as it might to, manages not to derail the entire of ‘Blue Turk’ that precedes it, it is the interpolation of West Side Story’s ‘Gutter Cat Vs. The Jets’ that provides the biggest surprise centrepiece, not only in that they play it,but that they play it so well, it is vital and well judged.  This isn’t yet the age of ubiquitous ironic cover versions, Alice and band going through an intense build up (so intense it is part bass solo) only to peak with ‘Here come the Jets like a bat out of hell, someone gets in our way some one don’t feel to well’.  This one sly reference works to show that the rebellion Alice details is nothing new, preempting angry parent protest by getting their kids to sing the same songs they had about the same things they did, while at the same time having that sly smile that only comes on when a violent street gang sing and dance in unison.

While Cooper would follow this album with another two greats in the form of ‘Billion Dollar Babies’ and ‘Welcome to my Nightmare’ he would never again release an album so focused and compact, of such musicality and variance, a place where he would play both ringmaster and victim to such extremity.  As an album of genuine warmth and fondness it may never bettered, delivered in almost Vonnegut like fleeting detail and humour.  Perhaps the only disappointment is never knowing the feeling of excitement in that June of 1972 as School’s out and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars were released, that rock had such a range of innovation, but more than that, just sounding so good.

Adam Hiles

Leonard Cohen – Death of a Ladies’ Man (Columbia 1977)

Schlepping round a recent Robert Breer retrospective it was impossible not to be struck by the both the breadth and narrowness of his work. Ranging from fast-paced, jerky animations to playful, moving sculptures, Breer clearly delighted in working in a range of mediums, but despite this it was hard to escape the feeling that in his later work a certain sense of perspective has been lost. The animations in particular feel repetitive and unfocused, not just on their own (as they are supposed to be) but also collectively, giving the impression he has lost sight of his overall aim and is instead concentrating on “perfecting the process”. It’s a trap that has snared many artists as they begin to micromanage their creativity in the hope of achieving perfection but succeed only echoing their past work, with each small change failing to have any significant impact on the finished piece.

It was perhaps a fear of such micromanagement which lead Leonard Cohen to form an unlikely partnership with producer Phil Spector, two men whose musical sensibilities were so far apart they must have both known the collaboration would be fraught before it began, but that it would also produce something very different from their past works. At this point in his career Cohen had released four largely acoustic albums, while Spector’s background lay in pop and it seems unlikely the pair could have ever come to agreement about how Death of Ladies’ Man should have sounded. The producer, perhaps sensing this took what Cohen regarded to be rough vocal takes of each track and then locked the singer-songwriter out of the studio while he added brass, strings, keyboards and, of course, drums with plenty of reverb. Cohen, meanwhile, was prevented from reworking his lyrics and, as such, there was no chance to self-censor, meaning the songs carry a sense of rawness and honesty that may have otherwise been lost.

The final result has many more good moments than bad. For the most part Spector’s arrangements complement Cohen’s singing, most noticeably on the opening track, True Love Leaves No Traces, where the lounge-style instrumentation mingles effortlessly with lyrics about just how complicated sexual intercourse can make life, even if you pretend it doesn’t – this subject being something of a theme across the album. Spector also successfully highlights Cohen’s often-overlooked humour. On Memories, an ode to adolescent lust, the deliberately-over-the-top backing track captures the mood and the bitter comedy of a desperate advance rejected. Tenderness isn’t an issue either, with I Left A Woman Waiting, one of many Cohen’s ballads dealing with the issue of a lover regretfully betrayed, treated with a lightness of touch that will surprise many who have dismissed the album out of hand.

For the most part, the Cohen/Spector collaboration works so well it’s even more jarring when it goes spectacularly wrong as happens towards the end. Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On is as childish and pointless as it sounds and no amount of production could have saved it, while Fingerprints, a jaunty country-esque, ditty is the only track on which Spector misses the mark. Given greater creative control, Cohen would have surely ditched or reworked both of these tracks, but then again given greater creative control Cohen may have ultimately scuppered the project entirely and that would have been a great shame.

Most Cohen aficionados, along with the artist himself, will always view the album with a sense of distain, but it would be churlish to dismiss it entirely, especially as it clearly took the Canadian out of his comfort zone and stopped him doing the same thing over and over again. The fuller sound of his later albums although never coming close to Spector’s excesses is clearly informed by them. An odd collaboration was inevitably going to produce an odd album, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good.

Wm Stevens

Warpaint – The Fool (Rough Trade – 2010)

Records like this are part of the reason I wanted to be involved with a project like this blog.  All girl super hipster indie cross over dance krautbeat reverb retro who are met with critical praise and Later appearances around the time journos realise it’s in their best interests to get some good words published ahead of their London show where guest list spaces will be tighter than metaphor removed, metaphor removed.  Normally this type of broad sheet acclaim is a reason avoid such records, they’ll have a limited repeat value, perhaps an instant charm, but one that fades with the album cycle.  By the time the second album comes out you know that you’d just gotten caught up in something, wrapped up in hype.  You won’t buy it.  You’ll never listen to them.  You’d been CSSed again.

Perhaps one of the most telling signs of this album’s slightly unexpected nature can be found in the thanks.  First up is John Frusciante, one member’s former boyfriend and champion of the band.  While his career may seem to many as being (simply) teenage obscurity, Chili Peppers, Chili Peppers and drugs, just drugs, no drugs, Chili Peppers, no Chili Peppers.  Though the shy for a super star Frusciante may not have seen perception this fit to challenge, his aptitude for experimentation and psychedelia, though present in his former day job, were certainly diluted.  He talked in interviews following his addictions of having to be extremely detached from the world so as not derail his recovery, his friends shielding him to the point it was months after terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers that he knew of their occurrence.  Perhaps holed up on a mountain searching for ‘inner peace’ or ‘truth’ this could be understood, for an LA resident it is telling.  It is in his wide eyed psychedelic state that you experience Warpaint.  It forces naivety.  It has an ‘energy’.  It has a ‘spirituality’.  Where land and water collide.  This could’ve been the album after ‘A Storm In Heaven’ and before ‘A Northern Soul’ if it hadn’t been for acoustic guitars and a legal wrangle resulting in the addition of a ‘The’.  Structure is instinctive, styles seem hazily remembered, parts too stoned or blissed out to need to be changed, only betrayed by craft and imagination, this is too well played for it not to be written and rehearsed, the voice moves from a mumble to strain too well, it is too responsive for it to be simply guided by impulse.  This is the sound of four people in a room, but rawness is not the desire, these four people have drilled their style to point of maximum soft impact.   While any comparisons of anyone to Liz Fraser now outstrip actual Cocteau Twins albums sold, the vocal style and range ploughs through atmosphere hinted at in Fraser’s ‘Song to the Siren’ for This Mortal Coil.  That lushness, that fragility, 45 minutes of it.  That individuality is harmonised with pop; LA lives in this voice, in low notes Bangles smooth and Stevie Nicks threatening to breakthrough on the highs.  Adding to this tempered drama.

Musically this is an album about the stop.  About the start. The gap.  How it will be. Respected.  How. It. Will. Be. Interrupted. Simplicity. Interlock. Bass counts in eights, guitars in fours, nothing new, it’s just done well.  The ride cymbal is the only thing that changes but in doing so the whole shape of the room changes, it gets smaller, it gets tighter.  For all their LA hipness it feels as though they must have spent any time in Laurel Canyon listening to Wire over CSN&Y and Zappa. There’s the quiet brutality, the way that you have to have been playing for years to play anything that basic, with a scratchy quality, captured mistakes against the deliberate nature, the basic groove, looped, looped again.  The repeat that part, repeat that part, strip the part back, just play that, bring it back and stay there and let it fall out nature of Hearbeat.  The anti-solo of Lowdown.  It haunts here.  Heavily effected twin one stringed guitar melodies glance at the bass line occasionally enough to create a chord, eerily reminiscent of The XX’s starkness, instruments are parts of the whole, the ego lead lines and supporting players have no currency.  Again like The XX, Warpaint are against the mastering war.  Quiet, lulling, reserved, meaning any step up is felt, it has meaning, peaks spread across a record.

An album of quiet wows it’s perhaps the aspect of LA’s folk heritage where this album falls, the few brief moments of acousitica seem well trodden compared what bookends it. Lyrically it is also vague enough to be have that LA ‘spirituality’, that ‘energy’, the heritage of insight, anything can be read into it;  the subject is ‘you’, they talk of ‘it’ and ‘when’, of ‘Walking through this fire’ and of when ‘You could’ve been my king’.  Though with a sound this hazed it may be too much to expect lyrical detail.  Specifics may betray the intelligence of the author but may also detract the listener from a canvas otherwise their own.

The strange combination of the idea of LA and the idea of England seem welded here.  For every sleek vocal the bass is The Cure high in the mix.  Reverbed guitars in My Bloody Valentine aping amounts.  Beats of indie propulsion.  Its as if they are not entirely familiar with the subject or degree of their influences, they’ve heard about the legend but never the detail. Their idea of it has allowed them to break free of their faults and cliches, to create something not altogether new but containing enough difference to warrant sustained attention.  It’s very 80s.  It’s very much of the times.  If I had listened to my instincts and not Rich in RPM I wouldn’t have bought this.  I haven’t been CSSed. In writing this I have proven both sides of my argument to be correct; never trust a critic.

Adam Hiles