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Michael Jackson ‘BAD 25’ – Review

18 Oct

“Well they say the sky’s the limit/and to me that’s really true.”

So sang Michael Jackson on the title track to his 1987 album ‘Bad’. But if the sky’s the limit, then surely Michael Jackson was well and truly flying when he released Thriller, unable to travel any higher? ‘Thriller’, after all, was (even at that point) the biggest selling album of all time by quite a considerable distance. But Michael Joe Jackson was simply unable to recognise that it was impossible to sell more copies than ‘Thriller’. This was a man who was born with an unnatural dose of talent. A man who had ambition beaten in to him before he could walk. For Michael Jackson the only option was to shift more units than Thriller, more units than Madonna’s last album, more units than crates of beer, more units than knives and forks, more units than the King James Bible or cough medicine.

And this was how he arrived at ‘Bad’, ‘Thriller’s highly anticipated follow-up. Michael used the term ’Bad’ in the street sense of the word as in ‘cool’, ‘hip’, ‘swinging’ ‘down’, ‘gangasta’, ‘bangin’, ‘dope’, ‘totally, like, amazing man. Unfortunately, some journalists at the time wrote the headlines before they heard the album. According to them the record was only bad in the true sense of the word – as in ‘it stinks’. Clearly though, in retrospect, it doesn’t stink. To my ears it may be the most consistently brilliant pop album ever made.

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‘Bad’ sounds of its time whilst sounding out of time. It’s very much a late 80’s sounding record, full of dated effects and cheesy synths, but it has a futuristic bent. It clearly has influences but it’s difficult to pin point what exactly (at least, without reference to the purple one). Bad is very much a product of the hit pop factory and yet it sounds strange and unique. On this album he took the reins for the first time, by writing all the material himself, by having a much greater hand in the production and by following his natural artistic instincts without diversion.

Despite this brave approach he followed the same formula that made ‘Thriller’ such a smash. Hyesterical Duet? Tick. Theatrical title track? Tick. Emotional power ballad? Tick. A hard rock number featuring a solo from one of the world’s best guitarists? Tick. It’s this combination of safety and bravery, the old and the new, the known and the unknown, that makes bad such a success.

Whilst the album borrowed a lot of tricks from its older brother, there are also a lot of differences between the two records. It seems to me that the biggest difference is how frivolous ‘Bad’ sounds in comparison to ‘Thriller’, a record that was at times so tightly wound it was in danger of bursting. On ‘Bad’ everything is much looser; the bass is lighter, Michael’s vocals are more playful and the lyrics aren’t as dark or despairing (a couple of noticeable exceptions aside). Buoyed on by the success of ‘Thriller’, Michael sounds so much more confident on ‘Bad’.

On ‘Thriller’, the delights lay in the centre of the record, that core trio of ‘Billie Jean’, ‘Beat It’ and ‘Thriller’. Before you arrived at these classics you had to listen to the relatively forgettable ‘Baby Be Mine’ and ‘The Girl Is Mine’. On ‘Bad’ the highlights are spread over the whole record, and surprises spring from the strangest of places. It starts quite literally with a crash bang and wallop, before that creeping baseline appears out of the chaos to signal Michael’s arrival. He sounds like he never has before; dirty, depraved and dangerous. ‘Your butt is mine’ has to be one of the best opening lines to any album. Here, however briefly, he sounds as bad as he wants us to believe he is. This is the most declarative opening to a Michael Jackson album yet.

And Michael longed for us to think he was this dangerous rebel. Originally he wanted the cover of the album to be a close up of his face distorted by a veil (you can see it in the booklet to the deluxe edition) but in the end the label decided on a more threatening photo of Michael in a leather studded jacket. They wanted to earn him some much needed man points. Just look at it for a minute though: Does Michael look threatening? Bad? Dangerous? The answer has to be no. In fact it’s impossible to look at it in 2012 with clear, fresh eyes, to see what’s really there without our knowledge of the man influencing our verdict. Look at his tanned skin for example; In the picture he is paler than he was ten years before, considerably paler. He is more white than black if anything, regardless of whether that’s down to skin bleaching or vitiligo. In some ways you look at this and see the beginning of the end. The start of the demise. Trying to be objective though, he actually looks very cool, in a very unusual way.

Michael’s hair caught on fire in 1985 and the flames demolished his Afro and Jerry Curls. In the picture his locks of curly, shiny hair make him look pretty effeminate. It’s in bizarre contrast to the masculine clothes he’s wearing. I mean, honestly, he looks like nothing else; no man or woman I’ve ever known. He looks like an alien, if an alien was trying to hang out with a street gang. This is an album cover that poses many interesting questions and shrouds yet more mystery on the music.

But back to that title track; on this song, and others (‘Speed Daemon’, ‘Smooth Criminal’) Michael adopts a new vocal style for the verse, a kind of low volume grunt that he would use more and more in the nineties. Here it’s still novel and it suits the songs, as do the groans and exclamations that pepper the tracks, but would go on to litter future albums. Shamone! He He! Awww! *grabs crotch*.

The vocabulary is delightful and unstoppable, and throughout the album Michael sounds like he’s having a ball. On ‘Speed Deamon’ he rides the bouncing bass-line like a child rides a space hopper, full of glee. ‘On Leave Me Alone’ the synth chords are elastic, Michael stretches them. They could snap but they never do. Michael delights. ‘Dirty Di-an-a’ Michael moans over a crunching, grasping guitar. It’s a type of agony Michael is describing. He is a torn man. Torn between right and wrong. It’s a song about groupie love, In contrast to the pure love that is described in the song that precedes it, the corny ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’. Michael is in a sudden dark descent as the album tumbles to an close. The song after ‘Dirty Diana’ is about Murder. Bad Michael, bad.

The first type of love we encounter on the album isn’t really love at all, it’s lust disguised as love. A song called ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’. A sure fire sign of his total desire comes in the first line of the song, which finds Michael addressing a girl as ‘pretty baby’. It catches him dreaming of her dagger high heels, before he works his way up her body. ‘You Give Me fever like I’ve never, ever known’, Michael squeals, stretching the eee’s like they’re Mr Muscle toys. Michael can’t even express his lustful thoughts in complex sentences, instead he screams out in snatches. ‘The way you make me feel! You really turn me on! You knock me off of my feet! My lonely days are gone!’

The song is the first real example, and the best, of Michael expressing such direct, lustful thoughts. It feels more adolescent than the songs on ‘Off the Wall’ and ‘Thriller’, but also more grown up, more honest, more in your face. On ‘Workin Day and Night’ Michael was working 24 hours a day to provide for the love of his life, here he’s only prepared to slave away from ‘9-till 5’. The night hours are for something else entirely. The drum attack that introduces the song recalls a similar introduction to ‘Rock With You’, but this opening feels manipulated and sexual. It flickers from channel to channel in a way that instantly catches the listener’s attention and instantly makes them dizzy. ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’, despite being a piece of perfectly constructed, perfectly realised pop, is as Carefree as Michael had sounded since the early days of the Jackson Five, and it’s more carefree than he would ever sound again.

This is the most commercial track on the album, and perhaps the one most in thrall to Prince, the genius who had stolen some of Mike’s thunder in the five year gap between Thriller and Bad, and perhaps the biggest influence on this record’s sound. He was going to duet on the title track, which was envisioned as a kind of duel between the two biggest superstars on the planet. Prince didn’t show up. Michael won by proxy. Ding Ding!

To be honest, as consistently brilliant as this album is, nothing on here can quite compare to the best bits on ‘Off the Wall’ or ‘Thriller’. That’s saying nothing about the quality of ‘Bad’, it’s just that nothing shines quite as brightly as the sun and nothing sounds as good as ‘Billie Jean’ or ‘Don’t Stop till You Get Enough’. ‘Smooth Criminal’ probably comes closest; It reminds me of those former tracks, with the mysterious and captivating lyrics, the bassline that serves as the song’s main hook and the dramatic opening. Here the instruments are slightly synthetic and a drum machine has replaced the human back beat of ‘Billie Jean, but it still has a serious case of the funk.

‘Man in the Mirror’ is of course another classic. It wasn’t the first song Michael performed that bemoaned the state of the planet, but it’s the first one that was given pride of place as a single, the first one to strike out a convincing message and it’s become perhaps his signature anthem.

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Not many Michael Jackson albums have an overriding theme; Off The Wall does, it’s a love letter to the art of dancing your heartbreak away; ‘History’ (and therefore the remix album ‘Blood on the Dancefloor’) is an autobiography that with stunning honesty and directness addresses the emotional tornadoes raging at Michael’s core (these are two very overlooked records that deserve a critical reappraisal). ‘Bad’ though, like ‘Thriller’, can’t be summed up in a nifty sentence. It’s essentially a collection of short stories, which is just how Michael pictured it. Working titles for Smooth Criminal and ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ were ‘Al Capone’ and ‘Hot Fever’. Michael wanted to create a cinematic soundscape. ‘Bad’ appeals to all the senses.

It’s the record where Michael the man retreats from public view and Michael the enigma steps into it. It was at this point in his career where the tabloid rumours started becoming common place and for the first time, on ‘Leave Me Alone’, he addresses them. An attack on the tabloid press? This is not a song that would ever have appeared on ‘Off the Wall’ or ‘Thriller’. Nobody else could/would have made a song like this. In the 90’s Michael would make a lot more. Bad is the dividing line between Michael the artist and Michael the tabloid spectacle. Michael the man and Michael the enigma. Michael the musician and Michael the mystery.

It’s also the first time that the singles were more important than the album, and that’s because the singles ARE the album. Almost all the songs on the record were released as singles. He had five number ones from ‘Bad’, which was more than any other artist had taken from one single record. Most records tail off at the end, but all the songs on the second half of ‘Bad’ were top ten singles. Most were number ones. To all intent and purposes, ‘Bad’ is a greatest hits – a joyful greatest hits. Because of this, the minor songs (the two not released as a singles) are among the most overlooked and underrated in all of Jackson’s back catalogue.

‘Just Good Friends’ is an astonishingly unimportant duet with Stevie Wonder that takes the template of ‘The Girl is Mine’ and betters it without even trying. The interplay between the two legends is great, as is the organ sound, the harmonica solo and the bridge. Oh the bridge! It’s hard to believe a duet between two of the biggest names on the planet could sound so effortless when appearing on the most anticipated album ever, but this is fantastic!

If the album does have a low point then ‘Just Good Friends’ has been identified as being it, however it would stand out as a highlight on almost any other record. I’m not saying ‘Bad is a flawless album though. At times it’s a bit too big budget and spectacular for its own good, a bit like a Hollywood blockbuster that slightly overdoses it with the special effects just because it can. Everything sounds so smooth and polished that some of these songs sound like they were produced by robots rather than human being. ‘Bad’ doesn’t have that live, authentic, subtle dance kick that previous Jackson album had. Perhaps because of this, I’ve always preferred ‘Off the Wall’ to ‘Bad’, even though I’d probably chose both over ‘Thriller’. Despite this (or perhaps because of this) ‘Bad’s’ pop intent was fully realised and the record stands as a towering achievement of pop excess.

*

So what exactly is ‘Bad’s’ legacy? Does it have one? Well to start with, yes, ‘Bad’ does have a legacy. Lady Ga Ga gets compared to MJ all the time, and which incarnation are they comparing her with? Bad Michael of course. Just compare the covers of  their records. Listen to the ‘Alejandro’ then listen to Liberian Girl’. The album has also had an influence on dance music as well as pop, and I’ve even heard indie acts like Klaxons and CSS sing its praises. Despite living in the shadow of ‘Thriller’, ‘Bad’ has been just as influential, if not more so.

The 25th anniversary reissue is interesting because it’s making an important event out of an album that, to me at least, has always felt like the least consciously important of all Jackson’s major albums. By that I mean it is the one without an agenda. With ‘Off the Wall’ he was battling his image as a washed up child Star, his perception as a ‘has been’; he had everything to prove. On Thriller’ he was challenging the world’s assumptions about race – he was challenging what it was possible for a black artist to achieve by breaking down barriers and opening doors. On ‘Bad’ the only person he needed to prove anything to was himself. After ‘Bad’ he would spend years straining to sound relevant and meaningful. On ‘Bad’ that was a given. His albums post ‘Bad’ are about his own insecurities and anxieties, reflected out on the world. On ‘Bad’ he isn’t analysing himself or the planet, nor is he asking questions he can’t answer. He isn’t building a persona or chipping away at it. He’s simply, perhaps naively, trying to create the best pop album ever made. And he may just have succeeded, even if it took his death for the world to realise it.

(The extras that make up this reissue are an added bonus, but dvd aside, they aren’t essentiall listening. The demos offer a fascinating glimpse at his creative process, the new remixes by Nero and Afrojack are as heavy-handed and bass heavy as you’d expect, but they really aren’t as bad as they could be. The packaging, particularly for the £30 deluxe edition, is top-notch; The album comes with a colourful booklet and some sketchy but interesting liner notes. The best part about the reissue though is the live dvd. The concert was recorded for Michael’s Wembley performance on the 1988 tour and it is p.h.e.o.n.o.m.i.n.a.l. A whole essay could be written about the gig; about the way MJ dances, sings and invigorates the audience – but i’ll leave it for now. All I will say is it’s a crying shame it’s taken this long to be released.)

10/10

Weezer ‘Pinerton Deluxe Edition’ / ‘Death to False Metal’ – Reissue Review

13 Nov

The  story behind ‘Pinkerton’ is one of the most notorious in rock history. I wont go into it now, you can read about it on wiki, but lets just say that this was a difficult album to make and it’s had a pretty mad reception history – at one point it was disliked by just about everybody but somehow it went on to become one of the most respected albums of the 90’s. The band once refused to play any material from it live but in a few months they are going on a tour where they will be playing it back to front night after night. They now realize just how influential and important this album was – for better or worse it is pretty much responsible for emo as we now know it.

But Weezer are far superior to most bands we would call emo today and ‘Pinkerton’ is a masterpiece in being both emotionally explosive and musically restrained at the same time. The lyrics are about being depressed, anxious, in love , out of love, having too much sex, not having enough sex etc – It’s the open diary of a teenager and that’s the main reason so many people related to this record back in the day. And whilst Rivers was all over the place making it, musically this is very tight and well constructed piece of work, riffs sound huge but they are delivered almost economically and the guitar work is never indulgent or over the top. Witness the frustration in ‘Getchoo’ and ‘Tired of Sex’ and the way Rivers articulates uncertainty of young love in ‘Falling for you’.

The highlight is the beautiful closer ‘Butterfly’ which is probably the best thing Weezer have ever recorded, the melody is sheer perfection and the lyrics are thoughtful and touching, the softness is in brilliant contrast with the pop punk of the other nine songs. ‘Butterfly’ does for ‘Pinkerton’ what ‘Only In Dreams’ did for The Blue Album, it makes you rethink everything you thought you had learned about the group from listening to the other songs, it is a stunning end to the record. Blow for blow ‘Pinkerton’ doesn’t quite match The Blue Album in my opinion, though others will disagree, but this is a really fun and intelligent rock album that has stood the test of time.

However I do think that some (nostalgic middle-aged) critics rate ‘Pinkerton’ a bit too highly because whilst I agree that it is a great album in 2010 it’s hard to believe that this kind of heartfelt power pop was once considered so daring and inspired. Maybe that is the testimony to just how succesful ‘Pinkerton’ was, we hear it’s influence every day on the radio and because of that it’s hard for a newcomer to like this album quite as much as somebody who heard it for the first time in 1996. It’s also more of a touchstone for American music fans than it is for English ones, Weezer have always been more loved over there than they are here, just as Oasis will never truly feel at home in the USA. So whilst Pitchfork and Rolling Stone greet this reissue with overwhelming praise allow me to be a bit more reserved.

Out on the same day as the ‘Pinkerton’ reissue is a collection of more recent studio outtakes called ‘Death to False Metal’. Given that most of Weezer’s post Pinkerton output has been negatively received it’s fair to say that not many people will be excited about this album. But truth is, it’s not as bad as you might expect. The Weezer of  ‘Death to False Metal’ still sounds like the Weezer of ‘Pinkerton’, the guitars are still the same, the lyrical themes are pretty similar, they still make pop punk  and overall not a lot has changed. But that’s kind of the point, they aren’t young anymore and to hear middle-aged men still churning out the same stuff that they were making at 18 is a bit sad.

I’m not being ageist but do they still have to write songs wanting to be young when they blatently aren’t? It seems as they get older they get less mature and there is none of the wit and sophistication that defined ‘Pinkerton’. The songs on ‘Death to False Metal’ are also a lot more polished and lazy than the ‘Pinkerton’ stuff, It’s been known for a while that Rivers has big pop aspirations and these songs have definitely been produced for the radio and a mass audience, they have been overproduced to an unfortunate degree and the lyrics are often clichéd and trite.

There are some good songs though, ‘I Don’t Want Your Loving’ is a belting rocker with some doo wop harmonies and Brian May guitar, it works very well. ‘Blowin my Stack’ is a typical latter-day Weezer song about growing middle-aged disgracefully, and like the other Weezer songs about this subject it’s kind of catchy but also a bit cringey. Their cover of ‘Unbreak My Heart’ is the highlight of the album for me, although I can see some people hating it, but then I have always enjoyed the group’s odd covers.

I like my B-side collections to be comprehensive and chronological, this is neither and the fact that it focuses on newer material is also a shame. If you are going to buy one Weezer album this christmas make sure it’s ‘Pinkerton’ and not ‘Death to False Metal’, fans will eat it up but there isn’t much good stuff to recommend it to everyone else.

Pinkerton – 9/10

Death to False Metal – 4.5/10




Christmas albums

14 Dec

It’s that time of year when we get out our favourite christmas records that fill our hearts with festive cheer, so I thought I would compile a list of the most essential Xmas records.

A Christmas Gif For You by Phil Spector and Artists

Perhaps the most essential of all Christmas albums, this transcends the time of year and is a classic in pop production. This Is also Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s favourite ever album, and the one that inspired Pet Sounds.

Elvis’s Christmas album / Elvis sings the Wonderful World of Christmas

However strange this might seem, Elvis’s first Christmas record is arguably his best studio album. It captures the rock and roll zest that made his early singles so great, the gospel songs that still ring as his most sincere and the ott ballads that would dominate his later career. He really rocks out on classic songs such as ‘Blue Christmas’ and ‘Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me.’ The 70’s follow up is nowhere near as good but there are still a few must listens that you won’t find anywhere else such as ‘Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees’.

Christmas with the Beach Boys

Perhaps The Beach Boys Christmas album is not the masterpiece it could have been, there is nothing to match Little Saint Nick or anything to rival Phil Spector’s work. Nonetheless this contains some real gems that ar given the BB treatment.

The Jackson Five Christmas Album

The obvious songs were given the bubblegum treatment by Michael and his brothers which produced mixed results. When it worked it worked well though as demonstrated by this fantastic version of Frosty The Snowman,

A Merry Christmas with Bing Crosby and The Andrew Sisters

Bing arguably sung the greatest christmas song (White Christmas) and his voice is complimented perfectly by that of the Andrew Sisters.  A traditional classic.

The Christmas Song by Nat King Cole

Nat King Cole had one of the all time best voices, and with The Christmas Song he had one of the best songs. The album of the same name features Nat doing all the standards in his silky sweet manner.

Songs for Christmas by Sufjan Stevens

This collection of five eps was a great present as it came with some brilliant gifts. As well as the brilliantly packaged cds it came with a booklet of lyrics, chords, a comic, a poster a music video and all packaged in a wonderful box. The songs were just as festive and fun, a mixture of his own humourous material and classic hymns.

A Christmas Album By Bright Eyes

Unlike Sufjan Bright Eyes kept entirely to the standards but he gave them his own unique spin and a modern upgrade. His voice brilliantly complimented the traditional material.

A Snowflake Fell and It Felt Like A Kiss by Glasvegas

an attempt to recreate past glories of Phil Spector, this was a noble album that aimed to create something atmospheric and fresh. Miserable, yes, but stirring at the same time.

Christmas In the Heart By Bob Dylan

Critics have been strangely cynical about Dylan’s most recent album, forgetting perhaps that this is a born against christian that presents an oldies radio show. They may have been expecting something more radical or mote traditional Bob, but what they got was even better. I can’t remember anyone treating the classics so lovingly in recent times.

A Muppets Christmas Carol Soundtrack

The best adaptation of A Christmas Carol had a brilliant soundtrack. It may be the muppets and Sir Michael Cane but the songs are so catchy and christmasy that anyone could be singing them and it would still be brilliant.

Santa Claus The Movie Soundtrack

One of my favourite ever albums, this is hard to track down as it was never issued on cd but the movie is available everywhere and the songs are youtube. So atmospheric, so christmasy and so joyous, this is a christmas album for the entire family that provides a unique listening experience.

Now Thats What I Call XMAS!

If like me you will never get bored of the many songs that are constantly played at this time of year, then this collection is the best place to start. It collects all the obvious christmas number ones, and it is great for parties. Slade, Wham, Shakin Stevens, Wizzard, The Darkness – They’re all here.

The Beatles Remasters – Part 2

13 Sep

The major difference between ‘Revolver’ and ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonley Hearts Club Band‘ is thematic unity. ‘Sgt Pepper’ isn’t a concept album as is sometimes stated – it had a concept to begin with but it was soon abandoned when they realized they could no longer function as a proper band, exchanging ideas and songs. However it works extremely well as an album, from start to finish, something the band had being surprisingly neglectful in trying to achieve up until this point. The standered was 14 songs per album in the UK, and 12 on any US album. There was also a rigid structure to every album released in the early 60s which involved leading with the singles and ending with the worst material or ‘filler’.  Even revolver seemed to have little care spent when it came to arranging the tracklisting.

But Sgt Pepper was very well compiled, a result of the band’s early ambition to make this an album with a continuity and purpose. It begins with the title track and the splendid ‘with a  little help from my friends’. These two songs are the only ones to carry any kind of ‘concept’ – that of a band led by Sgt Pepper and consisting ‘Billy Shears’ (ringo) who sings lead on the second track. After this the concept doesn’t reappear until the reprise of the title track at the end which morphs into the classic end piece ‘A Day In The Life’. In between the songs are all more ambitious and more colourful than any of their prior records. Each track attempted something new and something unique, from the lyrical splendor of ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, the orchestral flourish of ‘Shes Leaving Home’ and the Circus sampling ‘For The benefit of Mr kite’. individual I doubt any of these tracks would rank amongst people’s favourites, but in the context of this album they all work perfectly.

One song that is often called The Beatles masterpiece closes the album. Enough has been written about ‘A Day In The Life’ to justify it being called one of the most influential and important songs of all time, and it certainly ranks at the top of my Best of The Beatles list. But even this track works best in the context of the album, listened to on it’s own it lacks the epicness that it gains by being placed at the end of one heck of a journey. The strings rise as it nears the conclusion resulting in an almighty crash and wallop, that ranks as one of the defining moments of 2ost century pop.

For years after it’s release this album was called not only the best Beatles album, but even the best album ever released. In more recent years this has resulted in a rather large backlash, and it’s now usually ranked behind ‘Revolver’, ‘The Beatles’, and sometimes even ‘Abbey Road’ and ‘Rubber Soul’. But even if this isn’t their best album – and I don’t think it is, then it still ranks as one of the most important, era defining, ambitious and game raising records ever made.

Magical Mystery Tour‘ was originally an e.p released as the soundtrack to their psychedelic film of the same name. The version that has just been re-released is a version of the American album that combined the e.p with all the major singles of the period. As such it shouldn’t be considered a real studio album in the same breath as the ‘Sgt Pepper’ or ‘The White Album’ but it is still one of the defining Beatles releases. The first half (the soundtrack to the film) follows on from the more atmospheric parts of ‘Sgt Pepper’. The two tracks which lie at its heart are the instrumental ‘Flying’ and the George Harrison penned ‘Blue Jay Way’. These songs are as psychedelic as the band ever got and although they are hardly spectacular they are brilliantly placed on the album in between ‘The Fool on The Hill’ and ‘Your Mother Should Know’. The latter is one of the most underrated Beatles tracks out there and it’s particularly wonderful in the film, where the band tap dance and mime along. However the best track on this first half is ‘I Am The Walrus’. Enough said.

If the first half serves it’s purpose as an atmospheric soundtrack well then the second half goes right for the jugular. It’s basically a compilation of some of the best pop songs ever made. ‘Hello Goodbye’ and ‘All You Need Is Love’ are two of the weaker singles the band released during this late period but they are great ways to start and end the second half. In between are two tracks John and Paul wrote to be the centrepiece of a real concept album about their childhood in Liverpool. One can only imagine how brilliant that album would have been (the idea was scrapped as the label wanted a single and so in a rush the band handed over the two tracks, and decided instead to make ‘Sgt Pepper’), but ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ found a good home here as the heart of the second side. Both songs rank (in my opinion) as the best singles Paul and John ever wrote, demonstrating a perfect balance of pop structure and psychedelic ambition. Lyricly they are both vivid, dreamy and more advanced than most other bands could ever imagine. ‘living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see’. Both tracks are perfect odes to a half remembered, dreamlike childhood.

How do you follow up that then? Well the answer is – you don’t. The Beatles had gone as far down the psychedelic path as they were able to creatively go. ‘Sgt Pepper’ had been a masterpiece of ambition fully realized and ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ had, to some, been a forward thinking, groundbreaking success but to others it had been one step to far. Next, rather than attempt to follow up their most cohesive and forward thinking work to date (something they clearly thought was impossible), they would shock everyone by handing the reigns over to their fans. That is to say they made ‘The Beatles’ or The White album as it is known.

By creating such a huge collage of an album the band were essentially asking you to pick the tracklisting, they were asking you to select the way you heard it. personally I would skip ‘Bungalow Bill’, ‘Piggies’, ‘Yer Blues’, ‘sexy Sadie’ and ‘Savoy Truffle’, but these may be the cornerstones of the album to somebody else. Over 30 tracks there is so much to love, and almost as much to throwaway – yet every single track is an essential fragment of this large album, love it or hate it.

As a band they were starting to fall apart at this point. It feels like a collection of songs by solo artists rather than a ‘group’ album. Most of the tracks started life acoustically and this also shows, especially on the finger pickin good ‘Blackbird, ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ and ‘Cry Baby Cry’. The other major trend throughout this album is the embrace of ‘rock’, particularly on George Harrision’s part. Whereas all albums since ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ had been perfectly executed, pored over pop, the band could no longer work together for long enough or well enough to make such well crafted songs. As well as this the drugs had started to play their part and John and George in particular grew tired (and bored) much more easily and now prefered to knock out quicker and heavier material. It works well on ‘Why My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and ‘Helter Skelter’ but grates from time to time elsewhere. They are always best on the well produced, highly intelligent songs such as ‘Back In The USSR’, ‘Goodnight’ and ‘Happiness is a warm Gun’.

I could go on forever about this brilliant album but The Beatles moved on quickly and so must I.

Let it be was worked on next but Abbey Road was released first. In fact their creations largely cross over as songs written and demoed during the making of ‘Let It Be’ were eventually released on ‘Abbey Road’ – many on the beautiful long Medley.

‘Let It Be’ was an attempt to get back to playing live, and recording the sort of quick fire rock n roll that so captivated them to music in the first place. The real reason this was no doubt attempted was because it must have seemed a quick and easy way to make an album. However the recording was a very stressful time (not helped by the cameras that were capturing their every move for a movie). The original idea was to record the results live before an audience and release that as an album but the band hadn’t played live in front of an audience for years and so in the end the idea was scrapped (Although they did play a sort of gig at the famous ‘roof concert’). Despite all the talk of arguments and bitterness, not helped by Yoko, the songs they made are  mostly brilliant. ‘Two of us’ is one of their most tender tunes and ‘Get Back’, ‘let It Be’ and ‘The Long and Winding Road’ are all established as Beatles classics.

However, the stripped back album was put on the shelf because they couldn’t agree on how to handle it. It was only after Abbey Road and with the split approaching that Lennon asked Phil Spector to Finnish the album. Spector is undoubtedly one of the greatest producers of the 60’s but it’s fair to say that by 69′ he had lost his way. It was always going to be a disaster letting the producer known for his full on approach to recording produce what was meant to be a back to basics album. Truth be told he destroyed many of the tracks, adding choirs and strings to songs that required a much lighter touch. The tracklisting was also chopped and changed too many times resulting in an album with no symmetry and too much filler. To see how this album should have sounded you need to buy ‘Let It Be Naked’ the much superior, remixed, stripped down version of the album released (and resequnced) by Paul in 2003.

‘Abbey Road’ was the band’s attempts to make one last, brilliant album as a band of 4. They achieved this, to a certain extent, and Abbey Road is certainly many peoples favourite Beatles album. It is noticeably warmer than any of their previous albums because of the huge leap in technology in the recording desks, and it was also their only album to be entirely recorded on 8 track. The brand new moog synth also adds a layer of depth to songs like ‘Maxwell’s silver Hammer’ and ‘Here Comes The Sun’. So in terms of sound this is The Beatles defining statement and the new remaster makes it sound even better.

In terms of songs this is also a belter. It is unquestionably Paul’s masterpiece, and it is his voice and pen that created the majority of it. But it is also George’s best album as a Beatles, the one where he truly came into his own as a writer (his two best songs feature here) and as a guitarist. Ringo produced his second song as a Beatles, the wonderful ‘Octopus’s Garden’, and his drumming was also at it’s best on Abbey Road. If there is a Beatle who perhaps under achieves it is John.  ‘Come Together’ opens the album, and although it is a good song it remains one of his weaker singles. ‘I Want You (She’s so heavy)’ is a rare moment of rock indulgence that finds John howling for Yoko for well over 6 minutes. Although one of his most passionate vocals the songs soon gets repetitive and boring. His contributions to the medley are made up of rejects or mere doodles of songs from ‘Let It Be’ and it’s fair to say the add little to the flow of things. Only ‘Because’ can be called classic Lennon, and it certainly is, the harmonious are the best the group ever recorded.

No doubt about it, this is Paul’s baby. Whilst ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ gets a lot of flack, I find it charming and cheerful and vastly underated. His doo wop pastiche, ‘Oh Darling!’, is another one that gets unfairly overlooked. His vocal is one of the best he had done in years. But the real reason this is Paul’s album is the final medley he came up with that ranks as one of the band greatest achievements. Although merely fragments of songs tied together, the effect is startling. ‘Golden Slumbers’, ‘Carry That Weight’ and ‘You Never give me Your Money’ rank as some of the most touching songs the band wrote as they knew the split was only around the corner. ‘The End’ marks The Beatles end  and it shows that even at the finish line the band weren’t scared to try new things. This marks Ringo’s first drum solo as well as a three way guitar duel between George, John and Paul. After this blistering pace we are left with just a piano and Paul’s beautiful final words…

‘And In the end the love you take is equal to the love you make’.

What a way to end your band’s career. Whilst Abbey Road is fairly hit and miss compared to their earlier material, and feels more like a collection of solo songs than a proper Beatles album, it still remains a favourite for all it’s flaws (which are considerably fewer than most bands could manage). It was a fitting way to end and remains a must own, as truth be told most of these new remasters are. This collection of albums rank as one of the greatest achievement of the 21’s century, certainly in popular music. Most startling of all is that the band did all this in 6 and a half years when most bands today can muster one album every 2 or 3 years.

If I have learnt one thing from revisiting these albums it is that they truly were the best band of all time – no question. If you haven’t already got them, then this newly re-released boxset is a must.

The Beatles Remasters – Part One

10 Sep

At last The Beatles remasters have arrived! To non Beatles fans, or even the casual fan, this may hardly seem like earth shattering news. What could be worth getting so excited about, it’s not as if they’ve made new music, is it? Well it almost does sounds new. The original CD’s released in the late 80’s, and not updated since, were notoriously murky, low volume, compressed, tinny sounding things packaged badly and by 2009 very expensive (In other words typical of all early cd’s)! Almost every other major band I can think of have had their catalogue revamped at least once – Rolling Stones, Dylan, Pink Floyd, The Who etc. Fans have been calling for remasters of Beatle albums for years, and when I heard they were finally coming (late last year) I was thrilled. But would they be worth the wait? Would they sound as good as I hoped? Would they be worth the money? Yes. Yes and Yes.

Overview

When they first arrived I noticed how much better they look in the flesh than on a computer screen. The packaging is slim, flossy and attractive –  yet hardly sturdy, although I suppose they did this to keep costs down. The CD slots into one side and a booklet is held in the other, both feel safe and secure. The booklet itself comes with brilliant photos, original liner notes, historical notes and recording notes. Also if anything extra was originally included (eg the cartoon in Magical Mystery tour, the poster with the White Album) then these too have been added (although the original extras from Sgt Pepper are only available in the mono boxset). Each Disc is designed to look like the original record label, so therefore Parlaphone labels for all up until the Magical Mystery Tour LP, which was only released in America originaly, and therefore appeared on Capital. Post White album all records apeared on the apple label, and I believe all are faithfully recreated (with slight changes to better suit the CD’s size). Also each disc comes with a mini documentary that gives a nice taster to the album but adds nothing new to our knowledge of The band.

So what of the new sound quality? To be honest it changes from song to song, album to album. On every track you hear at the very least a much clearer, more vibrant sound whilst on some tracks the improvement is vast. Of course you can choose to hear the albums in two ways. Mono or Stereo. Pre-Revolver the new remasters sound best in mono as these songs were mixed that way to begin with, whilst Stereo was an afterthought. These early stereo mixes have always sounded bad to my ears and I was disappointed when I heard they weren’t being remixed altogether (although both Help and Rubber Soul were in the 80’s and it’s these mixes that appear here). The new spit and polish of the remasters has only brought the obvious mixing flaws even more to the surface and when you have vocals coming out of the left channel and the instrumental track coming out of the right channel as on many early tracks (this is called hard panning) it is now even more frustrating. It has to be said that not all tracks from this period suffer in stereo – John’s tortured vocals on ‘twist and Shout’ are now even more vivid and I never even noticed it was an acoustic guitar on ‘We Can Work It Out’ – but in Mono they often sound much better and more alive.

I’m willing to bet most people will get these albums in Stereo and despite the flaws of the early albums, anything post Help (with a few possible exceptions per album) sounds better in Stereo. Obviously some may disagree but for me Stereo gives a more surround sound and it really lets you hear every instrument shine. Once you get to the later albums the new remasters are out of this world. Highlights in the sound department include ‘I am The Walrus’, ‘Here Comes The Sun’, and ‘Hey Jude’, with Abbey Road being particuarly well suited to a new coat of paint.

The Albums

The good thing about these remasters is that has allowed for a new perspective on The Beatles legacy. It is now very noticable that the Beatles career can be split into three distinct chapters (a fourth if you include their pre-recording days in Liverpool and Hamburg). The first period (Please, Please Me, With The Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles For Sale and Help) find the band at the height of their popularity and fame. Their schedule was erratic and non stop, they fitted in recording sessions in between filming, touring and promotion. Their first two albums (‘Please, Please Me‘ and ‘With The Beatles‘) were stuffed with songs they had written before signing with EMI/Capital and covers that had filled their live set for years. They were very much a rock n roll band in these early days, some may say proto punk. Their influences were even at this point very varied, but you could mainly here R&B or rock n roll, with hints of Doo Wop, Music Hall and even skiffle thrown in. ‘With The Beatles’ basically copied the formula of their debut, to a less succesful degree, but it was a brilliant way to consolidate their success. Highlights from this period include ‘All My loving’, ‘Saw Her Standing There’, ‘Misery’ and ‘Please Please Me’. It is remarkable to consider that the first album was made over one weekend, by the time they reached the end of recordings John could barely talk let alone sing – Yet he still manages to blast out a corking rendition of ‘Twist and Shout’! The First two albums are a fun time capsule but much better was to come.

Of the early period the undisputed highlight is ‘A Hard Day’s Night‘, an album that shows the band developing from a rock n roll group into a fully formed pop band. More time was being taken in the studio, they were quickly learning their craft from George Martin and the songs on this album are much more considered and developed even if their experimental days were still in front of them. It is an interesting album for being the only entirely Lennon/Mccartney record and also their first without any covers. Lennon is the undisputed leader at this point in the groups career and the best songs are all his. From the brilliant twang that opens the title track, through ‘I should have known Better’, and the amazing ‘Tell Me Why’. But although his compositions far outnumber McCartney, the few Paul did add are stone cold classics. ‘And I love Her’ is one of his sweetest songs whilst ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ is one of their best early singles.

Their next two albums were recorded in a blitz of touring, promotion and filming and it certainly shows at times. That they could produce any music in such conditions is amazing; that they recorded the likes of ‘Help’, ‘yesterday’, ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face’ and ‘Eight Days A Week’ as well as so many classic non album singles is unbelievable. ‘Help‘ and ‘Beatles For Sale‘ are the two most hit and miss albums in their catalogue (they sound slightly rushed at times and they went back to using covers), but they are still wonderful albums that stand up today.

Then came ‘Rubber Soul‘, my least favourite of their ‘classic’ albums; their first step into the future, their first undisputed masterpiece.  They had competition from The Stones and The Beach boys, they were listening to Dylan and The Byrds. In other words they had to up their game, and they did. Beneath that classic album cover lies a treasure trove of some of the most well rounded songs the band recorded. McCartney suddenly starts to seize control from Lennon (a struggle that would go on for another year or so before Paul would win) whilst John starts to take lyrics seriously and George begins to look like a serious song writer. Of all The Beatles albums this one holds up particularly well ‘as an album’. It begins strongly with ‘Drive My car’ and closes with the frantic ‘Run For your life’. The songs in between all have a similar thematic unity which makes this one of their most cohesive albums. The acoustic guitars and soft vocals that underpin most tracks, hold the songs together and let other instruments appear from nowhere and take centre stage (see ‘Norwegian wood’). It’s still my least favourite ‘classic album’ of theirs, mainly because it is the album that most inspired Britpop and led to a decade of ‘Oasis’ and ‘Ocean Colour Scene’. Nonetheless this is a brilliant album’.

The Came ‘Revolver’. Revolver is one of the best, if not the best, pop album of all time. ‘Pet Sounds’ (perhaps it’s only real rival) is perfect in almost every way. ‘Revolver’ is not perfect and there lies it’s charm. It begins with a song about tax and ends on a song that explores some of the deepest questions raised by man in a two minute song – this is not a cohesive or thematic album and it revels in it. Over 14 tracks three different writers, now working largely apart, were breaking every rule and creating new sounds and ideas that still sound as fresh and relevant today. It’s a mad album, an album that skips from sound to sound, theme to theme without any pause for thought. We have the childish ‘Yellow Submarine’, the dramatic ‘Elenor Rigby’ and the best ballad McCartney ever wrote in ‘Here there and Everywhere’. It is the most wonderfully eclectic pop record ever recorded. Each track plays at the 2 and a half minute mark, making this a very short album, even with 14 tracks. Compared to today’s 4o minute plus records, ‘Revolver’ is a masterpiece of pop restraint – how did they fit so much into so little time?

Everything sounds so much clearer in these 2009 releases. Ringo’s drums sound better than ever thanks to the remasters, ‘Tommorow Never Knows’ sounds out of this world, whilst the band’s voices are brought to life throughout. unfortunately the remasters can only do so much, these tracks weren’t remixed after all. therefore ‘Taxman still suffers from terrible mixing and hard panning, whilst ‘Elenor Rigby’ sounds just as frustrating in the stereo version today as it did when I first heard it.

George was going in leaps and bounds as a songwriter and Guitarist,  and revolver marks one of his biggest contributions to the band. 3 of the songs are his and for the first time they sit very comfortably alongside the Lennon/McCartney tracks. ‘I want to Tell You’ has dated particularly well and now stands up as one of his best songs with the band. Lennon was also making huge strides at this point with a newly found confidence to experiment both lyrically and musically. ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ is one of his prettiest songs and ‘I’m only sleeping’ marked a real step forwards in terms of atmosphere. If Dylan and The Byrds had been their biggest influence for their last two albums, there is no doubting Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys were now their true creative rivals. In terms of production and instrumentation, McCartney in particular (with George Martin’s help of course), pushed the boat out in a bid to top what Brian Wilson had done with Pet Sounds. He achieves this more than any other Beatle’ on ‘For No-one’ a brilliant character piece that was a for-runner to ‘She’s Leaving Home’ from Sgt Pepper. It’s lyrics were so far ahead of its time, and it’s music is as beautiful as a pop band have ever managed. It’s this ambition, this forward thinking, this beauty that define ‘Revolver’ as their most interesting, enjoyable and groundbreaking album.

Part Two Coming Soon…

R.E.M ‘Reckoning’ – Classic Album Review

19 Aug

What is R.E.M’s best album? some may say their stunning debut ‘Murmur’, that did for American music what The Smith’s debut did for British music in the 80’s. Their slightly later, more sophisticated triumph ‘Document’ might also get a shout for being the album that introduced them to a larger audience whilst staying true to their indie sound. Their major label successes ‘Out of Time’ and ‘Automatic for the People’ are also recognized as classics, abeit shinier, happier classics.

My choice however (if I had to choose) would be their second album, ‘Reckoning’, and luckily it’s just been re-released.  It came out shortly after Murmur, and it’s certainly in the same vein, though more polished, slightly more cohesive, slightly more enjoyable. It also includes my favourite ever R.E.M track ‘Don’t go Back To Rocksvile’ which demonstrates a looser, softer sound that the band would come to call their own in the 90’s. The Song’s country tinge also shows the band’s new varied sound that they would go on to develop. The lyrics here are also magnificent. The song’s story is touching and yet cryptic as if you are veiwing the scene through a foggy window. Yet it is a lot clearer and more listenable than their debut’s lyrics which were so hard to understand that there was little point trying. The mix here is a lot better which helps (there is a meatier, more vibrant sound) but the lyrics throughout are generally a lot better.

It kicks of with one of the best opening sides I can think of. First the blurry, out of sync pop of Harborcoat, then the equally dynamic, equally mysterious 7 Chinese Bros. These two tracks bristle with energy and magic but the next couple of songs demonstrate their newly found confidence; The confidence to slow down and let the listener hear Stipe’s wonderful lyrics. ‘So Central Rain’ is built around the simple refrain of ‘I’m sorry’ and it’s as moving as any other song in the band’s back catalogue.  The comes ‘Pretty Persuasion’, which is just as touching as So Central rain and just as crazy as Harborcoat, it is another classic. The side ends with the more subdued and Tender ‘Time after time’. The Indian leanings here point to the band’s love of 60’s music (particuarly The Byrds and The Zombies), something that can also be heard in the tingling Rickenbackers heard throughout the album.

The Second side clearly isn’t as good as the first side (how could it be) but it is the more varied and perhaps interesting side. ‘Camera’ is the most touching song on the album (about their recently departed friend, a photographer) whilst ‘Second Guessing’ keeps the pace at a frantic post Punk level.  The final song, ‘Little America’ sends the listener away convinced they have just heard one of the most important albums of the 80’s – and they would be right. Today Reckoning still sounds as fresh, as vital, as groundbreaking as it ever did. The recently released deluxe edition makes it even more vibrant. The mix is brought to life and the packaging is typically brilliant. ‘Reckoning’s’ legacy is now guaranteed.

The Decline of British Sea Power – Classic album review

27 Jun

British Sea Power are the most underrated British band of the past ten years. Their debut set the benchmark for British Indie for the rest of the decade but only now is it being truly recognised as the classic album it is. British Sea Power never have been part of a movement or scene, they are the classic outsiders, one step out of sync with their contemporaries. They have recently been called the British Arcade Fire but ‘The Decline of British Sea Power’ came out well over a year before ‘Funeral’ and it is a different kind of beast.

‘The Decline of…’ is a brief history of Britain in many ways; past, present and future. The songs are mini stories that vividly capture an eccentric British landscape in a way few bands of recent times have done. The Opener ‘Men Together Today’ is a kind of football terrace anthem from a more respectable age, a very English and calm introduction to the album. But there is nothing calm about the storms that brew later on. ‘Apologies to insect Life’ and ‘Favours in Beetroot fields’ are searing and ferocious, snarling indie at it’s most determined.

The album constantly flickers between these outbursts and the completely reserved euphoric songs like ‘Something Wicked’. Musically they occupy a space that is only their own but draw heavily on the songs of Joy Division, Echo and The Bunnymen, Joe Meek and Pavement. It is lyrically where they most impress. Their words are so original and vivid, such as on ‘Remember Me’ which is about an elderly person loosing thier memory, or ‘Fear of Drowning’ which is metaphorically about drowning in a sea of technology. Most startling is when they combine image and sound so perfectly on the 14 minute epic ‘lately’. This is a song about a dieing soilder’s thoughts on a battlefield in world war two. As the soilder ponders over the past, the sound of planes flying overhead and his memories – the listener can hear what he is hearing as well and feel what he is feeling. It builds into a climactic surge of noise and drama with everything thrown in to truely make you feel a part of the scene.

This isn’t even the albuums final track – after that we have one more song, a melodic calm love song about building a wooden horse. This is a relaxed end to a manic album.  ‘The Decline of…’ is truely one of the decade’s best albums, one of the most eccentric British debut’s of all time. The cover art best expresses what the band are about; it is traditional, unusual, unfashionable, poetic and outstanding. The front cover also refers to the album as classic, and time has revealed this to be true.