Genre: Alternative Rock, Indie Pop
Preceded by: –
Followed by: Meat Is Murder (1985)
Related to: not available yet
No history book gives a better insight into the UK of the 1980’s than The Smiths’ self epynomous debut album: a country under the reign of Thatcherism and confronted with dangers like AIDS and crimes like the Moors murders. Besides, the album reintroduced the guitar in a world of synthesizers, laying the groundwork for how music would sound like in the UK of the 1990’s. Like that isn’t enough for an album review.
Thank God The Smiths were there during the mid-eighties, reshaping the musical landcape while standing on the remnants of post-punk, a genre pioneered by bands like Joy Division. The charts were ruled by bands like Culture Club, and there simply wasn’t a way out of this decade yet, it was only 1982! There was only one option left: be an eigties band in the sense of being against it. Call upon this lost generation you see around you and see how many followers you can get. It happened to be a very successful call, as it meant the birth of alternative rock in the UK, more specifically indie pop, which means it principally sticks to melodies. ‘Indie’ basically means they did everything themselves, according to punk’s DIY-strategy: make your own records with your own artwork, release them by yourself and write your own fanzine about it.
To be a little more specific, it was down in Manchester where Steven Patrick Morrissey and Johnny Marr met each other, being both children of Irish immigrants. The first one had already fronted a punk rock band (and would soon drop his first names) and the latter was a guitarist-songwriter. After recruiting Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce as definite band members on bass and drums respectively, Morrisey called them The Smiths, as it was the most ordinary name out there. The recipe for their sound was a great dose of post-punk filled up with sixties rock, a straight outcome of Morrisey’s and Marr’s background. It’s well-known that Morrissey is a huge fan of punkrockers New York Dolls, but also of sixties icons like Dusty Springfield and Marianne Faithfull, while Marr’s jangly guitar sound was obviously influenced by The Byrds‘ Roger McGuinn and (by consequence) George Harrison.
After releasing some singles, the band would come up with their debut album in 1984: The Smiths, featuring the actor Joe Dallesandro on the cover. The album met with a lot of controversy, as a number of songs would deal with the theme of pedophilia, which was always denied by the band. If you give the songs a closer look, the central theme of the album would rather be the loss of innocence instead. Let’s run over them.
It all starts with a short drum intro before Morrissey’s voice kicks in on opening track ‘Reel Around The Fountain’, the longest track on the album. Morrissey sings about losing your innocence with someone who just sees you as a sexual object, while Marr’s Rickenbacher quietly follows on the background. The main character knows this other person just wants sex from him, but his love is too big to refuse another 15 minutes of pure lust. ‘You’ve Got Everything Now’ also has this solid rhythm section, with some really fantastic lyrics. Some people will without any doubt recognize themselves in this story of a guy leaving school feeling he has more talents than his peers, but ending up jobless while these other people have success. But are these people actually happy? Because ‘I’ve seen you smile, but I’ve never really heard you laugh’.
Another favorite of mine is the next one: ‘Miserable Lie’. It all starts off slowly with a some smooth guitar playing and drums, but suddenly explodes when Morrissey lets free all his rage about the lie love often is, when just being an excuse to get in somebody’s pants as fast as possible. In a third section, the vocals become much higher (sounding desperate) and an occasional guitar solo is added. Alltogether, this is an awesome track which still has that raw Joy Division sound, revealing the bands post-punk roots. In case you wondered if Morrissey had any confidence in women left, the fourth track gives you the answer: ‘Pretty Girls Make Graves’. More than any other song on this album, it really idealizes the concept of innocence, guided by a delicous funky bassline and closed by a very melancholic solo riff from Marr.
It seems that this riff continues in a more amplified way on the next track: ‘The Hand That Rocks The Cradle’. This is another song meeting a lot of controversy, which isn’t surprising if you listen to the slightly repulsive lyrics for a first time. Of course it could as well be about just protecting your children, I leave the interpretation to the listener. ‘This Charming Man’ (you got to love Morrissey’s song titles), didn’t appear on the original release, but it did on all other versions that followed. Marr wrote this up-beat song with very catchy guitar riff, while Morrissey added this mysterious story about an encounter with a stranger using a very vulnerable voice.
‘Still Ill’ shows the melodious tandem that Morrisey-Marr certainly was, as vocals and guitar playing are perfectly adjusted to eachother here. The song reaches its peak for me personally on the line ‘If you must go to work tomorrow, well if I were you I wouldnt bother’, which is I believe a clear but subtle rejection of Thatcherism, which ideas were really hated by Morrissey. Another highlight (musically as well as lyrically) then, when ‘Hand in Glove’ starts. Seldomly was loneliness (Morrissey often was lonely and depressed during his adolescence, but this shouldn’t surprise you anymore by now) better portrayed than in this song. But wait a minute, what’s that sound on the background? Oh yes, in a time where even the guitar was almost replaced by synthesizers, an harmonica is suddenly thrown in, completely in Beatles‘ ‘Love Me Do’-style.
Three songs left then, but ‘What Difference Does It Make?’ (although featuring another nice guitar riff) and ‘I Don’t Owe You Anything’ are in my opinion among the least tracks. But the album closes in a beautiful way with ‘Suffer Little Children’. Although the theme is very sad, the Moors murders that took place between 1963 and 1965 near Manchester, it’s another fine example of the chemistry between Morrissey’s voice and Marr’s guitar.
After their debut, The Smiths would release another 3 albums (of which their second, Meat Is Murder, was their only to reach number one in the UK) before breaking up in 1987. Morrissey would pursue a solo career later on, while Marr started other projects with all kind of other atists. The Smiths would (and will) never reunite again, so please enjoy the music they left us.
Genre: Alternative Rock
Preceded by: Surfer Rosa (1988)
Followed by: Bossanova (1990)
Related to: Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin II
What do Sgt. Peppers, Meddle, White Light/White Heat and Doolittle have in common? They are all among the respective bands’ best albums, with the absolute masterpiece at the very end of it. It’s 1989 and Pixies are at the center of the emerging alternative rock scene.
The Pixies formed in Boston in 1986, when singer Black Francis and lead guitarist Joey Santiago met at University. Kim Deal was the only person that responded to their absurd advert for a bass player and so she joined them without ever having played the instrument. After contacting drummer David Lovering and a random look in the dictionary they had a new band: Pixies. After releasing a first EP (Come On Pilgrim), the first LP quickly (it was completed in two weeks) followed in the beginning of 1988: Surfer Rosa. The raw guitar sound with little surf rock ingredients and the yowling voice of Francis gained the band acclaim in Europe.
So as measured by their record sellings, the Pixies were initially most successful in the UK. In the US, their music found its way to the listening crowd through the underground music scene, which was flourishing during the late eighties. While the radio stations played new wave and hair metal, youngsters were looking for pure guitar music and the Pixies offered them exactly what they desired. Together with bands like Sonic Youth they even nurtured the new subgenre of ‘grunge’. Kurt Cobain himself loved the band so much he wished he was in it. You can ask yourself which music stimulated the Pixies themselves to pick up this raw rock sound again. Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin (especially Led Zeppelin II) are often cited, just like Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s distorted guitar sound. But each time I listen to Doolittle, it sounds to me like a modern remake of The Beatles‘ White Album, with short uptempo tracks like ‘Glass Onion’ (with muscular intros and a scream now and then), happy melodic songs like ‘Bungalow Bill’ (with ‘naked’ verses and heavily orchestrated choruses) and simple musical intermezzo’s like ‘Why Don’t We Do It in the Road’.
First of all, Doolittle has a much cleaner sound than its predecessor, probably due to the quadrupled budget. Contrasting with this sound are the dark subject lyrics, ranging from surrealism to death and whores. No surprise the original album title was Whore, as Francis (who wrote all tracks) was inspired by the biblical figure of the whore of Babylon. All songs are separate shots of different kind of energies, which are launched at such a speed by their masterly intros that they’re already over before you know it. I think there’s only one ‘weak’ track on it (‘Dead’), and even that one has a nice sinister intro.
The other 14 tracks can be categorized in four kind of songs. First there are the happy sixties sounding songs that can bring you into a good mood on every moment of the day. ‘Wave of Mutilation’ for example has some very melodic vocals, reminding of the early Velvet Underground. Didn’t know until recently that the song is actually about suicidal Japanese businessmen. Even better is ‘Here Comes Your Man’, including catchy Byrds-style guitar riffs and some beautiful vocal harmonies in the chorus. No surprise this song was the commercial break-through for the band. At the same level is ‘Monkey Gone to Heaven’, which gave the inspiration for the album cover. It also has the riffs and harmonies, with the lyrics being about environmental disaster. The song features one of the absolute highlights of the album, being the crescendo bridge towards the end where Francis screams that God is seven. The ultimate sixties song on the album however is without any doubt ‘La La Love You’. It has this awesome intro and it’s sung by drummer David Lovering, who happens to sound exactly like The Smiths’ Morrisey.
Still melodic but averagely shorter and slower songs are ‘I Bleed’ (with this typical Pixies bassline), ‘Mr. Grieves’ (a kind of beatlesque sing along), ‘There Goes My Gun’ and (to a lesser extent) ‘Silver’. ‘There Goes My Gun’ always sounds to me like a retake of ‘Here Comes Your Man’, with the title covering all the songs’ lyrics. ‘Silver’ to the contrary prolly is the strangest song on the album, however very interesting. I think I can describe it best as Kate Bush meets some seventies instrumental western band like The Buoys. So are there also any longer tracks on the album? Yes, ‘No. 13 Baby’ and ‘Hey’, lasting 3’51” and 3’31” respectively. The first one really stands out for me because of its awesome instrumental outro. For one time, it’s not about the intro and the band takes its time for some pure instrumental performance like they did on Surfer Rosa. ‘Hey’ forms a beautiful tandem with this one and is even better, definitely a personal favorite.
What’s left are those songs that really defined that typical Pixies sound throughout the years: pounding drums, distorted guitars, yowling vocals and the characterizing soft-loud approach. First of all the album opener: ‘Debaser’. Already during the first 30 seconds of the song you get the idea that this album is about guitar music. Call it a ‘grunge-light’ song, with it’s clear bass notes and the surrealistic lyrics with references to movies like Eraserhead and Un chien andalou. This song immediately flows over into ‘Tame’. It can’t get more ‘quiet dynamic to sudden loud’ than this. The verses feature a simple bassriff and basic drums, ready to end up in a screaming chorus each time, bringing aggression into alternative rock.
Another ‘musical intermezzo’ is ‘Crackity Jones’, but a much more uptempo one than the melodic ‘There Goes My Gun’. Like ‘Tame’, the basic drum is there, the tempo is there and the aggressiveness is there. It just sounds like some crazy Spanish punk song, and happens to be about a former roommate of Francis, a ‘weird psycho gay’ according to his own words. But the absolute masterpiece (imho) is of course the final track: ‘Gouge Away’. The delicious guitar riff, the sharp vocals, the perfect soft-loud progression, this will always be an all-time classic for me.
Pixies released some more albums after Doolittle, but disbanded already in 1993 after tensions between Francis and Deal. Francis subsequently persecuted a solo career and Deal had success with her new band The Breeders. However, they never reached the same level again as on Surfer Rosa and Doolittle, two albums that can not be compared because of their different styles, but still both sound like masterpieces. Thom Yorke once said that, while he was in school, the Pixies changed his life. Maybe the same can happen to you, whether you’re in school or not.
Preceded by: Hearts and Bones (1983)
Followed by: The Rhythm of the Saints (1990)
Related to: Simon & Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water
Some months ago I started this blog introducing my own concept of ‘the basics’. This is the seventeenth and last album belonging to that concept, meaning it’s time to expand your album collection a little more in depth from now on. But not after a little celebration at Paul Simon’s worldbeat party Graceland.
After the split of Simon and Garfunkel in 1970, of which Simon was the primary song writer, the next logical step was a solo career. This eventually was a big success, releasing a couple of highly acclaimed albums. Simon had already experimented with strange music influences while working with Garfunkel (‘El Condor Pasa’), and continued to do this on his solo records. He incorporated a reggae song on his debut album and kept adopting world music in his work that followed, especially on the live album Live Rhymin’ which was released in 1974. But there was a decline in Simon’s songwriting and recording towards the late seventies and early eighties, and his work became less successful. You could say Simon faced his own kind of midlife crisis, but instead of buying a big sports car he went to South-Africa (despite the cultural ban of the United Nations against the apartheid regime) to design his new musical future. Down in Johannesburg, he recorded Graceland, inspired by the local township music. The album became Simon’s most successful solo album, and one of the defining works of worldbeat, blending western pop music with traditional and world music.
The origins of the album are to be found in the fourth track, ‘Gumboots’. This was originally an instrumental song by The Boyoyo Boys, which Simon accidentally heard and wrote his own lyrics to. Simon liked this new sound that much that he started to write a number of others songs, absorbing musical styles like isicathamiya and mbaganga. I have actually not a single clue what typically characterizes those specific styles, but that’s not at all required to enjoy the album. The first time you can hear this African influence on the album is on track 3, ‘I Know What I Know’, where one of those typical Simon-rhythms is fused with zulu yells and a gospel choir. My absolute favorite in this genre however is ‘Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes’, closing side 1. The intro is sung by a traditional African choir, after some time alternating with Simon’s voice. Then some Caribean guitar riff smoothly kicks in, supported by a delicious drum rhythm. Simon tells us a little story about a wealthy girl while this melody goes on, with the choir returning again in the end of the song.
On side two there’s Simon’s lyrical ode to Africa and it’s rhythms and music: ‘Under African Skies’. This track features Linda Ronstadt’s beautiful harmonizing voice and a nice bassline. It flows over in ‘Homeless’, with an outstanding vocal performance of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a male choral group. Those tracks all show that Simon made another effort to step into other musical cultures, the African one this time. But he clearly didn’t do this just for the sake of it, he really wanted to incorporate this influences into his own style because of their added value. After all, Paul Simon will always be Paul Simon, and this is best demonstrated on the wonderful title track. Another very smooth guitar riff escorts Simon while he’s making a road trip through America towards Graceland after the failure of his marriage. This still is one my favorite songs of all time, with The Everly Brothers contributing some harmony singing.
The album contains another two of such ‘musical stories’, starting with the opening track ‘The Boy In The Bubble’. It actually has an accordion intro, after which Simon kind of ridicules the modern society with all it’s innovations. The most famous track is without any doubt ‘You Can Call Me Al’, the lead single of the album. It’s an (autobiographical?) story of a man in the middle of an identity crisis. Especially it’s video, featuring actor Chevy Chase ‘singing’ the lyrics, had a great impact as it was a success on MTV, launching Simon to the forefront of pop music again.
The last track of the album, ‘All Around the World or The Myth of the Fingerprints’, brings us our ‘lawsuit of the week’. Simon played with Los Lobos (as one of his guest musicians) during the recording of the album and after Graceland became a massive success, Los Lobos claimed Simon stole this song from them without crediting them. However, Graceland is an album filled with brilliant songs, delivered by Simon as little stories. This is one of those rare albums you can recommend to almost everyone, regardless of their musical references. Enjoy.
Preceded by: –
Followed by: Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3 (1990)
Related to: not available yet
Time for a musical intermezzo this week, as we jump right into the eighties. However, the album of the week has nothing to do with the typical sound of that century. Instead, we’re talking about another supergroup here: the Traveling Wilburys, a band full of stars from the sixties and seventies, who released an essential album for your record collection in 1988: Vol. 1.
The whole project was initially set up by former Beatle George Harrison. He returned to making music again in 1986, after being out of business for a while. He asked Jeff Lynne to co-produce his album Cloud Nine, which became Harrison’s great comeback. In need for a B-side for one it’s singles he contacted Lynne, who was also producing stuff for Roy Orbison at that time. They proposed to do a recording together with the three of them, but there was no studio available. Harrison contacted Bob Dylan, knowing Dylan had a home studio, but forgot to pick up his guitar at Tom Petty. Tom Petty came along and suddenly they were recording a song (‘Handle with Care’) with the five of them, supported by drummer Jim Keltner.
Those guys quickly realized this song was way too good for a B-side, and Harrison wanted to record another nine songs and release it as an official album. Their name would be the ‘Traveling Wilbury’s’, a concept of alternate identities Harrison was familiar with after releasing Sgt. Pepper’s with The Beatles. This time their real names wouldn’t even be on the album, replaced instead by pseudonyms like Lucky Wilbury (Bob Dylan) and Nelson Wilbury (George Harrison), all half-brothers of the fictional Charles Truscott Wilbury, Sr.
The album became a brilliant collection of cheerful songs, an excellent recipe against a heavy hangover. Of course the album started with the hit single ‘Handle with Care’, which immediately makes clear what happens if five musical geniuses gather in a studio: one of them notices a box labelled ‘Handle with Care’ and five hours later they’ve got a massive hit. The beauty of the song is the combination of Harrison’s and Lefty Wilbury’s (Roy Orbison) voices. What follows is Dylan’s ‘Dirty world’, sounding raspier than ever, and the fifties rock ‘n roll song ‘Rattled’. ‘Last Night’ is a song from Charlie T. Wilbury, Jr. (Tom Petty), but especially noteworthy is the bridge from Orbison.
But the real strength of the album is the second part in my opinion. Beginning with ‘Not Alone Anymore’, a song Otis Wilbury (Jeff Lynne) wrote especially for Orbison. His voice really sounds outstanding on this song, making it a real gem. ‘Congratulations’ is a weird mix of sad lyrics and joyful tunes, preceding the upbeat ‘Heading For The Light’ (Harrison), one of my personal favorites with it’s happy guitar intro and great sax work. The real masterpiece of the album however must be ‘Tweeter and The Monkey Man’. Dylan tells us a story like he did on ‘Hurricane’, with a bombastic chorus where the other guys join in. The song is also considered as an homage to Bruce Springsteen, as the lyrics include many Springsteen songs like ‘Thunder Road’, ‘Stolen Car’, ‘Mansion On The Hill’ and ‘Lion’s Den’ (with the latter being released after the Wilburys album), while the story is situated in New Jersey, Springsteen’s home state.
The album closes with Harrison’s ‘End of the Line’, telling us everybody will be all right in the end. It’s video became a tribute to Orbison, who died shortly after the release of the album because of a heart attack. This immediately meant the end of the original band, one of the reasons there never came a Wilburys Tour. The remaining four members recorded a follow-up album in 1990 (Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3), but it missed Orbison’s voice. Enjoy the party.
Genre: Heartland Rock
Preceded by: Nebraska (1982)
Followed by: Tunnel of Love (1987)
Related to: not available yet
Real album lovers as we are all over the world, we don’t buy ourselves any ‘greatest hits’ discs. Real album lover as I am, I won’t discuss any of such discs over here. A studio album that sounds like a greatest hits disc is no problem. Certainly when it actually delivered seven hit singles.
That’s exactly why Born in the USA, Bruce Springsteen’s seventh studio album, has that misleading commercial sound which makes it a very accessible rock album. This sound was in great contrast with Springsteen’s preceding album Nebraska, containing dark, pessimistic and acoustic songs. But Born in the USA does in fact not differ that much from this introspective album. As a matter of fact, most of the album was already recorded before the release of Nebraska. That’s why it has at least as much heart and soul in it.
Springsteen just decided not to include songs like ‘Born in the USA’ and many others as they did not coincide with the rest of the album. Springsteen wanted to bundle these songs on another album, which had to express a more optimistic and positive sound. So out of a large collection recorded songs he chose the ones that sounded best, introduced some synthesized arrangements and conquered all radio stations.
The first monster hit of the album was ‘Dancing in the Dark’, a song about getting frustrated because you can’t write a hit single. Yeah, irony. Other personal favorites are hit singles ‘I’m on Fire’ and ‘Glory Days’, and ‘Bobby Jean’, an ode to E-Street Band member Steven Van Zandt. Just put on the record and sing along for 47 minutes.