Monday, April 6, 2009

Review: Neil Young, "Fork in the Road"

It’s always interesting to see what’s making Neil Young tick at the present and right now it’s a 1959 Lincoln Continental that had been retooled to run entirely on alternative energy. However there’s a point on the title track where the grizzled Young sneers, “there’s a bailout comin’ but its not for you”, it’s here that you may begin to muse, maybe there’s something else at play here other than energy efficient cars.

With the automotive references coming thick and fast, subtle it is not, but raw and exciting it is. The basslines go for a long stroll while the guttural drums thud away like howitzers, the old boy’s still got some groove rattling round in his body. Not in a tight, funky groove way, but with a ramshackle, scurvy rhythm. This is bonehead, neanderthal rock, the kind of thing Crazy Horse did for years.

The record is as filthy as engine oil, where the guitars thrash out formless blues riffs, blues with the distinct odour of grease and gasoline. It’s a typical Young production, amp volume boosted into the stratosphere, wild lead guitar fills with audible static, cymbals battered and decaying, in other words it’s vibrant and alive.

It seems unfair to pick out one track for examination above another when they mesh together so well, Some are underpinned with the intoxicating country swagger of Ben Keith’s pedal steel, others are topped-off with Young’s clipped guitar chops mimicking the rusty cogs of an engine turning over. One track rolls into another, ‘Johnny Magic’ references Jonathan Goodwin his partner in the Lincvolt project, the tender ‘Light a Candle’ sounds like an updated version of Gene Clark’s ‘Silver Raven’. Elsewhere ‘Cough up the Bucks’ and ‘Get Behind the Wheel’ take deconstructionist rock to extreme, almost ludicrous levels.

The world weary lyrics of ‘Just Singing a Song Won’t Change the World’ remind us that Young’s been through it all before, the recessions, wars and social upheavals and remind us also of his grim determination to grind away mercilessly. Just like the ’59 Continental, an archaic gas-guzzler converted into a beacon of environmental hope, Young the rambling troubadour is born again.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Review Time: 'Sounds Of The Universe', Depeche Mode

Sometime in the late seventies when Depeche Mode were just an electronic glint in Vince Clarke’s eye, the Rolling Stones began to pack it in as a genuine creative force and fall into the comfort of a repetitive album-tour-break schedule that has been repeated ad nauseam in the intervening years. The album release morphed into a promotional advert for the tour, not to exist as a new artistic statement. The Stones have revelled in the lucrative field of self-parody since then, and it became apparent on 'Playing the Angel' in 2005 (or was it 'Exciter' 2001) that Depeche Mode felt they had been around long enough to rest on the laurels of their admittedly outstanding discography and rake in the touring revenue.

So, coming from that position, its hard to get completely overjoyed at the prospect of new material. ‘Playing the Angel’ was an important step for inter-band relations in that there was a healthy working relationship for the first time in ages. It proved to be an enjoyable album, with a couple of gems, but I was never able to buy into the 'return to form' hype that surrounded the release.

That album also established something else, Dave Gahan secured three songwriting credits on the album before he agreed to walk through the studio door, a formula repeated here. Also returning is producer Ben Hillier who seems to be the master diplomat needed to get things done, even if his production lacks the essential bite to take the songs onto a higher plateau.

There’s been a lot of talk in interviews that Martin Gore had become ‘obsessed’ with buying old synthesisers and drum machines during recording and that these old toys have somehow shaped the album with retro sounds heralding a return to their exclusively electronic past. The raft of analogue equipment overlayed with the washes of Gore’s guitar and Kraftwerk-esque arpeggios is a refreshing blend, but the final mix is so amateurish (sadly a hallmark of post-Alan Wilder Mode) that the effects are rendered void. This could be forgiven if the melodies materialised in sufficient quantity, but the songwriting never takes flight.

The opener ‘In Chains’ is an anthemic Gore-blues in the style of 'Higher Love' that threatens to blow the roof off with an opening blast of industrial synths followed by a deliberate sub-sonic bassline, a wonderful beginning, but things get bogged down quickly with the mediocrity of the tracks that follow.

Tracks like ‘In Sympathy’, ‘Perfect’ and 'Little Soul' are sleek, glossy additions to the Mode songbook, but the hollow nature of the bouncy pop soon becomes tiresome. Elsewhere ‘Jezebel’ and ‘Corrupt’ are archetypal tales of power and grime that Gore could write in his sleep, even though the second of these tracks comes within a whisker of true greatness, you're left wishing for that belting chorus that never arrives. 'Fragile Tension' almost apologises for its very existence with an insipid drum pattern and inoffensive chord sequence. Even Gahan's luxurious baritone, can't make up for the paucity of genuine hooks.

Things momentarily rise above the run of the mill with the double-punch ‘Peace’ and ‘Come Back’. The former is a straight duet between Gahan and Gore with a Beatles channelled melody, a major highlight that strangely captures the zest of their sometimes fractious relationship, while the latter is an outstanding Gahan penned, slowburning epic. The first single 'Wrong' is a real return to the eighties, the kind of minor key, doom infused stomper that the band do so well, full marks go to Martin for his best lyrics in donkeys years.

This time next year ‘Sounds of the Universe’ will be a footnote in the DM history, never daring to be anything more than advertised. While the seeds of a solid Depeche Mode album are present, the distinct lack of ambition prevents it from achieving true classic status. As a way of apology, the 'Tour of the Universe' is coming soon to a town near you, which will allow you to catch their spellbinding live show, and may even give life to some of the more jaded moments on this album.

6/ 10

Saturday, February 21, 2009

U2: No Line On The Horizon, The Review

A track-by-track analysis:

1. No Line On The Horizon: The opener finds the band in rude health. Vocally Bono improbably rolls back the years to capture ‘Boy’ era exuberance, the melody is self-assured, the effects driven guitar straight from ‘Achtung Baby’ and the rhythm section swagger with a new found intensity. A thrilling, blood boiler.

2. Magnificent: Destined to be a massive single. All the U2 hallmarks are here in the right epic proportions and the chorus shows you why Coldplay are just a bad U2 tribute act.

3. Moment Of Surrender: The track takes the band into unknown waters with a series of inventive instrumental passages, buoyed by the soaring chorus and underpinned by Bono’s ironically mundane lyrics “I was punching in the numbers at the ATM machine” ... at least i hope he's being ironic......

4. Unknown Caller: Again a mixture of so-so lyrical content and an unconvincing melody suggest that U2 were willing to accept second best on this album. Bono serves up his usual “human being isolated by the modern machinery of humankind” lyrics, but he really lost me when he solemnly intoned “Restart and reboot yourself”.

5. I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight: With a title like this the track is going to have to be extra special. It isn’t. Think the breezy atmosphere of ‘In a Little While’ while The Edge plays the “I Still Haven’t Found ....” riff .... yawn

6. Get On Your Boots: An unusual lapse in judgment for a lead-off single. The song tends to cover overly familiar territory thus breaking the first rule of pop: Don’t repeat yourself !

7. Stand Up Comedy: Immediate sucess, The band brews up a downright funky storm invoking the spirit of Bob Marley’s ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ while The Edge plays a mutated version of Led Zep's 'Heartbreaker' riff. Exceptional.

8. Fez-Being Born: The first part of the track (christened Fez) is one minute of synth mush that should have stayed on the cutting room floor, Being Born is U2 trying to do something different and is an enjoyable if limited success (My first thought was something akin to 'Ultraviolet Light').

9. White As Snow: Now this is very different, a traditional arrangement sees the band stipped bare of the usual polish, and did I hear a snippet of brass in there somewhere ! The Edge’s harmonising vocals completely outshine Bono. An unexpected delight.

10. Breathe: U2 go Zeppelin. The Edge delves into his Jimmy Page bag again and produces some of his best heavy blues riffing. Dark, with a grungey atmosphere, it’s one of the best songs on the album.

11. Cedars Of Lebanon: I appreciate the ambient credentials of the backing track, I don’t appreciate Bono’s overcooked vocals.

U2 began work on a new studio album in 2006 with Rick Rubin, these sessions appear to have been abandoned but the band has expressed interest in returning to the material in the future. Following this false start they returned to the safety of long time producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois.

Safety is the important theme to take away from U2's behaviour, because although the album has been touted as a return to ‘Zooropa’ style eclecticism it sounds worryingly close to 2004's uber-bland ‘How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb’.

The ‘new’ creative process saw the band genuinely collaborate with Eno and Lanois for the first time, with 7 of the 11 tracks credited as a co-write between the six men.
While recording, emphasis was placed on creating spur of the moment magic with first takes being considered final.

How many of these first takes appear on the album is up for debate, but according to Brian Eno the song ‘Moment Of Surrender’ appears on the album exactly as it was the first and only time they played it. Now I’m sure that for U2 this is tantamount to releasing their ‘OK Computer’ but for the rest of us back on earth it’s makes for interesting if not seismic listening.

We get the usual guitar pyrotechnics from The Edge but even he slips back into the comfort zone by returning to the same familiar rhythm lines and effects pedals.

For all the lip service paid by the band for creating something truly experimental, you can’t escape the fact that there’s an overwhelming instinct to appeal to the broadest base possible It boils down to the fact that the boys can’t have it both ways. This is not an experimental album. It’s just another U2 album, and while not a particularly great one, it has enough daft charm to make it preferable to the previous outing.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Essential 10: Bruce Springsteen (Part 2)

6. Born in the USA (1984): The iconic, MTV friendly, pop culture album with all the hit singles on it. Misunderstood ? Yes, Accessible ? Very, His best work ? No.

7. Tunnel Of Love (1987): Reviews at the time would have described this as the disappointing follow-up to “Born in the USA”, but the passage of time has shown the deeper resonance within. Intensely raw and personal with some truly incredible songs, partly let down by an uncharacteristic, tinny production.

8. The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995): Following the Human Touch/ Lucky Town fiasco in 1992, Bruce was ready to get serious again and threw yet another curve-ball in the shape of these desolate, character driven stories imbued with a murky borderline atmosphere. A mixed bag, but Youngstown and the title track are pure Springsteen gold.

9. The Rising (2002): The post 9/11, Bush era album. On one hand its a major return to form with the E Street Band back in tow. On the other hand its overlong, with a horribly compressed drum sound (an unfortunate trait of producer Brendan O’ Brien).

10. Magic (2007): At the time I wasn’t convinced by the return to pop sensibilities, then I woke up to the fact that most of the songs are pretty much outstanding (with the odd clunker in there too).

And the rest:

Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ: Solid.
Human Touch: Avoid.
Lucky Town: Mildly engaging.
Tracks (Boxset): Mammoth, for hardened fans only.
Devils & Dust: Excellent return to the ‘Tom Joad’ sound.
We Shall Overcome: Worthy folk project. Enjoyable.
Working On A Dream: Flawed, yet interesting.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Essential 10: Bruce Springsteen (Part 1)

Chronological Order

1. The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle (1973): After the busy Dylanesque lyricism of his debut, Bruce moved in a jazzy direction for his second album, and although it still very Bruce trying to find his niche, it contains enough panache to achieve classic status.

2. Born to Run (1975): Given a massive budget by the record company in one last push for stardom, Springsteen underwent a painstaking process to achieve that certain sound (wall of sound production, sung by Roy Orbison apparently). After the recording, re-recording and many hours of studio time later he still wasn't satisfied by the result. Everybody else thinks its pretty good Bruce, in fact one of the greatest albums ever .........

3. Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978): A bitter legal dispute prevented the release of an album for 3 years, but the long wait was certainly worth it. He made the conscious decision to avoid making “Born to Run 2”, relying more on the themes of regret, hopeless struggle and crushed dreams. Incredible album.

4. The River (1980): The Rock & Roll revival double album ! One half demented driving rockers with throwaway lyrics, one half introspective kitchen sink dramas, in other words vintage Springsteen.

5. Nebraska (1982): Initially intended to serve as demos for the next E-Street Band record, Springsteen liked the stark homemade atmosphere of the music and put the songs out as a solo acoustic album. The most bleak and haunting musical vision Bruce has yet released.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Essential 10: Nick Cave (Part 2)

With the Bad Seeds, unless stated.

6. Let Love In (1994): Regarded by many as his masterpiece. Certainly the place to start if you’re looking to get into Cave’s world.

7. The Boatman’s Call (1997): The presence of PJ Harvey in Cave’s life seems to have had an influence on several of these sparsely decorated and delicately played songs. Yet another remarkable achievement. Has anybody ever started a love song with a line like, “I don’t believe in an interventionist God”. I mean, really.

8. Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (2004): Double albums are usually an unwise idea, the artist choosing to fill the gaps with substandard material. Forget what you know, these 17 songs are consistently brilliant.

9. With Warren Ellis, The Proposition OST (2005): The perfect (and I mean perfect) companion to the stark brutality of Cave’s screenplay.

10. Grinderman, Grinderman (2007): The long awaited return to raw garage rock. A mind- boggling album, even his side projects are quality.

Special mentions go out to; 'Murder Ballads', 'No More Shall We Part' and the underrated 'Henry's Dream'. Also, check out the most recent album Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!

Monday, January 26, 2009

We Make A Little History: The Essential Nick Cave (Part 1)

With the Bad Seeds, unless stated.

1. The Birthday Party: Junkyard (1982) Some vital post-punk filled with unprecedented levels of gothic fury and anger.

2. From Her To Eternity (1984): The classic debut album, with that very special title track.

3. Your Funeral… My Trial (1986): Cave was mired in addiction at the time of recording, which is evidenced by the rather murky atmosphere. Despite this, he hits new heights lyrically making this a truly remarkable album.

4. Tender Prey (1988): The one with ‘The Mercy Seat’ on it …….and nine other wonderful songs, from his most corrosive era.

5. The Good Son (1990): Following a period of abstention from the dreaded demons, Cave went to Brazil and came back a new man. Calmer, more serene and writing some of the best songs of his career. You need this.