Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Best of the Noughties

Bloody hell!  Here we are again.  Where did the year go? Looks like I blinked and missed it again. Even worse, looking at the calendar shows that it is nearly 2010 and that actually, a whole decade seems to have got behind us since those millennium celebrations, without so much as a by your leave.  Perhaps now is the time to have a look back at some of my personal favourite moments from the last 10 years?  Oh, all right then...

PJ Harvey – Stories From the City Stories From the Sea (2000). The decade got off to a cracking start with this effort from Polly Jean who suddenly discovered tunes but remembered to wrap them up in her finest edgy, raw and emotional playing.

REM – Reveal (2001). Possibly my favourite REM album to date having a symphonic ‘Pet Sounds’ ambience to it and some tunes that even Brian Wilson would’ve approved of. Consistent and accomplished if perhaps lacking a little in energy, but then ‘Accelerate’ didn’t turn out that well, did it?

Aimee Mann – Lost in Space (2002). Poor old Aimee. She just never seems to get the recognition she deserves and yet this is another fine album in a long line of fine albums packed with hummable tunes and astute lyrics. If only people would take notice.

Bangles – Doll Revolution (2003). Like the eighties had never gone away, the girls regrouped and produced what may yet be their best album ever. Time apart had given them space to grow musically and grow up emotionally. The result is this sparkling collection of songs given the classic updated psychedelic treatment overlaid with breathtaking harmonies.

Keane – Hopes and Fears (2004). Keane seem to have lost their way now but this debut is still as fresh as a daisy boasting gorgeous melodies, passionate vocals and a real sense of togetherness as a musical outfit. There was an endearing earnestness about them then that is still attractive now.

Sing-Sing – Sing-Sing and I (2005). The final curtain for Emma Anderson? Sing-Sing is no more and she has disappeared without trace leaving behind this little gem. The ex-shoegazer expands her palette to include trance-like ambients, heartbreaking ballads and jaunty sing-a-longs all wrapped up in stylised arrangements. Fab.

Nerina Pallot – Fires (2006). The Uk’s great unsung talent and answer to Tori Amos issues a bunch of superior singer-songwriter fare on her own label following being unceremoniously ditched by Polydor. Forget ‘The X Factor’, THIS is real talent.  Also, 'Real Late Starter' is on the bench as first substitute in my 'Song For Me' list.

Kim Wilde – Never Say Never (2006). The blonde-next-door returns from the garden as her 50th year beckons and produces a stunner of an album. New material rubs shoulders with reworks of old well-loved songs like they were long lost siblings. Guitars howl and drums reverberate in what could well be my favourite album of the decade. Pity the UK ignored it but the Europeans love it…and they’re right.

Lady Gaga – The Fame (2008). The new Madonna crashes the scene in the usual way: masses of outrageous sexual imagery and even more ridiculous costumes. The trouble is, she can play and she can write a great tune – ‘Just Dance’, ‘Poker Face’…the list goes on. Can she keep this up? Only time will tell.

Ting Tings – We Started Nothing (2008). The Mancunian duo has risen in meteoric style this year and although this is not an all time great album, it shows enough pep to give them the benefit of the doubt. Can’t wait to see what happens next.

Bat For Lashes – Two Suns (2009). Brighton’s Natasha Khan and her exemplary band have created a beautiful ambient world full of strange exotic instruments and shifting rhythms. Their Glastonbury appearance was quite mesmerising.

Little Boots – Hands (2009). Bolstered by a series of YouTube ‘at home’ videos, Victoria Hesketh has showed herself to be a rising star destined for the top. Blessed with a prodigious song writing talent, her down to earth personality was not best served by a slightly over-produced album. Yet the promise is there – no doubt about it.

Well, that’s it for this year. I’m off for a well earned break. I’ll see you all in the New Year. In the meantime have a look at Bloggerhythms' list - different and provocative!  Happy Christmas!

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Duffy and a Case of Fame Fright

As I have already covered numerous times in this blog, the road to fame is littered with Rock ‘n’ Roll deaths from just about every cause under the sun. But like most struggles there are not just fatalities but those that simply go AWOL. I believe that in the days when armies met in fields to cut each other to death with large swords, people were employed to search the nearby copses and hedgerows looking for deserters and redirecting them to the battlefield. Hence it was with interest that I read that Lily Allen is withdrawing from the front line music scene to hide in the woods…er, that should be, to have a stab at acting. Well, good luck to her, it didn’t do Billie Piper any harm.

Another that has vanished without trace is Welsh chanteuse, Duffy, who it is rumoured has been struck down with the dreaded performer’s malaise, stage fright and is considering becoming a recluse. This, if true, is a massive shame, as I have a lot of time for her debut ‘Rockferry’ which I have been playing a lot of late and would be sad to see her retire at such a young age.

Stage fright is not new and has affected the great and the good. Paul McCartney has admitted that it almost ended his Beatles career very early on when the thought of playing the NME poll winners concert in the early 1960s was too frightening to contemplate. Actually, I don’t blame him for this one as I always found the tone of the NME a bit scary myself. However, history shows that the beast was slain and he carried on playing live until 1966 when the fab four shunned touring to shut themselves up in Abbey Road for the duration.

One victim who didn’t fare so well was XTC’s Andy Partridge (of whom I spoke in Dear God). His fright immediately curtailed the band’s live performances after 1982 and XTC became studio-bound from then on, having been one of the busiest bands on the circuit in the late 1970s.

But to get back to Duffy, it seems that it is not just stage fright that is operating here but an all encompassing ‘fame fright’ born of the relentless pressure to succeed. The music industry really should try and nurture its talent a little more rather than squeezing the last drop out of every act in a rush to sell ‘product’. It’s very sad to see beautiful butterflies crushed on the corporate wheel.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Let’s be honest, in the early 1970s I had a bit of an Elton John phase. It’s not something that I care to talk about much these days, but having bought the single ‘Your Song’ in 1970 and then prevaricated through the next few years, I finally took the plunge in 1973 and got myself a copy of ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ – no mean feat in those days as double albums were a considerable drain on my meagre income.

If truth be told I loved it and it was hardly off my turntable in those heady days of playing records from dawn to dusk (and beyond) but of late the classic fold-out album cover has been gathering dust. It wasn’t until I picked up a cheap CD copy that my love affair with it was re-kindled. No matter what you think of Elton these days, GYBR is a monster of an album. Comprising four sides of killer material with very little filler and covering a variety of styles that only the White Album can surpass, it remains Elton’s tour de force. If you only have one EJ album, make it this.

Generally, when you re-play old albums that once shared your life, there are two possible outcomes; utter disbelief that you once gave it house room or a warm glow of recognition and acknowledgement that you got it right. GYBR has nestled itself down into the latter category like an old pair of shoes – a bit old fashioned but fabulously comfy. What has struck me about it is the sheer energy and invention in both the music and lyric departments. The tunes and the playing are top notch and Bernie’s lyrics are some of his very best. The subject matter is as wide as the musical variety and it is difficult to remember what the 17 year-old me made of such themes as lesbianism, hookers and personal hygiene, but I did like the tunes so I probably didn’t take too much notice.

If I was going to be picky, I could’ve done without ‘Jamaica Jerk Off’ and possibly a couple of the cuts on the final side and to later cannibalise Bernie’s heart-felt peon to Marilyn Monroe in ‘Candle in the Wind’ for you-know-who is a hanging offence but the thing about all double albums is that they tend to benefit from being a sprawling mass, an outpouring of artistic endeavour so you have to take them or leave them. Personally, I’d take this one every time.

So what did happen to Elton? I remember buying ‘Captain Fantastic’ and a bit later, ‘Too Low for Zero’ but neither of these appears to be in my collection any more, so GYBR it is then. And it couldn’t happen to a nicer album.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

St Etienne - So Tough

In a fit of housekeeping tidiness some time back, I transferred all my LP/CD details into an Access Database. From there it was relatively easy to do a bit of nerdy analysis on my music collection. One of the facts that this threw up was that whilst I own a large number of albums by favourite artists, I generally own two albums per artist overall. On further investigation it appears that what happens is this: I buy an album that I like which prompts me to buy the follow up which disappoints and my interest in the artist stops. Repeat ad lib.

St Etienne was one of those bands that I had a brief flirtation with in the mid-1990s and is a classic case. Taking their name from a French football team, they were comprised smart-ass journalist/musicians, Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley and fronted by sexy girl-next-door singer, Sarah Cracknell and they made slightly knowing pastiches of various musical genres from the 1960s and patched them up with 1990s indie-dance glue. In the right context they were eminently listenable but could become a little too clever if left to their own devices for too long.

I missed their debut, ‘Foxbase Alfa’ but picked up on them when ‘So Tough’ was released in 1993. I loved ‘So Tough’ with its winning melodies and clever film soundtrack links between them and this prompted the purchase of next up ‘Tiger Bay’ but this didn’t appeal half so much. Thus endeth my association. Interestingly, I now read that ‘Tiger Bay’ seems to be most fans’ choice as their best effort so I played it again just to check but there is nothing on it that captures my imagination like the beautifully brittle ‘Hobart Paving’ or the frothy ‘You’re in a Bad Way’ from ‘So Tough’. Interestingly, ‘Tiger Bay’ seems to have been messed about with dreadfully, re-released with a new cover, new song order and additional tracks added. Hmm...

I think I’ll stick with ‘So Tough’ but there is one thing that bugs me about it and it is that I have been unable to find out where the film links between songs are lifted from. One, I know, is definitely Tom Courtenay from ‘Billy Liar’ because I’ve seen the film and another sounds like James Robertson Justice, probably from one of the ‘Doctor’ films but as to the rest – I have no idea. Does anyone know what they are or can direct me to a point of information? The usual sources don’t seem to be able to help.

For more commentary on musical matters, see my book 'Memoirs of a music Obsessive'.