Thursday, July 17, 2008

July 2008

Album of the Month

Death Cab For Cutie : Narrow Stairs

There is music to dance to; there is music to luxuriate in. There is music you sing out loud; there is music you sing within. There is music which sets your mood; and then there is music to salve your wounds. Death Cab For Cutie is the latter in each instance. It is best played late at night after a long day fighting pedantic border guards stationed at life's innumerable barrier posts.

Joining a long list of indie bands emerging from the US Northwest, Death Cab For Cuite have spent the better part of a decade seeping gradually into wider and wider circles of popular consciousness. Their big break came in impressing a TV executive leading to them becoming featured regularly in The OC and thereby gaining priceless exposure. Such success is extremely welcome, exposing an ever greater audiences to their prodigous musical talents. Fortunately, it has not led to a derogation of their output as Narrow Stairs nearly matches the heights of their classic album, Transatlanticism (2003) .

Death Cab For Cutie are rare in that their general tenet is melancholy yet the music is not. They have an unerring gift for connecting a delightful coda of chords, a mournful yet dreamy series of vocals with some challenging and stimulating lyrical content. If you were forced to ascribe a genre to their output, I would reluctantly assess them as 'indie alternative dreamy pop'. Hows that?

Narrow Stairs is their latest effort and belongs amongst the finest the group has produced investigating life's loves and losses. It is charming and poetic, yet also immediately accessible. Their most successful songs strike out from the 4 min pop songs consisting of verse, chorus, verse, chorus structure. This lack of structure allows them free range to experiment with changing moods and tempo. It is melancholy yet witty. Quirky yet poignant.

The best example is track two I Will Possess Your Heart which has a 3 min introduction. It starts with almost random piano chords. Then a bass guitar intercedes with a very simple 20 note sequence, repeated over and over, slowly building with added instrumentation towards something; we know not what. As it reaches a climax, the lyrics then interject; almost as a shock given the momentum of the buildup. They then describe the lyricsts affection towards a fair maiden.

"How I wish you could see the potential, the potential of you and me;
Its like a book elegantly bound, but in a language that you cant read.........(just yet)"

The 'just yet' is whispered, almost unheard, but makes the statement's intent amply clear. Unrequited affection. The dilemma faced by probably every single person on earth at some point. 'We would be great together if only he noticed me'. The intro thus comes into focus as the long, often repeated yearning for a desirable romantic outcome preceded by action. Magic stuff.

I am loathe to describe more of the album as its like giving away the best bits of a movie. Suffice to say I also really like tracks 5, 6, and 9. But the whole album is a delight to experience with subtly applied sparks of uptempo balancing the moments of misery and despair. Listen to it once just to sample the beautiful music, then listen to the lyrics to gain additional insight and satistfaction. Narrow Stairs is a great album and an early favourite for best album of the year.

Listen to it here:

Listen to it if you like :
Arcade Fire
The Cure

If you like this try :
Death Cab For Cutie................Transatlanticism
Teenage Fanclub....................Bandwagonesque
Doves.................................Lost Souls

Essential Classic Album

The Rolling Stones : The Rolling Stones (Englands Newest Hit Makers)

No musical artist is truly original. Most build a reportoire based on covers of their favourite genres. If they have talent, they might write their own material and just perhaps alter the course of music history so that they themselves become quoted as a musical influence. It is only a few bands that achieve such success. Fewer still can change the course of music history while still performing a collection of covers!

The Rolling Stones were such a band and Englands Newest Hit Makers is such an album. The debut album of the (self-proclaimed) "Greatest Rock and Roll Band In The World", it features only one original composition, the rather forgettable 'Tell Me'. But it stands at the crossroads of two important musical trends; the evolution of blues into rock and the British Invasion of the 1960's.

In the 12 tracks, it is possible to hear the emergence of a new era in music. As the baby boomers in the UK entered teenagedom, they searched for a new sound and found it in authentic black music from America played with energy and enthusiasm by a new breed of emerging artists. The Stones were at the forefront of this movement. Their debut album highlights their verve and charisma. But it also ably demonstrates how blues evolved into rock and roll. In fact you can hear the transition in four tracks!

Track 4 : Honest I Do - this is a Jimmy Reed classic which has been covered by a number of different blues artists. Here the Stones play a fairly straight up version in modern Chicago blues style with accompanying blues guitar. Jagger adds a bit of sneer but thats about it.

Track 3 : I Just Want To Make Love To You - a Muddy Waters classic but the Stones blithely dispense with tradition and play a markedly speeded up version. The song is very similar to Honest I Do with the same blues chords and traditional 12 bar blues structure but the timing is much faster and upbeat. Its becoming music you can dance to.

Track 2 : Route 66 - a traditional R&B classic that had been recorded by many artists from Perry Como to Nat King Cole. The Stones version is 'borrowed' liberally from an uptempo version learned off Chuck Berry. Now we have elements of rhythm accompanying the standard 3 chord blues structure. Drums and guitar are more prominent as leading rather than accompanying the artists voice.

Track 8 : Carol - put it all together and you have modern rock and roll in this Chuck Berry classic. The uptempo, the rhythm, the guitar, the beat. Combine with screaming hordes of teenage girls and rock and roll attitude, and you have the beginnings of the British Rock Invasion.

So, deliberately or not, we have the story of blues becoming rhythm & blues becoming rock & roll. Thus, the Stones along with the rest of the British Invasion, completed the neat trick of appropriating American music, altering it into something new and fresh and re-exporting it back to America. Talk about selling "coals to Newcastle".

The Stones made many greater albums than this debut effort. Beggars Banquet, Sticky Fingers, Let It Bleed, and Exile On Main Street to name just a handful. But perhaps none were as important to the development of rock music as this, their debut album. Get it here and reprogram your CD player to play tracks 4, 3, 2 and 8 in that order to fully appreciate why they were not only the 'Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World' but also one of the most important.

Listen to it here:

If you like this try:
Rolling Stones..........................Rolling Stones Now!
Them....................................Them Featuring Van Morrison
Yardbirds...............................Five Live Yardbirds

Top Ten List

When writing about the Rolling Stones above, I started thinking how hard it is to encapsulate the band in one Greatest Hits album. The Rolling Stones not only have a dozen or so classic albums, but also their greatest albums were so much more than a collection of singles. The music industry is partly to blame for the rise of Greatest Hits albums. Previously singles were used to promote albums and the album often did not include the single. Famously Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band had the Double A side single of Penny Lane / Strawberry Fields REMOVED from the album so the consumer was not shortchanged. However, soon albums became a collection of filler with only one or two hit singles. Who can blame the music consumer for only wanting the good songs?

However, some bands are hugely shortchanged by the Greatest Hits marketing phenomenon. Considering your music collection complete by having The Best of The Beatles misses sampling the full genuis of Liverpool's finest. Another argument is that you miss the chronology of development of a band. Roxy Music were a far different band in their first album than their last. So as part of my recurring crusade to introduce my readers to wider musical pleasures, and at risk of causing great offence; this weeks top ten is a little different. Here is:

The Top Ten Artists Where You Should Avoid Buying Greatest Hits Albums !

10) Van Morrison

Van Morrison was and is a poet. His albums are a flowing dialogue with his listeners. It grates that some no name music executive can excise some songs as he sees fits. Listening to Van Morrisons Greatest Hits is like reading a collection of punchlines without hearing the joke.

Albums you should buy : Astral Weeks, Moondance, Verdon Fleece, Tupelo Honey

9) Radiohead

Albums represent a slice in time, demonstrating the band at that particular juncture of their evolution. The albums are succint and final statements of the band at that moment. No band demonstrates this better than Radiohead as each album represents quite a departure from its previous effort.

Albums you should buy : The Bends, OK Computer, In Rainbows, Kid A

8) David Bowie

A David Bowie Greatest Hits is almost a fallacy. This is an artist who deliberately recreated himself in a different image as a different entity for each new album. There is no "David Bowie"! You only have to look at the album covers to see the different 'face' Bowie wears. My favourite Bowie track (Life on Mars off Hunky Dory) never even appears in Greatest Hits compilations.
Albums you should buy : Aladdin Sane, Ziggy Stardust, Low, Hunky Dory

7) Blur

The genuis of Blur was the brilliantly clever lyrics in each and every song. Each album contains brilliant gems of insight from the pen of Damon Albarn. For a great example, see Ernold Same off The Great Escape.

Albums you should buy : Parklife, Blur, The Great Escape, Modern Life Is Rubbish

6) Roxy Music

Listening to best of Roxy Music is like reading random chapters of various Graham Greene novels. Enjoyable but lacking in any context.

Albums you should buy : Country Life, Avalon, For Your Pleasure, Roxy Music

5) Primal Scream

Very similar to Radiohead in that each album was a separate and definitive statement of art to be consumed as a whole. The tracks off Screamadelica simply should not be listened to alongside those of Evil Heat.

Albums you should buy : Screamadelica, XTRMNTR, Evil Heat, Vanishing Point

4) Led Zepellin

I almost cry when I see compiliations like Mothership, featuring Led Zep's best, rising to the top of the charts. Just buy yourself some Dockers and boat shoes and be done with it. True fans listen to the whole albums back to back to back as Page and Plant intended you should.

Albums you should buy : Led Zeppellin I, Led Zeppellin IV, Houses of the Holy, Physical Grafitti

3) Rolling Stones

As discussed earlier, the Stones have a massive catalog of terrific songs and buying a Greatest Hits summary misses a wide section of the contribution they made to the popularity of modern music.

Albums you should buy : Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Some Girls, Aftermath

2) Elvis Costello

I was never much of a fan of Elvis Costello UNTIL I heard his albums in their entirety. They have all just been re-released with their original artwork and are all a treasure. Experience the full range of one of the finest songwriters of a generation.

Albums you should buy : This Years Model, Armed Forces, My Aim Is True, Get Happy!

1) The Beatles

It always amazes me that any compilation of Beatles songs inevitably rises straight to the top of the charts. Doesnt everyone already have these songs? Perhaps we should just issue them to everyone at birth and be done with it. It is a measure of the bands greatness that even 2 x Double CD's (Beatles 1962-1966 and Beatles 1967-1970) STILL dont capture anywhere near all of their brilliant compositions. And if you dont believe me, get out your vinyl copy of The Beatles (The White Album) and listen to Rocky Raccoon. Essential.

Albums you should buy : All of them! But start with Revolver, Rubber Soul, Abbey Road, and The Beatles

And as a bonus item, here are Ten Bands where a Greatest Hits probably includes everything great the artist ever did!

10) Duran Duran

9) Aerosmith

8) Motley Crue

7) Van Halen

6) Neil Diamond

5) Def Leppard

4) Abba

3) Madonna

2) Guns n Roses

1) Queen - admittedly you do need Greatest Hits Vol 1 AND 2 !

Got a grievance, unhappy with my selections, or really really love Greatest Hits albums. Leave a comment and make your feelings known.

As always, really hope you forward this on to other lovers of music. Please encourage them to send me their email address so I can add them to the notification list every time I update the blog.



Rob said...

Wot! Neil Diamonds greatest hits includes everything - wash your mouth out sir! Who of us can forget the timeless classic album - Johnathon Livingston Seagull!! A life changer for many of us.

You would need at least the 'double CD' greatest hits...

Anonymous said...

GNR greatest hits on one album? But they have 4 new albums coming in the next 4 years....haha yeah right!