Tuesday, February 24, 2009

March 2009

Album Of The Month

Ladyhawke : Ladyhawke

It is arguably the hardest thing to accomplish in popular music. To write a great hook. That little 2-8 word ditty that reverberates in the listeners consciousness causing them firstly to sing along, and secondly to sing or hum it to themselves. All great music is replete with short codas of compelling melodies, notes or sounds. Even great classical music is built around great hooks (Da Da Da Dahhhhh!). Some do it effortlessly (The Beatles, Prince), while others go a lifetime of music production only producing one (The Final Countdown anyone?). Well our very own Ladyhawke (aka Pip Brown) has produced more than one. Her eponymous debut album contains twelve songs each and every one replete with its own distinctive hook.

Ladyhawke is a NZ solo artist currently trying to break into the tough UK market. She started her musical career with two friends as a grunge act named Two Lane Blacktop (not a bad name that) which she described as a cross between Iggy Pop and The Clash. She then split from the band and renamed herself Ladyhawke after a character played by Michelle Pfeiffer in a 1985 movie of the same name.

And she certainly seems to have found her niche. Her debut album is an absolute delight. Listening to it is like a catching a train rolling through the eighties. Its comfortable, languid and relaxing with much to see on both sides of the carriage. The first track, Magic sounds like a long lost New Order track from the early 80s. Then the third track My Delirium reverts to something more akin to The Bangles. It is followed by Better Than Sunday which belongs to the genre encompassing the robotic 80s synth pop like Human League or Gary Numan. But its all there, the aforementioned hooks, super synthesiser sounds, catchy lumpy beats, smooth and sophisticated vocals and layer upon layer of perfect production. Particular delights are the gorgeous My Delirium (video here), the ruinously catchy Back Of The Van and the cracking closer Morning Dreams.

The music is not the most original in the world but it is quite a trick to make something new instantly familiar and capable of being sung along to. In a world where we often expect more and receive less from our favourite bands, check out this unassuming kiwi lady who delivers more pop pleasures on one album than the Spice Girls managed in a career.

Listen or purchase here :

Try it if you like:
The Bangles
The Pretenders

If you like this try :
The Ting Tings....................We Started Nothing
New York Pony Club...............Fantastic Playroom
CSS.................................Cansei Der Ser Sexy

Essential Classic Album

Together Alone : Crowded House

While writing about Ladyhawke, I kept trying to think of other Kiwi songsmiths who have the knack of writing great pop hits. A few come to mind. Jordan Luck is certainly there, as is Dave Dobbyn and probably the likes of Shona Laing, Bic Runga and Tim Finn. But probably the best songwriter we have produced is Tim's little brother, a certain Mr Neil Finn. So what better opportunity to highlight his finest achievement, Crowded House's Together Alone which sits comfortably in the Nevstars Top Ten Albums of All Time.

Crowded House were a deliberate attempt by Neil to move away from the complex sound of Split Enz. Their first two albums comprised simple pop songs with traditional song structures but great hooks. The third album, Woodface, with Tim Finn now added to the lineup was a significant step up with some more complex instrumentation, and lyrical intensity going up a notch. Combined with the best melody of a duo since Simon & Garfunkel, it is an outstanding album.

Faced with trying to top this effort, the band retired to a bach out on Aucklands West Coast and set about recording Together Alone. With the assistance of ex-Killing Joke member Youth as producer, what they came up with is their most complex yet most satisfying album. It features heavier guitars (some even recalling the Split Enz sound), and a heavy Pacific Island/Maori influence. Combined with gorgeous hooks, enticing and challenging lyrics, and exceptional variety, it is a record that stands frequent and repeated playings. There are numerous great songs on this record.

Rumours or apocryphal stories suggest that Neil himself considers Pineapple Head to be the finest song he ever wrote which is certainly saying something. It definitely stands tall, but then again Together Alone is a forest with all the songs standing tall seeking attention. There is the rocking In My Command, the Norwegian Wood ish (a high compliment) Nails In My Feet, the punkish Black & White Boy, the wondrous Fingers of Love, the aforementioned Pineapple Head followed by my other favourites like Locked Out, Private Universe, the single Distant Sun, Skin Feeling and then the gigantic closing track Together Alone. It really is an embarrassment of riches. Its why you should NEVER buy a Crowded House greatest hits because by all rights, this entire album would fill one side of it. It certainly proved hard to top as they waited fourteen years until 2007 before attempting a follow-up. Perhaps Neil knew that he could do no more with this format and needed to go in another direction.

The Nevstar still recalls the experience of buying this album when it came out. I asked the Marbecks attendant if it was any good. He replied that if Woodface was this close (holding his thumb and index figure an inch apart), then Together Alone was this close, upon which he closed his fingers almost together. The implication was clear. Perfection in a musical album is unobtainable, but Together Alone is close. Awfully close.

Listen to or purchase CD/mp3 here

If you like this try :
Crowded Face...........Woodface
The Stone Roses........The Stone Roses
The Beatles..............Rubber Soul

Top Ten List

There is a great scene in the film High Fidelity. Barry harrasses a potential client for asking for I Just Called To Say I Love You by Stevie Wonder and then asks the others for the Top Ten Worst Musical crimes perpetrated by formerly great artists. I was thinking of this when reading some recent reviews of Bruce Springsteens latest album which has been universally panned as tepid and dull. So what are the worst albums recorded by otherwise great artists? The Nevstar Top Ten this month is therefore the :

Top Ten Worst Albums from Otherwise Great Artists

10) Pearl Jam - Yield
I may be in the minority, as I dont consider Pearl Jam a great band, but they certainly sold a lot of albums and many consider Ten to be the pinnacle of grunge alongside Nirvana's Nevermind. So be it, but if they are that great, I challenge their fans to justify this effort. For a rock band, they dont seem to rock much and spend most of the album singing dull, soul-less folk ballads. Yawn.

9) David Bowie - Tonight
Following on from his multi-platinum smash Lets Dance, Bowie seems uncharacteristically idea-less on the album Tonight. Perhaps dance music is just not really his thing. Album is to be avoided almost completely. Just download the track Blue Jean.

8) Beatles -Yellow Submarine

As big a fan of The Beatles as I am, not everything they produced is essential. Yellow Submarine came at the height of the period of self-indulgent drug excess. Yellow Submarine is almost unlistenable particularly the second half. While the title track is perhaps the best known Beatles song (anyone over the age of five probably knows it), that is no excuse for subjecting loyal fans to the meaningless lyricless meandering of the last six tracks. Maybe it makes more sense on LSD.

7) The Rolling Stones - Dirty Work
With 26 studio albums, its perhaps inevitable that the worlds greatest rock band produced the odd dud. The eighties generally were a creative black hole for the Stones with only Tattoo You considered worthy of owning. Dirty Work was a comeback of sorts after three years away from each other and several solo albums. The whole album sounds tired and forced with little of the swerve and vigour which made them so compelling.

6) Muddy Waters - Electric Mud
For an artist normally fastidious about his sound, Muddy definitely succumbed to commercial pressure here. To build on his new found popularity with whites as a result of the British blues explosion, Chess re-recorded some Muddy Waters classics as electric guitar driven psychedelic tracks. Bad idea. A musical crime against humanity.

5) Pink Floyd - The Final Cut
There are a couple of albums from the Floyd which are, to put it nicely, hard work. The Final Cut is foremost among them. It is a dense and intense experience which easy to switch off and hard to love. Some claim it to be a triumph; others the final indulgence.

NB : I havent included the post Roger Waters albums for consideration as its not really the Floyd without him but listening to The Division Bell the first and only time was a lost hour of my life never to be recovered.

4) Bob Dylan - Self Portrait
Most artists yearn to be loved. Bob Dylan seems to have spent half his career trying to lose his audience and there is no better example than Self Portrait. A sprawling, cryptic, self-indulgent double album, Self Portrait came at the end of a period of incredible creativity and perhaps represents a singular upraised finger to those idolising him. This is one Dylan album which should definitely be avoided (along with Under The Red Sky).

3) The Clash - Cut The Crap
The sound of a band trying to recapture their youth ten years too late. Its almost unthinkable that a band that produced the essential classic London Calling which is brimful of diverse musical ideas, could also produce this. Formulaic, rote, lacking in charm, and a complete absence of originality. In fact an almost perfect replica of the trite that punk was supposed to replace. Even completists shouldnt own it on principle.

2) Lou Reed - Metal Machine Man
No album is worse than Metal Machine Man. The great Lou Reed, the grounding influence of Velvet Underground and issuer of some remarkable solo albums (Transformer, Berlin, New York) has one album in his catalog that defies comprehension. Its variously been described as the logical endpost for heavy metal, a precursor to industrial metal or simply the worst in-joke in music history. The album basically consists of two guitars' feedback being played at different speeds. The last of the four sided double album is 1.8 seconds of this looped continuously. It would be difficult to record anything more annoying (although Frank Zappa certainly tried). Like any art, people try to find some meaning in it, but they probably havent listened to it very much. If nothing else, its a great conversational piece.

1) Neil Young - Everybody's Rockin
Nosing out Lou Reed more on quantity than quality (or lack thereof) is the indisputably great Neil Young. Now lets be clear, I really rate Neil Young as my fawning review of his BDO performance will attest (see here) but of all the great artists in the list, none have produced more crap albums than Neil Young. And to David Geffen's immense disappointment, they were all released on his label during the 80s. Choosing one is difficult but lets examine the choices; Re-ac-tor (half baked confused effort with Neil understandably more focused on his recently disabled son), Trans (a futuristic mess), Everybody's Rockin (a tribute rockabilly album?), Old Ways (an ill-timed return to country rock when the country was getting into MTV), and Landing on Water (arguably the best which isnt saying much). At a push, we will go with Everybody's Rockin, an inexcusable, lamentable, mystifying effort at showcasing the Americana rockabilly genre.

If there was any doubt, all you need to say as the Prosecution is "Ladies and Gentlemen, we present to you Neil Young and the Shocking Pinks" and present the album cover:

What was he thinking?

So there you have it, the worst albums by the greatest artists. Have I missed any? Send me an email or leave a comment.

Feedback from Top Ten
I had a lot of great feedback from last months top ten which asked which were the most influential albums of all time. The most commonly cited albums appear below. Without passing comment on the merits of each, you could certainly make a case for any of the following being very influential and worthy of inclusion on such a list.

Suede - Suede
Nirvana - Nevermind
The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Are You Experienced?
Paul Simon - Graceland
Pink Floyd - Piper at Gates of Dawn
Bob Marley - Exodus
New Order - Technique

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

February 2009

Album of the Month

Feed The Animals - Girl Talk

It takes a rare talent to copy something and make it original. But that is just what mash-up experts Girl Talk have done on their fourth album, Feed The Animals. In a direct affont to the music industry, this album consists of nothing original comprising only of several hundred samples, all mashed together into a glorious kaleidoscope of the last 50 years of recorded music. It is a full sized smorgasboard of sound featuring just about every genre of music mashed together into a soundtrack of our musical lives. In all, they mix an estimated (or admitted), 322 different samples into the fourteen tracks somehow managing to grab the best moments of a truly mind-altering number of songs. And I thought I had a big collection of music.

And so what we find amongst the fourteen tracks is a cornucopia of the well known surrounded by less known. There is heavy metal and hair metal, hard rock and cheesy pop, rap and rock, disco and dance. You spend half the album tapping your toes, and the other half trying to name the song where that three note coda comes from. See here for Wikipedia's efforts to catalog some of the samples used.

The modus operandi is mainly the seguing of gangsta rap and hip hop spoken lyrics over familar pop hits. The harsh and provocative musings of black rappers is transcended somewhat when accompanied by the dulcet tones of Come on Eileen. The angry and inciteful language of Public Enemy is somewhat tempered by being intoduced by Heart's Magic Man. Its an intoxicating mixture and if you dont like something, wait ten seconds for the next familiar track to kick in. Its like a rapid fire game of Play Station's Buzz as you try and name that tune.

My personal favourite sample used has to be the drum intro to Rick Astley's toxic Never Gonna Give You Up which abruptly finishes just before Astley gets to sing. Now THAT is a someone who understands music as I always have a notion to stop that track as soon as I hear that drum roll. But to get some inkling of the range of artists, here are the ones used in the first minute of the fourth track "Whats It All About", Beyonce, DJ Funk, Queen, Beastie Boys, Phil Collins, Busta Rhymes, The Police and The Cure. Not a collection of artists you probably listen to on your way to work.

Producer Gregg Gillis paid no royalties on the samples he used, (how could he possibly), striking an extremely liberal interpretation on the 'fair use' principle of copyright law. In turn he has made the music available for whatever you think its worth. Click here to access the download and pay whatever amount you want. Click on $0.00 if for no other reason to see the list of options for reasons why you wont pay one brass wazoo for something so good. Download it now, but how about rewarding his creativity by parting with a few of your hard earned dollars.

The mash-up has developed into an artform in its own right. Like most art it runs the range from magnificent glorious masterpieces to cover-your-eyes awful. Where does Girl Talk's effort fit on that scale? Well if Feed The Animals was a painting, we would be gazing at it in a world class gallery and buying a book on it while exiting the gift shop. Its that good.

Essential Classic Album

It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back - Public Enemy

It all begins here. If you want an insight to understanding the immensity of emotion that rap induces in its followers, put this album on your turntable. Its the essential and only rap album you need. Giving voice to a nation of disaffected youths, it is the soundtrack of a forgetten and downtrodden generation urging, cajoling, nay demanding, that they rise up and allow their voices to be heard. Rarely has a record so accurately captured the provocative and rebellious attitude of an entire race.

Chuck D and Flavour Flav did not invent rap but they certainly focused its power as a political force in its own right. Combining elements of free jazz, funk and hip hop with sharp and insightful lyrics, it is the equivalent of an Inauguration Speech for the other America. Those that arent living the American dream of BBQ's and baseball. Those for whom cops are tormentors, not protectors. Those whose only dream is to live till their thirties.

There are a number of standout tracks amongst the overtly political track list, but my personal favourites are the anthemic, confrontational "Dont Believe The Hype" and then the last track "Party for Your Right To Fight" which neatly encapsulates the urgency and motivation behind the call to arms. Revolutions start with the voicing of dissatisfaction with the ruling elite.

It is twenty years since the album is released. One would guess that its power would be diminished in these slightly more enlightened times when a black kid can actually aspire to become President of the United States. But that is plainly short-sighted and if we cant see, we cant care. The problems they sing about are still issues of the day as blacks in America are still, in large part, a disenfranchised creed. This is their political manifesto reinterpreting and updating James Brown's "Im Black and Im Proud".

The album starts with a quote from Malcolm X, the full version of which is

"It's just like when you've got some coffee that's too black, which means it's too strong. What do you do? You integrate it with cream, you make it weak. But if you pour too much cream in it, you won't even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it puts you to sleep."

It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back is thus the lyrical equivalent of that cup of black coffee; powerful, strong, united and boiling hot.

Top Ten List

While writing about Public Enemy, it struck me that there is a difference between the greatest albums and the most influential. Sometimes an album will blaze a trail only for others to successfully follow. Its like cutting a track up a mountain only to see someone else scale that mountain and claim the spoils of glory and everlasting fame.

So it set me thinking as to what were the most INFLUENTIAL albums of all time. Albums that created a musical genre, changed the way musicians play, or simply made a lot of kids want to pick up a guitar. Its an immensely subjective and emotive issue, but here are the Nevstar's

Top Ten Most Influential Albums of All Time

10. Elvis Presley - The Sun Sessions
Its influence cannot be underestimated. You basically had a white country boy with a 'black' voice, steeped in gospel rockabilly and country playing speeded up blues. It was nothing less than the template for rock and roll, which became kinda big.

9. Sex Pistols - Never Mind The Bollocks
Music has disappeared up its collective arse in the early 70s only for that comfort to be shattered by four misogynist punks (in both senses of the word). Rock and roll was exciting again, as rock dinosaurs met their very own meteorite.

8. Public Enemy - Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back
As above, nothing less than a riotous call to arms. Rappers and their music can change the world.

7. Herbie Hancock - Headhunters
All keyboardists prior to performing probably offer a silent prayer to the master of fusion who changed the way keyboards and pianos would be played forever more.

6. Miles Davis - A Kind Of Blue
Not an exaggeration to say that every jazz album released since owes it a debt. Took musicianship to a whole new level and demanded that jazz players obtain a very high level of competence before practicing their art. 50 years after its release, its still the best jazz album of all time without any question.

5. Led Zepellin - Led Zepellin I
I listed about three or four different Led Zep albums in this slot (II, IV and Physical Graffiti have worthy claims as well), but ultimately it was their first album which provided the template for two dominating musical trends. The launch of heavy rock (which became ultimately heavy metal), and the worship of guitar gods.

4. Kraftwerk - Trans-Europe Express
Again, arguably not their best album, but certainly their most influential. Effectively created the template for all electronica music combining repeating melodic loops with incessant rhythms and understated vocals. Immensely enjoyable and accessible to this day.

3. Bob Dylan - Bringing It All Back Home
That the power of electric rock and roll should return was an anaethma to the flower power folkies; but having one of their own spearhead the drive was too much to handle. Booed lustily after plugging in, Dylan showed us a new direction home and proved that you sometimes need to leave your fans behind.

2. The Beatles - Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Beatles arguably made better albums (Revolver for one) but this was by far their most influential. It is ground zero for two rather important musical trends. The first was the use of the studio as separate instrument. Most bands recorded output was indistinguishable from their live act; The Beatles deliberately set out to create music that could not be performed live using a wide array of studio tricks and techniques. Secondly, they started the whole issue of a concept album which was expanded upon by all manner of 70s acts.

1. Velvet Underground - Velvet Underground & Nico
As the saying goes, not many people bought the album, but those that did, started their own bands. The very definition of influential. In a setting provided by art house supremo Andy Warhol, Lou Reed and his colleagues settled in and recorded an immensely personal and reflective album. Featuring songs pushing the boundaries of social commentary and sexual realism, it is a perfect record. Their recorded output led to everything from punk to the predominance of singer-songwriters.

Honourable mentions:

David Bowie - Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars
Robert Johnson - King of Delta Blues Guitar
Marvin Gaye - Whats Going On
Primal Scream - Screamadelica
Bee Gees - Saturday Night Fever
Michael Jackson - Thriller
Beach Boys - Pet Sounds
Spice Girls - Spice (yes I know, but it set the standard for modern marketing of music abhorrent as that may seem)

Thats it for another month. Hope you have enjoyed the latest Nevstar Music Guide. Leave a comment on any of the above if you want to comment, criticize or compliment, and please forward to any other like-minded music fans.