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

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