Monday, June 7, 2010

June 2010

Album of the Month

The National : High Violet

I was passing by the Top Ten sellers of music retailer JB Hi Fi last week when I noted that the number one album was High Violet by The National, a band I have loved in supposed isolation for a couple of years. I stopped in my tracks, astonished that a hard working, talented indie alternative band had managed to top all the soporific photo-shopped mealy mass-produced music that passes for pop these days. I even rationalised that perhaps its No 1 status was that only crusty veterans with eclectic taste actually bother to buy physical CDs anymore. Could it be that taste is coming back into fashion?

The National are a band that recognise that life aint easy and nothing is handed to you on a plate. They have become rock stars the old fashioned way. By writing songs you can identify with, scoring them to moody melancholy music, releasing albums chock full of these quality songs and then touring the hell out of them. Recognition was slow to come, but by this, their fifth album, they seem to have finally passed through the guarded gateway of global exposure to rest comfortably on the shelf of popular acclaim. I almost bought myself a second copy to cement their place.

High Violet contains elements common to all of their albums. Their stock trade are songs which are like a collaboration between Nick Cave and Nick Drake. Quietish, moody poems set to instrumentation dominated by intricate percussion or subtle basslines. The songs are smouldering classics, working their way into your subconsciousness and residing there long after the speakers have gone silent. Its not music to shout out loud, but to internally digest and consider.

High Violet takes a while to get into its stride but the double combination on tracks five and six of Afraid Of Everyone and Bloodbuzz Ohio are an accurate depiction of their strength. Afraid of Everyone is a slow burning introspective evaluation leading up to the track defining line "I dont have the drugs to sort it out". In contrast, Bloodbuzz Ohio is a more uptempo rocker albeit with Matt Berninger's baritone vocals which lend it a touch of gravitas and immediacy.

Admittedly, High Violet is probably not the bands high point, but its still an effort most other bands would look up to and its an excellent place to start your future love affair given that its now available for about $20 at some record stores. Those interested in delving deeper into their back catalog should consider Alligator from 2005 and Boxer from 2007 both of which are minor masterpieces. The latter in particular probably gets played more on the Nevstar's stereo than any other album from 2007.

Passing through JB Hi Fi yesterday, I noted that The National had fallen from their top shelf spot to number four. The new number one was now the new release from the king of meaningless soporific elevator music; Jack Johnson. I didnt know whether to laugh or cry.

Listen to or purchase here.

Best Track : Afraid Of Everyone

Listen to this if you like :
Nick Cave, Nick Drake, Wilco

If you like this try:
Film School : Film School
American Music Club : Golden Age

Essential Classic Album

Those who know me well, or even those who dont, may have been subject to my lengthy diatribe on the pervasive and destructive presence of the "Greatest Hits" effect. Look at most people's music collections and they are dominated by Greatest Hits collections. The reasons may differ depending on who you talk to. Some people only want to buy one album per artist, others are aghast at the amount of filler on modern albums and some simply dont have the time to seek out the best from prolific artists.

If I could influence everyone's music buying tastes in one direction it would be to recommend certain studio albums in order to experience the aural thrill of hearing fantastic songs which havent been played on the radio a hundred thousand times. There are quite a few notable albums which are hugely rewarding but are often bypassed because of the absence of any recognisable singles. Van Morrison albums come to mind where arguably two of his greatest albums (Astral Weeks and Veerdon Fleece) contain nary one single between them. I have done it myself on numerous occasions. You see an album from a band you like in a record store and automatically check the track listing on the back. When you dont recognise any of the songs, you are more likely than not to put it back.

Well, for our Essential Classic album this month, the Nevstar will now make a spirited defence of an all time great album which has eighteen tracks and yet only one vaguely recognisable single. It sounds like an album of filler but this album is by one of rock's greatest bands and is perhaps their crowning achievement. As it has just been remastered and re-released, I thought it was opportune to check out The Rolling Stones and their wonderful album, Exile On Main Street.

Exile on Main Street (1972)

Exile on Main Street contains only one track on an entire double album that most people are likely to know; the rather funky Tumbling Dice which would probably rank in the mid twenties in terms of essential Stones singles. But this misses the point completely. Exile On Main Street is an album (well two really) chocker block full of rapacious, raucous, ripping rock and roll. Its the Stones at their dirtiest; sneering and leering, strutting and preening, equal measures delightful and disturbing.

In the spring of 1971, the band had become hugely successful. So successful in fact, that they owed the taxman more than they could afford. And so they decamped to the south of France with a blank song book and an empty recording studio. Having already achieved considerable fame and success, they were also 'exiled' in a sense from public pressure. Like the Beatles before them with Revolver, the Stones could head off in different directions musically without the pressure of having to make sure the next song they wrote was a surefire No. 1 single. Of course, this was extraordinarily liberating and led to an explosion of creativity as they sampled the best elements from rock, soul, blues, gospel, rockabilly, rhythm & blues and more besides. Within a few months, they had a double album's worth of material and promptly released them as the album titled Exile on Main Street. The four sides of the double album are packed with more musical ideas than most bands have in a lifetime. Its an embarrassment of riches which record companies today would insist should be spread over 4 - 5 albums to maximise sales. Three songs aptly demonstrate the varied charms of this extraordinary album:

Rocks Off - the opening track is so important on any album, and Rocks Off perfectly sets the table for the meal to be served. An unadulterated, unrefined, unflinching rocker, complete with messy vocals, mashed up guitars and trashed drums. If you dont find this exciting, check to see if you are still fogging up the mirror.

Let It Loose - in stark contrast, this mid album stunner is a gospel-tinged glimpse past the preening rock god that Jagger had so artfully created and stage managed. Its a soulful, mournful taste of life on the other side of the unending adulation of rock stars.

Shine A Light - ok, there might be two songs people know. The title track from the recent Martin Scorcese Rolling Stones biopic, Shine A Light is a piano led romp straight from the gin joints of Memphis to your record player via five young guys from London, England. Amazing.

The album itself did not meet with immediate success. Reviews were mixed with only a few recognising its greatness. But the more people listened to it, the more they liked it and its prestige and reputation has grown through the decades. In fact it was recently named #6 in Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Definitive 200 CDs that every music lover should own. Personally, Id have it higher.

But lets leave the last word about the album to the normally taciturn Keith Richards.

"What I want to do is good shit - if it's good they'll get it sometime down the road".

Yes Keith, it is good and I get it. So should you.

Listen to it and purchase here.

Best tracks: Let it Loose, Shake Your Hips, Ventilator Blues, Shine A Light, Tumbling Dice (and many more!)

Top Ten

As I have hopefully made the case above for seeking out some of the original Rolling Stones albums, I thought it might be helpful to provide some guidance on which ones to buy. The Stones have recorded no less than 32 studio albums and some should certainly be given a wide berth. However, if you are looking to expand your collection of some classic rock and roll, here is an introduction to some of the better ones.

Top Ten Rolling Stones Albums

10. Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! (1970)

While Im not generally a huge fan of live albums, the Stones were (and perhaps arguably still are) a great live band which means at least one of their live albums merits inclusion. Their best live album is the terrific Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out from their 1970 American tour. Mainly showcasing material from their parade of outstanding late 60's albums, this is one live album worth having. The standout is a slow-burning edition of the slightly disturbing Midnight Rambler.

Listen to or purchase here.

Best Track : Midnight Rambler
Hidden Gem : Stray Cat Blues

9. December's Children (And Everybody's)

The Stones early catalog divides neatly into two distinct eras. The first five albums featured minimal original compositions relying predominately on rhythm & blues covers. December's Children is the last of these albums and the Stones fifth album in under two years. It contains the monster Jagger/Richards penned hit As Tears Go By, alongside some other excellent covers, notably the cracking Chuck Berry authored Talkin About You. Not essential, but very enjoyable.

Listen to or buy here.

Best Track : Get Off Of My Cloud
Hidden Gem : Talkin About You

8. Aftermath (1966)

The second Stones era starts here with the first Rolling Stones album containing exclusively "Jagger / Richards" original compositions. It marks a great leap forward, with the band experimenting with a number of influences and establishing for the first time that distinctive 'Stones' sound for which they became justly famous. Paint It Black, Stupid Girl, Lady Jane and Under My Thumb in particular get the album off to a cracking start and is arguably the best four opening tracks of any Stones album.

Note: In a trap for the unwary, there are two different versions of this album floating around. The Stones (unlike the Beatles) have never homogenised the track listings of their early studio albums. Several of the US releases contain singles which the UK albums unfortunately omit. The one to get here is the US version (as pictured above) which opens with the magnificent Paint It Black and finishes with the extended 11 min blues jam of Going Home.

Listen to or purchase here.

Best Track : Paint It Black
Hidden Gem : I Am Waiting

7. Sticky Fingers (1971)

This album is an important fore-runner to the masterpiece Exile On Main Street which followed. It is a bluesy, druggy, hedonistic affair with half the tracks mentioning drugs openly or obliquely. Its most famous track is the incomparable Wild Horses which reportedly got its name from Marianne Faithfull's - Jaggers girl at the time - response when it was suggested she should quit heroin. The Beatles may have wanted to hold your hand, but the Stones wanted to get high and shag your sister. Indeed, the album cover itself outlines their intentions which do not look remotely honourable.

Listen to or purchase here.

Best Track : Wild Horses
Hidden Gem : Sway

6. Some Girls (1978)

This was the first Stones album I ever listened to thanks to a super vinyl copy that my Dad owned (thanks Dad!). It contained a terrific sleeve with a pull-out card allowing you to visualise the band members with various haircuts from famous celebrities. Genius. Unfortunately, most of the celebrities threatened to sue and so we are left with the duller CD version with generic models on the front (yet another reason to own vinyl records). Regardless, this was the biggest selling Stones album ever in the United States with over six millions copies sold to date and its easy to see why. A stonking collection of tracks showing the world that the Stones were still a force to be reckoned with amidst the explosion of disco and punk. It was also the first album to feature Ronnie Wood on guitar and his slide guitar style is notable on a number of the tracks particularly the title track.

Purchase here.

Best track : Some Girls
Hidden Gem : Respectable

5. The Rolling Stones, Now! (1965)

The third album and by now (ho ho) the Stones had firmly established their modus operandi. This really is a cracking album replete with stonking rhythm and blues covers amidst some genuinely classy original compositions (Heart of Stone in particular). Their version of Little Red Rooster stands as one of the greatest covers of all time perhaps eclipsing Howlin Wolf's world-weary original. A great place to start if you want to understand the Stones's early history as a white rhythm and blues band.

Listen to or purchase here.

Best Track : Little Red Rooster
Hidden Gem : Heart of Stone

4. Englands Newest Hit Makers (1964)

This really is the foundation of rock and roll and only their superb later work prevents it from having a podium position. On the basis of importance in rock and roll history, it is probably right up there alongside Elvis Presley - The Sun Sessions. You have five young guys with long hair down their backs singing black American blues music but, unshackled by centuries of servitude, tweaking it with their own youthful flair, exuberance and flamboyance. That sound became known as Rock and Roll. Just listen to tracks 4, 3, 2 and 8 in that order to hear the progression from straight blues to speeded up blues to rhythm and blues to rock and roll. Beyond essential.

Listen to or purchase here.

Best Track: Route 66
Hidden Gem : Tell Me

3. Exile On Main Street (1972)

Could arguably be higher, but certainly no lower. That there is not one but two albums which are possibly better than this masterpiece speaks volumes for the quality of their recorded output.

See review above.

2. Let It Bleed (1969)

In order to be a great band, you need to have recorded a great album. But if you want to proclaim yourself as the "Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World you are probably going to need two or three (at least). The claim may have pre-dated the album, but by 1969, there could be no dispute that the Stones were amongst rock's royalty. Let It Bleed firmly captures a band operating on a higher artistic plane. There are several magnificent tracks, but what makes the album great is that they are magnificent in different ways. Opener Gimmie Shelter is an anthemic call to arms amidst the societal turmoil of the late 60's, the title track is a slow-burning cigar, dispensing pleasure throughout while the magnus opus of You Cant Always Get What You Want is one of the greatest songs of this or any other band. There is even the light hearted countrified version of Honky Tonk Women in Country Honk. Let It Bleed also pays tribute to the Stones past with one cover song, a magnificent version of Robert Johnson's Love In Vain. And if you dont know who Robert Johnson is, you have a lot of work to do.

Listen to or purchase here.

Best Track: You Cant Always Get What You Want
Hidden Gem: Love In Vain

1. Beggars Banquet (1968)

This was a tough call over Let It Bleed, but my favourite Stones album has been Beggars Banquet since the first time I heard it. Here the Stones return to their roots in some respects, playing their own distinctive brand of blues based rock. The love affair starts with the cover art itself which is pure Stones. Dirty, puerile and offensive. The album is then kicked off by my favourite Stones song of all time, the truly epic Sympathy For The Devil. Lyrically, the Stones had in the past been weaker than some of their contemporaries, but no longer. "Please allow me to introduce myself, Im a man of wealth and fame." Is Mick talking about the devil or himself?

What follows is an amalgam of anger (Street Fighting Man), sleaze (Stray Cat Blues) and loneliness (No Expectations). There is even a comedic turn to momentarily lighten the mood in the delightful Dear Doctor. An incredible album which you could play for the rest of your life and not get sick off and fully deserving of its lofty position as the best Rolling Stones album of all time.

Listen to or purchase here.

Best Track: Sympathy For The Devil
Hidden Gem: Stray Cat Blues

And as we are talking about the ones to buy, perhaps we should also note the ones to avoid of which there are, unfortunately, quite a few.

Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967) - puzzling, muddled response to Sgt Pepper era psychedelia.

Goats Head Soup (1973) - the Stones had their own drug-addled excess 23 years before Oasis's "Be Here Now"

Its Only Rock n Roll
(1974) - only its not.

Emotional Rescue
(1980) - the title track is the 'best' song and thats not saying much

Anything released after Tattoo You (1981) with the possible exception of Voodoo Lounge (1995) which is, at times, interesting.

There you go music lovers. What do we think of that? Your favourite Stones album not among those listed or was listed amongst the ones to avoid? Write me a tersely worded email and will be happy to include in future editions. Its the arguing which is the most fun!

Thats all for now.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Another excellent blog Nev, especially that comprehensive look at the Stones. They really are legends and the epitome of cool, both concepts that are easily misconstrued and overlooked these days! But why are you generally not a fan of live albums?