Monday, October 3, 2011

October 2011

This month saw the first announcement of bands playing at the Big Day Out in 2012. The Nevstar was seriously underwhelmed with the list. Setting aside my complete disinterest in a second rate grunge band (Soundgarden) and a marketing extraordinaire (Kayne West), it was probably more disappointing to see a number of bands playing the gig yet again. The inclusion of Kasabian (third time in last five years), My Chemical Romance (second time in three years) and Living End (for what seems like the 950th time in last twenty years!) suggests that the organisers are finding it harder and harder to entice quality names downunder.
Further down the list however were some interesting bands albeit less well-known. I've profiled Best Coast before so if you head along make sure you catch her brand of sunshine tinged pop. And then an album by another band that was announced had already been selected as my album of the month which was extremely propitous. So if you want to know a bit more about Foster The People, read on.

Album Of The Month

Foster The People : Torches

Pop music, at its finest, has a charming effervescence; a ethereal lightness existing only for our instant entertainment and enjoyment. It is not to be slowly savoured, but instantly devoured and delighted in. It is as energizing as it is inspirational. Pop music, at its finest, plugs directly into the neuron receptors which trigger spontaneous outbursts of joy and happiness. Unfortunately, so few bands have the ability to write such genius pop music.
Foster The People have that ability.

Torches is their debut album released on the back of the killer single “Pumped Up Kicks” which filled dance floors all over Europe during the summer of 2010. It was a YouTube sensation as well registering millions of hits and so an album was soon demanded by the musical powers that be. As with any band of this ilk, the true test is whether they can sustain the energy and pop hooks throughout an entire album’s worth of material. As the Nevstar can happily testify; yes they can.

Their debut album Torches is a collection of inspired and electro-disco pop music by this Los Angeles trio who have a deft touch to accompany their delicate dulcet tones. For just under an hour, we are taking for a ride by a relentlessly energetic tag team of vocals set to irresistibly catchy hooks. It is the sort of album you find yourself singing along to BEFORE you know the words. The songs are cheery and playful; odes to sing along to while swinging on your jungle gym or jumping on your trampoline.

Inevitably, the ability to write an album’s worth of pop masterpieces is pretty tough. The album is front-loaded with the first half stronger than second half. As most of us know, it is hard to maintain a high level of energy no matter what the activity! But, just as we sense they are flagging, the final two tracks bring the album to a magnificent close. Penultimate track “Miss You” is a wistful love song introduced by some funky early 80s drum synthesiser and channelling their inner Kraftwerk. Then closing track “Warrant” is definitely worth waiting around as it is probably the second best track after "Pumped Up Kids".

So, given the prevailing mood of doom and despondency currently pervading the economic landscape, perhaps having some cheery pop music instantly accessible as an easily reachable antidote makes a lot of sense. Go out and get yourself a copy now. Why hold your head in your hands when you could be tapping your feet?

If you like this try:

CSS : Cansei De Ser Sexy
Passion Pit : Manners
MGMT : Oracular Spectacular

Essential Classic Album

Nirvana : Nevermind

2011 marks the 20 year anniversary of the release of one of the most important albums of the 20th century. How important was Nirvana’s Nevermind? Well, the best answer is that in 2004 it was selected by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry. How’s that for making your mark on history!

Grunge was arguably the last true innovation in rock music and the template for that distinct sound is Nirvana’s second album entitled Nevermind. A lot of grunge bands followed in their footsteps but none were as good as Nirvana. A lot of grunge albums were released after 1991 but none were as good as Nevermind. The template for the grunge sound was effectively established forever more by Nevermind. "Smells Like Teen Spirit", which kicks off the album, starts off with a quiet guitar riff before the song launches into the furious angst filled anthem of teenage rebellion. And then, it is quiet again before slowly building to another climax. Quiet, loud, quiet. Twenty years on and it is still intensely thrilling.

Listening to Nevermind in writing this review and another aspect I noted was the rhythm. A pet peeve of mine is that too many bands try to rock hard whereas great rock music needs both to rock AND roll. There should be rhythm to accompany the beats. A lot of the songs on Nevermind rock really hard, but they all have very strong driving rhythms as well.

The other notable aspect of the album is the strength of the lesser songs. As the Nevstar endlessly opines, the true test of a talented band is not the quality of the singles, but the quality of the ‘filler’. Nevermind is extremely front-loaded as an album with the four Top 100 singles featuring in the first five tracks. But side 2 (in the old vernacular) is still worth listening to and has a number of quite brilliant tracks. I really like the relentless urgings of "Territorial Pissings" which is perhaps the punkiest track on the album. Similarly "Stay Away" would’ve been a great single had they needed another.

Nirvana’s lasting legacy is perhaps tarnished or at least overshadowed by Kurt’s depression and ultimate suicide. But Nevermind should not be considered in light of what came after. It should be viewed through the prism of what came before as they forged a distinctive Seattle rock persona. Nevermind is the sound of a supremely confident and talented trio of musicians forging a new consensus on the way rock and roll should henceforth be played and listened to. Its impact today is, if anything, even stronger than 1991. Bands today need to be confident of their identity and sound. Success in the music industry today is rooted in being original not derivative. Find your own voice, play music you love, practice until your fingers bleed and then play and play and play. Your audience will find you. Nirvana’s certainly did and after releasing Nevermind, history beckoned.

If you like this try:

Pearl Jam : Ten
Soundgarden : Superunknown
Alice In Chains : Dirt

Top Ten List

Setting aside how fabulous the music is, Nirvana’s Nevermind has also got one of the all time great album covers. This got me thinking; what are the best album covers of all time? It is, again, an immensely difficult question. Ultimately, great albums cover art becomes iconic and so it can become a circular argument. Is the cover famous because of being great art or because the album is famous? However, while it is incredibly subjective, here are what I consider to be The Top Ten Album Covers of All Time.

10. Sex Pistols : Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols

An album cover that really needs no explaining. Art for arts sake and a template for the punk imagery that evolved thereafter. In a stunning indictment of the nanny state that was in existence at the time, Richard Branson and a record store owner were prosecuted under the Indecent Displays (Control) Act for displaying the album cover. Apparently the album cover is 'indecent' for its prominent use of the extremly rude and offensive word 'bollocks'.

9. The Libertines : The Libertines

A great album cover should exist as art in its own right. To my mind, great photo art is a picture that instantly intrigues yet can sustain multiple subsequent viewings. The Libertines second album cover certainly qualifies. An astonishing photo. That you could probably predict the future history of the band from the one photos also exemplifies its qualities.

8. Roxy Music – Country Life

Roxy Music wrote music that always titillated. Their album covers were similarly sexy. Country Life was their fourth album and probably their most consistent. However it may be best remembered for the quite striking and unforgettable album cover. Reportedly, Bryan Ferry encountered the two models in Portugal and convinced them to pose for the cover in this sexy yet forbidding shot. I have always liked the ambiguity about whether they are standing up or lying down.

7. Nirvana : Nevermind

The undeniably brilliant album cover operates on a number of levels and still quite mesmerising to this day. The shot was conceived after Dave Grohl watched a documentary on underwater births with the ironic dollar bill added in post-production. The baby on the cover is Spencer Elden whose parents volunteered him for the shoot and received a lump sum of $200 for the privilege. Elden reportedly has a stellar opening line when meeting girls these days. Apparently he opens with - “Want to see my penis…. Again”.

And in a side note bound to depress everyone, Elden was born on February 7, 1991 making him now 20 years old. Does anyone else feel old?

6. The Beatles : Abbey Road

Choosing one Beatles cover for the list proved inordinately difficult. Sgt Peppers is widely regarded as one of the greatest album covers of all time. Revolver is a stunning piece of pencil drawn art featuring multiple images of the four lads and even With The Beatles with its half lit faces is a worthy candidate. But ultimately I decided that Abbey Road was their best album cover. It is an iconic shot parodied and imitated to this day but was itself strikingly original. The most original background story about the image emanated from various media reports speculating that Paul was dead and the Beatles were covering up the news. Hence, the Abbey Road cover can be viewed as a mock funeral procession. John appears at the front as the pastor, Ringo next all suited up in black is the mourner (or perhaps undertaker), Paul the corpse in bare feet and George following at the rear as the denim clad grave-digger. Who knows if it is true or not; it makes a great story. Also note that while everyone looks to be in step, Paul is the only with his right foot forward. He was a leftie you know!

If you want to check out the spot, it is Abbey Road, NW 8 London. There is even a web cam of the spot if you are interested.

5. King Crimson : In The Court of The Crimson King

A quite scary piece of original art adorns the cover of the King. Amazingly, it was the only painting ever completed by Barry Godber who was a computer programmer by trade. Like many of the best album covers, it rewards multiple viewings with searing emotions jumping off the cover each time you look at it. For example, try covering the painting up to the eyes and you will be rewarded with a completely different emotion on display. For those of you not familiar with the work of progressive rock act King Crimson; let me put it this way. The album cover accurately represents the contents within.

Note that many album sleeves in the 70s were designed for the art on the front to wrap around the sleeve and be continued on the backside. So the full image is rectangular landscape rather than a square. The iconic images that we know were often merely half the full image. Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run is one example with the image of Bruce leaning on a shoulder. The back side shows that he is leaning on saxophonist Clarence Clemons. The full cover for this King Crimson album is a good example as can been seen below where the image reveals yet another interpretation.

Yet another reason (if one were needed) to love vinyl records over CD's and iTunes!

4. Strokes : Is This It?

Sometimes art is best when it is simple. The album cover of the Strokes debut album provides the perfect example. An absolutely stunning photo featuring a gloved hand on a bare bottom. Sexy, stimulating, tense and terrific; just like the album contained within.

3. The Clash : London Calling

One of the most iconic shots in rock and roll history graces the cover of London Calling, the Clash’s finest album. Photographed by Pennie Smith at New York’s Palladium in September 1979, it captures bassist Paul Simonon smashing his axe into the floor. Apparently he was disappointed with the tepid audience response to the songs being played so he decided to try and rile them up a bit. Whether he did or not is lost in time, but the resulting image forever captured the primeval passion of rock and roll at its most furious.

Note is also captures rock and roll at its most derivative as this album cover from an early Elvis Presley album will attest.

2. Pink Floyd : Dark Side of The Moon

Similarly to the Beatles, the Floyd had a number of terrific album covers. There was the iconic cover of Animals which somehow managed to immortalise a power station. Then you had the intriguing image from the cover of Wish You Were Here with a man on fire shaking hands with another. But in the end, it is my humble view that the cover of Dark Side of The Moon was their best. An absolutely iconic and unforgettable album cover which contains in a refracting prism perhaps the most memorable rock image of all time. The album artwork was designed by George Hardie of design company Hipgnosis and was one of several this firm designed for Pink Floyd. It is also said to pay homage to the conglomeration of sound and light that was a feature of their monumental live shows.

And the number one Album Cover of All Time is…..

1. Led Zeppelin : Houses of the Holy

Nosing out the efforts of Floyd is this quite astonishing and surreal cover from Houses of the Holy by Led Zeppelin. Also designed by the team from Hipgnosis (see above), it was inspired by an Arthur Clarke short story called Childhood’s End which ends with semi-formed human children gathering at the top of a rock pile awaiting transportation to another world/dimension. It is pure rock and roll excess hinting at fantasy mixed with science fiction, childhood innocence and its impending loss.

The shoot (and yes it is a photo, not a painting) took an incredible ten days to complete as they could only shoot at dawn and dusk to capture the specific lighting mix the shot required. According to sources on the shoot, two children, brother and sister Samantha and Stefan Gates, had to be ready to work at 4am and were painted gold and silver to give the image the requisite science fiction qualities.
To properly appreciate the image, perhaps check out the full image when the front and back covers are matched together.

So there you go, that is my attempt at nominating the best album covers of all time. Send me your thoughts on ones which should be considered.

I also note with interest that four of the top six covers do not have the name of the band or the album on the cover. Surely not a coincidence that the best art is not sullied with band or album names!

Reader Feedback

Had a couple of people email me regarding my Top 10 of 2010. One comment was both welcome and unwelcome as I realised that I had inadvertently omitted an absolute cracker of an album. Doh! Teenage Dream by Beach House would definitely be in my Top 10 for last year and would probably reside somewhere in the Top 3. A quite brilliant album of shimmering pop music. Hat tip to Paul for bringing this egregious omission to my attention.

That's all for this month. See you in November.



Peter Kane said...

A belated note - I bought the Vaccines - Post Breakup Sex. Great album - thanks for the heads up

Anonymous said...

Excellent blog Nev. Maybe one mark of a great song is being able to recall exactly where you were and what you were doing when you first heard it; that's certainly true for me with Smells Like Teen Spirit.

The Stones Forty Licks and and Patti Smith Horses must surely have been on your Album Covers shortlist? And I've personally always had a soft spot for The Supremes Greatest Hits - just red lips in front of gold microphones, and Abba Arrival - clever play on the word with their oh so grown up 'here we are we've made it' pose sitting in what has to be the coolest helicoptor ever! Dee

paulie said...

Aother excellent read. 20 years since Nevermind, eh? Bloody hell. Anyway Joy Division's 'Unknown Pleasures' is a pretty iconic album cover that you see on t-shirts everywhere...has always reminded me of the southern alps! Sonic Youth's 'Goo' is fittingly cool and for gimmicky appropriate The Wailers 'Catch A Fire' was a giant Zippo that flipped open to slide the vinyl out.

Anonymous said...

I respectfully offer up Sticky Fingers…because it's an iconic cover but also because of the letter Mick Jagger wrote Andy Warhol asking him to design it - check out to see the letter if you haven't already. Rach