Like a lot of Yo La Tengo’s songs, my appreciation of this glorious band was something of a slow burn: in need of some new music a few years ago, a coworker recommended them to me, and I picked up I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass. For anyone who knows Yo La Tengo, this wasn’t exactly the perfect introduction to their music, and I listened to it a few times and went on my merry way, revisiting it every now and then but not really paying much attention to it. It wasn’t until last year that I finally bit the bullet and listened to something else – I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One – and immediately fell head over heels in love with this band. I absorbed the rest of their discography, and, as I do when I immerse myself in a band, read all I could about them.
Fade is their first new album since I became a self-described fanboy, and, as before, was a slow burn of an album with me. There was nothing as immediately striking as the first songs on Beating As One; nothing as laid-back as Summer Songs; barely any lengthy, meandering, yet hypnotic jams as on Beat Your Ass or Popular Songs; this was a seemingly new Yo La Tengo, and I wasn’t sure how to deal with it.
But I gave it time, as you should when you listen to an album for the first time. This is a natural progression of their more recent stuff, with some songs benefiting from some delightful orchestration (‘Is That Enough?’, which sounds vaguely like a Preston School of Industry song), turning a familiar sound into almost orchestral pop. There are also excursions into Tamla/Motown on ‘Well You Better’, appropriating the ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ bass riff (though it sounds more like an amalgam of ‘Town Called Malice’ and ‘Hitsville, U.K.’), and two lovely acoustic ballads in ‘I’ll Be Around’ and ‘The Point Of It’.
However, Yo La Tengo shines when they’re acting like themselves, and the spaced-out rock of ‘Paddle Forward’ and lazy shuffle of ‘Two Trains’ are among the best of the tracks. But for pure beauty, ‘Cornelia And Jane’ is an utterly astonishing ballad, accentuated with some subtle trombone, a touch that is barely noticeable but entirely effective; and the album is bookended by two of its best tracks: the psychedelic opener ‘Ohm’, with some Eastern touches by way of swooping synthesizers, a jangly, Byrds-like guitar riff, and percolating percussion; and ‘Before We Run’, a sweeping, glorious epic, with powerful, clattering drums, and a triumphant orchestra that brings the album to an outstanding close. Fade isn’t perfect, but it’s more concise and accessible than most of the band’s output since And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out. Whether or not that’s your kind of Yo La Tengo is up to you, but it’s a breath of fresh air, that’s for sure.
Essential listening: Ohm, Stupid Things, Cornelia and Jane, Two Trains, Before We Run
Being a high schooler in the suburbs of Philadelphia in the early – very early – 2000s wasn’t easy. As a budding drummer, I drew influences from the classics instead of the contemporaries, so while bands like Blink 182 and Green Day might have had pretty good skin-smackers, I would dismiss the bands outright, saying, “Gimme Bonham or Moon any day!” This was a point of amusement to my friends, who would snicker outright at some of my music purchases; I can distinctly recall going to a Best Buy to pass some time with a friend, and the amount of ribbing I got for acquiring the Rolling Stones’ Dirty Work and the Faces’ A Nod Is As Good As A Wink … To A Blind Horse was relentless. “Oh, is this ‘Miss Judy’s Farm’?” he asked, completely straight-faced, as I drove us back home. Incredulous that he would know this, let alone before I did, I responded in the affirmative. “Oh, I love this song.” He repeated this once more before I caught on: he was simply eyeing the back of the CD case.
My tastes have since matured, but – as much as I like them – the Black Crowes don’t have the same joie de vivre as the Faces (and whoever the modern day Black Crowes is, well, I don’t even want to know), and when I listen to any of the Black Crowes’ albums, I can hear traces of certain bands – Faces, the Rolling Stones, some Little Feat – but I too often get frustrated and simply go for the originals.
Needless to say, I spend several minutes in my car before heading out for a destination in search of the perfect album to listen to, before throwing my hands up in frustration and saying, “I have no idea what I want to listen to!”
In the increasingly rare instances when I fall back on the Faces, I find myself gravitating toward this, their seminal break-out album. They’d released two albums before this – their self-titled debut and Long Player – but both were received somewhat tepidly, which brings me to an interesting point: there was a time when Rod Stewart wasn’t as well-known (or well-regarded) as he is today. Hard to believe, but the Faces struggled to find an audience, especially in England, their home country, though America embraced them more warmly. So Wink was their first, most cohesive album, due in no small part to production wonderboy Glyn Johns. There’s a fair amount of grit with just a pinch of ramshackle, striking the perfect balance that was so sorely lacking on their first two albums. It’s evident in particular on opener ‘Miss Judy’s Farm’, with a dirty guitar riff from Ronnie Wood before Stewart howls on about being a submissive sex slave to a dominatrix named Judy. (This ain’t no ‘Maggie’s Farm’!) The band locks into a groove for a minute or two before Wood brings things to a halt, Kenney Jones’ drums clatter in, and the quintet barely makes it into the double-time coda, with Ian McLagan’s electric piano well to the fore.
Ronnie Lane turns up the charm and the humor with ‘You’re So Rude’, a delightful song about sexytimes with his ladyfriend, who – in a rare display of role reversal – is the prime mover in the act, hoping to be done before her family gets home. ‘Love Lives Here’ is a surprisingly slow song that touches on nostalgia, with the physical destruction of a house serving as a metaphor for a crumbling relationship. Stewart dials back the gruff growl from the album opener, even allowing a tinge of sadness to infiltrate his good natured bonhomie, while Wood’s and McLagan’s guitar/keyboard interplay is delightful. It leads into ‘Last Orders Please’, penned solely by Lane, which takes the nostalgia and sadness from ‘Love Lives Here’ and amplifies it into the next part of the grieving process: the drunk stage. While propping up a bar, the protagonist runs into his ex; the two engage in a bit of emotional foreplay before she leaves him high and dry once again. Has he learned his lesson? (The song was derived from an earlier song titled ‘I Came Looking For You’, which, apart from the melody, has little in common with the finished version.)
Then we get to the song that everyone came for: ‘Stay With Me’, a raunchy, good-timin’ rocker that everyone who knows anything about the Faces – or even Rod Stewart – is familiar with. Written about a reveler who had a bit too much to drink and takes a random woman upstairs for a few seconds of pleasure, the protagonist preemptively rejects any outpouring of emotion, making it strictly clear that this was a one night stand, and nothing more. There’s some fine slide guitar work from Wood, and the instrumental coda, with each band member getting a few bars to solo in, before it all comes to a glorious, crashing close. ‘Stay With Me’ gave the Faces their one and only US single, and was instrumental in providing its sister album some much-needed sales.
Side Two isn’t as outstanding as Side One, though Lane’s ‘Debris’, obliquely written about his father, is perhaps his finest song ever written, and the others provide a gorgeous, restrained backing, letting Lane pour his heart out, though Stewart harmonizes beautifully with him on the choruses. The Faces weren’t well-known for their ballads, but this rivals only ‘Ooh La La’ as the top of the heap. It’s followed clumsily by a cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Memphis, Tennessee’, which benefits somewhat from Johns’ production, but it’s a fairly mundane version that would have been better released as a B-side instead of occupying precious album space. ‘Too Bad’ returns us to the well-worn exuberance of a Faces show, with Stewart lamenting their poor treatment by the upper crust at a party they crashed. Their inebriation – and Stewart’s regional tongue – was their downfall, and the worst part about it was that he didn’t even get to shake a leg. The album closes with ‘That’s All You Need’, a slide guitar workout with lyrics about Stewart’s musician brother, run down by the pressures of reality. Stewart offers him a “cup of coke” and shows him a good time out on the town – a simple solution indeed. Wood’s deft guitar work is the star of the show, though the others get a chance to play in the extended instrumental outro, which even includes some steel drums from Harry Fowler.
I’m having a hard time trying to decide which Faces album is their best – is it Wink or the well-polished follow-up, Ooh La La? While both have their fair share of excellent tracks – and one duff track each (‘Memphis, Tennessee’ on Wink, ‘Fly In The Ointment’ on Ooh La La) – my decision is gravitating towards Wink, as it’s a cohesive, fun, and well-oiled album. Ooh La La may have been more mature, with better songwriting all around, but the Faces sound like they’re having a blast here, as if they were recording this album simply as an excuse to go out on the road and have a good time with anyone who’s willing to partake.
Essential listening: Miss Judy’s Farm, You’re So Rude, Stay With Me, Debris, Too Bad, That’s All You Need
Solo albums by primary songwriters in bands used to confuse me. What was the point in branching off and writing a solo album when 90-95% of the material they wrote was for their band? Was it a need for name recognition? It just made no sense to me.
Little did I know that some musicians had other stylistic interests than those that their respective bands were interested in. Take, for instance, Pete Townshend. He watched his other band mates go off and have hit solo records, while he was stuck writing grandiose concepts for The Who. Now, there’s a certain style of music that The Who was loopholed into: powerful guitar anthems with themes of fighting conformity and teenage rebellion. But his solo material was more introspective, more thoughtful, and had more spiritual overtones to it than would be allowed within The Who. So, while an album like Empty Glass might have been the Who album that never was, it was different enough from The Who’s output that it could stand alone as a Townshend solo album.
Someone like Ray Davies releasing a solo album is a little more confusing, but considering The Kinks ceased to exist in 1996, that it took him until 2006 to release his first proper solo album (Return To Waterloo, a vanity album/film project that was planned as a Kinks album – and even features three songs from the most recent Kinks album – doesn’t count) is what’s most confusing. Honestly, it’s long overdue; Davies’ take on antiquated humanity had always been an alluring and endearing aspect of Kinks records, but the need to move with the times meant he had to update his stance in the late 1970s and 1980s. Having managed to largely avoid the latter-day Kinks albums, apart from a perfunctory listen, I was a little worried that Davies would keep the overblown arena rock/cod heavy metal approach on his first solo album, and approached it with mild trepidation.
Happily, on Other People’s Lives, Davies’ songwriting chops are back in full force, he abandons the thrashing drums and guitars, and his quirkiness shines through remarkably. The album truly sounds like an updated Kinks for the new millennium, with Davies opening up with the dark and brooding ‘Things Are Gonna Change (The Morning After)’, where he makes no attempt to disguise the fact that he’s no longer the young buck of yesteryear: “You feel shite, the air bites, oh will I ever learn? / Your ear’s deaf, your girl’s left, never to return”. ‘After The Fall’ is another dark, mortality-based song, which seemingly references Davies’ 2004 gunshot kerfuffle (though it was written two years prior), but, more symbolically, is a narrative on the admission of failure and the processes taken to dig oneself out of the hole. It’s no surprise, then, that ‘Next Door Neighbor’ breaks down the perceived perfection of suburbia by exposing infidelities, financial crises, and mental breakdowns. Set to a charming shuffle, with a subtle brass band punctuating the verses, the song strolls along nicely, and is a welcome change from the darkness before it.
‘All She Wrote’ is the first stumbler, and while the production – as it is on the rest of the album – is stellar, with clattering drums and ringing guitars, it’s a bit too curmudgeonly, as Davies receives a “Dear John” letter, his ex more than willing to rub in his face that she’s met someone new and he’s a whole lot better than him. There’s still some subtle humor with the jabs, making its inclusion justified, but Davies was never good at writing mean-spirited farewell songs. Returning to a clearly favorite subject of infidelity, ‘Creatures Of Little Faith’ is another song about perception, chronicling an untrustworthy couple (perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Horrible from ‘Labor Of Love’?) trying to catch each other in the act of cheating, but each payoff is more glorious than the last.
While most of the album is excellent – there aren’t any duff tracks, which is a rarity – there are a handful of classics that outshine the rest by a large degree. ‘Things Are Gonna Change’ is the first, while ‘Run Away From Time’ is the next – yet another song about mortality and the futility of escaping aging. With strident guitar chords and a quivering Hammond organ, the song could have fit in nicely on any of the Kinks’ renaissance records (from Face To Face through Arthur), and its inspirational verses are offset nicely by the hard-hitting, anthemic choruses. Counter that with ‘The Tourist’, where Davies takes off to a foreign country for a bit of rest and relaxation, only to be amused by the local customs and to expect to be treated like royalty with the wave of his magic credit card. Returning to a trick used on ‘Lola’ and ‘Supersonic Rocket Ship’, with a ringing guitar intro that isn’t used anywhere else in the song, ‘Is There Life After Breakfast?’ is the third classic song, and, much like ‘Run Away From Time’, serves as a voice of inspiration to the older generation – or perhaps to the clinically depressed (apply as you see fit).
The next two songs break the string of high quality that had faltered only slightly on ‘All She Wrote’. ‘The Getaway (Lonesome Train)’ is a lengthy ramble, unfolding its story over 6 1/2 minutes, but it tends to meander and despite some moments of beauty, runs out of steam rather quickly. The title track is a sarcastic rail against the tabloids, and predates the increasing prevalence of online journalism, though a passing reference is made. It’s a slinky, sexy track, with some gratuitous, seedy female caterwauling, but it’s not particularly enjoyable. ‘Stand-Up Comic’ is, however, with Davies taking his curmudgeonly act and basing it around a washed-up comedian, who prefers to spend his time ridiculing the abusive audience than actually telling a joke. “What do you think of me so far?” he asks. “Rubbish!” they shout back. “I thought you’d say that,” he grins, recalling 1979′s ‘Low Budget’.
The last two songs are some of the album’s best, and while they both don’t tackle anything that Davies hasn’t addressed already on the album, they’re more sentimental. On ‘Over My Head’, Davies is once again rattled by circumstance, overwhelmed by the simplistic chore of everyday living while trying to get over a failed relationship. “In a world that’s close to breaking, I thought that you were my friend / In a world that is full of hating and about to descend / I just smile and pretend,” he sighs, resigned to facing a life by himself. ‘Thanksgiving Day’, meanwhile, finds Davies reminiscing about family gatherings, and is a warm portrayal of those present and absent. The chorus – sung by a choir – strikes a poignant note, and while it’s technically a bonus track, having been released as a standalone single two years prior, it’s difficult to imagine Other People’s Lives without it.
As a debut solo album, Other People’s Lives is a superb, stellar release, proving that Davies hasn’t lost any of his creativity, and that he’s regained his nod-and-a-wink slyness that was so sorely lacking on latter-day Kinks albums. The whimsy is balanced by the realistic, the light balanced by shade, the humor masked by reflective introspection. If it weren’t for the modern-day production, this could have been the follow-up to Everybody’s In Showbiz.
Essential listening: Things Are Gonna Change (The Morning After), After The Fall, Next Door Neighbor, Run Away From Time, The Tourist, Is There Life After Breakfast?, Stand-Up Comic, Over My Head, Thanksgiving Day
Throughout the early 2000s, once all my friends departed for college and started expanding their minds with campus living, I clung steadfastly to the notion that classic rock and commuting to school were the best things for me. Turns out I was wrong on both counts: driving an hour to school was a chore to my already apathetic mind, and classic rock wasn’t giving me much relief, instead sounding incredibly samey; it also didn’t help that the bands I liked had failed to exist since the early 1980s, and they weren’t in any rush to get back together and release an album.
One of my friends at the time implemented a “Song of the Night” exchange, where I would live vicariously through his musical discoveries and he would send me a song of a band that he particularly liked at the moment. One night in 2002 he sent to me ‘Date w/IKEA’, a track by indie rock gods Pavement, and prefaced it by saying it wasn’t their best song ever, or even his favorite, but that he just happened to be listening to it at that moment. For whatever reason, it clicked with me instantly; I loved the jangly guitar, the incredibly obtuse lyrics, and the melodic chorus. The next day, instead of going to class, I stopped by Borders, picked up all five of Pavement’s albums, and went for a long drive.
I was disheartened to discover that they had disbanded in ’99, but considering the bands I frequently listened to, this was an unsurprising trend. Craving more Pavement-related material, I had the option of the two major songwriters – Stephen Malkmus or Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg. As much as I loved Malkmus’ off-beat, almost David Byrne-esque lyrics, Kannberg’s thoughtful material resonated deeper, and so I purchased All This Sounds Gas, Kannberg’s debut solo CD but credited to a band named after the infamous reform school.
In my brief spurt of research regarding the album, I discovered that some of the songs had been written for Pavement’s final album, Terror Twilight, but had been shelved or remained unrecorded. Intrigued with this bit of George Harrison-esque trivia (hey, the album title even sounds like Harrison’s debut album!), I found the album to be a nice, mellow alternative to Malkmus’ weirdness; I didn’t even give Malkmus’ eponymous debut solo CD a chance, and wrote him off as a dick because he rejected ‘Whalebones’, ‘The Idea Of Fires’, and ‘Encyclopedic Knowledge Of’. As a result, the album became a mainstay in my CD player, and was a constant soundtrack for both summers when I worked at an amusement park – but time hasn’t necessarily been kind to my perception of the album, so while I’m able to now look at the album a little more objectively, its standing has diminished quite a bit.
Opener ‘Whalebones’ has a lazy, somnambulist feel to it, its summery guitar licks trickling out over a strident rhythm, Kannberg’s deadpan voice intoning the mostly obscure on-the-road-again lyrics, though hints of Pavement’s demise are evident: “Played their final show of a lifetime”, “Does it hurt you to feel this bad, man?” ‘Falling Away’ is more energetic, with Kannberg not only sounding more like the Spiral Stairs of old, but that he’s actually having fun. The countrified twang of ‘A Treasure @ Silver Bank (This Dynasty’s For Real)’ furthers the atmosphere of a lazy summer day, but the lyrics are so impenetrable (“It’s a polyester bright day now, and the dinosaurs are for real”) that it does little more than confuse instead of illuminate.
But the first epic of the album, ‘Encyclopedic Knowledge Of’ (think a combined ‘Wah-Wah’ with ‘Isn’t It A Pity’) is a scathing riposte of Malkmus’ disinterest in Pavement, with Kannberg willing to have made things work but finding his hopes thwarted. The song takes nearly eight minutes to unfold, and starts off with a barely-contained simmer, ending up as a primal scream, with Kannberg howling “Yeah we know that you like us!” and “It’s a fucking chore!” as drums clatter, guitars squeal, and horns blast, all becoming a glorious cacophony. ‘History Of The River’ is a thudding, thundering rocker, with fuzz bass, whispered lyrics, and a searing guitar melody, but it goes nowhere, and adds so very little to the album. ‘Doping For Gold’ is significantly better, continuing in the C&W vein established with ‘A Treasury @ Silver Bank’, and even sounds a bit like Wilco at times. This is probably the strongest, prettiest song on the album, with a lovely, caterwauling guitar solo that meshes beautifully with the jangly melody, and a distinctly weird instrumental coda. This would have fit in nicely on any Pavement record.
The second half of the record loses some steam, but ‘Solitaire’ is at least a decent acoustic rocker, with a more memorable melody than its lyrics, wherein Kannberg appears to rant nonsensically (“Solitaire / Is a chair, uh huh / It’s a chair / That you wanted from there”), unconcerned if the microphone is picking him up. ‘Blü Sön’, meanwhile, is ponderous: a 43-second instrumental of bleeps, blips, and programmed percussion. It adds nothing, and classifying it as a track in its own right makes little sense. ‘Monkey Heart And The Horses’ Leg’ is a shimmering country ballad, but its blandness, meandering running time, and indecipherable lyrics don’t help its case. At least ‘The Idea Of Fires’, with an insistent guitar riff, some lovely backing vocals, and a jaunty pace, sounds like Kannberg has regained some much-needed energy. I can see why album closer ‘Take A Stand’ (likened to the Velvet Underground’s ‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin”) would divide fans, as it is a lengthy (nearly seven minutes), 3/4 time rocker, with loud drums, persistent piano, and some nonsensical lyrics, but I love the “sha-la-la” backing vocals and the bed of acoustic and electric guitars. As on ‘Encyclopedic Knowledge Of’, the song builds in intensity over its lifetime, until the ending is a noisy whirlwind of drums, zooming bass, and soaring guitars, coming to an end with Kannberg giggling and saying, “A fucking brilliant rock odyssey!” It’s an epic, towering conclusion (apart from a hidden 90 second acoustic demo of the title track) to a spotty album, though, for all its faults, All This Sounds Gas is still a strong debut.
Essential listening: Whalebones, Falling Away, Encyclopedic Knowledge Of, Doping For Gold, The Idea Of Fires, Take A Stand
Thanks to the freedom of the Internet, I often find myself perusing Wikipedia at any particular time, finding myself entangled in a web of articles of useless information. (Still, this helps me immeasurably when I watch Jeopardy!.) While I was excited to read that Paul McCartney was releasing a new album, my reaction to news that Ringo Starr was also releasing a new album was more muted.
It took me back to the last time I actively pursued a new Ringo Starr album. It was the summer of 1998, and I was a mere 15-year-old kid who had little interest in anything the “new” musicians of the day were putting out. Bands like Fastball, Matchbox 20, and Dave Matthews Band made no impact whatsoever to me, and I preferred the old guard – musicians who had been there and done that and were still putting out quality music. For whatever reason, Ringo Starr was a big deal to me, and when I found out that he was releasing Vertical Man, I was overjoyed. FINALLY! A new Ringo Starr album! His last one had been in 1992, the forgotten Time Takes Time, so this was a big deal to me. I got the album for my birthday and loved it – often listening to it while playing Banjo-Kazooie on Nintendo 64.
Since then, I’ve come to my senses. Not that I’ll begrudge anyone for enjoying a Ringo Starr album – his eponymous 1973 album is his best, and I’ve even got a soft spot for Stop And Smell The Roses – but as my musical tastes have matured, I find that I don’t really need a new Ringo Starr album in my collection.
The question is, does the world really need a new Ringo Starr album? Granted, he’s not taking up valuable real estate in independent record stores, and, for what it’s worth, latter-day Starr albums like Ringorama and Choose Love were strong, if flawed, but Ringo 2012 has a lot of problems with it, the biggest being its running length. Nine songs are presented across 28 minutes, with two being re-recordings (‘Wings’, from his 1977 album Ringo the 4th, and ‘Step Lightly’, from Ringo) and one being a previously released cover (‘Think It Over’, from the Buddy Holly tribute album Listen To Me).
What perplexes me about Ringo 2012 is that it’s so average. Even Starr sounds utterly bored on album opener ‘Anthem’, in which he intones, “This is an anthem / About peace and love”. There’s some scorching guitar work from Joe Walsh, but at its 5 minute running length, it overstays its welcome. ‘Wings’ isn’t much better, though its a lively reworking, with some clattering drum work (Starr admitted to listening to a lot of reggae before and during the recording of the album, and it’s pretty obvious here), but the synthesized horn blasts date it horribly to the late 1980s. The solution to Starr’s lifeless vocals is found with a chorus of backing vocalists, who beef up the sound and make the song sound more fibrous than it actually is.
‘Think It Over’ is perhaps the best tune here, with Starr actually trying to sing – and sounding a lot like he did on ‘Honey Don’t’ – but those damn synthesized steel drums ruin what could have been a cute track. ‘Samba’ also finds some life infused in it, even though it’s not the kind of song anyone would actually try to dance to. There’s some interesting flamenco guitar accents littered throughout, but it’s not enough to make it more than a curio. Starr’s handling of the traditional ‘Rock Island Line’, a song he’s probably played in rehearsals a million times already, is lively and joyous, and, along with ‘Think It Over’, is the highlight of the album. But the quality drops with ‘Step Lightly’, a pointless reworking of an already inconsequential song from the 1973 Ringo. Was anyone really clamoring for a reggae remake of this song? Of course not – but as Ringo’s first sole composition since ‘Early 1970′, the original has a certain affable charm that is completely demolished on this limp remake.
‘Wonderful’ is anything but, and is bathed in guitar and synthesizer atmospherics, with Starr striking a poignant chord in what is obviously an ode to his wife, Barbara Bach. This uninspired tune drags on for nearly four minutes, and it was at this point that I discovered there was an undeniable sameness to the seven songs (thus far). Though there were accents that differentiated one from the other, Starr’s voice and drumming are so painfully similar throughout that even though I was a little over 20 minutes through, it felt like the album had been going on for at least twice that length. ‘In Liverpool’ is at least a little better, a nostalgic ode to Starr’s Beatles-era life, though the lyrics are cringe-inducing: “Me and the boys, me and the gang / Living out fantasies / Breaking the rules, acting like fools / That’s how it was for me – how was it for you?” This touching autobiographical tune nevertheless is a highlight of the original material.
The album ends, mercifully, with ‘Slow Down’ – no, not a cover of the Larry Williams rocker that the Beatles themselves covered in 1964 – a slight rocker that features Starr hollering the inconsequential lyric, backed up by a quivering organ line. It’s a middling conclusion to an inconsequential Starr album, and its titular allusion to Ringo would give the impression that this was a star-studded affair – and with Joe Walsh, Dave Stewart, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Benmont Tench, Edgar Winter, and Van Dyke Parks the biggest names here, whether this constitues a “star-studded affair” is up to the listeners’ interpretations. But while Starr famously lost himself among drugs and drink in the ’70s, and was able to sober up and rejuvenate his career in the ’90s, Ringo 2012 is a huge step backward toward anonymity. It’s bland, inessential, and simpering – at least his output from the ’00s felt like he cared. One can’t help but escape the nagging thought that Ringo 2012 was designed to simply shift product – any product – before another lucrative All-Starr Band tour. It’d be interesting to see if any of the material from this album features in the repertoire.
Essential listening: meh
In honor of a book that I wrote a few years ago and which has just (just meaning almost three months ago) been republished in the UK in an expanded and updated format, and which will be out in the US on March 13th (don’t worry, I’ll remind you all then), today I’m going to review Hot Space, Queen’s most critically savaged album of all time – and trust me, every one of their albums have been critically savaged, so that’s saying something. As with my review of News Of The World – the very first album review I wrote for this site, aw! – Hot Space holds a special place in my heart, as it was one of the first cassettes I was aware of when I asked my mom who Queen was. (That being said, it’s not exactly where I would start if you were to introduce someone to Queen.)
With the runaway successes of The Game and its two blockbuster singles, ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’ and ‘Another One Bites The Dust’, all North American #1s, Queen’s reputation in the US was at an all-time high. The slight misstep of billing Flash Gordon as a proper Queen album instead of as a soundtrack album only did minor Stateside damage, but the rot began to show with the modest success of ‘Under Pressure’, which was a UK #1 but struggled to #29 in the US. Rejuvenated by the recording process of The Game, the band took ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ as their boilerplate and developed an entire album based on the funkier side of things. The problem is, Queen wasn’t a funk/disco band; they were primarily a rock band who dabbled in eccentricities from time to time.
Their biggest mistake was front-loading the album with the dance songs, instead of leading in the listener with something more traditionally Queen-sounding. ‘Staying Power’ is an abysmal song about lead vocalist Freddie Mercury’s, ahem, prowess, and while it would take on a new life in the live setting, on record it’s limp and flaccid, bogged down by drum machines, synthesizers, and “hot and spacey” (read: cheesy) horns from noted producer Arif Mardin. Things aren’t much better with Brian May’s ‘Dancer’, a livelier funk/rock amalgam that hints at the guitarist’s awkwardness with his band’s experimentation:
I’m not invited to the party
Been sitting here all night
I’m all alone at the party
I don’t feel all right
Unfortunately for May, his song too is mired in synthesizers and drum machines, whereas his earlier funk/rock song, ‘Dragon Attack’, featured a blistering live drum performance from Roger Taylor. (At least his homemade guitar makes a few appearances, delivering several scorching solos that were lacking from many of the other songs.) ‘Back Chat’ is John Deacon’s attempt to rewrite ‘Another One Bites The Dust’, and it’s the best track on the album of the funk/disco variety, but it’s not necessarily the bassist’s best work. Written about a fiery argument between two unnamed parties, the song features a lively vocal performance from Mercury and a screamer of a guitar solo, but those damned synths and drum machines…!
It’s on ‘Body Language’ where the band hit not only the nadir of the album, but of their entire catalog. Penned – and, apart from some guitar at the end, almost entirely performed – by Mercury and once again extolling his qualities in the sack, ‘Body Language’ isn’t just Queen’s worst song ever, it’s also their most offensive. As Mercury moans and groans about his mate’s long legs and great thighs, the listener is left cringing in embarrassment – and it matters not whether Mercury was singing this about a man or a woman; there’s none of the tongue-in-cheek playfulness of ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’ or the over-the-top carnal longing of ‘Get Down, Make Love’. All Mercury wants is sex, and by God, he’s going to get it, whether he can control himself or not.
Having hit rock bottom, Hot Space gets far, far better, with Taylor’s funky, New Wave-ish ‘Action This Day’ leaving a far better taste in the mouth. It’s here that the dance overtones wash away, and they blend a little more successfully with Queen’s pompous pop sensibilities. May’s ‘Put Out The Fire’, meanwhile, brings the band firmly back to their rock roots, but, as with most socio-political message songs the band occasionally dabbled in, the moral of the story – guns are bad, okay? – is ham-handed and a little embarrassing – especially with the line, “Y’know a gun never killed nobody/You can ask anyone/People get shot by people/People – with – guns!” You don’t say.
‘Life Is Real (Song For Lennon)’, written as a tribute to the slain former Beatle, is a well-intentioned nod to Lennon’s oblique lyrical imagery (specifically structured like ‘Mother’ or ‘Mind Games’), but Mercury stumbles and falters; at least the piano-based backing is lovely, with a tender acoustic guitar solo from May. The album’s strongest songs follow, with Taylor’s ‘Calling All Girls’, a lively New Wave rocker preaching peace and love in a turbulent world, and May’s ‘Las Palabras De Amor (The Words Of Love)’, a gorgeous power ballad sung partly in Spanish and inspired by the band’s 1981 tour of South America. The dreaded synthesizer makes a return here, but instead of whooping and blasting needlessly, it twirls and sparkles, adding a poignant and human touch that had been lacking on the other songs.
The album’s penultimate song is ‘Cool Cat’, a refreshing chaser to its heavier predecessor, and was written – and performed entirely – by Mercury and Deacon. The former slips into a decadent falsetto while the latter lays down a funky groove on bass, then overdubs some cracking Telecaster guitar. (Either one of them could have pressed “play” on the drum machine.) While I give the first half of Hot Space a lot of grief for being bloated and misguided in its funk/disco attempts, ‘Cool Cat’ is a lovely, lovely track. If only the rest of the album could have been this good.
The six month old ‘Under Pressure’ is tacked on as the album closer, presumably to attract more sales, and while it’s a classic collaboration with David Bowie, it sits a bit at odds with the rest of the album. It’s nice to have ‘Under Pressure’ on an album, despite its calculated attempt at name recognition, but one can’t help but wonder if maybe there was something a bit more appropriate that could have taken its place. (The argument to that, of course, is that if ‘Body Language’ and ‘Staying Power’ were the best of what the band could offer, then imagine what didn’t make the cut.)
All told, Hot Space was a transitional album for Queen, and, for the first time in years, they found themselves having to work hard at reassuring fans that they hadn’t lost their edge. Disco was a dirty word by 1982, but by the following year, Michael Jackson made it cool again with Thriller. (Not that four white British guys were going to ever make funk or disco cool.) So Hot Space was a victim of poor timing; if it had been released in 1978 or 1979, it might have been a bit more successful. As it is, Hot Space was a watershed album for the band: with all of the energy they expended in experimenting with new sounds and technology, their efforts were rewarded with poor sales and terrible reviews. As a result, the band were scared straight, and their follow-up, The Works, was a Queen-loaf: all the best bits of what makes Queen Queen, without sticking their necks on the line. It worked, but the willingness to try new things was gone, and the band floated throughout the rest of the 1980s in a fog of smash pop singles and weak albums. Hot Space, despite its flaws, at least saw the band trying something new and unexpected – and, for that reason alone, it remains to me Queen’s last great album for nearly a decade.
Essential listening: Back Chat, Action This Day, Calling All Girls, Las Palabras De Amor (The Words Of Love), Cool Cat, Under Pressure
It’s been over six months since my last album review, and, because the original goal of this site was to review albums, I’ve decided that it’s time to get back to that vision. Morning Commute Soundtracks and Instant Party Mixtures are nice and all, but they’re merely distractions, and I’ve been incredibly lax in my writing as of late, so it’s time to start writing album reviews again. So, without further ado…
Late last year I got on something of a supergroup kick when I discovered Tired Pony, a country band formed by Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody and featuring such luminaries as Richard Colburn (from Belle & Sebastian), Jacknife Lee, Iain Archer, some guy named Peter Buck, and everyone’s favorite twee punching bag, Zooey Deschanel, on a few tracks. The Place We Ran From is an interesting take on country; it’s not traditional country, but a twisted, warped, indie/alt-folk/country amalgam, and it was a regular in my car’s CD player for several weeks, much to the chagrin of my girlfriend.
Then, just last week by way of NPR, I was alerted to the existence of the Little Willies, which have mistakenly been called a supergroup by some ill-informed reviewers. Granted, Norah Jones is a pianist and vocalist in the group, but she’s the only megastar; in fact, had it not been for her breakthrough album Come Away With Me in 2002 (the Little Willies formed the following year), her presence as one-fifth of this group wouldn’t have warranted a mention in any review. That being said, while her success may have helped with much deserved recognition, she’s not the star of the show – this is a true band, with Jones and Richard Julian taking the lead on roughly half the songs each, and providing prominent backup on the other half on which they don’t sing lead.
The selection of songs is attractive, too: with their roots steeped in country, all but one of the covers (Elvis Presley’s ‘Love Me’) will be unfamiliar to anyone who doesn’t have an equal passion for country music, and if the listener isn’t willing to do some routine research, s/he could be fooled into believing the band actually wrote these tunes. ‘Roly Poly’ is a rollicking opener, taking a galloping shuffle with Julian and Jones gleefully poking gentle fun at an esurient equine, and a boozy cover of Hank Williams’ ‘I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive’ keeps the strident pace. ‘Love Me’ is sung sultrily by Jones, with the backing musicians punningly credited as the Ordinaires, and certainly gives the original a run for its money. The other big ballad is Townes Van Zandt’s ‘No Place To Fall’, sung primarily by Julian, with unobtrusive harmonies from Jones adding some delicate poignancy.
The tenderness is balanced by uproariousness joviality, with Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Best Of All Possible Worlds’ and Willie Nelson’s ‘Gotta Get Drunk’ both dealing with the bottle and its effects; in the former, Julian winds up in a local county jail after smacking into a cop for public inebriation, while the latter finds Jones being advised to give up drinking, but that “there’s more good drunks than doctors / So I guess I’d better have another round”. Nelson’s ‘Night Life’ is a more regretful ode to hard partying, performed by Jones as if it were the last song in the repertoire at a jazz lounge, the room filled with smoke and the last few lingering barflies being told last call.
The other three originals on the album are affectionate nods toward a contemporarily oft-derided and patently uncool genre, with Alexander’s twangy, countrified guitar well to the fore on ‘It’s Not You It’s Me’, a quaint if slight lament, while ‘Easy As The Rain’ is a touching ballad, sung superbly by Julian and Jones and it’d be easy to mistake them for Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris (incidentally, this song followed a jaunty performance of ‘Streets Of Baltimore’). But the pièce de résistance is album closer ‘Lou Reed’, a goofy and catchy scenario song where a weary group of travelers – who may or may not have been under the influence of West Texas’s finest grog – swear up and down that they witnessed the famed Velvet Underground frontman engaging in a game of cow tipping. It’s a boisterous performance, and one that even must have made the man it’s about crack an aged smile.
And that’s the whole point of this self-titled debut: making sure the listener is having a good time. (In fact, their follow-up album, due on Tuesday, January 10th, is titled For A Good Time, and is bound to be a corker.) The performances are relaxed and ragged, the production is casual and laid-back, and the mood is light and upbeat with a few moments of mournful regret. But, most importantly, its good-timey feel doesn’t wear off after repeated listens – I should know, as I’ve listened to it everyday this week to and from work and have yet to get tired of it.
Essential listening: Roly Poly, I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive, Love Me, Best Of All Possible Worlds, No Place To Fall, Roll On, Gotta Get Drunk, Easy As The Rain, Night Life, Lou Reed