Thursday, July 29, 2010

Nostalgic Noodlings Pt 1

Over the past few weeks I attempted to run through some of my less listened to CDs by picking a day in which I only listened to albums with a green cover or animals on the cover or vehicles on the cover, etc. When work allowed I had a pretty good run and enjoyed hearing some great stuff that I’d not thought to take out for a spin in some time. One of the albums on purple day that came out and stayed out was Duran Duran’s 1982 classic, Rio.

In a world where the sophomore slump is accepted with a pat on the back and a nudge towards number three, the DD boys took that notion and kicked it in the arse, as for all intents and purposes this is their undisputed masterpiece. (I’m sorry debut, you lost out by just a fraction of a smidge.) This is the album that took the underground hip of the New Romantic movement they helped start and launched it into the mainstream as New Wave, paving the way for the likes of Tears for Fears, Flock of Seagulls and Culture Club, defining the entire first half plus of the 80s and setting a blueprint that retro bands of today still follow to the letter.

Slick? Glossy? Radio friendly? Yes, indeed, but that’s what it was all about back in those days. And while many albums suffer from such heavy-handed production, Rio stands as strong as ever because of it even today. Retro radio staples such as Rio and Hungry Like the Wolf not only put Duran Duran on the map in '82, but convinced an entire generation of teeny bopper girls that boys who were prettier than they were was the greatest thing since the ’64 mop top. But more than just being another pop sensation, these guys could write and could play. John Taylor’s bass is often intricate and funky (in a good way), Roger Taylor’s drums are tight and emphatic, Andy Taylor’s guitar, though often understated, is clever and innovative, Nick Rhodes’ (the true heartbeat of the band) synth stylings are everything from exciting to eerie and Simon Le Bon’s vocals are at once spirited, whimsical, intelligent and, often as not, flat out bizarre.

If I haven’t properly made my case for their skills both individually and as a collective, you can’t deny the infectious, sing-a-long thrillability of these nine songs, flowing seamlessly, almost story-like from the opening neo-orchestrated build of the title track to the fluttering electro noise that closes out The Chauffer. I guess I could argue that the proof is that this album was a huge smash for Duran Duran, with the two aforementioned songs (plus, to a lesser extent, Save a Prayer and a much altered version of My Own Way) plastering their faces all over MTV, magazine covers, bedroom walls and international billboards. But this isn’t a case of catchy singles and throwaway album tracks, every song on Rio is top notch and worth the cost of purchase. If side one contains the hits, side two (I’m speaking from a cassette viewpoint here) is where the creative magic really comes down, from the schitzo-paranoia of New Religion (complete with alternating, dueling vocal tracks), to the island flavored beats of a love affair gone wrong in Last Chance on the Stairway, to the timelessly heartbreaking ode to a one night stand on Save a Prayer, to The Chauffer, one of the most beautifully bizarre five minutes of music ever composed, and a fitting end to a set of songs that takes the listener truly all over the world – from rivers to jungles – and all over the emotional spectrum – from longing to lust to love to loss.

For those of you skeptics who think Duran Duran was (is) a tacky singles band, you’re right; but they were simultaneously much more than that, with a heart and a passion for the creation of art within music, which was never again so elegantly performed or packaged as on Rio.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Stains On a Decade: ‘02

In an effort to churn things out a tad more quickly (and to get through this series before 2020), I’m going to attempt to shorten the write ups to blurbs on each entry except for my favorite pick of the year. Fair enough? And so, in order from “least to greatest,” let’s begin!

Belle & Sebastian: Storytelling – Movie soundtracks are rarely lauded and that’s mainly ‘cos they’re rarely (intended to be) proper albums, but just a few pleasant throwaways, some fun incidental and/or recurring themed ditties and one or maybe two tracks worth holding on to. This is certainly the case here, but if you like what B&S do, Storytelling is a lesser but worthwhile addition to their catalog and a great background listen. Key track: Big John Shaft

Badly Drawn Boy: About a Boy – And having said that, here we have an instance when a soundtrack is a little bit better than it’s supposed to be. Sure, there are some themes and surface filler, but more often than not these segue nicely into “real” songs that are indeed real songs, their folky, funky and at times spacey vibe (though usually not my thing), making quite the enjoyable album. Key track: Something to Talk About

Chris Isaak: Always Got Tonight – Chris’ first album in four years was highly anticipated in the Gladstone house, but ultimately disappointing. While it’s definitely more of what you want from Mr. Wicked Game, it often feels forced, especially in the borderline ridiculous title track, which is more enjoyable to poke fun at than listen to. Though it has its moments, when in a CI mood, pick up Forever Blue, his sophomore self-titled or 2009’s (redeeming) Mr. Lucky. Sorta makes me wonder why I’m even including it here… Key track: American Boy

Dag Nasty: Minority of One – A proper reunion album from my favorites of the classic Dischord era, Smalley and crew burn through 11 tracks that immediately remind one of what was so great about the seminal Can I Say in 1986, while also pointing out that some of the more watered down post-punk acts they influenced weren’t all bad either. Key track: Ghosts

*Side note, both Can I Say and Wig Out at Denko’s were remastered and rereleased in 2002 as well.

Death Cab for Cutie: The Stability E.P. – Further proof that I like these guys in small doses, these three songs are everything that’s right about DCFC, even when they’re full out heart-on-sleeve and long winded. The cover of Bjork’s All Is Full of Love is worth the purchase price, but the title track (far superior to the “Stable Song” reworking on 2005’s Plans) is one of those songs that will rearrange your life for you. Key track: Stability

Coldplay: A Rush of Blood to the Head – This is that album that propelled these Londoners into the stratosphere, and almost deservedly so. Where it hits, it hits hard, even when at its most gentle…such is the power of Coldplay. And yet it suffers slightly from the Coldplay curse of tedium and over-sappiness. I mean how much “It hurts but it’s gonna be alright” am I supposed to stomach? Still, repeat and spaced apart listens never fail to reconfirm the worth of the standout tunes, or help me discover a new shred of brilliance amongst others I’d sloughed off before. Key track: Green Eyes

The Chameleons: Why Call It Anything? – I feel bad that the first (and last) proper Chameleons album in 15+ years continues to leave me somewhat underwhelmed, but that’s what it is. And honestly, I’m not a huge fan of 1985’s What Does Anything Mean? Basically either, so…batting 500, guys. Anyway, what I don’t get is why I don’t get it, ‘cos everything to love about the Chameleons is here…those gorgeous, spiraling guitars, propelling back beats and Mark Burgess’ ever melodic vocals bringing everything into focus with lyrics weaving tales both reflective and compelling. And listening to it even today (or the day I’m writing this), there is a definite familiarity not only with the songs themselves, but with the feel of the album as a whole, and I can’t help but wonder that with more time and subsequent listens this album will become a minor classic in the Chameleons’ (all too small) pantheon. Key track: Truth Isn’t Truth Anymore

Tom Waits: Blood Money/Alice – Though written sometime apart, these two albums were released simultaneously (though technically unrelated), containing songs lifted from plays Waits had produced previously. Alice’s darkly delicate ballads are a contrast to Blood Money’s carny barker decent into life’s madness, yet both albums conjure imagery unsettling in their appeal and squeamish in their harsh realism. If you’re unfamiliar but interested in Tom these are a good place to start, as they’re not only the best of his 00 era, but just about his entire career, working not so much as an introduction to his work than as a must have for any music lover. Key tracks: Coney Island Baby (Blood Money), Flower’s Grave (Alice)

Rhett Miller: The Instigator – Initially Rhett’s first solo album after the Old 97s’ success seemed like a pleasant but watered down version of what he was capable of with his band. In short, he missed, rather needed, Murry and the boys. But with years and repeat listens this attempt at a more streamlined, “rough n ready” approach to pop rock possesses an endearing fragility that it doesn’t mean to, but which makes these crazy catchy songs more personally believable and less outrageously novel than their Old 97s counterparts. And because it’s such a relaxed and easy listen (which doesn’t mean it doesn’t rock), it’s ultimately just as satisfying in a completely different and yet not unfamiliar way. Key track: Really, all of them, but I’ll say Point Shirley ‘cos Robyn Hitchcock is on it.

Interpol: Turn On the Bright Lights – The 80s retro movement finally hit the right vein with these guys, heavily laden with the ghosts of Joy Division, Echo & the Bunnymen and (yes!!!) the Chameleons. A top pick for several folks in 2002, these songs are both immediate and off-putting, as layers of intricate, shimmering guitar put a glossy finish on something ultimately more sinister lurking underneath. The key to Interpol’s charm is their obtuse obscurity, initially forbidding and yet intertwined with a morsel of something like hope. At least three of these songs bring tears to my eyes every time. Key track: Stella was a Diver and She was Always Down

Neil Halstead: Sleeping on Roads – The first solo album from the leader of Slowdive and Mojave 3 – not to mention the greatest songwriter of our generation – is pretty much exactly what you’d think it would be and yet not at all. Folksy? Yes. Atmospheric? Yes. Melodic, introspective and painfully nostalgic? Yes, yes and double yes. But where it differs is in the approach of these familiar themes and methods, proving there’s more than one way to sing a song or turn a tune. The result is an interesting blend of both his bands, taking a bunch of mellow rockers and ballads and processing them through a filter of textures that sound like nothing he’s ever done before and yet seems completely natural. The culmination and dead center of both the album and this musical theme is the decisive See You On Rooftops, a sweeping six and a half plus minute sprawl that literally picks you up out yourself on the graceful feathers of an eagle wielding the power of a rocket. Key track: See You On Rooftops

Doves: The Last Broadcast – I first heard these guys on a sampler that I got for free at Tower (RIP) along with other bands like Starsailor and Seafood (terrible name, decent song from what I remember). The song by Doves was There Goes the Fear and it completely blew me away. It was one of the few times since middle school that I just wanted to hear the same song over and over again, and I would hit the back button on the CD player whenever the track was done. Seriously, it’s one of the greatest songs you will ever hear, full of power and emotion and super catchy hooks. Plus, it flat rocks. Eventually I picked up a used copy of The Last Broadcast and from there the love affair was on. Seriously, it’s one of the greatest albums you will ever hear, full of power and emotion and super catchy hooks. Plus, it flat rocks.

The key word you’re looking for here is “atmosphere,” and these guys bring it in every form. Picking up from their shoegaze debut, they use the same aesthetic to wrap a web of ambience around these twelve songs while at the same time allowing each to maintain the core identity of itself, being in no way washed out or overwhelmed by the extra production. When stripped down, each track stands in its own right as brilliant piece of music, but when bathed in the special Doves magic, they become something that is truly otherworldly, and from this album on there’s no mistaking a Doves tune (though, for now, this here is their masterpiece).

Most of these songs are epic, not only because nearly half go well past the five minute mark, but because they’re all show stoppers, pulling out all the stops from start to finish and leaving you star struck and satisfied only to find that there’s another and another until you hope it just keeps on going forever. Not only that, but they strike a chord deep within, and every time I listen to The Last Broadcast I’m amazed at how moving these songs are, full of heart and soul the way music is supposed to be, not watered down by gimmicks or production tricks, but honest and raw and full of integrity. And this is because at the end of the day it’s all about the songwriting, the musicianship and the subtle enhancements that take an otherwise great record and make it stand off to the side within its own category.

Key track: Satellites

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Another Video Favorite

When I did my favorite videos blog a few months back I knew I'd forget something. That's why I'm always wary of compiling a "best of" anything 'cos with so much great music out there and with limited brain capacity, it's easy for me to leave out someone very worthwhile.

In this instance it's a video for the song Vienna by Scottish synth band Ultravox. This video is dripping with 1930s upper crust espionage and early 80s kitsch, so naturally I love it. All in favor of me growing a mustache like Midge Ure's say aye.