Thursday, November 11, 2010

There’s Only One Volume 3

For this entry of There’s Only One I thought I’d try something a little different. The basic principle is the same, but this time I decided to mix things up a bit by asking the oft-mentioned JT (that’s Joshua Thomas) which albums he preferred by the next five artists and why. I didn’t tell him my plan of including his choices and thoughts with my own, and I didn’t read his responses until I’d already chosen and written out the basic reasons for my own. I was really pleased to see how close we were in some of our views, and he certainly makes his point in less time.

The Clash

The Clash – The Clash: JT and I disagree on this one, but it’s really a crapshoot with the Clash. I gave this one a bit of a snooty write up early on in this blog, and a lot of that was just me taking the piss because this album, not to mention the Clash in general, get so much “we’re not worthy” hype that it’s just a little silly. Yes, they were a fantastic, genre-defining, rule-breaking, envelope-pushing band; I’ll give you that all day long. But they still put their leather pants on one leg at a time, and they still wrote quite a few clunkers. This album is the one where in my opinion they didn’t do either one of those things. (That’s right, Joe just jumped straight into those white trousers on the cover, and the rest of the boys followed suit.) From the opening drum shuffle of Janie Jones (btw, I’m going UK version here) to the closing “whoa-oh-oh…” of Garageland, it’s a 30 plus minute adrenaline rush of feisty and memorable tunes that may have told a different story to the British youth of the late 70s, but can still strike a chord of rightful individualism three decades later. And even if it doesn’t, it’s still a fast driving, fist waving, scream along good time.

JT’s pick: London Calling – This album truly shows the diversity of what the Clash was capable of but in a more focused, less annoying way than Sandinista! Even though I am pretty much over this band I have to admit that there are some really good songs on this album.

Cocteau Twins

Cocteau Twins – Heaven or Las Vegas: JT and I agree on this one for sure, and I already mentioned in a recent post that this was the only Cocteau Twins album you needed, and naturally that still stands (though check back with me in ten years). While you can certainly refer to that blurb for reasons why, in this instance I’ll speak of its lone necessity in comparison to the other albums. Early releases like Garlands were harsh, cold and somewhat distant, what one might call ethereal punk, and at times quite alienating. Almost immediately, and most notably on Treasure, they began to fan out, stretching their sound to allow room for melody and the chiming guitars that would become so key to their sound, meanwhile retaining a song structure that remained dark, angular and captivating. Next they seemed to abandon pop altogether with Victorialand and The Moon and the Melodies (the latter with Harold Budd), creating ambient soundscapes that were as much about conveying a mood as they were delivering any sense of rhythm, pattern or noticeable structure. All of these are excellent releases that will lean differently upon listeners depending on their preferred tastes elsewhere. And everything should have come together with Blue Bell Knoll, as this album finds the C-Twins taking all the elements of previous efforts and pushing them towards a more conventional, though no less dreamy, pop sound. Essentially, there was something that could appeal to every-fan. Yet overall something was lacking and disjointed, and while there are some fine moments on Blue Bell Knoll, I think the problem is the continued use of drum machines – they’re too sterile and not as expressive as these songs deserve. As mentioned previously, Heaven or Las Vegas remedies that issue, and though certain electronic elements remain, they only enhance the warm, inviting experience of the ten songs (plus two worthy b-sides) that comprise this album. Unfortunately this was the pinnacle of Cocteau Twins’ greatness. Their last two efforts, while each containing a handful of worthwhile numbers, weren’t quite up to snuff; Four-Calendar Café because it sounded a bit too standard pop and Milk and Kisses because…well, it’s just sorta boring and “more of the same.” This is a band that thrived most whilst in flux developing their sound, and they’d already pushed and pulled themselves into every direction they could. The final culmination of these transitions was perfected, recorded and released as Heaven or Las Vegas – but then again I’ve already told you that.

JT’s pick: Heaven or Las Vegas – While I might like Blue Bell Knoll a bit more at times I think that Heaven or Las Vegas is the culmination of the direction that they had been heading in up until that point. While the early stuff is a bit harsh at times and the later stuff is a bit pop at times, Heaven or Las Vegas is the perfect mix of the two.

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen – Songs of Leonard Cohen: JT is right, and while I have heard and do own a good portion of Cohen’s discography, the one I usually reach for is the debut (and in fact JT gave me my copy). Songs of Leonard Cohen is essentially poetry put to music, and while this isn't spoken word, Cohen does talk-sing (he’s another one of those Dylan-Waits-Barrett-etc vocalists that could be an “acquired taste” for some), though there is certainly melody and, most importantly, passion in his vocals. These are intimate songs to the point of almost being dirty, as in obscene, but only because they paint such a stark, if sometimes cryptic, reality of love and desire that one almost has to look away for fear of seeing themselves reflected in the imagery. In many ways Songs… plays out like a greatest hits, and even though this album was hardly popular at the time, numbers like Suzanne, Master Song, Sisters of Mercy and So Long, Marianne are certainly amongst the pantheon of great rock moments for folks who understand and appreciate what music has to offer in all its various forms. (I'm not saying if you don't like these songs you don't appreciate good music, I'm just saying...oh, you know what I'm saying...) Cohen would continue this stark, bare, confessional approach for the next two or three albums, ever efficient and intriguing but never with as much revelation because, well, he’d already played every card in the first hand. But he eventually began to develop and expand his sound, and while there are certainly some classics to be found (First We Take Manhattan, Hallelujah), some albums, like The Future, are for me completely unlistenable. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t explore what he has to offer throughout his career, but you should certainly start at the beginning, and if you stopped there that would be ok too.

JT’s pick: Songs of Leonard Cohen – Honestly this is my pick by default because I really don't know all of his stuff and I think that this is the only one that I've ever heard from beginning to end.


Coldplay – A Rush of Blood to the Head: I think already knew JT’s pick on this one before I asked him, and I see where he’s coming from too. Also, I’ve already given Coldplay a guilty pleasure shout out somewhere else in these pages. But I’ll go ahead and say (in case I haven’t already) that Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends is my favorite Coldplay album. Hands down. The problem is that I don’t think you can fully appreciate that masterpiece without first hearing what earlier ambitions got them there. Parachutes is a fine album, has some nice moments, got banned in China, etc, but it wasn’t doing anything that half a dozen other bands at the turn of this century weren’t doing as well (and some of them better…ahem, Travis). And X&Y…well, we’ll just call that one hubris. What A Rush of Blood to the Head did was take pop music and make it majestic. I don’t just mean catchy, dance-worthy or over the top, I mean sweeping, epic and engaging without giving up the conventions of basic structure or simple melody by going into lengthy, self-indulgent instrumentation or surpassing the ten minute mark. This album also returned a sense of self-and-social-awareness, and therefore a certain amount of accountability, to pop music without being threatening, preachy or (too terribly) sentimental. But Viva la Vida is still way better…

JT’s pick: Parachutes – While the later stuff does have very nice moments, I think that their first album is pure. The later stuff is HUGE sounding, which is nice, but Parachutes contains their most stripped down and beautiful music.

The Cranberries

The Cranberries – Everybody Else is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?: Like JT, I really had a problem deciding on this one, because I love both this album and No Need to Argue. The latter is the one that won me over to the band, as I’d spent quite a bit of time my freshman year in college making fun of the debut, the Cranberries in general and especially the song Linger. I still enjoy making fun of that song, but I can appreciate it and the rest of the album in a way that’s really hard to explain. Even though they were certainly marketed to cash in on the alternative wave started by Nirvana (1993 was a huge year for bands and albums in that vein), there is a definite raw energy that pulses through these songs, begging recognition with a heart-on-sleeve defiance that realizes its own worth even if punk kids like me scoffed their soul-stripped-bare openness. No Need to Argue certainly does this as well, but by then Delores (Lord love her) was beginning to build confidence and therefore getting a touch preachy - a trait that would eventually derail her considerable talents with their last three albums. What’s more is that Everybody Else… has aged rather well, due in large part I think to it being more guitar driven whereas No Need to Argue is a tad keyboard heavy, not to mention even more radio-ready produced, making a bunch of truly fantastic songs sound a little bit poofy 15 years later. Honestly, you can’t go wrong with either and this time next week I may agree with JT…but not today.

JT’s pick: No Need to Argue – This is a total toss up. I love the first album as much as the second album but since I can only choose one I am going to base my decision on the singles off of the album and I think that No Need to Argue has the better singles on it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

William, I really enjoy your blog.

For your (and for JT's) pleasure, I'd like to suggest a second look at Cohen's 4th Album "New Skin for the Old Ceremony." Cohen is one of the seminal singer-song writers to me because his life echoes in his songs. From an autobiographical standpoint, his first album introduces us to themes that continue in his later work: hedonism vs religion.

Cohen slowly gives in more and more to the flesh and this album is the last one were those themes really battle. In his 5th and 6th albums he's a wholly carnal being. Then the pendulum swings the other way while he becomes a monk before his return to music with an album of religious songs.

Career arc aside, the diversity of the arrangements on the album sets it apart. In the raucous "Is This What You Wanted (To Live In A House That Is Haunted)" to "Chelsea Hotel" - the Janis Joplin affair inspired ballad that may be the best example of his resigned, confessional style - to moody mysteries like "Who by Fire" and emotional appeals like "Take This Longing," we see the already eclectic Cohen pushing himself as a songwriter.

I could go on, but for JT (who hadn't heard much Cohen) and for your readers, I wanted to make a case for revisting "New Skin For The Old Ceremony."