Monday, August 29, 2011

The Year That Was: Gas Tank Edition Part 3 - 1983

This one took awhile because in addition to my duties as a spouse, parent and working stiff, I realized I hadn’t listened to many of these albums in several years, so decided I should give them each a proper spin to make sure the way I once felt is how I still feel. That takes time, kids, but we got there, you and I, together…

So, 1983, with the wake of punk and post punk still chopping the waters as the New Wave began to peak, the Top 40 airwaves were definitely filled with a lot of interesting music, and loads of infamous one hit wonders were born, made their mark on the musical express and then faded into obscurity. And while a lot of that music was just weird, throwaway fun in a time of lip gloss, hairspray and cut up, layered t-shirts, there were still tons of artists putting out music that, while not always mainstream headliners, have withstood the test of time far better than, I dunno, Romeo Void?

And some went on to be super-duper-stars.

Let’s dive in…

Def Leppard

Def Leppard – Pyromania: Def Leppard doesn’t get enough cred as being a good band; a popular band, sure, but not a good one. Their first three efforts, before all that uber mainstream hysteria (ha, ha, get it?), were a steady progression of solid writing and stellar playing, delivering the hard rockin’ goods with a punk edge and tons of catchy hooks, memorable melodies and smokin’ solos. Pyromania is not only the zenith of these three albums, but arguably the best of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal because it incorporates not only the heavy riffs and gritty attitude of similar acts like Tygers of Pan Tang or Girlschool (who?), but also a flair of the more teen popular New Wave that was glamming up the charts at the same time. Yet instead of dulling the edge, this only hones it to perfection, which is apparent not only on the three classic hits from the album (Photograph, Rock of Ages, Foolin’) but on the album cuts as well (Too Late for Love, Die Hard the Hunter, etc). If your mom only lets you have one Def Leppard album, let it be this one (or On Through the Night).

Echo and the Bunnymen – Porcupine: EatB’s progression from dark post punk to dark pop was a bit of a slow one and Porcupine is the last that I would fit easily into the former category. While it contains an alt pop mainstay in The Cutter, that song is still several guitar slashes away from The Killing Moon, Bring on the Dancing Horses or Lips Like Sugar. Having heard those well known 120 Minutes staples first, I’m still amazed by the frenetic majesty of their early material, and if Crocodiles weren’t such a flat out unstoppable album, Porcupine might be the best thing they ever did. It’s brooding, cocky, emotive and beautiful in a very eclectic way. Ian McCulloch’s delivery is fierce as he snarls and sputters his way through The Back of Love and Heads Will Roll, to the point of almost feeling the spittle through the speakers. And the music is visceral, a bit frightening and so inspired that to dissect the parts making the whole, you almost wonder how they can come together into a cohesive song. Such is the brilliance.


U2 – War: Here is where U2 began their ascent to the stratosphere while still hovering within “alternative” circuits, and deservedly so with singles like New Years Day and Sunday Bloody Sunday. About half the album is just as good (Seconds, Like a Song). But side two wallows in sappy, derivative “songs o’ the times” that are little more than New Wave filler, and while more interesting than many contemporaries (hey The Alarm, you suck!), are far below U2 standards (well, at the time anyway). Having said that, this is the album that spawned the tour that gave us Live: Under a Blood Red Sky (the greatest live album of all time), so for that alone it’s worthy of a listen.

Tears for Fears – The Hurting: What grabbed me about Tears for Fears when I revisited this album was really how different all of their albums are (you know, all six of them). Of course having said that, I’m not overly familiar with much after Big Chair until their comeback from a few years ago, but what I’ve heard makes me feel like my statement is reasonably valid. Anyway, The Hurting is very classic alternative in sound, even textbook so (however, TfF are writing the textbook, not studying from it), with all the essential elements of chiming guitars, big drums and impassioned vocals/lyrics. It’s a wonder that its cult standing is still limited even within nostalgic alt circles. There’s enough post punk to give it edge and enough gloss to make it late night dreamy (though not mainstream maudlin), but the real draw here is the vocal performances from Orzabal and Smith - especially the latter, who has always impressed me by how much emotion he puts into songs he didn’t write. And there is certainly some heavy subject matter within, namely the physical, emotional and psychological hardships that can be associated with childhood. And when hit with this understanding, songs like Pale Shelter, Watch Me Bleed and the title track suddenly drip with a new and devastating poignancy. To be honest, at times it’s a record that sounds a bit sterile thanks to telling 80s production, but the warmth of the vocal delivery draws you in with an apt sincerity that makes The Hurting sparkle like a much overlooked gem in the furor of New Wave (and yet it almost tanks in comparison to Big Chair, one of the top 10 albums of the 80s).

REM – Murmur: The greatest album ever. Go here for my rambling reasons why.

Minor Threat

Minor Threat – Out of Step: When I was 18, Minor Threat spoke to me and for me. You could put on one of their records, go berserk for five minutes (literally in some cases) and at the end feel better for it. Every kid I knew that was fed up with the “status quo” ideals from music to social norms found (and lost) themselves in a Minor Threat record. Their only proper album, Out of Step shows the group expanding their sound from the quick burst confines of minute long, thrashed out diatribes (no one on the planet can rant like Ian MacKaye), to an ever so slightly more “pop” convention. What hadn’t changed one bit, and what makes Out of Step as vital as all their material, is the fueled up on rage delivery, which doesn’t let up for a moment and, again, spoke to thousands of disaffected teenagers 30 years ago as it still does today.

The Church – Séance: I’ll just come out and say that, aside from the rather pointless covers album A Box of Birds, this is the weakest offering in the Church’s entire catalog. Why? Drum sound. Are they electronic? Are they so processed that they sound electronic? I dunno. I’m sure in 1983, and for a couple years after, they sounded fresh and appealing. Nearly 30 years on they’re almost embarrassing, with fills sounding more like machine gun or artillery fire than snares and toms, which would probably work great for a Nitzer Ebb song, but make these pop rock numbers sound stiff and dated. And that’s a shame because Séance offers a really strong set of songs, from the ominous openings of Fly to the wispy lullaby of it doesn’t change. Honestly, these tunes are good enough to get past the poor choice of drum production, and even if it’s a bit of a hiccup between the Blurred Crusade and Remote Luxury, it’s a pleasant one.

Big Country – The Crossing: Go here for my review on this album from a couple of years ago.

New Order

New Order – Power, Corruption and Lies: I’ve said before that I’m not a huge fan of New Order’s 80s albums, feeling they were more of a singles band, and especially so in their heyday. A big exception is Power, Corruption and Lies. For all intents and purposes this is “dance punk,” with the band finally beginning to shed the dark skin of Joy Division and step into the glimmering light of electronic and dance music, and yet approaching both with the same unconventional “our way” technique as their previous band (btw, Technique is the other fantastic 80s NO album). No other record sounds like PC&L, by them or anyone else, and its detached, cryptic and yet invigoratingly catchy attack essentially paved the way for literally hundreds, even thousands, of albums since, from Madonna to the Killers. Oh, and the US version has Blue Monday on it, so…how does that feel?

Police – Synchronicity: After the sterile bleh of Ghost in the Machine, what happened next with these guys could have been anything…and thankfully it was a great leap upward as Sting and Co produced arguably the greatest album of their career (and I’m not saying it is), pulling out all the stops with classic songs (both singles and album cuts) and a fantastic production that certainly sounds “with it” and yet in no way glossy, watered down or dated nearly 30 years after the fact. Given the volatile internal state of the band, this is likely the best they could have ever done without the music suffering, with just enough ego prodding and thumb flipping to push everyone to their maximum potential and produce one of the greatest swan songs in rock music. Still, one wonders what the songs from Dream of the Blue Turtles would have been like with Andy and Stewart on board…


Yaz(oo) – You and Me Both: The second and final album from this synth pop duo is more of the same from their debut, though sounds richer and fuller overall, and benefits from a warmer production. Splitting songwriting duties is a good guarantee that each tune will be top notch, and truthfully most all of them are, especially since Vince Clarke has managed to shed the Depeche Mode 2.0 feel that his contributions had on the debut. This is Casio pop, so naturally it’s a bit dated sounding, but the slower numbers and ballads still hold up rather well today (since retro 80s is still hanging on with the kids, some songs almost sound contemporary), yet one simply can’t deny the infectious shake of Sweet Thing or Walk Away from Love, even if the synth leads bring on a giggle. Of course the focal point to all of this is Alf’s voice, a “back then” version of Adele before she was even a glimmer, and about 100 times more expressive. Look no further than every song on this album for proof of that.

Brian Eno – Apollo: With “pop” music now several years behind him, Eno was further pioneering the ambient music for which he is most known and revered. Apollo originally began as a soundtrack to a film on the NASA program of the same name, and while that did come together to a certain extent, the songs work well as a proper album within their own context. Layered textures, subtle melodies, treated instruments that sound unlike themselves, or overblown versions of themselves, create a landscape that works like a concept album open to the imagination. Under the right setting - at night, still, no distractions - this music conveys a sensation of vibrant weightlessness, an opportunity for outer (and inner) discovery, where you take what you need and leave the rest behind. It’s a true classic of the genre, and an excellent starting place for anyone interested in exploring the invasive non-intrusion of ambient music.

Bauhaus – Burning from the Inside: The last Bauhaus record for over two decades is an uneven and yet ultimately rewarding affair. With the exception of their debut (which is almost completely unlistenable), all of their albums offer loads of tasty morsels with their quirky often morose take on post punk, by blending elements of rock, reggae, dub, jazz and even spoken word into a concoction that is immediately everything at once and yet consistently Bauhaus. With Burning from the Inside, much of the best bits of the past are brought to the fore, from the slinky bass of She’s in Parties to the acidic bite of Antonin Artraud. And yet from there things get both interesting and disjointed. With vocalist Peter Murphy out due to illness for much of the writing and recording, the threesome who would eventually become Love & Rockets guided the ship into territories that, while not wholly unfamiliar to Bauhaus, carry a uniqueness that is obviously more flavored by the individual writing any one particular song than a full band, democratic effort. And while everything here is enjoyable, much of it even vital, when all brought together, it makes for a rather hodgepodge batch of songs that do not flow as well as the dark pop of Mask or the thematic experimentation of The Sky’s Gone Out. Regardless, the merits outweigh the weaknesses, and Burning from the Inside remains a much overlooked classic in the alternative world.

Depeche Mode – Construction Time Again: Depeche Mode went through a lot of personnel changes early on, finally solidifying things for the next 15 years by Construction Time Again. This is the second album with Martin L. Gore firmly at the helm, guiding them further into the Casio gloom that truly began on A Broken Frame. But while that album was a minor masterpiece of understated synth pop held together with a brooding almost sinister atmosphere, Construction Time Again seems to lack any form of direction or cohesiveness, simply spinning as a collection of songs that are sometimes fantastic (Everything Counts) but more often forgettable. There are some nice moments, but it’s the least essential album pre-Violator, possibly of their entire career.

The Chameleons

The Chameleons – Script of the Bridge: No one else ever quite sounded like the Chameleons. This is another band that was so unbelievably important to me at one stage in my life, to the point that it’s hard for me to say…well, anything. Nearly a decade before shoegaze and in the midst of the angular irregularities of post punk, these guys were putting out melodic, sweeping guitar music that was both of its time and yet decidedly of itself; so delicately heavy, so joyfully morose, that it was a painful pleasure to listen to them (pun intended). Mark Burgess sings from the heart, baring his soul, making you feel it in the gut, but in a way that makes you feel like it’s all ok, just part of the big picture. And big is certainly the word, because the guitar-scapes painted by Reg Smithies and Dave Fielding are intricate and broad, tying everything together as it spreads wider and wider. But the real key here is top notch songwriting, with any one song as brilliant as any other, and when all ingredients are provided, it’s really a flawless album.

Tom Waits – Swordfishtrombones: With 1980’s transitional Heartattack and Vine, Tom Waits discarded the final layers of his soulful, late night balladry and opened the door for his musical eccentricities to take root and run rampant. And that’s exactly what happened. As his next proper offering, Swordfishtrombones is considered by many to be the (and is certainly a) definitive Tom Waits (mach 2) album. Without a doubt it sets a precedent and standard against everything he’s released since, and while in his wild wanderings he’s hit the same heights, it would be a tough argument to say he’s overly surpassed the weird majesty of these 15 songs. Though the songwriting itself is fairly straightforward, even simplistic at times, it’s approached in a stripped down, unorthodox manner, with (for “rock music”) unconventional instruments taking the place of your normal guitar/bass/drums. And yet as out there as things can get, Swordfishtrombones is a highly approachable album. Tom’s characters are as real as ever and, as always, that distinct, gravely croon can produce some of the most haunting melodies you’d ever wish to hear again. As a starting point for all the hype and everything he’s been delivering for the past three decades, Swordfishtrombones is the one to pick up.

Duran Duran – Seven and the Ragged Tiger: Riding the crest of the new wave to its fullest potential, the last album from the classic line up (for over two decades at least) is a (somewhat) noticeably weaker effort than the debut and Rio, which has a little to do with the songs (not sure if I’m just tired of the Reflex or if it’s really not all that) but more to do with overproduction, as most of these numbers are rather mired in a swamp of telling 80s gloss. This is most evident on the singles, though New Moon on Monday shines anyway. This leaves a lot of pressure on the album tracks, which for the most part hold up admirably, especially Cracks in the Pavement, Shadows on Your Side (top 5 DD songs ever) and the “dual title track” The Seventh Stranger and Tiger Tiger. And this album is by no means a disappointment, it’s just not the debut or Rio, and you can’t hit a grand slam every time you get up to bat.

Metallica – Kill ‘Em All: Once upon a time Metallica was, well, worthy of their name. The proof is in their first three albums, the debut of which might be the best (really, it’s a toss up). The precedent for all things thrash, these guys took “classic” metal and punk and welded them together into something that was both heavy and fast. Tough and fearless, they played with a ferocity that was equally apparent in their lyrics, but not (necessarily) out of vindictiveness, spite or rage, but for the fun of it, because they could, and because the outcome was great. But it’s more than that. Kill ‘Em All is equally about precision, with calculated riffs, fills and solos that are more than just banging around, but sharpened to a razor’s edge, making them more accurate to the kill and truly something to marvel at. Plus, with titles like The Four Horsemen, No Remorse and Seek & Destroy, you know these guys aren’t playing around, and for anyone who enjoys fast, heavy music played well, this is your stop.

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