John Martyn - One World (1977)

My Rating: 3.00 out of 5
All-Time Top 1000 Albums:
Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums: X
The Mojo Collection: X

Chart Peak (UK/US): 54/--

Favourite Tracks: Small Hours, One World, Certain Surprise
Least-Favourite Tracks: Big Muff, Smiling Stranger

John Martyn could sing the assembly instructions to a piece of flat-pack furniture & still move most of us to tears… the man was blessed with one of the richest, most emotive, melodious voices in rock and yet (and I feel strangely-guilty for even saying this) I found this album a little disappointing. There are some patchy bits here and while Martyn’s voice does much to paper over the cracks, it’s not quite the masterwork I was expecting considering its almost-universal critical acclaim.

On the positive front, let’s start with that voice; slurred, anguished and honeyed, like some bizarre cocktail of Michael McDonald, Robert Wyatt & Mark Hollis, it can transform even the most ordinary lyric into something dripping with emotion. There’s not many who could sing a simple line like it’s “just a cold and lonely world, for some” (from One World) and have you snivelling into your hanky. Likewise, how many times have we heard singers trot out a ho-hum corny line like “I couldn’t love you more”, and yet when Martyn does it we somehow get the feeling that he really means it.

Like so many people blessed with great natural talent, Martyn did his level-best to squander his gifts & the lyrics here offer an intriguing perspective on his troubled & often contradictory personal life. Martyn undoubtedly had a gentle, introspective side and that ran at odds with his hard-living reputation (a fact clearly illustrated, according to bandmate Danny Thompson, by the fact he would play something incredibly beautiful, yet burp loudly at the end just in case you thought he was going soft). Similarly both sides of Martyn’s character feature here, from the delicate sentiments of ballads like Certain Surprise & One World to the personal demons of Big Muff & Dealer and in a sense made the album feel that much more authentic & heartfelt.

Musically, the songs sound like they evolved out of jam sessions & while this loosely-structured approach complements the slow, ambient compositions I didn’t think it worked that well for the up-tempo numbers like Big Muff & Smiling Stranger which end up sounding a little unfinished. Both kick off with promising Can-like grooves but dashed my hopes by not really going anywhere special with them. Where Can might slip in a guitar solo or two here we just get far too much vocal repetition and not nearly enough musical inventiveness. It’s frustrating - especially when tracks like One World & Small Hours remind you what a great guitarist John Martyn was.

Small Hours closes out the album & this is where the unstructured, jam-session approach really comes into its own. You can really lose yourself in the ethereal drift of Small Hours, its muffled heartbeat rhythm, the echoing guitar & synth swells, the whispered vocals, the geese squawking in the distance… wait a minute, geese? Well, apparently it was rather-fittingly recorded outside in the countryside at night & such ambient sounds only enhance the atmosphere. Almost nine minutes long but I can’t say that I noticed.

Overall a good album, but I was rather expecting more.

Tim Buckley - Happy Sad (1968)

My Rating: 2.00 out of 5
All-Time Top 1000 Albums:
Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums: X
The Mojo Collection: X

Chart Peak (UK/US): --/81

Favourite Tracks: Love From Room 109 At The Islander
Least-Favourite Tracks:
Gypsy Woman

Happy Sad proved an appropriate title for an album that offered up such a pleasing first half yet such a disappointing second. It was a scorching hot day so I stuck this on whilst stretched out in a shady corner of the garden and it soon seemed like the perfect setting. Strange Feelin’ kicks things off oh-so gently with languorous marimbas & a meandering double bass and the track strolls along as if it has all the time in the world; an electric guitar solos lazily, the vibes plink-plonk for a while and the effect is all rather serene. Wait a minute though… isn’t that tune lifted from Miles Davis’ All Blues? And what about those marimbas & double-bass – is this a jazz album Mr Buckley? Well no, not really; the musicians clearly aren’t “jazzers” but what they lack in technical proficiency, they more than make up for in feeling. So this is something of a folk-jazz hybrid and for a while at least, quite a successful one.

The album’s highpoint was Love From Room 109 At The Islander (On Pacific Coast Highway), a big mouthful of a title that signals an equally large-proportioned song. Weighing in at a hefty 11 minutes or so, this epic track starts off like some acoustic session by The Doors (complete with its Yes The River Knows-style guitar break) yet soon morphs into something quite unique. The tempo plummets to a funereal pace and a complicated melody starts weaving its way around scratchy violins & the sound of a crashing sea. It’s a song with a loose organic structure, as if the band members are composing it on a Ouija board, all pushing it in a certain direction yet never quite knowing who is in overall control nor where they will heading next. And yet, it works. And back in the days when music emanated from those grooves in black vinyl
it would have closed out “side one” with a flourish.

However that minimalist, organic technique continues into “side two” and here it begins to show its limitations. Gypsy Woman feels particularly under-produced; a song whose naked ambition outstrips its naked arrangement, it flounders flimsily under Buckley’s impassioned cries, like Kenny G doing a cover of Metallica. The unstructured approach, so successful on Love From Room 109 fails dismally here and the song lurches along aimlessly like some drunken, drummer-less jam session. As for Buckley’s vocal histrionics, well when The Flight Of The Conchords do it it’s funny, but here the falsetto swoops, growls & off-key vibrato are just irritating. With a 12 minute runtime, make that bloody irritating.

I was a bit disappointed with Tim Buckley’s singing. I’d read dozens of glowing reviews and Allmusic has dubbed him “one of the great rock vocalists of the 1960s” but on the evidence of this album I can’t agree. For a start he has a “gnarrrrey” timbre coupled with a wavering pitch that can make him sound a bit like Mr Bean gargling. Stylistically inconsistent, his voice also seemed a little short of range & struggled to jump through the many flaming hoops Buckley placed in front of it.

I also felt many reviewers overstated the poeticism of the lyrics. Take Strange Feelin’; “Well it's just like a mockingbird a-singing on a hillside / Chirping at his morning song / But don't you weep don't you fret don't you wail don't you moan / Can't you hear that whippoorwill a-callin? / Now don't you worry / Your daddy's comin' home / He's gonna chase those blues away”. Yes Buckley evokes typical pastoral “poetic” imagery, birdsongs, mountain breezes & the like, but allied to rock clich├ęs like “your daddy” & “chasing the blues away” the sentiments often seemed woolly & rather hollow. The exception being Dream Letter where Buckley uses much simpler language yet suggests much deeper emotion; “All I need to know tonight / How are you and my child? / Oh is he a soldier / or is he a dreamer? / Is he mama's little man? / Does he help you when he can? / Oh does he ask about me?” OK we know he’s talking about his estranged son Jeff & the tragedy that surrounded both their lives certainly adds an extra dimension, yet I still found it a powerful song about the genuine anguish & regrets of a broken family.

Just 6 songs here so the original 1968 LP was neatly divided into 3 tracks per side. And if I had owned this album on vinyl, it would have been one of those where side one was covered in scratches & fingerprints, yet side two would have remained forever in shiny mint condition. Happy Sad indeed.

2Pac - Me Against The World (1995)

My Rating: 2.20 out of 5
All-Time Top 1000 Albums:
Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums: X
The Mojo Collection: X

Chart Peak (UK/US): --/1

Favourite Tracks: So Many Tears, If I Die 2Nite
Least-Favourite Tracks:
Heavy In The Game, Old School

Like it or not, gangsta rap has been one of America’s most successful musical exports. 2Pac alone has sold over 75 million albums which represents one hell of a soapbox for his particular musings on life. Such popularity also inspires a form of cultural imperialism, with people around the world tossing away huge chunks of their own identity & replacing it wholesale with that of their favourite US rappers. Here in the UK, there’s nothing more cringe-worthy than hearing a middle-aged, middle-class, white Englishman trying to speak like a young, working-class, black American. How much more removed from your own origins do you need to be? I recently worked in a trendy music biz office where one plummy Oxbridge graduate regularly used “ghetto-talk” without a hint of irony; the worst thing was that it’s become so normal that nobody else there even noticed.

Although Tupac spent several years at drama school, the way he spoke & behaved didn’t seem to be an affectation. He grew up in a harsh environment & while aspersions have been cast about the “street” credentials of some rappers, the very nature of Tupac’s life (& death) means nobody could really accuse him of faking it. Authenticity is a highly-prized commodity in the world of gangsta rap, so when you issue an album just after you’ve survived being shot 5 times & whilst serving a prison sentence for sexual assault, it is bound to add a certain gravitas to your words. Released against that backdrop an album titled Me Against The World was always going to be taken seriously.

I should confess at the outset that I know very little about rap. Everyone has holes in their musical knowledge & gangsta rap represents a point-blank .45-calibre exit-wound in mine. If you’d mentioned “Tupac & Biggie” to me several years ago, I might have assumed you were talking about some kiddies’ cartoon show. And I laughed the other day when a guy on a radio phone-in mistakenly referred to 50 Cent as “50 Pence” but secretly knew I wasn’t all that far away from making the same blunder. Rap certainly polarises opinion amongst people I know in the music world too; some pretend to know a lot about it in order to boost their credibility, others loftily dismiss the whole genre without ever having listened to a single note.

Back to the album & if anyone was not aware that Tupac had been shot, the opening intro-track soon remedies that; what starts out as a soulful instrumental soon turns into something of a brag-fest as dozens of sensationalised news reports about his shooting & discharging himself from hospital are interwoven through the music. It’s as subtle as a sledgehammer – you’re a tough guy, we get it for heaven’s sake. But as the album progresses we get glimpses of some vulnerability & for the critics that is one of the things that sets this release apart from its peers. Most of the lyrics (predictably) glorify his violent lifestyle, yet there’s a contemplative streak running through all the songs that simultaneously express his doubts & fears. It’s like Tupac had one of those cartoon devils whispering in one ear & an angel in the other. A track like If I Die 2Night talks of “plottin’ on murderin’ motherfuckers” & “duckin’ the cop.. as I’m clutchin’ my Glock” yet conversely complains “I’m sick of psychotic society, somebody save me” & “I hope I’m forgiven for Thug livin’ when I die”. It’s a contradictory stance yet in a sense it works because it comes across as an honest internal struggle. Having said that, I think many critics overplay the vulnerability-line; they hold up a track like Dear Mama & point out how few hardcore rappers would record a gentle ballad tribute to their mum. That may be so but Tupac still can’t bring himself to state directly that he loves her – his big repeated chorus line is “you are appreciated” which as a sentiment is not exactly overflowing with warmth & tenderness.

The spectre of his untimely death looms large over the whole album & it’s something I found intriguing. It’s partly the dying-young effect; I get the same thing hearing Ian Curtis or Nick Drake, though in Tupac’s case the album feels more like a self-fulfilling prophecy than a eulogy. The paranoid mistrust of Death Around The Corner is eerily-accurate & on track after track, Tupac predicts his own violent demise. Lines like “I’m having visions of leaving here in a hearse” or “my every move is a calculated step to bring me closer to embrace an early death” (from So Many Tears) take on extraordinary significance. I couldn’t help wondering what we’d make of such lyrics had he not been shot dead. If he’d gone on to great success as an actor & got fat by the pool in his Bel-Air mansion such lyrics might have come across as just empty posturing, but following his murder they stand as a kind of validation & that certainly adds a powerful edge to the record.

Musically the songs are well-produced & surprisingly melodic but I do find it hard to get all that excited about songs constructed entirely from samples of other peoples’ songs. Also there’s a (jealous) side of me that resents anybody who doesn’t write the music, doesn’t play any instruments, doesn’t sing & yet can still make over $80 million of record sales in one year. Considering the Poet Laureate earns £5750 a year that’s pretty good wages for a bit of rhyming. And I do have misgivings about a lot of the lyrical content, not because I find it offensive but mainly because its obsessive uber-machismo focus on murder, sex, drink & drugs just seems so childish – to me it’s the sort of thing that 14 year old boys boast about, not grown men.

Rap fans have long revered this album; as an outsider to the genre I found it something of a mixed bag. It was certainly more accessible than I expected & the murky world it portrays, whether fact or fiction (or a blurring of the two) offers a vicarious thrill to those of us peering in from our comfy suburban lives. The cycle is neatly completed with the final track Outlaw & its chilly closing lines - “Muh’fuckers wanna see me in my casket… I never die, thug niggaz multiply, cause after me is thug life baby”. As my plummy Oxbridge friend might put it; “Believe”.

[from my Top 1000 Albums blog]

Aimee Mann - Whatever (1993)

My Rating: 3.23 out of 5
All-Time Top 1000 Albums:
Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums: X
The Mojo Collection:

Chart Peak (UK/US): 39/--

Favourite Tracks: Say Anything, 4th Of July, Could've Been Anyone
Least-Favourite Tracks: Jacob Marley's Chain [but only because the melody reminds me of Nik Kershaw's 'The Riddle'..]

I never judge a book by its cover. Well that's what I sanctimoniously think about myself but the truth is I must do precisely the opposite because otherwise I'd have heard this record a long time ago. I blame the album title; you see I didn't read it as Whatever - I took one look at the cover, saw a young blonde American woman & it became (cue Californian accent) 'Whateverrrrrrrrrrr'. Like most opinions forged from flimsy prejudices that one stuck so I really wasn't looking forward to hearing this album. But before the opening track was over I could feel my face stretching into something of a donkey head as I realised I'd got it all wrong; this was not the frivolous, piece of froth that I'd presumed - it's an accomplished rock record. Four minutes in & it already had more hooks & harmonies than you find in 40 minutes of most albums.

First surprise is that it's such a full-on production. I was expecting an oh-so earnest singer-songwriter backed solely with an acoustic guitar, but that's partly thanks to Allmusic who describe this album (here) as 'folk-tinged'. (Long afternoon down the pub was it lads? 'Folk-tinged', my arse) No, from the start this has a bold & confident feel; the production is excellent & is tailored to fit the mood of each song. That means we get an incredible variety of arrangements & instruments, from electronic samples & drum machines to strings & full orchestration; you get the impression that they just raided the studio stockroom & grabbed every single musical instrument they could lay their hands on.

What about Aimee Mann herself? As a singer she sounded a little like a cross between Chrissie Hynde & Alison Statton of the Young Marble Giants (remember them?). I wouldn't describe her voice as commanding & yet she has a remarkable ability to scythe through a wall of guitar noise. And even better, she sounds like she means every word she sings which is quite a rare commodity these days.

As a songwriter she also does an admirable job; everytime I thought a track was getting a little predictable, it'd suddenly spear off into an unexpected bridge, middle-8 or instrumental break. And it's a tuneful album; the vocal melodies & backing harmonies are always pleasing & the lyrics are intelligent & thought-provoking (especially when you read between the lines of songs such as I Could Hurt You Now).

And that's the best thing about doing this daft project; every so often you discover some good music that you never knew existed.

[from my Top 1000 Albums blog]

Thelonious Monk - Brilliant Corners (1957)

My Rating: 2.40 out of 5
All-Time Top 1000 Albums:
Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums: X
The Mojo Collection: X

Chart Peak (UK/US): --/--

Favourite Tracks: Brilliant Corners, Pannonica
Least-Favourite Track: Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are

I just worked out that at my current rate of progress I shall be finishing this blog on 2 August 2040 (it'll be a Thursday in case you were planning anything). As I'll be 75 by then there's a strong possibility that I'll be a little bit senile, a little bit deaf and/or a little bit dead - all conditions which may well improve my writing, though it might just be simpler to try & speed things up a bit. So in an effort to overcome my suffocating sense of slothfulness & to avoid having to continue writing this from the after-life I hereby decree that I shall be listening to 7 albums in 7 days. Starting with this one.

The album opens with title track Brilliant Corners and from the opening piano intro it's hard not to think of Les Dawson. Or perhaps someone trying to play piano whilst wearing boxing gloves. Who's had a bit too much to drink. You get the picture.. Anyone unfamiliar with Monk must think the same because on first listen he sounds like someone who's just not very good at playing piano. Then the rest of the group join in, all twisted horns & stuttering rhythms like some second-rate Salvation Army band & you begin to wonder whether Napalm Death might not be a little easier on the ear. But after a minute or so, the tempo suddenly picks up & the whole thing starts to swing; not traditional swing but like some twisted swing from an alternate universe. The song lurches around, stopping, starting, speeding up & slowing down & yet somehow the whole things hangs together. Just. And out of all that chaos you end up emerging with something rather beautiful.

By contrast track two Ba-Lue Bolivar...(etc) is a skanky blues of the sort that you'd find from some burlesque strip club band - I half expected Tom Waits (circa 1974) to start growling lyrics over the top & it's a shame that he doesn't really as with a running time of over 13 minutes even the charm of Monk's solos began to fade. I'm not sure that the simplicity of the blues provides enough scope for someone like Monk anyway, though if I said that at a jazz convention I'd be dragged out to the car park for a good kicking.

In an effort to save myself from angry mobs of hipsters (not that I've ever seen a mob of hipsters, or even a lone hipster for that matter, but I'm not taking any chances) I should point out that there's an awful lot to like about this album. Four of the five songs are Monk original compositions (& it's worth emphasising the word 'original' there). And as any self-respecting jazzer will tell you, saying Monk is a bit rubbish at piano is like saying that Picasso wasn't much cop at painting. Their art is abstract & abstraction requires you to abandon some of your preconceived notions. The problem is that we're all conditioned to think that hitting bum notes=bad player, so while many people might appreciate Monk's innovative style after hearing one track in islolation, I wonder whether a whole album's worth might be too much for all but the most ardent jazz fans.

[from my Top 1000 Albums blog]

Supertramp - Crime Of The Century (1974)

My Rating: 4.00 out of 5
All-Time Top 1000 Albums:
Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums: X
The Mojo Collection:

Chart Peak (UK/US): 4/38

Favourite Tracks: School, Bloody Well Right, Dreamer
Least-Favourite Tracks: If Everyone Was Listening

Older brothers don't have much going for them when you're 9 years old. You learn how to take a punch, how to run away fast (before getting punched) & how to eat a variety of pet foods, but did they really have any positive uses? Well actually, yes there was that one saving grace; their record collection. Back in the mid-70s when about all I had were some scratched-up, hand-me-down Disney soundtracks, an album of orchestral war movie themes & one David Essex LP (ahem), my big brother literally held the key to an exciting new world of music. Behind the locked doors of his LP cupboard were dozens of shiny new records & despite the threat of almost-certain death, I eventually buckled under the temptation & busted my way in, rather appropriately choosing Crime Of The Century as one of my first ill-gotten gains. For this particular 9 year old, music was never quite the same again.

Skip forward several decades & I'm sitting here listening to this album for the umpteenth time & it still sounds great. But I suppose I would say that, wouldn't I? I grew up listening to it, it's intertwined with all sorts of childhood memories, it's the first record in the Top 1000 I already owned, so while I'm desperately trying to be objective about it, the truth is how the hell can I be? Wait a minute though, I don't feel that way about that bloody David Essex LP so there must be more to it than just some nostalgic feelings.

From the opening bars of the first track School you know this is going to be something special. Wailing harmonica with rumbling ethereal bass notes in the background & as the intro builds we get spooky guitar effects, children's voices, what's that - an oboe in there too? Then we get that creepy kid's blood-curdling screech (which scared the crap out of me the very first time I heard it) & the whole thing kicks off. But this is not your typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure; like 10cc every 30 seconds the melody seems to change completely & yet somehow the whole thing hangs together perfectly. And that's just it, much of the artistry of this album is that it can take something so complicated & make it sound so simple & accessible.

It's not just the songwriting, the production & arrangements are also interesting & innovative. Subtle little touches are everywhere; the chorus of Bloody Well Right with the Wurlitzer electric piano panned over to one speaker & a hokey, out-of-tune upright piano in the other; the theremin (or saw) whistling away under the chorus of Hide In Your Shell; the strings, orchestration & even clanging bell on Asylum (I only recently noticed the cuckoo clock at the end - I've heard this album hundreds of times & I'm still discovering new things buried in the mix). But it's not like all this production trickery is there as some kind of gimmick, it's been deftly applied to enhance the meaning of the songs. Rudy starts off at the station boarding his 'train to nowhere' & the arrangement creates the impression of a train rattling ever-faster down the tracks. Yes I know that's nothing new, but with its sweeping strings & wah-wah guitar stabs, I've never heard it done better.

Lyrically the songs are rather impressionistic. There is a common thread with themes of madness & isolation but the precise meanings are left open to interpretation. To me it is clearly a concept album - the songs segue into each other taking us on a journey that starts out at School, progesses through teenage rebellion, adult mental breakdown & culminates with the album-closing Crime Of The Century. Exactly what that crime is, we're never really told - I've got my own idea though & I quite like it like that.

Back in 1974, it wasn't long before my big brother discovered that I'd made off with his LP. But strangely I didn't get the pulping I'd imagined. I think he may have secretly been rather proud that he was having such a strong influence on my musical tastes. More likely he was just relieved that he didn't have to hear that David Essex album again. Either way it's a shame he wasn't so understanding when I discovered his stash of 'jazz' mags...

[from my Top 1000 Albums blog]

Tina Turner - Private Dancer (1984)

My Rating: 1.50 out of 5
All-Time Top 1000 Albums:
Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums: X
The Mojo Collection: X

Chart Peak (UK/US): 2/3

Favourite Tracks: Private Dancer, Let's Stay Together
Least-Favourite Tracks: Steel Claw, Help!

You know how some albums (usually the classic ones) transcend their own eras, never sounding outdated or unfashionable? Well, this isn't one of those. It's utterly rooted in the 1980s & rather like leg warmers or Mr T, it really isn't ageing all that well. The All-Time Top 1000 stats suggest I'm not the only one thinking that; in the 1994 list this record was voted at #25, by 1998 it had slipped to #242 & for the latest (2000) edition its rank had plummeted down to #969. And after listening to it several times I can understand why.

First of all, it really is very much of its time. Tracks like I Might Have Been Queen or Steel Claw sound like something lifted straight off the soundtrack of 80s movies like Footloose, Flashdance or Fame - you know, schmaltzy US rock with big, bland major-chord choruses. It's also a masterclass in mid-80s production values & while I've always been fond of electronic music, I think that the heavy-handed 80s way of shoe-horning drum machines, synth bass & keyboard brass stabs into MOR mainstream rock created some real horrors (does anyone really like the 'power' synth riffs on Europe's The Final Countdown or Berlin's Take My Breath Away ?)

Then there's the substance, or rather the lack of it - virtually half the tracks here are cover versions & that makes it sound like those dreadful debut albums we get these days from any old X-Factor contestant. I mean, her cover of Help! sounds like something that was knocked up by the guys who normally record backing tracks for kid's karaoke machines.

The original compositions don't fare much better either. Is anyone really moved by hackneyed lyrics like 'Prisoner of your love / Entangled in your web / Hot whispers in the night / I'm captured by your spell' ??! (from Better Be Good To Me). And once you know that What's Love Got To Do With It was originally written for Cliff Richard (by the same guy who wrote him Devil Woman) that sickeningly twee synth solo suddenly makes sense. It doesn't help that there are so many different songwriters & producers - the record sounds like a mish-mash of wildly different ideas & styles.

It's a shame as there are also fleeting glimpses of what a good album it could have been. It goes without saying that Turner's voice is a fantastic instrument & her uncharacteristically laidback approach on Mark Knopfler's Private Dancer remains a highlight of the album. And while most of the Heaven 17 collaborations would have worked better on their own records, their inventive reworking of Let's Stay Together still stands out. Of course, with over 20 million copies sold & 4 Grammy awards, I doubt that anyone involved with the album is too worried about its longterm credibility, or indeed the fact that some middle-aged nobody in England thinks it's a little bit crap. Ultimately, the fact that such an insubstantial offering achieved such enormous success perhaps says more about 80s consumerism & mass marketing than anything else.

[from my Top 1000 Albums blog]