Thursday 19 December 2019

2019 Musical Things

A lot of people have asked me: "so what was your favourite album of 2019?".
Actually, no-one has asked me this question, but I'm going to tell you anyway.
However, being the properly decisive person that I am, I have arrived at the point where I have 3 number one albums.  Is that cheating?  Probably, but I can't make a strong enough case in my mind for one over the other - I nearly can, but not so I feel properly confident.

And so ...

1= Richard Dawson 2020
Folk troubadour meets Indie meets Captain Beefheart meets Ken Loach, complete with tales of modern life (and often an anguished modern life).  Every track tells a story - some make you think (for at least a second), others just make you marvel at turn of phrase, a seemingly humdrum or non-sequitor type lyric.  Most songs mange to do both.
Is this an album of songs or a sociology lecture from the future?

1= Liam Gallagher - Why Me? Why Not?
He's back - and understated as ever.  This is a combination of the Rock n Roll Star of old, with a slight maturing and broadening of the (sometimes restrictive) musical pallette.
A real step up from his debut, and it sounds like he's in a good place.
Choice Track = "Once"

1 = Mattiel - Satis Factory
Eclectic in it's influences and sound - Tarrantino movies, Northern Soul, Garage Rock, Velvet Underground, a bit of grunge - all mixed together to make 40 minutes of anyone's time worthwhile.
Every track has a difference and a re-assuring similarity.
Choice Track = "Keep The Change"

4. Fontaines DC - Dogrel
There is a well worn cliche that says "an assured debut".  Well, that is exactly what this is.  Assured, confident, full of swagger.  There are moments when the high bass notes and crashing drums leave you in no doubt of their influences.  Take equal parts Joy Division, The Fall and The Pogues, and you're not far away from Fontaines DC.  Irish Post-Punk at it's finest.
Choice track = "Dublin City Sky" (possibly the best song Shane MacGowan never wrote)

5. Specials - Encore
Their legacy is assured after the first 2 albums.  So did they need to come back 30 years after their debut?  Would they sully the memory by doing "The Specials By Numbers"?
Absolutely not - this album is just as valid as their first outings, maybe imbued with more experience, a wider world view, and not always needing to go full pelt at everything (although the accompanying live disc somewhat disputes that).
Choice track = "Embarrassed By You"

6. Richard Hawley - Further
Something magical happens when Richard Hawley plugs in an electric guitar.  I wish he'd do more with the same abandon as this album.  The louder moments mix finely with the archetypal Richard Hawley baritone balladry.  8 albums in 18 years, and I'd say this is his best.
Choice track = "Off My Mind"

7. The Who - Who
If I'd have had longer with this one, it would probably be higher, but number 7 on one months listening is pretty good going.
They've been there before, done that before, but haven't done it this well since 1978.  Having spent 3 decades treading water (granted they haven't been active all that time) they have no produced a worthy follow-up to their classic period.
Choice track = "All This Music Must Fade"

8. Wreckless Eric - Transience
As I said last year, it would be a crying shame if Wreckless Eric is only ever known fro "Whole Wide World".  And like last years album, this one is comparatively lo-fi on production and big on ambition.
The songs are smartly arranged and drag you in, almost demanding to be listened intently.  Eric's songwriting chops are clearly on show - shame that it's somewhat after his "peak public appeal" of around 40 (!) years ago.
Choice track = "Father to the Man"

9. black midi - Schlagenheim.
Like Fontaines DC above, there seems to be a bit of a Post-Punk revisit going on in 2019.  This album is both brilliant and infuriating in equal measure, and quite mad into the bargain.
Take a bit of Can, a soupcon of Talking Heads, and then imagine the bastard child of Alex Harvey and Shirley Bassey over the top.  See? Quite mad, but also locked in the CD player draw for a good few weeks
Choice track = "Ducter"

10. Frank Turner - No Mans Land
Frank Turner continues his descent to edgy acceptability on Radio 2, but now delivers a top notch set of songs.  His last couple of albums have been big on production sheen, short on quality (just my opinion!).  This time round, he's still got the sheen but has delivered in the song department.
Choice track = "The Death Of Dora Hand"

11. Bruce Springsteen - Western Stars
The bombast of old may no longer be on regular show, but his American Folk Hero side (Woody Guthrie-esque?) continues to do a fine job.  Widescreen, expansive, filmic even - these are descriptions that fit.  There is probably a fantastic album in here to a Springsteen fan.  Not being a big Bruce fan myself, I can see why lots of people fell over themselves with this one - me, I mark it as very, very good (or good enough to make number 11 anyway)
Choice Track = "Sleepy Joe's Café"

12. Elbow - Giants Of All Sizes
I admit this was purchased out of some sort of "Trainspotter completeness" mode.  To be honest, I feel Elbow have been a a downward slide since 'The Seldom Seen Kid', and Guy Garvey's voice has gradually got more grating.  But this one surprised me - the songs, the playing and the voice all work.  I can almost forgive them for the terrible 'Little Fictions' from a couple of years ago.
Choice Track = "White Noise White Heat"

13. Divine Comedy - Office Politics
Neil Hannon knows how to pen a great tune and match it with wry lyrics, and tell some fine stories.  Divine Comedy albums often take a bit of listening to fully "get", but when they do it's time well spent.  There are moments here when you fell he's been let loose in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.  My only criticism is that I felt it went on a bit, and found it a bit laboured in the second half.
Choice track = "Norman and Norma"

The box set no-one has been talking about.
Whilst many others are expounding the greatness and perfection of 'Abbey Road' (and very good it is too, with all those extra demo versions and stuff), my vote goes to the Not The Nine O'Clock News re-issue of all their 4 albums (well 3 and a live one) in a perfectly formed box - and not a novelty hedgehog or "I Love Reginald Bosanquet" badge in sight

Continuing the 'Abbey Road' referencing, the event of the year for me was undoubtedly Mark Lewisohn's Hornsey Road.
This really was manna for the Beatles nerd, and I (like others in the audience) lapped it up from start to finish.  The detail, minutiae and trivia was beyond compare - I hope there's a DVD becuase there was so much to take in I've probably forgotten more than I remember.
"Golden Slumbers" / "Carry That Weight" / "The End"

Thursday 12 December 2019

The Who - Who

13 years after the last release, The Who (or 50% of them) return with a new album.
2006s 'Endless Wire' was (at best) OK - it got a bit bogged down in the Concept/Mini-Opera attempt, and a couple of good songs were lumped in with a fair few so-so tracks.  And the performance and delivery felt a bit half-hearted.
No problem this time round - their sounding refreshed, even valid.  OK, there is a little bit of a "looking back at the glory days tone" but Pete is writing some good songs, and Roger's vocals are just as powerful as ever.
Replacing the missing 50% of The Who are long time band members Zak Strakey and Pino Palladino (on the majority of tracks) plus hired hands ably filling the void.

There have been many reviews suggesting this album is their best since the mid-70s.  The true reference here was "their best since Quadrophenia".  Personally, I think that is unfair to 'Who By Numbers'.  But if we must make back catalogue comparisons, I would say it is the equal (if not better) than "Who Are You', and certainly better than the post-Moon outings (Sorry, Kenney Jones)

Pete & Rog seem to have found a much more comfortable way of collaborating - one where Pete's studio ego does not take over and Roger just goes along with it (or walks out).
They must have come together at some point, but the bulk of the writing and demoing was done by the wonders of the internet.

"All This Music Must Fade" opens with a Hammond Organ drone, and than the vocal kicks in - to paraphrase Alan Partridge "Classic Who".  A slightly angry, urgent vocal with a mellower Pete Townsend counter-vocal.  Drum banging and bass burbling, acoustic guitars and power chords in equal measure.  A top start to proceedings.
"Ball and Chain" keeps the sound coming - sounding both like The Who, then not, and then settling back to The Who when Rog starts singing.
"I Don't Wanna Get Wise" has a bit of "Baba O'Riley" going on (not for the last time on this album", but yup it's The Who again.  And "Detour" gives a nod to their first name and then sounds like a re-working of "Magic Bus".
4 tracks in, their are recognisably back - maybe not to their best, but somewhere near.
"Beads On One String" is perhaps a bit wistful and moves slightly off template.  This is restored by "Hero Ground Zero" (note the string version of "Baba O'Riley" here).  It starts slowly, but I reckon this would be a killer live track.
"Street Song" is adequate and fills the gap - no pulling up trees here.
Definitely not sure about "I'll Be Back" - it's all a bit Hotel Lounge Jazz.  This is a sole Pete vocal, and I just wonder if it was on these e-mail collaborative tracks that Roger either declined, or just doesn't have the voice for.
"Break The News" tries hard, but is bogged down in a Mumford and Sons style arrangement, which just doesn't work.
After a couple of mis-steps "Rocking In Rage" almost redeems the previous tracks, even sounding like (possibly) a 'Tommy' out-take.  Plenty of strings, but with a title including the word "Rage" you just want it to explode a bit more.
The Who may have invented the "Epic Closing Track" idea - not here though, "She Rocked My World" (like "I'll Be Back") just sounds out of place on this album.
Nice enough, but sounds like it may have been a demo for a different album re-visited to fill the time.

My comparison to 'Who Are You' is based on the fact that like that album, as a whole it works.
Some very good tracks up against some (possibly) average ones.
I don't want to get all excited and 5 Star it just because it's the return The Who, but it does sit pretty well in their canon and contains at least 3 (soon to be) live staples if they keep touring
(Both Pete and Roger are in their mid-70s - health things are catching up with them - and Pete said recently that he doesn't really enjoy being on stage anymore)

But ... welcome back, and thanks for not just going through the motions, and actually delivering a fine album

"All This Music Must Fade"

"Hero Ground Zero"

Monday 2 December 2019

Who's Next versus Sticky Fingers

Both these albums come from 1971 and mark a point where the careers changed direction and these two bands vied for the title of "The Greatest Rock & Roll Band In The World".

For The Rolling Stones, their contract at Decca had ended, as had their management relationship with Allen Klein, and they now had the freedom to organise their own affairs.  They formed their own Rolling Stones Records company, with the intention of owning and controlling their copyrights and recordings.
However, the relationship with Klein was not completely over as he retained control of all their Decca recordings up to 1969 (including the 1970 Live album 'Get Your Yas Yas Out').
The first product of this new label came in April 1971 with the release of the single "Brown Sugar", followed a week later by the 'Sticky Fingers' album.  They took their blues influences, the country influences, and their live experience, mixed it all up and delivered 12 tracks of supreme quality.  The bass and drums are as tight as ever (if not at their tightest), Mick and Keith spar in perfect harmony, and Mick Taylor's soloing is top notch throughout - there is an argument (unresloved) that Taylor deserved a co-writing credit for at least 2 tracks here where his input changed the direction of the original songs ("Sway" and "Moonlight Mile"), and certainly for "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" where his solo constitutes around half the song.
Sadly for Mick Taylor, that co-write credit has never happened.

The Who had come off the back of sustained touring and success of 'Tommy', and recently put out the 'Live At Leeds' album - this had confirmed their position as an incendiary live proposition.
Never one without ambition, Pete Townsend began working on his next concept album - Lifehouse.
Pete was unable to fully convey the story to his bandmates and producers, and very likely got a bit lost in the madness of it all.
'Who's Next' was effectively a "salvage job" by producer Glyn Johns of the Lifehouse songs, but without the concept/narrative arc Pete intended.  And what a salvage job it was - Pete Townsend has explained, re-explained, and sometimes become obseesed by his Lifehouse vision, but would it have been a better album than this one?  It would have to be something special to out-gun 'Who's Next'.

Are these the best albums either band ever released?  Very probably.
I would argue the merits of 'Quadrophenia' over 'Who's Next', but that's my opinion - you're entitled to your own opinion (but you'd be wrong!)
Others may argue that 'Exile On Main Street' eclipses 'Sticky Fingers'.
I often found that, due to it being a double album, 'Exile ..' can outstay it's welcome, and for it's brevity 'Sticky Fingers' is indeed the Stones peak.

'Who's Next' has one track less than 'Sticky Fingers', so to to ensure a fair fight "Pure and Easy" has been added at track 2 (which is where I think it may have sat in the Lifehouse story (or at least, my interpretation of how the Lifehouse story flows))

"Baba O'Riley" vs "Brown Sugar"
Hmm ... this isn't going to be easy.
2 tracks which vie for the title of Greatest Opening Tracks ... ever.
"Baba O'Riley" with it's burbling synth and shared vocal between Rog and Pete is a phenomenal piece of work.
But then, "Brown Sugar" is just about the greatest guitar riff committed to vinyl.
It's close, but "Brown Sugar" takes it by a nose - purely for it's immediacy - "Baba" takes a little while to get going, "Brown Sugar" is right there in yer face
Who 0 Stones 1

"Pure And Easy" vs "Sway"
After those openers, "Pure and Easy" sounds a little lightweight, but it has enough about it to question why it never actually made the final cut.
"Sway" is the Stones at their ragged best.  Mick Jagger's (near) slurred delivery carries the song, and there is so much going on behind it.  Not least Mick Taylor's fine solo in the middle.
"Sway" is the victor here
Who 0 Stones 2

"Bargain" vs "Wild Horses"
"Bargain" has just about everything going for it - it is recognisably The Who.  The guitar, bass and drums come together perfectly to compliment Roger's vocal.
But ... "Wild Horses"is just dripping with emotion (achingly beautiful?).
It looks like Mick n Keef n Mick n Bill n Charlie are running away with this.
Who 0 Stones 3

"Love Ain't for Keeping" vs "Can't You Hear Me Knocking"
On first hearing, "Love Aint For Keeping" sounds a bout filler-y/throwaway.  Listen again - it's a a necessary party of the 'Who's Next ' whole.  There is so much going on behind the track.
"Can't You Hear Me Knocking" runs for over 7 minutes and is dominated by Mick Taylor's guitar.  Problem is it never really goes anywhere, or indeed concludes itself.Brilliant though it is, you do find your attention wandering as the guitar and Bobby Key's sax fight it out.
The 'Oo get one back
Who 1 Stones 3

"My Wife" vs "You Gotta Move"
The point for "Love Ain't For Keeping" is aided by it's almost seamless mood and style transition into "My Wife".  Not part of the original Lifehouse concept, but keeping up the tradition of having at least 1 John Entwistle track per album, this one is, without a doubt, the best track he penned for The Who.
In comparison, the Stones go deep into swampy blues territory.  All well and good, but it can't surpass The Ox's masterpiece
Who 2 Stones 3

"The Song Is Over" vs "Bitch"
"The Song Is Over" is a fine song and one that would fair better if Pete's Lifehouse vision could've been fully realised.
But up against "Bitch" ... Sure, it may not be an un-adulterated Stones classic (when did you lat hear it on the radio?), but it has got so much groove (and plenty to spare) and that horn section is damn near perfect.
Who 2 Stones 4

"Getting in Tune" vs "I Got the Blues" 
"I Got The Blues" is another aching Blues workout, nearly pulling the same emotion trick as "Wild Horses" and adopting a similar horn trick to "Bitch", but for me never quite does it.
"Getting In Tune" is a showcase for Roger's vocal, and the power of his voice over the lead guitar, lead bass and lead drums all fighting for attention win this one through.
Who 3 Stones 4

"Going Mobile" vs "Sister Morphine"
"Going Mobile" almost nicks it's introduction from Christie's "Yellow River", but after that (and this might be partly down to Pete's vocal) it all feels a bit flat
"Sister Morphine" was originally a Marianne Faithful track a couple of years before (featuring much the same band) - the Stones version just adds a dollop of sleaze.  This is one intense track.
Who 3 Stones 5

"Behind Blue Eyes" vs "Dead Flowers"
Right, in any normal competition, 'Dead Flowers' would be unassailable.  But this is up against "Behind Blue Eyes".
And there is so much going on - the opening vulnerability, rising to an anger (especially in the second section)"Behind Blue Eyes" finds Roger inhabiting the song character and shows extreme vulnerability and anger in equal measure.  Great track, great playing, great performance ... and another point for The Who
Who 4 Stones 5

"Won't Get Fooled Again" vs "Moonlight Mile"
"Won't Get Fooled Again" meets the criteria of always close on an epic" ... and then some.
"Moonlight Mile" is a fine piece of work, always threatening to explode somewhere and then always reining itself in.  And the strings are a bit tasty too.  But I'm not totally convinced it's an album closer.
I'm tipping my hat to The Who again,
Who 5 Stones 5

It's a draw.  An honourable draw perhaps.
But, that's no good.  You came here to find out which is best.
So how do we do this ... do we roll forward to their next album's ('Exile On Main Street' and 'Quadrophenia')? I've sort of done that above.
Consider the merits of their previous live albums?  Both essential documents of these bands live performances, and of no help whatsoever in declaring supremacy.
Or .. as I'm writing this tosh, do I get the deciding vote?

Both these are probably their best albums, but 'Sticky Fingers' can flag in a couple of places over it's 40-odd minutes.  By comparison, 'Who's Next' is a corker from Soup To Nuts - it starts at the top, and finishes on an even higher plain.  And the stuff in the middle is more than decent.  For it's consistency I have to award the victory to 'Who's Next'

My Wife

Dead Flowers (Live at The Marquee).
A version that leaves you in no doubt just how good a guitar player Mick Taylor is/was