10 Favourite Albums: 8 Radiohead In Rainbows

81KWYrlOt7L._SL1254_Conventional wisdom is that the best Radiohead album is either OK Computer (1997) or Kid A (2000) with the latter usually shading it in most verdicts. These ranking lists are more meaningful than most with Radiohead by most measures the most influential band in the world for two decades and my personal favourite. I certainly loved OKC from the moment it came out and played it on high rotation for at least 12-18 months in the time that followed. Perhaps because I played it so much, I listen to rarely these days though several songs on the album still have the ability to enchant. Kid A I liked less from the off though has been growing on me over the years. But the Radiohead album I most often turn to these days is the album usually listed by critics as their third best album In Rainbows (2007).

I still remember the buzz around OK Computer when it first came out 21 years ago. I didn’t like their 1993 debut Pablo Honey (and was possibly the only person in Australia who hated the single Creep) so was uninspired to pick up the second album The Bends (I would later grow to appreciate that album). But OK Computer touched me in ways I did not expect, despite its nerdy off-putting title. As a Pitchfork review said it combined “delicious melodrama with frenzied crescendos of massed guitars massaged into busy, buzzy orchestration which perfectly contrasted with the wounded innocence of Thom Yorke’s choirboy cry.” Radiohead were certainly feeling Lucky “I’m your superhero /
We are standing on the edge.”

Their pre-millennial tension gave way to Kid A three years later, an album Rolling Stone said “was the pinnacle of their trying-too-hard genius (which loomed) over everything else they’ve done before or since.” While the critics agreed it was their best and it had three or four great tracks, it strangely left me cold. It seemed to forgetfully blur into the off-takes that followed, appropriately called Amnesiac (with Morning Bell linking both).

Hail to the Thief (2003) was released in the aftermath of the Iraqi War and like most political albums failed in its over-earnestness. Radiohead being Radiohead it still had some great tracks like 2 + 2 = 5 and Go To Sleep.

The hype around any new Radiohead album was enhanced with In Rainbows over the band’s decision to introduce a pay-what-you-want model including getting it for free, after the band has broken up with record label EMI. It was worth every penny people didn’t pay for it. 15 Step got the album off to a cracking start “You reel me out then you cut the string.” The rocking Bodysnatchers was released as a single, while Nude sounded lushly romantic with its strings and swooning guitars.

I have no idea what Weird Fishes/Arpeggi is about, but its pulsating rhythm makes it one of the best tracks on the album. All I Need slows down the pace but is just as good. “It’s all wrong, it’s all right.” It sure is. Reckoner is an instant classic and is voted by many as the best song of the decade. “We separate / Like ripples on a blank shore / In rainbows.” And if that wasn’t enough there is still room for another great song Videotape, with a secret reason as to why is a deceptively difficult song to record for such as great earworm. As Open Culture said about the song’s structure “the chord sequence is not on the downbeat, but shifted a half-beat earlier. Hence, it is a heavily syncopated song that removes all clues to its syncopation.” For some it was Thom Yorke’s way of saying goodbye “because I can’t do it face to face.”

Radiohead are still producing great music today – A Moon Shaped Pool is a fine album but as the Guardian wrote In Rainbows flows seamlessly along. “It sounds supremely confident, like a band who know they’re at the height of their powers,” the Guardian wrote. “Whatever you paid, it’s hard to imagine feeling short-changed.”

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10 Favourite Albums: 7 Cat Power The Greatest

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It is quite the risk to call one of your albums The Greatest – even if the name is a tribute to Muhammad Ali – but Cat Power pulls it off with her 2006 album. Cat Power is the stage name of Atlanta musician Chan Marshall, daughter of blues musician Charlie Marshall. A move to New York aged 20 introduced her to the Big Apple experimental music scene and there she recorded her first two albums, the second of which Myra Lee (1996) got a 5/5 review from Rolling Stone. Her third album What Would the Community Think (1996) was produced by Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and featured styles ranging from alternative rock to folk and blues.

She moved to Oregon and spent time in Melbourne where she recorded Moon Pix (1998) and then after releasing a covers album followed it with You Are Free (2003) which received widespread critical acclaim. The Greatest came out a year later, recorded in Memphis. As Pitchfork said in its review The Greatest resembled all her previous records as “a mostly sad, heartbroken, hopeless, rainy-day affair.” Pitchfork noted several veteran Memphis studio musicians served as her backing band, including Mabon “Teenie” Hodges on guitar, his brother Leroy “Flick” Hodges on bass, and Steve Potts on drums. “These soul legends have played with Al Green, Booker T. and the MG’s, Aretha Franklin, Neil Young, and more; in other words, they don’t seem like the kind of dudes who’d stand much tortured diva bullshit from some no-name white girl off Matador Records,” they said.

The quality is evident from the opening title track. “Once I wanted to be the greatest /
No wind or waterfall could stall me.” It is bleak but beautiful. Following on is the breezy Living Proof. The Guardian review said about this song her band get to stretch out and kick back in their signature fashion, “but there is something about Power’s vocal drift, and her almost abstract lyrics, that makes the conjunction strangely inconclusive.” My conclusion: my favourite song on the album.

Could We takes off in another intriguing musical direction while the brief but beautiful Islands is perfect Nashville country in Memphis. The final two songs end the album on a perfect note. Hate is hard and you can feel Power’s power “They can give me pills / Or let me drink my fill / The heart wants to explode / Far away where nobody knows.”

Hate can be great but love is better and Love and Communication is a great way to finish a great album. “Drawn to the party like a spider filling up your guts / Don’t hate the night with what you shouldn’t have.” As Pitchfork said Power turned the tables on the final track “Instead of the Memphis crew welcoming Marshall into their world, the closing track sees Marshall luring the studio vets down her dark, claustrophobic alley. ”

There may not be much room to move and it may be hard to see but The Greatest is a rich and rewarding journey still paying itself off a decade later.

10 Favourite albums 6: Mercury Rev Deserter’s Songs

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A few years ago I attended a gig at the Zoo in Brisbane. The American band playing was Mercury Rev and the venue was sparsely attended. But those few there got a terrific performance from Jonathan Donahue and his crew and the small crowd lapped it up especially when they played any song from their hallmark album Deserter’s Songs (1998).

I bought that album not long after it came out, most likely on the recommendation from my brother who was also telling about similar great American music being made by bands like Grandaddy and the Flaming Lips. Donahue, the founding member of Rev used to be a member of the Lips and his vocal style was not dissimilar to Wayne Coyne. Indeed the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev were recording in the same studio at the same time and while Rev produced Deserter’s Songs, the Lips came out with The Soft Bulletin, an album almost as good.

Formed in Buffalo, New York, in the late 1980s Mercury Rev experimented with a psychedelic rock sound on their debut album Yerself is Steam (1991) and Boces (1993). Their third album See You on the Other Side (1995) crashed and burned and the band found themselves deep in debt. Donahue slipped into a deep depression and cut off all communication with his fellow bandmembers. Donahue began listening to albums he loved as a child, including “Tale Spinners for Children” which inspired him to compose  simple melodies on a piano. He began to recover and set a new musical direction for Mercury Rev.

Though without a manager, lawyer or label, the band got back together. Deserter’s Songs was written and recorded in the Catskill Mountains (where Donahue grew up) in six months, helped by Catskill residents, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm of The Band. Donahue admitted the world “wasn’t exactly waiting for another Mercury Rev record” but as the Guardian said the end product was “near flawless, one of those records on which not a second is wasted and every track could be a single”.

The song Holes gets the album off to a terrific start. According to Pop Matters Holes “is a swirling melancholy dream, a Grimm’s fairy tale with pain and darkness coursing just under the surface of an elegant and ornate reverie of beauty and wonder.”  Yeah whatever, but great music. Tonite It Shows has Donahue at the top of his power vocally “with spine-tingling power, his voice catching at the edges like a man overcome with the force of memory.”

The next classic on the album is Opus 40, named for a large environmental sculpture in Saugerties, New York, created by sculptor Harvey Fite. Keyboardist Adam Snyder told Uncut in 2015: “I remember Jon (Donahue) and I were sitting in a room in Kingston, which is like the gateway to the Catskills. I started tinkering around with a Wurlitzer, and that’s how ‘Opus 40’ was born.” Guitarist Sean “Grasshopper” Mackowiak said it was a place Donahue used to hang out.

Goddess on a Hiway was the first single from the album and a personal favourite. As NME wrote Goddess was “the biggest pop moment of the record, like a Disney theme tune if it had been fucked up by a cult US indie band.” If that doesn’t sound like praise, they concluded: “It still sounds awesome.”

It’s followed by another classic The Funny Bird which as one reviewer (appropriately named Deserter’s Songs) says “takes Neil Young’s ‘Like A Hurricane’ and significantly ups the paranoia levels: Grasshopper wrestling great squalls of unholy terror from his instrument, which seems to dissolve in on itself by the song’s climax.” I agree with that reviewer’s take on the entire album: “It remains full of secrets I can’t begin to fathom, and depths I haven’t even begun to explore. The funny bird still refuses to come to earth.”

10 Favourite albums 5: The Smiths The Queen Is Dead

download (1)Released in 1986, this was the album I had most trouble with though its place in the top 10 was never in doubt. The rest of the list is in order when the albums made their biggest impact on me and perhaps because the Queen is not yet dead 32 years later, I’m not sure when that was. So here it is, blandly in the middle of the list. In their short five year life The Smiths put out some great material and I enjoyed their music from when I first heard them in 1984. Yet at the time I felt their later albums were too similar to their earlier stuff and it took a while to appreciate this classic for what it was. The Queen is Dead is peak Smiths.

I always found The Smiths hard to categorise and I’m not alone. When John Peel first heard the band he said “I was impressed because unlike most bands… you couldn’t immediately tell what records they’d been listening to”. I did not have Peel’s musical knowledge but I got what he was on about – the Smiths weren’t like other bands of the era. The Mancunian melding of Morrisey’s campy lyrical style and Johnny Marr’s jangling guitars were a creative match made in heaven (neither proved much good subsequently without the other). I picked up their debut album The Smiths (1984) which I loved and even though I was disappointed some songs were re-released for Hatful of Hollow (1984) it still had some great new material, none better that How Soon is Now.

I was left a bit cold by Meat is Murder (1985) so I wasn’t immediately inspired to pick up The Queen is Dead when it was released a year later. I heard the album’s first single on the radio The Boy With the Thorn in His Side and might have dismissed it as Morrisey’s gay ramblings but I did like the second single Bigmouth Strikes Again. As usual Morrisey’s lyrics were memorably ludicrous “I was only joking / When I said by rights you should be / Bludgeoned in your bed” – well thank god for that, but it was a rattling good song for all that. Yet despite all the good things I was reading and the various lists it topped for 1986 and indeed the 1980s I was not convinced to invest deeply in the album or in Strangeways Here We Come which followed a year later.

The Queen remained a sleeper in my musical consciousness until at least ten years later, when I was browsing a Melbourne musical store and stumbled on a compilation album called The Smiths Is Dead. A bunch of Britpop bands I was listening to at the time like Supergrass, The Boo Radleys, Placebo plus an unlikely contribution from Billy Bragg came together to do their take on The Queen Is Dead. Though the compilation by French cultural magazine Les Inrockuptibles to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the release of the originally was widely derided, it was an original take and I liked it. I played it so often I forgot what the original sounded like and until curiosity dragged me back. What I was thinking, it was clear after a few listens the remake was a pale imitation of the original.

Now it only takes me the transition from the war tune “Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty” to the title track The Queen is Dead to get me back into the serious Smiths swing. It was Morrisey in full camp mode but I loved it. “No one talks about castration,” well yes, there’s a reason for that. It sounded silly but also witty and allied to Marr’s pounding music it appeared fresh in a way it didn’t seem two decades earlier. “Oh has the world changed, or have I changed?” Probably both, but it’s a crackerjack song that sets the bar high from the beginning.

Frankly Mr Shankly, I could take or leave but I Know It’s Over spoke to me directly “If you’re so very entertaining / Then why are you on your own tonight?” It was harder to believe even the morose Morrisey Never Had No One Ever but it was still another cracking song. Cemetry Gates with its childish mispelling could have come straight off the debut album but then there was the “blistering sight” of a Vicar in a Tutu.

Morrisey’s morbidity returns in There is a Light That Never Goes Out with its heavenly ways to die, but there is that airy music in the background undermining the grimness. The contrast is there again in the final track Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others. The Carry On wink-nudge nonsense of  “As Anthony said to Cleopatra / As he opened a crate of ale” is almost sacrilegiously superimposed on one of Marr’s most alluring guitar melodies, as Simon Goddard wrote.

In a 2017 review of the album Pitchfork said what endured was the peal of exile in Morrissey’s voice, “a timeless plaint of longing and not-belonging”. He brought the “tart wit and strange mind” to the partnership while Marr brought the beauty of serene, synthesized strings and guitarist golden cascades. “It was a great musical tragedy that barely a year after releasing The Queen Is Dead, this odd couple went their separate ways, for reasons that still feel not fully explained, Pitchfork wrote. “These boys were made for each other—and surely deep down they still know it.”  They would also know they were never better together than on this album.

10 Favourite albums 4: The Waterboys This Is The Sea

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When I moved to England in 1985 I lost the urge to seek out alternative bands though I loved the work of the Pogues. I remember a particularly anarchic St Patrick’s Day concert in Hammersmith with fondness and their album If I Should Fall from Grace with God was desperately close to making this list. But I also liked the softer touch of women like Suzanne Vega and KD Lang and I was quite happy to get into the stadium rock of U2 and Simple Minds. The Waterboys, at least in the mid 1980s, were in the same epic genre as those two bands.

Like The The, The Waterboys was the creative genius of one person, Edinburgh-born Mike Scott. Scott had an extensive range of influences he displayed through his contribution to fanzines at university but eventually wanted to play music not write about it.

He took the name for his band from Lou Reed’s The Kids “And I am the Water Boy, the real game’s not over here”. His first two albums The Waterboys” (1983) and A Pagan Place (1984) signified their approach to “Big Music” with even a song of that name on the second album. This Is The Sea (1985) was the third and final album of that phase and my introduction to their music, probably sometime in 1986.

From the opening trumpet fanfare on Don’t Bang The Drum that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Morricone-themed western I fell in love with it. “It could be deliverance, or history” Scott screamed out when the vocals finally arrived. I didn’t know which but it set the album off at a breathtaking pace. A recent reviewer in the Irish Times says that opening track takes him back 30 years to a train in Tipperary. For me it takes me back to my flat in Chester dancing away a cold winter’s night or to a road in Scotland, heading towards a football game with the song on full blast in the car. It was loud and joyous, and a template taken on by Arcade Fire among more recent bands.

Yet Scott somehow manages to top that with the second song The Whole of the Moon. It became the album’s signature song, its best selling single and the one played in every Waterboys concert since. There was speculation the contrasts in the lyrics were inspired by his girlfriend or CS Lewis or Prince but Scott said it was not a single person but a type. ” I wrote the song when I was 26 years old,” he told Songfacts. “I was discovering that there was so much more than I had ever known…  I had a strong sense of wonderment about that, and I realized there were people who had vastly more information in their imaginations and experiences than I had.”

The next crucial song on the album was The Pan Within with Scott inviting Irishman Steve Wickham to join him in the studio. Wickham had played violin on U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday and brought his fuzz fiddle style to the song, eventually joining the band full time.  The trumpet work of classically-trained Roddy Lorimer is also a joy on the first two tracks and of course, when Scott sings “your love feels like Trumpets.” Scott ends on a joyous note in the title track: “Once you were tethered / Well now you are free” reminding us again we don’t have to bang that drum.

As Mick Fitzsimmons says in his BBC review the album is Scott’s defining moment “literate, majestic and strangely moving music which wears its savage heart proudly on its sleeve.” After The Sea Scott had the rock world at his feet and could bang what ever drum he liked. But as the first line of the first song of the next album revealed all he wanted to be was a fisherman. Influenced by Wickham, he moved to Ireland and like Dylan in reverse turned towards a more rootsier recording tradition with Fisherman’s Blues. Just like Dylan, critics were divided about the move. Initially I found Blues a harder album to like but these days, I play it as often as its predecessor. Yet though I could take or leave its spiritual elements, for its effect in a time and a place This Is The Sea remains in my top 10.

 

Ten favourite albums 3: The The Soul Mining

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The The’s Soul Mining (1983) is my all-time favourite album. I didn’t put it at number one, so the sensible thing would have been to grow the suspense and keep it to ten. It appears at three because it affected me after the first two.

The The was the project of Englishman Matt Johnson and I first heard of him a year or so earlier. I was living in Dublin and it didn’t take me long to be drawn to the city’s two independent record stores Freebird on Grafton St and the edgier Base X on the Northside where I regularly emptied my wallet on new music and the fanzine Vox. Printed in cheap black and white it helped me learn about Irish post-punk bands like the Virgin Prunes and Microdisney and there was also a hefty amount of interesting new English product.

They promoted a record label called Cherry Red, which occasionally pulled its bands together for a compilation album, most successfully in the brilliant Pillows and Prayers which I loved and for which I “paid no more than 99p” for as the sticker on the cover suggested when it came out in 1982. Pillows featured their top bands like The Monochrome Set and Everything But the Girl, but not Johnson who featured in Cherry Red’s earlier compilation.

Called Perspectives and Distortion (1981), the earlier album was mostly inaccessible and up itself. There was one quirky tune on Perspectives which did quicken the pulse. That song What Stanley Saw recorded under the name Matt Johnson never made the debut solo album that followed later that year, because by then he had moved to 4AD. That album Burning Blue Soul was patchy post-punk but marked Johnson out as a serious talent and it had at least three classic tracks.

The Soul went from Burning Blue to Mining in 1983. This second album was released under a new name The The, but it was still mainly Matt Johnson, and it was brilliance of a whole new order, even if that order was mostly early 20s male angst. I was just two years younger than Johnson so he spoke to me. From the butchered countdown opening I’ve Been Waitin’ for Tomorrow (All of My Life) Johnson unleashes all his problems in a pounding song that builds up to the polluted/diluted finish.

Then just as quickly Johnson pulls us out of misery in This is The Day “when things fall into place.” But don’t get used to that either because the Sinking Feeling is never far away. “I’m just a symptom of the moral decay / That’s gnawing at the heart of the country”.  It was manic depression writ large and his lyrics had “histrionic gaucheness” as the Guardian said, but it was also strikingly precocious and they held together “a kaleidoscopic array of musical influences.” Those influences came out in the album’s best track: An Uncertain Smile which ends side one. Smile stared down some serious demons but it also contained a brilliant Jools Holland piano solo that occupies the entire second half of the song. It is as the Guardian said “a genuinely astonishing performance” by Holland, though actually two separate pieces that Johnson weaved together over an older song of his.

The second half is more in Johnson’s moody vein. The final track, the ten minute epic Giant screamed “How can anyone know me / When I don’t even know myself.”  I assume Johnson knows himself well these days. He hasn’t recorded prolifically since Mining (Dusk and Infected are both worth a listen) and I was privileged to see him play live in Brisbane in the late 90s. The handful of Soul Mining songs he played got the best reception. As Melody Maker, this album is great pop, “a barometer to your day” that will enhance whatever mood you are in. There is a reason it appears in countless lists of best albums of the 80s or beyond. Soul mining goes on forever.

Ten favourite albums 2: Brian Eno – David Byrne My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

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If Horslips – along with the likes of Rory Gallagher and Thin Lizzy – opened up the possibilities of Irish music in the 1970s, I was seeking new influences as the 1980s began. I already had discovered David Bowie (and I’m still grappling with the question of my favourite Bowie album) and while I loved the early 1970s personae I was particularly intrigued with stripped back brilliance of his Berlin era work with its cute songs interspersed by lavish if depressing electronica.

The curious name Brian Eno haunted the sleeve notes of albums like Low, Heroes and Lodger but in this pre-Internet era I had no idea who he was (or his links to the very well known Roxy Music). Another band Talking Heads was also simmering at the edge of my conscience though it would be another year or two before albums like Fear of Music and Remain in Light would become lifelong favourites.

In the early summer of 1981 I was not quite 17 years old and preparing to do my school Leaving Cert and examining options what to do next. One option was to study maths and science at then Limerick NIHE (National Institute of Higher Education – now the University of Limerick). We did a family excursion to Limerick to check out the campus and spend a day in the city, 80 miles (everything was in miles those days) from Waterford.

I don’t recall much about the NIHE and never seriously explored the Limerick education option but the trip had one lasting consequence. While left alone to wander the streets I found a record shop and found this mysterious LP with its abstract but intriguing cover and odd title. With five quid burning a hole in my pocket money I bought it on impulse.

I couldn’t wait to get back to Waterford to play this new record. From the first listen I was hooked. I was expecting to hear possibly Eno’s voice and definitely Byrne’s voice on the songs but neither were there. I had no idea I was listening to one of the earliest albums ever to use sampling and I loved this idea of using “found voices” to overlay on great music.

German musician Holger Czukay, co-founder of the Krautrock group Can had experimented with the technique in the 1970s but as Byrne later said in an interview the difference was they decided to make it the lead vocal on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. The title comes from a 1954 novel by Amos Tutuola who wrote folk tales of his native Yoruba people in south-west Nigeria in dangerous pre-end colonial times. The bush of ghosts are different towns, inhabited by a different type of ghost, each representing a different problem in life.

Byrne had long adapted African influences for Talking Heads and the politics of America in the 1970s were rich fodder for the vocals. The opening song has a radio shock jock screaming “America is waiting for a message of some sort or another.” He reminds us “we ought to be mad at the government not mad at the people.” The music rushes us on to be mad about something.

Another radio voice provides the Mea Culpa of the second song, with an Irish bodhran providing another cross-cultural percussive pulse. Eno said the lo-fi song was about inner-city oppression and political powerlessness. Maybe. For me it was simply another aural experience I’d never encountered.

The novelties continued with song three Regiment. It was one of two songs on the album sampled from The Human Voice of Islam attributed to “Lebanese mountain singer Dunya Yunis”. It wasn’t until recently I heard Dunya Yunis was a woman, I always assumed it was a male voice. Her Arab airs suddenly veered the album off in a new direction.

Then the album was yanked back into the growing power of Christian fundamentalism with two tracks sampling American preachers. In Help Me Somebody a revivalist black padre asks us to “take a good look at yourself / And see if you’re the kind of person that God wants you to be”. The next track The Jezebel Spirit samples an exorcist at work, laughingly creepily before launching into his spiel: “Spirit of destruction / Spirit of grief / I bind you with chains of iron.”  It was powerful nonsense (no surprise The Exorcist was one of the most memorable films of the era). It was also great music and electrifyingly liberating to a teenager losing his faith in Holy Catholic Ireland. All this just in side one.

Side two is the weaker side. Because I have an early version of the album I still have the song “Qu’ran” – which features samples of Qur’anic recital- as the opening track on that side. When the album was re-released a year later it was removed at the request of the Islamic Council of Great Britain. If Eno/Byrne’s warning about the dangers of Christian Fundamentalism were ahead of its time, so was the dangers of Islamic Fundamentalism, with Islam still a weak force in England at the time. Nonetheless the artists agreed to the Council’s request. The two Yunis songs Regiment and The Carrier stayed as did A Secret Life, more Arabic sampling from Samira Tewfik, another Lebanese woman better known for her specialist singing in Jordanian Bedouin dialect. All the while Eno and Byrne superimpose their own version of Western electronica on these samples of world music.

Ghosts became a hugely influential album on musicians that followed. Today the album seems unremarkable because sampling is so much part of musical culture. As one recent review said with today’s advanced technology, a child could create music based on samples and loops. “But back in analog 1981, Byrne and Eno had to do things with scissors and tapes and to play samples in real time.” Analog or not, the music has not dated and remains a deeply rewarding way to pass three quarters of an hour. My tastes in music were never the same again.