#38: Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention - "Freak Out!" (1966)

Being primarily a Captain Beefheart fan, I thought it would be unfair of me not to give Frank Zappa a turn. Their "mutually useful but volatile" friendship is the stuff of music legend, with both of them forever changing the landscape of what rock music could achieve, not only sonically but societally. Zappa in particular is often cited as the soundtrack to the cultural revolution of the '60s - and tends to soundtrack vox pop retrospective documentaries of the time. But, wow, listening to it now is a bleak experience.

Intended as a satire of the pop culture of Zappa's day, it's hard to get a grip on what, exactly, its principles are. Call me an old-fashioned square but good satire has a core principle to it, a direct address to what is wrong or hurtful but hinting at or suggesting something better. There's nothing to be found here of that vision for a better world, just endless repetition of self-obsessed nastiness that sounds a little too rooted in genuine desire for it to be a parody of someone else's greed. 

Oh, and funny. It has to be funny. There's more punch than punchline here and even that feels weak and smarmy.

There are some funky-sounding hooks here and what struck me is how straightforward '60s pop so many of the songs are before getting on to the more hallucinatory opuses towards the end of the album. This must have been a bizarre thing to get your head round at the time because, other than Bob Dylan's Blonde On Blonde, Freak Out! was the only other double album release. So to have one album that sounded much like anything else out there but with lyrics that were most definitely in your face, to then flip to the other side and meet Suzy Creamcheese whilst melodies melted... I mean, that's a heck of a journey, and I appreciate that. But it's still just plain nasty.

Beefheart 4 ever <3

#37: The Smiths – “The Queen is Dead” (1986)

I am sad that I never paid attention to The Smiths when I was seventeen, because I would have eaten this up with a spoon. I think, at the time, that I was a bit scared of an album with a title like The Queen is Dead; it sounds like the sort of thing someone cool and interesting would listen to. Now, a decade later, it sounds like something that someone cool and interesting would listen to when they were seventeen. It is a strange feeling, which I have rarely had this clearly, but I think I’ve missed the boat on this one.

If I’m completely honest I am still not sure, several listens later, what I think of The Queen is Dead beyond the fact that I would have liked it a lot more a decade ago. It’s Morrissey, though, isn’t it? You either like his vocal fingerprint – which is unmistakeable at eighty paces – or it winds you up. You either appreciate the delicate frisson of highbrow and lowbrow culture, or you think he’s a dickhead who needs to stop namedropping John Keats, and incidentally pick a nail varnish that isn’t black. Morrissey is, above all else, the sort of person whose autobiography gets published by Penguin and then gets hatchet-jobbed to bits by A. A. Gill (may he rest in intermittent peace). The Queen is Dead is, above all else, made by that person, and I think what makes or breaks it for you – I’ve said this before – is whether you want to sit next to that person at a party.

Aged seventeen, I would have loved this. Now, I’m not so sure.

But then again, there’s no accounting for taste. If you ask the NME, this is the greatest album of all time. If you ask me, the NME needs to take its hands out of its pockets and learn to join in a little. This is not bad music, at all – it’s good music, but it’s music by the sort of people who read L’Etranger in sixth form and who still thinks performative loneliness and ironic self-dislike are more interesting than rolling up your sleeves and joining in. It’s hit a cultural zeitgeist, but that zeitgeist is one of mildly self-pitying misanthropy. This is the High Fidelity of albums, except that Nick Hornby wasn’t being entirely straight-faced about it. This album is more straight-faced than High Fidelity.

Am I too gung-ho for The Smiths? Is that the problem?

I live in the moment.gif

I feel like I’m being a bit of a killjoy. The Smiths are having a bit of a renaissance at the moment – the Morrissey biopic England is Mine premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival this year, where I am reliably informed it was pretty good. I feel like they’ve been following me round the shop-floor soundtracks of Scotland in the last few weeks. (“Will somebody please just let this man get what he wants? It might shut him up a bit.”) I can’t really begrudge them – nothing says “a decade of the Tories and not terribly amused about it” like the title track here.

And I rather like when it gets a bit political, even if “The Queen is Dead” the track sounds a bit like it has an extra singer joining in from the bottom of a well. The best bit is the instrumental section towards the end – maybe I just have a soft spot for songs with a long purely instrumental component, or maybe the non-verbal bits really are the best. As far as I’m concerned, The Queen is Dead improves greatly when the vocals pipe down and let everyone else have a go, and indeed when it’s focused outside a single person’s skull: “Vicar in a Tutu” is delightfully tongue-in-cheek; after what feels like almost an entire album of gazing at my shoes, “Some Girls are Bigger than Others” sounds more like the sort of thing I want to listen to, the more I sit next to it.

So let’s call it a mixed bag. The clever, the inane, the interesting, and the vaguely excruciating, all jumbled in together. I would say that at least it’s not predictable, but I’ve been at this party, and sat next to The Man Who Loves The Smiths. I am sorry to have to tell you that I did not give him my telephone number, and at any rate I’m not sure he would have wanted it.

#36: Cat Power - "The Greatest" (2006)

Back in the day, I sported long hair with a blunt fringe. I was trying to be Leslie Feist but someone in the year above me at school said I was a dead ringer for Cat Power. None the wiser as to who this was, a Google later confirmed that we had the same haircut but the similarities ended after that. It is surprising that it's taken me this long to get around to actually listening to Cat Power - the performing name of Chan Marshall - as she is very much within the ethereal indie lady bracket I spent most of my teen years in. The aforementioned Feist, along with Martha Wainwright and Natasha Khan of Bat For Lashes, made up for bus journeys filled with yearning and frustrating trips to the hairdressers, as I laid out the collage of their fringes combined and never left with quite what I was after. But, given my schoolmate's comment, close enough.

A feeling not far away from what I was left with by one of Marshall's most successful albums, The Greatest. The acerbic Barbie pink and brassy gold boxing gloves on the cover are a sly wink, as the songs within are not brash displays of arrogance but gentler paeans to self-awareness instead. Each song is incredibly lovely to listen to at the time but then, ultimately forgettable. Catchiness isn't something that I ever thought I looked for in a song but I keenly felt the lack of a hook, whether in straightforward melodic terms or more in the sense of meaning. There's a deja vu from my listen of Beth Orton's Central Reservation. Enjoyable in the fleeting present but hard to grasp when the album is done.

But what if that's the point? The sly wink extending into a nudge. The Greatest is for the here and now, drawing us into the ephemeral, with a lush mix of blues and jazz tones, and just as quickly as it arrives, it disappears again, leaving the faintest and most skilled of traces.

#35: Easy Star All-Stars – “Dub Side of the Moon” (2003)

What’s the point of the tribute act? Say, for instance, what’s the point of Australian Pink Floyd? Is it to somehow turn yourself into Mk II Roger Waters (a perfectly respectable goal)? To give a wider selection of people a chance to feel like they’ve been in the room while something incredible is happening? (I remember in 2005, when the Pink Floyd reunion happened at the Live 8 concert in Hyde Park. My whole family watched around the television like it was 1953 and we were watching the coronation. My family are big Floyd people.)

And what of the other kind of tribute, the song cover, translated into another genre? Maybe the point there is to do something new with it, or show a new side to an old favourite. Or maybe you’re showing off – my favourite Pink Floyd genre-bend is without a doubt Christy Moore’s stripped-back cover of “Shine On, You Crazy Diamond”. Moore is extremely technically impressive; he tells a new story with the song, and gives himself nowhere to hide. You get to do that when you’re on your twenty-fourth solo album (let’s not include the collaborations here) in four decades.

To do a dub reggae cover of Dark Side of the Moon, as your first album, however, is something else. Who’s it for? Is it, like Australian Pink Floyd, introducing a new set of people to a classic, or is it showing your music-making chops like Christy Moore? Is it making an old thing accessible in a different way, like that Eric Prydz club version of “Another Brick in the Wall” that gave me a nosebleed on the bus in sixth form? Or – and if Dub Side came out today, this is unquestionably what I’d say – am I being polemicked at?

Well, I wouldn’t mind being polemicked at – I rather like my music political, and there is something inherently statement-y about taking Pink Floyd, of all bands, and covering it in reggae. Pink Floyd, whom I love, is the sort of band you like these days if you’re the sort of person who went to a bar with somebody counterculture once, talked over them, and left at half past ten. Covers of Pink Floyd are the sort of things – see the first two paragraphs of this review – where you go, “Yes, that’s all well and good, but do they understand it? Did they do it justice?”

And the answer to that is sometimes yes, and sometimes I don’t think so, but calm down, Robert, everybody had a good time. Simply having a good time, with the sort of thing that A Certain Type Of Person wants to know if you’re doing justice to, is a statement about the broadness of this church that is music. It’s a statement that I, personally, would do well to remember on occasion.

Let’s start with the great, which is to say, the weird-ass combination that is “Time”, with reggae in it.

The original “Time” might well be one of my desert island discs, and here there is something to me very examinable about the juxtaposition of lyrics that I strongly associate with my own fear of being left behind and missing out on life for lack of motivation, with that gorgeous bagginess and the new refrain of “Time is the master/Time can be a disaster.” It’s new. It’s interesting. I think I like it.

What I really do like – probably best on the whole album, in fact – is “Great Gig in the Sky”. It takes serious balls to muck about with “Great Gig in the Sky” – this version is less sampled than reworked, and has one foot in dub and one in prog in a way that, to my mind, draws clean lines between the two in places I wasn’t expecting them. This is super. This is what I'm here for.

All that said, I think they missed the point of “Us and Them”. I don’t think that’s me being dogmatic, although I do think they took a song that’s basically seven minutes of emotional punch, and covered it in “ooh yeah” vocal flourishes. After listening to it, I went back around to the original, and listened to the whole thing straight through with my eyes closed. It seems to me an odd thing to do, to take something very emotionally intense and basically leech all the emotion out of it. (Remember Scissor Sisters’ “Comfortably Numb”? I don’t know why someone would do that, either.) I don’t think Easy Star All-Stars did “Us and Them” justice, but I do think it’s obvious they had a good time doing it, and it has served to remind me how much I loved the original. Which can also be the point of a cover.

Enjoying making art is a perfectly good reason to make art, and better than most. I am far too highly strung to be a person who listens to reggae for fun. But I am delighted this exists, it is a mash-up I approve of, and for somebody I bet it’s the combination they didn’t know they needed in their life.

#34: Stephen Sondheim - "Sunday In The Park With George" (1984)

When I told Fiona that I was going to delve into Sondheim, specifically Sunday In The Park With George, she wisely advised to appreciate that I wasn't seeing the whole construction, only a major part. A musical is so much more than just the music. Back in the day, when I mistook a contrarian attitude for authenticity, I was staunchly anti-musical. Despite being an explicitly emotional person, having characters express themselves through song made me feel - icky. The subtext, for me, was erased, and I struggled to get on board with this direct address.

Thankfully, two things happened. One, I stopped being such a prat. Two, Hamilton. Roughly in that order, give or take a few months. To be fair to myself in my mid-to-late-teens, The Rocky Horror Picture Show was close to my heart - but that was satirising the very concept of heightened musical outpouring, reclaiming it in the name of camp. It took me long enough but partly due to Hamilton, I understood how the subtext wasn't erased when music was the main vehicle of both plot and character development, just in places I hadn't anticipated before. Rhythm, rhyme and repetition, to name a few.

I bring up Hamilton not only because Sondheim is one of Lin Manuel Miranda's major influences but also because I haven't seen the musical Hamilton performed* but it's been on a near-eternal spin on my Spotify playlist for the past two years. It hasn't felt lacking but a compelling invitation to discover the entire storyworld, to experience its various dimensions in person instead. This is how I feel having listened to the London 2006 company recording of Sunday In The Park With George**.

Sondheim's lyrics are refreshingly conversational and emphatic. The music enhances what would be standalone plausible conversations by giving them the shape of their full reality, conveying the underlying emotion of each character along with the straightforward dialogue.

Sondheim's women are visceral, their very words seeming to give them flesh. Dot, played in the 2006 cast by Jenna Russell, who got unfortunately lumped with the task of bringing a miserable Michelle Fowler back to EastEnders recently, is stunning in her straight-talking, animated performance. She is ambitious and cannot stay as still as George needs her to, as she is perfect to him only as a part of his grand design, not in herself. "Everybody Loves Louis" is an anthem for recovering partners of artists everywhere.

Going back to my mid-to-late-teens for a moment, I wish I'd listened to this then. It would have saved me a lot of time and heartache. That George Seurat himself is more of a minor character, could even be framed as the antagonist to Dot's determinedness to be educated and respected - her own person - is refreshing to say the least.

This isn't to say that Sunday In The Park With George is perfect by any means. The genetic connection is a little too convenient for my tastes but hey, it's one quibble about what is, overall, an accessible and thoroughly engaging story about art, harmony and the passage of time.

Even though I've only experienced one part, it is such a rich and intriguing part that's made me eager for the whole. 

*I got tickets. I know, I'm jealous of me too.

**I must get tickets.

#33: Girls’ Generation – “The Best” (2014)

I was out for a drink with a friend this week, and the conversation happened to come around to this project. And this is exactly why you should talk to other people, because it was only when he pointed it out that I realised how few non-Anglo-American things we’ve covered on 52A/52W.

Which got me thinking.

K-pop is one of those things that you just don’t realise – or at least you don’t if you’re me, hiding out here in little old Edinburgh, Scotland – just how massive it is. Part of that, sure, is because in some ways it’s the opposite of the sort of music I tend to gravitate towards. Part of it, though, is because it’s not easy to get your hands on. I don’t have Spotify; I usually download my music from Amazon these days. And for Girls’ Generation, one of the biggest-selling music groups in the world, the only thing I could find was The Best. It’s a Best-Of album. It’s a pain, because Best-Of compilations are put together on a completely different logic to your common or garden album. But what’re you going to do; I’m not listening to this the right way anyway. The point is, for something so vast, and so lucrative, why is it so hard to get hold of over here?

One answer to that is that bubblegum pop, especially stuff that is as unambiguously commercial as The Best, is an easy thing to sneer at. You know, say what you will about Ed Sheeran, he writes his own songs. And they’re acoustic. You can tell yourself the feelings or have once been Ed Sheeran’s feelings, which is what we call authenticity or some such guff, and you or I can feel, rightly or wrongly, like at least we get some idea of what he’s like as a person. There’s something quite uncanny, I think, about nine girls with perfect figures and indistinguishable voices (the autotune is strong here!), moving exactly in step and talking about, I don’t even know – there’s a line in “Galaxy Supernova” in English, where one of them says, “Oh boy, do you believe the situation? You’d better keep this a secret,” and I laughed out loud, because lyrical depth is not a thing we’re interested in right now. And that’s easy to laugh at, if you want to.

Brief pause here for one of my favourite bits of If That’s The English, What On Earth Is The Korean.

Notoriously, K-pop is heavily commercial, very carefully engineered. I get the impression it’s best off either listened to either track by track as part of a playlist, or, most likely, with visuals either live or as part of a music video. Having listened to sixteen tracks of Girls’ Generation now, I couldn’t tell their voices apart, but again, it’s not about that. What the point seems to be is personality, in a very visual way. The videos are insanely popular. The music itself is almost an accompaniment. A soundtrack to some eye-wateringly well-practised dancing, to a story or mythos being told about what it is to be a girl and aspire in, I guess, 2014 Seoul.

That’s cool! I can do that! And actually it’s quite interesting to pick the English bits out from among the Korean, to see what the cultural touchstones are, what of this aspirational vision of cotton-candy pink is familiar and what is different. And, look, I would sing along to this just like there are no occasions ever that I would fail to join in with a crowd explaining that if you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends.

It’s all very well me telling you that Girls’ Generation isn’t cerebral. People are allowed to like heavily processed stuff. Do I sound a bit like I’m talking myself into this? Well, more reminding myself, before my head disappears up my own backside. Sixteen songs in one go is too much. With 52A albums, what I tend to do is sit down and listen to the whole thing in one go, then go round a few more times and pick things out. This is like the anti-Sigur Ros from a fortnight ago, because every song is so fast paced that there’s no respite, which makes it difficult to keep up with. But that’s a problem with Best-Of compilations. Individually, they’re fun. Heavily extroverted, kind of group-thinky fun. I happen to quite like fun, in small doses. You know, in between the wine tastings with a first edition of Dostoyevsky, lit only by the faint glow of the distant moral high ground. I wouldn’t have picked The Best out otherwise, but you know, why the hell not. It may have its popularity; I bestow my blessing and good luck to it.

#32: Clifford T. Ward - "Home Thoughts From Abroad" (1973)

If Clifford T. Ward Were Your Boyfriend (With Thanks And Apologies to The Toast

 

1. If Clifford T. Ward were your boyfriend, you'd feel a slight sting of shame that you didn't have a more practical, blunt forename like his seminal hit, "Gaye". Not in a moral way, more that vague sensation of having lost something you never had, that the Japanese have a word for that you can't remember. He strokes your hair and smiles at this show of charming angst. "There isn't a note that exists to carry the beauty of your name." You swoon into his shoulder.

2. Sunday afternoons are spent, without fail, in the pub, which is a short drive but a much nicer country walk away from the secluded, shabby old vicarage where you've settled down. The papers don't last long between you. He lets you read the supplements first and you know what that means. You drink port and lemon then move onto wine when your roasts arrive.

3. Though he sings for a living, he never sings along to any of the records that eternally spin from the study. Just hums, tapping his fingers on the armrest of his chair. You jest that the walls aren't made of brick but vinyl and poetry. But there's truth in that - because isn't this where you always wanted to live? In the house art built?

4. When letters fall onto the mat, your heart rate quickens from fear. You rush to the pile and sort through with shaking, silent hands. No postcards means a good day. Despite the glory of your present together, you know some part of him will always be in the past, remembering the ones who came before you. You hate them for hurting him but hate yourself more because you're so frightened that you'll do the same.

5. Everything in his wardrobe is earth-toned, flared or corduroy, which makes him seem very together and practically falling apart all at once.

6. He makes you breakfast but doesn't eat it himself, choosing instead to set it by your sleeping head whilst he sits in the early sunlight reading his dog-eared copy of Keats for the hundredth time this year.  You didn't realise how much you liked cold scrambled eggs before now.

7.  "But darling," your mother says as you twist the phone cord round and round, "he's just so... wistful." As if that were a bad thing.

8. The lovemaking is transcendent, natch.

9. He's nearly finished the portrait of you in the style of Vermeer. You're desperate to see it but his perfectionism forbids it. You still have the crick in your neck from holding that milk jug for two hours but the glint in his eyes as he intensely studied your frame was worth it. 

10. Sometimes you wish he'd say what he felt at the time rather than writing a song about it but then you realise you'd be robbing other people of his gift. This is the price of admission. But the fairground rides are bright and none of them plunge from great heights or turn your stomach. Tea cups and ferris wheels and hard boiled sweets as far as you can see. The lights glimmer on the horizon line.

#31: Sigur Rós – Ágætis Byrjun (1999)

Sigur Rós is one of those bands, I get the impression, where if you’re really going to do a review of them justice, you ought to find out a bit about their process and the technical elements of how they make music.

But we’re not going to do that today. Let me tell you about my synaesthesia.

The older I get, the more I feel like a very spacial thinker. That’s not in the helpful sense that would make me good at estimating distance or map reading. It’s a bit more abstract than that. Numbers have a physical structure – odd numbers are slanted, for example, and multiples of three have a wide, blocky base – and, more importantly for the purposes of thinking about music, sounds have a texture. Sometimes that’s like tarmac or wood grain or porcelain. Often there’s depth or colour in it: something about prog rock is often uncomfortably shadowy, and wide open or exposed. Miles Davis felt like a long, low room, stretching off into the distance, with a heavily textured ceiling. A fortnight ago, Shakira felt like a series of steps. This is probably about as interesting to you as having a mild acquaintance explain their last night’s dream to you.

But I tell you, I sat down this week and listened to Sigur Rós and knitted. And it was intense.

What does that mean, for the non-ridiculous among us? Looking at a lot of reviews of Ágætis Byrjun, I’m seeing words like “alien”, “ethereal”, “submerged”. And, yeah, I can see that – this is the sort of music that fits with your heart rate and then slows it down slightly. It’s very easy to listen to without doing anything much else at the same time – you just sort of hook your thoughts onto Jón Thór Birgisson’s improbable, interesting voice, and let it all spin out in front of you. I was expecting to find Ágætis Byrjun cavernous, airy, light, and I didn’t. I understood it in a very tactile way – it felt to me like doing origami in my mind. I don’t know how to turn that into something that’s easy to explain. But a pair of headphones, and this, and quietly stitching in a comfy chair… and suddenly it was seventy minutes later and I’d barely written anything down.

That never happens.

It seems to me that listening to this in 2017 is probably quite different from listening to it in 1999. It’s only coming back around on a second and third listen that I noticed how much was going on: the blend of strings and electronics, layers of drone and bass that has become more common lately as it’s become easier and more accessible to create. Maybe a listener eighteen years ago would have found it more alien, more ethereal, than I did. I don’t know how I’ve managed to escape listening to Sigur Rós for so long, given that I’ve done a small but fairly steady line in ambient electronica combined with staring into space over the last five years. There is value in taking a technically complicated thing at face value, and quietly weaving your own stories out of it. I’ve been thinking about that this week, in several contexts, but nowhere more than here. So this isn’t a review, not really. That would be breaking something.