Emily Benita

#52: "Faith" - George Michael (1987)

Well, folks. Here we are. When Fiona and I set up this idea, getting to the 52nd album felt very long away. But, as with every passage of time, sure enough, it comes along, whether you're ready for it or not. This year has been relentless for so many of us all, for so many reasons. Where 2016 felt like constant EastEnders episode finale hooks, complete with stabbing outro, 2017 has felt like one worthy Netflix Original series after another, all dark Instagram filters and blank thousand-yard stares. But, cast your mind back to 364 days ago and there was I, having a very Merry Christmas, drinking something fizzy and finally starting to relax, when the news came in that George Michael had suddenly passed away.

Now, I wasn't aware of how much I would miss the man born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou until he was gone. What I do remember is staying up late, secretly, to watch the Channel 4 midnight preview screening of his video for Freeeek! hearing about how erotically charged it was going to be, which ignited my preteen curiosity, of course. I watched it - and I thought it was hilarious. But he was in on it. That was the point. A joyful-to-the-point-of-hysterical overflowing of saucy winks. What else would you expect from the gleeful gospel singer of, "Sex is natural/ Sex is good"?

Gospel is not a term I'm using lightly here. Going back to the beginning, Faith is, like my forays with the Purple One, a rewarding and, yes, spiritual listen for a heathen like myself. There's so much love here. Love in a sexual sense, love in a community sense, love for yourself, love that's confusing and substituting, but love nonetheless. It's a record rich in personal revelation without stumbling into self-obsession. George Michael wants you to be happy and free and, my word, you feel that that goodness is a tangible, achievable thing when you're listening to him.

That Michael wasn't around for the year his seminal album turned 30, well... That's sad. I knew about the scandals, his being in the press consistently for car crashes, trysts and weed. Given what's been going on for the past couple of years in the public eye, this seems so tame as to be endearing. Besides, it was Michael who stood in his own artistic stead and made the channel broader and more accepting for those to follow. After achieving phenomenal success with this, he follows it up with a video full of supermodels, burning his own iconography. Now that is someone who embodies the paradox of being human, remaining your own whilst embracing change. Who knows what the next year will hold? But we'll get there, soon enough. And in the meantime, you've just got to...

#50: “In The Court Of The Crimson King” - King Crimson (1968)

A few university parties with patchouli-heavy air and far too much cider listen throughs to Dark Side Of The Moon aside, I have very little experience with prog rock. This is one that has been suggested - though, as it’s music, it feels more like a request at the oddest disco of 2017 - by several of our nearest and dearest. Turns out, I don’t have much time for prog, but this has probably been the most revealing review in terms of understanding my own methodology yet.

First things first, a confession. This week has been pretty intense and I realise I have not felt all that great. Surprise, surprise, to no-one but me. This is the closest to the line I have been for our 10am publishing time but look at the cover of that album. Really look at it. I mean, it’s amazing, as a piece of visceral portraiture but please prepare the pity party for mio here as it looked like the least inviting thing for me to possibly listen to this week. But I have, this morning, and I need to be a Better Music Journalist Than I Am because I am flicking through the thesaurus to find synonyms for ‘shrug’. 

Much like my experience with Frank Zappa And The Mothers Of Invention, I found myself wincing with the on-the-noseness of the lyrics. My SO pointed out that that is down to the roots of English folk music showing through but you all know how much I liked Fairport Convention and, pals, let me tell you, this ain’t no Richard Thompson.  Instrumentally, it’s undeniable that there’s a lot of skill and effort going on there but something didn’t click for me to turn that into anything beyond simple comprehension. I felt like I was cornered at a university party by a man in his twenties trying to ply me with cider and get me to listen to Dark Side Of The Moon with him in his room. Not my favourite thing to do, as I’m sure you’ve gathered.

So, with time not on my side and a faltering arsenal of writing skills, what do I say beyond this? That I’m disappointed I don’t have more time to grow that nubbin of appreciation that must be there? That I kind of want to see them live as I’m sure that’s an immense experience as gig-goings go? Those are true but really, what I really want to get across beyond my own self-loathing is my huge respect for music journalists. That has definitely grown over this year, if nothing else. To be handed someone else’s output, however you may be feeling, and to really get to grips with what they’re trying to do and have an objective-yet-subjective response to it... I’ve struggled with that this year in a way that I have rarely done with film. Music is so downright emotional. I am similarly downright emotional so sometimes it can all get a bit too much - but then, in that case, the track is probably on the right track.

What I do understand now that I really appreciate dramatic irony in songwriting. The lyrics say one thing written down but the tone of voice in which they’re sung, the accompanying melody, the tension or sadness or joy that can come between those things, that’s amazing. The confidence to let someone fill in the gaps, to give someone a space to put their own feelings, to let others have an interpretation of some thing you pour your heart and soul into, I mean... That’s brave. Despite the scary cover, I didn’t sense courage here. But then, the loudest voices naturally get heard over confidences that are quiet enough to listen. And that’s a shame.

 

#48: GRACE JONES - “NIGHTCLUBBING” (1981)

As riders go, sushi, oysters and three bottles of red wine is pretty luxe. But then, what else could be expected of Grace Jones? In preparation for this review, I did my research by having a sushi platter and a bottle of red. Pleased to confirm that you do feel like a hula hoop champion, even if you’re not mystically imbued with the skill thanks to cucumber maki. I’ve got everything crossed that this combination is the key to longevity because Jones shows no sign of slowing down. In her film Bloodlight And Bami, Sophie Fiennes follows Jones on her Hurricane tour, swinging her hula hoop round her hips whilst wearing a golden cat mask and belting out hit after hit. Her energy as a performer is undeniable, not only in its abundance but also in its sheer quality - she’s often described as a force of nature and for good reason.

Red wine and seafood aside, reading about Jones means wading through a lot of white male profiles that are simultaneously in awe of Jones but succumb somewhat to a lazy othering of her power. That she’s alien-like, murky territory indeed considering the racial and sexual undertones of these dynamics. But this is missing Jones’s significant contribution and artistry. Well before Bjork and Lady Gaga, there was Grace Jones. Her androgyny and dynamism appealed to the burgeoning queer scene in America, who have long adored her, but her defiance in the - sometimes literal - face of the media meant that she was too often branded an unruly, angry black woman. That’s certainly what I was aware of when I was younger, her May Day in A View To A Kill a slick, sexy femme fatale. 

The cover of Nightclubbing plays on these elements of Jones. Sharp lines of her buzz cut, Armani suit and determined gaze, the cigarette dangling from her lips. One of many controversial images created by her long-time lover, Jean-Paul Goude, who is known as having discussed his questionable attraction to and manipulation of images of black women, it is hard to reckon with Jones-as-model, due to this entangled use of her looks in someone else’s vision.

Listening to Nightclubbing though, there’s Jones speaking for herself. It is amazing to realise that so much of this album is made up of straightforward covers as everything feels like her own voice, in her own words. And what a voice. Sometimes sultry, sing-song pillow talk, other times Valkyrie declarations. What struck me about the album is how, well, slow it is. She wants to take her time. Grace by name and by nature. Grace Jones is an icon purely because she never saw a door she didn’t believe she could walk through, a room she didn’t belong in. That level of self-leadership without arrogance, solely justice, is something near divine.

Near the beginning of Bloodlight and Bami, Jones travels home to Jamaica, handing her mother a large silver hat box. Inside is an extravagant pink woven Philip Treacy creation. Jones watches her mother sing in church, the gift upon her head, juxtaposed with Jones on her own stage, her own hat a mix of crown and cape that only Treacy could design. As much as any one moment could crystallise Jones’s influences, watching her adoringly support her mother singing gospel comes close.

Jones breathes in from her many homes - Jamaica, New York, Paris - and breathes out her work. Distinctive and instinctive, Nightclubbing doesn’t feel out of place or even out of this world, instead simply flowing from the coolest grandma on the block. I’ll raise a glass and some sashimi to that.

#46: Jackie Shane - "Any Other Way" (2017)

This week it was announced that Danica Roem made history as she was the first openly transgender person elected to public office in Virginia, unseating the long-standing, self-proclaiming homophobe and architect of the “bathroom bill”, Bob Marshall. But Twitter, in its inimitable style, swiftly both congratulated Roem and corrected the narrative that the near-universally cis news media had propagated. Althea Garrison was elected to public office in 1992 as a Republican in Massachusetts.

A similar sort of tale has come to the surface recently. Jackie Shane had a hit in Toronto in the mid sixties, then seemed to disappear entirely. Any Other Way, a repackaging of her excellent work, containing studio recordings as well as tracks from live sets, is bringing 2017 to a close in style. Forty-something years on from her spotlight in the public arena, Shane has confirmed that she is transgender. This shouldn’t be the apex of her story, as it's remarkable for so many reasons, but, now being such a crucial time in the transgender rights movement, it’s hard to say that her resurgence in popularity isn’t motivated by this one aspect of her identity.

The narrative of trans artists so often falls on their transitioning, their otherness to the rest of cis society. This isn’t to say that no trans artist shouldn’t use their platform to express themes of their gender identity - here’s looking at you, Laura Jane Grace, and the superb Gender Dysphoria Blues - but it’s refreshing to see one story at least that doesn’t hinge on a trans person being a trans person and nothing more. It is reductive to consider Shane as solely a trans recording artist, especially from me in my cis-ness, and I am sad and more than a little ashamed that this is the main reason behind how I discovered her.

However, I am nevertheless fascinated by the contrast in how marginalized groups throughout history have always existed and yet they are still framed today as something ‘new’, ‘radical’, essentially of-this-time-and-place. It’s such nonsense. For example, Munroe Bergdorf‘s controversial dismissal has echoes of Tracey Norman’s experience in the 70s. Is it the hyper-connectedness and thirst for content of our age that means these current stories get more coverage but very little context in the wider frame of history? Or is it a desperate scramble to protect a meta narrative that we live in a more progressive time today?

I’m getting ahead of myself. And off the point.  Shane has a glorious voice, full of smoke and dripping with jewels. The singe of Nina Simone, the softness of Sam Cooke. The covers of well-known numbers such as Knock On Wood and Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag help a novice listener like myself better compare and contrast, understanding how unique a talent Shane is - or rather, was. She’s still alive and kicking but I’m unsure of whether she’s planning to release anything new. 

But it’s another mighty shame to just consider her against other recording artists of the time, playing the house numbers. I would much rather leave you to listen to her and for her to speak for herself.  

So, without further ado... 

#44: Edith Piaf - "A l'Olympia" (1961)

I have hit the wall. Well and truly, folks. There isn’t any discernible reason as to why I have but so it is - I can’t think of a thing to say about Edith Piaf.

This is not a unique phenomenon. Fiona discusses experiencing it much more eloquently than I can in her take on Graceland. There is a comfort in that but the doomed overachiever in me hates not being able to see something through, especially once I’ve established a track record for it.

There’s plenty to be said about Piaf, of course. From her paradigmatically tragic personal life to her iconic status as the voice of a nation, it’s been said. Like most cinephiles, I’m au fait with La Vie En Rose and Marion Coitillard’s Oscar winning turn. I am sure I have a take on Piaf but it’s not presenting itself as I listen to A l'Olympia '61. Live albums are raw beasts, as they should be. It’s the  best chance to gauge and record what an audience themselves sounded like listening to that performer at that time. And at this time, Piaf was adored.

My French is rudimentary and, as you’ve gathered by now, so is my technical understanding of music. I couldn’t shake the sense of missing out on the wordplay, the banter in between songs. And maybe, just maybe, it's hard to hear your own thoughts above an adoring crowd. Making my way through the dark, I got the feeling of heading over the personal barricades from the brass section playing as if the ship was going down, as well as Piaf’s voice having that paradoxical and magnetic mix of strength and vulnerability, but I felt disconnected from it entirely.

So, yet again my respect for dedicated music critics swells. I am an emotional person, perhaps overly so - I nearly cried today as to how sumptuously round and orange the pumpkin I happened to select was - so when I don’t get any reaction, it usually falls into three explanations. 1) I’m not well. 2) Whatever I’m reviewing isn’t very good. 3) Technical issues in my critical faculties - and that is what’s happening here. It might be a combination of the first two but that isn’t the case just now. How people whose job this is manage, I don’t know.

This isn’t to say that the music is lacking the compatible ports to my feelings - but it didn’t rouse them from their slumber, either. And what do I have to say to that? Take it away, Edith.

#42: Ravi Shankar - “Three Ragas” (1956)

Where has this year gone? Ten albums away from completing this joint venture, Fiona and I have got to the point where we are wondering where to go next. This is the issue with coming up with ideas yourself to escape your echo chamber. Eventually, you’re going to realise you were just bumping against the walls of that chamber. I’m going to be opening up my Twitter feed to suggestions for my final four - as Fiona and I have a real treat for you for our last album of the year. 

But you know what, I actually went to a real life gig last week, my first in ages. I’m not much of a live music person, truth be told. My introversion too often wins out but having a music promoter pal means that I need to get my act together in order to support him and I never come away disappointed. An all women of colour line-up definitely gets my attention too. Shilpa Ray headlined and it was transcendent. Both she and my pal are of Indian heritage and I thought it’s about bloody time I dig into something distinctly less Western.  So I started with the absolute edge of my echo chamber - Ravi Shankar.

Younger me knew him as Norah Jones’s dad. Slightly older me knew that most of my music-loving pals at university rated him highly, particularly the guitarists. Now me knew him mainly as a great inspiration to George Harrison.  George Harrison will always be my favourite Beatle. He was monikered the quiet one but to me, he’s the epitome of still waters run deep. Listening to the instrumentals and koan-esque lyrics of Extra Texture or All Things Must Pass and of course, the later Beatles offerings, you don’t have to be a music expert to sense a non-Western influence. However, it is so rewarding to finally get to the source and appreciate the lack of appropriation, that Harrison saw himself as a student to Shankar and the spiritualism of the music of India, rather than a master of it.

Three Ragas is three tracks, each around the 12 minute mark, which to my cinematic brain equates to three standard length short films. It’s probably unfair to plant some kind of narrative to each of them but Evening Raga does expertly capture the mood of a bustling night out with friends, much like the aforementioned gig, with such buoyancy that I couldn’t help but smile. Morning Raga similarly matches my exact level of morning energy - not much, with lots of stretching and yawning and gradual reawakening to the world.  

Shankar spoke of his dismay at seeing Jimi Hendrix set his guitar alight at Woodstock, where Shankar had been hugely well-received, that instruments were part of God, and music the most direct route to godliness. Not to sound too clean-cut or ascetic but I respect that respect, sensing it throughout Shankar’s work. There’s a vitality and harmony to it that’s accessible in a way that a lot of Western classical music isn’t on first listen.  

Shankar left us at the age of 92 but instead of setting his sitar on fire, his music continues to warm the heart and replenish the soul.

 

#40: Lily Allen - "Alright, Still" (2006)

I owe Lily Allen an apology. As does, I think, most of the people who were in her marketing team, as well as a great swathe of politicians but for now, I'm going to admit mea culpa here. For some reason, I thought she'd only recently gone through a political and personal self-awareness but that just goes to show what I know. A lot of this I lay down at the door of my own prejudices and impressions of a certain set of West London social stereotypes that was not helped in the slightest by the short shlockumentary series that followed Lily and her half-sister, Sarah, setting up their couture-for-hire shop Lucy In Disguise. It was narrated by Simon Callow and made Allen out to be more than a little deluded and ungrateful, living in a bubble, which felt manufactured and the part of a cruel editorial campaign. But it showed her during a harrowing miscarriage and there was no getting round or editing her immense strength and bravery to be seen during that time, her second experience of having a wanted pregnancy taken from her by the worst luck.

Listening to her first album, Alright, Still, it smacks me in the face that she always been unafraid to speak her mind, amplifying the voices of those not listened to,  whilst also being wickedly funny. I also forgot that, despite her famous parents, her own rise to fame was pushed as a narrative of democracy, that particular fable of the mid-noughties of the MySpace samples going wild, meaning a relatively safe bet for a record company after what was essentially a free hype campaign. The second half of the album was completed with more external help, and it fizzles out somewhat, but Allen's songwriting strength is her satirical slant. Everything I found lacking in Zappa is in abundance here. The sugary pop is the perfect contrast to her social commentary, particularly in the love-hate letter to England's capital, LDN. The press has focused on her personal life and spent more column inches discussing the possible muses of her relationship songs, way before Taylor Swift, but, from what I can tell, there's been a lack of widespread appreciation of her near Brechtian treatment of modern living, particularly as an ambitious and flawed woman.

What other pop singers at the time discussed their dismay at rising house prices and how to shirk off unwanted male attention? And how to make it catchy, too? Whilst wearing a prom dress and trainers, a look that revolutionised my idea of how to be both comfortable and glam?

Outstanding, Still. 

#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