music

#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.

#20: ALVIN LUCIER - "I AM SITTING IN A ROOM" (1969)

This might be one of the longest tracks but shortest albums that we will cover on this project. It could also be said to be one of the most 'out there', as it's not musical in the orthodox sense but is still an artist's intention expressed through sound, recorded and distributed. Reading about Alvin Lucier and I am sitting in a room made me think that reviewing it looked set to be more craic than any of Steve Reich's offerings at least. I fancied delving into something genuinely experimental and came out the other side feeling pretty relaxed. Though that may have had more to do with the fact that I listened to it in the bath. I entirely recommend doing this yourself, incidentally, especially if, like me, you're not much of a bath person either, thereby doubling your helping of experimentation.

The experiment is as follows. Lucier reads out a piece of text, no more than four or five sentences, explaining what he is doing and predicting what will happen. So far, so science. What Lucier is doing is recording his voice reading this text, then playing it into the room that he is sitting in, recording that and playing it into the room, repeating this process until the natural frequencies of the room completely obscure Lucier's voice - apart, he notes, from possibly the rhythm of his speech. The version I listened to is, I believe, the original 1969 recording lasting just over 18 minutes, not the higher-fidelity version recorded in 1981 that is about 45 minutes long. Turns out that 18 minutes is plenty of time to layer ambient frequencies over a human voice to obscure it entirely with a not unpleasant drone and feel sufficiently soaked.

Admittedly, listening to I am sitting in a room isn't super experimental for me in the sense that I've listened to albums of this kind before. As I've told anyone generous or socially obliged enough to have bought me a glass of red wine, The Disintegration Loops by William Basinski is one of my favourite pieces of music and, if the bottle is finished and the whisky brought out, what I hope it will sound like in my head when I die. During a particularly dark time, Basinski found tapes of his old compositions that were beginning to disintegrate. He recorded playing them over and over, recording the act of decay and creating something new. Or was it merely the documentation of something falling apart? The slight rise of hiss and grain that eventually blooms like a fireball and devours everything in its path. A sonic Sorites paradox. When did it stop being that thing and become the other? Repetition's effect on the brain - or mine, anyway - is to accept what information has already been offered and truncate it, skip to the end. But I am sitting in a room helps hold your attention after several goes round because they aren't actually repetitions but iterations with incredibly slight differences that build to something almighty.

Not one for the wedding dance floor playlist but if you have a spare 18 minutes and fancy something both meditative and oddly energetic, run yourself a bath and sink deeply into both. 

#18: DJ Shadow - "Endtroducing....." (1996)

Sometimes you really can judge an album by its cover. At least, with DJ Shadow's Endtroducing..... anyway. The cover is an entirely accurate synaesthetic translation of sonic to visual. Two men on either side of a record store aisle in grainy neutrals. The left-hand man cuts a solid figure with his sensible mac and stack of vinyl sleeves under one arm whilst the right-hand man's face is caught in a blur, as if he can barely comprehend the choice on the racks in front of him. A still image that suggests a glut of movement without capturing the action itself, a frenzy condensed into a single frame. 

Listening to DJ Shadow's debut album is the sensation of being wired-but-tired. Though I was only six when it was released - yeah that's right, I'm the millennial she told you not to worry about - I can vividly picture the countless afterparties that this would have accompanied. Between throwing out time and feeling able to stomach food again, Endtroducing..... is pitch perfect. From its title - five periods to an ellipsis and yes, we all see what you did there - to the smoky, jerky rhythms, it's the sound of every good night finishing up and every too-bright dawn descending on your head.

Renowned for being stitched together entirely of samples from the considerable record collection of DJ Shadow (real name Joshua Davis), rumoured to be 60,000 and counting, Endtroducing..... is an unsurprisingly mixed bag but has its own distinctive wah-wah tone that feathers the landing of each track. This isn't to say that everything sounds the same, quite the opposite. Hooks that make you want to wave your arms like a motorway garage inflatable mascot come courtesy of Organ Donor, whilst haunting female vocals and a stuttering bass line that's reminiscent of Portishead are provided by Midnight In a Perfect World and Transmission 3 rounds off itself and the album with the obligatory Twin Peaks sample.

Going back to the title, there is a dash of showing off - "It's like, the end is in the beginning, yeah?" - that is present in the track titles and content. For example, Why Hip-Hop Is Shit In '96 is an instrumental that ends simply with, "the money" whilst What Does Your Soul Look Like (Pt. 4) comes before What Does Your Soul Look Like (Pt. 1) though the three "Transmissions" are in numerical order. These are cheeky enough to just about be endearing but, overall, Endtroducing..... lacks the deeper insight and political statement that the best hip-hop can demonstrate. This doesn't make it any less of an interesting journey through a technical marvel of a soundscape but I couldn't help but be left feeling a little hollow. DJ Shadow combines voices to create a staggering choir. There's so much noise - but I still have no idea what he's saying.

 

#16: Van Morrison - "Astral Weeks" (1968)

Reviewing is a funny business. Films, books and theatre were very much my wheelhouse. Probably because I had one or more of training, experience and ambition in each of them. I understood what was involved, the pitfalls, the effort, the triumph. Music didn't feature. Then Fiona came to me with the premise behind 52A/52W. It scared me, in the good way. 

This experiment isn't just about getting more familiar with music but also training my critiques in an area I don't feel that I have much standing in. Music is something I've always enjoyed because, y'know, I'm human. I've been in awe of the technically adept and hugely talented musicians that have crossed my path but understanding music with any skill, that's beyond me. Though I did use to play a mean ocarina back in primary school. That tells you a lot about me - and my primary school. I've dabbled with singing lessons on and off but mainly as an aid to overall vocal technique, not for any serious performing or professional means.

What I'm getting at here is that music is a powerful beast that I've played with and admired from afar but have never tamed or claimed as a house pet. Thinking and talking about music is still very new to me but I think that I can just about apply my own principles of criticism and get by - though you are more than free to disagree, Dear Reader, and tell me why on our various contactables.

I am meandering about the essence of criticism because this is a very personal response to Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. That's what struck me about it, that I wasn't expecting it to get under my skin how it has but that's where we are. I'm going to consider it objectively, obviously, and place it in the wider canon as best I can, which many others have done pretty well because it's kind of a big deal as an album don't you know... (I vaguely did but didn't know that Van Morrison was Northern Irish until last week so there you go) But, in order to be honest and transparent, leaving out the impact it has had on me would not be doing good criticism, in my book. So if you don't mind reading from my book too, subjective disclaimer duly delivered, shall we?

Back in 2012, Rolling Stone put Astral Weeks at no. 19 in their 500-strong list of the Greatest Albums of All Time. No mean feat, there, particularly for a debut solo album conceived and recorded in the wake of a nasty legal battle between Morrison and the widow of the head of his former record label, Bert Berns. Berns and Morrison were disputing Morrison's musical future - Berns thought he should continue in the pop vein whereas Morrison wanted to try new musical territory - and Berns died of a heart attack, having a previously undiscovered congenital heart defect. His widow, Ilene, blamed Morrison. Astral Weeks is definitely a massive departure from Morrison's previous work, perhaps best characterised by Brown Eyed Girl, and I can't help but wonder if there's a strange grief and working through to acceptance at play here, that Morrison did eventually get to try a new sound but in the aftermath of significant stress and tragedy.

Not that I have been through anything like Morrison or the Berns recently but I've had a few knocks to my confidence, alongside some health issues in my immediate family, the bruises of which I'm nursing. I won't go into specific detail but suffice to say I'm doing a lot of facing down my ego. So it's probably surprising only to me that an album entitled Astral Weeks, which references the idea that there's a spiritual body separate from the physical as well as rebirth, during Easter, has been quite so effecting. Morrison himself has been modest about the album's success and lasting legacy, but its inception and recording sounds like a mysterious, fluid process. Divination, even. The musicians in the band have been reported as saying that they had no idea what Morrison wanted from them, as he didn't tell them at any point. When discussing the lyrics, Morrison says that he didn't really understood what they meant. They came from a stream-of-consciousness rather than any specific life experience. Morrison was guided more by representing certain feelings instead of the facts. Not about anyone in particular but still about specific human experiences, he created something that everyone had a window into.

Well, that's how it made me feel. Like most days, I began with a to-do list. My confidence and motivation has been ebbing rather than flowing of late, which has got in the way of my efficiency with doing things, which gets at my confidence... So there's a spiral. It's slow just now but I've been on it before and I know the consequences of leaving it for too long. After having just recovered from a bad virus that left me bedridden for a week, I woke up with a hefty cold. I am not the best patient. Unable to do much, I fret about not doing much, which impedes relaxing and just getting better. This was one of those days were I couldn't concentrate on anything, couldn't show for much, feeling like I'd let people down having to cancel and postpone... Then, I thought, well. Better crack on with listening to this week's album, seeming as I have to write about it and all. I sat down, pressed play - and something about those first few chords, I felt the shackles and tangles of my mind and the day disappear. I was streamlined.

But how does it sound? Objectively speaking, in an attempt to understand Astral Weeks as part of the wider musical canon, there's a lot going on. There's folk elements, jazz, classical, rock - but really, it sounds like an entirely organic string of sound. It's hard to separate the strands because, well, I didn't want to. It's wholesome and pure, not in an ascetic sense, but in a round, deep, ripeness. Though I'm not a synaesthete, when I closed my eyes - I genuinely listened to most of this album with my eyes closed, you guys - I could see colours, shapes, movement. Like any abstract art worth its salt - maybe more than a pinch - Astral Weeks has direction and form that guide you through something unfamiliar but it's all the more fresh for being strange. It made me think of standing in front of a huge Rothko or Pollock painting, and of what was said about the surrealist H. R. Giger's work on the eponymous Alien, that it looked like something from a dream, something rising to the surface from your unconscious mind. Morrison's voice is bold and expressive but not always crystal clear. It's another instrument among many. The lyrics are there if you listen out for them but Morrison seems to be more interested in cohesion, producing a certain sound from several, rather than projecting his own singing voice. His own artistic voice, well that's very much there. The meaning of the words are there but they're not the sole source of meaning. They're poetic and prayer-like in places. Repetition is used within each track but not to the point of wearing what's there thin to the point of nihilism. 

Listening to the whole album, start to finish in one sitting, with my eyes closed - it made me feel better. I'm streaming it through Spotify but I wonder what it'd be like to have it on vinyl. Eight tracks in total, four on each side. Part One: In the Beginning. Part Two: Afterwards. Beginning of what? After what? It doesn't matter. The event isn't the point. The anticipation of it, then the acceptance of whatever it is, whatever it has been - those are key. There isn't a neat resolution because Astral Weeks doesn't follow a specifically conventional narrative but it does have a simple spine of passing through time, indulging in nostalgia - and being lost. 

I have been feeling a bit lost recently. I don't think I'm the only one. Morrison himself said of the album that, "You have to understand something,...A lot of this ... there was no choice. I was totally broke. So I didn't have time to sit around pondering or thinking all this through. It was just done on a basic pure survival level. I did what I had to do." This basic purity comes through, not in a sense of desperation but in someone doing what they want to do and what they have to do in one fell swoop. Listening to this album gave me a vantage point, an emotional osmosis where my feelings overflowed into a sound that recognised and represented those feelings, reducing mine to bearable levels. Maybe you won't feel the same. But I hope there's something out there like this for you. 

This isn't the first album I've had this reaction to, as there have been different ones for different stages in my life, including one that I won't mention because our mega spreadsheet of planning-ahead glory informs me that Fiona is going to review it, but these kinds of albums genuinely keep me sane. The final track, Slim Slow Slider, is a brief one. It sounds like the thought process of fretting about how to look after someone you know, who you think is in trouble. It finishes with Morrison singing, "Every time I see you / I just don't know what to do", then slapping his guitar. And then it's just done. Ambiguous and unsolved. 

The entry for Astral Weeks on the Rolling Stone website concludes that "[Morrison] was going deep inside himself, without a net or fear." That is a kind of bravery I aspire to, in creative ventures and in life. If I manage to come up with anything close to Astral Weeks then I'll be astounded. If I don't, so be it - but at least I'll have done what I have to do.

Sometimes that's enough.

#12: Prince - "Love Symbol Album" (1992)

"Yeah, [the tongue box] gives me courage you know, like a veil I can hide behind. I talk at, around and through it." - Prince, Lost Segue #3

"I don't need Sasha Fierce anymore, because I've grown and now I'm able to merge the two." - Beyoncé

Like most of the world - well, Twitter - I felt that Beyoncé should have won the Grammy for Album of the Year rather than Adele. 25 had some bangers on it, don't get me wrong, but Lemonade was received as a contemporary cultural phenomenon on its release. Instead of getting into a rant about musical awards voting bodies and systems because other people have said it better elsewhere - including here and here - I am going to posit a pet hypothesis of mine to you, Dear Readers. As you may have guessed, it's not only about Lemonade, but also the concept of, well, a concept album, and how religious musical artists express their beliefs through their work, even in the highly-sexualised genre of pop - darn it, especially pop precisely because it deals with sexuality and desire. I'm going to be talking about Prince.

Another artist who passed away last year, I think that Prince fully earned the bandied-about term of genius. He was such a pioneer in his own time, living purely for his vision, someone who never seemed to be out of character once or otherwise incredibly shy and retiring. His sound has gone on to influence so many, that it can be a surprise to hear his own hooks because they already seem so familiar, like learning a new word in your mother tongue. It's always been part of the language, waiting for you to discover its meaning. Prince changed his name to this symbol, a meshing of the two separate signs for male and female, earning it various labels like 'androgyny' but it became most commonly known as the 'love symbol'. This album shares the symbol as its title. I'm going with Wikipedia - sorry, folks - on this one and referring to it as Love Symbol Album from hereon out. Prince was also, undeniably, a sex symbol but sex to him, as he seems to suggest on Love Symbol Album, was anything but a base act and instead a hugely spiritual undertaking.

Described as a "funky rock soap opera", Love Symbol Album was inspired by Prince's partner and later wife, Mayte Garcia, who takes the role of a middle-Eastern princess imploring Prince to help her avenge her father's death at the hand of seven goons. Surprise, surprise, they fall in love. There's also three gold chains involved, Kirstie Alley as a career-driven newswoman and oh yeah, Prince is actually a 320-year-old spirit called Victor who is musing on the true nature of sacrifice. Funky - check. Rock - check. Soap opera - check check check.

It is no secret that Prince was a Christian and I heartily recommend that you watch this story from Kevin Smith, a filmmaker who also calls upon his faith in his work, about his time collaborating with Prince. On Love Symbol Album, you can barely move for the religious iconography referenced - here is an excellent and my no means inexhaustible list of suggestions - but the rhythm keeps you dancing. 7 is absolutely my favourite track, energetic and upbeat without being hyperactive, a bold declaration to love-the-verb in the face of whatever stands in the way of doing so. I defy you to listen to this without your arms raising above your hands and clapping in time. 

However, listening the tracks, it's hard to find a storyline or plot that runs through it. There's plenty of themes but how was this a concept album? Well, originally there were segues between tracks, following the format of an interview between Alley's news reporter, Vanessa Bartholomew, and Victor. The Alley segues were cut, so the storyline suffered, thereby destroying the full resonance of the Love Symbol Album funky rock soap opera concept. There are some surviving fragments across the Internet of the videos that were made for the singles that enhance the story but I have yet to find the full version. If anyone has any tips, please do hit me up with them, as I'm pretty invested at this point.

It is a real shame that the storyline and concept of Love Symbol Album suffered so greatly as to become not even nonsensical but invisible. What does remain, however, are the strong themes of love and religion. Though the storyline was intended to be about romantic love, it's fair to say that much of the relationship outlined in the published lyrics could similarly be that of a religious love between deity and devotee. There's plenty of mystery here, along with a dollop of confusion, but I'm not in doubt that Prince is having fun with his God rather than blaspheming when he claims that he was made on the seventh day of creation because God just couldn't get rested.

That the accompanying visuals are hard to source is also a pity because so much of Prince's possible message is lost. Going back to Beyoncé, for me, the visual album version of Lemonade brings a resonance and depth that the audio-only album lacks. Partly because Beyoncé draws heavily on the significant range of imagery from the entire history of African-American culture, both its exuberance and its grief - the sequence of the mothers holding the pictures of their sons killed by police makes me cry every single time, and rightly so - but also partly due to Warsan Shire's poetic interludes. They are steeped in allusions to saint-like demonstrations of fasting and mourning, abstaining from sex but also what sex means in a Christian marriage.

In some schools of Christianity, marriage is the metaphysical joining of two people as one in the eyes of God. I think that it is safe to assume that Beyoncé believes this when she sings, "When you hurt me/ you hurt yourself". Sex in a Christian marriage isn't solely a means to the sacred power of reproduction but a combining of two bodies. Beyoncé's visual album morphs from a paean on individual pain to an awakening that draws on the long history of the persecution of black women, as she feels the full force of her husband breaking a vow in the eyes of God and experiences the many emotions in the forgiveness process. Beyoncé has more frequently also drawn upon the Ifa and Yoruba goddess Oshun in her visuals, particularly in the press release announcing her pregnancy with twins. Unsurprisingly, as Oshun represents a myriad of concepts, not only fertility but also luxury, pleasure, sexuality, love and divination.

Not without the realms of what themes pop deals in, neither unlike Prince inhabiting the character of Victor, musing no sacrifice, as well as drawing upon sacred symbols and merging them to create something new, blurring boundaries rather than breaking them. Long before sex-positivity became an enshrined term, Prince was exuding his femininity and masculinity in his own unique way. Listening to this album I'm reminded of how I felt listening to channel orange and Frank Ocean's emotional, luscious weaving of various different influences. And all that vibrant, defiant colour. For Prince, though, I think he was less conscious of gender as a division and more about divinity and love as inherent elements in all of us. His spirituality, more than anything, enabled him to transcend categories but ultimately informed his aesthetic and approach to his work.

Crank this up. Rest In Prince, y'all.