review

#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.

 

#14: Beth Orton - "Central Reservation" (1999)

There was a time, not that long ago, when the response from my friends as I would be on the cusp of enthusing about an album I had just discovered was to cut me off mid-flow. "Ethereal female vocals with a modern twist on the folk singer-songwriter with chanteuse and / or electronic elements?" they would say, accompanied with the most endearing eye-roll possible. I would agree, shaken, like the tablecloth had been whisked away without disturbing a single piece of cutlery. But I got the picture, eventually. Mournful-sounding ladies are very much my 'hing. Yet, somehow, I have let Beth Orton completely pass me by. Until now.

Central Reservation gained Orton her second Mercury Music Prize nomination and it's easy to see why. That sensation of having heard an album before though you can't consciously think when that would be possible, then you realise how impactful it must have been on release, how much effect it still has, that that's kind of the point. Orton has a distinct voice and register, less on the Kate Bush and PJ Harvey end of the spectrum and more towards Feist and Laura Marling. Trying to describe her sound gets me running into paradoxes. She's husky but clear, deep but soaring, tender but bold. An utterly remarkable voice that isn't clipped to be more conventionally appealing, that is magnetic nonetheless. There's nothing wan about the musical arrangements. They are robust, bursting forth with jazz, folk and rock touches that feel anything but derivative. 

And yet... You can have too much of a good thing. There's not much variation between songs and each track feels like it's made its point then goes on for another minute. Maybe something meditative is the aim, which is definitely achieved, but there's a sense of stretch and repetition that held this back from being really spectacular for me. When an album speaks to you, or rather, gives you the language for certain experiences you had difficulty finding yourself, it's best when it doesn't drone or blur. But then I'm someone who doesn't think our attention spans are shortening and that brevity is an underrated virtue. Perhaps this is the anathema of art but I'd happily have Orton as a guest at any dinner party, with this playing on a low volume in the background. Soft, welcoming, setting a certain energetic tone but not engaging for full focus.

Altogether, quite polite - and I can't help but feel Orton deserves to make her demands known.

#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.