Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Saturday, July 28, 2007
Then my dear sister Meredith put their song "The Black Hit of Space" on a compilation she made for me, and I was astounded. More will come on that song. Later, I learned about their two number one (US) singles, "Don't You Want Me", a fantastic duet about finding fame, and "Human", a cheesier love and forgiveness sort of ballad.
As good as "Don't You Want Me" and it's accompanying #1 album, Dare!, are (and they are quite good), I've always connected a little bit more with "The Black Hit of Space" and the album it leads off, Travelogue, which I bought on vinyl about a year ago. As it turns out, Travelogue was the second and final album featuring the original line-up of the band – Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware left to form Heaven 17, while Philip Oakey found a new crew to play with and kept the name The Human League.
Artist: The Human League
Label: Virgin International
Produced by: The Human League and Richard Manwaring
01. The Black Hit of Space
02. Only After Dark [Mick Ronson cover]
03. Life Kills
04. Dreams of Leaving
05. Toyota City
06. Crow and a Baby
07. The Touchables
08. Gordon's Gin [Jeff Wayne cover]
09. Being Boiled
10. WXJL Tonight
Bonus tracks on CD versions (1988 and onward):
11. Marianne [Holiday '80 EP, 1980]
12. Dancevision [Holiday '80 EP, 1980]
13. Rock 'n' Roll / Nightclubbing [Gary Glitter cover / Iggy Pop cover] [Holiday '80 EP, 1980]
14. Tom Baker [Boys and Girls b-side, 1981]
15. Boys and Girls [Single, 1981]
16. I Don't Depend on You [Single, 1979, released as "The Men"]
17. Cruel [I Don't Depend on You b-side, 1979, released as "The Men"]
The album credits proudly proclaim, right after the title and band name, "contains synthesizers + vocals only". They aren't joking. The credits list three of the four members (the ones listed above) as playing "synthesizer + vocals", and the fourth, Philip Adrian Wright, is credited with "slides + films". Despite not even appearing on the record, he is credited nonetheless. How sharing and caring. This is synthpop at its best, no messing around.
"The Black Hit of Space" is without a doubt my favorite track. It starts with a synthetic drumbeat and weird, delayed synthesized notes. Then a thick, distorted swash of noise comes in and doesn't entirely even break once the lyrics start. A high-pitched synth and a bassline make the actual chords. The sound is so eerie and foreboding, with that certain space-age post-punk synth sound. It's great. The chorus vocals have this weird reverb sound that sound really warbly and weird. The lyrics are so great that I have to reproduce the chorus:
"The Black Hit of Space
It's the one without a face
It's the hit that doesn't fit
You can only see the flip
The Black Hit of Space
Sucking in the human race
How can it stay at the top
When it's swallowed all the shops?"
The next verse explains that the record has made every other record disappear until the Black Hit reaches number one and then continues into "minus figures", but "nobody could understand why". I certainly don't. Then comes a breakdown with a spoken verse, where our narrator explains that he couldn't listen anymore and thus, " I reached for the arm, which was less than one micron long but weighed more than Saturn, and time stood still / I knew I had to escape but every time I tried to flee, the record was in front of me." Genius.
"Only After Dark" is a Mick Ronson cover. Yes, Mick Ronson, who was Bowie's Ziggy Stardust-era guitarist (the one whose guitar Bowie went down on), before Bowie became the Thin White Duke and then starting jamming with Eno. I've never been able to find the original Ronson version of the song, but considering his glam rock roots, there's no way the song isn't an all-out guitar onslaught. The Human League's version is fully synthed up, more akin to something Eno would do than Ronson, only more directly poppy.
"Life Kills" and "Dreams of Leaving" are both very much anti-working-class conformity songs. "Life Kills" is all about the exhaustion of a busy business routine: "Your life is like a schedule / You run to meet the bills / No ones awake to tell you / Life kills". "Dreams of Leaving is a bit more minimalistic in sound, except for the intense synth noise that crops up right before the first verse. A melodica-esque keyboard comes in for a few lines. More layers show up after the first verse, but then fade away into what sounds like the beginning of another song. It begins to build up and then turns into a bass groove, when suddenly the bass drops and a synth wash introduces the second verse. Things get dramatic and then the nearly-six minute epic fades out. The lyrics are rather vaguely paranoid ("Someone's trying to stop us / There is someone in our party") but seem to focus on trying to get out of the mundane life ("I think I'm going North / and now's the time to leave").
"Toyota City" is an instrumental, and I suppose the title just fits with the whole sort of "we're synthy and futuristic, like the Japanese" things that occasionally crops up in synthpop. Well, actually, I think I made that up, except for Air, who loves their occasional Japanese reference. And Beck. After the weird "Crow and a Baby" ("A crow and a baby / Had an affair / The result was a landslide") comes the slightly poppy "The Touchables", a declaration that "People will hide indifference / Just to be touchable", that is, that people just want to be loved. I feel like the song is another voice-of-the-worker's-party sort of thing, just in tone, vocabulary, and topic, which is so very 80s and wonderful. Heaven 17 would follow up on quite a bit, which might be apparent from their Penthouse and Pavement (1981) album cover, one of my favorites:
God, I love that cover. Look at how successful and happy the bandmembers are! Anyway, side two of Travelogue opens with "Gordon's Gin", an instrumental synth version of a jingle written by Jeff Wayne for a brand of gin. I don't claim to understand, since I haven't heard the original jingle, but most jingles are under thirty seconds and mostly vocal. This song is thee minutes of a fast drumbeat and some synth interplay. It sounds darker than any jingle for gin should be, but I'm not complaining.
"Being Boiled" is a re-recording on the band's first single (from 1978), with a dancy feel that seemingly indicted religious violence: "Listen to the voice of Buddha / He'll say carry on your slaughter". This is weird, however, since Buddha is about the least violent religious figure I've heard of. The song is followed by the warm, spacy closer "WXJL Tonight". I honestly can't figure out if there is a station with that call sign or not, but the song is a great lament for the passing of worthwhile radio DJs: "The way it was in the past / A long, long time ago / Before staff levels dropped / They used to listen to the radio / And listen to the DJ's talk". But now, "Automatic stations came / And sent them all away / And now I'm left alone". Makes me want to weep. But the music is so good! So many synthesizers!
Then we come to the bonus tracks on CD versions of the album. The first is the trio of tracks from the Holiday '80 EP. "Marianne" is straight synth-pop, but "Dancevision" is a dancy instrumental recorded in 1977 when just Marsh and Ware made music together as The Future. (Note that these are the same two members who later split from the Human League to form Heaven 17). Then comes a medley of Gary Glitter's (!) "Rock 'n' Roll" with Iggy Pop's "Nightclubbing". Now, Gary Glitter is about the cheesiest glam rocker ever (I mean, look at his name), and also the sleaziest (he's in jail in Vietnam for child sexual abuse). Nonetheless, my favorite 80s bands seem to love him: Bauhaus would sometimes slip parts of "Do You Want to Touch Me? (Oh Yeah!)" into their cover of T. Rex's "Telegram Sam"; The Cure covered the same wonderfully-titled Glitter song every now and then; and the Sisters of Mercy covered "I Didn't Know I Loved You ('Til I Saw You Rock 'n' Roll)" (another great title) as late as 2001. Anyway, the medley also includes the world's second favorite proto-punker (after Lou Reed), Iggy Pop, who cowrote "Nightclubbing" with Bowie. (Pop is another favorite of the 80s crowd.) Hence, this medley is like a sort of 70s cover wonderland. It's so cheesy it hurts, but it hurts so right.
Anyway. Then comes both sides of the "Boys and Girls" single, which is post-split, so it only features one (not counting the projectionist) common member with the rest of the album, but sound-wise it still fits. The a-side isn't great, but it's fairly good. It seems to deal with youthful maturity, but it feels like the band is finding their direction post-split. The b-side, "Tom Baker" is a great instrumental synth exploration.
The "I Don't Depend on You" single, released in 1979 as "The Men", feels like a pop experiment, since the band was nowhere near as dance-poppy as this single is at that point in time. The title captures the lyrics, which actually kind of predict some of the feel of "Don't You Want Me" from two years later. It's not bad but just unabashedly poppy. The b-side, "Cruel", is just an instrumental dub sort of version. Nothing special.
The Human League are a quintessential synthpop band. You could call them New Wave or Post-Punk if you want, but they were self-declared electronic and pop music lovers, and to me that reads synth-pop. Travelogue is a straight ten-song wonder, with a broad range of topics (DJs, science-fiction weirdness, working class troubles, religion, sex, more weirdness), just like any good synth band should, and the sound of the synthesizer never grows old. This is perhaps why I (and so many 80s bands) love the synthesizer: it can do anything. Bass, drums, strings, noise, whatever, it's there. The Human League know how to use their synths to perfection, which is good, since that's the only instrumentation on the album. It also helps that the band writes well (although both covers work well after the band thoroughly rearranged them).
"The Black Hit of Space" warrants its own review for how awesome it is, and it's a pity it wasn't released as a single (the less interesting "Only After Dark" was the only real single from the album), since it is the one Human League song I'm most likely to play to friends. The song is so futuristic and paranoid, and the subject matter is just so weird yet captivatingly hilarious. If you can't take synthpop as well as I can, you should at least be able to marvel at the wonder of this song. I mean, there are great songs elsewhere on the album, like the also-weird-and-spacey "WXJL Tonight", but none take the cake so well as the Black Hit. (If only it actually was a hit...)
Original release: A
Bonus tracks: C+
"The Black Hit of Space": A+
Monday, July 23, 2007
For me, a big part of buying albums is getting the packaging. This is why I don't like buying digital albums (or just copying or illegally downloading music). I really like to be able to hold the artwork and look at it thoroughly. I like to get to know albums I buy, and it's hard without packaging.
I hate buying CDs from the early 90s that just have no packaging. You get the regular old jewel case, the CD, and the tiniest liner notes possible: just a single sheet, folded once. Maybe it contains lyrics to one song and the credits. I mention the early 90s, but really it started in the 80s when CDs first came out, and when albums were being issued on CD for the first time, often the record company just shrunk the 12" vinyl artwork and crammed it into the 5" CD case.
Some of the worst examples are a few of the Cure's albums, like Boys Don't Cry (1980) (actually an American compilation basically consisting of their first real album, Three Imaginary Boys (1979) and their first three singles), Devo's Duty Now for the Future (1978) (containing literally nothing on the sleeve but a catalog listing from the record company), Moby's self-titled debut (1992), or Electronic's self-titled debut (1991). (I should note that many of the Cure's albums have much better liner notes, like Disintegration (1989) and Wish (1992).)
Plenty of albums, new and old, just don't have much packaging. Sometimes that's fine. That defined New Order, for example. Actually, any band whose album covers were designed the Factory artist Peter Saville (namely, Joy Division, New Order, Orchestral Maneouvres in the Dark, Ultravox, and a handful of others) is nearly guaranteed to have been given a great design. New Order in particular was known to have a sort of mystique, and the lack of descriptive liner notes was part of that. It's still a bit bothersome, but their style was so good that it's hard to complain. Some artists and bands get away with less and it's not so bad (Neil Young's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969) has such a great cover but limited liner notes), but sometimes it feels like some bands just don't care.
Some bands just get it right. I apologize for my incessant talk of the Smashing Pumpkins, but it happens a lot, and I'm going to mention them again. They liner notes are superb. Gish was weak, but all four subsequent commercial albums (and the outtakes collection Pisces Iscariot and the b-sides box set The Aeroplane Flies High) all have great liner notes. The albums all have full lyrics, plentiful artwork, photography, full credits, sometimes special notes from the band... it's good stuff. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness even had two booklets (but it was a double album) – one for lyrics will little clip art-ish (only better) drawings, and one for weirdo collages and the actual credits.
The Smiths always had good liner notes too – full lyrics and pictures from any number of Morrissey's favorite movies, TV shows, or whatever. Radiohead have been masters of album art for years now. They may or may not print their lyrics, but the interesting arrays of artworks are never disappointing. They make each album and EP really feel like an item of value.
I don't remember exactly when bands first started releasing CDs in packaging other than jewel cases, but that can often be interesting. It's more popular with reissues these days, but Neil Young's Mirror Ball (1995) has a cardboard-ish slip sleeve sort of thing, and it's not bad. I like the nontraditional slip sleeves in that it's at least something different. It helps.
Vinyl in general is an entirely separate story. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and the New Order albums had the same limited packaging when first released on vinyl, but the artwork was bigger. Some albums on vinyl merely have the cardboard-ish outer sleeve and nothing (maybe a bland white sleeve) on the inside, and that's sad. Some would fold open or have elaborate inner sleeves, or just something extra, like John Lennon & Yoko Ono's Wedding Album (1969), which came with photos, articles, drawings, and a copy of the couple's marriage certificate. Genius. Part of my problem with vinyl may be that I'm a music collector of the 21st century and thus the vinyl I buy is always used – so pieces may be missing. However, my father's collection seems to indicate that this is only rarely the case.
Most 60s and 70s material, when first put to CD, seems to be a bit simple – maybe some lyrics or photos or a little write-up. Think of every Beatles or Doors album, or even the Violent Femme's self-titled debut (1983). These aren't too bad, just uncreative and plain.
The best thing is when albums are reissued, usually with remastered sound and bonus tracks. Not only do I love bonus tracks, but these reissues usually have full lyrics and little essays and period photos. I adore these reissues. Echo & the Bunnymen's reissues are notable for all the above, plus an extra paper outer sleeve, but no lyrics (which is even weirder considering the original CDs had printed lyrics). The Cure's reissues (and the reissue of the side project The Glove's Blue Sunshine (1983, reissued 2006)) are fantastic: a whole second disc of bonus tracks, lyrics, photos everywhere, little essays and notes. Wonderful. The Byrds' reissues lack lyrics but have song-by-song notes. Not every band gets it right, though: Psychedelic Furs and Siouxsie & the Banshees reissues are disappointing for the lack of much of anything but a few bonus tracks and notes.
I know I may sound like a hypocrite for questioning the Smashing Pumpkins' $22, 76-page booklet version of Zeitgeist, but my version has a dozen or so pages anyway, and I didn't want to pay around ten cents a page for photography that wasn't even that great. I don't like overpaying, but I like a bit of effort to be put into something. If an artist can spend so much time making the music, how hard could it be to put together a package to make it physically pleasing in addition to the auditory enjoyment?
I could mention many more bands and reissues, but I figure that's enough. Feel free to make suggestions for notable good or bad packaging that I failed to cover.
Thursday, July 19, 2007
Artist: The Smashing Pumpkins
Release Date: July 10, 2007
Label: Reprise Records
Producers: Billy Corgan, Jimmy Chamberlin, Terry Date, Roy Thomas Baker
01. Doomsday Clock
02. 7 Shades of Black
03. Bleeding the Orchid
04. That's the Way (My Love Is)
07. United States
09. Death from Above [available only on the Japanese, Best Buy, and Amazon.de versions]
10. Bring the Light
11. (Come On) Let's Go!
12. Stellar [available only on the iTunes version]
13. For God and Country
14. Pomp and Circumstances
15. Zeitgeist [available only on the Target and Müller versions]
[Edit: To further mess with fans, Best Buy reissued the album four months after the initial release with a black and white cover and yet another bonus track, "Ma Belle", along with "Stellar", "Death from Above", and a bonus DVD.]
The first thing you may notice is that depending on what version of the album you get, you may or may not get various bonus tracks. This is perhaps the worst marketing decision the band could have made. Presumably, actually, it wasn't the band's call, since other recent releases on the Reprise label have been released in a similarly confusing manner, such as Pete Yorn's Nightcrawler. In any case, what a horrible way to screw over consumers and independent record stores. I'm not going to buy three versions of an album. That's stupid. I thought I could get around it by buying the exclusive iTunes track, maybe finding the "Tarantula" single, which has "Death from Above" on the b-side, and getting the Target version, but in turns out you have to buy the whole album on iTunes to get the bonus track. Lame. I still got the Target version (the first and last album I will ever buy there), and I cheated to get the other two tracks. I admit it, but I don't care – I want my music and I already put enough money down. Anyhow, because each version has it's own unique color, my copy actually looks like this:
I really can't why imagine the band would do that. If they weren't entirely confident of the tracks or something, why not do what Brian Eno would do sometimes and add the tracks to the end as an "appendix"? The fact that there are five album cover colors (the HMV version has a green cover (but no extra tracks) in addition to the standard red, Target/Müller purple, iTunes blue, and Japanese/Best Buy/Amazon.de yellow) is pretty unnecessary, and I doubt the value of the sixth (!) version, containing 76-page booklet. I passed on the idea of paying $10 or so for the extra album art and instead found a place online with scans of the extra artwork; I'm not missing too much:
I think I'll proceed to the music itself. "Doomsday Clock" is a good opener, with Chamberlin's all-over-the-place drumming leading into Corgan's trademark multi-layered guitar storm, distorted in the same vein as his self-labelled "cybermetal" staple, "Zero". It works here. There's song vocal multi-tracking in the choruses, which isn't particularly something I remember from older Pumpkins output, but it shows up a lot on Zeitgeist. The lyrics are Corganesque but cover a new topic not usually hit by the man: contemporary politics. The words and seriously depressing: "I'm certain of the end / it's the means that has me spooked" and then "I'm guessing I'm born free, silly me / I was meant to beg from my knees".
"7 Shades of Black" is similarly cybermetalish and also has dark, foreboding lyrics, but compared to "Doomsday Clock", the words here are more vague. It's hard to tell exactly what's going on, but the chorus line of "'cause I want you bad" sound lame unless I think of them in a greater context (perhaps he's talking about liberty, his rights, something like that). Not a great song, but not bad either.
"Bleeding the Orchid" has a little wordless double-tracked vocal intro that's pleasant, and I love the heavy guitar sound that dominates most of the song. The verses with the lighter guitars are a welcome relief from continual distorted onslaught, but the main vocalizations and guitar sound are great. I haven't figured the lyrics out yet, really, but I'm continuing to sense a dark mood.
"That's the Way (My Love Is)" is supposed to be the second single, released in September. This song has less overtly loud guitars, thankfully, and as always, the tones Corgan pulls off sound great. Some keyboard shines through in the background, to good effect. The lyrics focus on love, obviously, but Corgan loves to talk about love in a bigger, grander, perhaps even somewhat spiritual way. The mood of the album shines through, but mostly the lyrics concern a sort of semi-generic romantic love.
"Tarantula", the first single, has more loud, cybermetal guitars, but certain parts feature palm muting or some great harmonic work (as witnessed in the intro). A weak point is the bridge where the music quiets down except for one dramatic lead guitar. It feels forced and obvious, but if the guitar wasn't so blatant, it wouldn't sound bad. The lyrics follow the trend: "I don't want to fight / every single night" and "we are surreal / because someone gave us up". It's not a bad song but could perhaps be better.
The first painful song title comes with "Starz", which continues the trend Corgan set on his solo album, 2005's The Future Embrace, which featured the song "Strayz". What's the the Zs? These aren't words! "Starz", though, is somewhat brighter than some of the other songs. The obvious line is "we are stars" but lines like "don't you know we cannot die", "Heaven is everywhere", and "we forget we are free" also clue me in. There is some positive attitude here, something about surviving through whatever turmoil there is in the world. There's also a weird name-check of Hendrix's "Purple Rain", but more importantly, a bit of negativism here and there: "torn from god and flung towards night / don't you know want what I can't fight". The music alternates medium-soft guitars with very loud guitars, throws in some crazy drumwork, a bit of keyboard, and some harmonics.
"United States" appears to be a key track. It lasts for almost ten minutes and seems to be the only really epic, truly dynamic piece on the album. There are several clear parts to it, from the extended percussive intro, the loud guitar riff, the first verses and choruses, the spacey interlude, some jamming, some more verses and choruses, and a loud, extended jam section to close things out. The main chorus part is "revolution / revolution / revolution blues / what will they do", which not only references an obscure Neil Young song ("Revolution Blues" off On the Beach), but makes it clear what's going on here. Corgan wants some change, but doesn't know what's going to happen. Like "Starz", there is hope: "I've got to survive / freedom shines the light ahead". The loud later chorus part more or less repeats "I want to fight a revolution", laying it down straight. There are plenty of guitar riffs here, and many things going on. I love the almost chime-sounding cleaner guitar that strums once per riff repetition in the beginning, but to make up for that is the unnecessary production effect of the delayed repeats of the last words of the last few lines, complete with the clichéd lowering of pitch with each repeat. I do like, though, that in some of the live performances, Corgan starts playing the "Star Spangled Banner" during his tremolo-effects-laden guitar section in the middle of the mid-song drum break.
"Neverlost" has some strong keyboards all over it, and the quieter sound is quite welcome; on the standard album, it is one of two songs without any cybermetally guitars. There are some chorus parts that have a bit more volume, but they aren't overdone or as loud as most of the other songs. The lyrics combine Corgan's normal spiritual/love sort of thing with the dark mood of the album. "Death from Above" is another quieter song, loaded with keyboards and pulsing, driving beat. Of course, it's really only available on a few versions of the album and the "Tarantula" single, but it's a great track. The title appears all over the lyrics, and I'm not quite sure what it means other than talking about something like divine retribution or a supernatural force striking down a person, perhaps at the instigation of another.
"Bring the Light" starts off great with some keyboard and lighter, muted guitar but then amps up to the cybermetal standard of the album. It switches between the two sounds throughout. This song feels like it could be a single. It's a rather good song and exactly what I think could be on the radio. I again think these lyrics reflect hope shining through: "if you just want to survive / go grab a glimpse of any star in heaven's high / I never felt so real and loved and alive / no shadows follow me unsung". There's some good guitar workouts, and I think the song works very well.
"(Come On) Let's Go!" gets my vote for worst song title, following Zwan's trend of bad titles with exclamation marks. (Zwan was Corgan and Chamberlin's band after the first Pumpkins breakup, if you didn't know, and their lone album, Mary Star of the Sea contains two titles even worse than "(Come On) Let's Go!": "Baby, Let's Rock!" and "Yeah!" Ugh.) This is one of the somewhat weaker songs; there's less going on, more of the same, and although the lyrics do fit the mold, they feel a bit more forced and bland: "c'mon let's go / beyond the great unknown", "anesthetized I'm hollow / playing to the dark back row". I almost wonder if this song or "Neverlost" have to do with reforming the band or something.
"Stellar", the iTunes bonus track, keeps up the to the quality level of the rest of the album. The song is noticeably less loud, with more medium-volume guitars and keyboards. It's somewhat longer and features a little mid-song softer break section. The song fits in well, although the lyrics are a bit more of a stretch to the theme: there's more of a sense of religious discussion: "the wait hurts worse than the blows" and more obviously, "is it wrong to say / there's God and there's faith?". Is Corgan differentiating between God and faith or just defending his beliefs? I think I'll return to this topic.
"For God and Country" is another song that detracts from the loud formula throughout much of the album in favor of some quieter bits, more keyboard, and some different guitar tones. The placement near the end of the album feels appropriate: the song seems to admit that there are problems but they should be worked with, and ultimately, the good is worth fighting for: "for God and country I'll fight / for God and country I'll die", and even better: "I want to live where no one's watching my way home / I want to give until I'm bursting with unknown". In case you aren't aware that there are problems, Corgan pleads: "It's time to wake up!" but then says "I can't help you though I should". Hmmm, sounds like internal conflict to me!
"Pomp and Circumstances" has an orchestral sound, with its string-synths and cymbal crashes. The song again seems to reflect the times: "what was once praised now wrong", "don't we face / war, sunshine and grace", and so on. The lyrics are totally politically loaded, but aren't painful. Somewhat more painful is the total sound of the song; it feels a bit overdone, and the predictable loud solo guitar doesn't help.
Then comes the total exception, only if you have the Target / Müller (a German pharmacy chain) version: the solo acoustic title track, "Zeitgeist". I never knew that Corgan had a solo acoustic side, really, until I started digging deep into Pumpkins catalog, namely the "Tonight, Tonight" b-sides and some demos and live shows around the Adore and Machina eras. Then I noticed that Zwan had some Corgan solo bits, too (such as "My Life and Times", a song I rather liked that appeared in fragments on the Mary Star of the Sea DVD), among the many acoustic concerts the band did (despite few of those songs seeing release). When I heard about Corgan going solo, I thought he might do something like that, and initially, his 2004 one-off concert at the Metro led me to believe that – he played fourteen acoustic songs about Chicago, which he said he'd make a DVD out of but never did. Then The Future Embrace came out and it was all electronic. Here, finally, the acoustic side sees official release. Note, though, that as of late in concert, Billy has been playing acoustic songs at every show: "Thirty-Three", "Rocket", some other favorites, and then a series of newly-written songs (not including "Zeitgeist", but including "For God and Country" and others written on the road). Of all the songs on the album, I would say this song is not the most representative of the word (meaning "spirit of the times", if you didn't know or speak German). However, the chorus bit ("lost on this road, are there any real Sundays to find? / lost on this road, are there any real souls?") is a bit foreboding. I like the song, though. It works well and makes a better conclusion than the too-dramatic "Pomp and Circumstances".
Before I make the general review, a few comments. What's with Billy's sudden religious obsession? He used to write songs like "I Am One", "Zero", and "God" that were never outright religious or anti-religious, but clearly removed from the field and more detached or vaguely spiritual at times. I felt very comfortable with those lyrics, considering my own beliefs. The final commercial Pumpkins album pre-breakup (Machina) was even subtitled The Machines of God in a sort of giant storyline that was almost pagan. The opening track, "The Everlasting Gaze" featured the line "the fickle fascination of an everlasting god" (with that exact capitalization in the liner notes), which, no matter you take it, isn't very nice. Then Zwan comes out with Mary Star of the Sea, a direct reference to Mary, the (Christian) mother of God. The title track was medleyed with the traditional song "Jesus, I" ("Jesus, I've taken my cross / all to leave and follow thee"), and the album also featured "Declarations of Faith" ("I declare myself / declare myself of faith"). Pretty clear. In concert they'd even do the traditional "God's Gonna Set This World on Fire", and Corgan credited himself on the album as Billy Burke, an evangelist.
Corgan's solo album was less obviously religious, but Zeitgeist has spiritual references all over ("For God and Country"...), and the first people Corgan thanks in the liner notes are "God, Jesus Christ, [and] Mother Mary." I don't know how much that really means, though, considering that the band also thanks Paris Hilton, but I think that's because she's on the cover of the "Tarantula" single, frighteningly enough:
I've got to say, Zeitgeist ain't a bad album. In fact, it's pretty good. It doesn't live up to the glory days, though, no matter what album you like best (with the possible, but still unlikely, exception of Machina). The electronics don't prevail quite as much as Adore or Machina, and it simply doesn't have the grunge of Gish, but more importantly, it unfortunately lacks the guitar mastership and structural wonders of Siamese Dream and the epic scope and varied sound of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. The main problem is that album basically sounds like "Zero" and maybe some "Ava Adore", and that's about it. There isn't much in the way of dynamics. It's loud, full of distorted electric guitars, and uncompromising. There are a few slower or softer songs, but outside of "Neverlost", they're all bonus tracks not available on the general release. "United States" and a few other songs have slower or softer sections, which helps, but other than that song, none of them have the scope and vision of songs like "Thru the Eyes of Ruby" or "Soma" or many other wonderful, longer pieces. In fact, outside of "United States" and "Death from Above", every song is around three to four minutes long, which is kind of boring. (Oddly, the concert-only "Gossamer" is an extremely long (15-30+ minutes) super-dynamic piece, going all over the place.)
Also, the keyboards don't even show up until the fourth track. They do become more prominent as the album continues, culminating in the nearly guitar-less "Pomp and Circumstances", but the dominant sound is just plain loud, "cybermetal" guitars. Jimmy Chamberlin's drumming is great, thankfully, and that spices things up and keeps some of the Pumpkin feel. But there isn't quite enough variety going on. I always admired Corgan's ability to whip up all sorts of guitar tones, but here, he sticks to a more limited selection.
One still has to ask about the legitimacy of this reunion, as I did in my previous article about the live shows. The liner notes make it clear in the credits: "Jimmy Chamberlin: Drums / Billy Corgan: All the Rest". Huh. There is a live band, but the album is mostly Billy. The two members thankfully weren't the sole producers, but I think Corgan exerts enough control over any producer to basically do whatever he wants. I wish D'arcy or James Iha were back to makes things more balanced (I'd even take the temporary replacement back in the day for D'arcy, Melissa auf der Maur). Honestly, this could be a Zwan reunion, except that Corgan gave up on his bright, cheerier attitude and shimmering, bright guitars, even the ones that appeared on Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie. More accurately, this is just Corgan's second solo album, with Chamberlin upgraded from part- to full-time drummer. (He played on one song on The Future Embrace, just as Corgan sang one song on the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex's Life Begins Again.)
Anyway. So this is definitely a concept album. The album cover with the drowning Statue of Liberty and sinking/rising sun, coupled with the title, should make it obvious, but the lyrics and song titles prove it true. I'm alright with that. Sometimes the lyrics stretch too much or get a bit bad, but not really much worse than Corgan ever was in the first Pumpkins incarnation. (His Zwan lyrics weren't very good, and his solo album was just difficult to figure out, although not bad.) He still has his general collection of spiritualism (now more pronounced) and love (in whatever sense), but now it's wrapped around the state of the nation, the zeitgeist. There you have it. It's a good album, but not great. My expectations weren't too high because I feared for the worst, and this isn't at all the worst, just not the best, either.
Logic: Corgan is capable of better, and he's using the Pumpkins name for questionable reasons and with questionable fairness. However, I can't deny liking the album and enjoying listening to the recent concerts, which are filled with old songs, several of which are yet again rearranged ("Blue Skies Bring Tears" and "Heavy Metal Machine" (complete with some lines borrowed from Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit"!) most notably), plus some obscurities ("Translucent", available only on the Mashed Potatoes bootleg, some previously-unplayed Machina II songs) and new, written-on-the-road material, which progresses from show to show. Maybe I'll do another concert review. Anyway. Don't worry too much about it, it's really not a bad album. Just don't set your bar too high.
Monday, July 9, 2007
I remember the first time my sister Meredith went to Germany and came back with several Neue Deutsche Welle (German new wave) albums, along with Verschwende deine Jugend ("Waste Your Youth"), a book about the movement, upon which a movie had been made, which she also had the pleasure of seeing. I was impressed, and I'm still slowly reading through the book.
She introduced me to a lot of great German bands, such as Grauzone, Deutsche-Amerikanische Freundschaft, and Extrabreit. On my own, I later bought a Peter Schilling album on vinyl, but while I was in Vienna, I found a fairly cheap copy of the reissued debut from Fehlfarben, Monarchie und Alltag. It's a fairly good album, and the political nature of the lyrics make it interesting to discuss, which I shall now do.
Album: Monarchie und Alltag
Released: 1980, reissued 2000
Label: Welt-Rekord (original), EMI (reissue)
Producer: Fehlfarben and Horst Luedtke
01. Hier und jetzt
03. Das sind Geschichten
04. All That Heaven Allows
05. Gottseidank nicht in England
08. Ein Jahr (Es geht voran)
10. Das war vor Jahren
11. Paul ist tot
Reissue bonus tracks:
12. Abenteuer und Freiheit [Große Liebe b-side, 1979]
13. Große Liebe - Maxi [Single, 1979]
14. Herrenreiter [Live 1980.04 Heidelberg, Germany] [Ein Jahr b-side, 1980]
15. Paul ist tot [Edit] [Outtake?, 1980]
I was going to put translations in the tracklistings, but then I came to "Militürk" and it is awfully hard to translate that in a simple manner and convey the message. Anyhow. Monarchie und Alltag translates to "Monarchy and Daily Life" and that should convey fairly well the general theme of the album. It's fairly political, but just as much in the personal realm as the greater realm - something also found in some of the angular British post-punk bands like Gang of Four and the Au Pairs. However, the political situation in Germany was quite different from that of Britain or America. Germany was still a country divided, was still trying to become a greater economic power in the world scheme after being thoroughly ravaged in two world wars, and was dealing with immigration and unemployment, two problems often claimed to be connected.
"Hier und jetzt" ("Here and Now") has three verses which one by one deny the past (whose shadows still linger), the present (with too many annoying people), and the future (which is too hard to deal with). The choruses offer an unexplained "you" both halves of heaven in order to keep the here and now. There is a clear idenitiy problem, if the narrator denies the present but still wants to keep it, but more obviously through lines like "ich weiß nicht einmal wer ich bin" ("I don't know who I am"). Each line right before the chorus refuses a connection to reality: the newspaper, the radio, and the weather report. To me, this sounds like more of something an East German band would've written (but Fehlfarben is from the western Düsseldorf), but this should be the beginning of the clues that all is not well in the West either.
"Grauschleier" ("Gray Veil") seems to indicate that everything is dull and meaningless. Books contain "nur leere Phrasen" ("only empty phrases"), the music in the kitchen "ist auch schon ziemlich zerkratzt" ("is also rather grating"), and the narrator has already seen everything a thousand times: he claims, "ich kenne das Leben, ich bin im Kino gewesen" ("I know what life is like, I've been to the movies"). The next song, "Das sind Geschichten" ("Those Are Stories") follows similarly, focusing more on stories about idealized daily living that no one believes anymore.
"All That Heaven Allows" may have an English title but is still sung in German. It is the first song on the album to break from the angular guitar, steady bass and drums, and punky German singing standard, as there are some cymbal swells over some rhythm guitar breaks and then bridges featuring a short ascending keyboard bit. It's a welcome change but doesn't sound out of place. The lyrics are about the narrator's somewhat desperate need for his lover but unwillingness to confess the exact nature of these feelings.
"Gottseidank nicht in England" ("Thank God Not in England") starts with a nice little bass riff, but from what I can tell about the lyrics, it's a critique of people too willing to change their personalities and friends to succeed. I like the lyrics, like "sprichst fremde Sprachen im eigenen Land" ("speak foreign languages in your own country"), which is something of a foreshadow of the chorus: "Und wenn die Wirklichkeit dich überholt / hast du keine Freunde, nicht mal Alkohol / du stehst in der Fremde, deine Welt stürzt ein / das ist das Ende, du bleibst allein" ("and when the reality catches up to you / you have no friends, not counting alcohol / you stand as a foreigner, your world collapses / that is the end, you remain alone"). Sad.
"Militürk" is an interesting song. It's longer than all the other songs but one, has some odd saxophone wails, and has the fewest lyrics. The song sarcastically refers to the Turkish immigration issue that has been a part of Germany's politics for many a year now. The title combines the words "militär" ("military") and "Türk" ("Turk"), and the idea is that the Turks are infiltrating Germany, which is something of a popular sentiment. Fehlfarben takes it over the top, though. The lyrics crack me up, but they're loaded with references that need a lot of explanation, so I'll just mention a few. I love the opening line: "Kebabträume in der Mauerstadt" ("kebab dreams in the wall-city"). Kebabs, if you don't know, are a type of wrap based out of the Middle East. They usually contain chicken or lamb, vegetables, and some cucumber or similar sauce. (I had one when I still ate chicken and went to Germany three years ago; while in Vienna, I had the falafel version, which is even better anyway, all the time. Turkish Imbisse (snack stands) are all over Germany and Austria and are quite a hit.) The wall-city is clearly Berlin. The paranoia deepens in the last three lines: "In jeder Imbißstube ein Spion / Im ZK Agent aus Türkei / Deutschland, Deutschland, alles ist vorbei" ("in each stack stand is a spy / in the central committee an agent from Turkey / Germany, Germany, it's all over").
"Apokalypse" translates easily and is a dystopic view of a post-apocalyptic German landscape. Most notable are the piano notes at the beginning, quickly turning into electronic noise that reoccurs throughout the song. Later, wind sounds and a phased guitar dominate the bridges.
"Ein Jahr (Es geht voran)" ("One Year (It Goes On)") sticks out a little bit from the rest of the album. It features a very disco-like drum and bass groove, supposedly done as a joke and actually disliked by the band. The guitar sound is just like the rest of the album, though, and the vocals are similar except for the backing shouts of "es geht voran!". This song is probably the only Fehlfarben song most people have heard (if they've heard any), as it was something of a successful single when it was re-released in 1982. It is quite catchy and irresistable. The lyrics are again a hilarious satire: "Berge explodieren, Schuld hat der Präsident, es geht voran!" ("mountains explode, the president is guilty, it goes on!"), "graue B-Film Helden regieren bald die Welt, es geht voran!" ("gray b-film heroes will soon rule the world, it goes on!"). Odd, then, that a certain California-residing Austrian is making the latter line come true. The over-the-top political progress sloganeering, a sort of "forget what's going on around you, life goes on, move along!", is well depicted.
"Angst" ("Fear") is a simple little bit about being scared of being out on the streets, presumably due to rising crime, or perhaps the instilled presupposition thereof. "Das war vor Jahren" ("That Was Years Ago") seems to be about how great teenagers dancing together is, but then the lines "die Coca-Cola Sonne scheint aufs Neue / auf den Glanz unserer Republik / es gibt bei uns Leute / die finden das schick" ("the Coca-Cola sun shines anew / on the glamour of our republic / there are people among us / who find that trendy/hip/cool"). Cultural imperialism at its best. This is another cultural issue in Germany and Austria: some people embrace American products and English slogans in advertising, but others cannot stand it. Personally, I'd rather have Austria's second favorite soda, Almdudler, over their favorite, Coca-Cola, any day.
"Paul ist tot" ("Paul Is Dead") is the longest song, featuring some sax and weird keyboard effects but also confusing lyrics. The title feels like such a reference to Paul McCartney's rumored death in the 60s, but no further references exist in the lyrics. The chorus indicates a possible commercialist frustration: "was ich haben will, das krieg ich nicht / und was ich kriegen kann, das gefällt mir nicht" ("what I want I can't get / and what I can get I don't like").
The bonus tracks are nice additions, except for the edited version of "Paul ist tot". It only cuts a few minutes of the jamming, but still remains a five-and-a-half minute song. "Abenteuer und Freiheit" ("Adventure and Freedom") is an early single b-side with a distinct ska sound and feel about a new movement, seemingly opposed to the dominant hippie aesthetic of the 70s. (This depisement of hippies is something of a theme amongst the NDW bands.) The opening lyrics are telling: "Zu spät für die alte Bewegungen / was heute zählt, ist Sauberkeit" ("Too late for the old movements / what counts today is cleanliness"). "Große Liebe", similarly ska-like, is a worker's love song (so Gang of Four!): "ich sah sie zuerst bei der Raffinerie" ("I saw her first by the refinery"). "Herrenreiter" ("Gentleman Rider") is an early live song with some weird sound effects and guitar effects (just barely ska-ish), seemingly criticizing the remnants of the noble class.
As indicated by the pre-album bonus tracks, Fehlfarben, whose name translates to "false" (as in misprinted) "color", were a ska band. They quickly dropped the groove and developed a stronger post-punk feel, retaining the guitar sound occasional sax but adding studio effects and the occasional keyboard. "Ein Jahr (Es geht voran)" stands as the only dancy song on the album; it was an ironic attempt at disco but retaining the trademark sarcastic political lyrics, and it ended up being the song that established a name for the band, for better or worse. When it comes down to it, Monarchie und Alltag didn't do too well at first, but over the years popularity has increased and it is now regarded as an important, influential work (hence the reissue).
Despite starting out ska and later becoming more clearly new wave, Monarchie und Alltag fits right into the post-punk movement and loosely under the vast umbrella of Neue Deutsche Welle. Fehlfarben are primarily interested in the difficult personal and national political situation in Germany at the time, using either poignant observation or harsh sarcasm to explore their left-leaning perspective. Some song are lyrically more interesting than others, such as "Militürk" or "Ein Jahr", but a common mood arises. The songs are musically rather similar; the same tones are used for each instrument throughout, but of course style, rhythm, and melody differ, and the occasional sax, keyboard, or sound effect adds a little something extra to the mix.
As may be obvious now, I have wrapped myself up in German/Austrian culture and tried to understand the tensions and history underneath, and this album can either serve as a musical representative of the darker aspects for one also already familiar with the themes or as an introduction to some of the bigger concepts still alive today. The music is good, although not too far out there, but the lyrics are fantastic... if you understand German. If by some chance you get really into the band and want help, just ask.
Tuesday, July 3, 2007
I really, really liked Strange Times and continue to today. In the meantime, though, I've found a cassette of their Peel Sessions collection and just recently, a used copy of their second album, What Does Anything Mean? Basically. Due to the timing of the John Peel sessions, there is significant overlap between them and the What album, but the versions are fairly different. In any case, every song I've heard by the Chameleons has been great, but Strange Times still has that charm of being the first thing I heard by them. Therefore, I shall review it and heap praise thereon.
Artist: The Chameleons (UK)
Album: Strange Times
Release Date: September 1986
Producer: Dave Allen
01. Mad Jack
03. Tears [Original Arrangement]
04. Soul in Isolation
05. Swamp Thing
06. Time/The End of Time
08. In Answer
10. I'll Remember
11. Tears [Full Arrangement] [Single, 1986]
12. Paradiso [Tears b-side]
13. Inside Out [Tears b-side]
14. Ever After [not available on all releases and apparently otherwise unreleased]
15. John, I'm Only Dancing [David Bowie cover] [Swamp Thing b-side]
16. Tomorrow Never Knows [The Beatles cover] [Mad Jack b-side]
Like The Sisters of Mercy's Floodland, this album contains several "limited edition" bonus tracks that somehow appear on every release of the album. I don't think anyone is complaining, as about half the bonus tracks are just as good as the rest of the album and the other half almost are. Sometimes, the bonus tracks were released on a separate, second disc, sometimes they were appended to the album, and some versions (including mine) omit "Ever After" for space reasons (since including it passes the old 74 minute mark). Anyway.
Strange Times is just full of great songs, and the production is marvelous. It opens with "Mad Jack", a fast and jumpy character description. The guitars really carry the song, but the drums help move the song along. It is followed by the slower, longer, and somewhat spacier "Caution", which apparently features improvised lyrics made up while recording the take. Heavily chorused and delayed interweaving guitars form a soundscape complimented by the bass and occasional keyboards to provide a good atmosphere for the rambling lyrics.
The album hits the first high point with "Tears". There are two versions of the song: the rockier, louder version was released as a single and is the first bonus track on the album; the more peaceful and acoustic version is the third track of the album proper. It's hard to say which version is better; both are fantastic versions. The acoustic "original arrangement" has some dual guitar work: one is very cleanly and proficiently picked and the other is played with an e-bow. Later, a harmonica is added to the mix. Considering the song was written as an emotional outpouring after the death of a friend due to cancer, the original version works very well. The more rocking "full arrangement" begins with a more distorted mix of guitars with stronger bass and drums, but then during the chorus, the song picks up significantly. There are also some lovely background vocals thrown in.
"Soul in Isolation" is another great track; it opens with a strong drum beat and then throws a delayed picking pattern over it. The bass comes in to make the chords clearer, and then Mark Burgess starts singing. It grooves along for another minute, then Burgess yelps and the tempo suddenly speeds up and the other guitar comes in. The song continues to drive along for another five or six minutes, but the great melody over the strong guitars keeps the song from feeling stagnant.
"Swamp Thing" again features a driving, dominant bass foundation, and keyboards and guitars form the textural landscape in the mid-range. An extended intro finally leads into some fairly hooky bridges and other bits. At least on this album, "Swamp Thing" probably comes closest to living up to the occasionally-made comparison of the Chameleons to Echo & the Bunnymen.
"Time/The End of Time" inexplicably has two titles, but since one includes the other, it's not hard to guess the theme with a quick glance at the lyrics: don't waste your time. It's a good song but not a highlight. It gets interesting at the end, where it suddenly switches tracks to a restrained acoustic outro reprise. A keyboard hits the final note and then the curious "Seriocity" begins. Supposedly, drummer John Lever supplies what sounds like a drum machine via the human beatbox technique. The song is less thickly arranged than many of the others and is also the shortest (on the album proper), at a mere three minutes (compared to the average of about five).
Then comes one of my favorite parts. "Seriocity" hits its final note right as "In Answer" begins with a keyboard intro. The keyboard fades a bit and suddenly the full band comes in, rocking with their full atmospherics. "In Answer" is perhaps my favorite track on the album, considering the wonderful driving force of the song and the fairly catchy lyrics. I also enjoy the lyrical take on sexuality: instead of the traditional pop/rock attitude of absolute hedonism and unabashed sexual abandon or the traditional moralist stance, the song simply says, "One cold grey afternoon / A part of me parted too soon / It slipped away / I don't know what to say / In answer". I appreciate the thoughtful perspective of acknowledging what is but also not accepting it at face value (or why else would he say, "too soon"?). It ends on a weird fading sound effect.
"Childhood" is another good but less notable song, and it fades into guitar feedback, which in turn serves as the beginning of the instrumental "I'll Remember". The song lightly pulses along with some pleasantly delayed guitar picking and some background sounds. Some synthesized choral bits appear before the song fades into a coda of a song I am still yet to identify.
The bonus tracks are an interesting bag. I already mentioned the full arrangement of "Tears", but the other three originals are fairly similar to each other. Each is pretty driving, with solid drumming and bass work and some nice guitar bits. The best is probably "Paradiso", which has a great keyboard and guitar chord turn. It just sounds cool.
The cover of Bowie's "John, I'm Only Dancing" is clearly just the band messing around. Apparently the drums were done on the cases, as the band didn't want to bother setting up the full set. The lyrics are scatterbrained and partially improvised, possibly due to forgetfulness, but the arrangement is otherwise faithful to the original, which makes it work alright.
The final track is also quite notable: a cover of the Lennon-composed Beatles song "Tomorrow Never Knows". The Chameleons were far from messing around here. Songwriter Burgess is a clear Lennon fan ("Here Today" from the first album was a tribute to his death), and this song is quite likely the best cover of the song I've heard (even better than the "T.N.K." version done by Brian Eno and 808 on their live album). Lever is completely up to the task of providing the right drums, the bass puts down a great groove, and the guitars (with some keyboard and sound effect production) do an amazing job of recreating and re-imagining the soundscape that the Beatles had created for their version. Burgess takes some liberties with the lyrics, but it only helps to solidify the song as their own. They also managed to double the length of the original.
The Chameleons do have something of a trademark sound that is somewhat predictable: driving bass providing some foundation, interweaving dual guitar work, usually with some effects like delay and chorus, maybe some e-bow or keyboards, and solid drumming. Burgess likes to write a bit of social commentary when he's not writing about personal experiences. What perhaps makes me connect to so many of his pieces, though, is his fascination and reverence for nostalgia. This is made most clear on the b-side of the bands' first single ("In Shreds"), via a song titled "Nostalgia". I actually fully intend to add the song to my repertoire of covers because I like it that much. That and "Looking Inwardly" focus on the concepts on looking at oneself and the memories that serve as your foundation. I've tried myself to deal with some of the related ideas, but Burgess has returned to the theme in plenty of creative variations. Clearly, "Tears" and "In Answer" follow the theme, and the instrumental "I'll Remember" seems to both in title and in atmosphere.
Strange Times is a long listen when coupled with its seemingly-omnipresent bonus tracks, but it's such a great listen that I see no reason to complain. If the length really is bothersome, just stop at the "proper" end ("I'll Remember") but consider playing the fantastic full arrangement of "Tears" and the thoroughly developed cover of "Tomorrow Never Knows". As I said before, even the songs are quite long; most of my favorites are around five minutes or more. The songs never drag, though, and they always keep moving along, keeping things interesting. This is a great album to get lost in, though, since they are long pieces and many fade right into the next. The producer, Dave Allen (known for co-producing many of the Cure's big albums and the Sisters of Mercy's First and Last and Always), is probably to thank for that, and what a great touch he added to the already full-sounding band.
I can't recommend this band and album enough. Think of the Church, if you know them (they did "Under the Milky Way"), only shorter-lived and better.
Without bonus tracks: A+ (for consistency)
With bonus tracks: A (for high quality but a lower awesome-per-minute ratio)
PS: Word on the street is that the Chameleons' first album (Script of the Bridge) is to be reissued. Cool.