Soundtrack to a disordered mind

What we have here is a weekly series of 500 word reviews of albums chosen at random from my colelction (some 63,000 albums) – good ones, bad ones, iconic ones and ones that no-one audience to speak of had ever heard – review without fear, favor or any knowledge of what makes music tick beyond knowing what I like.

Well, that’s not quite true. You don’t accumulate three quarters of a million songs without figuring out what you like and how a particular piece of music goes about meeting it. And without realizing that music is a far wider life than just one of sounds – it is one of times, places, community – of love of hate and politics and of that thing between art and magic.

9. Lullabies to Paralyze – Queens of The Stone Age

1. This Lullaby
2. Medication
3. Everybody Knows That You Are Insane
4. Tangled Up in Plaid
5. Burn the Witch
6. In My Head
7. Little Sister
8. I Never Came
9. Someone’s in the Wolf
10. The Blood Is Love
11. Skin on Skin
12. Broken Box
13.”You Got a Killer Scene There, Man…”
14. Long Slow Goodbye

One of the most welcome surprises of 2005, Queens of The Stone Age’s “Lullabies to Paralyze” picked up where 2002’s “Songs for the Deaf” left off – and tightened things up, added some significant melodic flourishes and saw a reinvention in vocalist Josh Homme’s approach. All of this made for an intelligent, immaculately produced album that grips at the crotch and strokes the brow in equal measures.

Key to the album is the removal of the bands reliance on skull crushing riffery (although this is still a monumentally hard album) and the introduction of a new sensibility which leans towards pop hooks and actually signing instead of bellowing. Homme integrates with the band, not signing above it and this makes for believability about his voice which he had not previously managed. Most all of the overtly metal flourishes have been taken out and this has exposed, in the songs, something close to a classic pop sensibility which is refreshing when it appears and leavens the sometimes sombre mood of the album.

That said, the album is not all sweetness and light – the lyrics tread through some seedy sexual underworlds and the trademark neo-psych flourishes of earlier QOTSA and Kyuss ( the band from which QOTSA arose) make for some dark passages. But this doesn’t feel added on or staged – it is wholly organic to the music and makes the album a much richer journey for it. the band deploys a full palette of styles and tones, each song seemingly supported by the previous and adding to the mood with great consistency and sympathy.

“Lullabies to Paralyze” was highly alienating to a large portion of QOTSA’s audience, who no doubt would have liked them to keep recycling the greasy sleezefests of previous albums – but this is the sound of a band arriving at a point define din its own terms and in its own voice. A triumph, and unqualified one and one which was furthered with the release of their next album, the different again “Era Vulgaris”

8. People and Things – Jack’s Mannequin

1. My Racing Thoughts
2. Release Me
3. Television
4. Amy, I
5. Hey Hey Hey (We’re All Gonna Die)
6. People, Running
7. Amelia Jean
8. Platform Fire
9. Hostage
10.Restless Dream
11.Casting Lines

Arising from the promising California Band, Something Corporate, Jack’s Mannequin is a vehicle for singer/songwriter Andrew McMahon. Like a lot of the pop wunderkinds of the late 90’s, early aughties – Butch Walker et al, McMahon’s forte is the widescreen, Springsteen-esque mid tempo rockers – albeit, with a more highly developed sense of melody. The twist, however, is that in 2005, McMahon was diagnosed with an acute form of leukaemia, which saw him (quite understandably) develop an introspective streak which is, as at 2011’s People and Things, yet to be as well developed as his pop-driven gifts.

People and Things holds together extremely well as a cohesive musical statement right across the album (there’s a certain loss of energy leading into the middle of the album as exhilaration gives way to rumination), McMahon’s piano driven rockers and occasionally clumsily worded but still supremely tuneful ballads makes the statement that he is a guy who plans for a whole album and tries to write for the total experience. This is encouraging in this age of every album seeming to sound like 70 minutes of bits and pieces.

Highlights include the top 40 perfect “My Racing Thoughts”, the giggly fun of “Amy, I” and the searching “Restless Dream”. This is car music, road trip, highway driving summer time stuff. McMahon may have and, indeed be entitled to, pretentious to introspection but they don’t drag the album down as a whole and really, renders this an enjoyable but inconsequential hour of somewhat superior California Power pop.

6. “Goodbye Cruel World” – Custard

1. Apartment
2. Pack Yr Suitcases
3. Girls Like That
4. Anatomically Correct
5. Music Is Crap
6. Caboolture Speed Lab
7. Alone
8. Ringo
9. Pinball Lez
10. If Yr Famous and You Know It, Sack Yr Band
11. Singlette
12. Sunset Strip
13. Leisuremaster
14. Bedford
15. Rockfish Anna
16. Lucky Star
17. Nice Bird
18. Wahooti Fandango
19. The New Matthew
20. Hit Song
21. Sarsparilla
22. Short Pop Song
23. Satellite
24. Flannellette
25. Cool World
26. Hallelujah
27. Spangle Bug
28. I Didn’t Know I Loved You (Till I Saw You Rock & Roll)
29. Hootin’ Tootin’ Carman
30. Lucky Star
31. Nice Bird
32. Hosef
33. Mimi
34. Piece of Shit
35. Fantastika

There’s great music being made all over the world at any given time – not just in the pointlessly fashionable and over-hyped hubs like New York City, Portland or Montreal. In the 90’s , while the cognoscenti wet their pants over Seattle, Austin or Manchester, one of the more unlikely ground zeroes for hard core pop was Brisbane, Australia. And the most fascinating band to come from that scene was Custard.

Custard operated from 1990 -1999, making them perfectly emblematic of the decade, yet they resolutely and skilfully defied its defanging trends – grunge and hip hop, instead relying on keen ears and deft ability to string a pop hook. “Goodbye Gruel World” takes the best moments from their 5 album career. From the pure pop delight of “Apartment” or “Anatomically Correct” to the speedy esoterica of “The New Matthew”, the album take us son a journey of band determined never to throw away an idea and expand from their do-it-yourself-or die ethic only but a little. The band is not short of good humor, either, “Music is Crap”, “Caboolture Speed Lab” or “(I feel like) Ringo” straddling a line between good natured self-deprecation and out and out mockery of their grungier peers.
The 35 tracks here are littered with gems – “Girls like that”, rolling in thick irony, “Singlette”, depraved and manic and “If yr famous and you know it” filled with all of the paranoia and egomania of a big fish in a small pond.

This is a great album if someone is looking for a slightly left of centre guitar pop experience sung in a different accent, with a different set of cultural tropes and reference points and a fine reminder that while the “mainstream” scene was focussed on mulcting as much money as it could out of Pixie-rip off merchants and gun toting illiterates, there were still bands out there getting on with the business of writing music that celebrated that off little thing we call life.

5. “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not” – Arctic Monkeys 2006

1 The View from the Afternoon
2 I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor
3 Fake Tales of San Francisco
4 Dancing Shoes
5 You Probably Couldn’t See for the Lights But You Were Staring Straight at Me
6 Still Take You Home
7 Riot Van
8 Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secured
9 Mardy Bum
10 Perhaps Vampires Is a Bit Strong But…
11 When the Sun Goes Down
12 From the Ritz to the Rubble
13 A Certain Romance

Well, let me just come out and say this first – I don’t care much for this record or this band. But only because I care so deeply for what they were trying to accomplish in making it.

Back in 2005, the Arctic Monkeys were the hottest band ever to come out of the great adventure in Indie music that was MySpace (Jazz hands everyone, I said “MySpace”) and this, their debut album, sold at a phenomenal rate. Jam packed with clattering riffs, biscuit-box drums and chipper spitting lyrics, it was a regular soundtrack for the Ritalin generation. It seemed to be everything the alternate-indie-future of punk rock scene was wet-dreaming of. But was it?

If you see music as being, ultimately a synthesis, then yes – perhaps it was. It was a coalescence of a number of at-the-moment influences – Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs, Libertines, Oasis plus some not too far removed ones such as the late Clash and the Strokes – and you can pull them out of this record almost at will.  If you see music as influences grouping around a single act of creative invention then, no, this album isn’t what it promised (although their next album is) and in fact it is increasingly revealed as an artful, enthusiastic fraud.

It’s not as if there aren’t some wonderful passages on this record – tracks 2-3-4 are a fierce, riveting tour de force of punky, spiky, riffy goodness and the band does keep up it’s cocky enthusiastic  barrage all the way through which never makes the record less than enjoyable – but there’s that overweening patina of artifice about the record that means it doesn’t linger huge in the memory (like their net album does).

Perhaps, the real truth of this album is that it simply doesn’t fit in the CD era – it’s three great singles, three good B sides, three interesting album tracks and some filler.

They were, and still, are a great band going in a good direction and this is a better debut album, than 99.9% of debut albums – but, in the long run and as history gets misty – don’t believe they hype. Believe your ears.

4. Weezer – The Blue Album 1994

Weezer – Self Titled – 1994

1 My Name Is Jonas 3:23
2 No One Else 3:14
3 The World Has Turned and Left Me Here 4:26
4 Buddy Holly 2:40
5 Undone (the Sweater Song) 2:55
6 Surf Wax America 3:04
7 Say It Ain’t So 4:18
8 In the Garage 3:56
9 Holiday 3:26
10 Only in Dreams 8:03

Weren’t the 90’s wonderful? Well, maybe not if you were Weezer. Despite making some of the brightest pop and some of the cleverest videos of the past 30 years, few bands have ever courted such  widespread derision and hipster contempt as Weezer did when they released their first record, barely a month after ground zero for grunge, the death of Kurt Cobain.

Most of the scorn came from circles that felt that Weezer had co-opted the heavy guitar sound of Nirvana and the dynamics of the Pixies and fixed them to their own revisionist power pop. And in the new “real” world of the grunge ethos, that was somehow…. fake.  But, now as then, the truth remains that the first Weezer album is a pure, cool blast of unabashed pop joyfulness, killer hooks and some of the quirkiest introspective lyrics of its era.

Opening with the Pixies-esque “My Name is Jonas”, the album immediately reveals that band’s deft handling of very very heavy guitars with interesting and left-field melodic ideas.”No-one Else” takes a classicist 70’s AM radio approach, albeit with a contemporary raspy guitar drone, and has some whacky lyrics which keep you listening. The record hits its stride  with the classic “World Has Turned and Left Me Here” – bittersweet power pop at its very best.

“Buddy Holly”, with its begin-in-the middle song structure, sing a long chorus to die for and notorious Spike Jonze video, remains most people’s memory of the album and it’s a fine song – but a little one dimensional compared to the two that came before it (and what do the lyrics mean,anyway?)

“Undone”  is simply one of the cleverest singles of the 90’s, the circular guitars building a hypnotic whirl over the inane surfer-dudery of the dudes yammering at the beginning. When Rivers Cuomo comes in with his nervy, paranoid vocal, unraveling like the titular sweater. Of course, the Pixies comparisons here are inevitable (but they become more pointed later) , as well, but the song itself is ingenious and enjoyable.

“Say it Isn’t So” is, to some, the high point of the album and to others, the low – while the shadow and spirit of the Pixies hangs heavy over the album, generally it has been enhanced by Weezer’s ability to fuse it neo-classic pop influences – but on “Say it isn’t So” it just seems aping and obvious.

“In the Garage”, an uber-geek anthem, returns Weezer the the good, going back to their 70’s radio roots (namechecking KISS in the process) and locking themselves in as the quintessential post-Reagan era man-children.  Of course, it would take them many years to shake that image, but the song works as clever pastiche or as heartfelt emo/outsider anthem.  The theme continues on “Holiday”, where Cheap Trick meets “Doolitte”, via Cumom’s pseudo-inarticulate nerd fantasy. However, the epic “Only in Dreams” overtsays its welcome somewhat, but only in as much as it obscures a fine song.

The beauty is, though, this is an album where the total is much greater than the sum of the parts. This is an album that came as one era reached it’s fatal dead end and showed a way forward. Ultimately, it was a promise that Weezer could never deliver, but as a ray of light, it was a bright and timely beam.

3. “Younger Than Yesterday” – The Byrds 1967

Younger than Yesterday, The Byrds, 1967

1. So You Want to Be a Rock ‘N’ Roll Star
2. Have You Seen Her Face
3. C.T.A. – 102
4. Renaissance Fair
5. Time Between
6. Everybody’s Been Burned
7. Thoughts and Words
8. Mind Gardens
9. My Back Pages
10. The Girl with No Name
11. Why

Although they never really achieved the sustained success of their English contemporaries, The Beatles or the Rolling Stones, The Byrds still deserve their props as one of the most influential and accomplished band of the 60’s – welding as they did the American Troubadour tradition with the big beat of the English power-poppers.

By their fourth album, “Younger than Yesterday”, the group was straining at the limits of their original vision and starting to delve into more esoteric and groundbreaking territory – they had taken a gaze over the wall on the previous album (5th dimension) with “Eight Miles High” -but here, while still holding on tenuously to the sound that made them (Particularly Roger McGuinn’s jangling 12 string Rickenbacker guitar sound), all the boundaries are pretty much flat and exploration is the theme of the album.  Bluegrass and country references abound, as well as experiments in found sound, backward masking, drones, World music (Hugh Masakela plays on “So You Wanna be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star?) and Indian influences – as well as ambush endings on songs like “CTA 102”.  Nascent psychedelia appears in “Renaissance fair” (which could almost be a dry run for Crosby Still Nash and Young’s “Deja Vu” and Hillman’s “Time Between” is country rock three years before there was country rock.

The other stunning development is Chris Hillman’s and David Crosby’s emergence as  songwriters – with “So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star”, the classic “Have you Seen Her Face?” and “The Girl With no Name” among others for Hillman, and “Renaissance Fair”, “Why” and “Everybody’s Been Burned” for Crosby (that said, his “Mind Gardens” is a bit of a stinker).  And having recently lost their best songwriter, Gene Clarke (who suffered from a paralyzing fear of flying).  Of course, it wouldn’t be the Byrds without a Bob Dylan song and they oblige with one of their best covers – a stunning version of “my Back Pages” which beats out the authors in every way possible.

late 1966/early 1967 was a rich year for classic American rock – The Beach Boys fashioned “Good Vibrations”, Jimi Hendrix,  The Greatful Dead, The Doors, Tim Buckley and  Buffalo Springfield debuted, The Lovin’ Spoonful broadened their palette to include country Sounds, Simon & Garfunkel solidified their folk balladry ,Otis Redding rewrote the Dictionary of Soul and Jefferson Airplane achieved cruising height all within 6 months of each other. “Younger than Yesterday”, with perhaps the exception of the Beach Boys masterpiece, ranks above all of these accomplishments – based on the simple essence of the record – excellent songs, a sense of adventure and the timeless harmonies of a master American group.