This blog was always meant to be as much about me trying to improve my writing, and as recent emails appear to have fallen into a postcard-stylistic trap, it’s about time I starting writing on this thing with a little more regularity. Seeing as how we’re not travelling so much, now that we’ve settled in Bayreuth, it means I need a new topic or two (although we do head to Berlin this weekend). Beer, science and other things should thus eventuate, but today’s theme is music; some thoughts on a few albums I’m really digging at the moment.
First up: The Cure - Faith (1981). My love for the Cure, like for the Smiths, the Beatles, the Stones, Parliament and so on, was a late-blossoming thing. While other angst-ridden teenagers of my generation we busying immersing themselves in the Cure’s back-catalogue, I had no time at all for anything, apart from Metallica, except for what was now – grunge, followed by Californian punk (NOFX, Pennywise etc…), and then, and in hindsight rather embarrassingly, nu-metal. But never mind, the Nathaniel of 2010 has vastly superior taste!
Anyway. The Cure formed in about 1976, and debuted with Three Imaginary Boys, a hit and miss album for which its best-known track (Boy Don’t Cry) isn’t even an official album track, due to the (looking back) annoying habit in the UK of separating singles from albums. Second came Seventeen Seconds, a more cohesive album that drifts in the second half, but also contains the Forest, arguably one of the best racks the band has ever recorded. Third up was Faith.
Faith is my favourite Cure album. The album is effectively Seventeen Seconds v 2.0, the early-era punk aesthetics remain in place, but there’s much more depth to the offerings than were present in the first couple of outings. Robert Smith’s single or double string jangly and undistorted riffs drive the songs, which are two parts down tempo to one part up-tempo, but a beefed up rhythm section mean there’s a roundness to the sound that until then was missing. Most importantly, the feeling of space is retained, it’s the kind of album best enjoyed on headphones, loud, curled up on the couch or lying on the floor. At 37 minutes, it is a relatively lean album, but it flies by even faster. Favourite tracks? Other Voices and Doubt.
Sufjan Stevens – The BQE (2009). Sufjan Stevens is my favourite contemporary artist, especially since the suicide of Elliot Smith in 2003. Having begun making low-fi indie rock, he progressed through odd instrumental electronica to make sprawling, instrument laden acoustic albums focussed on the states of Michigan and Illinois, a very stripped back album of heavily Christian-themed achingly beautiful folk songs, and a giant compilation of Christmas carols. His latest offering is a classical work, inspired by a bridge in New York, and it’s an album that pop music critics at the time of its release didn’t really know what to do with. Since topping nearly everybody’s list in 2006 with Come on feel the Illinoise, there’s been an understanding that Sufjan is a genius, but since then he’s only released b-sides, singles and this. But you know what? The BQE is nothing short of a confirmation of that genius.
The album is a mix of typical Sufjan themes, so oboes and flutes, triumphant brass and cycling riffs are omnipresent, with a heavy sprinkling of Rhapsody in Blue George Gershwin sprinkled over the top, and is ostensibly seven movements, with a Gershwin inspired theme running throughout. It is light enough to enjoy without needing to concentrate on it, but there’s enough going on to reward more attentive listeners. There’s a sense of humour to it all too, with switches from pure classical landscapes to almost harsh electronic scenes, I suspect simply because Sufjan could. Recommended to anyone who has ever enjoyed a Sufjan Stevens song (Chicago being his most famous after being included in the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack), George Gershwin, or simply wanting to listen to something a little different.
Finally, Erykah Badu – Return of the Ankh. RnB is a much maligned genre, ever since Whitney Houston and MTV nearly killed the genre with the Bodyguard soundtrack. I hold Whitney partly responsible because ever since mainstream RnB has become a dumping ground for overwrought ballads, while the hypersexualisation of pop music as driven by music videos, has meant if it ain’t another boring ballad, it’s fluff so light that one has forgotten such songs before they’ve even finished. However, as with all genres, all is not lost. There remain still some very talented individuals just under the surface creating wonderful music, and Erykah Badu is a great example of one.
Badu came from the neo-soul stable of rather light soul-folk that was briefly popular towards the end of the 1990s. Since then though, she’s progressively got weirder, and now is the flag-bearer for those that push the boundaries of RnB, both musically and lyrically, covering everything politics, motherhood, love, loss, and everything in between. She’s one part Grace Jones, one part Nina Simone and six parts her own. In other words, Badu’s a tremendous talent.
Return of the Ankh is is Badu’s drive towards the funk of Sly and the Family Stone and Parliament, while still retaining the switches to minor chords and soulful choruses that make RnB a genre worth listening too. It’s not quite as weird as her previous offering (4th World War), so the highs are quite as high, but it is much more coherent. The album closes with its best track, a multi-part epic, which hits like the demented cousin of one of here best ever songs, the three part Green Eyes from Mama’s Gun, starting with just voice and piano, before being abducted by an experimental jazz loving aliens armed with deep swirling electronic bass (and eventually returned to Earth). I’m not sure it’s an album for everyone, but in my opinion it’s magnificent. Like Faith, it’s an album for the headphones, and it is worth ever second of investment.