Monday, January 20, 2014

The Smiths - s/t

The Smiths (1984) ***

The Schmidts’ legacy is that of the finest U.K. singles band of their decade, while concurrently releasing rather mediocre albums. Perhaps it boils down to Morrissey & Co. being easier to take in the concentrated form of 1-2 punch 3 minute singles as opposed to an entire LP’s stretch of warbling and moaning. On reflection, I disagree with that theory, as Hatful of Hollow is one of my favorite albums, and that’s the problem with their studio debut: I was initially familiar with half of these songs from the BBC sessions on Hatful, and in comparison these slickly produced versions feel so lifeless that they’re borderline unlistenable. And as I can’t honestly number any of the five songs here not duplicated on Hatful as truly essential (pleasant and sometimes intriguing they may be), this renders this disc mostly of interest for Smiths diehards. Which, if you are a Smiths fan, most likely means that you are a diehard, so….

Quick band intro for those in the back of the queue: a mid-‘80s Manchester outfit co-lead by guitarist Johnny Marr, whose jangly hi-end tone made him the finest rhythm guitarist of his generation and possibly in all jangle-pop, period, and a warbling singer/lyricist of self-consciously indeterminate sexuality and mordant wit, Morrissey. While Marr’s musical backdrops are in general unassailably tasteful and often tasty as well, Morrissey’s persona is the deal-breaker for many: casually shocking and self-consciously (there’s that word again) gloomy, you either learn to laugh along with or at Morrissey’s tongue-in-Oscar-Wilde’s-cheek bon mots, or dismiss him as a fey, self-absorbed limey twat. Or take him at face value, which only means that you’re an idiot. Oh, and they had a rhythm section, too, and a quite good one, but nobody ever talks about them.

The songs on this debut set the basic template for the Smiths formula, from which they rarely ventured far from: spiritually descended from the teen angst melodrama of early ‘60s pop (girl groups, Roy Orbison) with the morbidity if not the melodramatics notched up to Spinal Tap’s 11, and built on the bedrock of Marr’s Byrds-descended rhythmic jangle, at once more sharply biting and abstractly ethereal than his ‘60s predecessors. The lyrics concern such cheery fare as child abuse (“The Hand That Rocks the Cradle”), murder, misogyny (“Pretty Girls Make Graves” which may or may not be sung from the perspective of an in-the-closet gay serial killer, contains both), sadomasochism (“Reel Around the Fountain”), homosexuality (“Hand in Glove” – “the sun shines out of our behinds”), impotence (at least that’s what I think “What Difference Does It Make?” is about – “I know I’m the most inept that ever slept”, Your interpretation may vary), the generalized misanthropy of the perpetually unemployed (“Still Ill”), the casual cruelty of the handsome to fat girls overeager to marry (“This Charming Man”) – etc., etc., etc.! Note that I haven’t spoken much of the individual musical merits of the songs such lyrics are set to (except to pause to opine that the falsetto warbling that closes out “Miserable Lie” is the musical low-point of the Smiths’ entire career – who does Morrissey think he is, Ian Gillan screeching “Child in Time”? There, that’s probably the first and possibly last Deep Purple/Smiths comparison any rock critic has ever made.). Reason being that I’m not enough of a musicologist to adequately detail the differing nuances of these stylistically similar ten tracks, and you’d be bored if I did. But I’m still fond of you, a hey ho.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Orange Juice - Rip It Up

Rip It Up (1982) **1/2

A key line-up change renders the Apple Cider of autumn ’82 half the band they were the fresh spring of ’82. As a vital collaborator and second-in-command to Edwyn Collins, guitarist James Kirk has departed and replaced by South African percussionist Zeke Manyika. In other words, the band has evolved from gawky proto-Smiths Scots-jangle to gawky neo-soul post-Talking Heads jangle with Afro-beat pretensions. Manyika’s vocal spotlights, “Hokoyo” and “A Million Pleading Faces” are straight-up Afro-pop that stick out like two black thumbs – not unpleasant tracks that simply don’t fit in with the rest of the album at all. The stink of blatant tokenism may have inspired the Fall’s infamous lyric from the concurrent “The Classical” sneering at directors needing to insert “obligatory n*****s” in their rock videos or rhythmic line-ups. The rest of album capitalizes on a direction hinted at on the debut – Motown-inspired white soul. The title track, a minor hit, hits the mark sweetly, jubilantly, and mockingly: building a chorus around the playful taunt, “I hope to god you’re not as dumb as you make out,” is impossible to miss, but I bet millions of pop listeners were dumb enough to do so anyway. It’s one of 1982’s most stellar singles and possibly the band’s career highlight (and not just because it provided the title for a Simon Reynolds tome about post-punk, reviewed otherwhere on this site). Unfortunately it’s also by far the best song here, and even then it’s better heard in its single version – this LP version extends the length to five minutes with a superfluous coda. As a blue-eyed crooner, Collins’ vocal limitations are more apparent than they were as a charmingly awkward indie-pop teenster. The music goes down smoother and more accessibly than on the debut, but in the process scrubs a good deal of the band’s personality: what distinguishes this cruise carnival neo-funk/soul from the New Romantic likes of Haircut 100 or the Culture Club? “Louise Louise” sounds like an outtake from the debut, and “Mud in Your Eye” is a fine Al Green-esque smoothy, but overall the material is rather thin and simply not up to snuff. “I Can’t Help Myself” cloyingly homages the Four Tops, while the soggy reggae “Breakfast Time” stands out as the nadir: Collins uses the day’s first meal as a clumsy metaphor for morning sex, or something. I hate half-spoken word songs with trotting non-melodies. And when are guys in their early 20s ever going to stop bemoaning about how they wish they were young again?!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Stone Roses - s/t

The Stone Roses (1989) ***

The quintessential overhyped U.K. debut, on first (and third, fourth, even fifth….your mileage may vary) listen comes across as a wave of undistinguished and indistinguishable sonic mush. The hooks are as rotely generic as the sing-song post-Hollies melodies; what distinguishes this mish-mash of generic Brit-pop from Biff Bang Pow or the Primitives or Felt or a hundred other retro-‘60s British bands jingling and jangling their tambourines across that fair isle in the ‘80s, I fail to discern. However, as is sometimes the case, repeated listens reveal this album's minor merits and I can even begin to distinguish one track from another. Which is problem numero uno: the band has its formula and sticks to it (excepting those dreary pseudo-funk excursions toward the end), making this one hella monotonous long-player. And long-player it is: the band’s slight tunes would work dandy as 2 1/2 minute bubblegum ditties, but are pompously bloated with misguided self-importance to an average running length of 5 minutes each. Excepting the one minute fragment “Elizabeth My Dear", which merely sets the traditional folk melody of “Scarborough Fair” to a new set of lyrics advocating regicide. It’s pleasant enough and a nice break from the monotony. The other two exceptions are “I am the Resurrection” (yes, the lyric is ludicrously self-deluded, and like a snotty, clueless kid brother to U2, they’re bleeding serious) a fine 3 1/2 pop anthem that shifts into a garage-funk jam for the remaining 5 minutes; and the even more tedious “Fools Gold” which overabuses its one hook – an overflanged Shaft wah-wah funk-guitar riff – repetitively for ten minutes. There’s a fine line between groovy hypnosis and a mindless rut of groove, and this clearly falls into “Sister Ray” territory. That this sort of thing was considered a groundbreaking dance track speaks of how desperate U.K. music journalists were for passable grooves performed by pale skinny English lads.

The band are technically accomplished and even interesting players (you knew I’d get to the positives eventually, given my lukewarm grade – it’s not at all a bad album, merely an innocuous and a bit boring of one). John Squire gets a lot of press for his chiming guitar licks, so enough about that Johnny Marr acolyte; the real secret weapon is bassist Mani – he’s fluid and meaty at the same time, carrying the weight and foundation of the tunes more often than not (if you bother to notice; like a lot of bass players, he can be easy to overlook in the mix). Would have made for a great rhythm section if the drummer was up to snuff, but the beats, while facile and painterly, are too lightweightly applied to achieve rhythmic propulsion and liftoff. The mix is simply too thin, way too thin – this album could sorely use some oomph, power, and sonic depth to ,it; maybe they were going for a dreamy, fluffy-as-clouds affect, but it’s all too amorphous and gormless. Ian Brown is the other weak link; he achieves an admirably angelic-snotty choirboy vox, but displays a distressing lack of range, which in the end results in the band fronted by a bland, colorless singer. Brown lacks all charisma, a crucial ingredient for any frontman. Plus, he looks like a monkey.

Which isn’t to say that pseudo-gothy, bass-driven opener “I Wanna Be Adored” isn’t a fantastic tune, containing Brown’s most arresting lyric: “I don’t need to sell my soul / He’s already in me”. Or that “She Bangs the Drums” and “Bye Bye Badman” don’t boast quite catchy choruses. Or that running “Waterfall” backwards and rewriting it as “Don’t Stop” isn’t a cute neo-psychedelic trick. Or that “Made of Stone” burns with desolate intensity as my favorite track. The band did have tunes, you must admit. Did their small clutch of winsome tunes warrant the hubris and hype? I’ve already answered that question.