Thursday, April 21, 2011
Getting so frustrated with every new band I hear sounding like a poor-copy of a band from 20 years ago who already sounded like a poor-copy of a band from 20 years ago even back then, I devised a strategy to flex my musical brain.
A few years back I picked up a copy of Mojo’s Classic Album Guide from one of those discount bookshops (£3 for a book the size of a breezeblock) and whenever I find myself flicking through it I come across albums I’ve either never heard of, or never got round to checking out. And then never get round to doing anything about it.
So picking a decade (the 1970’s to start with) I’ve plucked 20 albums that fit into these two categories and intend to listen to them over the coming weeks.
It seems to work out best in batches of five, so for batch one I’ve been listening to:
1973 Townes Van Zandt - Live At The Old Quarter, Houston TX
1977 Suicide – Suicide
1978 Nick Lowe – Jesus Of Cool
1979 The Roches – The Roches
1979 Linton Kwesi Johnson – Bass Culture
To categorise these albums:
Suicide and Townes Van Zandt are two artists I’d consciously avoided over the years due to the constant name-dropping I’d seen in the music press amongst bands I didn’t necessarily care for.
Nick Lowe I know a fair amount about via his Elvis Costello associations and various cover versions, but never really listened to his own stuff
Linton Kwesi Johnson I’d heard many times via John Peel but never really got on board with the poetry aspect of reggae. Dub Reggae I can listen to all day, but I struggle with poetry at the best of times.
The Roches I know absolutely nothing about.
And the verdict?
Suicide is exactly like I imagined it would be. It’s like they’re trying to sound edgy and tough over gay disco backing tracks. Maybe that’s the point? I actually quite like it.
The Roches I came to with no such pre-conceptions but it’s all a bit underwhelming. There is nothing here to dislike and I can see it growing on me after a few listens, but an instant classic it certainly isn’t. I only realised after listening that Robert Fripp produced it, but it doesn't really show. Mind you, I've found that most of Fripp's non-King Crimson work takes some time to wheedle its way into my affections.
The Nick Lowe album sounds horribly dated and represents that period where the lines between pub-rock and punk were being substantially blurred. A couple of the songs are just too embarassing to listen to, but for the most part there are good songs buried in the production.
Bass Culture probably needs more attention paying to it than I have given it. Maybe I've just been watching too much Rastamouse recently to take it seriously (and serious it certainly is). Musically it's great, but I guess that's not the issue. Another one I have to give some more time too.
And finally the Townes Van Zandt live album. 27 tracks of just one guy and his guitar recorded in a tiny Texas bar over 5 nights sounds like it could be hard-going but I have to admit to being totally blown-away by how good this record is.
To carry off that many songs in that setting without losing the audience is tough at the best of times, but the whole show is so utterly captivating that it's over before you even begin to realise the time. You get a real feel for the atmosphere from the heckling of the announcer at the start ("Upstairs!") and quite how the rowdies are kept in check by the intimacy of the performance (even Townes seems amazed by the pin-drop silence during the first song). Some good surreal jokes in there too ("What's white and crawls up your leg? Uncle Ben's Perverted Rice")
Taking just one song out of context doesn't really do the album justice, but here's a couple of good 'uns which you may know from cover versions by the Tindersticks and Lemonheads respectively.
Townes Van Zandt - Kathleen [Live]
Townes Van Zandt - Waiting 'Round To Die [Live]