THROWBACK: MEAT IS MURDER

I posted this review on Amazon.com on March 11, 2007, exactly seven years and 11 months ago. Today, on this, the day of the 30th anniversary of its release (February 11, 1985), I repost it here on BlakeMadsBlog.

The Smiths’ second album of new material is essential listening for an unlikely reason: it contains some the band’s most mediocre songs. Now, “mediocre” is a relative term of course, considering that we are talking about the greatest band to emerge in the last quarter-century, i.e., since The Jam broke up in ’82. It isn’t that Morrissey’s voice sounds bad (how could it?), or that Johnny Marr’s guitar playing is less than tasteful. It’s just that somehow the words and the music just aren’t as great as one would expect.

Most of the tracks on this album are not particularly well-known ones. However, “How Soon Is Now?” pops up in the middle of the American issue. This is one of the band’s best-known and best-loved songs. It is not, however, one my personal favorites, if for no other reason than it is over six-and-a-half minutes long. For a group whose music is informed by classic pop ideals, The Smiths sure have a tendency to let their songs run a bit too long. This is especially to the detriment of the closing tracks. The nearly 7-minute “Barbarism Begins at Home” is quite good, as is the title track (even if it is a bit, dare I say, ham-fisted), but they just go on forever, and therefore lose some of their impact in the process.

Other than “How Soon Is Now?”, the only song that will be familiar to neophyte Smiths fans is the excellent single “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”, which includes the fathomlessly clever line “It was dark as I drove the point home.”

Not surprisingly, The Smiths are more successful with shorter songs. “What She Said,” “Nowhere Fast,” and “Well I Wonder” are the album’s best songs. “I Want the One I Can’t Have,”on the other hand, expresses what was even by this point in his career a pretty trite Morrissey sentiment. And I still haven’t mentioned the opening tracks, “The Headmaster Ritual” and “Rusholme Ruffians.” Sadly, there isn’t really much to say about them, apart from that they sound a bit juvenile and uninspired. (Although the “Marie’s the Name of His Latest Flame” riff on the latter is a nice touch).

Given the excitement that had built up around The Smiths by 1985, it is not surprising that Meat Is Murder entered the UK album chart at #1. Fans were certainly justified in their expectations for the album, and were right to rush out and by it. Unfortunately, the material on the album proved to be disappointing by any standards. Fortunately, it was not enough to bring down the band’s hopes, as they re-emerged in the finest form of their career with their next release (The Queen Is Dead). While Meat Is Murder is not essential in the all-embracing sense of the term, it is worth hearing for that very reason. After all, every great band has at least one album that demonstrates what they sound like at their not-so-great. In the case of The Smiths, that album is Meat Is Murder.

THROWBACK: SETTING SONS BY THE JAM

The Jam was the best British band of the late 70s and early 80s. Let’s be done with that debate. No, they weren’t as punky and rebellious as The Sex Pistols or as “look-how-badass-I-am” as The Clash. But they were the best.
Sure, some think that The Jam’s popularity undercuts their cred. But sometimes it happens like that: sometimes
the best band of a given time and place is also the most popular one. Not very often, but sometimes. Between 1977 and 1982, thanks to The Jam and the British record-buying public, it did.

blog_Jam-Setting-SonsWith 9 Bonus Tracks, This Is The Jam’s Finest Hour

(Originally posted on Amazon.com on March 13, 2005)

The Jam’s November 1979 release Setting Sons is generally considered to be one of their 3 best albums. Inexplicably, however, it is also considered to be the weakest of those three. The only reason for this seems to be that it is neither All Mod Cons (its predecessor) nor Sound Affects (its successor), their other two great albums. Sadly, this underrating of Setting Sons obscures the fact that it contains some of the band’s best material and one of their finest singles. (Why only one? Because the 3 other brilliant songs from this era were released as singles but not featured on albums.)

Much of the underrating of Setting Sons can be attributed to the overrating — in hindsight — of All Mod Cons. The greatness of that album is probably confused to some extent with its significance.

AMC was their great leap forward, and proof that their sophomore slump would not cause them to flunk out. So the importance of this album should not be underestimated, but neither should its greatness — bountiful though it is — be overrated.

Setting Sons was a highly anticipated album. Not only was it the follow-up to The Jam’s breakthrough, it was also preceded in the eight months prior to its release by two top 20 singles — “Strange Town” and “When You’re Young.” While these songs would not appear on the new album, they did confirm The Jam’s status as one of the more important bands in the UK at the time. When the album was finally released in November 1979, it reached #4 in the UK (and #137 in the US) and was accompanied by the band’s highest charting song to date, the explosive #3 single “The Eton Rifles.”

It had been reported prior to release that the album would deal with the concept of how 3 childhood friends had changed as they became adults after a modern-day English civil war (described in the song “Wasteland”). In essence, it was to be a Weller-generation version of The Kinks album Arthur, or: The Decline and Fall of the British Empire. (The two albums do make very good companion pieces.) About half of the 10 songs on the record addressed this theme directly. But when listened to as a whole, only the first and last tracks — the latter being a cover of “Heat Wave” — seem to have nothing to do with the intended concept.

Some have criticized Setting Sons  for being too “mature”, but since Paul Weller was only 21 when the album was released, perhaps “precocious” is a better word.

The album kicks off with the gleefully playful — yet somewhat cynical — “Girl On the Phone.” Then come the songs that form the core of the album’s theme. The songs take on such issues as dissolving friendships, aging, war, and selling out. The anti-war track “Little Boy Soldiers” is particularly good, pre-dating the Falklands War by a few years and also containing the eerily prescient line “God’s on our side and so is Washington.” (I don’t know if Margaret Thatcher ever said that, but Tony Blair probably has.)

The remaining songs contribute to lesser degrees to the album’s theme. Foxton’s finest composition, “Smithers-Jones,” is basically The Jam’s version of The Kinks’ song “Shangrai-La,” with its tale of a middle-aged man who has worked his whole life only to see it amount to nothing. (It also has an instrumental nod to The Kinks’ “Victoria” at the end.) “Saturday’s Kids” vividly depicts the misadventures of contemporary British youth. Finally, “The Eton Rifles” is plucked straight from the papers, with Weller railing against snotty students’ disrespect for workers.

Musically, The Jam is a formidable trio of players, and the fact that they are not virtuosos is part of their strength. Paul Weller is an extraordinarily capable guitar player. I know that does not sound like particularly high praise, but it is. He knows exactly how to craft his guitar work so as to give each song the distinctive flavor that made The Jam so unique. Be it chords, riffs, or solos, the patented Jam sound springs effortlessly from Weller’s fingers, and never for a moment does he sound like a show-off. Bruce Foxton’s bass playing is good enough to qualify him as what Jake Burns–his current band’s lead singer*–calls him: “one of the all-time greats.” His trademark ominously punky bass lines give the perfect touch to “Private Hell” and “The Eton Rifles,” and his punchy, more straightforward playing fills the space beautifully on “Girl On the Phone” and “Saturday’s Kids.” And while rock critics will forever struggle to find a non-perfunctory way to compliment drummers, the fact is that a band as energetic yet focused as The Jam needs the perfect timekeeper to speed them up and slow them down. Rick Buckler fits this role to a T. [*Foxton was a member of Stiff Little Fingers when I originally wrote this.]

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The Jam (l-r): Rick Buckler, Paul Weller, Bruce Foxton

Paul Weller sings from several points of view on Setting Sons. At times, he is the 21-year old who he was in 1979 (“Girl,” “Rifles,” “Soldiers”). At others, he is an adult singing in the first person (“Thick As Thieves,” “Burning Sky,” “Wasteland”). Finally, he is sometimes someone slightly older than himself commenting on the grown-ups around him (“Private Hell,” Foxton on “Smithers-Jones”). The loss of ideals as one grows older is of particular concern to Weller: “we watched our ideals hopelessly unwind,” “ideals are fine when you are young,” “the smouldering embers of yesterday.” It is the loss of such ideals that leads to unhappiness later in life: “we’re no longer as thick as thieves,” “We’ll watch the rain fall/Tumble and fall/Just like our lives”.

This unhappiness takes the forms of broken friendships, unhappy marriages, alienation from family, and unsatisfying work. While ideals may seem helpless in the grip of hard reality, it is only by sticking to them and making them a reality that one can avoid being stuck in a “Private Hell.”

In the songs described above, Weller is singing from perspective of another person. He does so beautifully, but hearing him sing from his own perspective is always a unique treat. He is at his cynical and punky best on “Girl On the Phone,” “The Eton Rifles,” and “Saturday’s Kids.” “Girl” has Weller commenting on how his fame has made him so recognizable that even a girl who he cannot identify knows his “leg measurements and the size of his cock.” In “The Eton Rifles,” Weller caustically spews his disdain for privileged students, ridiculing on their love of rugby, their ties and crests, their brand new shoes, and their “untamed wit.” He knows damn well that the ivory towers will not protect them forever.

“Saturday’s Kids,” meanwhile, finds Weller singing in a whimsical (and less cynical) tone about a group of youngsters he may be too old to be part of now, but to which he will always belong in his heart. He gets all the details right: the boys with their beer and football (soccer) games, the girls with their cheap perfume and discos, and their parents with their Capston non-filters. (And let’s not forget the “v-neck shirts and baggy trousers,” which come off in the backs of cars with predictable results.)

The influence of Ray Davies clearly trumps that of Pete Townshend on this record.

The 2001 CD re-issue of Setting Sons features nine very valuable bonus tracks. Individual singles were released as many as 8 months prior to and 4 months after the release of the album. All three of them — “Strange Town,” “When You’re Young,” and “Going Underground,” their first #1 single–are all included among the bonus tracks. Also included are the wonderful “The Dreams of Children” — the double A-side of “Going Underground” — and two indispensable B-sides: a version of The Who’s “So Sad About Us” and the brilliant “See Saw” (the B-side of “The Eton Rifles”). The latter is particularly valuable not only because it is probably The Jam’s best non-political, Who-inspired pop song, but because the only other place it is available on CD is the 5-disc box set. The re-issue is topped off by “Start!”, the #1 single from the forthcoming Sound Affects LP.

All things considered, this version of Setting Sons is an ideal first purchase for a Jam newcomer. It captures one of the greatest post-Beatles bands ever at their youthfully energetic but tightly focused best.

The newcomer could also opt for Snap! or Greatest Hits for a career overview, but for a snapshot of a terrific band at their peak, the 2001 re-issue of Setting Sons cannot be beat.

THROWBACK: THE BEST OF BLUR

A Great Place to Start (and an Equally Bad Place to Stop)

(Originally posted on Amazon.com on February 6, 2004)

Blur is both a great singles band and a great albums band. The Best of Blur focuses on its prowess as a singles band, and in this regard might more correctly be called “Blur’s Greatest Hits.” (If I may split hairs, it seems to me that a CD called “Greatest Hits” should include pretty much only hit singles, while one titled “Best of” should more fully represent the artist’s “best” material, including hit singles and album tracks.)

Blur (l to r): Damon Albarn, Alex James, Graham Coxon, Dave Rowntree

Nit-picking aside, The Best of Blur serves as a perfect model for a worthwhile (and worth the money) compilation. First, with 18 tracks, it features about three-quarters of the singles that charted in the US and UK, plus one well-chosen album cut and a new song for good measure (the fact that about a half-dozen chart singles are missing is indicative of what a successful band Blur was in the 90s). Moreover, the content of this disc leaves no question as the overall quality of Blur’s output.

Finally, while this can only be realized in hindsight, The Best of was released at an ideal time, as the recording of Blur’s 2003 release Think Tank would mark the beginning of a new era for the band.

The most obvious shortcoming of this disc is that it slights Blur’s superb second CD, Modern Life Is Rubbish, by including only one of its tracks, “For Tomorrow.” The most inexplicable omission would be the the proto-Britpop single “Popscene”, but the singles “Chemical World” and “Sunday, Sunday” are also missing.

As it happens, however, this weakness is turned into a strength by leaving room for the inclusion of three tracks from its more experimental (i.e., less poppy, more personal) sixth CD 13. Here’s how that works: “For Tomorrow” serves as a great teaser for the Modern Life CD, which is brimming with great tracks, and should be owned by anyone who likes what they hear on The Best of. Moreover, 13 is not the place to start for someone who is being introduced to Blur.

Hence, the disc both whets the listener’s appetite and fills his or her plate. If the tracks from 13 don’t quite click with the listener (and there is no reason why they shouldn’t), at least he or she will have three of the best tracks from that CD here. And the absence of the singles from Modern Life gives one all the more reason to buy that CD, which anyone with more than a passing interest in the band – or in good music in general – should do anyway.

From Blur’s other discs, you basically get all the singles: two of the three from Leisure, all four from Parklife (plus the album track “This Is A Low”), three of the four from both The Great Escape and Blur, and all three from 13. (Two of the missing singles, “Stereotypes” – from The Great Escape – and “M.O.R.” – from Blur – are included in live versions on a limited 2-CD edition.) Also included is a decent new track,”Music Is My Radar,”
which sort of foreshadows – for better and for worse – the direction Blur would take on its next studio album.

While some of the hits are better than others, none of them are sub par as songs, and they all belong on what is likely to be the first Blur purchase for many listeners, especially American ones.

And while some may complain about the non-chronological order of the songs, the sequencing actually does a very good job of accentuating both the variety and continuity of Blur’s catalog.

The bottom line is that a compilation should be practical: it should serve as an introduction to encourage you to buy more by the artist, or it should be comprehensive enough to prevent you from having to buy anything else. That said, The Best of Blur is unlikely to save you any money, but it will make you happy to spend the extra that you do. If this is the place you start, it is unlikely to be the place that you stop. There are simply too many terrific songs on the band’s studio discs for any compilation short of a box set to be truly comprehensive. All the same, this is a great compilation to have even if you own the other discs, as it puts almost all of the band’s hits in one place. (I had four other Blur CDs when I bought The Best of. Modern Life, Parklife, and The Great Escape are also great places to start.)

Clearly, The Best of Blur succeeds at being a model compilation. Now, does this model compilation contain great songs? In a word, yes.

For the most part, it is catchy, distinctly British pop, with sophistication, some keen social commentary, and an impressive amount of variety considering that it contains music recorded in a span of less than a decade. The songs are alternately entertaining and poignant, and usually both. In short, this disc is an essential chapter in the history of British popular music.

Sure, the lyrics may not always be terribly profound, and there may be one too many “na na na” or “la la la” sections to fill space, but if that were a crime in pop music, then many artists would have to plead guilty.

But reviews of the individual records is the place to talk about the songs, and if you are interested in checking out Blur for the first time, I assume that you are reading those as well. At the same time, however, you are probably wondering if this compilation is worth investing in. Put it this way: the songs on The Best of Blur are the ones that made this group one of the most popular British bands of the 90s. As a whole, they suffice to show that while Blur may not be as great as The Kinks or The Jam (and that is too tall of an order for any band to fill), they are truly their worthy heirs.

Long Live Blur!

INTERVIEW: ROD ARGENT OF THE ZOMBIES

Zombies lead singer Colin Blunstone, left, and keyboardist Rod Argent

Zombies lead singer Colin Blunstone, left, and keyboardist Rod Argent

When keyboardist and songwriter Rod Argent was in his 19th year of life (1964), his band The Zombies charted two top 10 singles: “She’s Not There” (#2) and “Tell Her No” (#6). When he was 23, The Zombies hit #3 with “Time of the Season” despite having split a year-and-a-half earlier.

Although the band was dead, its popularity was still very much alive.

If you haven’t heard any of the aforementioned Zombies songs, which is impossible, then maybe you remember “The Way I Feel Inside” from the movie The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.

No? Well then you’ve heard Rod Argent playing piano on the theme to CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

Rod Argent and his longtime bandmate Colin Blunstone will be undead only in the sense of being very much alive when the current incarnation of The Zombies creeps into the Regent Theatre in Arlington on Sunday. Argent spoke with me about his life and career, past and present.

When did you and Colin Blunstone decide to start working together again?
We got back together again because in 1999, I did a charity concert for a jazz musician friend of mine called John Dankworth, who was building a new theater and was trying to raise money for it. Colin was in the audience, and he come [sic] up and just sang on the spur of the moment “Time of the Season” and “She’s Not There.” We had such a ball going it that afterwards he said, “Why don’t we just put six gigs together for fun?”

So we put a fabulous band together, and it was so nice that, completely unplanned, that has turned into 13 years of touring around the world. No planning at all. It just grew to that, which is extraordinary.

Was the audience expecting it? What was the reaction?
Oh, they loved it, they really did. And it was a spur-of-the-moment thing, and they absolutely loved it.

It’s got to the stage now where it’s very important to us to actually get excited about new material. For the last album [2011’s Breathe Out, Breathe In] to get really great reviews both in the US – people like Huffington Post – and in the UK was very gratifying, actually.

The young Zombies (l to r): Rod Argent, Chris White, Paul Atkinson, Colin Blunstone, Hugh Grundy

The young Zombies (l to r): Rod Argent, Chris White, Paul Atkinson, Colin Blunstone, Hugh Grundy

Have there been any covers of your songs that have particularly impressed you?
I think the obvious one is the Santana version of “She’s Not There,” which I thought was absolutely great. And that completely knocked me out because I’ve always loved Santana, and the fact that that song brought them back to Hit Parade status, chart status, again after quite a few years without a hit gave me a kick.

Dusty Springfield did a version of one of my songs called “If It Don’t Work Out,” which I thought was terrific as well, on the Everything’s Coming Up Dusty album. I wrote it for her. We were on tour with her in the UK. At the end of one week she said to me, “Would you write me a song?” And I wrote it that weekend and played it to her. She loved it. It turned out to be the first track on the album but it was never a single.

Is it true that you had difficulty entering the United States back in the early days of The Zombies?
Oh yeah. The unionization of the music business in the States was enormous at the time. It was extremely difficult to come over, and it had to be in exchange for other musicians. I know one point we came in exchange for Duke Ellington who was really – is still – one of my heroes, actually. I thought that was amazing.

When did it sink in that Odessey and Oracle (1968) was considered to be a classic in some circles?
It started about 12, 13 or 14 years after it came out. People started to talk about it, and it gathered momentum.

Paul Weller, when he was #1 with The Jam and the punk explosion, completely floored us by saying that it was his favorite album of all time.

About a week ago he was on Radio 4, which is a pretty up-market radio station in the UK. He was talking about Odessey and Oracle and he said the same thing again, and he played “Beechwood Park” from it. That was really nice.

And many people started saying similar things about it – emerging artists and well-known artists. Tom Petty wrote in the Zombies box set (Zombie Heaven) that if The Zombies were around today, they’d rule the world, or something really, really nice.

Dave Grohl, from the Foo Fighters, last year on a Scandinavian television show was asked, “What is the track that changed your life?” And he thought about it and he chose “Care of Cell 44” from Odessey and Oracle.

It goes on and on. The Vaccines, who are a very hot teenage indie band in the UK, last year made a 45-second video on the Net saying that it was their favorite album.

How large does the legacy of your post-Zombies band Argent loom?
We always play “Hold Your Head Up,” and that’s a really highlight of the set, actually. The majority of that song was written by Chris White, the bass player for The Zombies, who became sort of a silent member of Argent, in the sense of being a co-producer and a co-writer. He actually wrote “Hold Your Head Up” out of an idea from when he heard us playing a version of “Time of the Season.” We played a sort of experimental version of “Time of the Season” and took it into a different improvised area. He was in the audience and loved what he was hearing and wrote a song around it. That song became “Hold Your Head Up.” It has a real link with “Time of the Season.”

Al Kooper, who was a vocal champion Odessey and Oracle when CBS Records wanted to pass on it, lives in Somerville, a town next to Arlington. Will you be seeing him while you are in town?
Very possibly. He supported us about a week ago in Philadelphia. It was the first time that we ever played together. It was lovely seeing him, and he said that might well be coming up to the Arlington show.

Without Al, [Odessey and Oracle] wouldn’t have been known by anybody. He took it to Clive Davis and said, “Whoever’s got this album, you’ve got to buy it and release it.” [CBS president] Clive Davis said, “Well we’ve got it, but we passed on it already.” [laughs] Al said, “Well you can’t. You have to put it out.”

So he had everything to do with that album coming out.

THE ZOMBIES
With Et Tu Brucé

SUNDAY 7.1.13
REGENT THEATRE
7 MEDFORD STREET
ARLINGTON
7:30PM/$55 & $45
REGENTTHEATRE.COM
THEZOMBIES.NET
ETTUBRUCE.COM

FLASHBACK: SOUND AFFECTS BY THE JAM

My six-year-old review of Sound Affects by The Jam (originally posted on Amazon on November 30, 2006). Damn what an awesome band.

blog_SoundAffects

“Sound Affects is my favourite Jam record”

These are the words of Jam leader Paul Weller. While Sound Affects is not my personal favorite, he clearly has good taste in his own music. Sound Affects was the third in a trio of brilliant, pun-titled records by The Jam. It was also their first collection of all original material.

The #1 double A-side “Going Undergroud/The Dreams of Children” preceded the record’s release, and served as a perfect appetizer for the forthcoming LP. Their fifth record was their most pop-oriented album, including not only 2 hit singles, but a handful of other pop numbers as well. Of course, Weller was not about to leave his more constructively cynical side behind, so there are also several less sunny tracks. But all of the songs are strong and catchy, powered by sharp experimental production and deliberately more poetic lyrics.

Sound Affects opens with the buoyant “Pretty Green,” which features Bruce Foxton’s always superb thumping bass lines, and “Monday,” which offers the album’s first taste of pleasantly faint psychedelia. The punky pop ditty “But I’m Different Now” picks up the pace, breezing by in less than 2 minutes.

Horns adorn “Boy About Town,” another snappy 2-minute number, but the most impressive of these non-single pop songs is “Man in the Corner Shop.” This track shows that Weller was still in Ray Davies-mode, depicting how 3 classes of people interact with each other on a daily basis, with the factory worker envying the shopkeeper, who in turns envies the factory owner. They come together only on Sundays, when all of them kneel before God as – of course – equals (right?).

(Not the official video, but I like it.)

The songs that form the core of the record are “Start!” and “That’s Entertainment.” The former, which was their second #1 single in a row, should sound familiar even to those who have never heard it (Weller once claimed, perhaps a bit disingenuously, that he was thinking more of James Brown than the obvious source).

“That’s Entertainment” reached only #21 in the UK, but this was as an import: it wasn’t even released in Britain as a single. This was a testament to the band’s enormous popularity at the time, and the song has become perhaps the band’s most timeless cut. The lines in this song are one picture-perfect image after another, depicted vividly by Weller’s impeccable British English.

By this time, Weller had earned his place among those who had inspired him (Davies, Townshend, Lennon), and was well on his way to inspiring the next generation of British songwriters, including Morrissey, who did a significantly altered cover of “That’s Entertainment.”

Interspersed among these pop songs are slices of Weller’s brand of healthy cynicism, captured best in the lyrics to “Dream Time”: “Their hate comes in frozen packs bought in a supermarket”. Note how this songs begins with a winding, backward intro, a trick previously heard on “The Dreams of Children.”

There is also the dark, dissonant “Set the House Ablaze,” with its creepy whistling and main riff that was clearly stolen by Bloc Party for some song that I once heard playing in a record store (I don’t know the title). Finally, the largely instrumental “Music For the Last Couple” and the confrontational closer “Scrape Away” highlight the wonderful interplay among Weller, Foxton, and Buckler.

Over the course of their remarkable 5-year recording career, The Jam never stood still or rested on its laurels. Paul Weller was a young man in a hurry, and he took his band through punk, rock, pop, and R&B at a sweeping pace. The Jam never attained the gravitas of contemporaries The Clash, but they were the most popular English band of the punk era.

Albums like Sound Affects demonstrated that The Jam had the pop smarts to afford them such commercial success, and enough attitude, intelligence, and talent to make them one of the truly greatest British bands ever. After five years of being a fan, it is still refreshing to reminded of their greatness each time I delve into their records anew. But still, I won’t hold my breath that any of their albums will appear on a Rolling Stone or VH-1 countdown any time soon.

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The Jam in 1980. This was the year in which Paul Weller and his mates won 10 awards in the annual New Musical Express (NME) poll. It was also the third straight year in which the band won for Best Album, the second of four consecutive wins for Best Group, the second of four straight years in which all three members won for their respective instruments, and first of four wins in a row for Paul Weller in the Most Wonderful Human Being category. (The fourth year in which he won was in 1983, the year after The Jam broke up.)