Album #558 – Rain Dogs

Album #558

Rain Dogs was a stark contrast from anything else released in 1985. Instead of synths and glossy production, Rain Dogs contains raw-sounding, unfiltered performances. In fact, Tom Waits has said in interviews that many of the sounds on this album were invented during the recording process. He famously said that if the sound of a 2 by 4 hitting a door sounded better, it was used. As a result, Rain Dogs can be a jarring listen to anyone unfamiliar with Waits and the sound he was going for at this point. It is a continuation of the sounds explored on Swordfishtrombones but, I feel that Waits mastered those sounds fully on Rain Dogs. It his his most accessible and most celebrated album. The sessions for this album began Waits’ long association with guitarist Mark Ribot, whose distinct guitar playing added to Waits’ “new” sound. Keith Richards also guests on Rain Dogs. I can’t think of a better musician to be included here. I loved every moment of this album. Yes, I know that Tom Waits’ previous sound was much more jazzy, folky and cabaret sounding. But, I love the diversity of sounds here: rock, jazz, polka, blues, r&b, New Orleans style. Anything that happened by mistake or suddenly while recording was thrown in. Waits’ singing style even differs from track to track: sounding like a pirate singing sea shanties one minute, a carnival barker the next. In fact, I kind of got that traveling medicine show vibe from this album. It seems that Tom Waits finally met his match with Rain Dogs. It has set the path on which he continues to travel on to this day. I hold him in high regard not only because he is a good songwriter but because he is willing to take risks and take his music places that we never saw coming. That is why Rain Dogs is an important part of my collection. If I were to recommend any of his releases as a starting point, Rain Dogs would be it. That way, you find out quickly just how talented and diverse Tom Waits really is. Overall, I give Rain Dogs, 9.5 out of 5.

Next: Psychocandy by The Jesus and Mary Chain

Album #557 – Meat Is Murder

Album #557

Meat Is Murder was my introduction to the Smiths. I can remember hearing How Soon Is Now? when I was 14 years old and wondering how these amazing sounds were created. Yes, I know the band’s signature song was not released on the UK version (it was first included on the compilation Hatful of Hollow) but it is on the North American version and that is why I’m talking about it. Years later, How Soon Is Now? would be the song that I would most identify with during my University years. Isolation is the key theme of that song and due to the fact that I was single and felt alone at the time, the song identified all the feelings that I felt during that time in my life perfectly. Nothing before that point was able to capture my feelings. It was a HUGE revelation for me. Music could be something more. A song could capture my feelings like nothing else. In a way, it was liberating. I only knew of Meat Is Murder when I was 14 because of that song. A couple of years later in high school, one of my classmates brought in the cassette version to class to listen to in her walkman. I knew I wasn’t alone in my knowledge of this seminal band. But, isolation and loneliness isn’t the album’s only subject matter. In fact, the album’s title is heavily political. Morrissey and Johnny Marr became and still are strict vegetarians. The title was a strong statement in 1985. Not eating meat was something not many people did, let alone musicians and famous people. In fact all of the band’s members were forbidden from being photographed while eating meat by Morrissey. But, that wasn’t the only statement the band made on this album. The education system, the Queen, Thatcher, et al. were all targets of Morrissey’s scorn. The band was also at their most musically diverse: funk, rockabilly, folk, punk and dance music are all explored on this album. It is no secret why the Smiths became one of the biggest bands and most influential of the decade. Nobody was doing anything like this and yet, so many looked to them for inspiration. It doesn’t surprise me that so many want the Smiths to reunite. Maybe they will be able to create that magic one more time.

Other highlights include: The Headmaster’s Ritual, Rusholme Ruffians, I Want The One I Can’t Have (one of the best unrequited love songs EVER), That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore and Nowhere Fast.

Overall, I give Meat Is Murder, 5 out of 5

Next: Rain Dogs by Tom Waits

Album #556 – Hounds of Love

Album #556

Kate Bush is one of those artists whose body of work speaks for itself. She rarely gives interviews anymore. There is no need. She puts her heart and soul into her own life, not having to define what she is doing to the masses. The music, when she decided to go back into that world, is flawless and real. No BS here. It is what SHE wants to do at that moment. Take her 22 night residency at London’s Hammersmith Odeon a few years ago. The reviews for the show were fantastic. It was Bush’s first time performing a series of concerts in several decades. And yet, Kate Bush felt like it was the right time. There was no money making agenda. No desperation. Just a desire to give the fans one last go ’round. This is what I love about Kate Bush. Hounds of Love has been declared by many to be her best album. It is certainly her most accessible but, it is an album that is part of an all encompassing body of work. To me, every album she has released is simply a piece of the puzzle. There are not many musical artists I can say that about. I love the range of styles on this album: classical, opera, an Irish jig, art pop. But, Bush is more importantly a master at capturing emotion on Hounds of Love. She can sound angry, sad, happy, introspective and indifferent. Sometimes all in the same song. Great music I have learned, while doing the challenge, requires strong emotion. It doesn’t matter if the music is happy or sad; is it legitimate. With Kate Bush, it always has been. This album was also the first Kate Bush release to be recorded in her home studio. Hounds of Love marks a turning point. Bush would now be doing music entirely on her terms. Maybe that is why so many love this album. Blood, sweat and tears became a part of Kate Bush’s narrative. She was finally able to tell her own story and this was the result. Not bad for the first go around.

Highlights include: Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God), Hounds of Love, The Big Sky, Cloudbusting, And Dream of Sheep, Waking the Witch, Jig of Life, Hello Earth and The Morning Fog.

Overall, I give Hounds of Love, 5 out of 5.

Next: Meat Is Murder by The Smiths

Album #555 – Rum, Sodomy & The Lash

Album #555

The Pogues are a punk band with Irish roots. Even though they were formed and based in London, they had a connection to Ireland through either themselves or their parents. Their songs are entirely about life on the Emerald Isle: its politics, its people and their experiences abroad. Shane MacGowan was born in Kent to Irish parents and even though he is British by birth, his rebel rousing and spirit is purely Irish. Without the Pogues, Dropkick Murphys, Spirit of the West and even Mumford and Sons would cease to exist. Their music was unlike anything else around in 1985. No glitz, no glamour. Raw energy combined with the music of their ancestors. In fact, had Rum, Sodomy and the Lash not been produced by Elvis Costello in such a way as to highlight the raw energy of MacGowan and co, this album probably would not be on the list. Their first album Red Roses for Me was a good start but something was missing. It took Elvis Costello, a Brit with Irish parents himself, to capture lightning in a bottle. The defining characteristic of the band is Shane MacGowan. His voice is distinctive and would sound out of place elsewhere. I once described his voice to a friend in high school as that of the town drunk. But, my what a voice it is. The best part about Rum, Sodomy and the Lash is that the songs on this album aren’t all lively. Some are very slow and emotional. In fact, bassist Cait Riordon, sings lead on I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Everyday and is a stark contrast to MacGowan. A mixture of drinking songs and ballads clearly reflects the Irish musical tradition. It’s no wonder that three years after this album’s release, the Dubliners and the Pogues had a hit with The Irish Rover. It was a nice pass of the baton to the next generation. The album’s finest and emotional moment was saved for the very end. The song “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” was written by British-Australian folk singer Eric Bogle about an Australian soldiers time on the battlefield in World War II. It shows not only that the Pogues were more than what they appeared to be but, that like any great artist they can take a good song and make it their own.

Other highlights include: The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn, A Pair of Brown Eyes, Sally MacLennane, Dirty Old Town (another good song that they made their own), Jesse James, Navigator, Billy’s Bones and The Gentleman Soldier.

Overall, I give Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, 5 out of 5

Next: Hounds of Love by Kate Bush

Album #554 – Suzanne Vega

Album #554

I remember watching an interview a few years ago on YouTube that Suzanne Vega did with the NewMusic in 1987 and one thing stuck out. She said that being from New York, she always had to keep the crowds’ attention. If you were boring, you were ignored, she said. That says many things about her songwriting. Suzanne Vega may have a simple voice but, she can write in a class all her own. Her songs are never dull and boring. Vega came out of the Fast Folk scene of the early 80’s. It was a group of singer-songwriters who had no recording contacts and would appear on compilations for the Fast Folk Musical Magazine. Each month a new compilation would be released with the physical magazine, kind of like what Mojo and Q do now but, with original songs and new artists instead of compilations of previously released songs and covers. Fast Folk was also a launching pad for not only Vega but Tracy Chapman, Lyle Lovett, Shawn Colvin, Michelle Shocked and even mainstream country star Suzy Bogguss. Some of their compilations are now available for streaming on Apple Music. This magazine paved the way for the late 80’s folk revival. Suzanne Vega was the first of these artists to have mainstream success. While her self-titled debut was not a hit in North America, it did sell well in the U.K. and gave Vega her first top 40 U.K. hit, Marlene on the Wall. The sound on this album is a mixture of the acoustic guitar (so prevalent in folk and singer-songwriter music) and 80’s instrumentation (synths, drums, bass, electric guitar). But, nothing is over produced here like it was on Two Wheels Good/Steve McQueen. The arrangements are just enough to keep the songs interesting but they don’t take away from Vega and her amazing lyrical prowess. One song on this album shows just how amazing a storyteller Vega is. The Queen and The Soldier is a song straight out of a fairy tale. In fact, I have the sneaking suspicion that Taylor Swift ripped Vega off in her song Love Story. The difference is that Vega pulls no punches. She can write about anything that moves her and on the follow-up, Solitude Standing, Vega broke through to the mainstream in North America for that reason.

Other highlights include: Freeze Tag, Small Blue Thing, Straight Lines, Undertow, Knight Moves and Neighborhood Girls.

Overall, I give Solitude Standing, 4.5 out of 5.

Next: Rum, Sodomy and the Lash by The Pogues

Album #553 – Fear and Whiskey

Album #552

Ahhh….finally!!! A genre I know EXTREMELY well: alt-country. The Mekons are a British band who have their beginnings in the punk scene of the late 70’s. At some point in the mid 80’s, a bunch of these bands (mostly in the U.S.) decided to create a more country sound. The Mekons were the only British punk band to really follow suit. It was a result of Tom Greenhalgh listening to more and more country music. Many call Fear and Whiskey the first alt-country album. I disagree as there were many American artists (Jason and the Scorchers, Rank and File, X, The Long Ryders, Steve Earle and the Dukes) who were also doing this type of sound at the same time. The Mekons however had a rougher edge and were a little closer to punk than country. This results in Fear and Whiskey not only sounding fresh but also ahead of its time. A loosely based concept album about wartime in a small town, Fear and Whiskey captures the storytelling element of country music at its basic core. That combined with the energy of punk created something new and exciting. Nearly 30 years later, alt-country and Americana are still exciting and fresh. Looks like the Mekons were on to something.

Highlights include: Chivalry, Trouble Down South, Hard to be Human Again, Darkness and Doubt, Last Dance and an excellent cover of Leon Payne’s Lost Highway.

Overall, I give Fear and Whiskey, 5 out of 5.

Next: Suzanne Vega’s self-titled debut album

 

Album #552 – Steve McQueen/Two Wheels Good

Album #552

This album was a huge disappointment. I had read many reviews that hailed Paddy McAloon as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation. Indeed, When Love Breaks Down is one of the saddest songs I have ever heard. It shows the real aspect of any relationship: that it’s not easy and always filled with tests and tension. In fact, I can’t think of anyone who has captured this feeling better. But, the rest of the album was lost on me. It probably has to do with the fact that Steve McQueen/Two Wheels Good is over produced. The band recruited Thomas Dolby (yes, THAT Thomas Dolby) to act as producer. I have no issue with Dolby’s solo output and some of it is AMAZING (I Scare Myself, Windpower). But, he was the wrong guy for the job. Too many synthesizers and slick pop production. It then causes most of the songs to go unnoticed. McAloon’s lyrics become buried under Dolby’s prowess. It’s really too bad. Maybe I will listen to it again at some point but, despite this, When Love Breaks Down still holds up as one of THE greatest love songs of all time. Overall, I give When Love Breaks Down, 2 out of 5.

Next: Fear and Whiskey by Mekons

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