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

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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

Album #551 – Brothers In Arms

Album #551

Brothers In Arms is one of the biggest selling albums of all time. I can remember seeing the iconic cover in my parent’s cassette tape collection as a little kid and wondering what sounds were on this album. I figured it was some random delta blues record. The best part is that there is traces of that (The Man’s Too Strong), country (Why Worry), rock (Money for Nothing), jazz (Your Latest Trick)  and rockabilly (Walk of Life). Kind of like any great music from the 80’s. The band was a huge part of not only my dad’s life but that of many others. Dad always talks about how big Dire Straits were when he was in their heyday. Mark Knopfler’s every man approach to songwriting was not only extremely accessible but awesome and reliable. He has always been a storyteller and that sets him apart from other songwriters of this decade. In fact, it has gotten him into trouble. Money for Nothing was written directly from a conversation he heard in an NYC electronics store. Two workers were talking about their disgust with MTV and the whole notion of a rock star in the mid 80’s. Knopfler was instantly able to translate that into a song and many thought his words were actually taken to be his literal opinion. Nothing could be further from the truth. The full album version was briefly banned from airplay in Canada but, thankfully the context of the song rescinded it. In many ways, Dire Straits were the antithesis of 80’s rock stars: they hated making flashy music videos and never really appeared in them, the music was more important than the image and they were never afraid to combine their influences from the past into their music. And yet, because the music was of the utmost importance, this album had to be good. Really good. In fact, drummer Terry Williams was replaced by session vet Omar Hakim for the sessions of Brothers In Arms because Williams wasn’t up to snuff. What we are left with is one of the best sounding albums of the decade without a single throwaway song. That is a huge accomplishment in itself for any album released in 1985.

Other highlights include: So Far Away, Ride Across The River and Brothers In Arms.

Overall, I give Brothers In Arms, 9 out of 5.

Next: Steve McQueen/Two Wheels Good by Prefab Sprout

 

 

Album #550 – Songs from the Big Chair

Album #550

Songs from the Big Chair is the best pop album I have heard so far from the 80’s.I first listened to the album in full while driving home from a vacation to the Maritimes a few years ago. I flew most of the way but, the trip always requires a four hour drive to Thunder Bay. I don’t mind this at all. I could choose to fly to TBay but, I love the drive because I get to listen to albums in full through my car’s CD player. Yes, I still have CDs. That and the fact that its summer and perfect weather for a road trip.  I decided to bring this album along and as I was heading back home, Songs from the Big Chair was the first album I chose to listen to. It couldn’t have reflected my mood more. Sad, gloomy but also uplifting. Those were the emotions that I was feeling that day. Listening to it, made things more bearable.  All the tracks on this release are accessible, like all good pop music, and yet there is a deeper meaning to these songs. Tears for Fears burst onto the scene in 1982-83 with their debut album, The Hurting. That album was a huge success in the UK but, failed to crossover to North America and beyond. Songs from the Big Chair did just that and more. In fact, this album was so successful that the group had to take a long break from music. The follow-up to Songs from the Big Chair, Sowing the Seeds of Love, was released 4 years later. But, its no surprise considering what this group was all about. Songs from the Big Chair talks more about human nature in its 41 minutes than its contemporaries. And yet, the album is just as accessible as Madonna and Michael Jackson’s music.  If anything, Songs from the Big Chair was ahead of its time. At the core are songs about life and its ups and downs. It doesn’t hide anything. These songs are brutally honest and even the 80’s production does not change that. In the early 90’s, the explosion of alternative rock and “grunge” would also have songwriting that was raw, honest and unabashedly real. It’s too bad that more pop music couldn’t be like this. Highlights: every track is AWESOME!!! Overall, I give Songs from the Big Chair, 8 out of 5.

Next: Brothers In Arms by Dire Straits

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