Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Hawks & Doves by Neil Young (1980)

“ ‘Country and Western’? Wanna hear a country song? I’ll do this song, it’s a little novelty tune.” Responding to a drunken audience request during an impromptu gig at the Bottom Line club in New York, May 16th, 1974, Neil Young launches into “Roll Another Number (For The Road)” from the yet-to-be-released Tonight’s The Night (1975).

A full-band rendition of “Roll Another Number”, played on the Tonight’s the Night tour of 1973.

That might be how Neil Young looked at Country and Western in the early 1970s, but some ten years later, it had become a serious matter. Hawks & Doves followed hot on the heels of the all-conquering Rust Never Sleeps multimedia extravaganza Young undertook with Crazy Horse, finishing the 1970s with a bang. By contrast, Hawks & Doves is one of the shortest albums in his catalogue, over in less than thirty minutes. Six of the nine songs are under three minutes, most of them even closer to two minute bursts. What is carried on from Rust Never Sleeps is the division into two conceptual LP sides, in this case corresponding with the title. The “Doves” side is a casual grouping of several previously-recorded songs, some going back five years to the abandoned Homegrown project. The “Hawks” side is newly recorded material, whose 5 songs flitter past in thirteen minutes. The similarity between the new songs makes Side B more of a conceptual suite than a collection of songs.

The Hawks side presents the listener with the most uncompromising Country and Western Young had recorded up to that point. Of course the soft rock mega seller Harvest (1972) had already included some country tones, banjos and even a song with “country” in the title. Comes a Time (1978) had also served up a healthy dose of acoustic finger picking, harmonising and slide guitars, but the glossy sheen makes it more of a folky , slick soft-rock album. The closest comparison can be made with American Stars ‘n Bars (1977), in more ways than one. It too breaks the record into a previously-recorded odds and sods side (also in part from the Homegrown sessions), and a newly recorded side. The latter is also distinctly country and western, albeit in a more tightly produced and slick manner than Hawks. Hawks unleashes Young’s newly matured country twang and croon to full effect, fiddles are played and most worryingly for his liberal fan base, the genre’s reactionary politics are embraced.

A 1984 performance of the title track. This tour was also a “country and western” affair (see below), so the arrangement is similar to the album version released four years previously.

A sample of lyrics from the above title track: “I’m proud/to be living in the USA/Ready to go/willing to stay and pay/USA/USA”. “Got rock ‘n roll/got country music playin’/if you hate us/you just don’t know what you’re sayin’.” The same anti-establishment singer from “Southern Man”, “Ohio”, “Campaigner”, “Revolution Blues” and “Pocahontas” was now standing up for the silent majority. The material was not even written as a character piece to fit the Hawks concept; Young’s interviews of the time show a frustration with a soft post-Vietnam US foreign policy, the Iran hostage crisis in particular. For an in-depth analysis of the themes, as well as an unusually positive review of the album, Robert Christgau’s 1980 review gives a good contemporary take on Young’s shift in career. Other songs on this side of the album are similar in style, referring to unions (in this case the musician’s union), the “working man”, a lot of references to the collective “we”, and the state of the country. “Union Man” even has a jokey call and response part, with the usually charmingly Canadian-accented Young adopting a faux redneck twang (“ ‘Live Music is Better’ Bumper stickers/should be issued!”).

The first side of the album is the aforementioned pieced-together collection of session leftovers from the previous decade. Rather than start with the more homogeneous (and current) country material and padding out the rest of the album, therefore also matching the album title, the rag tag collection opens the album. This makes it a mirror of American Stars ‘n Bars, both albums theoretically making a double LP with country music bookending on sides one and four. Because Stars ‘n Bars was given the first pickings of unreleased material, its country material was expanded with “Like a Hurricane”, one of Young’s best; “Will to Love” and “Star of Bethlehem”. The barrel was in need of scraping for Doves; “Captain Kennedy” is a typical folk ballad in the traditional “Scarborough Fair” style; “The Old Homestead” is a plodding, cryptically deformed half-brother to Rust Never Sleeps’s beautiful “Thrasher”; and “Lost in Space” has tuned vocals that foreshadow the hit-and-miss Trans period of the early 1980s. “Little Wing” is a suitably “dovey” opening to the album, a remainder of the ambition to record songs with the same title as well-known songs by other artists.

Critical reaction was understandably muted when Hawks & Doves was released in 1980. The messy, unremarkable first side and the reactionary, rather monolithic second side added up to a remarkably brief, underdeveloped album. Gorged on the remarkable Rust Never Sleeps, Live Rust and solidly commercial Comes A Time in the previous two years, the brief Hawks and Doves is extremely underwhelming. Its marginal and flawed status is perpetuated by the history books; Jimmy McDonough’s Shakey dedicates a paragraph to H&D and an entire chapter to Tonight’s the Night. It only transpired many years later that Young was suffering in silence throughout the early 1980s. His second son was born with severe disabilities, and Young and his wife were preoccupied with the round-the-clock care and therapy his formative years required. This would explain the lack of attention given to Young’s albums in this difficult period, as would the lack of an accompanying tour.

Hawks & Doves, despite its obvious faults, is not entirely without its charms. They can be found in its inevitably scrapbook-like quality, and are more of a biographical than artistic nature. The conviction and harshness with which Young broke with his peacenik image (the Dove) and embraced his “Republican” side is thrilling to listen to, and as a genre exercise the Hawks material is played spiritedly and is quite enjoyable for the thirteen minutes that it lasts. Young would return to country and western in the mid-1980s, threatening to never play rock music again until his record company (Geffen) would stop interfering and pushing for commercially viable material. Hawks & Doves is an accessible taster of this style of Young’s material, and quite an intriguing mess.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Think Tank by Blur (2003)

Blur had something to prove with this, their “last” album. Having had a commendably stable four-man line-up for all of their 13-year career, guitarist Graham Coxon was more-or-less forced out of the band in 2002. Recordings proceeded, however, as did a tour. How would the band fare without the man who defined much of their sound through his distinct guitar-playing, backing vocals, glasses wearing and occasional singing-songwriting, like on the fantastic “Coffee & TV”?

The answer is: “remarkably gracefully”. Not surprisingly, the band is much more oriented towards Damon Albarn’s whims than before, being an unopposed bandleader and creative force. This is also the first Blur album since Albarn’s huge success with the Gorillaz project, and its shadow is clearly felt on Think Tank. A “world music” aesthetic permeates the sound as well, a nod to Albarn’s personal interests (his Mali Music project had come out the year before). It sounds like a recipe for disaster: take a britpop band, add some totalitarian leadership and ill-advised new directions, and watch it sink in the 21st century.

But it must not be forgotten that Blur were much more keen to experiment than their 1990s peers (apart from perhaps Radiohead). Already in 1997, when Oasis released Be Here Now, perhaps the ultimate anthem to Britpop stagnation, Blur had taken a left turn and “gone indie” on their self-titles album. Under creative direction from Graham Coxon, the band had taken American indie rock to heart, taking a more overdriven guitar-led approach. The next album, 1999’s 13 took the hinted-at trip hop influences of its predecessor and combined them with freeform song structures, sensitive ballads and the aforementioned “Coffee and TV”. Blur had released a Kid A album a year before Radiohead.

Compared to 13, Think Tank is much more conventional. It has proper songs, some of them even catchy to the point of being single material. The opening track in particular, is very strong:

Moody, ambitious and with plain lyrics. The instrumentation creates a soundscape that’s as desolate as the Banksy cover artwork. As the dub-like bass plods along, the drum part hints at faraway machinegun fire. Textures are added as the song progresses, finally including saxophone, backing vocals, organ, and several guitar parts. “Out of Time”, the second track, is clearly another strong one, following traditional album sequencing rules of putting the catchy, strong stuff up front to impress the buyer/record company. On this track, the Moroccan instrumentation that shows up on many tracks is heard for the first time. Partly recorded in Morocco, the setting and proposed production duties by Norman “Fatboy Slim” Cook were points of conflict for Albarn and Coxon, in part leading to the latter’s departure.

Nowhere is the ghost of Fatboy Slim felt more plainly than on “Crazy Beat”, the third track. This turd of a song almost ruins the album, cynically retreading the already interminable and omnipresent “Song 2”, but with added synths and a novelty voice that cuts through all the beauty and subtlety of the first two tracks. The paradoxically overweight ghost will make a further misguided entrance on track 12, “Gene by Gene”, although surprisingly not on the equally “high energy” (read: Song 2 retread) “We’ve Got A File On You”. The shock of “Crazy Beat” is considerably softened by the aptly titled “Good Song”, a mellow, dreamy ballad that ranks among Blur’s best. The next several songs are the most characteristic of Think Tank; beat-driven songs, with a certain club element. “On The Way To The Club” lyrically hints at Alice in Wonderland, while also half-citing a certain other major English recording artist with the line “My eyes are blue/and there’s nothing I can do”. “Sweet Song” is an apt companion piece to “Good Song”, a dreamy electric piano-led piece.

The album could not hope for a better ending than “Battery in Your Leg”. It is the only track that is partly credited to Graham Coxon, and the only one on which his playing is heard. It is a melancholy and self-referential piano ballad with epic guitar work that ends the album on a dizzying low, just like “This Is A Low” did on Parklife. It would also end the band’s recording career.

The album received mixed reviews upon release, which is understandable considering the disjointed impression the album leaves on listeners and the negativity surrounding Coxon’s departure. It remains sorely underrated in Blur’s catalogue, although its legacy received a welcome nod when Blur reunited in 2009. Whereas some revisionist bands, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, shun all material recorded in the absence of certain key members, Blur played “Out of Time” with Coxon on their tourdates.

“Out of Time”, along with “Good Song” and “Battery in Your Leg” also featured on the newly released career-spanning compilation Midlife, an excellent release featuring many album tracks and omiting a few singles. Thankfully, it also spares us from “Crazy Beat”. Think Tank is proof of a band’s ability to transcend its inner difficulties, innovate at a later stage in its careers and produce something intriguing and listenable. While hit-and-miss, its better songs stand the test of time, and show that Blur had plenty to offer in its “terminal” phase.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Soft Bulletin by The Flaming Lips (1999)

A reshuffle of a band’s line-up has often taken bands into new directions. Members who were more in the background step in to fill a creative void (think Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters after the departure of Syd Barrett), new members are brought in and either faultlessly emulate their predecessor or add their own spin. When Ronald Jones, the Flaming Lips’ lead guitarist left in 1996, the remaining three members decided to continue without looking for a replacement. A new experimental phase was initiated for the Oklahoma threesome, one that would yield some of the best music of the 1990s.

Not many bands are lucky enough to have a drummer who also happens to be a guitar and keyboard virtuoso. Lucky for the Lips, Stephen Drozd could step into the breach and help make their most ambitious music yet. For their first few albums, The Flaming Lips had made what can best be described as “Freaky Punk Rock”, an acid-fried version of US punk as it was developing in the early 1980s. In the early 1990s, they rode the alternative wave, having a minor hit with “She Don’t Use Jelly” in 1993. Their last album with Ronald Jones, 1995’s Clouds Taste Metallic showed more ambition in their arrangements, hinting at new directions. Losing their guitarist heralded in a phase of great experimentation. Rather than continue as a functional band, the Lips bunkered down in the studio and worked on producing loops of textures, samples and other creations. Spread across dozens of tapes that were meant to be played simultaneously by a participating, conducted audience, new directions in music were explored. The idea was that different pre-prepared parts would yield a sound greater than the sum of its parts due to being slightly out of sync and coordinated on the fly. What started as the “Parking Lot Experiments” snowballed into the “Boombox Experiments” and eventually became Zaireeka, a four disc set meant to be played simultaneously for eight-channel living room mayhem.

The rich, layered sounds that were developed in these sessions would find their way onto the Flaming Lips’ next, “proper” album. Zaireeka had been greenlighted on the condition that it wouldn’t count toward the records that the band owed their label under their deal. What emerged in 1999 is a timeless album that can hold its own against other 1990s classics like Nevermind and OK Computer. The cover, a two-tone image cropped from a 1966 Life feature on the increasing use of LSD among the American population, already somewhat prepares the listener for the contents.

Fig 1: a spread from the original 1966 article in Life magazine.

Any album that opens with the verse “Two scientists are racing/for the good of all mankind/both of them side by side/so determined/locked in heated battle/for the cure that is the prize/but it’s so dangerous/but they’re determined” is bound to be something special. That euphoric opening track, “Race For the Prize” immediately sets the tone for the rest of the album: lush, ambitious, and with a drum sound that is compressed to the size of a pancake. “A Spoonful Weighs A Ton” takes it further, with oboes and harps clashing with synthesized choirs and electronically treated bass. The second verse uses a tinny Run DMC style drum machine to great effect, guiding Wayne Coyne’s “straining Southern choir boy” vocals beautifully. After the two energetic opening tracks, “The Spark That Bled” is the first of several “proggy” suites. Vibraphones and brass parts that have been said to recall (to the chagrin of the artists themselves) the Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds give the first parts of the song a symphonic “tropical” quality, whereas Drozd’s lead guitar piece towards the end recalls the country music prevalent in the band’s native Oklahoma. Various experiments in sound give way to “Waitin’ For A Superman”, one of the first tracks that shows a maturity in Wayne Coyne’s songwriting. Its earnest tone and frank lyrics foreshadow the band’s later hit “Do You Realize”. A logical climax to the loose narrative of the album is “The Gash”, a Wagnerian march that creates a sonic battlefield and urges the listener to contemplate the nature of his weakness. The resolution of the cycle is the utterly breathtaking “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate”, a tear-inducing song that soars as guitars melt among heavenly choirs.

In order to tour with the new material, the band took full advantage of turn-of-the-century technology. Rather than try to recreate the studio masterpieces with a pieced-together touring band, Stephen Drozd recorded drum tracks for the songs, leaving him free to play guitar and keyboards. The demented orchestras, choirs, effects and slide guitar pieces were also left on the backing tracks, blurring the distinction between the studio and the stage. The Beatles found it impossible to recreate their new sounds live on stage and retired from touring; the Flaming Lips brought the studio to their audience. Tightly playing along to a backing track allowed for accompanying video presentations projected onto a Floyd-esque screen at the back of the band. This also allowed videos of Drozd’s drum parts to be played in the background while he played guitar live on top of them. This is a particularly powerful effect in “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton”. [YouTube, embedding disabled.]

Though the band would struggle to deliver another statement as cohesive and focussed as The Soft Bulletin, its reputation as a daring band capable of incredible sonic feats would never dissipate. Their most recent offering showcases the band’s refusal to rest on its laurels and continue their journey into sound. The Soft Bulletin has stood the test of time, and will set the benchmark for all spacey rock albums for years to come.