In a year that might well be remembered for one of the worlds largest bands giving their album away for free – much to the chagrin of many music listeners, there’s was plenty of great music to get excited about.
Albums from Ryan Adams, U2, Taylor Swift, Beck, Foo Fighters and many others made the rounds on airwaves, speakers and ear buds in 2014. Still, some albums, some songs were more resilient, more beautiful, catchier and more…”top” than the others,
That’s what this list is for.
A list showcasing the Top 5 albums I heard this year, like I write every year. Here were the albums I played relentlessly. Are any of your favourites on it?
No Line On the Horizon, the band’s twelfth studio album, released in early 2009, was a relative failure in terms of sales, even if the resulting world tour was the highest grossing concert tour in history. It was evident: people still wanted to hear and see U2. For that reason and that reason alone, the aged Irish rockers can still be deemed as being relevant musically, politically, and culturally. With the surprise album release of Songs of Innocence last week, five long years since their last proper album, U2, the long-lasting survivors of rock and roll, test the theory of relevancy once more.
And they come through that crucible in one of the most unexpected ways imaginable: if not through the music itself, then through the musical process.
This list of my top albums of2010 has literally been in the making for 365 days. I know that sounds obvious, but I love writing this year-end column and I’ve been consciously “bumping” albums in favor of others all year long. Recently, I’ve had friends ask me what my top albums of the year are. After being slightly taken aback – and flattered – that they even had an interest in my opinion on the matter, I gave teasers to one or two of them, gave my entire list to one particular close friend (who was buying them all on Boxing Day) and told a few others to read this column. (Sorry to make you wait a bit!)
For the rest of you, I just hope to keep you mildly entertained for a couple of minutes and, perhaps, make you think about what the best albums you heard this year are. Feel free to tell me yours in the comments section below. With all the music that’s out there, I’m keen to know if there are any I might have missed.
The last few months has seen Andy B and I debating the merits of our favorite pieces of music with a true fan’s exuberance. You can read about his choices for the top 5 albums of 2010 here. Although we’ve discussed our faves, I think even our esteemed Editor-In-Chief will find one or two surprises on this particular list. They were surprises for me, too.
Without further ado, then…the top 5 albums of 2010 are:
5. The National – High Violet
I’m not a huge The National fan. Normally, I hear them somewhere in the background while my brother is playing one of their records either at his condo or in his car. Still, there was something about the sounds in High Violet that perked my ears – and those ears stayed perked for the better part of the year. Melancholy, serene, sometimes sultry but always affecting, High Violet, the bands fifth offering, always remained an engaging listen despite its rainy day sound.
In-between the staple morose sounds of The National, there were joyous moments to be found here. Bloodbuzz Ohio soars to new musical heights for the band with its haunting piano chimes and bursting drum loops, all coupled with lead singer, Matt Berninger, crooning, “I still owe money to the money I owe”. The song is made all the more haunting by his deep, baritone voice, a trait that runs, as it should, throughout the entirety of the record.
The slow build of England containing the lyric “You must be somewhere in London, you must be loving your life in the rain” picks up where the uplifiting Bloodbuzz Ohio stops, culminating in a stadium-sized sing-along that would end the album if not for the tender bedtime finale of Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.
Slow, mainly quiet and respectful, yet still brimming with artistic desire, The National have created a sensitive album that submits and embraces human emotion. It might be raining outside but High Violet will bring a little sunshine to any grey day.
4. Vampire Weekend – Contra
Who wouldn’t want to be drinking Horchata in December?
That tasty, ground almond beverage is the title of the first track in Vampire Weekend’s second album, Contra – and it kicks the record off with quite a bang: deftly struck xylophone planks, rushing drum and bass grooves mixing effortlessly with programmed sound effects and sweeping strings. The song sounds marvelously like playfully bursting bathtub bubbles.
And that image is what makes Contra so brilliant. Amidst the sweet Paul Simon-esque vocals of singer Ezra Koenig is an album full of comforting, childlike fun and springtime noise. These are musicians enjoying their art and that joy is infectious. Contra is world beat in its sounds mixing indie art rock with ska, ambient electronica, rap and rave together into alchemist gold. Run will have you singing in your car while Diplomat’s Son will have you bopping your head when doing the laundry or vacuuming. The album closer, I Think Ur A Contra, on the other hand, will tuck you into bed on an early summer evening.
Lawsuits over album cover artwork aside, Contra is Vampire Weekend’s first number one in the charts, selling over 4000,000 in the United States alone. It should be in your collection as well. Heard whilst drinking horchata, of course.
3. Bran Van 3000 – The Garden
The city of Montreal gets represented in one of my year-end Top 5 lists again. There’s been some pretty special music coming out of that town the past decade and Bran Van 3000’s fourth album, The Garden, is a testament to that magic.
This 15 track recording, featuring guest appearances from musical artists normally found in circles I don’t generally gravitate towards – Jamaican rap, R & B, soul and modern, big box dance clubs, is an absolute delight from start to finish.
The Bran Van 3000 collective, Canada’s own Gorillaz, takes the listener on a journey seemingly through the length of a day. Utilizing string arrangements and acoustic guitar, we start with sounds and rhythms seemingly found in the early morning in songs like Oui Got Now and then move to hazy dub-based music in the afternoon, heard in You Too. Later, as daylight turns to starlight, the album picks itself up with party and dance floor beats. First single, Grace (Love On The Block), is amped up energy with its chorus of “la la la la la la la” – something that all the club kids will love. Jahrusalem ups the ante, harkening heavy house music comingled with flourishes of electronica and rap. World Party keeps the good times rolling with a syrupy bass groove, plucky guitar and soulful vocals while the seven minute long Stillwater Cats completes your aural adventure with a return to strings and electronic samples amidst a world beat sound.
Bran Van 3000’s latest is musical genius, their best offering yet, daring the listener to ever turn the music off. Putting it on your record player or iPod is akin to having your own personal DJ, someone who only plays the songs you’ve been dying to hear all of your life.
The Garden wins every time and listening to it, you will too.
2. Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
Working with Snoop Dog, Mos Def, Lou Reed and Bobby Womack on a new album? Having punk rock legends Paul Simonon and Mick Jones of The Clash back you up on bass and guitar respectively? That’s just not fair! It must be some kind of crazy dream – that’s the only explanation, right?
Well, something like that could only happen in the fictional, cartoon world of Gorillaz.
It’s a testament to Damon Albarn’s musical chops, ringleader of the virtual band, that he was able to assemble this all-star cast of musicians for the third offering from Gorillaz, the amazing Plastic Beach. With this band, a collective that changes from album to album, Albarn can move in any musical style that he wants and with the concept album Plastic Beach, it was funk, soul, hip-hop, electronica and rap – all rolled up in a pop-flavoured shell that interested him.
Perhaps not as affecting as the group’s last album, Demon Days, Plastic Beach still contains a number of top tunes running throughout it’s politically aware narrative of consumerism amidst natural resource shortage. Stylo is a kick ass, bass driven tour de force while On Melancholy Hill is a breezy and contented come down from the trappings of this digital age. Empire Ants and To Binge are beautiful songs, delicately presented by the sweet, quiet but powerful vocals of Yukimi Nagano of Little Dragon – live favourites to be sure. But it’s the Mos Def fronted poetry of Sweepstakes that demands to be heard here, a rolling drum-fuelled celebration of lower class culture rising above its station in life. An amazing piece of songwriting.
Plastic Beach by Gorillaz has something for everyone, always exuding a musical braveness that elevates it beyond the status quo, cartoon or not.
1. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
Remember what I said about Montreal? Magic, I tell you, sheer magic.
It’s only their third album, but with The Suburbs, Arcade Fire seem to be older, wiser, perhaps slightly more melancholy, as they look back on a youth spent outside of the city limits. The album is a story of what those neighbourhoods are like, the people that live within them and the kinds of fiction (and non-fiction) that permeate through them.
It’s not story time, however. No, this is an album of truth, about the need to break away from the mundane, to seek out one’s path and find a place in this world. The glow of the big city lights, of course, relentlessly beckons.
Arcade Fire are still singing to the kids here. Rocking songs like Ready To Start and Month of May prove that hypothesis. Not entirely grown up just yet, however, the band still appeals to the older adult, found in that sense of understanding that only comes with experience. Why else would we get the guitar-driven, REM-feeling Modern Man or the Blondie inspired Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)? Arcade Fire are both masters and students of their art.
Still, it’s the lynchpin song, We Used To Wait, upon which the album revolves. This is the coda to a brilliant recording: that there was a time when information wasn’t so instant and that those bygone days were a better time, that there was more meaning to relationships back then. “Hope that something pure can last” wails singer Win Butler, a testament to instant gratification and the setting aside of the just received for the brand new about to arrive. Everything these days: records, homes, people, love – is disposable.
The Suburbs is a glorious rock album – both musically and thematically. It rises far above the mundane, kicking and screaming the entire way, orbiting a place in the musical landscape as something that all musicians should aspire: an instant, relevant and timeless classic that occupies it’s own place, set aside from all others.
Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs shines its own bright light, a triumph over so many things.
Three For The Stadium: The Charlatans, Manic Street Preachers, Ryan Adams And Their 2010 Releases – JP Reviews
There are those albums that sort of slip through the cracks, your consciousness, your interest or, sometimes, your wallet. There are those that are released in other demographic jurisdictions earlier in the year, never finding their way to your area code. And then there are those pieces of music that quietly slide their way into stores at the end of the year – during days that are best set aside for holiday shopping and nights best reserved for Jingle Bells and Little Drummer Boy listening.
That’s what happened with the three aural samples listed below. But it’s December 30th and we’re all caught up now.
The Charlatans – Who We Touch
I had tickets to see The Charlatans, one of my long-standing favourite “Madchester” bands at Toronto’s Lee’s Palace this past September 17. I always try to catch them when they’re in town as a sort of return to my well-spent club-going youth, each time wondering who from my past I might run into at the show. Two days before the scheduled concert, disappointment and concern flooded over the tour as drummer Jon Brookes collapsed on stage during a show in New York. The tour was quickly cancelled with the band later revealing that Brookes had been diagnosed with a brain tumor.
The album’s first track, single Love is Ending, starts with a bang: the immediate smashing of drum kit and flourish of hard hit symbols before driving bass pushes all aside to lead the way. It’s an auspicious sound for the album – The Charlatans, after a few lackluster offerings the past few years, lashing out and begging to be heard again. And really, Who We Touch is a return to form, albeit a more tempered one. The members of the group are, after all, now in their early forties. Surely, this rock and roll stadium pace couldn’t continue for long?
My Foolish Pride is a shimmering beauty, a song that encapsulates all of the best elements that have made The Charlatans who they are: groovy bass, Hammond organ and plucky guitars – as well as those sugary vocals from Tim Burgess, seemingly one of Peter Pan’s “Lost Boys,” never growing old, just as energized as he was when he first sang The Only One I Know all those years ago.
But the band is cleverer now than they were in those bygone days, they’re stronger musicians and more fearless artists. They’re merging acoustic with electronic music seamlessly now. They’re raising the stakes of the listener in songs like Intimacy, inducing more energetic fist-pumps and stadium-sized sing-alongs in the instant live classic Sincerity while showing a beat-poet, anarchistic-glam side in the thirteen minute closing track, the compelling You Can Swim/On The Threshold/I Sing The Body Eclectic, a poem performed to music by Penny Rimbaud.
Who We Touch, for listeners, lives up to its promise.
Rest well and make a full recovery, Jon. Toronto and all Charlatan fans, look forward to hearing you smash the drums on this rocking album live soon.
Manic Street Preachers – Postcards From A Young Man
In some parts of the world, namely the United Kingdom, Postcards From A Young Man was released in early September. The rest of us are still waiting on it. The same thing happened with their acclaimed 2009 release, Journal For Plague Lovers – which eventually received a North American release nearly six months after the UK, coinciding, incidentally, with a tour on this side of the ocean. Expect the same thing with Postcards.
Kicking off with the sweeping single (It’s Not War) Just The End of Love, all rousing strings and amped up electric guitar, James Dean Bradfield sings, “To feel forgiveness you’ve got to forgive, it’s lost on me I believe in revenge”. The line is a perfect testament to both the Manic Street Preachers slash-and-burn-with-love philosophy and the oeuvre on the rest of the album. Postcards is wonderfully poppy and mainstream for the glam rockers, a “last shot at mass communication” as bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire put it earlier this year but it still retains that old Manics snarl – a perfect remembrance of a youthful vigor, a literal postcard from when these men were younger.
Even with the heavy use of strings, Motown beats and gospel choirs on many of the songs found on the album, Manic Street Preachers never forget their rock roots. And they’ve got a little help from their circle of friends here too.
Echo & The Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch features on Some Kind of Nothingness while fellow Welshman John Cale of The Velvet Underground lends himself to Auto-Intoxication. Longtime fans of Guns n Roses, the Manics also recruit Duff McKagan on bass for A Billion Balconies Facing The Sun. Yes, it sounds exactly as you’d expect: immediate, thumping and powerful – a stadium-sized effigy to rock and roll containing multiple guitar solos.
On the other side of the rock dial, All We Make Is Entertainment is joyously Fleetwood Mac even amidst its despairing lyrics while album closer Don’t Be Evil (a nod to Google’s corporate mantra) is perhaps the most Manics track on Postcards From A Young Man – fuzzed out guitars and deep bass drum comingled with the biting lyric “as corporate as the suits you won’t wear, as stupid as the jeans you tear”. It’s sheer bliss for any fan of the band.
Still, North American audiences might have to wait a while for a domestic release of this album. The Manic Street Preachers are already at work on their follow-up, tentatively titled “70 Songs of Hatred and Failure” – an album, they tells us, that will be “pure indulgence”. Perhaps a tour and a release of both albums will coincide for Canadian and Stateside fans.
Until then, there are always import CD’s, iTunes and my word for it. Postcards From A Young Man is joyous, stadium rock and should not be missed by any lover of guitar-driven, big beat, sweaty but tight, bombastic music.
Ryan Adams And The Cardinals – III/IV
What’s a year without another double album by Ryan Adams and his band The Cardinals? In 2003, the artist released the, well rocking, Rock N Roll. In 2004, he submitted the delicately textured, Smiths inspired, Love Is Hell. 2005 saw the release of three albums worth of alternative country material: the brilliant double album Cold Roses, alongside follow-ups Jacksonville City Nights and 29.
This short history of Ryan Adams continues with2007’s Easy Tiger, an important album in the context of III/IV since the songs on this latest release were created during those sessions.
So, Adams kept a pace of at least an album a year – except in the last few. After 2008’s Cardinology release, Ryan Adams retired from music in order to write books. Two of them as a matter of fact. Oh. And he got married. To actress/singer Mandy Moore. So, you know, he kept busy, as one might expect. Easy, tiger! indeed.
The opening track to new double album III/IV, Breakdown Into The Resolve begins with the statement “Hi, hello, it’s me again, don’t worry I’ll talk slow, so you probably heard I went away, where do we start?” It’s am ominous beginning considering that the two years since his last release is more akin to a decade in Adams-time. Still, as mentioned earlier, these songs are the tunes that didn’t make it onto an album back during those Easy Tiger sessions. Perhaps he was prognosticating?
Formally with The Cardinals again, III/IV, released only a few weeks ago, has left any country aspirations behind in favor of straightforward arena rock and roll. As a matter of fact, this latest release is very close to his Rock N Roll offerings of days done by: Adams, his ripping guitar, his plaintive voice, his affecting lyrics, all ably assisted by the strongest set of musicians he’s ever been happily paired with.
There is a marked absence of genuine singles here but Ultraviolet Light is a strong contender. It’s a melancholy song with a sing-along chorus of “Come on, come on, come on let’s go it’s getting darker” amidst a playful guitar riff that sends shivers down the spine. Of course, there’s the playful Adams at work here, too, what with songs like Star Wars wherein amidst rolling drums and start/stop guitar licks, he pleads to find “Someone that loves me the way I love Star Wars, Wizards and Ninja Wars”.
Even the word “Wookie” makes an appearance on this album and I’m thinking that any fan of Biff Bam Pop! Would be a fan of III/IV. Adams himself would surely find comfort surfing the articles presented here. Hell, he’d probably be a regular commenter on them.
All songs on III/IV sort of blur into each other, but the album is definitely a grower, a worthy addition to any rock music collection, let alone a fan of Ryan Adams’ specific kind of rock and roll.
The music world is lucky to have had these songs released and we’re lucky to hear all of them.
Interpol, released September 7, 2010 on Matador records, the eponymously titled fourth record from the New York City based rock band will probably best be remembered as the last album that bassist Carlos Dengler worked on.
Dengler, often identified as the fashion conscious, physical embodiment of the music that Interpol produces, left in the spring of this year after participating in both the writing and recording of the new album. Although his departure was not a surprise to members of the band, his trademark bass sounds – as much as his look – will be missed. If Interpol were a brand, Dengler would be their advertisement.
The self-produced Interpol finds the group of musicians in a much more relaxed and perhaps hazy mindset than previous album, Our Love to Admire, which was filled with stadium-sized, galloping rock tunes. That difference was the influence of producer, Rich Costey, who has also produced albums from Brit sci-fi rockers, Muse. Interpol, in the hands of singer Paul Banks, guitarist Daniel Kessler, drummer Sam Fogarino and Dengler, is much more introspective with overlaying sounds that ebb and tide as if under the gravitational pull of the moon. Indeed, the album is probably at its strongest when heard at two or three in the morning, after a late night of exhausting debauchery and casual fornication – all elements of the Interpol soundscape brand. It’s an interesting, however somewhat middling, album to listen to.
There isn’t much new to the Interpol sound here. It’s as familiar as we’ve heard on previous albums, which is reassuring, however one can’t help but to think that this may be all that Interpol the band has to offer – as if they have reached their musical apex on this record. That isn’t a bad thing necessarily. The sounds are interesting, sexy, artful and punchy. Still, the last four tracks on the ten track album all meander, as if searching for some place to go, each one sounding like it should be the bookend piece on the record, each one justified in being so. One just wonders if the band can surprise listeners with hooks and riffs and vocal melodies again as they did on each of their previous three releases. Perhaps that is why Dengler decided to move on. Perhaps he felt Interpol had run its course.
When the band do push the envelope on this album, we get an inspired song like “Lights” a musical piece that slowly, methodically, grows from a single, strumming dirty guitar sound to a trembling, atmospheric climax of bass and drum that finds vocalist Banks incessantly howling “that’s why I hold you” again and again. It’s an absolutely brilliant and shimmering moment, the highlight of an otherwise sombre recording. “Lights” was released as a free download in the spring, accompanied by a darkly stylish and fascinating video whose images evoke Depeche Mode as much as they do the works of Stanley Kubrick and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Still, its look is always an inspired Interpol aesthetic to the eye.
Lead single “Barricade” is the strongest Interpol-sounding song on the album: plucky guitars coupled alongside staccato base grooves. Dengler certainly knows his strengths and he allows his playful sounds to stop in order to rest and breathe along with listeners – before pounding his rich resonance into the ears and body again. Because of him, this is a song that can be felt as much as heard. Going forward, his bass thrusts will be missed.
Interpol is a decent sounding work from a band that is at a crossroads. Because of the departure of their long-standing and iconic bassist, the remaining members of the group, Banks, Kessler and Fogarino must decide to either continue onwards and push the envelope of their art, a very New York, dirty-yet-sexy sounding compositional philosophy, or decide to call it a day. Either there is more music to be heard in the late night, after club atmosphere, or it’s time for a restful sleep and the inevitable wait for a new sunrise.
With the release late last year of a Paul Banks solo effort, one wonders if the answer isn’t the latter.
I’ve been waiting for Wolf Parade to reconvene from various side projects and record and release new music since their second album, 2008’s At Mount Zoomer, cemented me as huge fan of the band. That album had a classic New York underground rock feel to it akin to late 1970’s Television and I was blown away by overlapping and meandering guitar solos, keyboard sound effects and playful drum and bass grooves. Still, the indie feel inherent in Wolf Parade was never far, just polished up with a little with some New York glitz. Sweet stuff indeed! I ranked that album as my third favourite of 2008 – a list you can find here.
With the release of the band’s third full length album (June 29, Sub Pop Records), they’ve allowed themselves to flash-forward a decade or so. Well, figuratively speaking, anyway.
Expo 86, named after the world fair event held in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada in that same year, is a thrusting rock-pop gem of an album – a combination and culmination of what was attempted and what was learned on both of the two previous Wolf Parade albums as well as the band’s respective side projects.
Cloud Shadow On The Mountain kicks the record off with a rolling surf-inspired drum beat, joined quickly by a repeating sharp but playful guitar lick. While Spencer Krug, one half of the lyricists in the band, calmly states “I was asleep in a hammock, I was dreaming that I was a web” you can’t help but feel somewhere on a west coast sand dune, water lapping on the shoreline nearby. Immediately you’re moved to understand that Cloud Shadow has teeth. The chorus thumps fast and furious, akin to an early Pixies sound, as does Krug’s vocal chant of “oh oh oh oh”. It’s a classic album opener – different from what Wolf Parade has done before, but always within their soundscape too – something that is immediately them.
Palm Road follows, written by the band’s other half, the rock-pop influence of guitarist Dan Boeckner. The sound is still that of the group but it follows a slightly more mainstream line here with hooks and riffs as easily accessible as anything Wolf Parade has done previously. This idea can be heard on another Boeckner penned piece, the shimmering Yulia, a pop gem reminiscence of your favourite songs from high school, an instant classic. It’s sure to be a live set favourite with Boeckner belting “There’s nothing out here!” again and again. Listen to it here.
The standout track on Expo 86 is the first single: Krug’s incensed, confused and resolute What Did My Lover Say? (It Always had to Go This Way). This is quintessential At Mount Zoomer Wolf Parade sounds with layered keyboards, drum solos and overlapping, sometimes staccato guitars. It’s stadium-sized rock stardom with sing-along lyrics at their very best. “I’ve got a friend who’s a genius, nobody listens to him,” sings Krug, before lividly adding “I’ve got some friends who are famous, la la la la la la la”. If there’s one thing I know about music – it’s that everyone knows exactly what “la la la” really means. Play it loud – What Did My Lover Say? (It Always had to Go This Way) is a timeless rock anthem.
It should be mentioned that the groove section of drummer Arlen Thompson and bass guitarist Dante Decaro bring an enormous amount of energy and art-rock cred to the album. They are indispensible pieces to the musical whole here, keeping each song tight, moving quickly from verse to chorus, enabling your foot to incessantly tap and your fist to continuously pump. You’d think that with all the side projects Wolf Parade has inspired, that the band would dissipate into a musical void but there’s something magic when these musicians get together. A sound is created that is instantly memorable and timeless, that is as much dependant upon the art rock-pop music that has gone before as it blazes a new musical trail, song after song, album after album.
With eleven tracks, Expo 86 may be Wolf Parade’s most accessible and best album to date. It’s definitely a strong contender as a top album of the year. Don’t walk. Run to the store to pick this record up!
Whenever I’m working on the computer, I need a soundtrack of some kind – music that aids my creativity, tunes that play at my subconscious, keeping me alert in some fashion. Sometimes, I just need to fill the quiet void of the room with noise – fast-paced pop songs for fast-paced typing or moody music for introspective narratives.
When I’m at work, that soundtrack gives me the energy to edit an article on healthy communities, for example or the vigor to pump out a year-end program report, my head bopping up and down to the backbeat of the day.
At home, with the inherent inhibitions of public display gone, I kick it up a notch.
Late last Thursday night, I wrote a piece for Biff Bam Pop! detailing the fast track of the Green Lantern movie. In between typing paragraphs of comic book sci-fi mythology, I was busy playing air drums.
The CD player wasn’t on and I hadn’t opened iTunes on the desktop. No, I was getting my musical soundtrack from a different source last Thursday night – YouTube.
I remember rushing home from high school in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s so that I could turn the television on to CBC’s Video Hits or a Much Music Countdown show to see the brand new videos from Depeche Mode (Enjoy the Silence) or New Order (Round and Round). A fairly new concept, music videos were now released simultaneously with the actual music single and, without writing an essay on the business and artistry of such things here, I’ll simply say that I needed to see a band’s visual representation of their songs. And I needed to see it badly. I’d record the videos on my VHS recorder, compiling two hour tape after two hour tape of my favourites (an early analogue version of an iPod) and then trade those tapes with friends or have viewing parties in the basement on weekend nights.
My point, really, is this: there’s no need to rush home from school or work anymore to catch a new release of a music video. YouTube has seen to that.
Last Thursday night, it was Ulysses, the first single (and video) to the album Tonight: Franz Ferdinand, the Scottish band’s latest musical offering released in late January that I couldn’t stop playing.
Even though it wasn’t the first time I had heard the song and even though it’s a pretty pedestrian video, for some reason I was insatiable in my replaying of it.
You too can be infected by the video here.
The bass groove and drum beat had me nodding my head as I typed away at the keyboard in unison. The song got my adrenaline going so much that I pointed to a make-believe audience when the synthesizer sounds kicked in at the onset of the chorus. I thumped my chest when lead singer Alex Kapranos confessed “I’ve found a new way” and marched across the floor, my imaginary stage, shaking my head enthusiastically at the realization that I was, in fact, “never going home,” because I was “not Ulysses.”
No. It didn’t make any sense.
The song had conjured a story specifically for me, its very own protagonist. All I wanted to do at that moment was head outside and step into the late city night and find drama – or have drama find me.
I must have acted in this strange manner, completely overtaken by the song for nearly two hours, only adding words to the untitled Microsoft word document here and there before scanning the right column on the YouTube page. It was there that I found the Domino Records produced (and fascinating) 11-minute video of the band talking about their new album, answering questions about the recording process and introducing its songs.
I watched the documentary twice and then went back to the original Ullyses video, tapping keys to symbol smashes and singing“la, la, la’s” along with the band. It’s the perfect pop song with an embittered edge – a tale of drug-induced hedonism gone awry. Franz Ferdinand liken the story of the song to Homer’s classic story, The Odyssey.
Part of my fascination for the tune comes from the title itself. The Odessey is one of my favourite stories. Perhaps the spinning washing machines in the video are a metaphor for Charybdis. Hell, Franz Ferdinand even encounter a Cyclops in the video. How could I not be transfixed by what I was witnessing?
The long, hot, hard night of youthful partying that is akin to war in Homer’s tale takes a decidedly different turn for Franz Ferdinand. The protagonist in Ullyses isn’t lying in their own bed for a deserved rest after a long journey in the city. Unlike The Odyssey’s Ulysses, who eventually found his way to Ithaca, in the Scottish band’s world, something sinister instead occurs: after a nightlong journey of self-indulgence and danger, they discover that one can never go home. There is a moral here and the band tell us that it is that life will never be as it once was.
The video displays the bandmates in various physical states. In one moment they are walking down city streets, wide-eyed, optimistic and looking to be on the prowl to later looking dazed, intoxicated, high and confused, finally ending in a seizure-driven state, burned out.
All that aside, eventually, the late night hour and long stares at the monitor wore even me down, my own tired eyes transfixed on an incessantly blinking computer screen as I went back to forcefully typing words. It took a little longer than usual to write the 700 odd words that became the Green Lantern piece.
I blame the YouTube soundtrack, this time playing the music of absentminded revelry. How amazing.
Instead of being the fourth album in their nearly twenty-year career, Forth sounds as if it should have been third.
Over a decade since their last release, the eight-million-plus selling Urban Hymns, The Verve have returned to their roots rather than move forward in their sonic meanderings. Forth sounds like the follow-up to their second release, 1995’s brilliant A Northern Soul as it shares brief glimpses of stadium-rock sound with that recording as well as the psychedelia of their first, 1993’s A Storm in Heaven.
Much was made of 2007’s recording process, a jamming cacophony of sound and ideas that saw the internet release of The Thaw Sessions late that year, the title also reflecting the melting of long-standing angst between band members. This album stays true to what came out of those sessions. In fact, over half of the ten songs on the release run over six minutes long.
“Sit and Wonder” opens the album, instantly a Verve-sounding song that swirls with the sharp guitar work of Nick McCabe and thrums with the thick drum and base groove of Simon Jones and Pete Salisbury. This is what the world has been waiting for – the brooding majesty of sound that was A Northern Soul overlaid with Richard Ashcroft’s plaintive wailing – but there’s something amiss here. True to those early sessions, after nearly seven minutes, the song, we discover, goes nowhere – a common occurrence throughout the album.
A stab at a radio and dance floor number one, “Love is Noise” hits like a punch to the solar plexus. This is Richard Ashcroft at his rock/pop best. Destined to receive radio-play, the singer questions western culture by singing: Will those feet in modern times walk on soles that are made in China? Despite audiences loving the song live, it doesn’t change the realization that the recurring background vocal loop is, in fact, headache-inducing.
Indeed, if there is any track that sees The Verve attempting to move their music forward, it is “Rather Be”, with its gospel-like background vocals that tilt the musical landscape in a slightly new, soulful direction. The guitar work is still here, fading in and out from back to front and constantly shimmering.
This is Nick McCabe’s album.
The soundscapes he constructs on each song are what draw the interest of listeners. Forget the grooves that relentlessly drive forward. Forget, even, Ashcroft’s vocals. It’s the guitar you want to hear: simple and complex, rolling and swooping, airy, wispy and, sometimes, heavy. The problem that Forth has, then, is that these beautiful sounds, more often than not, are hidden in the background or covered over by a deep bass resonance and it’s a shame. McCabe has struggled in the past with stage fright and that neurosis is ever-present throughout the production of this album.
At worst, Forth is the sketch of a great album that The Verve might have made. At best, it is ambient background music for late nights amongst friends. It never lives up to the expectations we have of the band, those memories of stadium-sized sounds with flourishes of psychedelic meanderings and classic rock riffs. For that, we return to A Northern Soul, a better album by far. Perhaps The Verve just need more time to finish their thaw.