One of the best albums in recent years is Jimmy Cliff’s Rebirth. It is the full package with an artist at the top of their game. It is political, emotional, soulful, and absolutely fearless. The production by Tim Armstrong is note perfect. Somehow Jimmy Cliff can sing as powerfully now as he ever did. This live performance on Jools Holland is stunning. If you get the chance also check out the YouTube clip of him performing One More from this same performance in 2012.
Off to see the canvassing wizard. I have been reading a lot about John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) recently, including his two books. I have also been listening to a great deal of Public Image Limited, which is his band after The Sex Pistols. This is their groundbreaking first single Public Image. This song was quite influential in the world of post punk. Listen to the guitar and how similar it is to early U2 for instance. Extra points for bassist Jah Wobble playing from a chair!
Alright, I need to get off here for the night and disconnect. I’m exhausted from the trip and my brain is running on overdrive. I thought some Siouxsie and the Banshees would be a perfect way to end an October night. The guitar work in this song, by John McGeoch, is simply fantastic, especially in the chorus.
I’ve been diving into my Public Image Ltd. collection. Today I was listening to the album Happy?. This album, as well as featuring mainstay John Lydon on vocals, also features John McGeoch and Lou Edmonds, formerly of the Banshees and The Damned respectively. It’s a strange album. It’s almost as if space aliens made an 80’s pop record.
I really love the first three Public Image albums. Those would be First Issue, Metal Box (also known as Second Edition), and The Flowers of Romance. Don’t make a mistake, if you are not into really bizarre uncomfortable music that is much more about the sound than the songs then you are not going to like these albums. Metal Box is my favorite. I love the super low dub-like bass with the high pitched razor blade guitar playing over it. It’s really unlike anything else in music. I truly believe they were years ahead of their time on these three releases. A lot of Radiohead’s more experimental stuff, and much of new indie music that is on the fringe, pales in comparison to just how weird this stuff is. I’m not saying that negates anything Radiohead or anyone else has done, just simply that in terms of turning pop music inside out, PIL got their first. If you read early fearful interpretations of what punk sounded like, before it became accepted by the mainstream, and you hadn’t heard any of it, this is what you would think it would sound like, not the melodic primitive rock n roll that it was.
I don’t like Public Image Ltd. because they are strange. There is plenty of experimental stuff that just sounds like someone going up their own asshole. Generally as a fan of recorded sound they were doing really interesting groundbreaking stuff. And the thing about it is, really the first two albums as The Flowers of Romance is its own weird trip, it sounds like a band. A lot of times when we hear stuff pushing the parameters of sound now it is studio manipulation. I’m not saying there was none of that on these records, but by and large these were people taking preexisting instruments and playing them in totally unique and interesting ways. Especially in today’s world, when so much is able to be manipulated through computers, it is exciting to me to think about someone like Keith Levene just taking an electric guitar and making it sound otherworldly just in the way he approached it.
Anyway, so I was listening to Happy? today. I can’t say it is a great record. It is not PIL at their best and the keyboard and drum sounds are too 80’s in a way that makes it sound dated, where the first three albums sound outside of time. However, it is still unique in the arrangements, playing, and singing. It’s still just bizarre enough that if you visualize things when you listen to music you can almost picture people inhabiting that strange building that is on the front cover. Again, imagine if aliens had all the technology of an 80’s recording studio, and had seen a little pop music, but didn’t understand it enough to make something that was really human.
If I believed in giving things stars or points, which I don’t, I don’t know how many I’d give it. It is truly a puzzling recording. But there aren’t that many I can say that about. I don’t find it enjoyable in the way that I enjoy most records, but I certainly don’t dislike it either. It is not great or grand, but it has its own little universe all to itself, and that is some kind of accomplishment isn’t it?
I absolutely love music. It is not only my job, but also my hobby and religion. Anyone that travels with me will tell you that I wear headphones around the clock. Occasionally this is self preservation, a way to disconnect, but mostly I just can’t listen to enough albums.
As long as music seems authentic, I’m a fan. I don’t care if it is Richard Wagner or Slade. I love trashy garage rock and sophisticated jazz. I like Frank Sinatra and Jeff “Stinky” Turner. I love Motown love songs and Lou Reed’s Edgar Allen Poe influenced album The Raven. In pop music I am a fan of singers first. I need to connect in some way with the singer. I need to feel they are singing with their soul and not just copping someone else’s bit off of the radio.
Sometimes people think I am a music snob, because I’ll slag off this or that, but I really am open to so many different kinds of music. I am just passionate about this stuff. Even if civilization broke down people would still be singing something and banging out rhythms, even if it was just on a trash can. You can tell so much about someone just by the way they sing.
I am reading John Lydon’s new biography, Anger is an Energy, and he is talking about how these TV shows like American Idol and X Factor are ruining singing by making it too much about singing correctly. He says they are basically making pop stars out of cruise ship singers. Singing really should be about nothing more than communicating some kind of strong emotion.
I can’t listen to most of modern radio. Autotune, unless it is used as an effect to purposely make a voice sound robotic, is killing music. It takes some of the humanity out of people’s voices. Life isn’t perfect. Pain and sadness and even happiness are complicated. Sometimes a great a singer like Sam Cooke can convey how you are feeling, and sometimes it is James McMurtry with his dry monotone delivery. Paul Westerberg hits bum notes sometimes, but he always gets the emotion of something dead on. There are no rules.
I love intellectual music, but music doesn’t need to be intellectual. It just needs to be emotional. So much of what is out there is just vanilla emotions. There is no pain or sadness or joy. There is just the imitation of life, sometimes with convenient product placements in tow. It is the song as lifestyle brand.
Music should open doors, not close them. As soon as music becomes too tribal, I am out. “I am driving my truck and waving the flag because that is what a real American does.” Fuck you! “Look at all these things I own that you don’t.” And fuck you too!
Tell me how you feel and what you think. Be complicated. Don’t parrot someone else’s emotions or thoughts. Be yourself. When I plug in my headphones, that is all I ask.
Johnny Marr is one of my favorite guitar players. With The Smiths and later with such acts as The The, Electronic, and The Cribs, he has played an endless supply of catchy intricate riffs and melodic hooks. But there is no doubt in my mind that at this point, as a songwriter during his time in The Smiths, that Morrissey was the true genius. Johnny Marr is simply at his best when he has another strong presence to inspire him. His three albums as a solo artist prove this. (I know the first album was technically credited to Johnny Marr and the Healers, but really that band was under his control.)
The Johnny Marr and the Healers album Boomslang is pretty much unlistenable as it features songs that sound like subpar Oasis. His first true solo album The Messenger is the best of the lot. It features the best riffs and at certain times almost, from a musical standpoint only, reminds me of the final Smiths album Strangeways, Here We Come, mixed with some of his work in Electronic and other bands.
His new album Playland is nowhere near as bad as Boomslang, but is not as good as The Messenger. Johnny Marr acquits himself lyrically. There is nothing embarrassing. It is simply that his lyrics don’t really add anything to the songs. They simply become part of the music. He can write catchy melodies, but nothing earth shattering.
When you buy a Johnny Marr solo record what you are really coming to it for his guitar playing. He has time and time again throughout his career provided riveting moments on the instrument. Somehow his guitar playing on his solo work, especially on his first album, and somewhat on this new album, seems the most pedestrian. The riff to Easy Money is quite catchy and reminds me of his work with Modest Mouse. There are a couple other moments on the record that are interesting from a guitar standpoint, but nothing that really wows me, and Johnny Marr has the capacity to do things through his playing alone that are really exciting. On his record with The Cribs, his playing front to back on that album is excellent, and he sounds invigorated and revitalized.
There are two big problems with this new album. Most people don’t realize how much Andy Rourke’s bass playing added to The Smiths. He bobbed and weaved with Johnny Marr in much the same way that Keith Richards and Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones do, or any excellent two guitar band does. That’s not a perfect analogy, but I want to get across the idea of two musicians playing off each other and inspiring each to new heights. The rhythm section on this album is really straightforward and brings nothing to the table. Almost every song features a straight ahead 4/4 plodding rhythm. Mike Joyce often played pretty straight in The Smiths, but again Andy Rourke gave Johnny Marr something to work off of. (Every band but maybe The Who need someone to lay it down and block, and that was Mike Joyce’s role in The Smiths) He really needs a better rhythm section if he is going to make a great solo album.
The other problem is the overabundance of synths. I love when artists try new things and stretch themselves. Johnny Marr has done so with The The and on the best Electronic stuff, both of which had keyboard heavy arrangements at times. The Smiths A Rush, A Push, and the Land is Ours show that Johnny Marr can also play really interesting stuff on keyboards when he wants to. But the keyboard playing on this new album is merely functionary and takes up space that could be used for more interesting guitar parts.
If I’m making this album sound horrible it is not. It is just that it is just above average when Johnny Marr is really capable of so much more. I try to review things in and of themselves and not compare things to the past too much. This is one time though when an artists many past triumphs get you excited and you feel slightly letdown. I can only say that this album is decent, when really greatness could have been achieved. I am a huge fan of his and I want to love this record, but every time I put it on I feel no strong emotions while listening.
If you haven’t bought anything by Johnny Marr in awhile and you are looking for something that he has done recently that is interesting, I would recommend The Cribs Ignore the Ignorant. His guitar is featured in the left hand speaker and a lot of it sounds live in the studio. It sounds like something was really on the line during the making of that record, and unfortunately here it does not.
Many records don’t fully reveal themselves till many listens down the road. I hope I am wrong here, but I get the feeling that I’m not.
I spent more time with the record today, after writing the review. One of the things that is challenging about a piece of music, and I am not under any of the restraints that someone that writes professionally for a magazine is, is that in criticizing it, you without a doubt make it sound worse than it is. I actually like this record, but feel that it is lacking in the above categories. If I didn’t point them out I’d be lying. The rhythm section is functionary, but they do get the job done and can sound quite propulsive at times. They are just not adding anything to the proceedings other than performing the basic functions of a decent rhythm section. Is the record better than a great deal of the shit on the radio? Yes. Is it a decent record? Yes. Knowing what Johnny Marr is truly capable of, from a guitar standpoint, does it live up to his legacy? No. Would I recommend it over a great deal of things people are listening to? Yes. If you could only spend money on one or two records would I recommend it over some other great records that have come out recently? No. All these different thoughts come into play when you are trying to recommend a piece of music: Where does it fits in quality wise in the current state of music? Does it break any new ground or at least do something original given the limitations of an established genre? When people have a limited amount of music that they can acquire how do you try to direct them to the art that you feel is the most worthy of attention?
Also, your perception of a record can change with added listens, in fact good art should be able to evolve with you. Are you potentially stopping people from listening to something that may grow more valid over time? Many of the great records were critically derided upon release. Most of them find their way, but would the culture be better off if critics weren’t so narrow minded sometimes? In mainstream culture we are often swimming in a sea of bullshit.
I can’t read a lot of modern criticism, well I shouldn’t read it anyway, because so much of it seems as if it is not asking itself these questions. So much of it seems to either champion the wrong values or to be in some kind of competition with itself to be as trendy as possible. (Pitchfork I’m looking at you.)
When I criticize an artist that I know has brought so much to the conversation, I feel conflicted. Johnny Marr has earned his right to make whatever music he wishes. Meanwhile, someone like Beyonce, who is constantly at the top of the charts, is so fucking vapid. I don’t write reviews on people like her, because it’s not worth my time or money. If I’m taking the time to write a review of something, it’s usually because I have liked them enough to buy their record. I’m not getting any free albums in the mail.
Anyway, there is so much more I could say, but I must disconnect…
I already know that Jackson Browne’s Standing in the Breach is one of the best albums of the year and will be an album that I will listen to for many years to come. It is intelligent and emotional in equal measure. It feels both inspired and well crafted. He has found the right balance between poetry and directness in his writing. Along with Time the Conqueror, this continues his late career renaissance. Sonically this probably recalls his 70’s peak more than anything else since.
I love almost all of Jackson Browne’s career expect for his 90’s work. He still released some great songs in that period (I’m Alive, The Barricades of Heaven), but overall he seemed to lose his way to LA slickness. Some would argue that he lost his way to that in the 80’s, but despite the hallmarks of 80’s production techniques, which I never really minded personally, I love albums such as Lawyers in Love and Lives in the Balance. In the 90’s his songs felt too adult contemporary and stodgy. It was too easy to write him off when he is really one of the greatest poets working in modern songwriting. He began his climb back up the mountain with The Naked Ride Home, whose title track displays a wicked sense of humor that is too often overlooked in Browne’s work. However, that album was still flawed. On Time the Conqueror he got the writing and the sound right, and now he is at the top of his game again.
Jackson Browne’s voice is an instrument that works best when singing great melodies. When married to the right melody it is a thing of transcendence. This new album is full of great melodies.
Some of the nods in production and songwriting to his past are clearly on purpose. The Long Way Around and Leaving Winslow pay musical respects to These Days and Take It Easy respectively. The Birds of St. Marks is an old song he wrote concerning his time with Nico and Andy Warhol’s Factory that finally receives the production that he always felt it deserved. However, this is no nostalgia ride. He is using the past to contrast it with the present, which Browne finds troubling, though not without hope.
Browne is one of the best political songwriters there is, as he knows how to write about current events with one eye towards eternity. He is not just rehashing the days headlines like many political songwriters do, but infusing them with poetry and deeper meaning.
I mentioned that The Long Way Around was a rewrite of These Days. Where once Jackson Browne was the most introspective of songwriters, he now often looks outwards. Using a chord progression and quoting the words “these days” could be a really bad decisions in lesser songwriters, but with Jackson Browne you feel that he is taking stock of his own life and the world around them and how it has changed.
I don’t know what to say about these days
I’m seeing people changing in the strangest ways
Even in the richer neighbourhoods
People don’t know when they got it good
They got the envy and they got it bad
Anyone that reads the papers will know that even rich people are uncertain about our current economic situation. If you turn on Fox News for a moment you will also see the rich portrayed as victims, often by themselves. Browne is keyed into what is happening in the world. But he is too smart to preach. He simply states what is going on and lets the listener do the thinking.
On Walls and Doors, which he wrote with Cuban songwriter Carlos Verelas there is poetry alongside with Browne’s quest for social justice:
Ever since the world existed
One thing it is certain
Some build walls, others open doors
Of what use is the moon
If you don’t have the night?
Of what use is a windmill
With no Quixote left to fight?
Browne is not also an excellent political writer, but a great study of the human heart and the complexity of the human condition. This has been true ever since he first started out. On The Birds of St. Marks, as I mentioned a song that was actually written in the 60’s, he sings:
But all my frozen words agree and say it’s time to
Call back all the birds I sent to
Fly behind her castle walls and I’m
Weary of the nights I’ve seen
Inside these empty halls
But if Browne was only a great lyricist it wouldn’t make his songs powerful. When he and his band get the sound right, his songs are highly emotional. This is, aside from Time the Conqueror, the most organic sounding album he has put out since the 70’s. You can actually picture musicians playing alongside each other instead of them being sequestered clinically in different booths in an LA studio. I have no idea which is actually the case, I’m sure the recording was made in somewhat modern fashion, but it at least feels natural. His band also plays with great subtlety, bringing out the nuance of each song.
Browne has often, unfairly, gotten lumped in with the mellow 70’s bands and solo acts like The Eagles and James Taylor. His songwriting is much more fearless and intelligent than any of those other acts. Don’t let the fact that it is often quite beautiful fool you. He is putting his neck on the chopping block much more than almost any dangerous sounding indie band. With Browne you get the best of all worlds, you get someone that will challenge the way you think while making music that is actually a joy to listen to. I’m glad that he is out there and that he has provided us with this new collection of songs.