Depeche Mode – Some Great Reward (1984)

Sire Records ■ 9 25194-1

Released September 24, 1984

Produced by Daniel Miller, Depeche Mode, and Gareth Jones
Additional Engineering by Ben Ward, Stefi Marcus, Colin McMahon

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Something to Do
  2. Lie to Me
  3. People Are People
  4. It Doesn’t Matter
  5. Stories of Old
  1. Somebody
  2. Master and Servant
  3. If You Want
  4. Blasphemous Rumours

In high school, I was sent–as we could now do this–“Enjoy the Silence” in trade from someone I knew at the time (previously mentioned as responsible for the purchase of another album on my behalf), but, somewhat oddly, it had little resonance with me. This is odd, of course, because I’ve had a life-long love of synthesizers and 1980s musical styles–a sort of misaligned nostalgia, I guess you might say. It’s that much more odd when one considers how many covers of Mode songs are out there,¹ including plenty by bands I liked at the time. It gets that much more odd when one includes the fact of my rather bizarre–embarrassing, no doubt, if I were anyone but me–love of the Erasure song “Always”, established many years prior when I was all of ten or eleven years of age (I only bought I Say I Say I Say last year, despite spending every trip to a used record store in those days looking for it, simply because of that song).  If that means nothing to you: Depeche Mode’s original leader was Vince Clarke, who left after Speak and Spell to form, well, Erasure (okay, after a few other bands, but, still…)

Covers would of course flit by–particularly Rammstein’s version of “Stripped” (which omitted the last four words of the chorus’s titular refrain) and A Perfect Circle’s nearly unrecognizable version of “People Are People”. Bands I’ve loved for years–Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral was one of the first albums I ever relentlessly pursued–would mention them as an influence, and the name continued to filter down, but I didn’t recall a single song I’d ever heard, beyond the rather glossed over single listen to “Enjoy the Silence” as I was directed to it–heck, might’ve been one of the 24+ versions of the song that the Mode have released over the years, and not the original album or single mixes.

It was during one of my most adventurous musical phases that a fancy version of a DM album appeared in front of me and I decided to gamble on it all–1986’s Black Celebration, which was packaged with a short DVD documentary and DVD-A of both the album and a few associated tracks, most importantly including the rather unusual (for them) non-album single “Shake the Disease”. That was the song that finally clicked with me–and the album followed not far behind, and then so did the rest, and the remixes and b-sides, and all sorts of other madness, eventually leading to the more casual but deliberate purchase of Some Great Reward on vinyl, no more than a year and a half ago.

“Something to Do” makes it immediately apparent that this was an electronically driven band–all synths, drum machines, keys–and one oriented, as often happens with that make up, on beat and “danceability”. I’m not a dancer–not even in the “go out to a club” sense, so it may only be theoretical, but it’s definitely at least that. Strange sounds actually precede the track proper: weird burblings that turn to a nervy, deep beat. Dave Gahan’s voice is a smoother sound over it, though it has the slightest cracks of desperate tension in it. Martin Gore’s backing vocals are rapid and even more openly cracking–the song focused on boredom with sexual undertones, but a big hint of quiet desperation of a kind (“I can’t stand another drink/It’s surprising this town/Doesn’t sink[…]Your pretty little dress is oil stained/From working too hard/For too little”). There is a peculiar bridge of flattened horn sounds that, if they had been untouched, would’ve seemed quite incongruous, yet the flattening of their sound works them in perfectly to the rather frenetic opener.

The beginning of “Lie to Me” is a bit more refined, a mix of unusual sounds that form a melody and texture that is built on a distinct beat but works more toward the atmosphere than the beat. It’s a peculiar layering of airy hisses and repetitive keyboard lines. It’s typical Mode in many senses: vaguely dark, vaguely sexual, but reliably comfortable in themselves for this, while also avoiding any extreme movements in either direction to really push away those who would not be drawn to either (or both, especially in combination). Martin’s backing vocals are somewhat harmonized and lay in the song easily but without disappearing completely into the frame of it all. It’s largely his voice that drew me to the band via “Shake the Disease”. He has a very tremulous quaver in his rather high voice that just exudes a kind of sincere vulnerability, put to even greater effect as a lead on appropriate songs (one of which appears on this very album!).

Almost guaranteed the most famous song on the album (though actually one of three singles released from it), “People Are People” is one of the first Depeche Mode songs I ever knew, though I knew it in a severely altered cover form, as mentioned previously. While Martin is credited with writing it, he’s been known to make clear his disinterest in it at this point–allegedly suggesting it was a bit too “on point” for him, and devoid of ambiguity. It’s a mess of peculiar, metallic sounds–many the kind that would later be identified by much of the public with “industrial music” (though typically this was a reference to early industrial metal, like Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine, rather than the more difficult and bizarre work of, say, Throbbing Gristle). Gahan’s vocal is frustrated and accusatory–appropriate in a song that’s based on what is indeed a very clear message: “People are people so why should it be/You and I should get along so awfully”. Gore’s voice, again, is the hook for my ears–be that odd or expected. His voice is, like many times it appears in their career, recorded in a fashion that gives it a few peculiar qualities; there’s a sort of closeness to his voice, and there’s a kind of clarity that is absent in Dave’s singing, though it’s not something that would fit with or make sense for his voice. It’s a deserving hit all the same, and may be a solid reference point for anyone who is a bit of a Depeche Mode neophyte (even moreso, that is, than  myself).

Gore has not often been inclined to write terribly happy songs and has admitted this himself–and, in truth, “It Doesn’t Matter” is tinged with darker edges, but it’s largely hopeful, thoughtful, peaceful and happy. He sings the lead on it, in fact singing it alone. The music is heavy on electronic sounds–the sort of dancing electronic chimes that have been used with early CGI² to represent the relaxed atmosphere of brightly coloured aquatic life. It’s a bit like bubbling, which is why I think it was used that way–but there’s this sort of flat horn that honks its way in at the end of some of Martin’s lines and is like an elbow nudged at the ribs to grab your attention, point it toward something–though I’m not sure what exactly. It’s as if to imply the semi-broken nature of Martin’s happy thoughts: he is thankful for someone who is not quite there, thoughts he finds embarrassing. It’s a sweet song, which is intentionally “marred” by that noise, it seems, to toughen the mushiest bits, perhaps.

In completely the opposite direction, we find “Stories of Old” and one of Dave’s most appealing vocals. Musically somewhat “mysterious” and sparse at open, it adds peculiar layers of keyboard, non-verbal backing vocals and synthetic horn stings. Gahan describes a positive desire, and the “stories of old” that describe abandoning the gains of single lives for love–and then immediately stamps out the idea of replicating them, suggesting neither he nor the person he sings to is or should be moving toward such a compromise. It’s most evident in the first lines, which reappear throughout, punctuated with the horn stings, and twisted into sharp and rhythmic endings by Dave’s own voice: “Take a look at unselected cases/You’ll find love has been–wrecked.”

Interestingly, they couched Gore’s most romantically dismissive song between “It Doesn’t Matter” on the one side, and “Somebody” on the other–while both are twisted at their ends to admissions of embarrassment and self-critical eye-rolling at their very notions, their sincerity isn’t questioned even then. “Somebody” is the most acoustic of tracks–Gore sings alone to piano (which, I have to add, he apparently played naked in the studio for that extra touch of vulnerability). While the prior two tracks suggested a relationship that hasn’t blossomed (and might never), and one that was being stopped from doing so, this one is about an ideal relationship–an honest and open description of selfish desires, but manifested in a rather appealingly symbiotic and even relationship. That thing I mentioned before about Gore’s voice being vulnerable? It makes it perfect–while he wrote eight of the nine songs on the album, he clearly does not sing them all, and this helps to both clarify why he sings the ones he does and emphasize that differing vocal quality. There’s a clever addition (it’s apparently an unstated fact that most “clever additions” to Depeche Mode songs are the fault of Alan Wilder, until, of course, he left the band) in the form of sampled street noise that hovers around the track–I forget if they layered it in in the studio or recorded it “live”, but it places Gore in a real context as he sings, until it slowly transforms into an overpowering heartbeat instead: as if to say, he expressed these thoughts from the midst of the rest of humanity, but it’s an intensely personal set of thoughts–at least, that’s what I hear, in my strange little way.

The second single from the album, “Master and Servant” is endearing and “cute” as a song can be when its subject matter is pretty explicitly BDSM (I suppose you might have guessed that from the title–else you likely have no idea what those letters are, I’ll guess). The strange vocals that open it sound as if they are sped up samples of vocal tracks that appear later in the song, but here alternate high and low: “It’s a lot/It’s a lot/It’s a lot/It’s a lot/It’s a lot…like life”. Faked whip sounds (apparently just Wilder hissing and spitting!) and metallic clangs bring the song into the same sonic arena as “Something to Do”, but with a darker edge–though a “darkness” and “edge” that remain thoroughly unthreatening. The boys sound very much as though they are somewhat new to the idea of dominance and submission, but manage to convey it reasonably well (he said, as a non-practitioner, but one who has known some), both avoiding any false sugar-coating and any fear-mongering. Gore even works in a lyric that associates it with the perversely (ahem) inverted dynamic of control through voluntary loss of control, and the contrast this has with the unavoidable submission of most lives to the demands of society (if not accurate, certainly a reasonable understanding of the appeal). I will say the single never made much sense to me–perhaps because it holds neither taboo nor personal appeal for me, or perhaps because the chorus has always struck me as just slightly awkward. Of course, the production work behind the track makes this something totally unimportant–just a strange choice for a single.

The only song not credited to Gore, Wilder’s “If You Want” is crawling and odd, if only in the context of Gore’s songs. It’s still thoroughly accessible and appealing, but its usage of keys is strangely buzzing and hazy. It’s something like a mix of darkened, foggy moors and semi-campy (though serious) mysterious tones. It gains a beat shortly, and works it into that atmosphere, shedding a lot of the peculiarities and fitting more completely in with all of the previous songs more readily. It’s actually one of the few tracks that might place music ahead of lyrics and vocals–maybe that’s something to do with Wilder’s influence, as he is known to have been far more invested in the production angles of the group’s sound, and is given credit for much of what made them most popular in their heyday. Or, perhaps it was just a choice for the track!

The last song on the album was also the third and final single for the album: “Blasphemous Rumours”. It’s significantly longer than any of the others (over six minutes) and runs through more serious changes–or at least a greater number of them–than any of the others. As it starts, the album version of the song is subdued keys and a light melody, enhanced by another “industrial” beat, then expanded with a synthetic bassline. Rolling metal clatter adds a splash of chaos. Gahan’s vocals are vaguely sardonic, speaking of a girl who attempts suicide, and the reactions of her mother when the attempt fails–if any of the other tracks on the album could be called dark, then this is pitch black. Of course, it’s black humour (or at least bitter cynicism), which the chorus makes clear: “I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumours/But I think that God’s got a sick sense of humour/And when I die/I expect to find Him laughing…” It’s a strangely cheerful, catchy, poppy chorus, and it balances well with the darkness of the verses. If you don’t hear the words, it might sound an awful lot like a general 80s synthpop tune, perhaps one tacked onto closing credits of a movie from the same time frame. While lyrics are often not something that factors into my understanding of or appreciation of a song, it’s not an impossibility, and this is definitely an instance in which it does so quite readily–it’s clever, and it works very well.

This was only Depeche Mode’s third album, the first being the one previously mentioned as being written largely by the now-absent Vince Clarke, and the follow up A Broken Frame being considered a bit of a stumble as the remaining members found their feet. Some Great Reward functions very much as a progression along the way toward future monsters like Violator or Music for the Masses, as it still has the relative limitations of the band’s early work, while Gore has gained leaps and bounds at songwriting, and the sound of the band has become established; in many ways, this is sort of like the “real” beginning of the band (a sentiment I think the band itself has expressed, in fact). Depending on your taste, this might be the first or last place to start–Gahan and Gore both have strong voices that don’t date the material overmuch, but the electronic instrumentation definitely gives it a clear time of origin, and it does take a good listen to get past that, if it is the kind of thing you find offputting–and, in truth, that’s exactly the attitude I intend to spread: avoid leaping too quickly from that first impression, particularly if something is recommended. Someone has seen something interesting there–it may be worth a bit of a dig to find.

  • Next Up: Diabolical Masquerade – Death’s Design

¹There are two hundred and sixty-eight established covers of “Enjoy the Silence” alone. Polish death metal band Vader covered “I Feel You”–yes, the band whose leader produced Decapitated’s Winds of Creation. The Cure has covered “World in My Eyes”, and just to be ridiculous, their own song “If Only Tonight We Could Sleep” was covered by Deftones, who covered Depeche Mode’s “To Have and to Hold” on the same tribute album The Cure’s cover appeared on. Heck, that album also contains the Smashing Pumpkins’ cover of “Never Let Me Down Again” (which later appeared on a soundtrack alongside Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland’s cover of “But Not Tonight”). Tangerine Dream (!) covered “Precious”. Rammstein covered “Stripped” (which was remixed enough times it might be mistaken for an actual Mode track). Jimmy Somerville of Bronski Beat covered “But Not Tonight”. Swedish melodeath co-forefathers (alongside At the Gates and Dark Tranquility) covered “Everything Counts”. Converge (!!) covered “Clean”. Honestly, there’s a whole website databasing these covers.

²I’m not going to claim the mental images I have will–or even could–make sense to other people, but it’s the immediate impression I get.


Deep Purple – Deep Purple in Rock (1970)

Warner Bros. Records ■ WS 1877

Released June, 1970

Produced by Deep Purple

Engineered by Andy Knight, Martin Birch, Philip McDonald

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Speed King
  2. Bloodsucker
  3. Child in Time
  1. Flight of the Rat
  2. Into the Fire
  3. Living Wreck
  4. Hard Lovin’ Man

Ah, Deep Purple “Mk. II”.

Why, out of all the bands that have gone through such monumental lineup changes (Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, etc) they are the only ones that seem to have become firmly labeled with “version” numbers is beyond me. Perhaps it’s because the lineup change has such a drastic overall effect on songwriters–we can say “Barrett-era Floyd”¹ and “Peter Green” and “Bob Welch” and so on, to notate the controlling voice’s change. I don’t know–anything would be just a guess, and it’s likely just an indicator of the varying mentalities of fans that Deep Purple’s chose that approach.

Still, “Mark II” has its place highest in the echelons of music, particularly for being so thoroughly entrenched in hard rock when it was rapidly morphing into heavy metal (though most of the albums at the time given that have largely sloughed off that title as it has gained higher and higher minimums of power/volume/aggression/speed/etc over the years). Indeed, if the average person can assign anything to the name “Deep Purple”, it is probably “Smoke on the Water”, their monstrous hit from two albums (and years) farther on, Machine Head. Now, of course, “Highway Star” has gained a measure of fame from its inclusion in Rock Band, so there might be that further connection, but it, too, comes from ’72’s Machine Head anyway.

While I grew up with “Smoke on the Water” as I did with many a classic rock song, it regained strength when I came into my love of Frank Zappa, and the story of the burning casino studio in it. About four or five years ago, I happened upon the 25th anniversary edition of Fireball, the album between this one and Machine Head. The packaging, the tracklisting–it seemed intriguing, and I went ahead and got it. I quickly fell for that album and it’s peculiarities (particularly the romping and somewhat odd “Anyone’s Daughter”, which hasn’t really got an analogous partner on the other two albums, nor the non-album singles), then let myself begin to spiral outward from it and into the other albums from this particular line up of Deep Purple.

Both of the other “Mk. II” albums were indeed released in expanded formats, with Deep Purple in Rock and Machine Head bookending the set with the fewest and greatest number of bonus tracks (Machine Head has an entire alternate mix on a whole separate disc). In my inescapable desire to partition albums under schemata entirely of my own invention but apparently quite convincing (to me, at least), there’s a progression that I think of in many bands–a spark of novelty in the first album that establishes a sound clearly and gains a lot of appreciation as a result, a second album that seems to take that sound and throw out any and all boundaries, and then a third that refines everything learned in the first two²–and that tends to, as a result, often determine and define my preferences (I usually like the second album most). Deep Purple ends up no exception to this–Fireball remains my favourite, and I tend to prefer In Rock after that, and Machine Head last, despite the obvious appeal. It’s not defiance, it just seems to work out that way.

Either everyone agrees with me on Fireball or no one does, as I see it least of all on vinyl, though I admit I don’t look too intently. I picked up this rather beat up copy of In Rock on a trip to a used store I frequented less than most others two or three years back, simply because I was in the depths of my affections for Deep Purple at the time. It has a kind of charm for a record like this to look like this–it’s not an ultra rare disc, so it’s nice to see one that was loved for a good few decades, not treated as a hermetically sealed idol so much as a well-loved piece of momentary joy for someone.

And that’s really how Deep Purple works–not that they can’t be placed on any pedestals, but it’s music that demands enjoyment from listening, as it is built heavily on grooves, whether we’re talking about Gillan’s vocals, Blackmore’s riffing, Lord’s vamping, Glover’s basslines, or Paicey’s flood of fills and feel-based drumming. I have a number of records that have that cute instruction: “To be played LOUD” (eg The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars), but Deep Purple in Rock I just kind of instinctively turn up–I do worry a bit about the neighbors, but it feels like the kind of thing that your neighbors would either nod sagely at the playing of, or shrug and admit that it at least makes sense to be playing it loud.

While “Anyone’s Daughter” has no equivalents floating about (from the band in question, I mean), the smaller hit “Highway Star” is hinted at when Deep Purple in Rock opens: “Speed King” is another boastful self-descriptive blast of groove and power. I should mention this is the U.S. issue of the album, wherein the introductory flurry of distortion and wild guitar flailing from Blackmore as well as the first snippet of Lord’s organ introduction is omitted (about a minute and a half). That is a shame, let’s be honest–but the real joy of “Speed King” is the riff that just leaps out of the gate, grounded by Glover’s deep bass, and backed by Paicey’s blasting drums. Gillan immediately makes clear the meaning of the witty description of the song in the gatefold (“Just a few roots, replanted”) as his words reference early Little Richard hits. But it’s all filtered through the riff-based power of a band that would come to define hard rock in many of the best ways. The forward movement of the song is what is most allusive if one knows “Highway Star” already–Ian Paice’s drums are fantastically thoughtful without any sacrifice of power and movement, something that is not as apparent in the later song. Lord and Blackmore³ have a brief interlude where they trade subdued and gentle licks, but it’s returned to the relentless pace of the opening, uninterested in anything more than a pause for anything else.

“Bloodsucker” eases the pace a bit, but pumps the “groove” quotient up to compensate. Glover’s bass rides under a tangled lick from Blackmore, but controls the sound, giving the bottom end the motor of the snaking movement of the song. Paice is happy to largely just keep the beat this time, though he continues to do so with great flair. Lord gets to turn the burners back to a simmering feeling, drawing out the emanations of the groove to a stretched, low-slung rest. But he’s not left to just this, as he gets a higher end solo that is turned in for another of the same from Blackmore–neither is overly long, even as they trade back and forth, each just a few bars to show off and flutter at the song’s melody and feel. Gillan’s voice is defined primarily by the stomping shuffle of Paice’s drums, but when he lets loose on that shrieking “Oh, no no no!” (not to be confused with the song “No No No” from Fireball, of course), he really makes his, ahem, voice heard and gives the song his own little inscription.

I suppose it’s not terribly surprising to me that “Child in Time” is the most appealing part of the album amongst the folks I know–either I know people who have no interest in Deep Purple, or I know people who like them whose taste is more readily ascribed to progressive rock bands, at least of the Pink Floyd variety, if not the more nerdy King Crimson set (this should not be taken as insulting–when we get to “K”, we’ll actually have a poll for Crimson, as I own enough). “Child in Time” is something like the amalgamation of hard rock, jam band, and progressive rock: it’s a ten minute epic song, filled with noodling, vamping, and slow, deliberate movement toward intended ends. With the heated coals of the beginning–gentle, sparse ride from Paice, majestic organs that cross the solemnity of church organs with the ominous nature of horror movie kinds–Gillan naturally chooses a lower voice to keep the song in the proper place, Glover and Blackmore largely just following Lord’s lower-pitched left hand. The mood Lord has established for us is borne out in the words Gillan sings: “Sweet child in time you’ll see the line/The line that’s drawn between good and bad/See the blind man shooting at the world/Bullets flying taking toll”. Gillan’s voice increases in power and pitch at the third line, but drops back low again after that, only to climb to an extreme with the next: “If you’ve been bad oh, Lord I bet you have/And you’ve not been it, oh, by flying lead/You’d better close your eyes/Oh! Bow your head…” and then from that extremely passionate warning turns to the shrugging, “If only you’d listened sort of tone,” as he sings “Wait for the ricochet…” His voice is gentle, singing only “Oooh-ooh-ooh…” repeatedly now, as Glover begins to push the band upward with a huge swathe of low end cutting through the track, Gillan’s “oohs” traded for “aahs” (writing really can’t do this justice, you know), which gradually expand and grow with the rest of the track, to shrieking, impassioned, wordless expression–before Paice turns the track martial with emphatic drumming, alongside Lord’s rhythmic pounding of keys. Blackmore slinks in his best solo on the album, soulful and wildly appropriate, as the entire song suddenly takes on a lolloping gait, charging forward instrumentally on the blazing fingers of Blackmore, his lead part like sparks from the flames now risen from those opening coals, the song burning faster, brighter, higher, harder, louder, sharper until it climaxes with a lead from Lord instead, which stops short, and returns to the slow roasting opening instead at just the right moment, but leaves Lord still playing a lead part.
Amazingly, the words I typed above are the only ones Gillan really sings in the song, and he begins to repeat them here, sounding like a revelation–like new lyrics, despite the fact that they are nothing of the kind. The song climbs and climbs as before, until it collapses into a chaos of distortion and sound, a final destruction that emphatically and appropriately punctuates the song and the side.

Side two returns us to the sounds that opened the album, though “Flight of the Rat” is a bit more at ease than the energetic “Speed King” or the groove-laden “Bloodsucker”. Maybe that’s appropriate–the title does imply a different kind of travel (be it air-travel or escape). Everyone’s a bit more relaxed, oddly, as if this is a palate cleanser following the beauty of “Child in Time”–it’s a more “fun” track, as much of the second side is.  It’s another long track (around eight minutes), but it’s more of a steady one than the rollercoaster of its predecessor, and its introspective lyrics are the opposite numbers-wise–they take up more of the left side of the gatefold than any other song, though this largely reflects the brevity of the lines. The interlude for instrumental show from Lord and then Blackmore (which eventually stops for a pretty great wah-wah “breakdown”) only furthers the feeling that this track is sheer enjoyment in a can, so to speak.

“Into the Fire” is probably the album’s heaviest track, in that more indefinable sense: Blackmore and Glover are crushing with their strings, and chug along with immense weight. Paicey pounds out a thumping rhythm with some semi-Moon-esque fills that give it a great flavour, while Gillan ups the feeling of a relative of “Bloodsucker”, as his words are dragged along in the wake of the song’s rhythm, until that pause at the end of each stanza where he let’s loose: “Into the FI-IRE!” he yells, not the shriek of “Child in Time” or “Bloodsucker,” but a more throat-scorching bellow that seems to belch up flames of its own, throwing smoke and ash into its sound. Just foot-stomping beauty, here.

Lyrically, “Living Wreck” is beyond odd; its witty description relates it back to groupies, while the lyrics themselves imply a groupie fallen all to pieces (“You took off your hair/You pulled out your teeth/Oh, I almost died of fright…”). So far as I’m concerned, it’s best to look past them (or take a bit of humour from them, at best). Blackmore’s riffing, particularly following Gillan’s first stanza, part muted, and hanging out firmly in the mids, is engaging and dirty in the best sense that guitars can be. The bassy bridge (a mix of Glover and Lord at the low end of his keys) booms and shakes the track under a meandering, casual lead from Blackmore, an unusual sound for him on the album, especially with its pinched, thin, mid-range tone that gives a crustier feel to the track on the whole.

The album closes with “Hard Lovin’ Man”, which gives Glover an unusual (but brief) spotlight at open, to slide back and forth on a line that defines the arc of Paicey and Blackmore’s charging feel for the song. A burnt, crispy drone of semi-distorted keys (yep!) emanates from Lord’s fingers, and turns that chugging gallop into something different, banding itself around the other three instruments. It turns into a peculiar, semi-off lead from Lord, that, as per usual, turns instead to a lead from Blackmore, who turns in a typically sparkling performance, one that seems to rustle and shake within a carefully controlled, limited space to keep it tied closely to the song as a whole. The whole thing collapses into absolute chaos, defined by the stereo-panned howls and squalls of distortion from Blackmore.

I have a longstanding affection for the hard rock vein of classic rock, particularly the kind that didn’t explode so completely as to define itself as itself, instead of a component of the whole (I’m looking at you, Page/Plant/Jones/Bonham!) and lose track of where it fit within the grand scheme of rock music–indeed, I have a hunger for the kind of sounds that seem to have fallen out of the 1970s approach to hard rock, lacking in pretension, dripping with fist-pumping kinds of energy and the histrionics and groove that made it so appealing in the first place, so much so that I once wrote about my favourite modern instances, and you can hear some strains of it in the last band I wrote about, Davenport Cabinet.

Deep Purple in Rock (and, to be fair, Fireball) really sate that craving quite well–In Rock perhaps managing it more thoroughly, if not as well, thanks to the “pure rock” approach to the album as a whole. It’s always interesting to gather the different thoughts about bands like this–today, a coworker actually mentioned the band purely by chance, he of an age to know them more as former “contemporaries”, and was semi-surprised to find I’d just been listening to the band. Friends into classic rock don’t bring them up much, but tend to respect them, and my father has one of his “strange” opinions when it comes to them–his preference is for the Rod Evans era, and albums like The Book of Taliesyn, though I suppose this isn’t too great a surprise considering he and I have always differed on the “harder” and “heavier” elements of rock music (we’ll have more fun with this contrast with later artists, I think!).

I think In Rock serves as a good place for anyone to go who has an attitude like mine: I don’t like being coloured by (ie, magnetically drawn to) a familiar single like a gravitational pull–the desire to hear the familiar is strong in almost all of us (if not, discounting extreme willfulness, all of us period), and it makes it hard, sometimes, to get a feel for an artist or an album when there is that point of inevitable attraction in a work. In Rock does have “Child in Time”, but this is both an extremely long track and also only the kind of track you’re likely to be familiar with when crossed fingers at the “progressive” nature’s chances of appealing to highbrow sensibilities encouraged someone to pass it on as “proof” of Deep Purple’s quality. Yeah, I’m kind of cynical–I’m wary of a lot of communities surrounding that word, and the occasional recursive interest in “proving” the value of things.

I think Deep Purple stand pretty well on their own, without the need to prove they aren’t “dumb rock”, nor to prove that anything that is (or could be) is not inherently valueless.

As a final note, though, I hate typing the title of the album. Is it In Rock? Is it Deep Purple in Rock? Obviously, the cover is a sort of pun and requires the whole phrase, but does that mean it was a play wherein the title was attached to the artist to make it work, or the original intention? No, this doesn’t really matter, but these things tend to stick with me anyway.

¹”Barrett-era”–doesn’t that just sound nice, as a phrase?

²This idea has been applied (quite subjectively) to numerous artists over the years. Mostly by me, and no one else. I keep it because I like how it fits together in my brain.

³If you don’t know this–yes, seriously, those are the members’ names. I know it sounds like some kind of fantasy heroes. I’ll admit, too, it’s less fun to refer to them as “Jon” and “Ritchie” respectively.

Day Fifty-Three: Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs

Barsuk/Atlantic Records ■ BARK 75

Released May 12, 2008

Produced by Chris Walla
Recorded by Chris Walla and Will Markwell
Mixed by Chris Walla (“Long Division” by Alex Newport
Mastered by Roger Seibel

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Bixby Canyon Bridge
  2. I Will Possess Your Heart
  3. No Sunlight
  4. Cath…
  5. Talking Bird
  1. You Can Do Better Than Me
  2. Grapevine Fires
  3. Your New Twin Sized Bed
  4. Long Division
  5. Pity and Fear
  6. The Ice Is Getting Thinner

It has been a long time since I could just drop the titles of tracks in order like this, but that’s always an indicator of how much I like an album–that is, when I was typing up the above information, I only glanced at the inner sleeve to be sure of the actual phrasings (eg, the tense of “The Ice Is Getting Thinner”, which I thought was past tense, as it is at the end of the song), but otherwise just typed them out. Now, on occasion, this really just reflects a lack of memory as to where a side ends, and sometimes just means I can’t put them back in order in my head. But when I can, it means I’ve listened to an album straight through–a lot.

Death Cab for Cutie occupies an interesting spot in the musical world from my own perspective; I’ve seen people called hipsters for liking them, people rejected as hipsters for liking them, people who nudge me in the ribs expecting mutual loathing or eye-rolling, and people afraid to admit to me that they like them. I still can’t quite figure out what the place is, but I’m appreciative that it doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on Gibbard, Walla and crew. The name of the band and the “indie” association kept me away for some years less out of assumptions about what liking them would mean than about my impressions of what taste I had for things deemed “indie” (some years ago, I deliberately delved into some of the biggest bands–Guided by Voices, Pavement, etc–and found myself uninterested, and was not swayed by most examples brought to me personally, either, though my opinion has since changed, including on those specific bands). Still, Narrow Stairs showed up as a promotional copy at my then-employer (Borders again!) and I thought I’d give it a shot. If I recall correctly, someone had actually suggested the single “I Will Possess Your Heart” to me, without my knowing a thing about it, but someone whose recommendations I tend to take pretty seriously (as she is a longtime fan of At the Drive-In, amongst other things).

Around the third minute of that single, I found myself quite in love, and it only grew as the album went on, eventually dominating a lot of my listening for the rest of the year it was released, and even sometime thereafter. When The Open Door, its companion EP, was released, it only got worse–until, eventually, I found my collection (nearly) complete (at time of writing, I effectively lack the Codes and Keys remix album, and not much more, having finally acquired both the The John Byrd EP and The Stability EP). I did eventually discover that “I Will Possess Your Heart” was not that uncharacteristically long for the band as a whole, but still an odd choice as a single in light of that fact about it, as the only two other normal studio tracks in that kind of clearly-beyond-most-singles length are the title track from Transatlanticism and the last also-title track from the aforementioned (and, as a modern EP, often ignored) The Stability EP (for curiosity’s sake, it actually follows a cover of Björk’s “All Is Full of Love”, emphasizing the “We will do what we want” attitude EPs and B-sides often carry).

I was out perusing a used CD store when I decided to check their vinyl out on a whim (used vinyl can be exhausting–which can make it more rewarding, but it’s a bigger dice roll with the sheer volume of re-sold random stuff that is hard to gauge, or is from the glut of popular albums now abandoned simply for format reasons. I saw Narrow Stairs and, while it was a bit higher than I would normally go for a used record, the fact that it was an album I like this much made me snap it up anyway (after a bit of quick phone-based confirmation that I wasn’t just going to be getting ripped off–which I apparently wasn’t).

While the knowledge is not necessary (I started without it!), “Bixby Canyon Bridge” is, perhaps obviously to fans, actually about Ben Gibbard’s attempts to connect with the spirit of Jack Kerouac, for whom he would later collaboratively work out an album’s worth of songs with Jay Farrar (of Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt) titled One Fast Move or I’m Gone, which is based on Big Sur. It’s a good choice for an introduction, as it seemingly wavers into existence, Gibbard’s voice clear as he describes his experience of traveling to the actual Big Sur, referring to it as “the place where your soul had died”, in reference to Kerouac himself. When he finds that nothing is happening, he sings “I curse myself for being surprised/That this didn’t play like it did in my mind”. Throbbing bass, firm, insistent drums, and crunchy monotone guitars announce the shift in topic to Gibbard’s own life: “And I want to know my fate/If I keep up this way”. The song builds to a cluttered drone, vocals blurring into guitars until where one ends and the next begins is unclear. It climbs and clusters into a dissipating wash, and Gibbard’s voice returns: “And then it started getting dark/I trudged back to where the car was parked/No closer to any kind of truth/As I must assume was the case with you.”

I don’t know that there’s any sense in which a single could be “surprising” these days without simply being a refusal to submit to anything, at which point the question arises as to whether the only real goal was to be, well, surprising. Despite that, “I Will Possess Your Heart” still manages a significant degree of surprise. While it was edited down to a much briefer four minutes for radio play, its album version is over eight minutes long, and at first appears to be a very clear instrumental. Nick Harmer keeps a slinky bassline in line over an easy beat from Jason McGerr that increases in confidence ever so subtly as the song continues. Gibbard intermittently drops a somewhat discomforting descending piano line, and Chris Walla’s guitars waft across the track largely on waves of sustained sound, with intermittent new chords. It’s a great groove, but there’s something a little uneasy in it, something a bit off–and it becomes clear when Gibbard’s lyrics come in. Some have tried to argue (rather inexplicably) that a song with words like “There are times when outside your window/I see my reflection as I slowly pass/How I long for this mirrored perspective/When we’ll be lovers, lovers at least”, and “You reject my advances/And desperate pleas/I won’t let you/Let me down/So easily” and somehow believe it could be about anything but unhealthy obsession and selfish desire for another. Of course–we’ve seen it established that songs about uncomfortably attached persons can be quite good (cf. “Every Breath You Take”), so long as they accurately marry that sensibility to a more cheerful and appealing melody. “I Will Posses Your Heart” may be the perfection of this, as it actually manages to sneak in the disturbing elements, mostly through Gibbard’s keys, while not losing the catchy and appealing nature of the whole song.

There are a handful of songs on the album that feel…not quite right to me, despite my love of the whole. “No Sunlight” is the first of these. It feels perhaps too bright–musically, not lyrically–after the darkened corners of “I Will Possess Your Heart”, but it’s actually a furthering of that mistaken, mismatched emotional theme of the album’s entirety. Harmer’s bass is warm and round, McGerr’s drums are steady–upbeat, even, and Walla’s sliding (not slide) guitar lines are catchy and give a nice flavour that always lets me happily hear the song anyway. It’s not a bad song, not even an entirely inappropriate one, it just feels less interconnected as compared to the rest of the album. Gibbard describes a sunny youth that turns to something else: “With every year that came to pass/More clouds appeared/Till the sky went black/And there was no sunlight, no sunlight/And there was no sunlight, no sunlight…anymore” and clarifies the seeming literal nature of the lyrics to this point in the chorus, which is deceptively energetic: “It disappeared at the same speed/The idealistic things I believed/And the optimist died inside of me”. The way he and backing vocals from Harmer and Walla cheerfully sing “No sunlight” is one of those great examples of dark lyrics and catchy music juxtaposed, which basically completes my forgiveness for the song, even if I look far more forward to the track that follows.

I’m not going to pretend I got the literary reference of “Cath…” anymore than I got the Kerouac meaning that lay under “Bixby Canyon Bridge”, but it does help to illuminate Gibbard’s lyrics all the same. “Cath…” could easily be finished out as “…erine Earnshaw”, as in Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, though the object of the song seems more to place a segment of that story into the context of reality, and Ben’s reaction to a real-life “Cath” going through a vaguely similar situation. It has one of the best almost-cold opens of the album: a few muted strums set the stage for a dramatic and big, lonely but warm, arcing guitar from Walla which is joined by another guitar (Gibbard) to sort of mumble back to itself afterward, but then freeze at a certain volume and rattle off a few notes. McGerr’s drums really build the song up, determined and firm beats that shift focus readily to maintain the peaks and valleys of the melody, which moves like a speedboat bobbing over its own wake. Ben’s voice is short, sharp–describing “Cath…” in position: “Cath…/She stands/With a well-intentioned man/But she can’t relax/With his hand on the small of her back/As the flash bulbs burst/She holds a smile/Like someone would hold/A crying child”. Already it’s clear what he thinks of Cath: there’s sympathy in his description, even as it is largely just that–a description. In the chorus he references the voices of gossip that will follow this hasty and un-felt marriage, and answers for her with continued sympathy though a continued detachment of omniscent description. The song eases for the moments in which he speaks of the definitive point of her choice–that of marriage vows–Walla’s guitar dainty and delicate as it lifts itself behind Gibbard’s voice. And then he takes the gossips to task, drawing a parallel to his own expressed cause for Cath’s actions: “But if their hearts were dying that fast/They’d’ve done the same as you”, and then he admits his reasons for sympathy, and explains why he cannot criticize or gossip himself: “And I’d’ve done the same as you”.

“Talking Bird” is one of three songs (the others are “The Ice Is Getting Thinner” and “No Sunlight”) released as demos in various places surrounding the album–the other two were on a bonus 7″ with some pressings of the 12″ (not mine, alas), while the demo for this song was actually the last track on the Open Door EP, played by Gibbard alone with a ukulele (!), but appears here in its more complete form. It’s still a very knowingly slight song. A patiently thrumming bassline from Harmer goes on at a pace that somehow avoids to push the song as fast as itself, while McGerr’s heavily spaced drumbeats confirm the pacing. Walla’s guitars pick and strum rather intermittently. Even at their most expansive, occupying largely the bottom end and staying slow. It may be the most fragile song, coaxing a bird (in the literal sense, but referring to a love, of course) to choose a path of its own, admitting “the windows were open the whole time”, but continuing that “it’s all there for you, as long as you choose to stay”.

The brave, cheerful organ and martial drumming that starts “You Can Do Better Than Me” sounds nothing like the title, nor its own subject matter. The keys throughout give it the feeling of a kind of march, though a summer-y one. Gibbard slips in some real lyrical corkers: “I’ve been slipping through the years/And my old clothes don’t fit like/They once did/So they hang like ghosts/Of the people I’ve been.” His voice slides up into falsetto with a kind of nervy energy falsetto often bestows–as if the raw reality of the feelings he’s expressing are hitting home as he finishes thoughts, and sometimes just as if it’s the best way to hold the notes. But the song is raw, and it makes that clear from the opening line: “I’m starting to feel/We stay together out of fear/Of dying alone”. There’s a balance, a mutual “fault” or failure at play, but then he sings that he has “to face the truth/That no one could ever look at me/Like you do/Like I’m something worth/Holding onto”, continuing his confidence and equal ground as he sings, “There’s times I think of leaving/But it’s something I’ll never do”, and the confident march of the song is left with the sustained organ chord that matched his last word, and only a piano follows him through the last lines, vulnerable, sincere, and yet flat with expression of perceived fact: “‘Cause you can do better than me/But I can’t do better than you.”

“Grapevine Fires” is perhaps the first song to describe a standing relationship instead of a desired one, an ending one, or a broken one, though it turns its darkened focus instead to the fires that actually burnt a chunk of California down in 2007. McGerr’s spiky-but-relaxed drum beat fades the song into place, where Ben’s voice and electronic keys keep it cool and sad. Walla and Harmer lay in beautiful, smooth backing vocals to Ben’s distinct voice, with now intermittent guitar but primarily a second set of keys laying out the backing for a song that matches the seemingly eased relationship with a mother of one against the background of both the fires, and the “cemetery on a hill” that they choose to observe the fires from–her daughter “laugh[s] and dance[s] in the field of graves”, and is crystallized as he finally adds: “But I couldn’t think/Of anywhere I would’ve rather been/To watch it all burn away/Burn away”. It may be, tonally, one of the saddest songs on the album, a sort of downbeat, downcast feeling to the guitar and keys themselves, the latter of which is somewhat uncertain in its emphasis.

Probably my favourite track on the album for its sliding guitar hook and its rim-based drumming style, we are now at “Your New Twin Sized Bed”. It’s catchy as all get-out (inexplicably, never a single!) and easy-going, the depressing subject matter perched precariously on a downbeat tune with a certain hopeful element in it, as well as a comfortable feeling to the music itself. As Ben has said, though, it’s a song about “throwing in the towel”, and continues to address the album’s ideas of dissolution and disillusionment in a method that is almost metaphorical, but, in the end, isn’t necessarily: “You look so defeated/Lying there in your new twin sized bed/With a single pillow/Underneath your single head/I guess you decided/That that old queen was more space than you would need/Now it’s the alley behind your apartment with a sign that says ‘free’/And that I hope you have more luck with it than me”. It’s a defeated song, both lyrically and musically, but it is still alive all the same, in both cases, but especially musically–it’s self-rationalization (“But what’s the point of holding on to what never gets used?/Other than a sick desire for self abuse”), but it doesn’t keep the actions from seeming worrisome to an observer. Walla rescues this with his guitar’s hook, which Harmer perfectly counters with a bassline that echoes and rearranges the same feel.

If the album has a climax, it’s definitely “Long Division”. The thumping bassline that rises up alongside a similarly uptempo drumbeat is cut short in its energy by the more relaxed and clear cut notes from Walla’s guitar, Gibbard’s voice similarly at ease, though they all suddenly rush along in a preview of the chorus: “Oh-ho-ho/Once it would start it was harder to tell them apart/Oh-ho-ho”. Gibbard describes first the man in the relationship, ending with a chorus that describes the man’s goal: “Cause he had sworn/Not to be what he’d been before/to be a remain- remain- remain- remainder”. And then he describes the viewpoint of the woman in the same relationship, unaware of his personal oath, and instead hurt as “She said she’d never envisioned/Him the type of person/Capable of such deceit”. And so we shift to a less internal solution: “And they carried on like/Long division/As it was clear with every page/Oh, that they were/Further away/From a solution that would play/Without a remain- remain- remain- remainder…” The sudden bursts of energy in the chorus are infectious and engaging, with the last instance unable to be slowed in its thundering burst through the song, which is channeled into rapid strums of the guitar that run closer and closer together, riding higher and higher up the neck. It charges onward and ever-forward, finally resting on the half-repetitions of the title song’s object before holding and casually clearing out the last of the album’s upbeat energy.

It’s cold, hovering electronics, and light hand-drumming behind sharpened, squared off guitar licks in “Pity and Fear”. Gibbard expresses envy of “the stranger lying next to [him]/Who awakes in the night/And slips out into the predawn light/No words, clean escape/No promises or messes made/And chalks it all up/To mistake, mistake, mistake”. It does shift into an uptempo beat, but with the continued sense of vast distance and coldness, the gaping distance between two people drawn so entirely apart. It builds to a stronger sound as Walla’s guitar takes on distorted chords and McGerr’s drums push harder (these drums played with sticks), until the song builds up to reverberating manipulations of distortion and then–an abrupt end, as the tape, apparently ran out and they appreciated the sound enough to leave it.

“The Ice Is Getting Thinner” takes that cold spaciousness and exaggerates it to the extreme: just enough echo on Ben’s voice to imply a cavernous solitude, and guitars that are, at their loudest, casual, slow, and low-slung, patient and sad. There is a repeating lick of brighter notes faint in the background, but it is lost to steady organ-style keys. Walla’s solo is affected in a fashion similar to Gibbard’s voice, distant, isolated and mournful, strangely flat and off to a side. It all rests on a single note that holds and fades to nothing.

Ben Gibbard has apparently stated that he never wants to go any lower (as in darker) than this album, and it’s not difficult to see why he might draw the line here–this is not a cheerful album. It’s a bit of a shift away from its predecessor (Plans, two years earlier) in its reluctance to stick to a single style or sound, as well as its relentlessly downbeat subject matter: effectively every song is about mismatched emotional “frequencies” and falling out of sync, whether it’s with a lover or the world as a whole, as it is in “Grapevine Fires” or “Bixby Canyon Bridge”. “Your New Twin Sized Bed” may be definitively about “throwing in the towel”, but a lot of the album is about that in other ways as well.

Despite all that, it’s stupendously catchy and just damned good.

I once had someone wander into Borders when I was working and tell me they hadn’t listened to any new music in decades, that they liked the biggies from way back when–the Beatles, the Stones, etc–and they wanted a recommendation. I happened to be in the middle of my love for this album and suggested it–I admit, sometimes I throw things out not being entirely sure how they will come off, as most people have more selective ranges of sound that they appreciate. But this person came back and told me they loved this album. A few other customers gave their approval when I’d throw it on our overhead stereo system when I was spending the night closing–an action quietly justified by the fact that we did continue to carry it for sale, even as I played it an awful lot.

As much as I may like an awful lot of music, I don’t always get anything quite so “stuck” as this, making it a perfect indicator of what it means when I very consciously choose to pick an album up on vinyl or CD following an existing purchase of the other format. That applies to a good sized portion of the non-super-cheap-used vinyl I own, of course, especially those titles which are not “classics”. Once in a while, the idea (or coloured vinyl, or circumstances) will push other titles in without as much force, but this was one that needed no trickery to leap into my hands and onto my shelf. It does actually have a die-cut sleeve (that is, there are windows cut into the outer sleeve, through which the inner sleeve shows–though it’s not a Physical Graffiti effect, or anything), but I didn’t realized that until I opened it and had already decided on acquiring it.

I already noted that their reputation can make this a very hedged bet sort of situation–perhaps my taste drops in your estimation on reading this, perhaps you reconsider a band you previously avoided (as I did). Or, perhaps you nod sagely and wonder what took me so long. Or maybe none of these. Still, I strongly encourage the reluctant to give this album in particular a chance, even if none of their others.

  • Next Up: Decapitated – Winds of Creation

Day Forty-Nine: The Cure – Seventeen Seconds

Fiction Records ■ BEG A 65

Released April 18, 1985

Produced by Robert Smith and Mike Hedges
Assistant Production by Chris Parry and M L S
Engineered by Mike Hedges and Mike Dutton
Assistant Engineering by Nigel Green and Andrew Warwick

Side One: Side Two:
  1. A Reflection
  2. Play for Today
  3. Secrets
  4. In Your House
  5. Three
  1. The Final Sound
  2. A Forest
  3. M
  4. At Night
  5. Seventeen Seconds

I don’t remember now how I found myself listening to The Cure. I think it was finding the video for “Lullaby” (meaning I probably saw it on the same tapes that led me to Marshall Crenshaw and listening to more Elvis Costello), but I’m really not sure. It meant I kept an ear out for Disintegration, but was never sure what to do with the rest of their discography. Someone I know–forgive me, for once, I can’t remember who–posted video of a live performance of “Killing an Arab”,¹ and I finally found myself asking: what album do I go to next? Pornography was a quick response, and I filed it away mentally–I’d picked up Bloodflowers on somewhat a whim, but had listened to it only a few times, and “Killing an Arab” told me there was something else back there, an entirely different style than what I’d heard so far.

I finally picked up a copy of Pornography, and soon found myself picking up every one of the deluxe-ified Cure remasters I saw (each came with a bonus disc of demos and live material from the time frame surrounding the album in question), Seventeen Seconds and Faith following rapidly behind Pornography, and all of it being settled when I purchased Three Imaginary Boys four months later (about a year ago). My ever-referenced used vinyl haunt last year, Hunky Dory, happened to have a copy of Faith on vinyl, though–the owner mentioned a copy of Pornography waiting in the wings, but, alas, it never appeared when I was there. In a sense, though, that has its benefits: I already really liked Pornography, but had only listened to most of the other albums a few times. That it was Seventeen Seconds and not Faith (they are the two immediate predecessors to Pornography) was even more fortuitous, as that album had stuck with me far better than Faith ever has.

If, like me, you only know/knew the Cure for songs like “Lullaby”, “Lovesong”, “Pictures of You” and similar, “A Reflection” might strike you quite immediately for its simplicity and its rather open structure. A repetitive twang sounds very quietly in the background, and then a single guitar and piano chord blares out–though it’s apparent after the initial surprise that it’s not so much blaring as at a reasonable, average volume. Smith’s guitar continues to strum single chords at the first beat of each measure, while Matthieu Hartley’s keys take that downbeat and plink and plunk up from it to link each together. The tone is somber but vaguely inhuman, the feeling of nature making that somberness a sort of flatline of feeling: instinct, not emotion. And then, Smith unexpectedly brightens the guitar, just slightly, but at the next chord it’s fully there, the song feeling like a peeking light is now coming up over the horizon, still slow, spacious–but it loses this quickly and finds itself at the initial darker chords and generally downward stride of the opening. A distant yawning wail fades in with a sort of obscured sound, and then fades away, and the song ends on a chord that simply is not, this time, followed by another.

“Play for Today” suddenly ups the tempo, Lol (still “Laurence” at this point) Tolhurst playing a beat that fairly well shifts it–a dance speed, really. An expulsion of air–electronic, one imagines–helps to punctuate the song. Smith enters on confident harmonic notes that seem to linger and consider their next movement, even as those changes seem practiced in the performing. Simon Gallup drives the majority of the melody on the pulsing eighth notes of his bass, until Smith takes the reins and his harmonics become clean, clear, but very warmly toned chords, running at the same tempo and rhythm as Gallup’s bass had been. “It’s not a case of doing what’s right/It’s just the way I feel that matters/Tell me I’m wrong/I don’t really care/It’s not a case of share and share alike/I take what I require/I don’t understand/You say it’s not fair”, Smith adds the first words of the album. The song travels at a fair pace, as established by Lol, but Smith’s characteristic down-turned voice (though still in the infancy of what it would later develop) and his stripped-to-minor chords imply a downbeat sense that’s more misanthropic or apathetic than it is “depressed”. For all that Tolhurst set the beat, his drums are low-key, the heads all dry and short, keeping a backing role to the swirling of warm guitars played coldly.

Simon Gallup establishes the tone of “Secrets” with a lead bassline that draws a melody and then slides downward to abandon it and joins the newly-entered Tolhurst in the rhythm. Smith, having played short, controlled palm-muted rattling with just enough release to give it clear and pretty tone, takes up the reins, alongside Hartley’s keys. Single chords from Hartley accentuate the start, while Smith’s playing loosens the muting just enough, while increasing the volume in kind, to give him control. Gallup’s playing is minimalistic, Tolhurst’s is a heartbeat of kick and very light hi-hat that gives a spine to the track while staying off and behind. Smith’s vocals are quiet and almost hidden, a distant, more passionate echo almost a flare that leads back to their whisper. His guitar, though, continues its lead role, briefly wandering up and down chords in dissectionary ways, but never takes the song past the subdued sound it shows so clearly in his vocals.

“In Your House” is Tolhurst’s kick at its most heartbeat-y, snares on the offbeat being the attack to counter this. Robert’s guitar is all murky single picking, steady and almost mysterious, the lower notes drifting up and down the neck while the higher ones that follow them are almost the same each time. Gallup’s bass is at its most active, bubbling up along the heartbeat kicks of Lol. Warping washes and heavily electronic keys dot the track periodically for texture, Smith again seemingly bored in his singing, or perhaps just darkly, callously confessional. The guitar leaves its incessant picking at the same notes only briefly, only a mild shift upward, but one that takes the song on a reasonable sidetrip into a kind of questioning, a wisp of smoke beckoning supernaturally outward that dissolves after the gesture.

A reverberating key sounds–think the Kinks’ “Death of a Clown”²–to open “Three”, a seemingly random set of  reverberating keys is strewn across it, distant mumbling hiding far behind it. An actual dance-like beat drops in from Tolhurst, the keys continue in their diffuse pattern, the track pounding hypnotically until it clears away in an abrupt electronic noise seemingly like a ball dropped and bouncing lower and lower to short frequency vibration.

Intended as an instrumental of great length, “The Final Sound” is a slightly dissonant clutter of sustained and echoing keys, growing in their low-end murmurings of somewhat disturbing nature, the keys climbing in fumbling fashion, wandering up and down before the volume drops out–the tape ended, and there was no money for another. (Really.)

The lone single from the album, “A Forest” is moody, dark, electronic waves, a cold echo of single-picked guitar slowly gathering up to a slow walk in tempo over it, but rising in pitch just a bit. A soft, unusually high bass lick loops around once, trying to pull the song up. Tolhurst’s drum machine like beat pops in, a bass followed by a light snare roll on the second beat, repeated consistently. Robert’s guitar returns with a faster (though still economic) version of that first riff, the guitar less dry and far off, curved and warm instead, though it only lasts one run of the riff, the second time going up and then running into a more speedy lead before dropping off. Lightly phased muted chords take over guitar, Gallup’s bass bouncing along faster than Lol’s drums. Robert sings in the most wonderfully rapid, rhythmic way, perhaps the most immediate and engaging vocal on the album (no wonder it was a single!). Hartley takes the keys up into a sonorous hold, Smith opening the guitar again for a mild crescendo that crashes into his voice’s renewed presence. At the end of his last word, his guitar jangles and strums out to an ending that drops drums and a bass spliced to half its beats, the guitar rising and spreading outward and upward and into the ether, leaving the steady thumps of Simon behind.

Rich and entwined guitar chords splay across “M”, a panning wash of white noise sweeps in Simon’s bass and Lol’s light, simple drumming. One of the few instances of lyrical chorus, “You’ll fall in love with somebody else/Tonight” is matched to the staccato thud of bass and drum, nodding up and down with both. Smith actually follows his final words in the song with the steady picking of an early rock style lead or solo, which wanders up and down and around until it finally settles on a high pitch it holds nervously, dropping off only with the rest of the song.

The most wonderfully fuzzy bass appear when we come to “At Night”, Lol’s drums spare, clean, and dry, but the intermittent fuzzy driving riff lending a sort of sneer to them–yet, driving though it is in construction, it’s quiet and comes off more as actual “fuzz” than it does a crush of even nihilistic dismissal. Hartley has a few well-placed, reedy keys texturally intertwined with those standing elements, buzzing lightly but with a hint of majesty, or at least gravity, about them, despite their relative lightness. Robert’s voice is hiding in the middle of the mix–surrounded by the darkness of night, perhaps–and it brings out the clean guitars, which use their lovely clean jangle alone, but carve a dissonant swathe through the returned fuzzy rumble of Simon. Gallup takes the opportunity to play a plodding rise of pitch through his fuzz, climbing slowly at each measure’s new note. This style is taken into a sort of lead at the end of the track, Smith’s contrasting clean guitar brilliantly acting as the dissonance to the harsher fuzz. A buzz of electronics hangs over the final moments, even as Lol’s drums fade out alone.

The song that has always stuck with me most on the album–perhaps because it’s the last one you hear, perhaps because it’s the title track, perhaps because its title is apparent in the song, or just maybe because it’s so damned good–is “Seventeen Seconds”. Lol counts the beats on the hi-hat, alternating snare and bass only at the beginning beat of each measure (seriously, it’s unbelievably noticeable in its pace). Smith enters  after five bars, a circling guitar in the languid, part-calloused, part-moody, all downbeat style that he employs throughout the album. Simon gives a little more emotive performance here, his bass line characterized by diminishing bends that eventually become steady eighth notes that continue to build the song up to a full drumbeat from Lol, allowing Simon’s bass to return to a melodic role at the same pace. It’s a minute and a half before Robert’s voice comes in, waiting for the song to reach its full sound before he begins. His words are that of ending, as if recapping the prior tracks on the album, telling us everything to this point was all fated and inevitable. “Seventeen seconds/A measure of life/Seventeen seconds…” he sings, his guitar suddenly energized to emphasize those words. Simon’s bass returns to its plaintive bends, Lol’s drum slows back to its snails pace, Simon disappears, Robert frays, and we’re down, again, to just Lol’s crawling beat.

Okay, if nothing else, putting that showstopper at the end of the album was a brilliant move. It hasn’t got an expected construction in any sense. Sure, the build up, tear down approach to instrumentation has been done, but the way that Robert sings those last phrases is just–there is nothing extra, no fat, and yet it’s also not exactly a hook, or anything else like that. It’s just phrases thrown out there, though they have their meaning in context. That they don’t actually end anything, but the song also seems to respond to them, appropriately, makes it that much more brilliant. It’s brilliant because it’s not at all obvious. It doesn’t feel designed, yet it feels perfect.

For a band that ended up lush and dreamy and dramatic and maybe even melodramatic, the album is sparse, spare and light. Its tone is what you would expect, whether you know the Cure at a glance, or just by reputation, though it predates the most familiar images of Robert Smith (who wore no makeup, kept his hair short, and wore snazzy, if peculiar, suits at the time). It’s been dismissed as “soundtrack-y”, but it’s not at all. It’s minimalist and atmospheric, but it’s all creating a mood for an album, not for images or movies or unsung words or anything else. It’s a cohesive whole, and a stunningly good one. I may still prefer the likes of Pornography³, but this listen gave me a new-found appreciation for why I always liked this album at least a bit, and never found it boring or iffy. It’s really quite good, and an understandable favourite for many (and if it isn’t, it ought to be).

  • Next Up: Cursive – Happy Hollow

¹If anyone finds yourself aghast at the title, Robert Smith has “retired” the song for that reason. Of course, it was originally written in reference to Albert Camus’s L’Etranger, and had nothing to do with a suggestion or nonchalance about the title’s subject. Okay, well, not about Smith’s nonchalance anyway.

²Holy cow that feels like a pretentiously obscure reference (in context, at least, because I don’t imagine many people associate the Kinks and the Cure beyond “British bands”), but it was what I thought of immediately when I heard it.

³If we remove the formatting, this entire thing is going to read very, very strangely.

Day Forty-Eight: The Cult – Love

Beggars Banquet ■ BEG A 65

Released October 19, 1985

Produced by Steve Brown
Engineered by Steve Brown and Mark Stent

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Nirvana
  2. Big Neon Glitter
  3. Love
  4. Brother Wolf; Sister Moon
  5. Rain
  1. Phoenix
  2. Hollow Man
  3. Revolution
  4. She Sells Sanctuary
  5. Black Angel

Despite being a band I remain cursorily familiar with (at best), I actually wrote about The Cult twice on the last blog, once in bite-sized form regarding their fourth album, Sonic Temple, and very early on regarding the Beggars Banquet “Omnibus Edition” releases, which included this very album. I still have no idea what to make of them in more “global” terms than my own personal one, but I’ve found myself gravitating more and more regularly to their work, as proven by my eventual acquisition of this record (another of my more excited purchases from Hunky Dory. It is, so far as I can tell, actually a UK original from ’85, but I’ve never been too fussed about such things (even if I do find the thought neat and vaguely exciting).

“Nirvana” opens the album with a simple drumstick count from Mark Brzezicki (of Big Country), but Billy Duffy (though still credited at this time with the more officialese William H. Duffy) fans out a single chord from the guitar with the immediately pulsing bass of Jamie Stewart, Brzezicki now matching that pulse with hi-hat and off-beat snares. Duffy slashes guitar melody over this, big and broad, Ian Astbury descending from above with some simple “Oh, oh, oh yeah!” that seems to turn the band toward the verse as a whole, Brzezicki now embracing primarily snare and bass kick, Duffy’s crunchy riffs muted but escaping at the end of each of Astbury’s lines. Astbury’s voice is broad, wide and big, in keeping with Duffy’s guitar stylings, gnarling up in their unmuted freedom with a hook of a riff that builds up the tension–“And when the music is loud”, Astbury sings, and then it is just that: the initial melody was that of the chorus, and now his voice soars over the riffs Duffy started the album with, but held back a bit to let Astbury control that chorus like nobody’s business. At the midpoint, a start-stop bridge, emphasized largely by Brzezicki’s drums, but sounding best in the slippery, open riffs of Duffy. Billy goes into a coiled chug of muted riffing with the most delightful little branches of released strings that slowly manages to morph into a rising, rising, and rising solo that eschews the sense of “show-off” completely, being utterly appropriate for the song’s movement.

“Big Neon Glitter” is not bright and sparkly as one might think, single-picked, muted guitar strings with relatively light distortion echo just slightly, and are undercut by a sliding bass from Stewart that seems to fade down as it slides off of its notes, Brzezicki rolls into snare and bass hits, which slowly increase Duffy’s confidence, finally cementing it with a snare build that releases the strings, putting the same riff into a more complicated pattern, one that makes use of open strings for space,. Brzezicki, too, opens up, pounding the skins with a more primal–though just slightly restrained–force, before Duffy reaches into the heavens with another shining, high progression. “Drag me back/Drag me back drag me back drag me back” Astbury enters to say, seemingly repeating himself in a sense somewhere between hurrying the slow-moving and sinking into relaxation. Duffy’s guitars become more spaced apart, Brzezicki pushing the song forward, but Astbury making his notes count at the speed he feels appropriate, which isn’t always the tempo Brzezicki is setting. The bridge sees Brzezicki putting four on the floor, Stewart’s bass sliding up forcefully then back down with energy expended, Duffy’s guitar running tight circles around the rhythm section, Ian only briefly fading in with rhythmic vocalization that leaves as fast as it comes.

The title track makes for one of the best cases for the value of Billy’s overdubbing of guitars on the album–or, at the very least, one of the most apparent cases. He starts alone, playing a riff that goes on four beats and stops cold, but is picked up with a bending lead lick that overlaps just slightly with the riff’s return. The riff stays steady, while the higher lead lowers itself over a few steps, and then becomes a much more spacious, lower one that paves the way for Ian’s voice. Stewart mostly follows that standing riff, but fills the gap after its second run with a few beats and a downward slope. Ian keeps the power in his voice, but tunes it more toward a small crowd than the far reaches of a field, his words now leaving to let Duffy’s guitar lead return, experimenting further with its own range. A monster tom beat keeps the forward movement under Ian’s lengthy “Oh…” and lets Billy’s lead just burn and sail on through the rest of the track. The latter half of the car encompasses Astbury’s second lyrical set, half-desperate repetitions of methods of escape set to the varied poundings of Brzezicki and Duffy’s steadily high lead. A wah-wah warping of his lead carries it out through the end, Astbury improvising more and more steadily alongside him.

“Brother Wolf; Sister Moon” is the most explicit acknowledgment of the Native American aesthetic Ian favoured (actually, I think he still favours it). Duffy plays a low, arpeggiated chord over and over, joined subtly by bass kicks from Brzezicki, but most apparently by the flickers of mournful wailing that come from another of his own performances. It’s the kind of track you’d at least half expect to half spoken word lyrics, but Ian continues to make the most of his voice, his lyrics not even going in the story direction you might expect from the music and title, instead running on his favoured approach of a set of lines that are repeated in a fashion that is not always distinctly verse-chorus-verse. “And blow my fears…” he pauses, then sings “…away,” and Brzezicki drops his drums more strongly into the track–still a simple, steady and slow beat, but the snare drum echoing, and Stewart’s bass quietly rising up to join it in volume, too. It’s a hypnotic track, a slow fuse, but a burning one; when Duffy takes up the reins from Astbury and begins a solo that doesn’t much violate the song’s tempo, he doesn’t take that fuse and explode, so much as burn it brighter, Stewart’s keyboard part adding the most expectation to the track, high in the track and repeated with a melody that implies an eventual release, Ian repeating his lyrics before he pauses again, this time his word returning the song to its origins, a recording of an actual thunderstorm blanketing the track in one of the most musically appropriate moments for one I can recall.

Released as a single shortly before the album itself, “Rain” riffs more like “Nirvana”, though the steady four-on-the-floor from Brzezicki is given a speedy feel by his eighth note responses on the hi-hat. At open, Duffy’s guitars play as slowly picked chords on the one hand, but rising wails of lead. Mark releases his grip on the rapid beat slightly when the introduction ends, though, a subtle tambourine maintaining the eight notes, but most of the beat stuck to bass-snare-bass-snare pulsebeats. Duffy’s lead fades for the verse, his riffing turning to partly muted chugs, that open back up (though quietly) with Ian’s voice, which leaps along the tops of Billy’s high-reaching chorus lick. The return of the rapid opening beat allows Stewart’s bass to make itself known, before it gives way to the martial drumming of Mark and the shattering, tightly knit riffs that launch the song back into its chorus as the song finds its close.
Wah-wah is the order of the day in “Phoenix”, apparently a technique Billy picked up simply because there was a pedal in the studio, and not one he normally kept in his repertoire. He lays down a warbling riff, to which Ian replies “Yeah!” and Brzezicki adds a pair of kicks and then a steady beat to. Duffy’s lead burns off into the atmosphere and leaves behind a more restrained riff that mirrors Stewart’s bass, before it finds itself unable to be controlled and begins to spiral out from that simpler base, as Ian repeats “Fire, fire, fire…” in a way much calmer than he would do a few years later in “Fire Woman”. The wah allows Billy to wrestle out a song-length lead that gets neither boring nor too showy, and never stable and repetitious. It gives the whole thing a sort of “tougher” sense, not quite aggression but just pure strength.
“Hollow Man” is built on a steady foundation of  Stewart’s bass, one that ties down the free-floating riffs of Billy just long enough for Brzezicki to wrest control away and pull Duffy back down to earth for a riff that locates Ian’s voice and brings the song into a more distinct form that it carries onward. While a few songs on the album have backing vocals, they are most apparent here, in the only instance where they are the voices of Duffy and Stewart, echoing the words of Ian, at a vocal expression more of us can wrap our heads around. The lead riff Duffy follows with is like a rising flame that burns the rest away to leave nothing but a slightly tremolo-quivered ringing chord, and a bass-kick, snare-rim tap, which is itself burnt away with that same flaming riff, and leaves the verse’s structure intact in its wake instead. Billy’s lead begins to become wiry and aggressive in its bonds to the rest of the song, fighting more and more until the final beat of the song is let go.

Downtempo in a style very different from “Brother Wolf; Sister Moon”, “Revolution” has a thumping bassline and another of the more steady beats Brzezicki lays down. Duffy’s guitar is relatively subdued, though it doesn’t starve for volume or presence. Ian is similarly restrained: not quiet, not restricted in power, but kept at a reasonable medium largely, though his singing style doesn’t lend itself significantly to this approach and he throws a few tricks in here and there. At the chorus, though, he sings out into the distance, “There’s a revolution!/There’s a revolution!” with a kind of clenched-fist passion, though he spends most of the verses questioning the nature of revolution, the meaning of images, and the strength of either. It’s anthemic in an entirely different sense form “Nirvana” or “Rain”, which is exemplified in the deliberate pace of Duffy’s solo–it’s a fist raised more in solidarity, a glimmer of hope in rain, than it is a fist raised to punch at the air, or as a symbol to represent an undimmed effort despite exhaustion. The Soultanas (who are responsible for the album’s other backing vocals) appear with choral “Ahhs” and repetitions of the title word, all of it seeming to imply a non-specific revolution–not a theme song for a particular one, or maybe even any of them, yet not far off in tone from what one might be.

“She Sells Sanctuary” is a track the band was originally inclined to omit from the album, as it was released months earlier as a single, and was recorded with their then-drummer Nigel Preston, whose undiagnosed mental illness left him out of the band due to increasingly erratic behaviour. It’s chopped down from the lengthy runtime of the single (6:59 to 4:22), but still has a big sound that belies its comparatively short running time (it’s also now the second shortest track on the album, after “Rain”). The watery, ethereal guitar that starts it turns quickly to the burning rock of the song’s primary riff, which is expanded by the use of a clean guitar’s sound on the same riffs. Ian’s voice is in top firm, his mouth, his lungs open wide for every word. Nigel’s drums are steady and consistent, as is Stewart’s pulsing bass, but the Billy and Ian trade their energies throughout, soaring vocals for soaring leads, occasionally overlapped but never treading on each other. It briefly morphs into a vaguely psychedelic passage backed by steady 4/4 kicks, but it finds itself immediately becoming a final anthemic run through the verse and then a slow devolution into that watery opening guitar again.
The rapid song-end strumming that opens “Black Angel” is a complete distraction from what it becomes, a more clearly defined but still rapid riff is suggested, but replaced with a sped-up funereal clean guitar line that the distortion matches in volume, melody and rhythm. Reverberating chords let ring at the beginning of each measure suggest a desert’s desolation. Ian sings at his most gentle and quiet, but the kicks Brzezicki places behind him open his voice: “It’s a long way to go/A black angel at your side”…it’s a chorus that trudges with its words–it’s a long way to go, his voice says, not suggesting giving up, even sympathetic, but not just stating the facts, though maybe with a hint of confidence in the ability to finish the trip anyway. Of course, this is a trip with death, if “black angel” didn’t make that clear enough, the line is sometimes clarifed to “The reaper at your side”, nevermind “Journey on to the eternal reward”. It’s the theme of a journey, too intimate to be relegated to soundtrack status, but it would not be out of place there all the same–a cloaked figure pushing on through winds and sand, the hazy mirage of a black angel waiting off to the side. Brzezicki turns to a martial beat, implications of a steady march, and Duffy lays it over with his prettiest lead, which weaves around keys from Stewart, the mournful sound of a long journey that nears end but is still far off enough to be distant. “It’s a long, long, long goodbye” Ian begins to sing, and then it all wraps suddenly.
If you’re wondering, the symbols next to each song’s description are those that are placed in the back cover’s  tracklisting, as well as interspersed in the lyrics. If you actually blow up the picture of the cover in my hand, you’ll find that, oddly, the two sides are “reversed”: Side Two is above the central Cult wings, just below the band’s logo, and Side One is below and above the album title. Oddly, the back cover also shows the symbols in a row–and they’re reversed in the same fashion. Other pressings undo this choice, but I’m left wondering if it was intentional or accidental. I also wonder a bit if the symbol for “Hollow Man” is intended for “Black Angel”, though there are certainly enough death symbols in Egyptian mythology that that might be one as well (it’s not one I can place, so I’m not sure, myself–and perhaps it’s not so obvious as that). Each is of course drawn in the oblong shape that indicates a cartouche–but more than one is clearly taken from other cultures (a yin/yang appears in the one for “Revolution”, for instance).
The Cult has an interesting sound, and they’ve got a weird reputation. All the reviews included in the Omnibus edition prattle on about how they seem to be trying to bring back the ’60s, and other such tripe, and use this “against” them, despite the fact that it is not inherently good or bad, and Billy himself comments on realizing this, saying that he learned that Pete Townshend, for instance, was not automatically a boring old dinosaur just because Steve Jones (of the Sex Pistols) said he was, and that he had to “unlearn” a lot. I found all of this quite endearing: I’ve never been one to truck much with the reaction of punks as purely relevant to all music, much though I appreciate the shakeup–music can always use that.
What they actually sound like, though, is vaguely influenced by their imagery and their name: it’s music that carries on long enough and in fashions that use enough repetition that it could easily be thought of as mantra or chant, the kind of sounds and words that could fit with a darkened room lit only by large flames–not as a means of pretension or silliness, but as the right atmosphere for the sound. And sometimes it’s too big and loud and janglingly bright to fit in that space, but it seems right anyway. 
Indeed, this seems to be why “gothic rock” is attached to them as a label, at least in their early days (notwithstanding lingering associations from prior incarnation Southern Death Cult, which is a pretty cool name, you have to admit)–but they’re often pictured at the time (including inside the gatefold) in endless necklaces and paisley for Duffy, or the same excess jewelry and a leather jacket for Ian. There’s a sort of flowingness to their aesthetic as people that gives an oddly believable metaphysical sense to their image and sound. Astbury’s lyrics help this, but most importantly, none of it comes off as contrived or overtly naïve, it just comes off as aged, goth-y mystics who like to play rock. That might sound silly to some, I suppose, but it tends to work quite well for me, considering how they carry it off–neither taking it too far, nor seeming to chafe at its implications.
It’s nice, if nothing else, to see a band that is willing to create their own sound, not deny the past, and still come out of a scene (and a label) more known for the peculiar and “arty”.
  • Next Up: The Cure – Seventeen Seconds

Day Forty-Seven: Marshall Crenshaw – Marshall Crenshaw

Warner Bros. Records ■ BSK 3673

Released April 28, 1982

Produced by Richard Gottehrer and Marshall Crenshaw
Engineered by Thom Panunzio, Jim Ball [Assisting]
Mastered by Greg Calbi

Side One: Side Two:
  1. There She Goes Again
  2. Someday, Someway
  3. Girls . . .
  4. I’ll Do Anything
  5. Rockin’ Around in N.Y.C.
  6. The Usual Thing
  1. She Can’t Dance
  2. Cynical Girl
  3. Mary Anne
  4. Soldier of Love
  5. Not for Me
  6. Brand New Lover

Another of my “Black X” titles that indicates a $1US purchase at Musik Hut, I first heard Marshall Crenshaw via the same tapes that introduced me to the video for “Oliver’s Army“, though the song I saw a video for was “Whenever You’re on My Mind”, from Crenshaw’s follow-up to this album, Field Day. I knew the song wasn’t on here, but figured for $1 I’d live, and figured I knew “There She Goes Again” and could justify the purchase with that. It was an unusual choice: the “Whenever” video cropped up a few times in those tapes, and the first few times did nothing for me. At some point though, it suddenly clicked and ran through my mind pretty regularly. So, seeing this at that price (being a non-major classic rock title, it also ensured it was probably in really solid condition, which it is), I figured–why not?

“There She Goes Again” was not, as it happened, the song I was thinking of¹ and this was apparent as soon as I heard it for the first time. Marshall’s brother Robert lays down a steady rock beat and Chris Donato puts in a somewhat dryly produced thickly-picked bassline, while Marshall himself drops a clean, light melody on guitar. His tone is bright and clear, the sound largely simple, but the actual playing a bit more complicated than it suggests. It’s reminiscent of the sounds that would soon permeate independent rock, in the power-pop sectors: ringing and melodic, finger-picked and gaining its impact from the energy used to play. The song as a whole is reminiscent of early rock like Buddy Holly (Crenshaw’s voice carries some similar phrasings, in fact), and feels lean and mean, the simple trio set-up very apparent, but the production keeping even that stripped of frills. Crenshaw’s vocals have a head-shake to them as he sings, “How I lost her/I’m not sure I know but/It makes no difference now I try/I get that feeling when she drives on by/And there she goes again with another guy.” His brother and Donato throw their voices in to strengthen the beginning of many of the lines in harmony, as well as the chorus, which sweetens Marshall’s lead, which is less openly sad than it is self-defeated.

Having never heard it before I bought this record, I never would have guessed that “Someday, Someway” was Crenshaw’s biggest single, but apparently it was. It’s not that the song seems like a surprising single, or a surprising hit, just that it failed to permeate with any apparent longevity. A catchy riff, some handclaps, “ooh”s from the boys in back, and a chorus that insinuates itself readily. The “Ah oh ahaw” that fits into the chorus is even more reminiscent of the vocalizations of Buddy Holly, but Marshall’s vocals are more sweet and spry in the whole track than they were on the previous one. On a few verses, he actually has an echo on his voice, which gives it the charm of a simple production trick at analysis but just a little more kick as a pop song.

“Girls . . .” has an introduction that is brighter than the title’s repetition as a hook, with harmonized “Ahh-ahh, yeah” vocals and all kick drums. Donato enters with a strong, short slide of a note, and brings with him the extra percussion of guest Michael Osborn, who mans conga drums in the back, allowing Robert to trade to the snare. When the title comes in, repeated in a fashion that’s far from Mötley Crüe’s later refrain of the same–less a frothing look at a sexual smorgasbord from which one expects to acquire at least the number of girls mentioned, than a sense of concentrated overwhelming experience. Donato’s bass is strong and deeper than previously, and Robert’s drums are more forceful. The tone is darker in a way that doesn’t imply a negative emotion, so much as an intensity of thought. There’s a lovely play with harmonies toward the end, overlapping each of their voices singing “Wild”, answered only by backing vocals with “Yeah-eah”, and a brief and subtle solo that doesn’t make much of a big deal about itself.

Donato’s bass is the order of the day with “I’ll Do Anything”, the sound less dry, more funky and further up in the mix, given its chance to define most of the melody, with ringing guitars (again, think power pop) largely functioning more as a chiming rhythm to the bass’s melody. There’s a kind of pull to the music that’s accentuated by Marshall’s vocals, which he modulates through most of the song, holding few pitches for any length of time. He burns out a lead and solo halfway through that are capped by the dug in vocals that are my call for the song’s real hook: “I’ve gotta send a message/Gotta send it to your heart from mine”. Probably the most unique song in the whole of the album as the instruments and his voice all seem to be played, arranged, and mixed with a very different emphasis.

“Rockin Around in N.Y.C.” has a nervous tension to it, the guitar tightly coiled and half deadened by it, Robert’s beat pounding a boundary around the building energy, Donato’s bass appearing only intermittently, until he’s let loose and the song’s energy is released by the chorus: “So round and round and round we go/Through seventeen lines in a row/Take a hold of my hand and come with me/We’ll go rockin’ around in N.Y.C.”, which ends abruptly after that last letter, allowing the following verse to coil tension back into the song. A loose, sliding set of riffs carries the song into a fade-out and let’s the tension become more of a quiet danceability.

Carrying in distinct rockabilly strains, “The Usual Thing” Tony Garnier on “slappin’ bass” for a easy-paced track of handclips and the country-inflected guitars that indicate that rockabilly influence. Of course, like much of Crenshaw’s work, it hints a bit at other early rock styles, with the faintest echos of Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” hiding within its grooves. A double-tracked vocal reminds of that same era of music, though the song twists and turns into more contemporary movements quite regularly, though it’s not above the beat of vocals that builds anticipation for the instruments that follow. Crenshaw picks out a steady, non-showy solo into the end of the song, which ends in the familiar fashion of repeating the final line, even finally stopping with the three-chord-beat punctuation that seems to show up most often in oldies cover bands to announce the end of a song.

A distinctly surf guitar intro gives “She Can’t Dance” a different feel at the outset, but the verse opens into the ringing guitar that he uses throughout the majority of the album. The chorus is sung by the group as a whole, though, and gives a more easy pop feel to the whole thing. The bridge adds a whole lot more hook to the vocal, and then a solo that burns it up in classic fashion. It’s also one of the two songs on the album Crenshaw isn’t credited as writing alone, having been joined by Rick Cioffi and Fred Tood in the process.

“Cynical Girl” might easily be the best track on the album. A jangle-y riff that acts as backdrop to the song has the interesting addition of bells to establish melody before Marshall starts singing, which is where the melody is most clearly established. His voice treats his guitar as an outline to work withing the boundaries of, and it it actually has an interesting approach to the idea of love, as a kind of naïve and optimistic romanticism is married to the idea of looking for love in mutual cynicism–though it is cynicism about “the real world” and the rest of it. No doubt Marshall was aware of the contradiction, but the way he sings it betrays nothing of this contradiction.

The distinct and emphatic fingerwork and cheerful tambourine of “Mary Anne” hearken back more to bands from the ’60s in a way (perhaps the Hollies and “Carrie Anne” though it doesn’t actually resemble that particular song too much). It’s a bit  Byrdsian, but it turns in another direction when Marshall begins singing the verse, which is actually the right kind of serious for the Mary Anne he is singing to, who is “As down as [she] can be”, though he’s encouraging her to “Go on and have a laugh/Go have a laugh on me”. There’s some lovely harmonizing on the chorus, though, with the rest of the group singing the light variations on the lyrics that indicate many harmonized parts in songs. It leaves the song with the feeling that most of the lyrics were actually Mary Anne’s name, which is entirely appropriate, as it is the puzzling out of how to cheer her up.

While it doesn’t stray too far from the album’s sound, “Soldier of Love” is interesting and a bit unusual–it seems to draw influence from girl groups and the other R&B/soul sounds of the 1960s, though perhaps as it was filtered through the semi-contemporaneous rock groups of the same era. There’s a walk to the bass, a series of eighth notes that lead to quarter notes, thus lending them more weight and giving the song a certain swing. Guitar chords are used more in service of that bassline–none of this is terribly surprising, as the song was originally a soul single for Arthur Alexander (written by Buzz Cason and Tony Moon), and was covered by the Beatles in a BBC studio session (it strongly resembles a lot of their earlier cover material, like “Anna (Go to Him)”–which Alexander himself wrote–or “Baby It’s You”, a hit for the Shirelles, too). The boys in back get to even put in some “Sha la la”s, but it’s the big halt, defined by a snare hit, before the chorus that really makes the song go.

Robert lays down a steady 4/4 on the snare in “Not for Me”, which gives it a propulsive feeling like a lot of work from the groups that would record the songs that “Soldier of Love” was drawn from, though it resembles more of the Spector-y wall of sound-style drums, and Crenshaw’s vocal line (and his very voice) sound like something more appropriate for the year the album is released. “I know definitely/That it’s just not for me”, he sings, and the way his voice rises and suddenly dips is interesting and appealing, but odd. 

“Brand New Lover” is probably the most “modern” of the songs on Marshall Crenshaw, though it’s built from the same essential parts that create the nostalgic hints in all of it. The active bass of Donato and the circled strums of guitar jangling in a style that crosses R.E.M.’s with rockabilly. It’s upbeat and dance-y, but it also includes the kind of “a little bit louder now” repetition of “right now” in the middle to keep its influences present in mind.

I sometimes find it difficult to write about the music I know least well, or have enjoyed only briefly and occasionally, and Crenshaw’s stuff in particular gives me some trouble because of the nature of it. It’s pop without question: well-written, well-played, and even rather unique, actually, but its uniqueness is somewhat indefinable, as it isn’t so much about the melding of elder influences, nor about their limited role, nor even about the fact of those two exceptions. It’s a voice that hasn’t been heavily replicated, nor that is a replication itself, that has skill and craft in spades, but all honed to the fine point of clear hooks and simple construction. I can’t explain accurately, then, the appeal of his music, except that it does what pop should: it connects.

  • Next Up: The Cult – Love

¹In fact, I was thinking of the song by–no, not the Velvet Underground–the La’s, which was covered by the Boo Radleys and Sixpence None the Richer and seemed to hover around everywhere in a small respect throughout the 1990s. Oops?

Day Forty-Six: Cream – Wheels of Fire

RSO Records ■ RS-2-3802

Released August, 1968
Produced by Felix Pappalardi

In the Studio
Engineered by Tom Dowd and Adrian Barber

Side One: Side Two:
  1. White Room
  2. Sitting on Top of the World
  3. Passing Time
  4. As You Said
  1. Pressed Rat and Warthog
  2. Politician
  3. Those Were the Days
  4. Born Under a Bad Sign
  5. Deserted Cities of the Heart

I’ve traded records only a few times, and on occasion had some passed along from friends for similar reasons to trades, but without the actual “trading” portion of it. My good friend Kyle–with whom I once lived, alongside my friend John–dropped a few records (and some CDs) on me when he was in the midst of moving some time ago, as well as a few when I moved out of the apartment the three of us shared. As he doesn’t have the more technical expertise John has poured into equipment (as the one of us who has owned a turntable longest), he has had a turntable with a useless belt, pre-amp issues and various other things that precluded actual vinyl listening for some time. Between that, the move, and the fact that he planned to sell most of them, he gave me dibs on those records as a consequence of our friendship. Most of them reflected the variance in our tastes–John edged toward the truly weird and the normal-but-less-popular-classics as far as vinyl, Kyle edged toward progressive and improvisational classic rock, and I edged toward a weird mix of pop and post rock when we all lived together–and so I didn’t know the albums as well as I might have (and, to some minds of course, “should” have).

Most of the records I gathered from him over the years have sprawl as a hefty component–a natural side effect of the kinds of bands involved, I suppose. Of all the Cream albums to have, it almost makes sense that it was Wheels of Fire, but it could be coincidental, considering it’s also one that contains some solid tracks to the less interested in musicianship, too. I never got as far into Cream as he did, or really as much as any of my friends did. As I’ve mentioned before, my introduction to Clapton was through his solo material, and mostly the recordings that came much, much later. I did eventually pick up Fresh Cream and Disraeli Gears on CD for myself, though I’ve given them cursory listens at best–enough to get a feel for their sound, but not to really burn any of their work into my brain’s repertoire.

To be totally honest, when he asked me if I wanted Wheels of Fire (going through the titles he was planning to sell one by one, asking about each), I thought, “Sure, I’ve always liked Cream songs, and I should listen to them–plus I know that one has at least a single or two that I know,” and had no earthly idea this was a formatting relative of Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, the Allman Brothers Band’s Eat a Peach and a handful of others: a studio LP paired with a live one. Knowing this wouldn’t have dissuaded me, but it likely would have had some effect on my nonchalance or mild enthusiasm. If there’s a Pink Floyd album I can’t sit through, it’s that one, whatever that may or may not say about me.

The collective inference you may or may not have made but I will now spell out is this: I’m not a musician, have never really aspired to be, and generally appreciate rather than enjoy extended improvisational music. I’m not a jam band person, either, largely–it’s possible for extended live workouts to appeal to me, even strongly, but largely they fall on at least semi-deaf ears with me. I’m not, as a result, going to get too far into the live portion, and it may leave this with the most negative comments I may ever write in this blog about the music to which I’m listening–which doesn’t necessarily make them negative, as I’m quite positive in general, just significantly less positive in this case.

If there’s a song I identify first with Cream, or at least the one I did most when the name was just a band name to attach to songs (as opposed to even the other simplistic assignments–“early power trio”, “supergroup”, “a band Eric Clapton was in”, et al.), it was “White Room”, without a doubt. “Sunshine of Your Love” may (quite reasonably) come first for many people, but “White Room” is it for me. The dramatic fall of the introduction–which I long thought was a vocal recording of multiple “Ooh-ooh, ahh-ahh”s (apparently live, it sometimes was) over Ginger Baker’s timpani, but is actually a strange recording of Clapton’s guitar, one string bent as far as he could (the others apparently removed to allow for this), and then overdubbed in a few different recordings–lends a good bit of drama to it as both a single and an album opener, though the framework of the song’s primary portion is, in a general sense, a recognizable “rock song”. Jack Bruce’s voice has just the right tenor–the kind he used for “Tales of Brave Ulysses” (which more musically inclined folks say is also musically similar), the kind that tells a story, but in this case given just a bit more melodiousness and “oomph”. Ginger’s drums are given their full space with their stretch between the left and right channels, sharp, clear and powerful from the playing alone, not just the recording and production. Clapton, of course, works in some wonderfully vocal and responsive wah-wah leads, which rarely occupy the same rhythms or melodies. The song was also one of my first introductions to the idea that a song could be named for words in the song that aren’t the chorus–an early lesson, of course, but a peculiar one. Speaking of the chorus, though, the way Bruce takes the power out of his voice and goes to such a gentle falsetto is brilliant for the strange, somewhat esoteric lyrics and the dramatic, psychedelic tone of the song itself.

While Baker and Bruce each co-wrote a chunk of the album’s studio songs (a roughly equivalent number), Clapton’s contribution was the selection of two songs to cover, both unsurprisingly coming from the blues. The first, “Sitting on Top of the World”, eases pretty slowly into being, but comes to life when Eric works in his first lead, fuzzy and felt, a little pause in the middle giving it the snap of its own flavour. Bruce and Baker really step back to let Eric (and his multiple overdubbed selves) shine on the instrumental portions of the track. Jack’s vocals are some of his most actually bluesy, which is not a style he often goes for, being more completely invested in performance (betraying, I suppose, his jazz background) than feeling. His bass is more able to insinuate itself into the feel, though, even as it is clearly relegated to supportive role by even the rhythm portions of Eric’s playing, though those function only to fill out the song itself. His leads drive it, with no question, and somehow manage, despite their intensity and regularity, to work as a part of it, rather than a display of prowess. Baker does have a wonderful faltering beat toward the end of the song that melds right into the stop-start nature of the main rhythm riff. This is, of course, Howlin’ Wolf’s arrangement of the song, though it was written and first recorded by the Mississippi Sheiks’ Walter Vinson and Lonnie Chatman.

Leaving Eric’s love of the blues behind, “Passing the Time” is one of the most acutely psychedelic tracks on the album, in the sense of bizarre, spacey instrumentation (Bruce mans a calliope, producer Pappalardi takes on organ pedals, and probably viola, though no one is credited for strings on the track, and co-writer Baker plays glockenspiel) and a sound that seems most appropriate for a serene introduction to a cultish animated movie. There’s an introduction that implies something else, haunting vocals over pounding drums from Baker–but they cross-fade into this strange fluffy but sort of quietly odd song. “Passing the time/Passing the time/Everything fine” the song suddenly pumps itself upward to guitar driven, rapidly-moving and harder material, Jack and Ginger seeming to compete for speed and control of the song, until they cross-fade again into the calliope and glockenspiel oddity of the song’s earlier portion. It’s strange, but actually kind of appealing.

Credited in all parts (except “high hat”, which goes to Ginger Baker of course) to Jack Bruce, “As You Said” is a rather pretty track, a mix of acoustic guitar and cello, alongside Bruce’s voice. It continues a bit of the psychedelic vein of “Passing the Time”, but reflects more on the artists that would record such music in acoustic and simple fashions, the odd studio trick the only concession to true weirdness (his vocals are occasionally modulated). The big downward slope of the cello is affectingly beautiful, though the whole song slides along without its clear rhythm: the hi-hat blends into the acoustic guitar’s strums nicely, giving the song its actual rhythm and a bit of extra sound without making itself explicit. It reminds me a bit of the way psychedelia could manifest itself with the Beatles–unable to escape the hooks and the prettiness, despite the unusual musical choices.

You would think “Pressed Rat and Warthog” would at least be an extremely strange song–and it is, but not as strange as the title might suggest. I thought perhaps an instrumental of a kind (there are a large number of those with very weird titles, because instrumental sounds could mean various things to various people, of course!). Instead, though, it’s Ginger Baker telling a story–to be fair, a weird one that fits the title (which names the two main characters, in fact), and is obscure enough to warrant that weird title, and its place on an album with such a psychedelic cover. Pappalardi actually controls a lot of the actual music’s sound, contributing trumpet that sounds like a respectful tribute to our “heroes”, with the backing for Baker’s actual recitation being backed by his own complicated drumming, very deliberate guitar chords and largely to-the-point basswork from Bruce. Out of nowhere at the end, just after Pappalardi’s last blow of the trumpet, Baker begins to work the drums into a frenzy and a wild and intense guitar solo comes flying out of Clapton, as if phased in from another recording, only to be faded out with the rest.

“Politician” is built on a slow, burning groove of a riff from Clapton, which almost steals the low-end away from Jack as he sings lyrics that merge a sleazy come-on line with the sleaziness of politics. The shmoozing attempts to court voters or women, showing no real allegiance to either, and even claiming one lean in place of another–the song is filthy on multiple levels, including that guitar riff in particular. Clapton does lay some leads over it, but they are icing and decoration (the appreciable and tasty kinds) over the steady, deliberate beat and the ride Baker nails it all down with. Jack works just the right kind of tone into his calls of “Hey, baby, get into my big black car…” to match the very sense of the lyrics and their unpleasantness.

With vocals that seem to be dragged around by the song rather than worked to accompany it, “Those Were the Days” brings to mind “Tales of Brave Ulyesses” in a slightly different way from “White Room”, as it matches more closely the style Bruce sang that previous track in. Musically, the song is interesting because it goes from a nicely complicated, signature Baker beat and a reasonably heavy guitar riff to the peculiar introduction of marimba and particularly tubular bells from Baker and Swiss hand bells from Pappalardi. While Bruce and Eric sing the chorus together, Baker begins to take the opportunity to work out, and leads the way for a scorching solo from Clapton that fades away with Baker’s relent to the regular beat (though it is not, in general, a completely “regular beat”) and the familiar verse and chorus melodies.

Clapton’s taste returns with “Born Under a Bad Sign”, the Booker T. Jones/William Bell song made famous by Albert King via Stax (remember how I said John’s taste ran to the less-popular-but-classic? That album was one of the reissues I remember him picking up–one of his first blues records). Unfortunately, this time it shows a bit that this is Clapton’s choice–Baker’s drums are good, they are well-played, as is Bruce’s bass, and his vocals are good too, but they don’t have the fire of the blues. Clapton recorded it later as a solo artist, and he got the kind of feel that blues vocals are based on: deep downs dredged up and forced out, while Bruce feels more like his focus is on the singing than the feeling. Clapton is alone in really feeling out the groove of the song, even if it is Baker laying down the beat to establish it. It’s not a bad performance–far from it, these are all expert musicians, but Baker and Bruce have technical skill attempting to mesh with pure feeling, and it just doesn’t quite gel as well as it should. Were it not a cover of such a classic, or even instrumental–it’s largely Bruce’s voice that feels wildly out of place–I could have no complaints.

The studio album closes with “Desert Cities of the Heart”, which pounds forth from wildly strummed acoustics (courtesy of Bruce, who again appears as vocalist), a mostly frenetic drum beat from Baker that is punctuated quite emphatically with four very concrete beats. The sudden introduction of strings (primarily Pappalardi’s viola, though Bruce also contributes cello again) slows the song for a moment, Bruce dropping his energetic bass to a steady monotone, and Baker keeping his drums back to allow the strings their space. Clapton’s solo is of a different stripe than his prior ones, actually seeming to sound more like a ribbon of sound than the squealing high tones of his bluesiest work, quavering just slightly. It’s a no-questions-asked winner for the album, and this may also be Baker’s best studio drum work on here, ending with the crash of all instruments in unified style, but with a scattered end of toms that puts the proper grace note on the studio work.

Live at the Fillmore¹
Engineered by Bill Halverson
Mixed by Adrian Barber
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Crossroads
  2. Spoonful
  1. Traintime
  2. Toad

In general, I tend to be inclined toward the views of many who can pass on live albums. It varies from group to group of course, and is often at least partly dependent on the material, performances, venues, time frame and numerous other factors in determining whether the recording interests me personally–while I’d like to be able to treat the entirety of my writing here as a means of evangelism and advocacy, I am like anyone else and do not like everything I hear. That Cream had not previously recorded a studio version of Clapton’s arrangement of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” makes it a worthwhile inclusion for certain, as it is one of the most wonderful and blistering excursions into classic blues the group ever put together. It’s followed, though, by the extremely extended recording of “Spoonful”, another blues classic they recorded, but this one previously appearing in studio form on Fresh Cream (in the U.K., at least–yep, one of those again!). The live album is primarily intended as a showcase for the musicianship of the group’s members, with Side Three devoted to a focus on Clapton’s guitarwork, but the sixteen minutes and forty-three seconds of it is a bit much. “Traintime” is to show off Bruce’s harmonica work, and does the job, but also begins to falter on the “enjoyment vs. appreciation” test, which redlines on “Toad”, a showing for Ginger Baker’s drumming.

I like Baker’s drumming–a lot. I like a lot of drummers–I often surprise myself here with how often it’s the drumming that stands out to me. But drum solos are something I think tends toward the interest of drummers and drummers almost to the exclusion of everyone else, in terms of enjoyment. Appreciation can transform into enjoyment when you appreciate what’s occurring and the skill involved more directly, but that enjoyment can falter without that kind of appreciation. “Toad” I even found myself cursing when I thought it had returned back to the melody it carried in its original incarnation (also on Fresh Cream), only to be subverted again by more of Baker in isolation. The group improvises well on both of these extended tracks (though there’s a bit of a disconnect toward the latter half of “Spoonful” that grates a bit, where a few directions were attempted at once, but quickly reassembled), but it’s just exhausting. Perhaps another mood might change my stance, but this has often been my reaction to extremely extended versions of previously lengthy-but-reasonable (6:30 and 5:11 respectively) tracks.

■ ■ ■ 

The studio album surprised me a bit in its psychedelic excursions–not because it had them, but because they were so willfully experimental. The notion of Cream as a power trio, as a hard rock originator, as a tight and steady band influenced heavily by the introduction of the blues–this kind of coloured my perception of what to expect from even psychedelic portions–thinking more in the veins of “White Room” than anything else, while the peculiarities of “Passing the Time” and “Pressed Rat and Warthog” were something else entirely. Perhaps that’s an indication of Baker’s aesthetic, but Bruce did contribute “As You Said”, which was unusually acoustic in instrumentation.

After listening, I think I appreciate the record more in general, but remain more pleased to have it as an extra branch of my collection–one I am glad to have, but not overtly passionate about–more than as a personal pleasure. These things do, however, often age well, and it may be that pulling it out at a later date will cause me to reconsider–maybe even the live album.

But I rather doubt that one.

  • Next Up: Marshall Crenshaw – Marshall Crenshaw

¹3/4 of these tracks were actually recorded at the Winterland Ballroom, not the Fillmore. It’s just the title given for those two sides. The Winterland was owned by the same promoter (Bill Graham) and did eventually become the locations of both The Band‘s Last Waltz and the Sex Pistols’ final concert.