Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Yet Still Even More Decade-ence

The countdown of my twenty-six favorite albums of the past 10 years continues.

21–26 are here.
16–20 are here.
11–15 are here.
6–10 are here.

Here’s an interesting juxtaposition.

5. IQ, Dark Matter, InsideOut, 2004

IQ is a British progressive rock band that formed in the early 1980s and were, with Marillion, one of the first generation of so-called “neo-progressive” bands. IQ’s second album The Wake (1985) is considered a classic of the genre, even if they never achieved the albeit transient popularity of Marillion (Misplaced Childhood—and the single “Kayleigh”—also came out in 1985.) Not the most prolific of bands, they’ve only recorded less than 10 albums in more than 25 years. Singer/lyricist Peter Nicholls left the band briefly in the late 1980s and the two albums they did without him were, um, wretched, finding the band sounding more like Journey than early Genesis. Fortunately, Nicholls returned in 1992 and the five albums they have recorded since are all excellent, including the band’s magnum opus, the two-disc concept album Subterranea (1997).

I first heard “Sacred Sound” from 2004’s Dark Matter on Aural Moon, a progressive Internet radio station and on first listening I thought it was a great song. I knew I had to get the album. (Yeah, Internet radio is killing music sales. Uh huh.) And the record is a classic from the opening keyboard swell of “Sacred Sound” to the lovely fading out guitar solo at the end of the 24:30 epic “Harvest of Souls,” which is IQ’s “Supper’s Ready.” The whole of the album has no weak moments; great melodies, interesting arrangements, strong musicianship and solos, it all hangs together brilliantly. Sure, as per its title the lyrics—typically elliptical—are a bit dark (let’s face it, a song with the title “Harvest of Souls” is probably not going to be a good-time party anthem)—“Can’t deny the evidence/Not now not even once/The future lies erased/These are the last remaining days” goes the refrain to “Sacred Sound.” Track two, “Red Dust Shadow” starts as a lovely acoustic ballad before kicking into an almost Pink Floydian high gear about mid-way through. “You Never Will” is another standout in an album full of standouts, with a, well, standout drum performance from Paul Cook and bass work by John Jowitt. “Born Brilliant” gets all “Welcome to the Machine”-y with a great wailing guitar line. “I’m selfish and insensitive/I’m rotten to the core/Pretentious and derivative/You’ve see it all before/My good contributions/Are counted on the fingers of one hand.” Kind of like “Bridge Over Roger Waters.” And the song’s punchline: “You, like me, were raised to be/A million times admired/Unlike mine, your family line/Were all born brilliant liars.” Then Mike Holmes’ guitar solo kicks in and takes the song into the stratosphere.

Then there’s “Harvest of Souls,” with its six parts, and which doesn’t have a slack moment in all its 24-1/2 minutes. “Long before the living past had ripped it all apart/Something still remained,” Nicholls softly sings over a 12-string acoustic guitar. (Yep, we’re in “Supper’s Ready” territory here.) Modern culture and post-9/11 politics conspire to steal away our souls—“Best you prepare for the harvest ahead/All you lose is yourself.” Section V, “Mortal Procession,” references “Supper’s Ready”’s “Apocalypse in 9/8” section without sounding derivative. And at the end, “Slowly the fires are burning/Bearing their silent witness/And the living past returns/To reap the harvest of souls.” It’s a glorious song. And a glorious album.

The follow-up album Frequency came out this year and if it isn’t as good as Dark Matter it’s still pretty close.

4. Arctic Monkeys, Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not, Domino, 2006

And now for something completely different.

In 2006, I was wondering around the music department of my local Borders—back in the days when they actually used to have products for sale—and was investigating the albums they had on those listening stations (which no longer exist). One of them was the debut album from England’s Arctic Monkeys, which I put on pretty much at random. I liked what I heard, even if it wasn’t the most staggeringly original music in the world. So I picked it up, as I was in the mood for something I had not heard before (and I had a coupon), and the album stayed in heavy iPod rotation for, well, three years and counting. It was only much later that I discovered that they were one of those overhyped “next great thing” bands of the sort I usually quite detest (The Strokes come to mind). But I had been blissfully unaware of the hype and came to them of my own accord, and pretty much at random.

The Arctic Monkeys are an interesting case study in how the music industry could actually function successfully if someone in it had a clue. The band generated a tremendous amount of early buzz in the UK by circulating demos of their songs via MP3s before they ever even had a record out. They caught on and by the time Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not was released in January 2006—by indie label Domino, and not any of the major labels they could have gone with—pent-up demand led the album to sell more than 225,000 copies in the first week alone, becoming the fastest-selling album in the UK ever.

That’s all well and good, but is it any good? Obviously I think so, since it comes in at number 4 on my little favorite-albums-of-the-decade countdown. Like a number of albums I like, there is nothing startlingly original, just an effective synthesis of everything that has come before. They are a garage-y post-punk outfit, riffs galore played at almost breakneck pace. What distinguishes them, though, is singer Alex Turner’s first-person narrative-based songs that typically document Jack-the-lad British nightlife—carousing, drinking, pulling the birds (or trying to, usually unsuccessfully), which is not surprising given that the bandmembers were all of about 18 years old when the album came out.

The album kicks off on a raucous note, as Turner declares in the opening lines of “The View from the Afternoon,” “Anticipation has a habit to set you up/For disappointment in evening entertainment but/Tonight there'll be some love.” Or maybe not: “And she won't be surprised, no she won't be shocked/When she’s pressed the star after she’s pressed unlock/And there’s verse and chapter sat in her inbox/And all that it says is that you’ve drank a lot.” And then, “And you can pour your heart out around three o’clock/When the 2-for-1’s undone the writers block.” That’ll happen. One of the hits from album was “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” (“Your name isn’t Rio, but I don’t care for sand”—too bad these guys weren’t even alive when Duran Duran released “Rio”), where they “dance to electropop like a robot from 1984.” Is that what we all did in 1984? I must have missed that.

They are not averse to British colloquialisms that make one glad for Google; “And I’m so tense, never tenser/Could all go a bit Frank Spencer?” (in “You Probably Couldn’t See for the Lights but You Were Staring Straight at Me”), “Frank Spencer” referring to a particularly inept male. (There is also the famous Northern English slang term “Mardy Bum,” which apparently means “Someone who complains a lot, moans about their life, and so on.”) I also never really got the song title “Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secured” until a year later when I was in the back of a London cab. Indeed, the narrator is talking to his mate in the back of a cab while he occasionally interrupts to talk to the driver: “See her in the green dress? She talked to me at the bar/How come it’s already two pound fifty? We’ve only gone about a yard/Dint ya see she were gorgeous, she was beyond belief/But this lad at the side drinking a Smirnoff Ice came and paid for her tropical reef/And I’m sitting going backwards, and I didn’t want to leave/It’s High Green, mate, via Hillsborough, please.” As for the titular red light, the guy really didn’t want to leave the party: “Drunken plots hatched to jump it, ask around are you sure?/Went for it but the red light was showing/And the red light indicates doors are secured.”

The band slows down for “Riot Van,” a tale of underage drinkers and their run-in with the cops; “‘Have you been drinking son, you don’t look old enough to me’/‘I’m sorry, officer, is there a certain age you’re supposed to be?..nobody told me’/Up rolled the riot van/And these lads just wind the coppers up/Ask why they don’t catch proper crooks.” It’s a fair question. Still, for all the carousing, he draws the line at ladies of the evening: “And I’ve seen him with girls of the night/And he told Roxanne to put on her red light/They’re all infected but he’ll be alright/Cause he’s a scumbag, don’t you know.”

Lines like “And just cause he’s had a couple of cans/He thinks it’s alright to act like a dickhead” don’t exactly display a Noel Coward-esque wit, but still... Turner directly addresses the music industry in the song “Perhaps Vampires is a Bit Strong But...” (“All you people are vampires!” and “Though you pretend to stand by us/I know you’re certain we’ll fail”).

The Arctic Monkeys quickly released their follow-up Favourite Worst Nightmare in 2007, which didn’t alter the basic formula so much as solidify it. They took their time for their third album Humbug, which came out this year, and was a more (to use a dreaded word) mature album, with slower tempos, more diverse instrumentation, and a mellowing of Alex Turner’s voice (he’s starting to sound like a more butch Morrissey)—and that he’s finally of legal drinking age. It’s good to see that they are serious about their craft, but the first album had that certain je ne sais quoi.

To be continued...

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