Monday, February 27, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #96 - Iggy Pop - The Idiot (1977)

Iggy Pop goes New Wave! Five years after the furious onslaught of The Stooges, Iggy Pop returned to music in surprisingly humble, experimental way. Whereas his goal with The Stooges frequently seemed to be making as much noise as possible, here we find Pop at his most introspective, which is a welcome change.

In fairness, a large part of the album's sound is due to producer and co-writer David Bowie. In fact, it wouldn't be a stretch to call this a Bowie album in everything but name, for the songs here are remarkably similar to the early Berlin-period work that the Thin White Duke was exploring at the time, and two of the tracks, China Girl and Sister Midnight, would later resurface on Bowie albums, albeit in substantially altered forms.

Still, Pop is responsible for most of the lyrics on the album, as well as the vocal interpretation, and that's saying something. While not as accomplished a singer as Bowie, Pop's voice lends the tracks a vulnerability we haven't often heard before.

There's a theme I intend to come back to several times during this series: Fatigue with the rock and roll lifestyle. As the wild and raucous rock stars of the 1960s get a little older and a little more mature, it seems that an almost universal sense of emptiness and dissatisfaction descended upon them in a body. Lou Reed may have been the first one to make endless partying sound exhausting and depressing, but he was certainly not the last, and it's my theory that this feeling is a large part of what drove the energy of punk so quickly into the dark, cold world of post-punk.

Nightclubbing, written by Pop to describe what it was like hanging out with Bowie, encapsulates this kind of burnt out weariness perfectly. Nightclubs are supposed to be fun, but here they are painted with the mechanical rhythms of Kraftwerk and a droning, emotionless vocal. One gets the sense that everyone is tired and wants to go home, only no one wants to be the first one to say so. Similarly, Funtime doesn't sound as fun as its title would suggest.

For me, the high point of the album is China Girl, closing out Side One. While Bowie's more familiar version is more polished and well-produced, I prefer Pop's apocalyptic take, with the crushing descending bass line. In Bowie's hands, it sounds like a charming little love song. Pop makes it sound like the world is coming to an end.

Starting with its title and not letting up until the last track, The Idiot is a study in indecision, doubt, and regret. Coming from someone with Iggy Pop's bravado, it's a refreshing and engaging listen.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #97 - Jimmy Cliff - The Harder They Come (1972)

Okay, it's not really a Jimmy Cliff album, but I hate the term "Various Artists" and Cliff is certainly the star player here, dominating the soundtrack album of the film in which he played the lead role. I should begin by saying that reggae is not really my thing, although I appreciate the influence it has had on other styles of music (we'll get to the Clash later in the list, who owe a great deal to the genre.)

With that in mind, this album raises an important question about musical analysis: to what extent should we let context influence our perceptions of music? Is the sound itself enough, or should we look to historical, social, and other non-musical elements to explain what we are hearing? Of course, in a certain sense, everything is context. Even a simple chord progression relies on centuries of musical tradition ingrained in our civilization in order for an audience to make sense of it. And all lyrics are about something, usually relating to the world outside the sleeve of the record itself.

Still, different types of music use context in a different way. For example, the first album I reviewed for this series, Before and After Science, largely puts sound over meaning, playing with nonsense lyrics and interesting new textures coaxed from synthesizers, as well as modernistic playing from the instrumentalists that plays with our expectations of what melody and harmony are supposed to be.

The Harder They Come is the exact opposite. There are no complex chord progressions here, no exotic instruments, no sounds you're not likely to have heard before. It's protest music, man. Three chords and the truth. The sound is a vehicle for the meaning, and the meaning is everything.

So what does it mean? Well, first of all, it's the soundtrack of a film in which the hero, played by Cliff, tries to make good, but ultimately is destroyed by crime and corruption, a grim tale lacking in hope or redemption, and reflecting the impoverished and generally unpleasant conditions in Jamaica at the time. In that context, the album is a sad one indeed, for the songs themselves are overflowing with optimism. You can get it if you really want, sings Cliff. The harder they come, the harder they fall. If we work together and hold our heads high, nothing can beat us. Given the fact that there was never any real hope of success to begin with, the album embodies the pathos of oblivious confidence exceeded all realistic expectations.

We are given clues to this cognitive dissonance on other tracks, mostly the ones not sung by Cliff. Songs like Shanty Town and By the Rivers of Babylon give the listener clues that all is not as sunny as Cliff would have you believe. There is sadness behind the singing, a sadness that reemerges as subtext when the title song is reprised at the end of the record.

The Harder They Come is simple and powerful, but it's also very much a product of its time and place, and I can't help but feel that I would find it more meaningful if I had lived through 1970s Jamaica. I kind of doubt it would be worth it, though.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #98 - Robert Wyatt - Rock Bottom (1974)

I must begin this entry with an apology. I had intended to post a new review every week, but as astute reads will have noticed, I have already failed in that ambition, and only three albums in! The reason is that the album in question, Rock Bottom, was out of print in my country and I had difficulty in obtaining a copy. After my initial order from Amazon was abruptly cancelled days after it was supposed to arrive, I had to pursue overseas options, which even in the futuristic space age in which we live took rather longer than I expected. This will likely not be the last such roadblock, as there are several more albums in the list that are currently unavailable, but I shall endeavor to make allowances and obtain them in a timely fashion. In any case, I have the album now, so we can proceed.

While an avid lover of progressive rock, I have never much cared for the Canterbury scene. Bands such as Caravan and the Soft Machine have failed to hold my interest, and as Wyatt is well-known as one of the major figures of that subgenre, I confess I approached this record with a bit of trepidation. Wyatt's voice is not one that I find especially pleasant, particularly in its higher registers, and indeed I would call his vocals my least favorite part of the album. Apart from that minor niggle, however, I was pleasantly surprised by Rock Bottom, which is in every respect an engaging and satisfying listen.

Beginning with a relatively straightforward song, we are at once alerted that things are not quite right, as the otherwise conventional structure is interrupted by stabs of atonal piano, and strangely droning keyboards. The influence of jazz is prominent, but the unusual harmonic and melodic language is used in this context in what I would characterize as an impressionistic fashion.

Indeed, the whole album oddly reminds me of a Monet painting. There are no sharp edges, and everything is hazy and diffuse. In this respect, the cover painting is perfect. The album's centerpiece, Little Red Riding Hood Hits the Road, is built on a tapestry of echoing, interlocking trumpets that produce a mesmerizing effect.

For me at least, the album seems to invite such extra-musical comparisons. Many of the lyrics consist of nonsense poetry, which, combined with its extremely English ad literate sensibilities, reminds me of the work of Lewis Carroll, which is assuredly a good thing.

As I've mentioned before, the ability to choose good collaborators is one of the marks of a great musician, and sat this Wyatt excels. The contributions of guest musicians, primarily to the album's closer, are delightful, from Mike Oldfield's trademarked layered guitars, to Fred Frith's viola, to Ivor Cutler's strangely accented recitation, accompanied by the creaking and groaning of a baritone concertina.

The album is paradoxical in that it comes across as both dark and light, both sad and joyous. There is desperation here; the tragic “stop its” of Little Red Riding Hood are heartbreaking, and this is understandable given that Wyatt was having to come to terms with being a paraplegic at the time of this album, having lost the use of his legs from a four-stroy fall. Yet there is also hope and love, and his devotion to his wife, who appears on the album and about whom many of the lyrics center, is clear. In fact, one of the last lines on the record sums up the nature of love with succinct poignancy: "Your madness fits in nicely with my own." What more could anyone ask in a significant other?