Saturday, 22 September 2012

The Hartnell Years - things which occur to me...

So that's the Hartnell Years done.  Starting way back two months ago with a policeman in the fog (played by Reg Cranfield, fact fans), I watched the Doctor collapse on the floor of the TARDIS last night and morph into someone else entirely. And now I feel strangely but genuinely bereft, as though my beloved Grandfather has run away and my granny re-married a little mop-haired git, who tries too hard to be pals.

But I suppose, glass half full and all that.  I've never watched the series in order from the start before, and viewed this way Hartnell - already my joint-favourite Doctor - has been elevated to a position from which he can just about see previous fellow front-runner Jon Pertwee with a telescope, light years behind.  I've watched the three and a bit Hartnell seasons in a variety of formats - straight audio from 'Marco Polo', Loose Cannon recons for the likes of Myth Makers and Reign of Terror, damn clever animated photos for Mission to the Unknown, really bad animation for The Crusades - and a mix of dvd and vhs rips for the rest.  Plus reading all the Hartnell short stories in the annuals and Short Trips collections.  It's quite a lot to experience, but barely a moment dragged and the vast majority was, frankly and without hyperbole, wonderful.

Ian and Barbara's touching, astonishing, touching, beautiful, touching love affair is the absolute highlight, moving from friendship as Ian wanders unannounced into Babs' classroom in 'An Unearthly Child', through open affection and the sort of loving bickering which all real couples do, all the way to the post-coital scenes in The Romans parts 1 and 4 ('The Slave Traders' and 'Inferno' episodes of Serial M for purists). It's brilliantly done over an extended period, helped enormously by two actors who are, in my opinion, as good as the series has ever been lucky enough to have in all its 50 year history.  But even taking away the romance (and who could doubt they end up together after seeing that montage at the end of 'The Chase'?) these are two genuine characters in a way which the series later abandoned altogether (compare Ian to Ace - a character who sounds, looks and acts utterly unlike any real person of the same age, but who was lauded by fans in the 80s as a return to proper characterisation).  They learn and grow over the course of their travels and so do we, the viewers - not just by learning about Cathay and the reign of terror and the like, but also about the way the show changes format and outlook.  What started off as effectively a hostile kidnap, mellows into friendship and respect, and the series reflects this change, becoming less about trying to get back to Earth and more about experiencing the universe, less about staying out of danger and moving on quickly and more about seeking out people in need of help.

Ian and Barbara could have set the tone and established the  template for all companions to come, but unfortunately - possibly simply because Carole Ann Ford left first and so was replaced like-for-like first - writers chose to use Susan, sadly played by a far less able actor, as the ideal companion instead.  And for all that she's the alien, not Ian and Barbara, she's far more generically written than they - a screamer and a crier, prone to falling over and giving up the ghost, whiny and moany and a bit of a pin in the arse a lot of the time.  At least the producers also kept elements of the Susan of the first episode or of The Aztecs, refusing to marry some stranger; the best we can hope for for quite some time to come is that along with companion as screamer we also get companion as fighter.  Even then there's a gradual but noticeable growing preference for the Screamer over the Fighter which isn't overcome until the appearance of Zoe in 'The Wheel in Space' - Vicki to Dodo to Polly to Victoria is a descent from feisty to frightened, and even Zoe is a prototype for a better assistant in Liz Shaw.

If Carole-Anne Ford is patchy, and William Russell and Jackie Hill brilliant, Hartnell is, at times, awesome.  Years of character acting had given Hartnell exactly the skill set required for Dr Who, and a love of the character and the affection he engendered in the audience, meant that the actor puts everything he has into the role with, at times, quite wonderful results.  Look at the suspicious and dangerous Doctor of the first serial - not when he thinks about bashing a fallen enemy's brains in, since that seems reasonably sensible in the circumstances, but in the way he calculates that kidnapping Ian and Barbara is the best thing for him, and then does it.  That he then selfishly risks their lives in The Daleks is no surprise, but the change over the next few years is - this is the only Doctor in the classic series who actually changes (leaving aside the change in Colin Baker's Doctor from vicious psycho to good friend, a move so ineptly handled that I'm still not looking forward to reaching season 22) and the only Doctor in the entire series who changes in an interesting way (Tennant's descent into being a selfish shit being so dull that I may pay someone to drag themselves through his final year on my behalf).  By the time Susan leaves he's capable of the most touching moments and of putting someone else's interests first, and losing Ian and Babs, and his initial angry reaction, is played perfectly.  He's a wonder all round and the fan myth that he was past it by the end of his tenure is arrant nonsense, as anyone who watches 'The Tenth Planet' can see.

There are so many little moments which I could highlight as my favourite that it could soon grow tedious, so here's a selection:
  •  Hartnell inside a Dalek saying 'I am the Master' in 'The Space Museum'
  • Ian's coughing fit just before the revelation that the water is poisonous in The Sensorites, which I assumed was a mistake which the actors has ad-libbed around.
  • That montage at the end of 'The Chase'
  • Hartnell's hat in 'Reign of Terror'
  • The Sensorite at the window of the ship, floating in space
  • The design of the Robomen in 'Dalek Invasion of Earth' - so much better than the leather clad clones in the movie version
  • That Barbara was wrong in The Aztecs and because of that the Doctor loses and John Ringway's character wins.
  • Not shying away from the horror of Viking invasion in The Time Meddler
  • The delegates in Dalek Master Plan
  • Hartnell facing down a War Machine.
  • The wit of 'The Myth Makers', 'The Romans' and 'The Gunfighters' - Doctor Who can be broad comedy as well as all the other things it can be.
  • That everyone, including Peter Haining, was wrong about Galaxy 4 and The Gunfighters - both great.
  • The Cybermen in The Tenth Planet - still the creepiest aliens in Doctor Who history.
  • Every mention of 'Doctor Who', but particularly episode title 'The Death of Doctor Who' - that's his name and I much prefer it being used as a name than being some dull and asinine arc for Steven Moffat.
I'll shut up now though because I can think of something brilliant in every Hartnell story - even my least favourite, The Web Planet, where the design is fantastic, at least, and the Carcinome being a space hairdryer is inspired - anyway, I have Troughton to watch now....

Monday, 10 September 2012

Great Albums 38: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Lucinda Williams, 1998)

Considering Steve Earle described working on this album as the worst recording experience of his life, and the original co-producer walked out during recording, this is a spectacular album.

Coming from a blues/folk background, you'd expect something a bit downbeat from Lucinda Williams' breakthrough LP, and this doesn't disappoint.  It's littered with slices of what used to be called Americana, and I'd say that the slices are definitely intended to wound and cut.  From the opening track, with Loretta Lynn and Hank Williams on the radio and a child being driven away from home, right until the closer, a re-imagining of 'By the time I get to Pheonix', listing all the places the singer won't miss some unnamed lover, there's not a lot of happiness to be found.

But the guitar playing on this is wonderful, the lyrics are perfect little vignettes of loss, longing and - at times - lust, and Lucinda's voice is the best in country music, imo, cracking and breaking like it's about to burst completely. 

Happiness is over-rated, in any case...

Car Wheels on Spotify

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Great Albums 39: Autumn Might Have Hope (Small Town Boredom, 2008)

OK, so this isn't actually an album I've been listening to for years, with decades of pleasure behind it.  Sue me.

I've been listening to it compulsively all weekend, however, ever since I got a copy of the Hibernate Records / Wasistdas' Tom Carter fundraiser disc in the post.  To be precise, the fundraiser cdr (well worth a purchase, btw) has a track by Caught in the Wake Forever on it, so Fraser McGowan's curent incarnation, rather than this earlier, two man recording.  Still, it's good, this is good, it's all good.

Specific reasons it's good, I hear you ask?  Easiest way to describe it is to name some people it reminded me of; people you'll have heard of, I mean.  So bits of it sound like JJ Cale, bits of it sound like a less commercial King Creosote, bits of it sound like the first Malcolm Middleton LP, bits even remind me of Jandek (primarily the bits when McGowan's mouth is really close to the mic).  And there are bits which remind me of nothing at all, unique bits where the simple guitar lines, found sounds, snatches of dialogue and occasional drum fills come together with the whispered vocals to create something unexpectedly lovely, even if the loveliness is always tinged by a massive layer of anxiety, regret and genuine sadness.

Because this this is definitely music for dark, rainy days; miserable, gloom enshrouded tunes where, at times, it feels as though even the act of singing is too much effort.  You're not going to dance to this (well not in a good way) but that's no bad thing.  Sometimes what you want is something quiet and thoughtful, something which recognises that desperation is as valid a reaction to the world around you as big grins and high fives.

And maybe, just maybe, now and again there's a wee chink of light in the darkness...

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Great Albums 40: Hunky Dory (David Bowie, 1971)

First appearance by David Bowie, but by no means the last.  I wrote about Hunky Dory at some length earlier this year, so I won't labour things here.

Instead I'll point out two cool Hunky Dory facts and reprint Bowie's own publicity notes on the album.

1.  William S Burroughs, chatting to Bowie in 1974, told him that 'Eight Line Poem' reminded him of TS Eliot, specifically 'The Wastelands'.  Bowie replied that he'd never read Eliot.

2.  'Life on Mars?' was deliberately written round the same chord structure as 'My Way' - a tune to which Bowie had written rejected lyrics in 1968.  He described the well-known lyrics to the song as 'evil'.

Bowie's Own Notes

Changes - This album is full of my changes and those of some of my friends.

Pretty - The reaction of me to my wife being pregnant was archetypal daddy - Oh he's gonna be another Elvis. This song is all that plus a dash of sci-fi.

Eight - The city is a kind of high-life wart on the backside of the prairie.

Life On Mars - This is a sensitive young girls reaction to the media.

Kooks - The baby was born and it looked like me and it looked like Angie and the song came out like - if you're gonna stay with us you're gonna grow up Bananas.

Quicksand - The chain reaction of moving around through out the bliss and then the calamity of America produced this epic of confusion - Anyway, with my esoteric problems I could have written it in Plainview - or Dulwich.

There is a time and space level just before you go to sleep when all about you are losing theirs and whoosh void gets you with its cacopfony of thought - that's when I like to write my songs.

Fill - Biff Rose song.

Andy - A man of media and anti-message, with a kind of cute style.

Bob - This is how some see B.D.

Queen - A song on a Velvet Underground-Lou Reed framework s'about London sometimes.

Bewlay - Another in the series of David Bowie confessions - Star-Trek in a leather jacket.

Hunky Dory on Spotify
Life on Mars? video

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Great Albums 41: Suzanne Vega (Suzanne Vega, 1985)

It's no surprise that a lot of these albums are from the mid-80s, a period when I was obsessively listening to music and where every spare penny went on buying albums, and a lot of spare minutes on watching music on telly (there was a show on on a Saturday on, I think, Channel 4, which did an Indie Chart Top Ten, which was particulalry good). 

I first heard Suzanne Vega on The Tube, standing all alone on a wee stage, dressed entirely in black, playing a semi-acoustic guitar.  She was doing her new single, 'Marlene on the Wall' and I was, in memory at least, sitting in the rocking horse in my brilliantly pink carpeted, black walled bedroom waiting, as ever, for the Smiths to come on.  So Suzanne Vega came as a bit of a surprise - the song was full of intricate word play, layered over a sweet melody, with Vega constantly glancing off to the side, singing live with no real expression on her face.  You can visibly see her growing in confidence as the song goes on, though - at the end she gives a huge sigh of relief and a smile as the small crowd begins to clap.  It helped that she was cute, obviously, but the song was fantastic, especially in those days when I'd only just heard Joni Mitchell for the first time and was looking for more female singers who sounded like her.

I bought the album next day, and it was in no way a diappointment.  'Marlene' is the most accomplished song on there, but there's not a weak track to be found (and some of the guitar, particularly on songs like 'Small Blue Thing' could have come straight from my other obsession of the time, Billy Bragg) - for this sort of pop folk, it doesn't get much better.

Suzanne Vega on Spotify
Marlene on the Wall on the Tube

Great Albums 42: Roxy Music (roxy Music, 1972)

If I were giving proper credit, I'd have to give this album a more thorough analysis than a couple of paragraphs here.  In fact, there are single songs on this debut LP which deserve whole posts to themselves.  Is there a better opening quarter in music than 'Remake/Remodel', 'Ladytron', 'If There is Something' and '2HB' (well, yes, there are -  but not many)?  Is there a more ambitious single track in music than 'If there is Something' (probably not)?  Has a voice ever sounded as riddled with vice as Bryan Ferry singing 'Death could not kill our love for you' (not in popular music, no)?  Or as arch as the opening vocal on 'Strictly Confidential' (only - again - in Bowie's back catalogue)?

It's an uneven record, though not in the usual sense of good and bad.  More it's album that leaps all over the place in terms of style, tempo, tone and instrumentation both in between tracks and often within the tracks themselves.  'If there is something' starts as country twang in the style of the Rolling Stones and ends up as the sort of messianic cry that Bowie did so successfully at the time.  The frantic pop genius of 'Do the Strand' comes straight after the melancholy 'Sea Breezes' - though to be fair, the  'Sea Breezes' is as schizophrenic a track as anything else in pop, suddenly stopping the slow, sad keyboards about three and a half minutes in and changing into a different (though equally lonesome) song altogether, complete with stuttering, almost jokey vocal, jazz bassline, discordant, off beat drums and guitar feedback - then drops back into the initial sound for the final minute.  'In Every Dream Home a Heartache', menawhile is just bloody scary.

Roxy Music were the only artists in the seventies to get within touching distance of Bowie (and Ferry managed to out-louche even Dave at his most coked-up) - the fact this - their debut - is by a distance their best album possibly explains why they were never able to top him though.

Roxy Music on Spotify
If there is Something on Youtube

Great Albums 43: It'll End in Tears (This Mortal Coil, 1984)

I was sixteen in 1986.  Not a good age, really - no girlfriend, an obsession with kids' tv show Doctor Who (those two facts may be linked) and a preference for wearing diamante jewellry, white silk shirts and chains of pearls (that fact may also be linked to the first one).  Sure, I had the Smiths and Bowie but the real unflowering of music for me was still twelve months away.

Enter 'It'll End in Tears'.  Nicked to order from the Other Record Shop by the big brother of a guy at school, the tape of this album ended up in my schoolbag one rainy morning alongside that not quite Cocteau Twins album they did with Harold Budd (which I hadn't asked for) and Bowie's 'Heroes' (which I had). I can't even remember now why I wanted It'll End in Tears (possibly I never asked for that either - it was, in retrospect, quite a hit and miss operation but each tape was only a pound so even then not a huge amount of money - and the random nature of some of the stuff you ended up with was a little like an early, luddite version of doing playing random tracks on Spotify).

Anyway, in some ways this single album was as big a musical revelation as the now legendary Tape Dave Benger made the following year, but whereas the Tape was full of noisy guitar tracks by scruffy indie bands - the Weather Prophets, the Woodentops, Andy White, Rote Kapelle, the Shop Assistants, A Witness, Stump and many, many more - It'll End in Tears was full of cover versions of bona-fide forgotten classics, all of which I later tracked down and each of which added something vital and intriguing to my record collection over the next couple of years.  Two tracks stood out though - not least because they were sung by what appeared in every respect to be an actual, came-down-from-God-to-freak-me-the-fuck-out angel.  Coincidentally, the singer in question - Liz Fraser, for those who inexplicably don't know who I'm talking about - also turned up on the Harold Budd tape but while that was good, the Mortal Coil cover of Tim Buckley's 'Song to the Siren' remains one of the most astonishing vocals in music.

Even more astonishing though is the fact it's not even her best vocal on the LP.

'Another Day', a beautiful song by Roy Harper in which he sings with both male and female inflections to describe a love affair unfulfilled, is fairly wonderful in its original format, but Fraser makes it hurt, where Harper makes it pretty, and absolutely nails every one of the big moments in the song.  It's my favourite performance by her - and she's sang several of my all-time favourite tracks - and the fact that the album also contains 'Song to the Siren' (and several excellent non-Fraser covers amongst the atmospheric, string-bathed originals which fill out every Mortal Coil release) means it'll never be far from my turntable/cd player/iPod.

It'll End in Tears on Spotify
Another Day on YouTube

Great Albums 44: Ready for the House (Jandek, 1978)

A certain person will be along in a moment to claim that I'm being wilfully obscure, but nowadays Jandek is a cult classic, not a scary wierdo.

That's right, isn't it?  For years the story was more important than the music - the mysterious singer/songwriter who could neither play nor sing very well, releasing one or more albums a year for decades, every one attributed to the non-name 'Jandek' (well, except this debut album, which was originally credited to The Units), the only clues to the real person behind this most outside of outsider music being the polaroids which make up most of the album covers.

Since Jandek unveiled himself (admittedy as the Representative of Corwood Industries) in Glasgow a few years back, some (not all) of the mystery has gone and, possibly as a result, the music is getting a re-appraisal and, you know, there's something about it which is pretty special.

On first listening Ready for the House can sound like a joke - Emo Philips wailing over an untuned  two string shoebox guitar being played by a mentally deficient, tone deaf mentalcase.  But even on first listen there's an occasional phrase, a certain intonation, an unexpected set of not quite discordant twangs on the guitar, and you find yourself wondering - is it actually funny?  Is it even meant to be?

I think the latter, myself.  Jandek's not a con or a joke or an elbroate tax dodge.  There's real emotion in his signing and the lyrics - on this album more than any other - are terrifying at points.

Take the opening track 'Naked in the Afternoon'.  Stick it on in the car as you drive through the pouring rain one dark winter evening.  Put it on repeat.  And I bet you that you'll be starting to feel down and a little bit unsettled before you get tn miles.  It's creepy, and disquieting and even scary.

The rest of the album continues in the same vein, until the final track (the only electric one) finishes in mid-sentence (and then completes on another album entirely!).  It's not Brothers in Arms or some Joe Satriani guitar wankfest, but then that would be the antithesis of Jandek - soulless but competent, all pretence and style, no heart.  Ready for the House is all heart, it's just that that heart's been mangled and torn until ti sounds like nothing else you're ever likely to hear.

Go on, give it a try...

Naked in the Afternoon
What Can I Say, What Can I Sing

Great Albums 45: Delay 1968 (Can, 1981)

OK, so it's a complilation album, really, and of outtakes at that.  But those lovely fellas at WasistDas asked me to have a think about this album for a project of theirs and, you know what - it's my favourite Can LP.

Yeah, it's Malcolm Mooney, not Damo Suzuki, and the dynamic is totally different.  Originally intended to be their first album (aparently to be named 'Prepared to Meet Thy PNOOM') and rejected by the shower of clueless clowns who evidently ran music at the time, it languishe din the doldrums of bootleg land for over a decade before been issued in 1981, on the back of Can achieving a degree of mainstream success.

It's an odd, fractured sort of album, and a diffcult one to pin down.  At this point in time, Can sound like a proper rock band, albeit a messed up and disjointed one.  Touchstones for the sound of Mooney-era Can aren't the usual fellow travellers, NEU!, Tangerine Dream and Faust, but US freakout bands like the Red Krayola.  Mooney can't sing in a totally different way from the way in which Suzuki can't sing, but  it's a strangely hypnotic failure all the same.  Lines repeat over and over again (famously, Mooney is supposed, in his last Can gig, to have reated the same two words over and over again for three hours, before collapsing), Mooney yelps, screams and whines over the top of some great soundscapes (the rest of the band are as good as they were when amazing everyone on Ege Bamyasi et al) and amongst the freakishness genius tentatively pokes out its head.

(Dying) 'Butterfly', 'Nineteen Century Man" and 'Little Star of Bethlehem' in particular are as close to actual 'songs' as Can ever got, ever, but every track - even the very short Pnoom - are worth a listen, if only to hear Mooney's paranoid, druggy mutterings combine with the sound of the US psych scene, all wrapped up in Teutonic drive.

Mooney didn't last long, incidentally - he's on one proper album, Monster Movie plus the reunion Rite Time, this LP and a chunk of the recently released Lost Tapes and that's it.  He left the band in 1970 on mental health grounds and seems to be in good health now, recording as recently as 2006 and working on his art, unlike other casualties of the time.  Best of luck to him, I say, and thanks for this.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Great Albums 46: The Marble Downs (Bonnie Prince Billy & The Trembling Bells, 2012)

A friend of mine is fond of saying that you can compile a sensible Worst Ten Hollywood films list without once stepping outside the back catalogue of Mr Arnold Schwarzenegger, and while I'm not so sure of that (any Top 10 with no Braveheart or The Incredibles is nonense, IMO), I am inclined to say that you can create a Ten Great Albums and never leave the ouevre of Mr Will Oldham, in his many and various guises.  Like Bowie, he's going to pop up in this Top 50 more than once...

This first entry though is his most recent release, in company with Scottish alt-fok band The Trembling Bells.  It starts like, well like nothing else you're likely to hear this year.  'I made a date (with an open vein)' sounds like it should be a miserable dirge but instead it starts off with over two minutes of repetitive yet pleasant instrumental layered with Lavinia Blackwell's equally repetitive but wordless vocal, then some drums kicks in and what may be the most unlikely opening lines to a love song ever.
"I made a date with an open vein/And with scarlet matter emblazened your name"
 The song continues in sinilar vein - brilliantly unexpected lyric, great melody, two excellent voices, clever instrumentation - and in doing so sets the template for the rest of the album.  Not every track reaches the heights of the opening song, but a couple - 'Riding' (as bleak as call/response tale of incest and death as Nick Cave ever managed - and, in passing, a far better version of the song than the solo version which appears on the Palace Brothers 'Lost Blues' album ) and 'Ferrari in a Demolition derby' (proving intense can also be funny) are on a par with anything I've heard this year or last, and even the 'weak' songs have lots to recommend them.

Like I said there'll be more Will Oldham (as Bonny 'Prince' Billy, himself or Palace Brothers) to come, but this is worth savouring for now...

Spotify Link to Album
I Made a Date video

Great Albums 47: Extricate (The Fall, 1990)

In 1990 Mark E. Smith, the driving force behind the mighty Fall, had just divorced his wife and one-time Fall guitarist Brix Smith. The band, for years a cult favourite championed almost exclusively by John Peel, were surfing an unprecedented wave of popularity after Brix pushed Smith into recording far more poppy and commercial tracks (both 'Victoria' and 'Ghost in My House' had charted in the top 40 in the preceding couple of years while the ballet soundtrack LP, 'I am Kurious, Oranj' had gained the band favourable reviews from other than the usual music press suspects).

Those of us who loved the Fall approached this new, first post-Brix album with more trepidation than usual (and, tbh, you approach every new Fall album with more trepidation than optimism - he's a cantankerous and unpredictable old bugger, MES). The presence of Martin Bramah, invited back into the Fall fold 11 years after leaving, was a reassurance though - even if Smith took the Fall all the way back to their late seventies punk roots, with Bramah it'd at least be competent (he'd played on the brilliant Live at the Witch Trials).

The first single off the album 'Telephone Thing' was a bit of a concern.  I saw Smith do it with dance floor types, Coldcut, and - with the exception of the reference to elderly Easteneders' actress Gretchen Franklin -  can't say I thought much of it.  Shades of bandwagon hopping (as Madchester dominated the music scene) are not accusations usually aimed at the Fall, but they could have been at that point.

But I needn't have worried.  The LP, when it came out, was a fabulous synthesis of MES' love of old rockabilly songs, memories of Brix poptastic hooks and a completely unexpected but excellent dip by the singer into crooning on the slow lovesong 'Bill is Dead' (which came top of Peel's Festive 50 that year).   I've seen it  mentioned that song began as a parody of the Smiths, which seems unlikely - it sounds nothing like the Smiths - but whatever it started off as it ended up being the highlight of an album which already contained the brilliantly scabrous 'Sing! Harpy' and 'Black Monk Theme', the pop genius of 'Popcorn Double Feature' and the simply fantastic 'Chicago Now'.  It's a shame that Smith only really uses his crooner voice once more (on the following year's 'Edinburgh Man') but maybe it would've got boring if he'd over-used it. 

What I wouldn't do for Fall album as good as this nowadays...

Spotify Link: The Fall – Extricate
"Bill is Dead" on SnubTV

Great Albums 48: Secrets of the Beehive (David Sylvian, 1987)

Stripped down to their bare essentials, with Sylvian's soft as Andrex voice whispering huskily in the middle of everything and Ryuichi Sakamoto's string arrangements draped over anything left over, these songs are as near to perfect a collection as any songwriter has ever managed. 

When I was a stuent, my flatmate, Alistair, had the album, not the cd, and for some reason when he put it on always started with side two. Which meant I always started with a track which is now mid-album, 'When Poets Dreamed of Angels'.  With fantastic spanish guitar and Sylvian's stylised, impersonal, velvet voice counterpointing a lyric about wife beating, violence and medieval poetic imagery, it felt like the place the album should start, rather than the actual first track, the brief, conversational 'September'.  Re-listening on cd though, 'September' is exactly right - sparse piano and a brief (just over a minute) sketch of a couple lying to one another in what I tend to assume is continental autumnal sunshine (the September sun - now 'so cold it blisters' is revisited in one of the last tracks, 'Let the Happiness In').  From there, the mood wanders up and down without ever settling on one, unless the faintest scent of nostalgic melancholy counts.  Which I think it does, not least because nostalgic melancholy is my favourite kind of melancholy.

Sylvian's voice is so high in the mix (in a good way) that at times he's almost all you can hear, which is no bad thing with a voice like his, but there's still space for Sakamoto's lush (damn, I promised myself I wouldn't use the word 'lush' in this post) strings and some lovely bursts of trumpet and what sounds like double bass  and jazzy piano(on 'Mother and Child'). He never did anything even approaching this good again, but most people never do so even once.

Spotify Album Link
Sylvian singing 'September' live, 1995

Great Albums 49: It's So Hard to tell who's Going to Love you the Best (Karen Dalton, 1969)

 Such an unexpected album, this.

Following a snippet in some music review or other, which described Karen Dalton as a white Billie Holliday, I found a copy of her debut album, put it on and ended up playing it half a dozen times in a row.  I don't really understand the Billie comparisons, or the suggestion that some might find her voice difficult to listen to.  Like a quieter Janis Joplin who *really* liked a ciggie, or a half-cut bar singer slurring wonderfully into her drink, every track is a mix of blues and folk, with a bit of country thrown in for good measure.  It feels to me like an entire hippy commune turned into a series of songs, something reinforced by my later discovery that every song on the album is a cover version (of tracks written by the likes of Jelly Roll Morton, Leadbelly and Fred Neil).

I say later discovery because I had no suspicions that they weren't all originals, so completely do they feel like the singer's songs.  On the best tracks - 'A Little Bit Rain', 'Ribbon Bow', 'Sweet Substitute' - the weary, druggy voice is better suited to mood and lyrics than pretty much any other singer I can imagine.  The best track of all though is the one which feels slightly out of place, the 'proper' blues 'Blues on the Celing' - though it's horribly ironic that the refrain 'I'll never get out of thse blues alive' proved to be true.

Sadly, though Karen Dalton lived until 1993, she only recorded one more (more popular, but inferior) album and succumbed to AIDS after to a lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse.  This album though is a better epitath than any numbe rof more prolific singers have ever managed.

Spotify Link
Dalton singing 'Hurts me Too' live

Great Albums 50 - The RIse and Fall of Madness (Madness, 1982)

So 50 great albums, eh?  Not - obviously - the 50 greatest, since that's a value judgment of massive proportions, possibly requiring a metric which is beyond me.  Not even My 50 Favourite Albums, since there'll be a band I've never hear dof along any minute now with an album which requires me to listen to it fifteen times a day for the next two months and which would spend those entire 80 weeks in my Top Ten.  Just 50 albums which, on the day in question, I happen to think are great, for one reason or other (I might mention the reason, I might not - depends if it has anything to do with Doing It, I suspect - it could go all 50 Shades of Grey in here quick as fuck, you know.  Or not.  Annnyyyyway....)

The Rise and Fall - Madness (1982)

This was the first album I ever actually asked someone to buy me.  It was December 1982 - and wait,  stop there.  That's actually quite odd, since I've always thought that the first albums I ever owned were Now That's What I call Music and Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture, but I got them from my dad at Christmas 1983, and this predates that by a year (I definitely got it for the Xmas it came out because Scott got it too,  and we wouldn't both have got an old record for a present.)  There you go - JNT was right, memory cheats.

Madness were Scott and my favourite band by the length of Princes Street, even though we could only really hear them on the radio (and also possibly via the Greatest Hits' LP, Complete Madness - which came out even earlier, and which I listened to compulsively, thus confusing my personal Timeline of Music Ownership even further!) and this album had already been called Madness' best by the Edinburgh Evening News!

It didn't disappoint, for all that it was a long way from the pop ska of their singles.  Though I didn't realise it at the time, Madness presents The Rise and Fall to give it its full title, started off life as a concept album, revolving round memories of childhood.  The concept quickly got dropped though you can still catch glimpses of it in songs like 'Our House' and 'Rise and Fall' itself.  Instead, the LP is a fantastic fusion of all sorts of unexpected bits and bobs - Indian influences, olde-time music hall, foot-stomping ska, political commentary - even a bit of jazz.  It's been described as the 80s version of the Kinks' excellent 'The Village Green Preservation Society', and they're both albums about Englishness (much like Blur's 'Parklife' in the 90s and PJ Harvey's 'Let England Shake' in the last decade) but I think it's better than the Kinks' release, because there's a huge amount of energy and positivity amongst the pop nostalgia and underlying strands of melancholy.

Spotify Link: The Rise and Fall
Our House video