Classic Album: Manic Street Preachers ‘Everything Must Go’

Having released the bleakest record of their career, and quite possibly of the entire decade, with 1994’s ‘The Holy Bible’, the Manics were reaching critical mass and it seemed something had to give. Chief tunesmith James Dean Bradfield was becoming worried that he wouldn’t be able to fit the increasingly polemical lyrics of Richey Edwards, permanent icon and sometime guitar player, to workable melodies. After poor sales of their bold third album, the band feared they might be dropped and, in February 1995, an American tour was looming on the horizon when Edwards disappeared.

Manics EMG

After several months of uncertainty, the band vowed to go on. Convening for a nervous get-together in a Cardiff studio, they attempted a run-through of a song called ‘A Design For Life’, assimilated from two different lyrics Nicky Wire had provided Bradfield with in the months after Edwards’ disappearance. Realising that they had something special on their hands, the Manics attempted to record, with Stephen Hague in the producer’s chair, but found the results to be mixed. Opting instead for Siouxsie and Associates producer Mike Hedges, revered at the time for his stellar work on McAlmont & Butler’s ‘Yes’, the band decamped to a French Chateau and got to work. Described by Bradfield as “the most idyllic experience the band has ever had,” the results were to reverse their commercial decline and redefine how the band was viewed.

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May Reviews

There are some great releases for the month of May – none of which were actually in my pile for Clash – and I’ll endeavour to get round to some of them fairly soon. However, see below for the four I did spend time with.

May 11

CULTS – ‘Cults’ (IN THE NAME OF/ COLUMBIA)

Maximum jangle with artwork resembling old iPod adverts? That’ll be Cults then. The punchy indie exuberance pervading this record is its calling card but beneath the surface there’s a whole lot more going on. ‘Go Outside’ and ‘Abducted’ have done a fine job of luring in an excited audience and the album is a largely satisfying experience. The sugary swing of ‘Never Saw The Point’ conjures the curious notion of Mazzy Star after six litres of supermarket cola while album closer ‘Rave On’, with its gloriously undulating bursts of euphoric wall-of-sound pop, suggests there’s a little more to this duo than simple indie club thrills.

A likeable album this, which goes some way to delivering on the promise shown on their early singles. It certainly suits a bit of sunshine but, like so many things, its lustre does fade after regular exposure. When it’s good, it’s very, very good but it’s the sort of album that my fifteen year old self would have bought, raved about for a few weeks whilst playing almost nothing else and then filed away, likely to be ignored for years to come. It’ll be a fine soundtrack to the coming months but make sure you go into the relationship knowing that it won’t be forever.

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April Releases – Reviews round up

Well, that was quite a month. I’ll be posting up soon an in-depth account of what became ‘Record Store Week’ for me, kicking off with the big day at the supreme Rise in Bristol. However, sorting out the feature, which appeared in a slightly rejigged form over on Drowned In Sound, about the shops’ view of the big day meant that the monthly posting of my reviews got lost somewhere. So, unsurprisingly after that last sentence, here they are.

April Reviews 1

ALESSI’S ARK – ‘Time Travel’ (BELLA UNION)

A bewitching stage presence and an angelic vocal make Alessi’s Ark very easy to love. Finely crafted folk is elevated towards greatness by the stunning voice of Alessi Laurent-Marke. ‘Maybe I Know’ tells the tale of a cheated upon partner realising that the gossip is all about her and will break your heart. It’s the standout moment on an album which rarely dips below excellent and the old school songwriting and airy, summery production will leave you utterly spellbound.

Now, the publication of this rankled with me a little. I hate giving scores in the first place but I understand why it’s sometimes necessary. However, when your score of 9 is subbed down to only 7, it’s a little misrepresentative of what I actually think of the record. I’m keen to write more about it but it always seems a bit odd to essentially review an album twice, even though this was such a brief piece. However, I’ve done it with Gorillaz (sort of – see below) so maybe I will. Either way, rest assured that this is one of the most perfect, summery records I’ve heard this year so far and that it will charm the pants of anybody who loves melodic, beautifully sung and delicately produced music. Get it.

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Classic Album: David Bowie ‘Station To Station’

Few artists reach the milestone of ten studio albums. Fewer still are actually at the peak of their powers when they do so. Unfortunately for rock chronologists and obsessive fans alike, David Bowie is able to remember little about the genesis of this remarkable record. Its story is nevertheless an interesting one and serves to chart the transitional process between Bowie the chart smash and the artist responsible for the imperious Berlin trilogy of ‘Low‘, ‘”Heroes“‘ and ‘Lodger‘.

David-Bowie-Station-to-Station

In the time prior to recording, Bowie was inhabiting the character of Thomas Jerome Newton for Nicolas Roeg‘s film, ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’. Newton, an extra-terrestrial obsessed with television, was one of his most striking roles. While far less flamboyant than Ziggy, Newton’s haunting appearance is an entirely apt representation of Bowie at this stage in his career. Indeed, he admitted to hanging onto this character for months after filming and images from the shoot adorn the cover of both this album and its successor, ‘Low‘. From this grew The Thin White Duke, the last of Bowie’s adopted personae in the Seventies, whose monochrome attire dominated press photos and tours surrounding this record. Continue reading “Classic Album: David Bowie ‘Station To Station’”

January Reviews–Iron & Wine, The Decemberists & Joan As Police Woman

A little late with these, but here are this month’s Clash appearances. There’s also a splendid double page piece on David Bowie’s masterwork, ‘Station To Station’, but I’ll refrain from posting it just now as you can all purchase the magazine at the moment, should you wish to read it.

I&W

IRON & WINE – ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’ (4AD)

If some voices are like Marmite – you love them or you hate them – then Sam Beam’s is like chocolate – velvety, rich and comfortingly familiar. After the broader sonic palette of ‘The Shepherd’s Dog’, this is rather more conventional fare, ‘Tree By The River’ joining the Iron & wine cannon of beautiful lullabies. Less folksy, more funky, ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’ is a rather more lively, sometimes even poppy record. Even with increased early-Seventies polish, a song like ‘Godless Brother In Love’ serves to demonstrate Beam’s majestic knack for melody, his mellifluous vocal left to drift atop twinkling harp and piano. 8/10

This one has continued to delight and captivate since I wrote this back when it was all snowy at the start of December. There is a much longer, and frankly more insightful, review of this which I’ve written for the Rise website which will be going live any day now. I’ll cross post it here in due course but take my word for it, you’ll be wanting this one. It’s less jarring than aspects of the last one could be and with flashes of the laidback beauty of ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’.

Jan reviews

THE DECEMBERISTS‘The King Is Dead’ (ROUGH TRADE)

There are times during this record when it’s hard not to be reminded of R.E.M. in full jangle mode. Think somewhere between ‘Green’ and ‘Out Of Time’ and you’ll not be far wrong. But who’s that in the corner? Why, it’s Peter Buck, who plays on three tracks and makes the audible link a little easier to understand. Shorn of the extravagance of ‘The Hazards Of Love’ and harking back to the relative simplicity of ‘Picaresque’, this latest offering is a finessed folk-rock record to bring a little taste of long summer evening drives to the glacial January gloom. 7/10

Again, there is an extended version of this available which also graces said record shop’s website. All in good time, all in good time. However, I think this one pretty much captures the spirit of the record. There are better Decemberists albums available and there are far stranger Decemberists albums available but, is it a worthy addition to their catalogue? Absolutely. A fabulously warm sound to this one and plenty of uplifting sing-song moments.

JOAN AS POLICE WOMAN – ‘The Deep Field’ (PLAY IT AGAIN SAM)

No difficult third album syndrome for Joan Wasser, building on the sublime and slinky soulful rock which made parts of ‘To Survive’ such a delight to hear. A deceptively textured musical backdrop is, nevertheless, left to play second fiddle to consistently remarkable vocals. Album stand-out ‘Human Condition’, all hand claps and whirling bass, is destined for discerning Sunday morning soundtracks. 7/10

I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw the printed version of this one. Clearly, one of the longer reviews had fallen through at the last minute as this text (60 words – one of the small pieces down the side) has been expanded into a 100 worder by splicing new phrases in amongst mine. I think it’s fairly clear that it’s not one voice speaking! Anyway, self-promotion aside, this is a slow-burner, I suspect, and will likely sound a lot better during long summer evenings. I do wish she could keep some of the songs a little nearer three than five minutes, mind you.

2011OTR

5. Manic Street Preachers–Postcards From A Young Man

Best of 2010I was more than a little chuffed to be given ‘Postcards’ to review for Clash Magazine. As a Manics fanboy of some standing, whose obsession can be traced back to my early teens, I was curious to hear what “one last shot as mass communication” would actually sound like. I was delighted and, judging by the overwhelming positive critical reaction the album received, so were many other people. The Manics at their most polished, ‘Postcards’ paved the way for unlikely appearances on Something For The Weekend and Strictly Come Dancing, as well being piped through my local Co-op only this morning. This is deliriously outlandish pop which has soundtracked the second half of the year for me.

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That Clash review also brought about a couple of special moments for me. Firstly, this appeared on Twitter…

MSP Twitter

and then, in an interview with BBC Wales, Nicky had this to say:

Clash magazine gave us a great review the other day, and there’s no need for them to. They’re a young, glossy, cool magazine, but their review was really brilliant.

What a nice chap! Both were happy coincidences arising out of them releasing an absolutely marvellous late period album and proving that they still had the old fire in them. Having spent far too long talking about me, here is that original review once again:

Leave your prejudices at the door and open up your ears. After the militant basslines and scorching vocals of ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’, the Manics are going for your heart. Talked up as one last shot at “mass communication,” this is an unashamedly pop record and its chutzpah is staggering. Gospel choirs, soaring strings and choruses you could use as landmarks in a blizzard make for an astonishing listen.

The joyous bombast of first single ‘(It’s Not War) Just The End Of Love’ never diminishes, similar to much of what follows, and it heralds a shift in approach from the band. The album could be subtitled ‘Happy Songs About Serious Stuff’, so frequently are complex lyrics presented alongside glorious pop hooks. Take ‘Hazelton Avenue’, which couples an admission that consumerism can make you happy with a riff which could hold its own in a battle with ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’. Then there’s ‘Golden Platitudes’, reflecting on the disappointments of New Labour set against delicate strings and swooning backing vocals before giving way to an outrageous ‘la-la-la-la-la-la’ middle eight. It’s majestic.

Classic ‘Everything Must Go’ rock has its place too, with ‘A Billion Balconies Facing The Sun’ and ‘All We Make Is Entertainment’ both evoking that era. If ‘Journal…’ marked a return to the dark brilliance of ‘The Holy Bible’ then ‘Postcards…’ nods to the stadium-sized splendour of their fourth album. The additional confidence that comes with releasing your tenth album has allowed these meticulous students of pop to ditch the shackles and just go for it. Most remarkable of all tracks is the duet with Ian McCulloch, ‘Some Kind Of Nothingness’, a slinking soulful number with both James and Mac in masterful form. It is unlike anything either men have done before and utterly beautiful.

There will be plenty of people who opt to be snobby about the fact that this record is so commercial, so polished and so brazen but those people are all, to a man, idiots. If you can’t love these songs, you are incapable of experiencing joy itself.

November Reviews–Suede, Orange Juice, Sufjan Stevens & Patrick Watson

I know, I know, two of those aren’t November releases but I don’t make the rules. They’re in the November issue, and that’s the way this works. Now be quiet. The quality appears to be in the old stuff this time around.

suede best of

SUEDE – Best Of’ (SUEDE LIMITED)

There’s an old saying that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Brett Anderson realised this soon after the release of Suede’s fifth and, to date, final album, ‘A New Morning’, and thus marked the end of one of the definitive British bands of the Nineties. Shorn of the epic songs of old, not to mention the vast majority of their fanbase, the album spluttered to an inglorious demise and the band soon followed. 2003’s ‘Singles’ appeared in the lower reaches of the album chart and Suede passed into history with the minimum of fuss. Seven years later, it’s time to have another go, even if the first disc is essentially ‘Singles’ shuffled around a bit, but with three songs taken off. What matters, as ever, is that these songs – ‘Animal Nitrate’, ‘The Wild Ones’, ‘Beautiful Ones’ – still sound as vital and invigorating as the first time you heard them. The two discs serve to delineate between the Suede which went about bothering the charts and the Suede which resided only in long-player form, rewarding those who took the time to get to know them properly. Although the second disc appears to be convinced that Suede stopped recording music around 1997, it does serve to illustrate just how grandiose and absolutely fucking spectacular the Anderson/Butler partnership was capable of being. Absolutely essential. 9/10

Regular followers of the Just Played Twitter will know that this one proved to be a tricky bugger for me, what with the promo having the phrase ‘Suede – Best Of – Promo’ delivered in a monotone voice across the start of EVERY BLOODY TRACK. Odd person that I am, I confess that I actually bought a proper copy of this upon its release last week and I still find myself mentally delivering that phrase over some of the tracks. Quite what it was meant to do apart from drive me to distraction, I don’t know. I also suspected that the mastering wasn’t as spiffing on the promo as it would turn out to be in the retail version and so it appears to have proved. Some of the tracks do genuinely sound better after this polishing and the overall impression you get of the band from this compilation is ‘how they hell did they dribble away to nothing?’ Lovely to have them back – in whatever form.

ORANGE JUICE – Coals To Newcastle’ (DOMINO)

A post-punk pop band with limited chart success and a fluid personnel may not seem the obvious recipients of a definitive collection of their recorded output, but Orange Juice were always far from obvious. Shamelessly erudite and delightfully frenetic, they were never likely to win mass appeal, but lyrics like "here’s a penny for your thoughts. Incidentally, you may keep the change" deserve to be heard again. Frontman Edwyn Collins‘ remarkable musical return after suffering two cerebral haemorrhages has already ensured he is responsible for one of 2010’s essential releases and, with this box set, you can make that two. Under-appreciated gems like ‘Untitled Melody’, ‘I Can’t Help Myself’ and ‘What Presence?!‘ still dazzle while each studio album has much to enjoy. Quite how essential various 12" dub versions are is debatable, but the BBC sessions disc offers unpolished and frankly invigorating takes on tracks from across their catalogue. On this occasion, being comprehensive equates to offering more than you want but, with all of their studio releases remastered and accompanied by a beautiful booklet, you’ve got everything you need. 8/10

Funny one this, as I’d been looking forward to it for an age and then had to review it in the space of one week’s listening time. It is delightful and, as you can imagine, contains some beautiful music. It comes with a lovely little booklet too, with some nice details to enrich your enjoyment. It does feel like there is occasionally TOO much of a good thing, in terms of the multiple versions, but few box sets escape that problem. Not that I imagine you care, but this is a tricky one for me now as I have all of the content on discs and a pdf of the booklet but, together, it’s still not a box set. Doesn’t seem worth laying out all of that cash for a proper one though. Still, if Domino are reading this and wanted to show their appreciation for this positive review… No? Oh, ok then.

Nov reviews

SUFJAN STEVENS – ‘The Age Of Adz’ (ASTHMATIC KITTY)

Sometimes, it would be nice if people avoided saying a record was ‘overflowing with ideas’ and simply pointed out that, from time to time, musicians need telling to rein themselves in a bit. There’s a good album in here somewhere, along with a fairly annoying one too. Stevens has always had the hallmarks of the tag ‘acquired taste’, and this only serves to reinforce this fact. Electronic noodling and a twenty-five minute song may be big but they’re not clever. When he’s good, he’s very, very good. But to enjoy those moments, you’ll need the patience of a saint. 5/10

A very odd record to review. I suspect it might just about make sense on the fifty-third play but I didn’t have that luxury. I largely stand by what I said here and the good bits are certainly right up there, but he does make it hard work for us sometimes. There’s a cheap, HQ double vinyl out there which I’ve been lured into ordering. Hopefully, it’ll grow a little in my preferred format.

PATRICK WATSON -  ‘Just Another Ordinary Day’ (SECRET CITY RECORDS)

Remember that glacial, shimmering majesty which made Radiohead‘s ‘Nice Dream’ and ‘Let Down’ so remarkable? Lovely, wasn’t it? This previously under-the-radar debut by Patrick Watson, and his band of the same name, ploughs a similar furrow. Delicate piano and faded-photo vocals are the order of the day and, while it lacks the adventure of later offerings, there’s plenty to enjoy. 7/10

Patrick Watson is the band’s name, as well as that of the chief protagonist – honest! Big fan of this lot – their last two outing are worth hunting down (‘Wooden Arms’ and ‘Close To Paradise’) and this early offering is the gentle, less mature kid brother. Still lovely though, and once you love the other two (and you will) this’ll be a worthy addition to your record collection.

2010 inverted