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Album of the Month

This section focuses on great music, providing:

A selection of ESSENTIAL TRACKS chosen to give your system a workout, some of which are seminal recorded performances.
DOWNLOADS of superlative quality recordings in a range of high resolution formats.
Our ALBUM OF THE MONTH and some words on why we chose it.
Invited COMMENT from dCS and leading members of the hi-fi world – although in most cases we offer these anonymously!

Enjoy…

 

2018

September


Japan – Quiet Life

When Japan formed in 1974, the signs were encouraging – although a little too obsessed with the style and sound of glam rockers the New York Dolls, it was clear that David Sylvian (vocals, guitar, keyboards), brother Steve Jansen (drums) plus Richard Barbieri (keyboards) and Mick Karn (bass guitar) were prodigiously talented. The band started at Catford Boys School, South London, as a way of escaping the boredom of their surroundings. The name was a working title, used in lieu of a better one that they never thought of. In love with Roxy Music and David Bowie, they epitomised the British ‘art school pop’ tradition, but when lead guitarist Rob Dean joined in 1977 and they signed to the Hansa-Ariola label, the horizon expanded. Their first two LPs, Adolescent Sex and Obscure Alternatives, were overlooked by the new wave-obsessed British pop market of 1978. Then Japan hooked up with Euro disco producer Giorgio Moroder, who co-wrote and produced the single Life In Tokyo – and things would never be the same again…

The stage was set for the band’s third long-player, Quiet Life. Released worldwide on December 1979, it showed the band morphing into a fully-rounded synth pop combo, just at the right time. It’s possible to argue that Japan was the original New Romantic band – even though David Sylvian repeatedly refuted the claim. The new decade saw an explosion in colourful synthesiser-dominated music and Japan was at the vanguard. Quiet Life is a fascinating work, melding Low-era Bowie, Roxy Music and Lou Reed with disco, funk and even punk. For the first time, we saw David Sylvian dropping his vocals down to baritone, and singing in a stylised way that many British electropop bands copied.

It combines sharp uptempo songs like the title track Quiet Life, with slow, atmospheric, brooding tracks like In Vogue and The Other Side of Life. Musically it is intelligent, sophisticated and more eclectic than any of its contemporary releases – and showcases the superb musicianship that the band had by now achieved. Mick Karn’s fretless bass guitar playing went on to influence a whole generation of eighties bass players, and provides a supple underpinning to the rigid electronic backing. Extensive use was made of sequencing, and the edgy guitar sounds were replaced by smoother synthesised textures. Rob Dean used an ebow on most tracks, and the production was awash with phasers and flangers, with heavy harmonising on the vocals. The result was an introspective and dark sounding album, but full of beguiling melodies and tender, thoughtful lyrics.

The album peaked at No.72 in the British album charts in February 1980, and acquired gold status in 1984 for selling over 100,000 copies. It was the beginning of the band’s harvest years – soon they signed to Virgin and released two more memorable studio LPs, Gentlemen Take Polaroids (1980) and Tin Drum (1981). The title track was re-released as a single, reaching number 19 in October 1981. Domestic squabbles caused the band to split in 1982, their last ever performance being on 16th December 1982 in Nagoya, Japan. Quiet Life still sounds superb today; the Japanese remaster (BVCM-37220) being an essential purchase.

To listen to all of our 2018 AOTM visit our TIDAL playlist here

August


Pet Shop Boys – Introspective

Being a serious student of pop music back in the nineteen eighties wasn’t easy. Whilst some may look back nostalgically now, there was a huge amount of rubbish in the charts. The cool indie bands of that period – The Smiths, The Cure, The Cocteau Twins, New Order – barely and/or rarely made a dent. Yet the Pet Shop Boys transcended this; purveyors of catchy dance music that was lyrically intelligent and beautifully honed, New Musical Express called them, “The Smiths that you can dance to.” The synthesiser pop duo combined polished uptempo electronica with touchingly personal and reflective lyrics – instead of the usual “baby I love you” cheesiness that was the norm for mass market pop then.

The band’s first two albums brought Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe huge commercial success, yielding some stomping singles that practically defined their age – West End Girls and What Have I Done to Deserve This from Please (1986) and Actually (1987) respectively. By the time that 1988 came around, people were wondering how they would follow them up. Introspective was the answer, a subtle departure that was in some ways the band’s most commercial long player to date. While the first two albums had been mainstream pop, this fused the newly developing house music genre with the Pet Shop Boys’ own distinctive style. It added a more sophisticated production too, and more confessional and intimate lyrics from the duo’s songwriter Neil Tennant. Released at the end of a long hot summer on 11th October 1988, it caught that moment’s happy, optimistic vibe perfectly.

Introspective was the coming together of several fortuitous things. First, Tennant and Lowe teamed up with the producer of the decade, Trevor Horn, and one of the most accomplished studio engineers of his time, Stephen Lipson. It was recorded between 1987 and 1988 at Horn’s famous Sarm West Studio in London, where he had produced Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and made some great records with Propaganda, Art of Noise and Grace Jones. As well as this, it was packed with singles; the band’s epic cover of Elvis Presley’s Always on My Mind had already charted, as had their flamenco guitar-infused Ibiza tribute Domino Dancing. Left to My Own Devices was just about to assail the top ten, along with Its Alright, and it also contained a stomping version of their self-penned Im Not Scared, previously covered by Patsy Kensit’s Eighth Wonder. Small wonder then, that the album went on to be the duo’s second best selling ever, racking up 4.5 million copies, and peaking at number two in the UK album chart.

Lyrically, the album was indeed introspective. It saw songwriter Tennant in a reflective mood, which was in dramatic contrast to the Chris Lowe’s hugely upbeat tunes. Technologically it is a fascinating snapshot of the late eighties, with layers of multitracked analogue synthesisers adorned by Fairlight CMI samples. Each song feels like a perfect three-minute pop single, that’s been elongated to play on a twelve inch vinyl single that you can dance to. Although not an audiophile album per se, it still sounds great on a serious system – especially the original Japanese market CD release [EMI CP25-5670].

 

Listen all of our AOTM choices for 2018 on our TIDAL playlist

 

July


The Stone Roses – The Stone Roses

Although everyone associates the band with ‘Madchester’ – that manic period of Manchester indie dance music that swept Britain in the early nineteen nineties – The Stone Roses started way back in 1983, when The Smiths were at their peak. Lead singer Ian Brown had been in bands for several years by this time, but things took off when John Squire got the lead guitar role and Alan Wren became drummer in May 1984. By the early part of the next year they were in the studio with respected producer Martin Hannett. The band’s first single came out that year, and they debuted I Wanna Be Adored on Piccadilly Radio. By early 1987 they had recorded Elephant Stone and Sally Cinnamon, and bass guitarist Gary Mounfield – Mani – joined. This made a huge difference to the sound. Brown later said, “it almost changed overnight. It became a totally different groove. Straight away, everything just fell into place.” Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis heard them live and promptly signed them up.

Live touring began on a greater scale, and the guys found themselves with an eight-album record deal courtesy of Silvertone – who bought the tapes from Rough Trade. Elephant Stone was released as single in October 1988, and then Made of Stone. Finally The Stone Roses album was released in April 1989, followed by She Bangs the Drums as a single. By the end of the year, the final part of the jigsaw was complete, with the release of Fools Gold/What the World is Waiting For. It’s hard to understate the importance of this double A-side. “We’re the most important group in the world, because we’ve got the best songs and we haven’t even begun to show our potential yet”, said a feisty Ian Brown at the time.

By this long and exhaustive series of record releases and gigs, The Stone Roses went from cult band to fully-fledged chart toppers. Fools Gold bridged their jangly, melodious eighties guitar pop – done so well by late period Smiths and early Primal Scream – to the indie dance craze that the band found itself at the height of. Its slack, shuffling rhythms spawned an entire generation of imitators, with everyone from The Charlatans to Happy Mondays later taking up the baton. The group’s most famous song, it brought the first top-ten hit and helped sell the album in droves – even if ironically the vinyl version didn’t actually feature either of the new songs at all. The Stone Roses became the launchpad for the band, selling strongly off the success of this seminal indie single.

Celebrated by many as one of the great British rock records of the decade, it is full of great tunes, catchy guitar riffs and a sense of purpose that’s rare in any young band. Brimming with attitude and assuredness, it’s clear that the people involved really believe in themselves and what they’re doing. Recorded at Battery Studios, London, the John Leckie-produced The Stone Roses is by no stretch of the imagination an audiophile record, yet still sounds great through a serious hi-fi system. The original British silver disc [Silvertone Records ORE CD502] is the one to have.

Listen to the Stone Roses and all of our 2018 Album choices on TIDAL

June


Queen – A Night at the Opera

Despite massive chart success in later years, with a string of pop and disco-infused singles, Queen always thought of themselves as an authentic rock band, and a heavy one at that. Freddie Mercury (lead vocals, piano), Brian May (lead guitar, vocals), Roger Taylor (drums, vocals), and John Deacon (bass guitar) were all closer to Hawkwind than 10cc in the great pantheon of music. Yet A Night at the Opera showed that the band had the ingenuity and imagination to move well beyond the genre.

Best known for the smash-hit single Bohemian Rhapsody, the band’s fourth studio album saw Queen as a fast-maturing combo that had just headlined US tour venues, wearing striking Zandra Rhodes-created costumes, with Elton John’s manager John Reid now aboard. The most expensive album ever recorded at the time, it was meant to be the band’s magnum opus – its Sergeant Pepper – and certainly delivered. It was released on 21st November 1975 to widespread critical acclaim. It’s a whimsical mixture of pop, heavy rock and even music hall – with the band unwilling to be pigeonholed musically. Tellingly however, buried deep in the sleeve notes is the phrase, “No Synthesisers!”, suggesting Queen still saw themselves as real, old school rockers.

A Night at the Opera has great strength in depth. It ranges from Mercury’s almost maniacal Death on Two Legs a noisy and coruscating attack on the band’s former manager – to his jaunty, breezy Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon which has touches of George Gershwin. Taylor’s I’m in Love with My Car is a powerful, hard rocking number that is dedicated to roadie Johnathan Harris’s obsession with his Triumph sportscar, while You’re My Best Friend is a touching John Deacon composition, and ode to his wife. Sweet Lady is a high tempo, distortion soaked hard rock number from May, then we go back to whimsy with Mercury’s Seaside Rendezvous. May’s The Prophet’s Song is Queen’s longest studio song and sports interesting effects, while Love of My Life went on to be a popular singalong at Queen concerts. May’s Good Company channels Dixieland and sees him playing a ukelele and singing. Mercury composition Bohemian Rhapsody needs no introduction; amusingly its working title was “Fred’s thing” until the final recording session.

Critics were divided about the album. Some believed it was Queen’s finest hour, and put them in the premier league of the world’s great rock bands, others saw it as grandiose and overblown. What is not disputed is that it put the foursome on course to become a great stadium rock band, just at that genre’s height. A decade later they went on to play the 1985 Live Aid benefit and made themselves megastars, with record sales now estimated at 300 million. A Night at the Opera – which itself sold over six million copies – was the start of all this, a powerful yet quirky concept album packed with infectious tunes and brilliant musicianship.

By modern standards recording quality is not great, but a serious front end certainly lifts it. The Japanese 2011 SHM-SACD release [Island Records UIGY-9513] is surely the finest, although the CD reissue of the same year is most enjoyable too.

Click here to listen to all our 2018 album picks so far on TIDAL

May


Herbie Hancock – Speak Like a Child

More than any other musician of his generation, Herbert Jeffrey Hancock moved jazz music forward. He was an important artist for Blue Note – a great label that defined the post-bop era of the nineteen sixties and seventies. Born in Chicago in 1940, the son of a government meat inspector, Herbie started playing classical piano from an early age, and was regarded as something of a child prodigy. However, his heart was in jazz, where he soon developed a style of his own. The Hi-Lo’s were an important influence, as he later explained: “That’s when I really learned some much farther-out voicings – like the harmonies I used on Speak Like a Child… I really got that from Clare Fischer’s arrangements for the Hi-Lo’s. Clare was a major influence on my harmonic concept.”

At the tender age of twenty, he moved to Chicago and began working with Donald Byrd and Coleman Hawkins, where his reputation grew. Off the back of this, Blue Note offered him a contract, and Takin’ Off (1962) was the result. Watermelon Man caught the ear of Miles Davis, who signed him up for his band; he got to work with a stellar cast of young jazzers, including bassist Ron Carter, drummer Tony Williams and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. During this era, he recorded some excellent solo albums such as Empyrean Isles (1964) and Maiden Voyage (1965), which came to be seen as a template for the new jazz style. The two albums that followed – Speak Like a Child (1968) and The Prisoner (1969) are less celebrated, but no less beautiful…

1968 was a year of turmoil across the western world, and inspired some great rock protest songs. Hancock’s sixth album however, was a riposte to this. He wanted, “a forward look into what could be a bright future”, and Speak Like a Child was an attempt to restore some lost innocence, purity and spontaneity. He described the idea behind it as thinking and feeling, “in terms of hope, and the possibilities of making our future less impure.” He said he was thinking about a type of music between jazz and rock. “This album is an extension of Maiden Voyage in terms of use of simple, singable melodies. I’ve been trying for a long time to work on swinging, and of all the albums I have done, this to me swings the most.”

The result was a beautiful, innovative sounding modern jazz record. Recorded in March 1968 at Van Gelder Studio, New Jersey, Hancock delivered some of his sweetest, most tender piano work, with brilliant accompaniment from Ron Carter on bass and Mickey Roker on drums. The alto flute of Jerry Dodgion, bass trombone of Peter Philips and flugelhorn of Thad Jones make for an unusual front line. The result is a rich but floaty sound with wonderfully lyrical playing. The harmonies give vibrancy and colour, the texture of the music is delicious, and the melodies are simple and catchy. “Of all the albums I’ve done, this to me swings the most”, said Hancock. For the best sound on silver disc, seek out the 1999 Japanese Compact Disc reissue (Blue Note BNST-84279).

Listen to all our 2018 AOTM suggestions on TIDAL

https://tidal.com/playlist/5c4a2912-a1ac-4e45-82f0-121bd77cd4e3

April


Al Jarreau – Tenderness

In the late nineteen eighties, Al Jarreau had one of the most famous voices in the world. As the singer of the theme to Moonlighting – the smash-hit US romantic TV comedy – his dulcet tones conjured up images of modern sophistication. It was the first time that many had heard him – despite being having been a jazz vocalist of repute for nearly twenty years by then. Smooth and creamy yet tonally rich and wonderfully expressive, Jarreau’s vocal style perfectly soundtracked the chemistry between the glamorous Cybil Shepherd and a raffish looking young Bruce Willis.

Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Jarreau was forty eight years old when he recorded Moonlighting in 1988, effectively mid-way through his career. He sang in church as a child, educated himself up to Masters Degree level and then started singing in a nightclub in Marin County, California. In 1968 he went professional and quickly found himself on TV shows such as Johnny Carson and David Frost, soon beginning to write his own song lyrics to reflect his Christian spirituality. His first album, 1976’s We Got By, gave him fame and 1981’s Breakin’ Away brought critical respect. After his smash hit Moonlighting at the end of the decade, Jarreau focused on touring – and it’s this period that Tenderness showcases…

He collaborated with a veritable constellation of jazz and soul greats during this time, including David Sanborn on alto sax, Michael Brecker on tenor sax, Marcus Miller on bass guitar and Joe Sample on keyboards. Released in 1994, Tenderness sees these musicians right at the top of their game. The song selection is unadventurous and clearly aimed at commercial appeal, but the quality of the musicianship is spectacular. Anyone with any interest in jazz, funk or soul will instantly be hit by the virtuosity of Jarreau’s band, which is breathtakingly tight despite recording in front of a live studio audience. The music conjures up a magical mood that’s louche yet beguiling; the worst criticism that can be levelled is that it’s rather ‘cocktail jazzy’, which is not to everyone’s taste.

Everything from Jorge Ben’s Mas Que Nada and Oscar Hammerstein’s My Favourite Things, to Lennon and McCartney’s She’s Leaving Home and George Gershwin’s Summertime gets the treatment. Jarreau’s vocal style is distinctive, expressive and gymnastic in the way it runs around the melody. Each song is rendered in a refreshingly different way to the original, and there’s no sense that he’s trying to recreate someone else’s idea of it. The really impressive thing is how Tenderness plays as an entire album – it sounds ‘all of a piece’, whisking the listener away to a special time and place.

Even those who are not natural fans of this beautifully nuanced, butter-smooth music will be astounded by the way the album sounds. Mastered by Doug Sax at The Mastering Lab in LA, it is one of the finest sounding modern jazz albums ever made. There are no hi-res versions commercially available, but even the cooking Compact Disc (WEA 4509 93778-2) on a dCS front end sounds staggering, with an amazing sense of space and insight that most hi-res recordings would kill for.

Listen to all our 2018 AOTM here: https://tidal.com/play…/5c4a2912-a1ac-4e45-82f0-121bd77cd4e3

March


Guns N’Roses – Appetite for Destruction

Nobody’s really quite sure when the term ‘heavy metal’ was coined for music. Some say it was that line from Steppenwolf’s Born to be Wild, others think it came from Hawkwind. What everyone agrees on however, is that no one expected 1987 to be a vintage year for the genre. Indeed, by the mid eighties, things had taken a distinct term for the worse – there had been a real buzz just a few years earlier, with the likes of Saxon, Whitesnake and Rainbow propelling huge crashing tunes into the pop charts, but by the latter part of the decade many people seemed more interested in the emerging ‘house music’ movement. Then, a band that nobody had ever heard of before came out of California with a fresh, modern heavy rock record, infused with melodies catchy enough to be chart-topping pop…

Guns N’Roses released Appetite for Destruction on July 21, 1987. It was like a bolt from the blue, going on to sell thirty million copies worldwide, despite getting a lukewarm reception from critics who saw it as formulaic. Since then however, the band’s huge global success has forced many to re-evaluate it. Although not ground breaking in any way, there’s no denying that this great rock album hit the music charts with the force of a speeding freight train. Its singles (It’s So Easy, Sweet Child o’ Mine, Paradise City and Nightrain) were all very strong, the second and third releases becoming massive hits. Despite using a relatively obscure producer (Mike Clink) and being on an unfashionable label (Geffen), the band sounded like a supergroup that had been playing for decades, and at the top of its game.

Guns N’Roses comprised W. Axl Rose (lead vocals, synthesiser, percussion), Slash (lead guitar, rhythm guitar, acoustic guitar, slide guitar, talkbox), Izzy Stradlin (rhythm guitar, lead guitar, backing vocals, percussion), Duff “Rose” McKagan (bass, backing vocals) and Steven Adler (drums, percussion, backing vocals). All were too young to have heard the classic Steppenwolf track at the time of its original release, yet played like they were steeped in heavy metal folklore from the beginning of time. Many of the songs had been well campaigned on the Los Angeles club circuit that the band had made their home. This gave the album a remarkably mature and sophisticated feel, considering that Axel Rose was just twenty five years old when his band hit megastardom.

Recorded at several studios around LA, this is a powerful and coherent sounding album that showcases the musicians’ obvious talents and makes a great statement of intent. The guys seemed to capture the sound of Led Zeppelin of fifteen years earlier, strip it back down to basics and then add their very own magic. Although derivative and in no way avant garde, the quality of the writing, playing and production on Appetite for Destruction is still so strong that it never needed to break new ground. After hearing this, a new generation of hard rock fans was born. For those seeking out their very own copy of this seminal ‘modern classic’ rock album, the original Japanese Compact Disc pressing (Geffen Records 32XD-821) sounds the best, with power aplenty.

February


Glen Campbell – Wichita Lineman

Switch on a transistor radio back in the nineteen seventies, tune into any pop station, and alongside the sounds of Carol King and Rod Stewart, Glen Travis Campbell’s hits such as Gentle on My Mind (1967), By the Time I Get to Phoenix (1967), Galveston (1969) and Rhinestone Cowboy (1975) would ring out. By this time, he was star with ten Grammy awards under his belt. Upon his death last year, he had released seventy albums and sold nearly fifty million records, including twelve gold albums, four platinums and one double-platinum. Not bad for a boy from Arkansas who began his professional career as a Los Angeles session musician thanks to a chain of events starting when his uncle Boo bought him a five dollar guitar, back when he was just four years old.

Things really began to take off for Campbell in December 1964, when he became a touring member of the Beach Boys, filling in for Brian Wilson playing bass guitar and singing falsetto harmonies. Yet it took another three years for him to reach his creative height with the album Wichita Lineman. Recorded in 1968 with his backing band the Wrecking Crew, the single of the same name achieved only modest chart success, but has now become what many think is one of the greatest pop songs ever recorded. Written by Jimmy Webb – of MacArthur Park fame – Campbell’s treatment of it is sublime, with a deep, empathetic quality that reduces many people to tears. It ushers the listener into the solitary, lovesick life of a county workman. The story goes that while driving through Washita County, Oklahoma, Webb saw a lineman and, “put himself atop that telephone pole and put that phone in his hand.” Campbell later said that it alluded to Webb’s first love affair with a woman, who later married someone else.

Released on November 4th, 1968, the album featured Campbell (vocals, acoustic and electric guitars), Al Casey (acoustic guitar), Carol Kaye (bass guitar), Jim Gordon (drums) and Dennis McCarthy (piano). Al De Lory produced and wrote the beautiful orchestral arrangements. Wichita Lineman has its own highly distinctive sound, thanks in no small part to Carol Kaye’s bass guitar playing – she also guested on Phil Spector, Brian Wilson and Simon and Garfunkel hits, and gives things a wonderfully fluid feel. As well as its iconic title track, the record sports excellent cover versions of standards from a variety of artists, including Otis Redding’s (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay, Jacques Brel’s If You Go Away and The Bee Gees’ Words. In truth, the album sounds a little disjointed, but the quality of the singing and musicianship is first rate. Had it not been blessed with a stellar title track, the other songs’ quality would have been more evident.

Thanks to Al De Lory’s genius and the class of the Hollywood-based Capitol Recording Studio, Wichita Lineman sounds spectacular – way better than most rock recordings of that period. Even the standard issue Compact Disc remaster (Capitol Records 7243-5-35229-2-6) from 2001 is blissfully rich, vibrant and expansive sounding, especially when played through a dCS digital front end.

https://tidal.com/album/77646251

January


The Flaming Lips – Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

Some rock bands find success later in life, and The Flaming Lips was one of them. Formed in Norman, Oklahoma in 1983, it took nearly two decades for the guys to really get traction amongst the music buying public. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots was the album that did it; an unlikely collection of pop, psychedelica and squelchy electronics that glued the sound together. It’s hard to point out the band’s influences because this album is such a mishmash but think Neil Young meets Stereolab meets XTC and Robyn Hitchcock, and you’re some way there. One of its strengths is that it’s so hard to pigeonhole, from a decade where everyone from Eminem to The White Stripes were wearing their influences on their sleeves. The Flaming Lips inhabited their own unique world rather than flagrantly copying others.

The original line-up comprised brothers Wayne and Mark Coyne on guitar and vocals respectively, plus Michael Ivins on bass and Dave Kotska on drums. Mark duly left, leaving Wayne to take over as lead singer, then Nathan Roberts soon took on the drumming role. They were known for their striking live shows in the early years, and this caught the attention of Warner Brothers; 1999’s The Soft Bulletin crystallised the band’s gently psychedelic, ‘art rock’ sound, which showed traces of Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys. Recorded at Tarbox Road Studios in New York, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots was released three years later, and showed the band to be at the height of their creative power.

A concept album of sorts, it sports Japanese anime artwork themed around guest musician Yoshimi P-We’s imaginary battle with robotic machines. Steven Drozd had joined – and then become a major force in – the band, picking up songwriting credits to go with his clever drum and keyboard work. Co-producer Dave Fridmann also helped with the songwriting, and the result was one of the most polished pop/rock albums of the new century. Released on July 15th, 2002, it was highly praised by critics and helped to break The Flaming Lips commercially. It’s an interesting – if slightly disjointed – series of reflections on love, the transience of life, emotions and artificiality. There’s a sci-fi feel to the proceedings, as Yoshimi’s story is told in the first four tracks, which segue neatly into one another.

Indeed, these opening songs  Fight Test (a reworking of a Cat Stevens song), One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21 and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Parts 1 and 2  have a rather symphonic feel. Later on, the album becomes less structured and instead meanders along with beautiful ballads such as Its Summertime, while the last track – Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon (Utopia Planitia) – won a 2002 Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. More usually heard in heavily guitar-based indie rock, Wayne Coyne’s plaintive vocals are an acquired taste, but really contribute to the album’s eerie sound. Heavily processed and full of electronic effects, it’s no audiophile masterpiece, yet still got a 24/96 DVD-Audio release (Warner Bros. 9362 48581-9). This remains the best way to hear it, although the original CD (Warner Bros. 9362-48141-2) is still highly enjoyable.

https://tidal.com/album/325149

2017

December


Dire Straits – Making Movies

“That difficult third album” is often a major let-down. The band’s first is often rough and ready, and the second more polished – but where to go next? Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler had his ear on producer Jimmy Iovine, who had recently delivered Patti Smith’s epic Because The Night (co-written with Bruce Springsteen) and worked on Born to Run. For Making Movies, the creative force behind Dire Straits wanted a powerful, old-school rock guitar sound…

Formed in London in 1977, the band – originally called Cafe Racers – comprised Geordies Mark Knopfler (singer, guitarist and songwriter) and his brother David (guitar, keyboards, vocals) and Brummie friends John Illsley (bass, vocals) and Pick Withers (drums). The 1978 debut single Sultans of Swing was a huge hit, despite sounding nothing like the new wave music dominating the singles chart at the time. Their eponymous first album sold well, as did the follow-up Communique, which gave another fine single, Lady Writer.

At the time that Making Movies was released on October 17th, 1980, the band still sounded more like nineteen sixties rock than eighties pop – and therein lies its strength. The music didn’t sound fashionable but went on to achieve a timeless quality, while so many chart acts of that period have hardly aged well. Dire Straits was a no-frills group of four technically gifted musicians wearing the same tatty old T-shirts and flared jeans on stage as they did off, never trying to hide their pub-rock roots. Their very early work paid tribute to hard-living, hard working bands and studiously avoided singing about love – but by the time Making Movies came out, Knopfler was ready.

Iovine later reflected that, ”I think he wanted to take Dire Straits to that next step… to have the album really make sense all together, which I think it does. It’s a really cohesive album. He stunned me, as far as his songwriting talents. The songs on that album are almost classical in nature.” The more intricately crafted songs, plus the addition of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band keyboardist Roy Bittan – drafted in to the recording sessions – gave Making Movies the band’s most powerful, expansive and polished sound so far. It was all the more important because rhythm guitarist David Knopfler left Dire Straits during the first week of recording.

Its songs were little sketches, scenes from people’s lives. Although never regarded as a great lyricist, Mark Knopfler melded his dour, subtle observations with achingly beautiful rock music to dramatic effect. Tracks such as Romeo and Juliet, Tunnel of Love and Skateaway have a plaintive but romantic and dreamy feel. “The subtleties of emotion that he was trying to capture was something real special — it reminded me of Bruce, you know?”, said Iovine.

A platinum seller in the USA and double-platinum in Britain, Making Movies was an important moment for Dire Straits. It ushered in a more muscular and expansive sound, one which soon indelibly stamped their name on the eighties pop world. At the same time, it is perhaps the last ‘classic’ Dire Straits album – still recognisably similar to the band’s original Sultans-era sound. A superb recording made at the Power Station in New York, it is best heard on Bob Ludwig’s excellent CD remaster [Vertigo 800 050-2].

https://tidal.com/album/621534

November


Simon & Garfunkel – Bookends

After the failure of their 1964 debut album Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel parted ways, but then their second album Sound of Silence charted in 1965 and things got back on track. By Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (1966), the duo were cooking on gas and Simon declared they had “made it”. A string of hit singles followed, and then he burned out. Little was done for a while, and then a meeting with The Graduate director Mike Nichols took place, during which Simon agreed to write some soundtrack music for $25,000. Mrs Robinson duly became a smash hit.

Bookends was the result of going back into the studio from 1966 to 1968, bringing together assorted singles and music written for The Graduate, plus other material. A Hazy Shade of Winter, At the Zoo, Punkys Dilemma, Overs and Mrs Robinson comprise the earlier songs, then Fakin It, America and Bookends Theme followed. In the later recording sessions the duo became more experimental. Paul Simon hired viola and brass players, plus additional percussionists; for the first time he took a ‘hands on’ approach to production, and there were more solo vocal tracks, rather than the harmonies that had been the duo’s hallmark. Robert Moog himself was drafted in to deliver the bassline for Save the Life of My Child on an early Moog synthesiser. Simon later said that Bookends was where he “had most use of the studio” out of all his albums with Art Garfunkel. Produced by Simon, Garfunkel and Roy Halee, Columbia’s Studios B & E in Manhattan had rarely been so busy.

In the style of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper, Bookends is a concept album – its themes being in Paul Simon’s own words, “youth, alienation, life, love, disillusionment, relationships and mortality” He had told Garfunkel, “I’m going to start writing a whole side of an album – a cycle of songs. I want the early ones to be about youth and the last song to be about old age, and I want the feel of each song to fit.” His wry observations about human nature are entertaining and perceptive. Garfunkel later explained that, “we were terribly impressed with Sergeant Pepper, and that shone a light on the path that led to Bookends.” Interestingly, while the Beatles record has a bright, vibrant, colourful feel, this record – released just ten months later – is much darker, as its monochrome sleeve artwork suggests.

Bookends received great critical acclaim, elevating the duo’s status from purveyors of well-crafted but forgettable folk-pop to “rock” artists on a par with Bob Dylan. Massively successful commercially, the album was released on April 3, 1968 and produced the chart-topping single Mrs. Robinson, and then itself reached number one on both sides of the Atlantic, going double Platinum in the United States. It signalled the arrival of Paul Simon as a true creative force in popular music, with America arguably one of the finest songs of the nineteen sixties. If you can’t find the 1998 Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (UDCD 732) Compact Disc release, then get Sony Japan’s fine-sounding 2015 reissue (SICP 4703).

October


Caravan – In the Land of Grey and Pink

There’s no mistaking the period from which this classic album hails from – it’s just as much of its time as The Sex Pistols’ debut long player was of its, some six years later. Released on the 8th April, 1971, it proved the high watermark of the Canterbury folk-rock scene, and the last album from the original Caravan line-up of Pye Hastings (electric guitars, acoustic guitar, lead vocals), David Sinclair (organ, piano, vocals), Richard Sinclair (bass, acoustic guitar, vocals), and Richard Coughlan (drums). Three months later, David Sinclair left to form Matching Mole with Soft Machine drummer and vocalist Robert Wyatt, and things were never the same again.

An eclectic blend of folk, rock and jazz, there’s a touch of Traffic and Family with slight shades of The Kinks too – but in truth In The Land of Grey and Pink sounds quite unique. The album title came from Richard Sinclair’s name for the band’s home county of Kent. Lead singer Pye Hastings – who’s the only remaining member of the original line-up today – has a distinctively relaxed, creamy voice which counterpoints with the fast, tight and ultra-syncopated playing from the rest of the band. His brother Jimmy was brought in to play flute, tenor sax and piccolo just for this album, and it brings a richer texture to the already lavish feel.

Complementing its rather Tolkeinesque artwork, the album’s lyrics have splashes of mysticism and magic to them – reflecting the psychedelic tastes of the time – and also a kind of fading pastoral Englishness. Nine Feet Underground dominates things, taking up all of side two of the original LP release. Twenty two minutes long, Dave Sinclair’s magnum opus is a series of five different musical themes with link pieces, and shows the band’s brilliantly dextrous playing to great effect. Hastings’ Love To Love You was the album’s only single, backed off with Richard Sinclair’s whimsical Golf Girl. All songs on the album are infectious and full of melodic hooks – delivered with great gusto.

Recorded at both Decca Studios and AIR Studios in London, production values are high. Many albums of this period sound murky or thin, but producer David Hitchcock made it big and bold with a wonderful clarity even by today’s standards. Despite the obvious quality of the music, In the Land of Grey and Pink did not chart – something that the band blamed on their label Decca. Pye Hastings was in no doubt of its virtue, remarking that this was when “the band began to peak.” Since its release it has received much critical acclaim, and has continued to sell ever since, never having been deleted. Many critics regard it as the quintessential “Canterbury scene” album.

The first Compact Disc release was back in 1989, and three more versions followed in 2001 and 2011. The final 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition [Deram 533 316-1] is the one to go for, with a number of additional tracks and a vibrant, expansive digital remaster thanks to Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson. The Japanese SHM CD [Deram UICY-94328] is also worth having as the ultimate original mastering of this seminal Prog classic.