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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

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.

September


T Rex – Electric Warrior

Just as the death of Elvis Presley on August 16th, 1977 was a tragedy, so too was the passing of Marc Bolan exactly one month later – for the many fans of glam rock, this was the real day that the music died. Bolan was a force of nature, an oddity and an eccentric. Like so many in showbusiness, he was tortured and traduced, yet had an impish charm that attracted teenage girls and boys alike. His manner was gentle, his music beautiful, and forty years ago this month he became immortal.

Marc Bolan’s early work was patchy. There was a lot of it, and as Tyrannosaurus Rex he often missed the spot with four rather laboured psychedelic folk albums to show for it. Bolan was a devourer of culture and used to drink it in; his early work was often charming but there was a sense he was highly self-conscious and just a little too concerned with what else was fashionable. Suddenly in 1970 however, he and his cohort Mickey Finn renamed the band T. Rex and released Ride a White Swan, and things would never be the same again.

Rex emerged blinking into the sunlight as a fully formed band complete with electric guitars and a bold new sound – thanks in no small part to producer Tony Visconti – that very quickly came to dominate the British charts, and then beyond. Bassist Steve Curry and drummer Bill Legend made a tight four-piece that began making highly memorable music, packed with great guitar riffs, infectious hooks and some very curious and often baffling nonsense lyrics. This found its ultimate expression in Electric Warrior, released 24th September, 1971, just six years before Bolan’s car crash that brought things to a tragic and cruelly premature end.

The band’s sixth album, it was the first ‘full electric’ one and a bold manifesto for the new ‘glam rock’ movement. Recorded in London, LA and New York, it reached number one, and went on to sell more copies than any other album of that year. Like so many great long players of that era, the sleeve was designed by British art design group Hipgnosis, and became an iconic pop art image in its own right. Its lead single Bang A Gong (Get It On) was a huge chart hit, and was swiftly followed up by Jeepster. It showed Bolan at his absolute height, releasing song after song that bothered the very top of the hit parade. Cosmic Dancer – arguably the finest song on the album – was never released as a single.

Pop music is of course disposable, but there’s something about this disc that really stands the test of time. More than just an authentic taste of the early nineteen seventies’ music scene, it’s a charming collection of songs that revels in its silliness. Packed with repetitive yet infectious hooks, the anthemic songs grow inside you. Electric Warrior is so likeable because it doesn’t pretend to be great art – yet despite those nonsense lyrics full of non sequiturs, it is unerring fun.

Those listening to Electric Warrior in hi-fi mode will be disappointed. It is however surprisingly fine sounding if played on truly top flight systems; in lesser hands it comes over as a bit of a dirge. A&M Records’ 2010 Japan-only SHM-CD (UICY-20105) release is the best of a bad bunch sonically, but the beautiful music still shines through.

August


The High Llamas – Hawaii

One of the common criticisms of pop music – something that began to gain traction in the early nineteen nineties – is that it has effectively become trapped in an endless loop of borrowing from the past, and that there’s no new artistic innovation anymore. The High Llamas could be accused of this, because they channel The Kinks, The Beach Boys, 10cc and many other golden greats, but that’s only half the story. In truth, the band’s sound is infused with a variety of influences, yet still comes out as distinctively their own. One of the greatest pop groups that nobody’s ever heard of perhaps, they’re consummate musicians and – as Hawaii proved – fine songwriters too.

Formed in 1992, The High Llamas comprise four main soloists, with a vast array of additional collaborators. Lead singer Sean O’Hagan is a brilliant writer of breezy pop tunes who earned his stripes in eighties indie band Microdisney; if Steely Dan had come from a small town in Ireland where it rained all the time, this would be them! Highly proficient at guitar and keyboards, on Hawaii he was joined by John Bennett on guitar, multi-instrumentalist Marcus Holdaway on cello, harpsichord and piano, and Rob Allum on sticks. The album also features flugelhorn players, tenor sax, flutes and violins; its brilliance is that despite the complexity, it comes across as a simple, breezy collection of winsome pop ditties. As with O’Hagan’s former band, these can become quite dark, with acerbic vocals that go heavy on the cynicism but are still full of humour.

O’Hagan’s musical influences span nineteen fifties and sixties American pop to Brazilian jazz, film soundtracks and European avant-garde electronic music. There’s a good deal of Brian Wilson-style soft psychedelia too, and this comes to the fore in Hawaii. Indeed, he actually played at some Beach Boys gigs, and had also done backing duties for Arthur Lee’s Love a few years before this album was released. Just to make life even more interesting, at the time that Hawaii came out on March 25th, 1996, he had been working with several members of Stereolab in his Turn On side-project – and there’s more than a little experimental synthesiser work on this album too. The result is something that sounds like a kind of mutant outtake of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and Smile sessions, done thirty years later.

Hawaii is a mixture of seemingly disparate themes – all united by the beautifully melodic, sauntering arrangements that tie it together. There’s a good bit of nostalgia, some thoughts on the effects of colonialism and occasional nonsense. Don’t expect any Roger Waters-style philosophical invective, or profound observations on the nature of being, however. Devoid of standout hit singles, this album is best listened to from start to finish, where you get the full benefit of its capacity to transport you to a charmingly whimsical world, packed with wry observations about humankind. It’s not the destination, but the getting there that counts, you see. Well recorded, beautifully produced but not an audiophile recording in the traditional sense, the original British release [Alpaca Park CD WOOL 2] sounds fine – but is best experienced through a serious digital source.

July


Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here

Released on 12th September, 1975, this was a difficult album for Pink Floyd. Dark Side of the Moon had already proved one of the most successful rock albums in history, and not an easy thing to follow. Expectations were sky-high for the band’s ninth studio album, and there were advance orders of 250,000 in Britain and 900,000 in the USA; we already knew it would be the fastest selling Floyd long-player so far. What troubled fans was the direction it would take – each successive LP was a distinct move away from the last, so where would Wish You Were Here go? On release it got mixed reviews; critics decided it was barely a departure from DSOTM, and that the band was on autopilot. Some derided Pink Floyd as “passionless”, others said the new long player was “ponderous”.

In hindsight, these were hasty judgements. WYWH lacks the freshness and direction of its predecessor, but is more contemplative and rewarding. Musically it’s more reflective – soulful even – and shows the band at the height of their melodic power. Clever studio effects and the subtle use of early synthesisers give it a vibrant sound, one that’s a clever evolution of their previous masterpiece. David Gilmour and Roger Waters shared lead vocals and guitar credits, with the former playing keyboards and an EMS Synthi AKS and the latter an EMS VCS. Rick Wright did most of the keyboard work however, with Hammond organ, ARP String Ensemble V, Mini-moog and Steinway piano bolstering the sound. Nick Mason as ever supplied drums, percussion and tape effects. Guest singers were brought in to give a richer texture to the band’s sound; Roy Harper sang lead vocals on Have a Cigar, and the Blackberries did backing vocals on Shine On You Crazy Diamond, along with Carlena Williams. Jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli was even paid £300 for playing on Wish You Were Here, but was mixed down so low as to be virtually inaudible.

Lyrically, as the album’s title suggests, it reflects upon the absence of original frontman Syd Barrett from the group, conveying an underlying sense of loss and yearning. Roger Waters’ conceptual theme dominates the album, along with some vitriolic ranting against the music industry; Welcome to the Machine laments what Waters later called, “the lack of contact and real feelings between people”. Have a Cigar derides “fat cats” as it laments the superficiality of the business that had, by then, made all four band members impossibly rich. Ironically, Harvest Records was unable to get its parent company EMI to print enough copies of Wish You Were Here.

The Hipnosis-designed sleeve alludes to what photographer Storm Thorgerson called the band’s concern with an “unfulfilled presence”, and that people conceal their true feelings for fear of “getting burned”. The cover depicts two businessmen shaking hands, with one on fire. Pink Floyd certainly didn’t suffer, with over fifteen million sales worldwide to date. Recorded at EMI’s famous Abbey Road Studios, it is beautifully produced and sounds superb even today. There are countless reissues of this rock masterpiece, with Analogue Productions’ SACD (EMI CAPP 33453 SA) being the one to have.

June


The Beatles – Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

It was fifty years ago that The Beatles realised their most innovative and memorable album. On June 1st, 1967, the band’s eighth studio release appeared to mixed reviews by critics. It was the first LP that didn’t present the ‘Fab Four’ as cute, cuddly pop stars, and instead took a more mature view of the world. At the same time, it moved into more controversial thematic territory, with obvious drug allusions which earned it the tag, “psychedelic”.

Sgt Pepper brought a greater diversity of musical styles, with longer and more complex songs knitted together to form a single work. Rock writers praised it as the first ever “concept album” – a collection of songs with a single overarching theme, rather than a disparate and unconnected series of sketches. This made the album all the more significant – indeed it changed the popular music world forever. People still talk in terms of pop before and after this landmark release, as everyone from Pink Floyd and ELO to Stevie Wonder and Radiohead have taken this idea, and run with it.

The cover is graced by a clever photomontage of (then) contemporary British cultural icons. The Beatles – playing the role of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – appear in costume, in the middle gatefold section of the sleeve. Cue up the disc and we hear the band tuning up, then introducing themselves, and soon we’re into a sequence of brilliant Lennon and McCartney compositions – everything from With a Little Help from my Friends and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds to When Im Sixty Four and A Day in the Life. The John Lennon songs are more cutting and acerbic, the Paul McCartney tunes have a tinge of classic music hall, and are pure pop. Allied to this is the experimental sitar-infused George Harrison number, Within You, Without You.

The album’s themes are an eclectic mix of quirky folk ditties (“lovely Rita meter maid, when are you free to take some tea with me?”) and the emerging hippy counterculture of the late sixties (“picture yourself in a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies”). The album takes you into a new world that’s a varied mixture of emotions, but still the songs blend together seamlessly thanks to the brilliant George Martin production. He used the four-track Abbey Road Studio Two to great effect, creating new and unusual sounds whilst knitting everything together to give a single coherent feel. The stereo mix of the album must have sounded breathtaking to the lucky few who owned the equipment able to play it back in 1967.

Sgt Pepper is a bold and audacious album by a band at their creative peak, backed up by the most advanced recording technology available at the time, and brilliantly packaged as a pop product. Unsurprisingly, it was massively popular – hitting the number one spot in the UK for twenty seven weeks, and in the USA for fifteen. Now in 2017, it has sold over thirty million copies globally. There are myriad versions, but the definitive CD remaster (Apple Records 0602557455458) is a great way in to this superb album.

May


The Kinks – The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society

Upon the release of Village Green in November 1968, the album that everyone was talking about was The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Although almost a year old, it had a huge effect on pop music and sparked the move towards ‘concept albums’, of which Village Green is a fine example. Yet The Kinks’ new record wasn’t simply a pastiche of the The Beatles’ LP, it was a rebuttal. Whereas Lennon and McCartney’s writing championed all manner of other countercultural references, Ray Davies’s magnum opus was a celebration of everything run-of-the-mill. In an era where rock music was all about changing the world, The Kinks instead gazed lovingly back at the past.

“I go out of my way to like ordinary things,” said Ray Davies at the time of the album’s release. “I cling on to the simple values. I thought, why not write something about things you truly care about? I wanted a record that would not necessarily get airplay but would be played for friends and at parties. And I achieved that and it didn’t get any airplay at all. It became a cult record as a result. Somebody told me that I preserve things, and I like village greens and preservation societies. The title track is the national anthem of the album.”

Village Green is a series of cameos about a time and place long since passed. Its beautifully melodic and gentle music documents a lazy English town full of people obsessed about small things like “strawberry jam and all the different varieties”, while, “preserving the old ways from being abused, protecting the new ways for me and for you…” Sung in a conspicuously English accent, where many of the band’s contemporaries were affecting a mid-atlantic American drawl, it is played with brilliant technical virtuosity, giving it a unique sound.

The Kinks began as an R&B band in 1963, playing US-influenced music. However, within four years they had become the most staunchly English of all their contemporaries. London born-and-bred Ray Davies was the lead vocalist, songwriter and rhythm guitarist, while brother Dave provided lead guitar and backing vocals. In their teens, they began playing rock’n’roll together and recruited friend Peter Quaife to play bass. By the summer of 1963, the group had a new drummer called Mick Avory, and the commercial success began. Ray became fascinated with playwright Noel Coward, and this gives Village Green so much of its colour. The album works best played through from beginning to end, when you can really feel the band’s unique chemistry. As Dave noted, “the family aspect and empathy that Ray and I have doesn’t go away – it was crucial to how we evolved.” Listened to this way, it feels wonderfully immersive, transporting you to another time and place…

Recorded at Pye Studios in London, it isn’t an audiophile recording by any stretch of the imagination. Although there have been multiple silver disc releases, the first 1993 Japanese pressing (Victor VICP-2094) is the finest sonically; the later 2004 UK release (Sanctuary Midline SMETD 102) also sounds mo

April


Love – Forever Changes

There has never been a time when pop music hasn’t been in flux. It’s one great big long stream of new and old styles being mixed together, and always has been. Yet in the mid nineteen sixties, it was surely at its most fluid, as traditional rock’n’roll gave way to Beatles- and Beach Boys-style pure pop, which in turn morphed into rock. In 1967, when the aptly-named Forever Changes was released, this was happening in earnest – and to make the album all the more significant, it fused with psychedelia too. Rock historians always argue that The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper was the first psych-rock album, but Love’s third studio album didn’t come much later. Released on the Elektra label in November of that year, it has come to be regarded as one of the most important long-players of the latter half of that amazing decade – even if at the time it only reached 154 in the US Billboard album charts.

Arthur Lee grew up in Los Angeles, California – and started his band Love in his late teens. Heavily influenced by The Byrds, his inclinations were towards folk-rock but soon found himself immersed in the LA hippy scene – even if, by all accounts, he wasn’t an unquestioning believer in ‘flower power’. He was highly competitive with the band’s other songwriter Bryan MacLean, and this caused great friction in the band which – along with intense drug use – lead them to split up shortly after Forever Changes was recorded. It shows, such is the album’s chaotic and patchy nature, although it is also a work of genius in some ways. It sports some of the sweetest, most beautiful and melodic music to come out of the nineteen sixties, with a wonderfully sunny and warm feel. Inside the lyrics however, you can feel Lee wrestling with his inner soul, and sometimes he comes out quite badly.

The songs reflect on a variety of themes, including love, life and Lee’s mortality, plus an early sense of disillusionment with what would come to be known as the Woodstock generation. Work started in June 1967 at Sunset Sound Recorders. A number of top session musicians appeared, and it gained beautifully arranged (by Lee) string and horn parts too, which run right throughout the album and lend it an epic feel. Neil Young, and Bruce Botnick – who had produced the first two Love albums and had just finished Buffalo Springfield’s Again reputedly joined in with the arrangement to The Daily Planet. At the time of its release, Gene Youngblood of LA Free Express summed it perfectly as “melancholy iconoclasm and tasteful romanticism”. There’s certainly a sullen beauty to the songs that never fades with age. The musicianship is superb and Lee’s voice is both beautiful and fragile at the same time.

Sonically, Forever Changes can never escape the fact that it was recorded on early four-track analogue, but still sounds superb. Disc fans are spoiled for choice, with the first Japanese CD (Elektra WMC5-382) having excellent sonics, and the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab hybrid SACD (UDSACD 2131) sounding even better. There’s also a hi-res download from HD Tracks.

March


Thomas Dolby – The Golden Age of Wireless

Along with Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms, the staple musical diet of every British hi-fi show of the mid nineteen eighties was Thomas Dolby’s The Flat Earth. A complex and classy slice of (then) ultra-modern electronic pop music, it also sounded spectacularly good – hence it being such a favourite with manufacturers demonstrating their wares. Although a fine musical work, it cannot compare to Dolby’s debut album that preceded it. Packed with classic synthesisers, it sounds strangely timeless yet is still evocative of the period when electronics were making their way into mainstream pop. More than this, it’s a beautiful, contemplative and moody piece of music that pulls you into the eccentric world of a young man with a spectacular imagination.

Recorded at the height of the Cold War in 1982, thematically it’s rather dour and dark, and tinged with nostalgia. The polar opposite to the Human League’s glitzy Dare – also out that year – Golden Age of Wireless studiously avoids pop music’s normal preoccupations (fashion, fun, romance) and takes the listener into something of a Boys Own world of adventure. Dolby recalled how he was writing songs at that time, “in a huge and grim Victorian industrial building, with snow falling on the railway tracks outside, and me surrounded by short-circuited machines hacked together by a man called Igor. It conjures up a strange world whose ecology is rotting while the sheer overload of broadcasted data is nearing saturation point…”

The son of a scientist, Thomas Morgan Robertson received his ‘Dolby’ moniker from school friends who thought he dabbled with his tape deck too much. ‘Morgan’ was EM Forster’s middle name, the famous author and family friend from way back. In an era of one-fingered synth pop and dodgy haircuts, he was a virtuoso musician who performed as well as he programmed. He funded Golden Age from session keyboard playing for Foreigner. Luckily, producer Mutt Lange took his time, and the $500-per-day fees that racked up bought Dolby many weeks at respected high end British studios like Tapestry and Playground. His equipment list was minimal compared to some contemporaries; alongside two analogue synths (a Micromoog and a Roland Jupiter 4) was a PPG Wave computer controlling Simmons electronic drums. He borrowed the rhythm section from Lene Lovich’s band, and renowned guitarist Kevin Armstrong completed the line up. The whole album was recorded without any sequencing for the keyboard parts.

The album kicks off with Flying North, conjuring up dramatic scenes of traversing continents, and runs through classics like Windpower and the fun but throwaway She Blinded Me With Science, then moves to the contemplative Airwaves. One of Our Submarines is Missing is one of Dolby’s most beautiful compositions. With the proceeds from Golden Age, the man spent $140,000 on one of the world’s first digital samplers – the Fairlight CMI – and in doing so moved out of the sumptuous analogue landscape of his first album towards the colder, sharper The Flat Earth. The finest silver disc version is the Japanese pressing (EMI TOCP-6335), but the standard UK reissue (EMI 50999 2 67915 2 4) is also highly listenable.