Thursday, June 29, 2006

Days Chasing Days

Rarely has a love song sent such a shiver up my spine. I'm talking about the utterly brilliant "Days Chasing Days" by Melbourne singer-songwriter Stephen Cummings, taken from his 1994 album "Falling Swinger". Arguably Cummings's first fully realised work, "Falling Swinger" was given austere, yet well-crafted, virtuosic production by Church frontman Steve Kilbey, who has provided a new dimension to Cummings's archetypal soft-rock sonics by adding on electronic soundscapes, vocal treatments and echo effects. And this new approach works to incredible, almost unbearably poignant effect on "Days Chasing Days".

A perceptible, descriptive, yet somewhat allegorical story song delivered in Cummings's curiously calm lower-register tenor, "Days Chasing Days" surveys the final stages of a rapidly disintegrating relationship, suffused with a hard-won sense of acceptance mingled with barely contained sorrow. This makes for a thoroughly affecting and chillingly beautiful melody, coupled with Spartan instrumentation (measured, bare-bones piano chords and an eerie-sounding electronic drone) and some of Cummings's most nakedly illustrative lyrics ("In the city of my heart, you are the central part", "This is what fools me, time after time").

The overall effect is absolutely devastating in its emotional reach. One of the most heartfelt - and heartbreaking - songs written about the final, dying days of a romance.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

"Starfish" = Los Angeles

What's the most plausible thematic album to have been written about the sprawling, choking metropolis of Los Angeles? No, it's not something as immediately obvious as The Eagles' "One of These Nights", or something as drearily dull as Counting Crows' "Recovering the Satellites". Instead, it's from a most unlikely source, and many quarters might disagree vehemently with this choice, but I dare say it's The Church's 1988 all-round masterwork "Starfish".

While the veteran Australian psych-rock band might have started out as a archetypal post-punk jangle-pop outfit (albeit addressing lyrical concerns about occultism, existentialism, and just feeling rather strange, really), it was on "Starfish" that their collective strengths came together in a superb, equal-parts fusion of confidence and edginess. Uprooted from their usual surroundings of Sydney to the decidedly unfamiliar environment of LA, The Church responded to the new backdrop by presenting a whole album's worth of relevant songs about the corresponding bright-lights, big-city ambience. And what an album it is too.

"Destination" sets the tone for the journey ahead appropriately enough, a darkly disquieting and ominous opening that segues easily into the elegantly atmospheric but uneasily dreamy "Under the Milky Way", which brilliantly details those stifling, smog-filled nights in the seedier parts of North Hollywood. The self-explanatory "Blood Money" is a quietly menacing, taut-to-the-breaking-point mid-tempo rocker that makes the most of The Church's virtuosic guitar wizardry, while the forlorn, despondent "Lost" effortlessly captures that inimitable feeling of psychological dislocation when wandering around without purpose in a foreign location.

The incredibly assured, turbo-charged "North, South, East and West" is a bitterly cheerful castigation of all the various quirks and eccentricities seen in the culturally distinctive districts of LA ("The real estate's prime, and the number plates rhyme", "Wear a gun and be proud, but bare breasts aren't allowed", "Dream up the scams, and then rake in the clams in this city", "The face of today is just a scalpel today"), and the ballsy, punchy rock-out "Spark" is a tribute of sorts to the myriad underground clubs dotting Silverlake.

The deceptively stately "Antenna" meanwhile bemoans Southern California's phenomenon of here-today, gone-tomorrow cultural fads through a sea-shanty guitar waltz, and "A New Season" fluently encapsulates that wide-eyed sense of wonder as one looks out over the wide expanses of the cityscape as the plane descends upon LAX. The sneering, derisive "Reptile" is a venomous two-fingered salute to a vacuous, airheaded starlet, but The Church save their best for last with the closing, final charge "Hotel Womb", a perfectly poised final blowout that takes in an all-inclusive overview of the city, and comes up with the conclusion that it's better to "dream I'm safe in my hotel womb, soft and soul made, it's a wonderful room" - equating the bare comforts of a cheap hotel room to a preferred refuge from the urban insanities of the exterior vicinity.

While The Church today are reduced to a cult act specialising in neo-Floydian theatrics, it was "Starfish" that well and truly established their credentials as bona fide masters of the Los Angeles concept album.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

a-ha: Norwegian purveyors of existential angst

Norwegian trio a-ha have been unjustly and perennially derided by so-called "discerning" critics as nothing more than a standard-issue new-wave outfit, or even worse, the progenitors of the horrifying boy-band epidemic of the 1990s. In actuality, nothing could be further than the truth.

While a-ha's signature tune remains the irrepressible and indefatigable "Take on Me", with its instantly recognisable chattering-synth riff, a-ha's other works are even more compelling, and, dare I say it, challenging and thought-provoking.

Perhaps toughened up by a youth spent enduring dreary Scandinavian winters, a-ha songs are typically elliptical, abstract and surreal, touching on cheery subjects like death, failed and/or twisted romances, and Kafkaesque existential angst.

Take the morosely bleak "Scoundrel Days" from 1986, for example. A close-to-the-bone account of a man on the brink, it details his impending mental collapse through brilliantly descriptive yet wonderfully oblique songwords: "For want of an option, I run the wind round, I dream pictures of houses burning, never knowing nothing else to do."

The 1993 masterwork "Memorial Beach" is even more riveting, a gloom-and-doom themed album addressing like-minded topics like mortality, betrayal, depression and psychosis. With self-descriptive titles like "Dark is the Night for All", "Cold as Stone", "Lamb to the Slaughter" and "Lie Down in Darkness", "Memorial Beach" has been criticised, even by longtime a-ha followers, as too much of a heavy-going affair. However, in retrospect, it remains their most mature and rounded work, despite the attendant darkness.

a-ha in the new millennium have produced even more persuasive works, with a newfound elegance and a sense of establishment only hinted at in previous projects. The title track from 2002's "Lifelines" could well be their most lavish yet, supported by subtle string orchestrations, superior synth work and, of course, Morten Harket's sturm-und-drang, operatic tenor, while "Celice" from 2005's "Analogue" is a more-than-competent stab at merging studied synth-pop aesthetics and visceral rock-out sensibilities. All fantastic stuff.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The Underrated Jackson Browne

Next to American singer-songwriter icons like Dylan, Young and Springsteen, Southern Californian veteran Jackson Browne would seem almost insignifcant in stature. But no mistake, Browne is one of the most virtuosic and observant songwriters around, never mind the fact that he's perpetually, woefully underrated by the general public.

From his enthusiastic, strident eponymous debut in 1972 to the reflective 2002 masterpiece "The Naked Ride Home", Browne has rightfully documented social upheaval, political chicanery, and the travails of life and love through a host of well-regarded albums. While Browne's songs might not be regular fixtures on the charts (with the exception of the relatively lightweight "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" theme song "Somebody's Baby"), they are brilliantly elliptical, intuitively emotional and wholly accessible, even though their sheer literateness might be too much for the ADD-suffering MTV generation to take in.

Here is a list of songs that effortlessly display Browne's sharp, vivid songwriting acumen:

1. SKY BLUE AND BLACK (I'm Alive, 1993)
Love songs don't come any better - or more expressive and honest - than this absolutely devastating account of the recognition of the end of a relationship. Framed within a simple musical structure (plainspoken piano chords, an earnest electric-guitar solo, and a recurring, memorable six-note synth hook), Browne details the letting-go of a former love through a powerful, yet empathic statement of final, forgiving acceptance that incorporates imagistic everyday depictions (“In the fragments of the songs carried down the wind from some radio”, “In the murmuring of the city in the distance ominous and low”) and simple, heartfelt statements (“If you ever need holding, call my name and I’ll be there”, “I’d have fought the world for you, if I thought you wanted me to”). Arguably the most open-hearted and beautiful song in Browne’s impressive repertoire.

2. THE BARRICADES OF HEAVEN (Looking East, 1996)
Perhaps Browne's response to Don Henley's rather bleak lost-youth anthem "The Boys of Summer", the strident "The Barricades of Heaven" takes a steady, easy-going approach to saying goodbye to the excesses of yesteryears, without any hints of mawkishness or bitterness. Crystalline, clear-cut acoustic-guitar riffs, instinctive B3 organ solos and a sturdy backbeat form the basis of this track, which sounds perversely optimistic, despite the sometimes-ominous imagery incorporated in the lyrics. But when Browne boldly proclaims, "Got to bring your redemption when you come, to the barricades of heaven where I'm from", it sounds like he's refusing to go into the good night without putting up a good fight.

3. LATE FOR THE SKY (Late for the Sky, 1974)
Forlornly miserable, and swathed in a shroud of bleak hopelessness, this downcast morning-after lamentation plays like the opposite side of the coin to the later "Sky Blue and Black". Deservedly taking its own time detailing the slow-motion breakdown of a relationship, this sober piano ballad splendidly encapsulates romantic disenchantment and disappointment in its sometimes too-close-for-comfort songwords ("Awake again I can't pretend, and I know I'm alone, and close to the end of the feeling we've known", "How long have I been sleeping, how long have I been drifting alone through the night, how long have I been dreaming I could make it right, if I closed my eyes and tried with all my might to be the one you need"). Browne has never sounded more glum and pessimistic than on here. An interesting aside: "Late for the Sky" would take on a decidedly darker shade when Martin Scorsese used it as the musical accompaniment to the scene of Robert de Niro's emotional and mental collapse in the evergreen "Taxi Driver".

4. FOUNTAIN OF SORROW (Late for the Sky, 1974)
A graceful ode to an unrequited love, "Fountain of Sorrow" is a deliberate, peaceful-sounding piano ballad that belies the desperation behind it. When Browne nonchalantly says, "What I was seeing wasn't what was happening at all, although for a while, our path did seem to climb", he is effectively echoing the exact sentiments of millions of rejected suitors the world over. But he does dispense some thoughtful advice later on: "When you see through love's illusions, there lies the danger, and your perfect lover just looks like a perfect fool". Love might be perennially overrated and not all that it's cracked up to be, but at least fools in love everywhere can take comfort in the wisdom of these words.

5. THE NAKED RIDE HOME (The Naked Ride Home, 2002)
Arguably Browne's most personal song since "Late for the Sky", the title track to his masterful 2002 album simultaneously takes stock of the effects of ageing, the complexities of life, and the rediscovery of an old love, all couched within an appropriately nocturnal-sounding musical template that features some superior lap-steel guitar work. The lyrics might occasionally be metaphoric ("On that freeway the light was receding, her beauty a sight so misleading, I failed to hear the heart that was beating alone"), but the general sentiment is unmistakable: a life without predicaments is a life not worth living.

6. MY STUNNING MYSTERY COMPANION (The Naked Ride Home, 2002)
This laidback, tranquil coda to 2002's "The Naked Ride Home" is a subtle declaration of affection to a new love. However, it's not so much a gallant proclamation of undying, youthful ardour, but more of a quietly confident acknowledgement of how after long years of searching, that one final presence (or if you like, the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel) who finally accepts you for what you are, will stand by you through thick and thin (to use an overused cliche) for the rest of your days. It's all laid down in some of Browne's most sanguine verses ("I hear you laughing and somehow, the past just disappears", "What with all my expectations long abandoned, my solitary nature notwithstanding, you're the one who pulled me out of that crash landing").

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A Soundtrack for Love

This might just be another one of my many disorderly reveries, but I just had the idea of creating a soundtrack of "appropriate" songs that track the progress of a romance, a collection of proper musical cues that mark specific moments during the course of a relationship. In this instance, it's the tale of a relationship that starts off promisingly enough, but eventually veers off into something more oblique and inexplicable. I suppose the songs themselves tell the story better than I do, so here goes:

1. ONE - Filter
Originally a hippie-ish rambler by Three Dog Night, Richard Patrick of Filter turns this late-1960s chestnut into a slow-burning industrial-rock lament that bristles with rightful doses of angst and resentment, a perfect song to vent your catharsis to. One is the loneliest number, indeed.

2. YOU AND YOUR SISTER - This Mortal Coil
A deceptively simple number that hides its narrative of romantic psychosis behind a gentle, circular guitar figure and layered harmonies, this Big Star standard is given strange new life by the dream-pop collective This Mortal Coil, featuring suitably wispy vocals by Tanya Donelly and Kim Deal of The Breeders.

3. SOMETHING'S GOTTEN HOLD OF MY HEART - Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds
Gene Pitney's classic tale of unrequited love is infused with a degree of understated menace by Goth icon Nick Cave and his band of merry men, playing like the alternate theme to a forgotten French new-wave flick.

4. BRIGHTNESS FALLS - David Sylvian and Robert Fripp
Avant-pop veteran David Sylvian teams up with experimental-guitar legend Robert Fripp for a six-minute behemoth constructed from measured guitar pyrotechnics and desperate, yearning vocals, detailing in perhaps too-intimate detail the slow-motion breakdown of a faltering romance.

5. HALLELUJAH - Jeff Buckley
The late Buckley's emotive reading of the Leonard Cohen classic is a hushed, pensive rendition that casts the tale in a mournful new dimension, constituting just about the perfect song to play during those dark, lonely nights of doubt and loathing.

6. COME HERE MY LOVE - Van Morrison
Another haunted, quiet, acoustic-led number, a forgotten gem from Van the Man that resonates with hesitant hope and controlled emotional upheaval.

7. SEPTEMBER 13 - Stephen Cummings
A wonderfully bleak composition that marries standard singer-songwriter pop and ambient atmospherics, a brilliant narration of the indefinable sensitivities of that significant other.

8. TWENTY FOUR HOURS - Joy Division
Unremittingly spooky and filled to the brim with lyrical images of utter despair and devastating hopelessness, this black-tiled cathedral of a song is practically romantic anguish defined.

9. WHAT IS THIS LOVE - Blue Rodeo
An epic, funereal dirge that could very well, through its songwords, sum up the overall condition of this relationship.

10. MOONLIGHT SONATA - Alan Wilder
Depeche Mode's ace multi-instrumentalist Alan Wilder provides a careful, considered interpretation of the first movement of Beethoven's deathless Piano Sonata No. 14, one of the few musical compositions that prove that sometimes words aren't needed to express the inarticulate speech of the heart.

11. GREY CLOUDS - Dominic Harlan
A sort of a sequel to the earlier Ludwig melody, this little-known work by Franz Lizst is given a correctly unsettled and austere recitation by sessionist pianist Dominic Harlan. A perfect song for cloudy, grey afternoons (hence the title).

12. PINK ORANGE RED (Twinlights Version) - Cocteau Twins
This acoustically inclined reworking of the spacey, heartbreaking lamentation by dream-pop luminaries Cocteau Twins is a brooding, meditative tune that benefits from the strategic placements of gentle vibraphones and stately piano chords.

13. REVERSING - Ryuichi Sakamoto
Sakamoto's stop-start pentatonic style is virtuosically demonstrated on this peaceful, settled composition. In terms of the ongoing relationship, it's an appropriately inconclusive coda that suggests that it is left open to varying degrees of interpretation.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Depeche Mode Instrumentals

While this British rock institution might be better known for massive electro-pop hits like "Enjoy the Silence", "Personal Jesus", "I Feel You" and "Strangelove", another side of Depeche Mode is hardly talked about: their ability to craft incredibly atmospheric instrumentals. Or more accurately, multi-instrumentalist and production whiz extraordinaire Alan Wilder's ability. A little elaboration is probably needed here.

While guitarist Martin Gore remains Depeche Mode's primary songwriter, it was keyboardist and arranger Wilder who came up with such brilliant compositions like "Stjarna", "Sibeling", "Kaleid" and "Memphisto", all done during the band's heydays of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Dodgy, pretentious titles aside, these tracks remain the most provocative numbers in the Depeche Mode repertoire: far removed from the histrionics of the vocal tracks with Dave Gahan, they are elaborately constructed, studiously written instrumentals that work very well within the experimental electronic-film music context, filled with measured dramatics and quiet, foreboding passages.

However, the most striking of all of Wilder's instrumentals with Depeche Mode has to be his elegant and virtuosic reading of the Adagio Sostenuto (first) movement of Beethoven's immortal Piano Sonata No. 14, otherwise known to laypersons as the Moonlight Sonata. Wilder manages to infuse this done-to-death classic with a tranquil yet elegiac aura, taking little liberties with the main melody and giving it just the right, appropriate measure of nocturnal atmospherics and aching melancholia. It all adds up to the perfect sonic nightcap before you call it a day...or it can even be utilised as an ideal unrequited-love song, since Ludwig had dedicated it to one of his students, the 17-year-old Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, with whom he was in love (a one-sided love, that is).

Monday, June 19, 2006

Cocteau Twins, Bleak Weather and Air-Conditioning

A rather bleak Monday afternoon here, and the perfect weather to put on some Cocteau Twins. This Scottish dream-pop collective might have disbanded a full decade ago, but the music, to use an overused cliche, is timeless in every sense of the word. While some Cocteau diehards would swear upon the 4AD years of 1980-1990 as the golden years, I'm more partial to the Fontana years of the latter-day phase. The most distinctive track to emerge from this period must be the frighteningly ethereal "Serpentskirt" from 1996's Milk and Kisses, which sounds like killer angels descending upon a post-apocalyptic Earth to hunt down the rest of humanity (or some such imagery - the air-conditioning here plays havoc with the imagination). Anyway, it's a brilliant song from end to end...and the perfect ditty to animate this otherwise rather drab start to the working week.

Monday, June 12, 2006

"Pearl Jam" by Pearl Jam

What a refreshing change from the vapid noise-rock of 2002's "Riot Act". The new Pearl Jam album, simply titled "Pearl Jam", might be a conscious throwback to the more strident days of the early 90s (cf. seminal albums like "Ten" and "Vs."), but infused with a distinct sense of maturity that can only be acquired after nearly two decades in the business. While there are no obvious anthems like "Alive" and "Jeremy" to send now-thirtysomething Generation X'ers into fits of aural ecstasy, there are more measured tracks here that more than provide resounding examples of the new-millennium Pearl Jam. Well done Vedder and company!