Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Ataris' Boys of Summer

Ingenuously updating a 1980s radio staple for the post-grunge era, punk revivalists The Ataris in 2003 did successfully reinvent Don Henley's ageless "The Boys of Summer" as an angst-ridden anthem designed to convey the frustrations of a disenfranchised, and by-then mature Generation X still shell-shocked from the social and cultural upheavals of the 1990s. The Ataris' take on this piece of adult-contemporary history is a decidedly different one from Henley's version, casting it in a more immediate, aggressive mould, a distinctly different proposition from the laidback, pathos-filled demeanour of the original. The abnd also made a slight alteration in a key referential phrase in the third verse of the song to better reflect Generation X's cultural values, as opposed to Henley's baby boomer allusions. Check out the kaleidoscopic, knowingly assertive video clip.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Sting the Pop Perfectionist

Look up the phrase "pop perfectionist" in the dictionary, and you'll probably find a picture of seasoned singer-songwriter Sting staring back at you with that smirking, holier-than-thou demeanour of his. Through the course of three-and-a-half decades in the business (counting his time serving as Police chief), Gordon Sumner has made an art out of perfecting the nuances of the pop song. This craft includes, but is not limited to tasks like smoothing out its rougher edges, flavouring it with exotic ingredients like jazz, country, Latin, and even classical, and basically trying to establish himself as a master purveyor of consummate popular music. Of course, this also means that Sting has been accused (more than once) of being a major pretentious bastard, but it's all part of the package. Let's take a look at what his back catalogue has to offer.

This debut album was as far removed from Sting's work with The Police as can be. A studied, jazz-influenced approach is adopted, backed by distinguished jazz sessionists like Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland, Omar Hakim and Darryl Jones. Still, there are a handful of pop-oriented baubles scattered around, like the mockingly joyous 'If You Love Somebody Set Them Free' and the sunny, reggae-influenced 'Love is the Seventh Wave', and the wearily autobiographical, relentlessly martial 'Fortress Around Your Heart'. Elsewhere, the record meets its quota of musical sophistication in things like the Prokofiev rip-off 'Russians' (an anti-Soviet rant made obsolete by the ending of the Cold War) and the smoky Thelonious Monk approximation 'Moon Over Bourbon Street' .

Latin-American cadences form the bedrock of this sophomore effort, and this aesthetic does work for the most part, but the surfeit of political and social subjects tackled here does make the proceedings rather heavy-going after a while. The blond intellectual giant deals with issues of the day in his usual high-handed, erudite fashion, whether it's lamenting the plight of Amazonian Indians ('Fragile'), castigating the brutalities of Chile's Pinochet regime ('They Dance Alone') or berating the world in general (the self-explanatory 'History Will Teach Us Nothing'). Thankfully, the record is redeemed by relatively straightforward pop crackers like 'Englishman in New York', 'We'll Be Together' and 'Straight to My Heart'.

Dredging up childhood memories of growing up in the grim seaside metropolis of Newcastle resulted in this nautically themed album, which was a windswept and joyless opus detailing loss and mortality. Nonetheless, there are standouts on this rather inaccessible, cathartic work, including the ghostly beauty of 'Island of Souls', the storybook atmospherics of 'Mad About You', the meditative classical Latin-guitar piece 'St. Agnes and the Burning Train', and the ramshackle blues structure of 'Jeremiah Blues'.

Having exorcised his personal demons, a newly invigorated Sting in 1993 released his most accessible endeavour thus far, where his penchant for crafting impeccable pop melodies really came to the fore. The albums is filled to the brim with perfect, pop-tastic gems like the straight-ahead pop-rock of 'If I Ever Lose My Faith in You', the fatally infectious melody of 'Fields of Gold', the tongue-in-cheek country-and-western fun of 'Love is Stronger Than Justice' and the lilting Latin pop of 'Shape of My Heart'. A sense of humour is also evident in the insanely scathing 'Saint Augustine in Hell', where he takes a pot shot at his eternal nemeses, music critics, counting them amongst the various denizens of hell.

Toning down the joviality prevalent on 'Ten Summoner's Tales' and adopting a more sombre outlook, this was basically Sting's mid-life crisis album, with a decidedly greyscale and sombre feel throughout. Songs like the ponderous 'The Hounds of Winter', the thoughtful 'I Was Brought to My Senses' and the mournful sea shanty 'Valparaiso' all attest to the general feeling of trepidation and circumspection, but at least the closing acoustic ballad 'Lithium Sunset' provided a much-needed sense of cautious optimism.

Ostensibly effervescent and possessed of an unrelentingly buoyant (but forced) elan, this was Sting's most diverse piece of work. Closer observation however exposes it as having more style than substance, with the overlaying of more electronics and overdubs than an Enya album. The preachy, pseudo-majestic 'A Thousnad Years', the techno-rockish 'After the Rain Has Fallen' and the faux-North African, intentionally radio-friendly textures of 'Desert Rose' all prove that Sting had become more interested in purveying a fashionable, chart-bound record, rather than challenging the boundaries of popular music.

Continuing in pretty much the same artistic vein as 'Brand New Day', but without the user-friendly melodies, this shockingly patchy work is arguably Sting's worst, suffering from a severe case of musical schizophrenia. Stilted folk ('Dead Man's Rope'), ethno-techno ('Send Your Love'), gospel hip-hop ('Whenever I Say Your Name') and awkward drum n' bass ('Never Coming Home') are all forcibly merged in a puzzling and ultimately meaningless "artistic" stew that is the musical equivalent of indigestion.

A stopgap record that has the ageing pop perfectionist making a leftfield foray into Elizabethan-era Renaissance music. It's not exactly a bad record by itself, although the 23 tunes here (interspersed with affected spoken-word interludes) eventually blend into one, without any real distinguishing characteristics to differentiate one from the other. This inevitably makes for an oddly mannered work that sounds too aloof and predictably lacking in any real emotion.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

New Order in the 21st Century

While most right-minded observers will point to Mancunian legends New Order's early and middle-phase works as their most accomplished and rounded, the real question that needs to be asked is this: can the new-millennium albums (since their short-lived reformation at the turn of the century) match the perpetual brilliance of confirmed standards like "Blue Monday", "True Faith", "the Perfect Kiss" and "Bizarre Love Triangle"? Or are they merely pale imitations of the real thing, much like the works from Bernard Sumner's pleasant but vacuous Electronic project?

The case that is being forwarded here is that there are several tracks worthy of the "New Order Classic" tag, although, of course, not one of them can really emulate, let alone surpass the sheer power of the tracks from the 1980s. Still, these representations of the new-look New Order (minus Gillian Gilbert, who opted for early retirement) are still potent examples of their peculiar blueprint of effortlessly mixing post-punk guitar-pop and underground dance-music aesthetics:

1. WAITING FOR THE SIRENS' CALL (Waiting for the Sirens' Call, 2005)
Arguably the finest composition New Order have written since the band's restoration, "Waiting for the Sirens' Call" (off the 2005 album of the same name) is a virtuosic, elegant gem that consciously acknowledges several important stages of the 1980s New Order: a "Power, Corruption and Lies"-informed synth-string overlay, "Low Life"-approved melodic-guitar riffs, and a"Technique"-styled rhythmic backdrop. Combine all these elements together, and you get an instant masterpiece that is already becoming a confirmed fan favourite.

2. CRYSTAL (Get Ready, 2001)
Admittedly showing a harder-edged New Order than any previous song, "Crystal" is a propulsive, driving number that relies heavily on Sumner's jagged guitar riffs (he hasn't played this fiercely since those faraway Joy Division days) and Peter Hook's familiar high-register bass lines. The addition of those female backing vocals are an unexpected, welcome touch, and ably displays the band's newfound adventurism.

3. TURN (Waiting for the Sirens' Call, 2005)
A straightforward guitar-rocker that shows Sumner's tuneful guitar chords to great effect, "Turn" is almost a throwback to the type of indie guitar-pop that fellow Mancunians The Smiths used to excel at, way back in the early 1980s. Hook's usual bass embellishments constitute the icing on a satisfying musical cake.

4. PRIMITIVE NOTION (Get Ready, 2001)
The spirit of Joy Division is resurrected in this dark-hued, brutal guitar-shred fest that has Hook doing a variation of his spooky bass line for 'Twenty-Four Hours". "Primitive Notion" could have benefited by some judicious editing, especially on the slightly meandering outro, but it's still a persuasive rock-out that reaffirms New Order's standing as rock luminaries.

5. HERE TO STAY (24 Hour Party People Soundtrack, 2002)
A storming collaboration with big-beat stalwarts Chemical Brothers, this is dancier than anything else New Order have done since the early 1990s. The usual array of Chemical Brothers sound effects are present, but this is still a New Order tune in overall nature, by virtue of Sumner's guitar pyrotechnics, Hook's ever-reliable bass flourishes and typically melodic structure.

Friday, May 01, 2009

King Crimson's Discipline

Amongst the mind-bogglingly disparate line-ups that progressive-rock luminaries King Crimson have gone through, the 1980s incarnation is arguably the most accomplished and accessible, by virtue of their admirable instrumental chops and pop song-like approach to songwriting. Perpetual Crimson mastermind Robert Fripp still led the band with his array of ingenious guitar textures and patented Frippertronic soundscapes, but the band's artistic blueprint was dramatically enriched by the several important additions. Adrian Belew's terse, angular lead-guitar lines and confident vocals, Tony Levin's frighteningly adept bass improvisations, and Bill Bruford's extraordinary percussion work all served to strengthen the new-look King Crimson. This resulted in tons of critical acclaim, and even a handful of charting, if expectedly leftfield hits that came as a definite breath of fresh air in that era of New Romantic poseurs and post-punk naysayers.

This particular Crimson line-up's most realised album remains their first one together, 1981's 'Discipline'. The rollicking 'Elephant Talk' kicks things off here, a jaw-droppingly ingenious interpretation of early-1980s new-wave sensibilities, complete with a quirkily confident vocal from Belew. The following 'Frame by Frame', an effortless, amazing study in polyrhythms, displays why this group works so well together, with Belew's primal guitar screeches perfectly complementing Fripp's studied prowess.

The pace slows down for the soaring, sweeping 'Matte Kudasai', a solid example of the band's unique take on classic pop-song balladry (a rough demo version of this tune comprises the single bonus track on this reissue). However, the following 'Indiscipline' is a walk on the wild side, as Belew indulges in a stream-of-consciousness narrative over a manic, but controlled, funk-rock arrangement. Elsewhere, the intentionally dissonant 'Thela Hun Ginjeet' (an anagram of 'Heat in the Jungle') is a strident, ballsy rocker with lots of high-speed bass passages and some metallic guitar duelling towards the end.

'The Sheltering Sky' is a virtual showcase for Fripp's infamous Frippertronic guitar-playing technique, as he meticulously builds an intricate, otherworldly atmosphere from flighty arpeggios, hypnotic rhythms and some appropriately atonal improvisations. Crimson saves the best for last with the title track, an impossibly tight, mind-bogglingly complex showcase in polyrhythmic guitar dynamics, supported by a churning, syncopated bass foundation and steadfast electronic-drum fills.

Simply put, 'Discipline' is a highly essential part of any King Crimson aficionado's hallowed library, or any serious rock devotee's record collection, for that matter. Even though nearly three decades have passed since its initial release, the record still sounds as fresh and exciting as ever, which is more than one can say about anything else dating from that particular period in rock history. Nothing else approaches its singular, proficient artistry, and the album firmly verifies the 1980s King Crimson as one of the best in the group's history.