Saturday, June 27, 2009

808 State's Lopez

Taking a brief respite from their usual thumping, propulsive stylings, acid-house pioneers 808 State in 1996 decided to venture briefly into the then-burgeoning trip-hop genre with the laid-back, chilled-out 'Lopez'. Featuring classic existentialist-angst lyrics from Manic Street Preachers frontman James Dean Bradfield (who also lent his distinctive vocals to this superior slice of electronic melancholia), evocative synth tones and a clean, precise drum n' bass-derived backbeat, 'Lopez' remains one of the more underrated gems in the veteran Mancunians' extensive repertoire. Check out the panoramic video clip, shot on location in an undisclosed, eerily deserted seaside resort somewhere in Central America.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Effortlessly transcending their parochial country-rock origins and bravely vaulting into the higher echelons of storied alternative rock, Wilco hit both widespread critical acclaim and commercial paydirt with 2002's masterful 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot', which still arguably holds the record as the Chicago outfit's most artistically realised accomplishment. It's also one hell of a post-modern rock album, taking in assorted genres like ambient music, jangle-pop, gritty Springsteen-like balladry, power-pop and prog-rock, all held together by almost genius-level production values, courtesy of veteran, visionary studio wizard Jim O'Rourke.

The highlights on 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' are wonderfully multifarious, and come fast and hard. Opener 'I Am Trying to Break Your Heart' is epic, layered drone-pop of the highest order, incorporating logical bits from mid-1970s progressive rock and post-millennial avant-garde dissonance. The intentionally obtuse 'Radio Cure' rides along on distorted acoustic-guitar riffs and some skewed synth-pop qualities, while 'War on War' is filtered, digital-era country psychedelia with appropriate sonic twists.

Meanwhile, both the subdued but blissful 'Kamera' and the nostalgic and effervescent 'Heavy Metal Drummer' are bouncy pieces of jangle-pop that supply the album's pop-smarts quotient. The emotionally wrenching 'Ashes of American Flags' is arguably the record's most fervent instance, with its veiled allusions to 9/11, while the elegiac grace inherent in 'Jesus Etc' is spiced with some slide-guitar musings and violin keenings. The band also pays sly tribute to one of their original heroes with the spiked, stuttering 'I'm the Man Who Loves You', which bristles with the ragged-but-right spirit of early-era Neil Young.

The home run of the album is distinguished by two absolutely jaw-dropping epics. First up is the mutated chamber-pop of 'Poor Places', which seethes with wistful acoustic-guitar strummings, graceful piano chords, hypnotic ambient noise and somewhat spooky found-sound samples, all secured together by an off-kilter time signature. Appropriately enough, the proceedings end with the nearly eight-minute 'Reservations', a greyscale-toned, classic existentialist-angst meditation, whose ostensibly laborious tone-poem structure belies a vivid pop-informed melodic essence.

As it stands, 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' is an ingenious opus that is absolutely breathtaking in its artistic breadth and inventive depth, making it one of the true musical standouts of the early 21st century. Proudly bearing stunning creative sensibilities and stylistic complexities that are becoming increasingly rare in modern-day rock music, 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' strongly corroborates the belief that Wilco are the once and future standard-bearers of American experimental rock. Long may they reign.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

OK Computer

The majestic 'OK Computer', despite being released more than a decade ago, remains Radiohead's indisputable magnum opus and most artistically realised work. This 12-song masterpiece, which did not contain a single dud, was a brilliant, awe-inspiring mixture of classic prog-rock, space-rock, trip-hop, post-punk and guitar-rock, armed with an astonishing number of hitherto undiscovered sonic textures. Elaborate, intense storms of guitars are ably supported by an ever-inventive rhythm section and a magnificent array of piano and keyboard textures, all contributing towards the making of a perfect and certified rock classic.

The syncopated, multi-part 'Paranoid Android' was the big single from here, although the mockingly blissful 'No Surprises', the paranoiac 'Karma Police' and the snarling guitar-rocker 'Airbag' also made significant ripples on charts everywhere. Meanwhile, the despairing 'Exit Music (For a Film)' remains the band's most accomplished Gothic ballad, and the despairing 'The Tourist' is the band's highly disturbing vision of earthly apocalypse.

Elsewhere, 'Let Down' is a blissful lamentation for the loss of innocence amidst the pressures of modern life, while 'Subterranean Homesick Alien' is glistening sci-fi blues, an alien-abduction parable with a twist. The deceptively pleasant, music box-like lullaby 'No Surprises', the roaring, aggressive 'Electioneering' and the menacingly paranoiac 'Climbing Up the Walls' comprise the rest of this masterpiece's flawless running order.

Radiohead will never construct a masterpiece as complete and consummate as 'OK Computer' again, nor can they even try to, especially given the more electronica-oriented direction they have been leaning towards in recent years. This monumental album represents the absolute pinnacle of Radiohead's achievements, and the sound of unadulterated genius at work. If you don't have it, you're missing out on one of the greatest pop-cultural phenomena of recent times.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

The Joshua Tree

Has there been a more representative record of the quintessential U2 sound than the iconic ‘The Joshua Tree’ from 1987? While some quarters might argue that 1991’s ‘Achtung Baby’ takes the crown as the Irish rock giants’ most innovative and groundbreaking album, there is no denying the fact that it was ‘The Joshua Tree’ that really put their name on the map, through its meticulously epic production values (courtesy of veteran studio hands Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois), straight-from-the-heart, mature songwriting and brilliantly realised playing from all four members. And put their name on the map it did, becoming chart-toppers in every market imaginable, selling a massive 25 million copies worldwide, and garnering the much-coveted Album of the Year honour at the Grammy Awards in 1988 (back when the Grammies still mattered as real indicators of artistic achievement).

It was on ‘The Joshua Tree’ that U2 genuinely took their musical love affair with America seriously, incorporating choice elements of folk, blues, country and gospel into their basic pop-rock template. Earlier albums like ‘War’ and ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ had seen the band dabbling in the abovementioned, distinctly American musical forms, but it was on ‘The Joshua Tree’ that the band, with the help of Eno and Lanois, streamlined and expanded the textures, and adopted a more anthemic, earnest approach. This inevitably resulted in an album that has absolutely no other sonic parallel in U2’s vast catalogue, even when measured against the bold dance-rock and Euro-electro patterns of ‘Achtung Baby’.

‘The Joshua Tree’ couldn’t ask for a more perfect opener than the breathtakingly widescreen, intensely cinematic ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’, surely one of the all-time great opening tracks of any album ever. A few bars of slightly ominous organ chords eventually give way to The Edge’s familiar guitar arpeggios, blossoming into a veritable wall of sound that is anchored by Adam Calyton’s trenchant bass line and Larry Mullen’s instinctive drumming. Bono has also rarely given a more virtuosic performance here, with an astonishing number of vocal timbres spread out across its five-and-a-half-minute structure.

The following ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ (a number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart) is a different beast altogether, a soaring, gospel-inspired number that bristles with The Edge’s restless, jangly guitar overdubs. Here, Bono’s voice practically crackles with spiritual yearning, with matching search-for-salvation lyrics to boot. However, the subsequent ‘With or Without You’ (another Billboard number one) is a study in contrast with the rousing structure of ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’, a moody, bass-anchored humdinger that could well be U2’s equivalent of any of notorious reclusive Scott Walker’s chamber-pop set pieces. It also illustrates one of the best instances of The Edge’s use of the difficult Infinite Guitar, a device that allows a guitar note to be sustained indefinitely.

‘Bullet the Blue Sky’ is arguably the most strident number on ‘The Joshua Tree’, a muscular, menacing denunciation of the Reagan administration’s military interventions in Central America, marked by a basic but powerful drumbeat, screeching guitar slides and snarling, admonitory vocals. ‘Running to Stand Still’ provides a breather of sorts from the relative sturm and drang of the preceding tracks, a reflective, folk-influenced elegy for a heroin addict enhanced by some ruminative slide-guitar runs and thoughtful synth chords.

‘The Joshua Tree’ then goes into topical mode again with ‘Red Hill Mining Town’, a sympathetic portrait of the 1984 British miners’ strike brought about by the union-breaking tactics of the Thatcher administration. ‘In God’s Country’ is a rollicking, country-informed foot-stomper that wryly describes the contemporary cultural landscape of America, while ‘Trip Through Your Wires’ is a blues-based, swaying melody that is fired by Bono’s surprisingly competent harmonica riffs.

Elsewhere, the towering, brooding ‘One Tree Hill’ easily takes the prize as the album’s most emotional moment, a heartfelt eulogy for the late Greg Carroll, Bono’s personal assistant and a close friend of the band, killed in a recent road accident. This is followed by the severely bleak, coldly forbidding ‘Exit’, a wildly crescendoing track about a serial killer haunted by psychotic delusions and traumatic memories, possibly the least accessible song on the album. Things are brought to an appropriate close by the tear-jerking ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’, a cheerless, overcast tribute to the thousands of victims of the 1970s military coups in Argentina.

In short, any self-respecting rock aficionado should count ‘The Joshua Tree’ amongst his of her collection of classic rock records, if only for its sheer historical value. Simultaneously a useful lesson in atmospheric creative sonics and an all-out great rock album, ‘The Joshua Tree’ has never been bettered or improved by anything U2 has released since then.