5th March 2001Spirit of Mirk is a compilation CD that I put together for Alec Turner, an old colleague of mine who is responsible for the Spirit of SSL series of compilations. While those represented the disparate taste of the various SSL employees, Spirit of Mirk represents just my own taste (and is consequently much better :-)
So, as is mandatory with this sort of compilation, here are my notes on the songs I chose. And you can also read Alec's rather different take on them.
It's a given that Hendrix was a genius, but I only ``discovered'' him thanks to Nich's selection of Love or Confusion on the very first Spirit of SSL. It's not so much that he was a staggering guitarist (although he was) or a wonderful singer (which he also was), as the sheer breadth and ambition of his music. The Experience albums sound far too dense and texturally innovative to have been made by a traditional guitar/bass/drums power-trio - but they were. I flirted with Foxy Lady, Voodoo Chile (slight return) and other Hendrix tracks, but ended up choosing Bold as Love because I love its wide-open, shambling, concentrated feel. (And if that description sounds contradictory or confused, it's because the song, like much Hendrix, ambles cheerfully all over the ideo-sphere.)
Trivia: the guitar effect known as ``phasing'' was invented for the solo at the end of this track. Hendrix, huh? More innovation in his little finger than Microsoft could summon if they mashed all of their employees down into a huge bowl. (Which may not be a bad idea.)
The greatest band that never happened. How they never made it big is beyond me. I first came across them on my birthday in, er, probably 1988 when I wandered into the student's union at Warwick University to get a beer, and found this amazing band burning up the stage. (Figuratively, I mean.) I rushed out and bought all their stuff - which didn't take long, as they'd only made two albums. Only one more followed before they gave it all up in disgust. But what classics: huge, powerful songs, great slabs of melody, harmony and virtuoso musicianship hanging off them in all directions in a way that suggests that they were the true heirs of Genesis and Yes; but all done in such a neat, accessible, lean way that most of their songs could reasonably be described as ``pop''.
No-one I've spoken to has the slightest idea what Yellow Christian is about, and neither do I. But I don't care. It's just utterly gorgeous from barnstorming beginning through all the changes of pace, rhythm, texture and harmony, through the climactic, apocalyptic ending. If there was only room on the Spirit CD for one song, this would probably be it.
When I read Dave Barry's Book of Bad Songs ([amazon.co.uk], [amazon.com]), I wanted to hear some of the more obscure songs he and his readers had hated - particularly one by The Buoys called Timothy, which is about three guys who were trapped in a collapsed mine, and how two of them survived by eating ... but anyway, that's not my point :-) My point is that when I searched for that song, what I downloaded instead was a completely different song, also called Timothy, by a band I'd never of called Dada. This is it.
It's odd. It's good. You should listen to it.
Oh dear, another authentic genius and I'm only a fifth of the way through. I am a big fan of Gabriel-era Genesis and not more than academically interested in the later dross they served up once fully under the influence of Phil Collins; but Gabriel's best solo material is even better than the best of what he did with Genesis. His feel for texture is unparalleled, and his willingness to journey into esoteric thematic areas gives his albums a scope that few can match. Gabriel's post-Genesis output is unfortunately best known for the pleasant-enough rocker Sledgehammer (and its video), but his 1992 album Us is my favourite: brooding, dark, touching, thoughtful, emotional and never predictable for a moment. This song is not unrepresentative.
Has there ever been a better singer? No.
Sorry about the spoken intro bit, though.
I only know one Joni Mitchell album, Blue, and I had to work hard to get myself to like it. The first time I listened through it, I thought, ``ah, so that's what Phoebe's bad folk-singing is parodying.'' It was well worth the effort, though. This is deep stuff. Like all the best songwriters, she sneaks up obliquely on her subject rather than just going ahead and writing about it; but she does it so well that the result is strangely affecting.
This song is about giving up a child for adoption. It's never spelled out, but it's a sequence of evocative images that say far more than something more straightforward ever could.
Another genius. I could have gone with any number of different songs, and to tell the truth I think I picked the wrong one. Never mind, it's still wonderful. Again, I don't truthfully know what this is about, but I won't let that spoil it for me. It's redolent of those early-hours-of-the-morning sessions you spend with your friends at university, talking about all sorts of stuff in the way that you'll never be able to do again and will miss more than you realise once you have children :-) ``Nowhere to go but back to sleep, but I'm reconciled; I'm going to be up for a while.''
Still the best game I've ever played on a computer (perhaps only because everything released since is too greedy to run on my sad old P133.) It just drips atmosphere - most of all on the final level, where this piece of quietly menacing music lurks in the background.
The Rutles is not just a brilliant ``mockumentary'' and not only a collection of vividly accurate parodies of Beatles songs, but also an excellent album in its own right. So much so, in fact, that I probably listen to the Rutles soundtrack more often than to any of the real Beatles albums.
Tragically, the VHS video now seems to be out of print, and no DVD has been released. Maybe it can still be rented from video shops. Everyone should see it.
Most of what I said about the Rutles applies equally to Spinal Tap (unfortunately, the standard fonts don't let me put the umlaut over the ``n'' of Spinal, but what can you do?) Fortunately, the video ([amazon.co.uk], [amazon.com]) and DVD ([amazon.co.uk], [amazon.com]) are both available. Everything about the film is absolutely believable, spun just far enough away from the truth of touring metal bands to be very very funny but without spoiling the illusion. Unutterably brilliant.
Ah, the Simpsons - last bastion of intelligent humour on the BBC. Every episode a masterpiece. The characterisation of both script and performance is rock-solid. It never slips for a moment, not even when they're singing:
Flanders: They're not perfect, but the Lord says ``love thy neighbour''
Homer: Shut up Flanders
Trivia: the bit at the end - ``I'm sure we will, honey'', jet noise, THUNK, ``I'm sure we will'' - is Sherry Bobbins' exit at the end of the episode. The Mary Poppins-like figure, having given up on improving the Simpsons, floats off into the sky on her umbrella, at which point she's sucked into the air intake of a passing airliner. That's the THUNK noise.
Ah, the magic of ABBA. Twenty years and more having passed since the heyday of their popularity, it's now officially OK to like them again, but the truth is that they've always been a cut above every other act that's regularly topped the charts in the post-Beatles era. Everything about this song is perfect. How many other bands could put out a slow-tempo song about an autistic girl feeling her way into normal relationships and take it to number one?
An album that was lent to me, and which I took so long in giving back that the owner just went right out and bought another copy. DC Talk's Jesus Freak is the acceptable face of the all-too-often unacceptable phenomenon that is Christian music. A gorgeous laid-back groove, relaxed yet insistent acoustic guitar and effortless, grainy vocals go to make up this song. Truly wonderful textures.
Another triumph for Napster. I'd never even heard of the Eels, far less heard any of their music, until I wrote a Perl one-liner to choose and play a random MP3 file chosen from my company's central repository. I use this a lot: it's fed me a whole lot of crud, but also a few gems, including Novocaine for the Soul, Your Lucky Day in Hell and Susan's House, all from the Eels' Beautiful Freak album.
This is very much the most modern selection on the Spirit compilation: other songs may have been recorded more recently, but they're all in older, more established genres. Susan's House is actually the sort of song that I usually hate with a passion, but it's done so well I can't help loving it. The bass/strings interplay twists away from the obvious, the spoken lyric is brutal in its dissection of increasingly everyday events, and the whole contrives to sound lush and stark at the same time. Very clever.
Strange band, the Waterboys. They started out as an ultra-angry rock band, sort of like early U2 but more so, spitting vitriol throughout their eponymous debut and especially on the wonderful A Pagan Place. Then they suddenly decided to be an idiosyncratically charming Irish folk band instead, and sure enough, that's what they did. This song is from the Room to Roam album. I love the simplicity and lack of bombast about a song that speaks so straightforwardly about something so important.
Conclusive proof that Paul Simon can write trivial songs when he really puts his mind to it.
The one song which, whenever I hear it, I literally can't prevent my foot from tapping.
For a long while, one of my favourite songs has been Closing Time, from Deacon Blue's Fellow Hoodlums album. It has a wonderful retro 60s/70s feel, all funky wah-wah'd guitars over a disco beat from back when ``dance music'' didn't mean ``no tune'' (and yes, I do know I'm sounding just like my father. So?)
Then I heard Family Affair and realised that the Deacon Blue track was a total rip off of this original - right down to the tiniest details of the arrangement and texture. What's more, while Closing Time does have Ricky Ross's wonderful gravelly voice sliding around on top of it, Family Affair has Sly Stone's even more wonderful, even more gravelly voice sliding around at the bottom of it. It just sounds absolutely fantastic.
I discovered this song, and Angel, because they were among the tracks that the narrator character in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity considers for his all-time top five. For those who are interested, his other contenders are Al Green's Tired Of Being Alone, Aretha Franklin's The House that Jack Built and Think, Bob Marley's Stir It Up (which is rubbish), Chuck Berry's Back in the USA, The Clash's White Man In Hammersmith Palais, Elvis Presley's Baby Let's Play House, The Flying Burrito Brothers's Sin City, James Brown's Papa's Got A Brand New Bag, The Kingsmen's Louie Louie, Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On, and Prince's Little Red Corvette. And Solomon Burke's Got To Get You Off My Mind is an important song in the book too.
Utterly, utterly joyful. Very simple but absolutely perfect guitar work from the man who, according to a common and believable (but false) urban legend was described by Hendrix as the best guitarist in the world.
There's a lot of excellent depressing music out there - for example, pretty much anything by Paul Simon or Peter Gabriel, and all of Joni Mitchell's Blue album. Oh, and Pink Floyd, of course. So it's refreshing occasionally to find some excellent happy music. It seems to be much harder to do.