7th November 2005
A welcome return to form after the disappointingly likeable Volume 8, Spirit of SSL v9 is infested by all sorts of rubbish, especially in the middle third. But what a strong opening:
Spock's Beard - On the Edge
By the year 1994, progressive rock lay in ruins. The defining sound of the mid 1970s had been the complex, cryptic, richly rewarding work of bands such as Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer, and the pre-Phil Collins era Genesis; but the shifting tides of musical fashion buried prog rock with the arrival of punk, to be followed by the New Romantics -- two musical genres whose insultingly simplistic approaches could hardly be more antithetical to that of the great seventies bands.
The eighties and early nineties were, on the whole, a barren era for progressive rockers, although the emergence of Dream Theater in 1989 did hint at the revival to come. But the full flowering of the New Prog movement arrived with Spock's Beard, and their 1994 debut album The Light. Released at the height of grunge's popularity, this elegant and adventurous album consisted of three epic tracks (of 15, 12 and 23 minutes), plus one more digestible morsel -- this track.
On the Edge is packed into just six minutes, but in that time manages to introduce, develop and recapitulate a symphonic range of themes, as well as including nods to classic tracks by Yes (On the Edge) and Genesis (Dance on a Volcano). The numerous changes in tempo and harmony are put together so expertly that the whole flows rather than stuttering, and as with all great music, more nuances become apparent with each listen. More than anything, it is the sheer, audacious ambition that marks this out from the crowd. 9/10.
IYLTYL: the many other under-appreciated Spock's Beard masterpieces. I am particularly fond of The Doorway, from their second album, 1996's Beware of Darkness.
Debussy - La Fille Aux Cheveux De Lin
Altogether lovely. The glory of this is its sparse, fragile texture; the piece sounds as though taking away any one note would be enough to break the whole, just as changing a single line of code can break a computer program. There is no fat, no froth, nothing at all extraneous on this crystalline construction. Yet it is not emotionally barren, as this might suggest, but surprisingly poignant. 8/10.
IYLTYL: I want to say the Chopin Preludes, which share many of the same qualities with LFACDL; but a more interesting choice might be Isao Tomita's electronic reworking of the piece under the translated title The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.
Freaky Realistic - Sooner
It's hard to know what to make of this: it's likeable, in a goofy sort of way, but seems curiously lacking in substance: ten minutes after hearing it, I can't remember anything about it. Even the cute falsetto doesn't quite rescue this song from the morass of the merely nice. 6/10.
Trivia: allmusic.com doesn't seem to know anything about either Freaky Realistic or their Frealism album. I think this is the first time I've ever seen this site caught out.
IYLTYL: Chinese food.
[Later: listening to this again, I do like it; it's just that I know it'll fade from my memory as soon as the next track starts, just as it has every other time I've listened to it.]
Boomtown Rats - Lookin' After No.1
By one of those SoSSL coincidences, this was among the first handful of non-ABBA, non-Beatles songs I ever loved: the Rats were the third band to capture my imagination. So I found myself singing along with this as I listened through the CD. Divested of its nostalgia value, though, I don't see much to admire in this. The sentiment is peurile, the music trivial, the performance indifferent, the mix seemingly intent on burying the vocal. It's not aged well. 4/10 and one of those points is for nostalgia.
IYLTYL: I know it's terribly obvious, but Rat Trap really is far and away the best thing that the Rats ever recorded. I don't think it's going too far to describe it as their Bohemian Rhapsody, in that it's stitched together from what would seems to be far too many sections for a single, but somehow it works; the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts, with Geldof's characteristic sneering vocals deployed to maximum effect as he plays three different roles. And as with Bohemian Rhapsody, it somehow went to, and stuck at, number one. Ah, them were the days.
Maurice Durufle - Requiem, Op. 9, Introit
By the year 1947, Gregorian Chant lay in ruins. Having dominated the musical world in the latter part of the first millennium, this morose, monastic, male-voice sound was largely ignored by post-war composers. But Maurice Durufle's Requiem transplanted this ancient genre into a thoroughly modern musical setting, merging the lush 20th century harmonies of Faure and Debussy with the exotic, austere sound of male-voice chanting, yielding a truly unique sound.
I love this because nothing like has been done before or since, and because the juxtaposition between the two styles, which on paper should be jarring, in fact works so organically and that you can't see the join -- it's as though this is the culmination that classic Gregorian Chant and 20th century French music were leading up to.
For this compilation, we have only the introduction. It begins with just male voices and an organ, but they are almost immediately joined by female voices; then as the piece progresses, the orchestra sneaks in so subtly that you hardly realise it's there until it permeates the entire sound. I love the insidious nature of this. It feels so easy to listen to, yet it's so complex that you really need to listen to it a dozen times before you really get it. 9/10, then, and I will now go and buy the whole requiem because I love it so. (It will be ironic indeed if this turns out to be Sacha's selection.)
IYLTYL: Under the supervision of Edward Higginbottom, the choir of New College, Oxford recorded a set of classic orchestral pieces in voice-only choral renditions, under the title Agnus Dei. These pieces are the closest approach I have heard to the harmonic vocal complexity of the Durufle Introit; I particularly recommend Higginbottom's version of the Barber Adagio.
Arctic Monkeys - When The Sun Goes Down (``Scummy'')
A poignant introduction gives way to a disappointingly conventional ``punk nouveau'' thrash reminiscent of some of the less convincing Supergrass material. Nice regional accent, though. 5/10 but I suspect I might like some of their other material a lot more.
IYLTYL: some of the more narrative Kinks songs, maybe. I am particularly fond of Waterloo Sunset.
Lotte Lenya - Moritat Von Mackie Messer
Mack the Knife is one of the most-covered songs in history, and has been performed by such greats as Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald ... and, well, yes, Robbie Williams. Presented with this glorious selection, Matthew has chosen instead to go with a poorly executed and pedestrian rendition in the original German, because ... why? In the name of all that is rational, why?
Can anyone who doesn't speak German truly claim to enjoy listening to six solid verses of it? Whatever novelty it has wears off pretty quickly. While a case can be made for opera sung in the elegantly lyrical Italian language, or in smooth, glossy French, no-one to my knowledge has ever described German as ``lyrical'' or ``smooth''. In truth, the German language makes even the most cultured singer sound as though he is throwing up a particularly unpleasant lump of gristle. And Lotte Lenya is not such a singer. The fairground-organ music in the background doesn't help, either.
Add to that the fact that Mack the Knife is actually rather a dull tune when considered objectively. It has no chorus, no middle eight - just many iterations of the verse. The great performances of Sinatra and others have used this ultra-simple base as a platform for interpretations that draw out the sly humour of the words, working the melody, stretching and twisting it. This rendition on the other hand does no such thing, preferring instead to tramp endlessly round and round until the listener's hindbrain attempts to club itself to death with its own hippocampus. 1/10, awarded on the assumption that it's better if you speak German.
IYLTYL: anything from Guys and Dolls - for example, Luck be a Lady.
Billy Bragg - Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards
Almost alone among contemporary folk singers, Billy Bragg eschews the bourgeois assumption that performers should be skilled or even competent, preferring instead to pour his passion into performances notable more for their heart-on-sleeve sincerity than for their musical merits. While this unique don't-give-a-damn approach is initially grating, when you invest some time in listening repeatedly, you realise that it's actually truly horrible. 2/10, including one mark awarded because I once heard that he did a live cover of Smoke on the Water, which I admit would be well worth hearing (though only once.)
IYLTYL: Bob Dylan would be the obvious choice, given his well established role as the premier folk-singer-who-can't-sing, but since I hate all his songs, I hardly feel qualified to choose one. So instead, I am going to suggest Fire in the Basement, a surprisingly cheerful rock-'n'-roller by the sacrilegious Joe Lynn Turner-infested 1990 incarnation of Deep Purple. Why? Because it's the antithesis of WFtGLF, being all style and (I might as well admit) no substance.
Jeff Buckley - Hallelujah
By the year 1994, the singer-songwriter genre lay in ruins. Paul Simon's Graceland was a distant memory, Joni Mitchell was mired in a series of unconvincing jazz-tinged efforts, and Dar Williams was yet to release her debut album. Into this void came Jeff Buckley's first -- and, as it turned out, only -- album, Grace.
Characterised not only by his unique, angelic voice, but also by intimate, idiosyncratic songwriting, it is ironic that the album's best-known track, and arguably its best executed, should be a cover -- that of Leonard Cohen's 1985 song Hallelujah. The voices of the the two versions' singers could hardly be more different, Buckley's effortless swooping contrasting starkly with Cohen's gravelly rumble. What's astonishing is that both singers seems to find the same emotional core in the song, despite their very different interpretations.
Buckley's version of the song is given added piquancy by his premature death, just four years after its release and before a follow-up album could be recorded, in a swimming accident. Apart from a smattering of demos and live recordings, then, Grace is Buckley's only legacy, and Hallelujah arguably its standout track, with its ambiguous, impressionistic lyric that seems to mean something subtly different on every listen. The goal of the singer-songwriter is express feelings so acutely that the listener finds himself thinking, ``Yes, I know exactly what you mean'', even if he's never actually felt that emotion himself. To achieve this level of communication using another man's song is an astounding accomplishment.
Well. The last three paragraphs are what I wrote for ``Call My Dissertation'', when I had to pretend I'd chosen Hallelujah myself. So it's rather more enthusiastic than I really feel about the song, but still pretty much the truth. If I were being critical, I'd say that the song lacks development, staying with the same texture throughout. I can't figure out whether that's due to admirable restraint or mere failure of imagination. 71/2/10.
IYLTYL: people like Nick Drake and James Taylor. I like them, too, but I can't help feeling that all Drake's songs sound the same, and that the two or three well-known Taylor songs really are much better than the rest of his material. So I am going be very predictable and say Paul Simon's Train in the Distance.
Explosions in the Sky - Six Days At The Bottom Of The
I know it's terribly obvious to say ``mostly harmless'', but really - what else can you do?
In mitigation, I imagine that if I'd first heard Shine on you Crazy Diamond in the form of a four-minute except on a compilation CD, I wouldn't have been very impressed by that either. So I reserve the right to come back one day and say, ``Oh, oh, now that I've heard all of Six Days At The Bottom Of The Ocean, I love it!''
But until then, 4/10. No, that's harsh. 5/10. That might be harsh, too, but it's as far as I'm prepared to go.
IYLTYL: What it reminds me of more than anything is some of the music produced by John Williams' classical/rock crossover band Sky - for example, Vivaldi on their second album. But that rocks rather harder than Six Days.
Arab Strap - The First Big Weekend
Since this is not music, I feel I ought to award a score that is not a number. Barley-water/10.
IYLTYL: Pulp, David's Last Summer. Like FBW, this is largely spoken arhythmically over an instrumental backdrop; but unlike FBW, it tells a story, the music complements the narration, and there are sung passages.
Opeth - A Fair Judgement
This has possibly the longest and least engaging introduction in popular music history. Which is all the more perplexing given that the actual song, when it finally arrives, has nothing to do with the introduction. On the other hand -- or, no, wait, it's the same hand -- it does go on far, far too long, without seeming to actually get anywhere. 4/10 (upgraded from an initial score of 2); mostly pestilent. Based on overall fatuosity (I am listening to this CD blind), I am guessing that this track is Sacha's contribution.
[Later: Yes! I knew it! Despite the superficially huge range of Sacha's selections on the various SoSSL volumes, long years of training have taught me to discern at the heart of each of them a single, cold core of uniformly nondescript unpleasantness. Sacha should make his own compilation. He could call it Spirit of Sacha: Music to Avoid Listening To.]
IYLTYL: I had enormous trouble trying to come up with a good IYLTYL for this track. I considered but discarded Black Sabbath's Heaven and Hell, Emerson Lake and Palmer's Trilogy and Deep Purple's Child in Time before coming up with Rainbow's classic Stargazer -- a great, shambling monster of a song that absolutely demands to be played loud.
Blind Willie Johnson - It's Nobody's Fault But Mine
This is the real thing -- genuine, pre-commercial, sung-from-the-gut blues, wrung from the heart and soul of a rough, uneducated bluesman with no formal musical training, recorded solo on primitive equipment without backing musicians.
That's why it sounds like poo. 2/10.
IYLTYL: I don't know what you would love, but for myself, give me the polished, commercialised blues-lite of, say, Gary Moore any day. For example, Still Got the Blues.
Kinny and Horne - Forgetting to Remember
IYLTYL: I can't begin to imagine.
The Cure - Just Like Heaven
By the year 2005, Spirit of SSL lay in ruins. The adventurous selections of previous volumes (Sunday in the Park with George, Love or Confusion, It's So Different Here, Underground and Beethoven all on one CD!) had given way to a relatively anodyne melange of minor hits from the 1980s.
This sounds exactly like every other Cure song. That's not a bad thing, exactly, if you've never heard a Cure song before, because the Canonical Cure Song is OK. But having heard a few before, I really don't have much need of another. If they grew their hair a bit, they could be Status Quo. 5/10.
IYLTYL: all the other indistinguishable Cure songs, I expect.
What a crock.
The average score this time around is a disappointing 4.96, which makes it officially the second worst volume, with only volume 4 (4.56 points) being worse.
(On to Volume 10.)