A batch of Cross Rhythms reviewers consider the merits of 25 mainstream albums
Viva La Vida
It's been three years since the commercial whammy of 'X&Y' punched the music scene into next week with its 10 million global sales. If a week is a long time in politics, then three years is an epoch in music. The landscape has completely changed, the record labels are in download turmoil and major artists are reneging on record deals because they suspect that the big conglomerates are not capable of marketing their music successfully. Into this arena steps Coldplay with 'Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends' (Mind if I call you 'Vida La Vida' for short?). No doubt the moguls at EMI are rubbing their hands with glee as the expected sales for this one will no doubt delight the company's new owners. Where 'X&Y' was the sound of Coldplay filling stadiums with music, 'Viva La Vida' has a richer texture to it, probably helped by the involvement of Brian Eno who, as any U2 fan will tell you, knows a thing or two about creating textures. Band songwriter Chris Martin recently admitted that when it comes time to create the lyrics for the band's albums, many of them are created in the lonely hours of the night while he suffers from insomnia. Perhaps this explains some of the introspective and occasionally depressing lyrics that had Creation Records boss Alan Mcgee describing Coldplay as "music for bedwetters." However hidden away in the depths of these songs, there's often also a slice of optimism spliced into the songs or at least a decision somewhere deep down where Martin ultimately rejects pessimism. It's an almost psalm-like quality and the closing chant of the album as the title track heads towards its end has the mantra "I don't wanna follow death and all of his friends." Perhaps it's this mixture of emotions that helps fans of the band to relate to Martin's songs. For me one of the central songs and most intriguing lyrics on the album is "42". Could it be a Biblical Psalm reference a la U2's "40"? Or is it a follow up to "Paranoid Android" and a Hitchhikers reference? Lyrically Chris Martin reflects that "time is short and I'm sure there must be something more." And then he sings, "You didn't get to heaven but you made it close." These kind of yearnings have always made Coldplay's songs intriguing and "42" with its musical changes and rich production matched with those lyrics leave plenty of time for musings. There definitely is something more, Mr Martin! Perhaps on "42", the millionaire rock star with his Oscar winning wife really is searching for the meaning of life! Certainly those Christian family roots of Chris' may well be coming into play again with the lyrics in the title track which read, "I hear Jerusalem bells a ringing/Roman Cavalry choirs are singing/Be my mirror my sword and shield/My missionaries in a foreign field/For some reason I can't explain/I know Saint Peter won't call my name." There's a hint in the song that maybe Chris Martin's hopes of transcendent faith were dashed by the disappointing realities of the faith communities he has encountered where "never an honest word" is spoken. But is an album packed with songs like this the radical classic they'd have us believe or are we getting a little weary from all this introspection? There is no doubt that the album is what publicity people like to call "eagerly anticipated" and after the successes of previous releases, it's probably already flying out of record stores by the truckload and stretching the servers at iTunes to the very limit. But is it a classic or am I being cleverly manipulated as I listen? On 'Viva La Vida', Coldplay combine together a lot of elements from other bands that I really love, like the guitar textures and vibes of Pink Floyd and vocals that sound a bit like Radiohead and now a touch of 'Joshua Tree' era U2 pomp. Plus there are a few grandiose string arrangements scraping away and the usual piano popping up here and there. But somehow the combination of all of this and the catchy tunes contained within still fail to make an impact on my heart. I admit I'm probably in a minority here but I don't think this is the classic career defining album that Chris Martin et al hope it will be. One thing is for certain, give it two years and there will be young Christian bands signed onto labels Stateside who will be trying to recreate this sound on their debut albums.
Professor Satchafunkilus And The Musterion Of Rock
Instrumental rock guitar genius Joe Satriani really excels himself on this, his 13th studio album. Deliberately limiting himself to 10 tracks, Satriani was forced to focus and trim down his ideas and consequently delivers his best album this century. The backing musicians do exactly what is required: lay down a fairly basic musical canvas and allow Satriani to display his considerable talents. Never a fret-burning speed merchant for the sake of it, Satriani brings all his sophistication and fantastic sense of melody and combines it with his overactive imagination. "I Just Wanna Rock" is the most immediate track, and the only one with vocals, which tell of a giant robot coming across a rock gig while on his travels. "Andalusia" is Satriani's vision of how Asik Vaysel, the Turkish musician in the song of the same name, might feel travelling through the Spanish region. The award for best melody has to go to "Revelation", a track about the death of a friend's father. It is possibly the most beautiful work Satriani has ever recorded. Instrumental albums are not to everyone's taste, but this is certainly one of the finest examples that you are likely to hear.
There's nothing Christian music fans (that's music fans who happen to be Christians, as opposed to fans of Christian music) like more than a good "are they or aren't they?" conundrum, and the Parisian dance duo Justice have certainly provided us with one of the most intriguing since the new Millennium began. All the signs were there: the biblical-sounding song titles ("Let There Be Light", "Exodus", et al), and of course the massive illuminated cross that always takes centre stage at their gigs, and after which their debut album is named. And let's not forget their own MySpace page listing their music genres as both "Christian" and "club". It was all enough for them to receive lots of fan mail - mostly from American Christians - praising them for "fighting the good fight," and for several people to log onto the Yahoo! Answers website with the query "Is the band Justice religiously Christian?" But if mainstream dance music mags and websites are to be believed, the whole thing was just one big post-modern joke. So far, Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay (the two French DJs who make up Justice) have neither confirmed nor denied any of this - so for the purposes of this review I'm going to assume that it was a gag. A pity, because Christian music hasn't had such a high-profile dance act in its ranks since Moby's flirtations with the faith back in the '90s (yes, I know Andy Hunter does a lot. But outside of Christian circles, his name isn't that well known). And the 'Cross' album itself? Definitely high quality as far as dance albums go, but it tends to get a bit too heavy for my tastes. The guys prove that they're more than capable of producing more populist stuff with "D.A.N.C.E." (or as I sometimes call it, "Chic meets Sesame Street"), and have all the awards and award nominations to prove it (and that video with the animated T-shirts is genius). If they'd included their other hit single "We Are Your Friends" on here, it would have been perfect.
Jimmy Eat World
Chase This Light
Six studio albums in 14 years is not exactly prolific, but what Jimmy Eat World may lack in quantity is more than compensated for by the quality of their recorded output. They are, of course, today being acknowledged as a huge influence by the majority of pop-rock and emo bands to have emerged in the last few years. Masters of heartfelt, harmonious, pop-tinged rock, 'Chase This Light' may just be the best Jimmy Eat World album yet. More akin to 2001's 'Bleed American' (or 'Jimmy Eat World' if purchased post 9/11) in sound and feel than 2004's bleak yet brilliant 'Futures', 'Chase This Light' is everything you expect from the band. Opener "Big Casino" is among the best songs they have ever written, while "Carry You" and "Feeling Lucky" keep up the fast rocky numbers. "Gotta Be Somebody's Blues" and the title track provide the ballads while "Here It Goes" brings in a kind of disco beat to provide some more variety. The two bonus tracks included in the special edition also fit in perfectly. Knowing exactly the sound they want to capture allows the band to self-produce the album, albeit with help from Chris Testa (Dixie Chicks) and John Field (Switchfoot, Mandy Moore), this is a fine, creatively-focussed album.
Every now and then, opportunity knocks a second time. Jack Allsopp - aka Just Jack - got nowhere with his 2002 indie debut 'The Outer Marker' but became a household name when 'Overtones' was released five years later, by which time the north Londoner had signed to a major. Jack's music is a gentler take on the "geezer rap" popularised by the likes of Mike 'The Streets' Skinner and The Mitchell Brothers. It's a musically eclectic mix encompassing disco, film score-like orchestrations and good old fashioned catchy pop - a great sonic background for Jack's vivid, dry-witted accounts of everyday life. He's never claimed to be a great singer, but he's definitely a good communicator who has an amusing way with words. I've deemed this album worthy of a mention here for two tracks: "Lost" and the hit single "Starz In Their Eyes". Jack's scathing attack on the shallow celeb status reality TV certainly struck a chord with the public when it was released last year - especially in the wake of the Celebrity Big Brother racism incident which happened around that time. I've even heard "Starz In Their Eyes" used as background music on an episode of The X Factor - proof that ITV's programme makers have no sense of irony! Musically, "Lost" is a complete contrast to the uptempo "Starz."; lyrically, it's the most anti-bling rap track you're likely to hear. Jack paints a bleak picture of a man who has everything money can buy but can't find happiness in any of it, and stands to lose it all because he's been unfaithful to his wife. In the midst of his torment, he recalls something his father once told him: "The best things in life are the ones you can't buy." 'Overtones' has some other gems on it too, namely "Mourning Morning", "Spectacular Failures" and "Writer's Block".
There are very few albums out there that can grab you firmly by the throat from the opening bars of the whole thing and not let you go until the fading chords at the end. In my opinion 'American Idiot' is one of those albums. If folklore is to be believed Green Day had recorded 20 tracks for an album called 'Cigarettes & Valentines', but towards the end of the recording sessions somebody pinched all the master tapes. Green Day were already at a low ebb as their popularity was fading and were facing much criticism for supposedly "selling out" their punk roots. They had even stooped so low as to record a Christmas album full of dark and crude festive songs. This was make or break time for the band. Either they got themselves together or they knocked it on the head and went their separate ways. They booked themselves into the band equivalent of family therapy (something successfully used previously by Metalica) as relationships within the band were straining to breaking point, and having got that side of things sorted out set about recording a new album. They decided that they wouldn't try and create the lost album but instead would abandon that whole project and try to create something new that would reflect their new and refreshed approach to their music. Each member of the band introduced short snippets of songs, which they married together to create a whole song that was over nine minutes long. This song they called "Jesus Of Suburbia" and when Billie Joe Armstrong made the comment that the song sounded like a rock opera, an idea was born and the rest of the album was born from that original creative spark. The story unfolds very simply throughout the album following the Jesus Of Suburbia or St Jimmy as he is called. He is a drug addict from the lower belly of town who seeks to escape his situation and take his followers with him. He falls in love, he loses his love, he is accused of "selling out" by his followers (familiar theme there) and it all ends in tears. From a Christian perspective it is difficult to put a positive spin on the album as it is so full of despair and apathy. And yet, as rock albums go, it's a blinder. On its release Green Day were again accused of selling out by hardcore punks as this album is certainly more grown up and mature than their earlier albums. But there again, what should fans have expected, the three main personalities in Green Day were now in their mid to late 30s who could no longer continue to play as if they were disgruntled, bored teenagers. Green Day further proved their worth with the follow up live album taken from the promotional tour that was recorded over two concerts to 130,000 people at Milton Keynes Bowl in 2005. The live album 'Bullet In A Bible' actually refers to an exhibit at the London Imperial War Museum of a Bible that, when in a soldier's breast pocket, had saved the soldier's life in the trenches when a bullet on its deadly journey got stuck half way through it. If you ever wondered just how good an album 'American Idiot' was then you had to see the songs performed live, as I indeed did. Some may find some of the one-dimensional anti-Bush themes of the lyrics a tad hard to swallow but there's no denying 'American Idiot' is a contemporary masterpiece though the profanity peppered throughout it is disappointing.
While working on 1966's critically-acclaimed 'Pet Sounds' Brian Wilson started to experiment with a new way of composing by taking what he called "feels" and melding them into songs. First up was "Good Vibrations" and with an entire album of similar wonders promised the world waited. And waited. 'Smiley Smile' showed some of Brian's sketches but the world was under-whelmed. Other snippets were used to boost Beach Boy LPs over the next 10 years but 'Smile' was no more. And then in 2003 Brian Wilson announced to an incredulous London audience that his next tour would include 'Smile'. And it did. I know, dear reader, for I was there and I still do not believe what I heard. Given his new-found personal security with his second wife Melinda and the musical security from his amazing live band Brian somehow regained sufficient confidence to finish what he had started all those years ago. Original (in both senses of the word) lyricist Van Dyke Parks was brought back on board, the multi-talented Darian Sahanaja raided the archives to find every scrap of the first 'Smile' and load it into his PC and the three of them rebuilt the ruins. The new 'Smile' opens with the acappella "Our Prayer" and segues into "Heroes And Villains" which provides the album's main theme. Classics such as "Cabinessence" and "Surf's Up" are returned to their correct context and legendary unreleased pieces such as "Mrs O'Leary's Cow" (also known as "Fire") can finally be heard. Wilson-watchers who know a little of the background to this issue are still awe-struck that the impossible can happen. Those with a less obsessive interest in the crazy world of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys can still marvel and appreciate a remarkably fine sequence of music played by some of the most talented musicians on this planet, all of whom can sing like angels.
The Rise Of Brutality
I can measure my musical evolution in taste by the educational establishment I happened to be in. I started high school as an indie/Britpop kid and finished as a punk. Sixth form saw me embrace the buzz genre of the time, nu-metal, and by university I was onto the "proper" metal. But it wasn't until I went to my first Download Festival (the successor of Donnington's Monsters Of Rock) that I discovered hardcore. It was a blistering Sunday in 2004 and I'd just seen one of my favourite bands at the time, 36 Crazyfists, and was in a buyout mood and then BANG, out came Hatebreed. I was instantly hooked! Within three songs Jamey Jasta had invited the crowd to create the biggest (still to this day) circle pit I'd ever seen. The air reeked of the most masculine body odour imaginable, dust was flying around, blinding me and making me cough and splutter; but like a giddy idiot I went right into the eye of the storm. And . I . was . loving it. Like a true fan boy I went right back home and bought their entire back catalogue. Whilst 'Perseverance' had some amazing cuts, such as "I Will Be Heard" and the title track, it was the musical quality and intensity of 'The Rise Of Brutality' that really grabbed me. What's all the more amazing about Hatebreed is that they pen songs that have more overtly positive and life affirming lyrics than 90 per cent of your "Christian rock" set. An example? The simple yet affective lyrics to "Live For This" including the line, "If you don't live for something, you'll die for nothing." It's not rocket science but it doesn't need to be. It's pumping, it's well channelled aggression, it's got perhaps the best hardcore vocalist ever and 'The Rise Of Brutality' has still got me hooked. (Man, after writing this I seriously wanna throw a few windmills!)
Since at least 1982's "Talking Back To The Night", there has been a strong hint of gospel lyrics in our Stevie's output. Songs with titles like "There's A River" and "Higher Love" have threatened to give the game away, not to mention the paraphrase (albeit very condensed) of the book of Revelation that is "In The Light Of Day". However, with this album Steve has come clean, thanking his "Lord & Saviour The Giver Of Life". Lest there should be any doubt, "Fill Me Up"- with its loop crying "Thy will be done" - wouldn't be out of place on the new Delirious? album lyrically. Musically, the album is moving away from the Memphis soul influences of yore. Chic and "'80s disco takes its place alongside a Claptonesque ballad and a Latin party piece. Winwood's last few albums met with scant praise from the critics, but this one seems more popular though Steve still seems to like replacing instruments with synth replicas a mite too often for my liking. That said, it is a strong effort, and well worth checking out for all those who like a slab of classy polished soul pop.
(Originally published in Cross Rhythms 40, August/September 1997.)
Blur - Parklife
You wouldn't believe how much I love being asked "what was the first CD you ever bought" because I can say with brimming pride that this is the one. Unlike most 10 year olds of the time, I'd already got bored of the dance and Europop that was around and hungered after something with depth, creativity ... and guitars. Later on I fell in love with the likes of Pulp, Suede, Cast and Catatonia (I would never allow myself to like Oasis) but my gateway band into the world of indie was my first true love, Blur. After dabbling with the indie dance craze of the early '90s, Albarn et al set out to create their own sound and in doing so pioneered the movement that became known as Britpop. I adored the radio hits from the album, "Girls And Boys" and the title track particularly, but after buying it for myself I found a whole host of other classics. The joy is that in recently giving it a re-listen it still more than holds up to the passing of time. This is not some rose-tinted nostalgia trip: this is one of the best British albums of all time. But, I hear you ask, does it have any spiritual undertones or the signs of a poetic heart searching for something beyond our understanding? Well no; it certainly provided an accurate account of the self-centred world it occupied and in doing so recognised its flaws but never thought to wonder if there was a solution. That happened later as the band members each matured but for now let's just celebrate the youthful, cheeky, jangly, innovative, introspective voice of a generation opus magnum that was the biggest single culprit in my becoming a music nerd.
Songs Of Faith And Devotion
As any pop historian will tell you, Depeche Mode started life as an electro-pop outfit in the early 1980s, regularly appearing in the charts with slight, catchy tunes. They seemed to disappear from view, but - unbeknown to most UK music fans - remained huge overseas. Then they had a surprise hit single here with "Personal Jesus", a song featured on their first "serious" LP 'Violator'. 'Songs Of Faith And Devotion' saw a re-invention of the band and gained them plaudits in the music press. Depeche Mode took on the surface characteristics of industrial music and dance music, layering their rhythmic sounds in slabs of noise and guitar in a way that was slightly reminiscent of parts of 'Achtung Baby'. What really attracted interest though, was the vocabulary of the song's lyrics, which appropriated the language of belief and faith for their own ends. At first glance lyrics such as "You take me where/The kingdom comes/You take me to/And lead me through Babylon" ("I Feel You"), or "Well I'm down on my knees again/And I pray to the only one/Who has the strength/To bear the pain/To forgive all the things that I've done" ("One Caress") spoke of some kind of belief. But the latter song continued, "Oh girl/Lead me into your darkness.../Just one caress", to show itself to be a romantic love song (a very good one at that). Despite this religiosity, this was a sensual, sexual album - in musical and lyrical terms, that caressed, beguiled and seduced with its hypnotic beats, simple tunes and layered guitars, keyboards and sound effects. There was plenty of devotion - but little faith in any Christian sense.
(Originally published in Cross Rhythms 16, August/September 1993.)
Elvis Costello & The Brodsky Quartet
The Juliet Letters
Never a slave to musical trends and conformity, singer/songwriter Elvis Costello bamboozled the music world in 1993 by releasing an album with nothing more than a string quartet for accompaniment. Famous for his acerbic lyrics and his raw new wave sound, and latterly for sporting a disheveled and bearded look in the previous year's 'Mighty Like A Rose' tour, this seemed like just another Costello stunt to the music press. At best, Costello was accused of succumbing to the old cliché of the rock star dabbling in classical music in an attempt to be taken seriously but in truth 'The Juliet Letters' proved to be much, much more. The string quartet in question were the renowned Brodsky Quartet, made up of Michael Thomas, Ian Belton, Paul Cassidy and Jacqueline Thomas, and the paths of Costello and the quartet had crossed several times over the preceding years through attending each other's concerts and a healthy dose of mutual interest. Finally, the two parties got together to talk about collaborating and, over time, settled on the idea of recording a themed album based on a newspaper article about a Veronese academic who had taken on the task of replying to letters addressed to the fictional Shakespeare character Juliet Capulet. What followed were 20 songs of stark beauty recorded completely live in the studio with all members of the newly formed quintet contributing musically and lyrically. The instrumental opening piece "Deliver Us" sets the scene for an array of poignant, thought provoking and occasionally amusing songs covering letter formats of all shapes and sizes - a picture postcard which details the faults of the writer's lover in "Who Do You Think You Are?", an extreme piece of junk mail in "This Offer Is Unrepeatable" and even some deranged graffiti in "Swine" to name but a few. Elsewhere, Costello expertly takes on the guise of an elderly aunt replying to a relative's begging letter for her money in the hilarious "I Almost Had A Weakness" whilst movingly portraying the author of a suicide note in the tragic "Dear Sweet Filthy World". Aside from the sheer technical brilliance of the Brodsky Quartet, what makes this release astounding is the way that Costello's inimitable voice surpasses mere singing to become an instrument in its own right to enhance and transform his colleagues' sound. Songs like "Taking My Life In Your Hands" showcase the man's ability to hit seemingly impossible notes bang in the centre whilst the quartet support and cajole to produce performances of unequivocal power that, in some strange twist of musical fate to dumbfound his critics, echo Costello's earliest works in terms of edginess and raw energy. Whilst relatively accessible to the everyday listener, 'The Juliet Letters' never shies away from difficult subject matters - divorce in "Jacksons, Monk And Rowe", suicide in the aforementioned "Dear Sweet Filthy World", adultery in "For Other Eyes" and war in "I Thought I'd Write To Juliet" - but Costello and team are arguably at their most moving in "The First In Leave." In this piece, a man who believes in the afterlife leaves his atheist lover a letter that she reads after his death. The fragility and transitory nature of relationships is subtly put across in lines such as "We could never agree/There's a thought, there's a pause/No time to repent/Eternally yours in a permanent lent" which unusually covers the issue of loss from the point of view of the deceased party and this calibre of writing is evident throughout the whole album. The subsequent live performances of this work largely detracted from the critics' initial harsh judgments and the album ended up selling three times the amount that was expected. To this day, 'The Juliet Letters' continues to polarise Costello fans but its quality and diversity transcends fickle personal and professional opinion to become one of the man's greatest releases.
Hymns To The Silence
Van Morrison is probably considered to be one of the giants of rock and has been one of the most mystical. Raised a Jehovah's Witness and dabbling in many religions, including Scientology, Van's work has included a spiritual element ever since he left R&B band, Them. Whilst he has always been a believer, it was hard to tell in what exactly, until '89's 'Avalon Sunset' when he seemingly nailed his colours to the post as a Christian, even scaling the charts with "Whenever God Shines His Light", a duet with cuddly Cliff. This album was the follow up to 'Enlightenment' and runs to over an hour and a half, and 21 tracks. Musically, there are no great surprises - there are excursions into folk, R&B, jazz, country and gospel with the lion's share of the songs being Morrison's typical laidback mix of all these styles. There are no songs here to quite match his greatest compositions, but there are quite a few worthy songs - "Why Must I Always Explain?" excels, and Van's version of "Carrying A Torch" unsurprisingly knocks spots off Tom Jones' hit version. Traditional hymn "Be Thou My Vision" is effective and moving. However, the rewritten "Just A Closer Walk With Thee" does not work, being old time Southern Gospel Hour at its worst, not helped by Georgie Fame's organ-playing which sounds, in several places, like a seaside Wurlitzer! It has to be said that Van seems to be slipping into escapist nostalgia, a recurring theme being how much better things were "in the days before rock'n'roll." This may have some truth to it, but harking back too much is nonetheless harmful, and dealing with the present is more likely to produce some insight. The overall atmosphere to this album is definitely meditative, both in tempo and lyrics, although I personally would like to see him rock out on his next album for a change. Special mention must go to the lyric transcriber, for attention to punctuation and getting "Take Me Back", a nine minute rambling nostalgic improvisation, down almost word perfect - someone give that man a payrise!
(Originally published in Cross Rhythms 11, July/August 1992.)
Brothers In Arms
This album is the sound of the summer of 1985 and is thought to be the UK's biggest selling CD album of all time. It actually kick started the CD revolution big time and proved to the '80s synth pop stars that the concept of "Guitar Hero" was never going to fade away. Mark Knopfler has one of those guitar sounds (and voices) that is instantly recognisable. Unique and a little quirky (drawing influence from country pickers and blues crooners) and not particularly fashionable (remember the sweat bands), he won the hearts and minds of a cross-generational fan base longing for real instruments played with feeling by real musicians. There's practically no obvious spiritual content to the lyrics, but there are some candid life observations. "So Far Away" describes the difficulty of a long-distance relationship. "Money For Nothing" will cause all the blokes to air-drum like a drowning spider, while the ladies will feel uneasy with the lyrics (about a sexist, racist, homophobic white-van-man boasting and fantasizing about his work). "Walk Of Life" was promoted by a video full of sporting out-takes and slapstick events. The title track is the album's closer and is a haunting reminder of the bleakness of war, capturing the heart of the nation following the Falklands conflict. Other songs draw on more familiar country and blues themes, though each one has a different vibe, tempo, style and sound texture. Knopfler's voice is a bit Bob Dylan-ish (Mark played guitar on Bob's landmark gospel set 'Slow Train Coming'), with a semi-spoken mumbling style, but this album provides a valuable lesson in understated guitar solos, clever riffs and picking, creative instrumentation and song writing to suit (or shape) any mood. It will neither offend nor convert, but will make you feel happy, blue, optimistic, melancholy and in the end reflectively sombre. All without a hint of politics and religion. Perhaps it is therefore the perfect secular rock album?
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