A batch of Cross Rhythms reviewers consider the merits of 25 mainstream albums
RPA & The United Nations Of Sound
United Nations Of Sound
Richard Ashcroft was, of course, the charismatic leader of The Verve, one of the more intriguing bands to emerge from the 1990s Britpop scene. His moving, personal songwriting and soulful voice set the band apart from their contemporaries and in interviews, amongst hilarious claims about being able to fly, Ashcroft occasionally spoke about God. After the record many consider to be their best, 1997's 'Urban Hymns', the band split and Richard pursued a rather middle of the road solo career and after a short-lived Verve reunion in 2008 he returned this year with a new project, RPA & The United Nations Of Sound. The 'P', as you might have guessed, stands for Paul. Expectations were raised by the personnel - hip-hop and R&B producer No ID, Reggie Dozier (brother of Motown's famed Lamont Dozier), string arranger on Michael Jackson's 'Off The Wall' Benjamin Wright and some of the finest session musicians in the US. But the album received a mauling from the mainstream press. Musically, the record is a mixed bag ranging from string-drenched Verve-style rockers, acoustic ballads and modern R&B-influenced numbers. But it is Ashcroft's lyrics that prove really interesting. Take the opening number "Are You Ready" where Ashcroft bellows out lines like "Are you ready for the day?/He's gonna come back down to Earth/I hope you're gonna pray" followed by "I've lived a life of sin and I heard that us sinners have got a chance with him" and "Jesus, sweet Jesus can't you hear?/Please don't leave us all alone living here with fear". The Guardian newspaper's music reviewer Kitty Empire was moved to write, "You would be forgiven for thinking he has actually converted, so profuse are Ashcroft's beatitudes." Speaking of which, there's a track on the album called "Beatitudes" although it's a slightly ropey pun on beat/beatitude. There's even a track called "Born Again" which is an uplifting pop rocker that, as one reviewer noted, "contains so many religious references it can only be a matter of time before [Ashcroft] dons a cassock". The highlight of the album for me though is the beautiful acoustic-based "Glory" with the lyrics, "Glory hallelujah, I think I'm coming through, yeah/Out of the black, out of the blue, out of the old, into the new." You could almost be listening to a Delirious? number sung in a grittier voice! 'United Nations Of Sound' is a brave but slightly confused album both musically and spiritually, and it is more likely that Ashcroft has just found a new set of biblical imagery to use in his songwriting rather than actually undergoing any conversion. Having said that, on the best songs here he's right on the money.
Yes We Can: Songs About Leaving Africa
A "concept compilation" is probably the best way to describe this album, the theme of which is immigration - one of those hot topics it often seems impossible to have an honest conversation about from any angle. Rightly or wrongly, many young Africans feel that they don't have much in the way of prospects at home, and so - like Norman Tebbit's father before them - they decide to "get on their bikes" in search of work overseas. 'Yes We Can' touches on every aspect of life for the many Africans who either see escape as a way out of poverty, or who have escaped and found that life abroad isn't all it was cracked up to be. The often humiliating experience of having to spend days queuing up at the embassy of the country of your choice with no guarantee of getting that much-coveted visa; using a money transfer service to send funds home (or to receive money from a relative abroad); disillusionment on realising that the streets of the West aren't paved with gold; homesickness. . . all these and more are covered here. The majority of the acts on the album are rappers - Nigeria's Rapturous, Modenine and Afrikan Boy; K'Naan from Somalia and Senegal's Daara J Family, to name a few - which gives the album a strong urban feel which fits well with the "life is a hustle" sentiment of much of it. There's a lot of humour and a strong feeling of optimism here, even when dealing with some really bleak issues. Even Afrikan Boy's "One day I went to Lidl" earworm takes on a new meaning when heard alongside other songs about being trapped in a foreign country and not being allowed to work to support yourself! You won't draw any solid conclusions on immigration by listening to this album. But hopefully, you will come away from it with more empathy for the aliens in your midst.
"Go", the debut solo offering from Sigur Ros frontman Jonsi, hit the shelves earlier this year. The album bears all the hallmarks of Jonsi's regular gig including that ethereal voice, but there are also some marked differences and progressions from Sigur Ros's work to 'Go'. For one thing, the album seems more direct. Opener "Go Do" bursts into life with an energetic, almost summery, burst of flutes and drums. The mood of almost happy-go-lucky invention continues throughout the album. "Animal Arithmetic" is another strong effort, combining some of Jonsi's more usual textures with something approaching a dance-rock vibe. Another diversion from the work of Sigur Ros comes in Jonsi's use of the English language for some of the lyrics in this song and others. The string arrangements of the exceedingly talented Nico Muhly punctuate the album at various points. On "Tornado" they reach stratospheric proportions, lifting the song to one of the high points of the album. By the time the nine song disc comes to a close, it is obvious that this is one of 2010's best releases. More than just background music, this is thoughtful, thought-provoking, textured music. Food for the ears, the heart and the soul.
The Courage Of Others
The word 'pastoral', is being thrown about a lot of late, particularly in relation to a new wave of pop bands that encapsulate dreamy folk, rich harmonies and a desire for simpler times. It's a broad and perhaps lazy term that has helped categorise and rationalise the unlikely popularity of bands such as Fleet Foxes, Mumford and Sons and Stornoway with their sound that belongs to a bygone era. This 'pastoral' music harks back to the 70's folk rock harmonies of Bread, CSNY and The Moody Blues via the wistful acoustics of Nick Drake and yet it carries its own, modern sound. Midlake find themselves categorised alongside these other bands and yet the tone and feel of this album sees them produce something that, if released in 1975 would have sat very nicely next to something far more progressive, such as Jethro Tull's 'Minstrel In The Gallery'. Some critics have unfairly argued that, having taken four years, the scrapping of an entire set of recordings and a stint as ex-Czars John Grant's backing band, Midlake should have come up with something more than a record that sounds 35 years old. But it's impossible to fake something this genuine and so to begin a review pointing out the derivative elements of Midlake's sound is simply me saying that Tim Smith's work on 'The Courage Of Others' may be enough to rank him alongside some of the songwriting greats of the last 40 years. There are some key ways in which 'The Courage of Others' differs from 'Van Occupanther' - it has no obvious single, it's far less abstractly introspective, its pace is deliberately mid-tempo and the songs sound similar in such a way that you could listen for twenty minutes before realising that five songs appear to have blended into one. And yet many things remain and are built upon - the songs contains all the beauty of their previous work with a darker, more melancholy edge and the band are still willing to confound expectations, not confined by traditional song structure and form; the harmonies are more complex, and the flute is now an integral instrument in the mix rather than a pretty novelty. Smith's lyrics are more vulnerable and heart breaking than ever - on the title track he mourns 'I will never have the courage of others/I will not approach you at all/I was always taught to worry about the many things you can't control'. His lyrics explore themes of purpose and connection, the natural process of life and death and an the 'inexplicable' beauty of the created order, singing at one point 'I've stood in awe of the whole creation'. He tells stories of the land and of rivers, of travellers seeking better fortune and the hope of a fresh start, healing, loss and the passage of time. At a time where society is more individualistic, greedy and far from God than ever before, these songs evoke a very modern sense of isolation, self-doubt and a desire to 'get back to the garden'. There is also a sense of the desire for meaning found in Ecclesiastes, particularly in 'Small Mountain' ('The days count for nothing/Nothing that one understands') and 'Rulers, Ruling All Things' 'Thinking the world was mine to lay hold of/I breathed in the promise of maiden and man/But each had their illusions to hold on to'). Crucially, Smith has not yet come to the same conclusion as the teacher in Ecclesiastes 12:13 'The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.' Perhaps because his search for purpose has not yet come 'to the end of the matter'. Midlake have been on a mystical and musical journey that has seen them evolve from fuzzy, avant-garde electronica to this, the pinnacle of their work so far and a world away from where they started.
Highway To Hell
This compilation was the free give away sampler with the March 2010 issue of Mojo magazine and a fascinating rag bag of Hell-based songs it is. They range from an off-kilter "lounge metal" group called Hellsongs who take Slayer's "Seasons In The Abyss" and turn it into something equally ghastly; the gnarled, soulful voice of John Martyn intoning "I'd Rather Be The Devil"; Godfather of soul James Brown screaming "we've got to make a change" on "Hell", bizarrely recorded during the season in his career when he was strung out on angel dust; heavy psych sounds from Canada's Black Mountain with "Evil Ways"; and Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds performing on "Up Jumped The Devil" which demonstrates, to quote Mojo, "Cave's romantic view of life, death, the blues and of course the Devil to thunderous effect." It's this distorted view of Hell, as an appealing alternative to boring old Heaven, where residents can continue with their sinful fun, or as an ancient myth suitable for all kinds of psych and prog freakouts which dominate this compilation. There are a couple of tracks by Christian acts here, the obscure quartet Lavice And Company offer a cut from the excellent compilation 'Good God: A Gospel Funk Hymnal' while there's a touch of wah-wah flecked psychedelic gospel from The Soul Messengers & The Spirit Of Israel. But most of the songs here have perspectives on the Devil and Hell which are miles away from the teaching of Scripture. Possibly most disappointing of all is Curtis Mayfield's "(Don't Worry) If There's A Hell Below We're All Going To Go". Largely through the classic status that has been bestowed on Mayfield's song "People Get Ready" there's a tendency to consider the late soul genius a Christian. Mayfield appears in both Bil Carpenter's Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia and Mark Allan Powell's Encyclopedia Of Contemporary Christian Music. But in truth Mayfield's beliefs were syncretistic and unless you're a hyper-liberal you'll find his song here a concoction of theological error despite its delicious Chicago soul groove.
Mumford & Sons
Sigh No More
Mumford & Sons stormed to popularity in autumn 2009 with a heady mix of country, folk and bluegrass. Lead single "Little Lion Man" was named Hottest Record In The World by Radio 1 DJ Zane Lowe in October, and their album 'Sigh No More' promptly went on to achieve platinum status. I saw them in Belfast last September, both playing support to Laura Marling and forming her backing band, and their visceral performance was full of the most immediate melodies and bristling harmonies. 'Sigh No More' is an album in the truest sense of the word in that it is a captivating story from start to finish. It ebbs and flows perfectly with its mixture of brutal introspection and bluegrass hoedowns. NME's review astutely observes that "'Sigh No More' is basically an indie-pop record in chunky knit clothing." The album begins confidently with a solitary guitar and the rich harmonies that have seen them likened to Crosby, Stills And Nash. There is an aggression to tracks like "White Blank Page" and "Dust Bowl Dance", which is married to captivating storytelling and then the ability to turn it into a bluegrass infused party. They are at their most affecting on "Timshel", where the beauty of their combined voices, the rousing lyrics and simple melody make it a song that demands attention. Every now and then a band comes along that are best enjoyed in communion and that move people to emphatic reactions and quite frankly to the brink of tears with their honest passion. Mumford & Sons seem to have provided that experience for people, while gaining Radio 1 play amongst the pop and R&B-heavy playlists. For the Christian among us there is a certain level of intrigue relating to the lyrics. Before long most Christians who owned the album would have probably heard that lead singer Marcus Mumford grew up in the Vineyard Church. Yet there is something deeper than this potentially lazy observation that has seen many Christian music enthusiasts connect with the themes. On opener "Sigh No More" Marcus sings, "Serve God, love me and men" and then that "Love will not betray you, dismay or enslave you, it will set you free". He sings of God with a warmth, passion and vulnerability that makes me instinctively believe that he knows the freedom that God can bring. Yet he clearly struggles as on "Winter Winds" he speaks of "the shame that drove me from the God that I once loved". Conversely again, on "Awake My Soul" he saves his most powerful lyrics singing "In these bodies we will live/In these bodies we will die/Where you invest your love is where you invest your life", and then in the rousing chorus "You were made to meet your maker". I think we all hope and know that this continuing story which he has let his listeners into doesn't have to end with him turning his back on God. For a band that has captured many imaginations with this stark yet beautiful record, expectations will be high for their follow-up.
Dig Out Your Soul
A few years ago in an interview with a music magazine, Noel Gallagher complained that every time he met Bono the U2 frontman would share the Gospel with him. Noel was raised in a Catholic home but has always claimed to be an atheist; despite this Oasis songs have often featured insightful lyrics like "Some might say they don't believe in Heaven/Go and tell it to the man who lives in Hell" on 1995's "Some Might Say". On this album Noel appears to have developed an obsession with the Rapture. On the album's third track "Waiting For The Rapture" Noel sings, "Heaven must have sent you to save me for the rapture" and mentions "big love falling from the sky" and on the Liam-sung track "The Turning" the subject arises again. Musically, 'Dig Out Your Soul' was something of a departure from earlier Oasis albums, the band had discovered drop D guitar tuning and that combined with Zak Starkey's powerhouse drumming led to a riff-heavy groove-laden sound. Best cuts from the record include the eastern-tinged "To Be Where There's Life" that displays an experimental side the group aren't often credited for and the swirling "The Shock Of The Lightening" is a thrilling Who-like rocker. Now that the Gallagher brothers' latest fight seems to have spelt the end for Oasis Noel's inevitable solo career will be fascinating to see unfold.
Way To Normal
Is it possible to emotionally regress to the point where the songs that you wrote in your mid-20s held more authenticity and maturity than the songs you pen 15 years later? Ben Folds' latest would seem to provide evidence to the affirmative. For the most part, 'Way To Normal' plays like the break-up mix-tape of a bitter teenager in all the hormonal throes of a failed relationship. The album is made all the more intriguing as Folds' trademark humour hovers around the lowest common denominator even more than usual, only occasionally showing hints of the wit and word play prevalent in his past releases. Since splitting with Ben Folds Five, the '90s three-piece in which he rose to fame as the charismatic, endearing foul-mouthed band leader, Folds has not found the same levels of success despite consistently excellent solo work; as evidence of this, the BFF back catalogue still features heavily in his live shows and his loyal fan base has not diminished, but probably hasn't grown either. Having said that, no one can say Folds doesn't have an ear for a catchy melody and 'Way To Normal' packs a real punch that the gentler 'Songs For Silverman' lacked. Here, the piano is battered, cymbals crash, bass fuzzes and the heavily compressed mix is loud and in your face - "Dr Yang" has to be one of Folds' heaviest songs, yet there's still room for the thoughtful Ben to shine through. "Cologne" is a more reasoned, bitter-sweet song of regret - the kind that every love-lorn troubadour wishes he'd come up with himself whilst knowing that Ben probably wrote it in his sleep. Most of the songs here were written post marriage break-up so instead of touching tributes to his family that sweetened previous releases ("The Luckiest", "Gracie", "Still Fighting It") we get the sour with very little sweet to relieve the disappointment and bitterness - the terribly titled "The Bitch Went Nuts" is the least subtle piece on offer, and with a much darker streak of humour than ran through '97s 'Song For The Dumped'. "Kylie From Connecticut" is a melancholic album closer and another of Ben's trademark "character" songs (in the tradition of "Carrying Cathy", "Fred Jones Pt 2", "Annie Waits" and "Give Judy My Notice"), but then the childish wordplay of "Effington" is the equivalent of a master artist drawing a pair of breasts on a bus stop. The album's strongest song is "You Don't Know Me", a catchy, clever duet with the wonderful Regina Spektor. Its imaginative arrangement and subtlety showcases what Folds can achieve when he trades cursing for genuinely creative lyrical expression. This album is an example of what happens when bitterness takes root and the fact that it's not completely alienating brings some relief. Of course, songwriting can be cathartic and expressing frustration through song and with humour may well offer perspective and aid the healing process - one hopes and wishes that Folds would be more open to forgiveness - even with the awesome talent on show, all the resentment is starting to look ugly.
Bullet For My Valentine
Scream Aim Fire
Wales has always been known for its contribution to the musical wealth of the world. Keeping this tradition up-to-date is a weighty responsibility which has fallen partly to a four-piece from Bridgend formally known as Jeff Killed John. They played covers by heavy metal heroes, but as they began to write their own material a name change was called for, and keeping the mean murder theme in there somewhere Bullet For My Valentine was finally settled upon. A quick listen is all that's needed to realise they do a fine job in keeping this generation's Welsh musical tradition up to scratch. 'Scream Aim Fire' is their second album released in 2008 and debuting at number four in the Billboard 200. It's finely crafted to within an inch of its life, precision is its hallmark, yet the album manages to rip, rock and roar and has energy up to its gills. Their first album 'The Poison' was raw without the extra care taken for 'Scream Aim Fire'; it's this extra care that sets the album apart as a modern heavy metal classic. Melodic tunes, compelling riffs and twin lead guitar played as neat as a new pin set the album apart. The title track is the first song on the album, it is a pretty realistic look at an army's front-line going into action. The call goes out - "Over the top", the smoke is blinding, hearts are pounding, then a question, "Will I meet my maker?" Limbs are flying, men are crying. It's a bold song questioning the morality of fighting. The young soldier contemplates the horror as the death-toll grows higher. "God has spoken through his conscience." The second song deals with death too, "Eye Of The Storm"; it's not that Bullet are a death-metal band because they aren't, they're far too skilful and musical for that, but they raise some serious issues with their songs. In "Deliver Us From Evil", a phrase that Jesus taught us to pray, they ask "will darkness turn to light?" In "Say Goodnight" they tell us, "Heaven's waiting for you, just close your eyes and say goodnight." All the songs say something that is artful and it looks at first glance as if there may be some philosophy going on in there that's worth a second look. But the songs don't stand too much close scrutiny and some have a colander quality that's lyrically leaky. Modern art has a similar structure, it can be what you want it to be, what do you see in there? Well, that's what it is.
For Emma, For Ever Ago
To get a perspective on this album it is best to start somewhere near the end and the first lines of the closing track "Re: Stacks", where Justin Vernon sings, "This is my excavation, and today is kumran/Everything that happens is from now on." Kumran is the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls are believed to have been discovered in 1947, and Vernon uses it as a metaphor for the excavation of his soul as he recorded this album in the wake of two break-ups; that of his band and of a relationship he was in at the time. It is an album of deep catharsis delivered with an ethereal beauty. Locking himself away in the solitude of a Wisconsin log cabin the album evolved over a period of months. A big influence on the sound was the discovery and purchase of a resonator guitar and coupled with the frequent use of falsetto vocals, it creates a distinctive sound that marks out his vulnerability. For an ethereal album it is far from dreamy, dealing with themes of love, loss, growth and pain. Obscure lyrics and obtuse metaphors pervade the album so as it isn't the details of Vernon's journey that we learn of but the feelings. There is a sense of growing through pain, as he invites us into the space he has created to document it. There is a difficulty in connecting with some of the lyrics, which could be down to Vernon's method of creating the vocal melody first in a kind of gibberish fashion and afterwards constructing the lyrics around the formed syllables. As I listened, time and again it made me wonder whether there is another level to the verse in Romans 12:15 that says, "Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn". There is a sense in which his mourning on this album is of strength to anyone who has experienced heartbreak. So perhaps it's as true of this verse that we are to comfort and share with those mourning in order to aid their grieving, but also that by hearing others deal with their pain, our own heartbreak can be soothed too. And that will always remain within the artist's ability to simply connect. As Vernon sings at the end of the final song, "This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realisation/It's the sound of the unlocking and the lift away."
The rise and rise of Sigur Ros in the last decade is one of alternative rock's greatest stories. To all intents and purposes, the concept of the band shouldn't really work: undulations of guitar, bass, drums, strings and anything else the band turn their hand to, all topped off by the almost pixie-like falsetto yelping of singer Jonsi, over songs which often take more than five minutes to reach their peak. This is without mentioning perhaps the defining characteristic of the band, that the vocal parts of their songs are presented in Icelandic, and Hopelandic (a made up, gibberish language, which acts as another instrument in the band's armoury). So far, so esoteric, right? But there is something about the music of Sigur Ros. It's as if the four members, sometime between their 1994 inception and the release of 2005 album 'Takk', found a way to tap in to a seam of atmosphere and beauty which very few other bands of their generation have. Listening to the album, as it progresses serenely through crescendos and diminuendos, sometimes visceral (see "Glossoli" and "Saeglopur") sometimes sweet and innocent, as on the glockenspiel-infused "Se Lest", the sense that something beautiful is unfolding, perhaps even something of God, is never far from the surface. It is no small wonder that tracks from this album have been used in all manner of television adverts, and to soundtrack many beautiful vistas in nature documentaries. It is also no surprise that 'Takk' catapulted Sigur Ros into rock's premier league, and into the hearts and minds of listeners everywhere. Creativity and beauty in music are concepts which will never grow old, and for those seeking a conceptualisation and realisation of life, breath and hope, outside the walls of the Church, 'Takk' is a fabulous place to start.
The White Stripes
Get Behind Me Satan
What lurks in the depths of Jack White's psyche is made a little plainer on The White Stripes' fifth album, but only a little. The title is a quote from Jesus who addressed Satan in the wilderness when being tempted. (Not all Bibles translate it that way but the sense is there.) Jack stated in a rare interview that "truth is the number one theme" throughout the album, so it's worth noting that Satan sometimes sneaks up on us like an angel of light or a wolf in sheep's clothing. "The Denial Twist" gives some counselling to couples who struggle with each other; Jack advises, "Turn a mountain into a mole", in other words you may have been hurt but don't forget forgiveness. "The Nurse" succinctly reminds us that "it's always in trust that the poison is fed with a spoon". Good point. It's then that we remember Jesus also said "Get behind me, Satan!" to his friend Peter. The White Stripes is made up of married, then unmarried, couple Meg and Jack White, divorced but continuing to work in the studio together. By the time 'Get Behind Me Satan' was being recorded the pair were ready for some experimentation with instruments other than drums and guitar, hence we find piano, marimba and timpani used throughout the 13 songs along with some explosive guitars. Jack has the ability to use poor quality instruments and still get an engaging sound out of them, showing his class as a musician and artist. A poor workman may blame his tools but Jack is no poor workman and sometimes searches out those cheapo guitars that other guitarists look on with contempt. You will have heard the bristling electric guitar riff on the album's opener "Blue Orchid" as it was played almost to death on many FM radio stations. Most bands need a lot more than drums, guitar and vocals to get their songs up and running but somehow the Whites manage to get a satisfying thick sound with minimum instruments. As a child Jack was an altar boy and was going to become a priest but wasn't sure the seminary would let him take his guitar and newly acquired amp. "I'm Lonely (But I Ain't That Lonely Yet)" gives another hint of what makes Jack White tick, there is certainly some humour involved along with a penchant for things English, although he's American from Detroit. And largely, hints are all we're going to get, if you're looking for a doctrinal statement it's not there. Jack is wily enough to keep things engagingly enigmatic.
Used Songs 1973-1980
Tom Waits' debut album in 1973, the perversely titled 'Closing Time', came out of nowhere. Many singer/songwriters cut their musical teeth in an obscure high-school band or have a song or two recorded by an established performer but Waits just appeared. Even in 1973 plastic studio bands (The Monkees being best known) and mainstream formula pop acts were dominating the charts but Tom Waits is a truly unique voice, in both senses of the word. If grizzly bears could sing they would sound like Tom Waits, but probably only if they had a serious nicotine habit. So he growls but, let it be said, he does sing in tune. If you want a quick comparison, think of Satchmo. Waits's musical voice owes more to jazz and blues than pop and as a songwriter he looks back to the great musical tradition of Broadway with every song telling a story. "Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis" could end up as a set text in a course on American poetry and "Jersey Girl" covers territory that Springsteen was to travel. Probably the best known songs in this set are "Ol' '55" which was covered by The Eagles and "Tom Traubert's Blues", Waits's take on "Waltzin' Matilda". These 16 songs serve as a useful introduction to the first phase of Waits's career. To quote from Hal Willner's liner notes: "What we have here is Tom Wait's the young balladeer, the storyteller, the poet, the jazz man, the rocker, electric, acoustic, distorted, on key, off key, singing songs about cars, girls, shaving cream, marriage, divorce, dancing, kissing, fighting, dreams fulfilled, broken, or not even dreamt yet, pool, cards, trees, the moon, perfume, black eyes . . . 16 Tom Waits from the Asylum period (1973 - 1980)." And then he moved to Island and started the next phase of his career with the incredible 'Swordfishtrombones' but that will have to wait. In a musical world filled with formulaic pap we should treasure individual talents such as Tom Waits. There is nothing explicitly Christian in any of these songs but they do show us a spiritual man who, perhaps not even realising it himself, is yearning for something better. Like Oscar Wilde, Tom Waits may be in the gutter but is looking up at the stars.
Whilst fellow rock luminary Paul McCartney had already released a tentative limited edition Unplugged album, it was Eric Clapton's live set from the MTV franchise that launched acoustic music back into the stratosphere, catching the imaginations of old rockers and budding teenage guitarists alike. Clapton's career had recently been in the doldrums after his pinnacle years with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Cream and Derek And The Dominos. Gone was Clapton's slavish dedication to honouring his blues forefathers in his musical output and, during the years in which a dependency on heavy drugs and alcohol dominated his life, his career seemed to go off the rails with a string of lacklustre and latterly overproduced albums. Thankfully, after managing to rid himself of his abuse demons, Clapton released the critically acclaimed 'journeyman' in 1989 before taking his new found verve to his beloved Royal Albert Hall to perform a long run of live shows. With things on the up, Clapton and his exemplary band (amongst them Allman Brothers pianist Chuck Leavell, percussionist to the rich and famous Ray Cooper and Amen Corner founder Andy Fairweather-Low) appeared before a small audience at the Bray Film Studios in Windsor in January 1992 to perform a set that would redeem both man and music in the eyes of his fans and win a legion of new listeners in the process. Although Clapton was certainly in the right place at the right time in terms of capitalising on the then fairly new MTV craze, there are a number of other factors that contributed to the album achieving cult status. From the word go, this particular live performance was engagingly informal. Without sacrificing musical professionalism, false starts, tune ups and the odd kazoo showed that it was perfectly acceptable for rock legends to let their hair down. This relaxed feel of the session undoubtedly led to Clapton taking a few chances with the set list with little of his back catalogue making an appearance - at least not without some heavy adaptation. This in turn allowed a certain doffing of the cap to his blues influences in the likes of Big Bill Broonzy's "Hey Hey", the Bessie Smith classic "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out" as well as Robert Johnson in "Walking Blues" and "Malted Milk", foreshadowing the tributary 'Me & Mr Johnson' album a decade later. Proving the old adage true that if an electric guitarist can handle the acoustic counterpart then he really is a great guitarist, there is no doubting that Clapton is on top form here. His guitar solo in "Old Love" sees him soaring to the heights previously only deemed possible on his trademark Fender Stratocaster and, as if further proof were needed, the constant interchanging of guitars (and therefore playing styles) from steel strung six string to classical guitar, dobro and 12 string, cement the man's versatility. In addition, the new song "Lonely Stranger" sees Clapton finally at ease with himself as a singer delivering a top notch vocal performance that rivals his guitar work. Amongst the many gems contained within its 61 minutes, this release will arguably be remembered for two standout tracks. Firstly, a radical reworking of the Derek And The Dominos classic "Layla" (prefixed by Clapton challenging the audience to see if they can "spot this one") has the audacity to amputate the guitar riff that made the song famous in the first place replacing it with a laid back shuffle that was either seen as a sacrilegious mickey take or the stuff of inspiration depending on the listener's point of view. More seriously, Clapton's stunning performance of the newly written "Tears In Heaven" - a tribute to his four year old son Connor who died the previous year in tragic circumstances - ultimately and quite rightly earned three of the album's six Grammy Awards and saw the grieving father reach deep into his soul (and perhaps the Christian faith he has always claimed to own) to deliver the performance of his lifetime in an album that he has yet to surpass.
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