Monthly Archives: June 2009

141. Cat Power – “The Greatest”

Ms Chan Marshall (the individual behind the CP moniker) is a bit of a darling around my home town.  Her first not-completely-avant garde album was recorded in Melbourne.  Not long after I saw her deliver a memorable sunset set at Meredith Music Festival.  While my memory of said performance is hazy at best, I do recall her being quite arty and possibly captivating.Album Cover Cat Power The Greatest

Despite this I never bothered to acquire any of her output.  I was happy to hear snippets of her new work on local radio and write her off as yet another difficult ingenue embraced by lover of all who record – Thurston Moore.

I ended up picking this album up dirt cheap in a music store in Saigon (thus it may be of dubious provenance).  And it has underwhelmed me ever since.  CP comes across as yet another of these breathy, slow-paced, potentially emotive female crooners.  But, the problem is the sameness of the tracks.  This album can loop and loop incessantly on my iPod, yet I recall so little.

Perhaps it’s that Marshall’s delicate compositions are ill-suited to brash, sunny California.  Or that they do not lend themselves to a roadtrip (I must state a current fascination with seeking out hip-hop tunes about downing Cristal, girls in bikinis, and invitations for combining these two in hotel rooms, and then playing said tunes loud while cruising the LA streets).

I saw her perform this album last year, and she was impressive, so she may have some claim to goodness…

File under: Only great in an Anthony Mundine sense of the word

140. Johnny Cash – “American III – Solitary Man”

I have been decidedly useless in my reviewing over the past week.  Upon landing in the US, I have been much more focused on drinking exotic microbrews and sightseeing, plus one gig thus far (Ben Kweller in San Fran).  I did visit Alcatraz prison, which I feel may have brought me closer to Johnny Cash’s life experiences (as might my many encounters with the chemically dependent on SF streets).

Cash johnny cash American III Solitary Man album coverAt various periods in our travels I did manage to crank up this album on the iPod, and each time it delighted.  It is truly guilt-free easy listening.  It’s like having a super-groovy, intimidating grand-dad whose found your CD collection and decided to learn various standout tunes.

So here he goes, nailing Nick Cave’s best ever tune (Mercy Seat) and showing Will Oldham how to sing in tune (I See a Darkness).  He even ropes Will to sing backup.

This album is more consistent and captivating than Unchained and sees Cash sneaking in a few more traditional tunes and one of his old gems (Country Trash).  The title track is pure gold, pushing Neil Diamond’s lyrics to a whole new level of cool.

File under: A Man of Might

Off on tour

My bags are packed, as is my iPod, and I’m off to the US of A for a month.  As such, my blog posts are likely to be pretty sporadic.  Rest assured I will be listening to the prescribed albums and will post reviews when I get the chance/inkling.

Please be patient… and take this chance to catch up on your backlog of reviews (and you’re own CD listening).

139. Johnny Cash – “Unchained”

So, as most of you probablky now, Cash had a huge revival when paired with rap and heavy metal impresario Rick Rubin for American Recordings. This was the follow up when Cash was joined by Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers as backing band.

Cash johnny cash unchained album coverThis is a curious effort.  Cash’s standout features – his voice and laconic but heartfelt delivery – are certainly on display.  So too, are the slightly quirky song choices, most notably his cover of Soundgarden‘s Rusty Cage.

But, it all sounds a little too easy.  He isn’t pushed to deliver anything challenging, and he doesn’t surprise quite enough.  There are  a few too many twee song choices too, especially the always corny I’ve Been Everywhere.

This is certainly not my ‘go to’ Cash CD.  I do smirk a little at his somewhat misogynistic Mean Eyed Cat and sing along to the bass vocals on I Never Picked Cotton. Country Boy is a fantastically paced track where the band is used very effectively. Likewise, I’m certain Southern Accent will spring to mind once or twice on my impending US travels.

Cash would do better than this album, but a lot of bands wouldn’t.

File under: Could be more unfettered

138. Johnny Cash – “The Essential Johnny Cash”

My blogging buddy over at 500 Songs in 500 Days, last week described J.Cash as “the substance-abusing, suicidal father of country music”.

Cash album the essential johnny cash coverI’ve seen the biopic and read the books and articles that chronicle this dimension of the Man in Black’s rocky life. Such understandings invariably inform any review of his life’s work.

This here double album attempts to capture what probably looked at the time like being the highlights of his long career (i.e. this was before his Lazarus-like late-life revival).

What the album reveals is the paradoxes of his output. At times, he seems to be following closely in the footsteps of Hank Williams (Snr) and even Woodie Guthrie as he captures the essence of rural, working class US life. He treads well-worn paths talking up the value of poverty in shaping men, while lamenting the tribulations thereof.

Other times he’s more explicitly on the side of the badman, the outlaw and the outsider as he takes on the man and all else beside. These are perhaps his biggest legacy, although one can’t help but think certain songs have been eulogised far beyond their actual quality justifies.

Ultimately, Cash was also a hitmaker, willing to tiptoe the line between classic catchiness and complete schmaltz. Ring of Fire and Jackson falls on the classic side. Ballad Of A Teenage Queen is unashamed in its campness.

The latter is still very loveable, and I quite happily smirk along at his funnier moments like Boy Named Sue, Five Feet High and Rising and his super-hillbilly Tennessee Flat-Top Box.

I used to own a different single-CD greatest hits package from Cash (which was lost in an unfortunate leaving CD in a computer incident which I won’t bore you with). That was a more pleasurable listen for not including a lot of filler at the tail end of this, where Cash resorted to awkward collaborations and god-bothering numbers.

Nevertheless, this ain’t a bad way to survey the first 40 years or so of his career.

File under: Cash pretty well spent

137. Neko Case – “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood”

It’s a pretty substantial leap from Carter to Neko Case. Gone is punk-laced cynicism. Up pops too-cool-for-any-school chanteusery.

Neko Case Fox Confessor Brings the Flood album coverNeko is on par with Conor Oberst in terms of her prolific nature and willingness/ability to jump genres, bands, roles with apparent ease.

This album was her breakout album, and the only one of hers I possess.  There is no strong justification for its loneliness in my collection.  I listen to it regularly and relish bathing in her dulcet tones.

Case almost sits outside musical genres here.  She is notionally a country-singer, but much of this material is lush with strings aplenty and occasional keyboard flourishes.

Case’s voice is given ample room to soar. Unlike so many other female vocalists in this domain (Blasko, Wainwright etc), her vocal stylings are restrained and respectful of vowel-pronunciation norms.

The imagery in the songwriting is mesmerising without being difficult or overly obscure.  The phrasing is beautifully matched to the rhythms.  Nothing is ridiculously catchy, but soon each tune will have lodged itself somewhere in your psyche.

I suspect Case has always been one of those folks who intimidates all around here with her talent and other-worldness. But I’m glad she shares tunes like this with us:

File under: Luscious lupine lullabies

136. Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine – “Worry Bomb”

Carter songs tend to fall into two baskets. One lot are slower, orchestrally backed (samples, not the real thing), almost spoken word and typically very sarcastic, layered with one pun after another. The rest of them are much faster, punk-pop numbers with spitting vocals and crunchy guitars.

Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine album cover Worry BombAt their best the band was able to deliver both styles of song equally well, and the leaps from one to the other and back again was not too discombobulating.

It all falls down when one style no longer entertains. That’s pretty much what happens here. The rocky numbers are still fun and energising, particularly Airplane Food/Airplane Fast Food, and Senile Delinquent.

But the slow tunes just drag the album down. The puns seem laboured, the sentiments forced. They also serve to increase the pressure on the high tempo efforts. For example, Let’s Get Tattoos seems overly cliched.

The nail in the coffin is the band’s noddling around on the last two meandering tracks.  Both are over 6 minutes long, and neither leaves any impression beyond frustration.

Alas, this was to be my last Carter purchase – quite understandably.  As with Billy Bragg, it seems I’ve lost one album (their debut) to the Great Cassette Purge of 2001.  I’ll have to find a digital copy somewhere.

File under: Defusing a career

135. Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine – “1992 – The Love Album”

I have been pondering the position of Carter USM over the past day or so.  How would I explain this duo to the uninitiated?

Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine album cover 1992

I could list contemporaries who played similar sorts of music – EMF, Jesus Jones, Pop Will Eat Itself.  But what are the odds you’ve heard of them and not Carter?

They have an electronic element to their sound, often orchestral.  So Pet Shop Boys might be in there. But it was never that calculated, clean and Euro-market-friendly.

The lyrics reveal a strong social conscience and a particualrly British sensibility.  So our old buddy Billy Bragg should be in the mix.

And like Billy they get the whole punk-garage ethic thing – manifesting in samplers versus guitars.  So The Clash must get a call out.

But, ultimately, they were a unique mix of all these elements and more.  And this albums showcases them very well.  They nail a couple of singles with ease. I was surprised to discover The Only Living Boy In New Cross was their highest charting UK single and that the album went to No.1.

It isn’t quite that good, and the Impossible Dream closer is just odd – devoid of the expected cynicism… but it all stands up otherwise.

134. Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine – “30 Something”

This album, along with one from fellow Brits The Wonderstuff, was the first CD I ever purchased.  I already owned scores of cassettes and LPs, but in late 1990 this was the disc that popped my digital cherry.

Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine Album cover 30 SomethingThat seems so appropriate, given how modern and cutting edge this seemed at the time.  Here were two blokes who didn’t like musos at all, rocking out over samples and being very biting social commentary and cool t-shirts.

So does it still hold up 19 (!!!) years later? Indeedily doodily. 

How can you question an album that kicks off with the crowd chanting “You Fat Bastards”? The samples and crunching guitars kick in and we’re away on a fiesta of lyrically dense (and clever) power-poppish numbers. 

The stand-outs are the singles – Shoppers Paradise, and the treatise on the brutality of army life – Bloodsport for All, as well as the the Dylan Thomasesque Prince in a Paupers Grave.

The big selling point of Carter was their energy and the sense that they loved their niche as slightly daggy but with obsessive fans, who got the puns and punkish irreverence.  Looking back the vibe is still there and it all seems worthwhile.

File under: Remembrances of being a unstoppable teen machine

133. Kate Campbell (with Spooner Oldham) – “For the Living of These Days”

So we reach the last from the Campbell stable (unless my beloved goes and buys another from the back catalogue in the near future).

Kate Campbell For the Living of These Days Spooner Oldham album coverThis time Kate gives full credit to long-time collaborator Spooner Oldham. He has usually popped in for a track or three on most of her albums, but here he works much harder, contributing organ, piano and Wurlitzer on most of the tracks.

The organ might be a slight hint at the vibe here. No, she ain’t getting all 60s Beat. Rather Campbell is embracing her Baptist roots and singing praises to the Lord etc.

Now, I was quite accepting of such dubious lyrical content in the past, but only because it was upbeat, rapturous, gospel style.

Here it is too slow, too hymnal. It just isn’t my cup of tea, and I really struggle through an entire album of it.

Campbell does roll out the interesting rhetorical device of how would someone like Jesus be perceived by upright modern-day Christians (Would they Love Him down in Shreveport). Unfortunately, Rory McLeod does this much more effectively on his What would Jesus do number. And, of course, XTC blow them all away on Dear God.

File under: Too much God for my liking