On Rotation: Jens Lekman, Hot Chip, Moloko

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Jens Lekman – Night Falls Over Kortedala (2007)

The problem with listening to this album in one sitting is that it brings out the songs’ sameness: they are all, for the most part, insanely beautiful, with a retro influence plus some quirk in tempo, structure, or production. The genre mashups shouldn’t be predictable, but all feels a little calculated and shallow. Or maybe the album is just so good that I’m taking Lekman’s talent for granted. Anyway, I prefer to listen to the songs individually to get lost in them.

Least favourite track: “It Was a Strange Time in My Life.” I don’t usually pick one of these out, but special mention must be made to this song. The child vocals are far too gimmicky, not to mention irritating. There’s some surprisingly mean lines about shy people that I take offense to. And given that other songs on this album easily manage to make things such as getting a haircut or accidentally slicing off the tip of your finger sound romantic, does Lekman really feel the need to convince us he can be strange?

Favourite track: “Kanske Är Jag Kär I Dig.” This one has my favourite retro influence, a doo wop backing, and my favourite quirk, the music “stuttering” along with the lyrics. Best of all is the way the stuttering gets incorporated into the triumphant, wordless closing sequence, suggesting that the narrator’s inability to say something impressive isn’t going to hold him back.

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Hot Chip – One Life Stand (2010)

Hot Chip are definitely a singles band; their albums tend to be full of tracks that are so mushy, not to mention borderline atonal, that they barely qualify as songs. One Life Stand is, on the whole, stronger than 2008’s Made in the Dark, but it doesn’t have anything as brilliant as “One Pure Thought” or “Ready for the Floor,” either. The band is over-reliant on major/minor key changes and Joe Goddard’s mumbled vocals continue to ruin any song where he gets the lead, but the band’s better moments are good enough that I won’t give up on them.

Favourite track: “Hand Me Down Your Love.” This one keeps things simple, rhythmic, and sweet without being cloying.

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Moloko – Statues (2002)

I’ve always hated Statues’ album art, not just because the goofy portraits are mostly unflattering, but because they give you no clue about the songs contained within. Statues is Róisín Murphy and Mark Brydon’s breakup album, personally and professionally. It’s not a fun listen. Unfortunately, it’s also pretty bland, without the edge and eccentricity that characterise Moloko’s earlier albums, as well as Murphy’s solo career.

Favourite track: This album has a few 5-minute-plus semi-epics, but fewer danceable numbers. “Forever More” is both. A lively bass line keeps the whole thing moving along as the song builds and shifts, going through distorted vocals, trumpets, synth stabs, and piano and organ freakouts. It’s also one of the few songs on Statues that lyrically addresses something that nonetheless underpins the whole album: deep feelings of loss and longing that seem all the stronger because the songs have been written around them. Watching the video also reminds me that this song is why I became interested in Moloko in the first place.

On Rotation: Tori Amos, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Mansun

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Tori Amos – To Venus and Back (1999)

Believe it or not, this is my go-to Amos album. The sound, both airy and dense, does muffle and cloud the songs a little. However, it’s the sound I appreciate, especially since To Venus and Back came just before Amos began to forsake songs and sound in favour of concept. Plus, the live recording on the second disc is just gravy.

Favourite track: “Bliss” may have been the only Venus track to make it onto Amos’ Tales of a Librarian best of, but “Glory of the 80s” is this album’s centerpiece.

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Siouxsie and the Banshees – Peepshow (1988)

This album doesn’t get much love (did it even get a remastered edition along with so many of the band’s others?), but I’m fond of it. It may not be as strong as the band’s past work, and it does seem to mark the start of a downward slide that they never pulled out of, but there’s only one song I don’t enjoy here. Ironically, it’s “Peek-a-Boo,” which was a successful single.

Favourite track: “The Killing Jar.” Best single from the album.

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Mansun – Attack of the Grey Lantern (1996)

The most interesting Britpop was always happening outside the edges of the “Blur or Oasis?” question. Mansun may not be in the same league as The Divine Comedy, Pulp or The Boo Radleys, but only because they never produced more than one great album. And Attack of the Grey Lantern does have greatness to it. It’s big yet complex, and bursting with ideas. You don’t even need to know it’s almost a concept album to appreciate the twists and turns in the lyrics, the rhythms in the vocals, or the contemptuous streak that makes it feel so cohesive.

Favourite track: “Stripper Vicar.” Can’t think what I could mean by “rhythms in the vocals?” Listen to this one.

On Rotation: Lost in Translation Soundtrack, The Damned, Le Tigre

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Various Artists – Lost in Translation (2003)

This soundtrack is an incredibly cohesive standalone album, especially considering that it was integral to the film, and that it features contributions from 11 artists. All the songs fit together to create a unified mood with different shades of feeling. Including Peaches’ “Fuck the Pain Away” just wouldn’t have been right.

Favourite track: The Jesus and Mary Chain – “Just Like Honey.” I always look forward to this one. An inspired way to end the film, and a fine closing track.

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The Damned – Phantasmagoria (1985)

Is it awful that my only experiences with The Damned come from Phantasmagoria and their appearance on The Young Ones? This album is a strong one, with a playful feel, but only a couple of the songs are standouts. These include the country-ish “Shadow of Love” (the longer mix included here even snatches a riff from “Ghost Riders in the Sky”), the Madness-esque “Grimly Fiendish,” and…

Favourite track: …opener “Street of Dreams.” Excellent saxophone here, which combines to great effect with pounding drums and ghostly vocals on the chorus.

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Le Tigre – Le Tigre (1999)

Seeing The Punk Singer, a documentary about Kathleen Hanna, set me off on buying up her back catalogue. I already own Le Tigre’s debut, though, so gave it another spin.

Favourite track: “Deceptacon.” How could it not be?!

On Rotation: Tom Waits, Midnight Juggernauts, Goldfrapp

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Tom Waits – Real Gone (2004)

Real Gone is a messy, messy album, and in some ways that’s a good thing. With the beatboxing and the recorded-in-a-bathroom sound, Waits finds a whole new way of being ramshackle, even though by 2004 he had been ramshackle for quite a long time. But the length of the songs and the overall length of the album weakens it. Of the fifteen songs on here, more than half feel a little unnecessary. “Don’t Go Into That Barn” never really goes anywhere (funnily enough), “Top of the Hill” is totally shambolic, and having “Trampled Rose” and “Dead and Lovely” on the same album is just redundant.

I do like the songs from this album more when they’re separated from each other and performed live. “Make it Rain,” in particular, is so much better in live versions.

Favourite track: “Hoist That Rag.” Love Waits barking the title, and the way the song’s complicated and rough at the same time.

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Midnight Juggernauts – Dystopia (2007)

I first heard this guitar-based electronica group on a mix album put together by fellow Melbournites Cut Copy. Midnight Juggernauts haven’t achieved Cut Copy’s level of success and, based just on this album, I don’t find them as appealing. They have a big, spacey sound that I like (what you see on the album cover is what you get in the music) but the lyrics are unremarkable, and the vocals have an affected quality I can’t warm up to. They have a few good songs on here, and the rest is just enjoyable for the sound.

Favourite track: “Worlds Converged.” The band often seem to be mixing elements that don’t quite fit together, but the contrasts in this one work really well.

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Goldfrapp – Supernature (2005)

My liking for Goldfrapp is largely based on their first album, Felt Mountain, and their singles. They tend to have uneven album tracks, when they’re not dipping into genres that I don’t much like. (I love 80s music, but Head First draws on some of the worst sounds to come out of the decade.) Still, it’s always interesting to see what they’ll try next, and when they’re good, they’re fantastic. That honky tonk piano on “Satin Chic” is weird and wonderful. (No, I haven’t heard Songs of Us yet. Maybe that’s another Goldfrapp album that will work for me in full.)

Favourite track: “Number 1.” A song I can listen to anywhere, anywhen.

Unfulfilled possibilities: Einstürzende Neubauten’s Ende Neu

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Endu Neu was my first Einstürzende Neubauten album, which worked out well, considering that it’s their most accessible. It’s a collection of largely straightforward, frequently repetitive songs that still display the band’s intellectual outlook and unconventional approach to instrumentation. It’s enough to whet the appetite, but feels rather milquetoast and uninspired in comparison to much of their other work. Their earlier albums often showed a near-unmatchable primal chaos, while their later albums would display a honed refinement befitting a mature band. Ende Neu is caught in the middle, released in 1996, when EN were in the process of creative transformation, both in their lineup and in their music. Even in its title, Endu Neu (Ending New) clears the way for new directions, which it hints at but will not be embarked upon with confidence before the future additions of band members Jochen Arbeit and Rudi Moser.

In all of their incarnations, EN have a particular alchemy in their onstage performances that mean the live versions of their songs are usually better than those you’ll hear on their albums. This is markedly the case with Ende Neu‘s songs, half of which won’t reach full fruition until performed onstage with Arbeit and Moser. “Installation No. 1” and “NNNAAAMMM,” both playful and terribly danceable, are at their best on 9-15-2000, Brussels or at the 20th Anniversary Columbiahalle concert. In Alexander Hacke’s monumental basslines, Arbeit’s jangling and scratching guitar, Moser and N. U. Unruh’s percussive interjections and Blixa Bargeld’s unpredictable vocal loops, the songs come alive. “Was Ist Ist,” a supposed celebration of new potentialities, wouldn’t take its truest form until the Palast der Republik performances, where a choir of enthusiastic fans added their voices, both in guided chants and personal additions. Personally, I find “Ende Neu” pretty dull (the way the verses decrease in length by one bar as the song progresses is the only interesting thing about it), but it does improve when live, with Moser and Hacke bringing full force to their plastic drumming.

Of the other tracks, “Der Schacht von Babel” is a complete throwaway, while string-heavy “The Garden” is nice enough, but so repetitive and subdued that it doesn’t withstand multiple listens. (I wish EN would stop playing it at their concerts, let alone opening with it.) “Stella Maris,” however, is a lovely ballad. While it barely hints at Meret Becker’s great talents as a singer and performer, she makes a fine foil for Bargeld in this duet. Bargeld’s wavering guitar is also pleasantly melodic. That’s a phrase that stands well at odds with EN’s earlier work; it’s no wonder that original band member F.M. Einheit, who would soon part with the group, looked in on the recording of “Stella Maris” and felt total disinterest.

The song from Ende Neu that I feel represents EN at its mercurial finest and can’t be improved upon is “Der Explosion im Festspielhaus.” Silence and subtlety would be an increasingly dominant component of EN’s future work (as is underlined in the title of their next album, 2000’s Silence is Sexy), and they’re vital to this song. It describes the creation of the universe, an erotic event, wth a smooth bass line, a barely-there organ, the scratching of pen on paper, and male and female vocals. Bargeld delivers much of the lyrics in a bass rumble, but is joined by Becker and Jennifer Levy in a multi-layered choir of whispering and keening, announced by the clatter of a metal plate.

Ende Neu is EN’s slightest album, containing uncertainty that weakens it and possibilities that largely won’t be fulfilled here. However, it does display the band’s palette of electric, plastic, metal, and still more unlikely sounds, as well as concepts that come uniquely from the mind of Blixa Bargeld. Biba Kopf provides liner notes that describe how and why the songs were made, which adds to an appreciation of the album. Ende Neu cannot, I think, fail to give the new listener a sense of excitement about all that they have yet to hear from Einstürzende Neubauten.

On Rotation: The Boo Radleys, Fiona Apple, Sheila Chandra

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The Boo Radleys – Giant Steps (1993)

I don’t listen to this one too closely because I feel like I’ll have lost something if it stops surprising me. It’s better to stay uncertain about what’s going to float up out of the distortion and fuzz. A sweet melody, a sad little lyric, a triumphant burst of sound, or a sinuous bass line… Off-beat guitar stabs, layer upon layer of wistful voices, or something that could have been nabbed from The Pop Group’s “Wise Up Sucker”… It might be anything, and that’s what makes this a truly great psychedelic album.

Favourite track: “Upon 9th and Fairchild,” mostly because of its sense of repressed anger, especially in the contrast between the pissed-off guitar riff and Martin Carr’s lethargic repetitions of “This is my life too” on the chorus.

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Fiona Apple – Extraordinary Machine (2005)

I’m happy to listen to this one at any given time, but hadn’t done so in far too long.

Favourite track: “Waltz (Better Than Fine).” For all the kerfuffle over Jon Brion’s production of this album, the only two songs that still bear his credit, this and the title track, are nonetheless its best.

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Sheila Chandra – Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices (1992)

I finally bought something by Sheila Chandra after seeing her perform on Later… with Jools Holland, oh, probably a decade ago. Weaving is a sparse album, comprising only Chandra’s voice and the occasional accompanying drone, but it’s such a consummate blending of many vocal traditions that it’s a rich album, too. Someone buy me all her others, please.

Favourite track: “Speaking in Tongues II,” for the way it displays Chandra’s vocal dexterity, and for its resolute mysteriousness.

Taking a Shot: Stop Making Sense (Jonathan Demme, 1984)

It’s true that Stop Making Sense was put together from footage filmed at three different Talking Heads shows, and that the band rerecorded some of the audio to cover technical issues. It’s certainly not a raw concert film, nor was it meant to be. However, this takes nothing away from the energy and chemistry apparent between the musicians. The performances are fundamental in this regard, but it helps that Demme avoids music video style quick cuts, using plenty of longer shots to get the viewer involved in what the musicians are doing. The most obvious example of this is “Once in a Lifetime,” which goes more than four minutes without a cut. I’m fond of one particular shot from near the end of “Burning Down the House,” however.

The camera starts over here, with David Byrne and Alex Weir strumming away madly together…

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…then, wavering slightly, it follows Weir as he goes over to his microphone…

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…then it moves, blurring the image in its enthusiasm, over to Byrne in the middle of the stage…

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…and then over to Jerry Harrison, Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt doing something joyous and indescribable.

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This film is supposed to make the viewer feel as though they, not the people who attended the shows, are the audience. In shots like this, the camera moves as if it’s the viewer’s eye, looking across the stage and back again. If we were there, we wouldn’t be able to take everything in, because there would be too much to see. Demme makes that clear within this single shot, which also connects five of the band in order to show how caught up they are in the music they’re all making together.