Tuesday, September 09, 2008

SONG: "1492" - Counting Crows (Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings, 2008)

In recent times I’ve found myself in a bit of a quandary when asked to name my favourite albums.

Somewhat harshly ranked #33 in Q magazine’s list of all-time Guilty Pleasures, Counting Crows’ 1993 debut August and Everything After was always, always my favourite record. Naysayers be damned - with its rootsy orchestration (recorded in a big house - just like The Band!), gut-wrenching sentiments (“Time and time again / I can’t please myself…” – right on!) and a healthy dollop of melancholy (two songs with the word ‘Rain’ in the title!), what the hell was there not to love?

Well, plenty, as it happens. I bought the double-disc Special Edition of the album recently and it still holds up incredibly well, but there’s been a disheartening trend in Counting Crows’ subsequent output that’s seen them edge gradually further away from the band I fell hook, line and sinker for all those years ago. Would the sorry likes of New Frontier ever have been allowed to slip past the quality-control barrier back in the day? Would Amy Grant have been allowed to belch a few ill-advised “Bap-bap-bop”s over the likes of Sullivan Street as she was last time around on their lightweight cover of Big Yellow Taxi? In fact, is any of this behaviour even faintly becoming of a band responsible for the magisterial likes of A Long December? Frankly, I think not.

Frontman and chief ornithologist Adam Duritz recently came clean about his history of mental illness and the struggles with prescription medication which caused his dramatic weight-gain over the past decade. These revelations put a rather problematic spin on their latest record, which I admit makes me feel rather bad about glibly dismissing it as the ramblings of a boozed-up middle-aged model-fucker upon first listen. Indeed, since learning more about the album’s genesis I’ve felt compelled to go back and listen to it afresh from the point of view of the artist’s intention: a portrait of Duritz slowly losing his mind and attempting to get it back again. Be warned though - this is an album you’ve got to really want to love.

Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings’ spiritual kin is clearly Recovering the Satellites, the band’s bruised and bloodied sophomore effort which their singer frequently cites as their greatest achievement. Like that album, Saturday Nights totters woozily from one track to the next and buzzes with the disorienting hum of a sickly adhesive. It’s a more obviously lived-in record than the sugary pop of 2003’s Hard Candy, and a conscious attempt to return to both the live group dynamic and emotional honesty of their early work.

There’s a snag though: it’s just not that great. As suggested by the band’s ambitious but frequently infuriating habit of modifying their own material mid-performance, the songs here often ramble formlessly in a futile quest for melody and structure. Constantly teetering on the brink of all-out anguish, as a concept album it’s also fairly uninspired – the first half mostly lacks the exuberance required to set up Side Two’s broken comedown, which drifts by in a haze of twinkling pianos, shuffling acoustics and half-finished balladry. That it’s eventually enlivened solely by closing track Come Around (itself a rather lazy retread of A Murder of One) to me speaks volumes for the band’s collective lack of inspiration.

To be quite honest – and it really does pain me to say this about a group I used to cherish so dearly – but for all the empathy you want to feel for the man, it’s actually getting pretty tedious to listen to Duritz bang on about how his “dizzy life is just a hanging tree”. Whereas the singer used to cloak his insecurities in layers of poetic imagery, nowadays his confessionals have a tendency to sound more like the self-indulgent clatterings of a man given way too much creative leeway. Taken as a whole, the record suffers from the exact same problem that blighted Damien Rice’s 9 – while I’m an avid supporter of honesty in music, the relentless onslaught of naked outpouring is all just a little too much to bear. Indeed, when coupled with the band’s diminishing capacity to construct anything resembling a tune (they badly need David Bryson or T-Bone Burnett to grab hold of the reigns and steer them back on course), it makes for a rather drab and depressing affair that’s closer to Ryan Adams’ abortive “masterpiece” Love is Hell than anything in the Crows’ otherwise palatable back catalogue. All things considered, there’s just not a whole lot to love here.

There is, however, one track on the album which rises high above the firmament to prove itself the equal of any song from their glorious heyday. Opening rocker 1492 is the song in which Duritz inadvertently captures everything he fails so heroically to convey on the rest of the LP – the squalor, the degradation, the heady rush of stumbling from bar to bar blind drunk on a cocktail of euphoria and self-disgust. Whereas many of the album’s lyrics take the form of straightforward first-person confessional, here Duritz wraps himself in metaphor once again as he reconfigures the history of America into his own quest for meaning and identity: “I’m a Russian Jew American / impersonating African, Jamaican…”, he slurs violently before throwing himself headlong into “the dark Italian underground, of disco lights and disco sound / of skinny girls who drink champagne, and take me on their knees again”. Pitching himself as a pathetic modern-day Columbus, the song represents Duritz’s desperate search for meaning in the sordid wasteland of his own self-loathing as he seeks validation in every outlet available to him. Ultimately, however, his quest is rendered futile when he falls victim to “the silence that surrounds us, and drowns us in the end”; eventually he has no choice but to surrender to the beautiful, shattering conclusion that “I am the king of everything / I am the king of nothing”.

Not since Angels of the Silences have the band rocked this hard or scraped such towering emotive heights. Rough, ragged and topped off by the most expressive, tumbling exhalations this side of the lacerating howl which opened Weezer’s Pinkerton (an entirely more successful exercise in public flagellation), 1492 is frantic, exhilarating and quite possibly the best thing Counting Crows have ever done. It is magnificent. It’s so good, in fact, that it proved the album’s lone saving grace in meeting a premature fate at the hands of eBay.

Having given them the benefit of the doubt (let’s face it, any band capable of conjuring something as magical as Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby deserves a second chance once in a while), I decided to let the album settle before going back and giving it one last shot. Sure enough, it’s a tough listen, but I’m slowly coming around to accepting its flaws as part of one man’s rocky road to recovery. Reprieve granted for the time being, Duritz. Just, y’know, a bit more discretion next time around …

Sunday, September 07, 2008

ALBUM: "Letters From the Underground" - Levellers (On the Fiddle Recordings, 2008)

There was an interesting article which appeared in American satirical mag The Onion during the run-up to the 2004 Presidential election. Largely eschewing the acerbic humour for which the publication is famed, author Jacob Ainsworth instead posed a simple but potent question: “Where Are You Now When We Need You Most, Rage Against the Machine?”. In a climate of fear, reactionary politics and widespread disillusionment with the powers-that-be, never it seemed had a country needed a single band more. Zack De La Rocha's acrimonious split from the quartet after a decade of rocking and rabble-rousing had left a gaping hole in the mainstream's ability to bring underground politics to the masses - indeed, one need look only at the fairly muted response to George W. Bush's dubious instatement as President across most of the major media outlets to affirm the fact that an outraged American public lacked a very definite focal point for their defiance.

Since the decline in their commercial stock around the turn of the century, one could argue much the same of the Levellers. Back in the 90s you could not only count on the band to be ranting and raving about the burning issue du jour on each of their albums, but would most likely bump into them on the street waving a banner with the rest of Britain’s concerned citizens. Inevitably, perhaps, the revolutionary zeal couldn't last - I distinctly remember Mark Chadwick telling me around the time of their major-label blowout Hello Pig that he felt there was only so many times you could discuss political issues before starting to feel that you were bludgeoning people over the head. That the band would begin to mellow as the individual members found their priorities shifting wasn't an entirely unwelcome development - in actual fact, they were often at their most affecting when addressing matters of the heart. Nevertheless, their absence as cultural figureheads was notable to social justice campaigners. Where was their raucous outcry at the fall-out from 9/11, the invasion of Iraq and the Downing Street memo? They were still here, you knew they weren't happy about it, and in actuality the band continued to trade in a fine line of defeatist outcry somewhere under the radar. But without a massive chorus, a visible presence and the attention of the masses, they were no longer considered key figures for the counter-culture to rally around.

A recent feature in The Word pitched the sextet as a prime example of Ramones Syndrome: that elite collection of bands who just never seem to change. In truth, though - and this is a fact evidently pointed out to them by their new manager a few years ago in what can only be described as one of the most deserved kicks up the arse in recent memory - the Levellers should never be ashamed of their history. Hardcore-hero-turned-social-commentator Henry Rollins admitted on his recent tour to finding himself bewildered but energised by the fact that he seems to get more vitriolic with age. On this evidence, the Levellers seem to be feeling very much the same way, with the new LP slotting in nicely between the youthful vigour of Levelling the Land and the battered anger of its 1993 follow-up. Even a fleeting glance at the record's song titles - Death Loves Youth, Accidental Anarchist and Burn America Burn to name just three – should give you a fairly accurate indication of their agenda this time around. With the exception of catchy heartbreak anthem Before the End (a real standout), the lyrics are politically driven throughout and the album’s closing track, Fight or Flight, is even faintly reminiscent of Motörhead. Make no mistake, they’re pissed off. And by god, it makes for an absolutely cracking listen.

That they’ve never sounded more confident or self-assured speaks volumes for the renewed sense of purpose of a band entering into its third decade and realising that it still has something important to say. Rollicking opener The Cholera WellDirty Davey with a serious bee in its bonnet – sets the pace and tone with blistering intent. As ferocious as any barnstormer from their heyday, the track sees Jon Sevink’s fiddle restored to its rightful place at the forefront of the charge as drums race, guitars slash and the bassline bounces. Mark and Simon's vocals sound particularly frenzied on these faster numbers, with lyrics spilling off the page as if years of pent-up frustration have finally rediscovered their natural outlet.

And yet maturity serves them well this time around as compassion and understanding accompany age and experience. The album's finest moment arrives midway in the form of Behold a Pale Rider, a mournful and poetic ballad reminiscent of Mouth to Mouth's stirring centrepiece, the elegiac Far Away. Gone are the days when the band could be accused of reckless sloganeering in their lyrics; instead the track represents a genuinely moving attempt to come to terms with feelings of collective responsibility for the tragic events of 7/7 as Simon sings, "Millions cried sweet Mary / A million more cried tears of shame / When they saw what they had done in the name of all their hopes and fears / When they realised what they became".

Whereas previously it may have seemed like their weary latter-day anthem Wake the World represented the last gasp of the band's weathered political conscience, Letters From the Underground tackles their previous failures head-on and burns with the feeling that they must now attempt to improve the world for their children. It’s heartening that R.E.M.'s recent reawakening and the long-overdue return of Rage Against the Machine seems to have had a knock-on effect in popular culture that may yet direct the spotlight back towards this most vital of acts. Their zippiest and most consistent offering since 1995’s Zeitgeist, Letters from the Underground is exactly what long-term supporters of the band have been secretly longing for since the sonic curveball of Hello Pig and their well-intentioned but muddled subsequent output. However, to say this marks a return to form is to sell their achievements short; it's a rousing assault on apathy that for newcomers will prove as vital and exciting an introduction to the Levellers as any of their early recordings. It’s time to believe again.