Flowers: Icehouse (1980)
Icehouse (known as Flowers until shortly after the release of this album) are the sort of band you could almost reduce to a best-of and leave it at that. Iva Davies wrote for the charts, even if he was aiming at ‘meaningful’ pop some of the time. Generally speaking, his good songs are catchy and smart, his persona and vocal inflection lends him a Numan/Bowie cachet, and the albums are mainly window-dressing to support the singles. Nothing wrong with that, the singles charts were a great place to be in the early-Eighties. So I could have left it at that… except for this album, which exceeds preconceptions and satisfies all the way through. In fact, it plays like a best-of for the entire first side. “Icehouse”, “We Can Get Together”, “Fatman”, Sister” and “Walls” are all in their own ways iconic representations of Australian chart music circa 1980; inextricably linked to Blue Light Discos (the police-sponsored youth dances of the day, which sounds rather bizarre 30-odd years later, but they really did happen) and the more commercial radio stations. Side Two opens with maybe their best song, “Can’t Help Myself”, before a bunch of more uneven tracks rounds out the album. “Sons” seems to be an attempt at an epic that only just holds its own, but “Skin” works just fine, “Boulevarde” in on a par with anything on Side One, and “Not My Kind” closes the album efficiently enough. And then there’s “Nothing To Do”, easily the oddest track and one that gave me a shock hearing it back – it’s not just a homage to Lou Reed but almost an exact replication of both his music and vocals. International audiences are more familiar with the Icehouse of 1982 onwards, but Davies never topped the band’s debut; it’s not terribly deep but it’s up there with the best of the commercial bands of the time.
We Can Get Together
Can’t Help Myself
The Pogues: Rum, Sodomy and the Lash (1985)
Shane McGowan is that rare thing – a singer deeply expressive and expert at interpreting and conveying his lyrics, and at the same time so convincingly natural that you could imagine him stepping up from the crowd in an Irish pub to belt out a song extempore. These songs come across as roughshod and calamitous, but don’t be fooled; beneath the casual exterior (and instrumentation that’s admittedly more workmanlike than virtuoso) lies a sharp musical sense and well-controlled vocal work. And an economy of delivery that keeps the songs springy, vital and contemporary. There’s no sentimentality here, no harking back to the old folk traditions with a nostalgic heart. Instead, there’s hardness, a clearheaded attack that’s almost cold, commitment to the bitter truths in songs like “A Pair of Brown Eyes”, “Billy’s Bones” and Ewan McColl’s “Dirty Old Town”. And what McGowan does to Eric Bogle’s “The Band Plays Waltzing Matilda”… it’s been turned inside out, from sad sentiment to gritty elegy. Updating the Irish folk tradition for a modern audience is no easy task, steeped as it is in its own history. The only real way to achieve it is to make it sound dangerous, to get it up in your face so that it’s impossible to ignore. Elvis Costello, in the producer’s chair, made that immediacy his sole focus with this album, keeping it miles away from artifice while clarifying the sound, and pretty much leaving it at that. Also of significance is that, overpowering as Shane McGowan’s presence can be, he’s not overused; there are two instrumentals (“Wild Cats of Kilkenny” and “A Pistol for Paddy Garcia”), and he hands the vocal duties over twice as well, to Cait O’Riordan on “A Man You Don’t Meet Every Day” and Spider Stacy on “Jesse James”. Still, the greatest moments are all McGowan.
Dirty Old Town
A Pair of Brown Eyes
The Birthday Party: Prayers on Fire (1981)
Nick Cave has subsequently become something of an icon, mythologising his own life through a discography with the Bad Seeds that may as well have been a solo career, such was its self-referential nature. I find it hard to stick with him through a full album, though there’s no doubt he hit a number of peaks with individual songs. With the Birthday Party, he was much tighter and wilder, and a lot more ominous as well. Most of the band’s releases through their Boys Next Door incarnation are worth listening to; there’s a spark to them, but they do come across as a bit mannered, smart, self-conscious. They appeared to be trying to impress within more or less conventional pop/rock structures. And they did too. But there’s none of that attitude on Prayers on Fire. By this point they’d thrown any idea of ‘points of identification’ with their audience out the window, and had burrowed deep inside their own sound, their own reflexes and instincts, even their own language. And it’s their commitment to that approach, their willingness to push it until it reached a breaking point, that makes their music so exciting. It’s right there at the start of opening track “Zoo Music Girl”. A nasty, fast bassline, then guitar squall and keyboard chords slapped on top, topped with chanted words. It’s already chaotic, and that’s before Nick Cave hurls his freeform lyrics into it. The whole album is a series of listening challenges, more or less recognisable musical forms and structures grounding savage attacks that come from everywhere. The Birthday Party were constantly evolving. Prayers on Fire represented the point at which songs were being vandalised from the inside, leaving the framework intact. After this came Junkyard, in which even the forms of the songs were pulled apart; and then of course the band itself, which had nothing left to do except implode. You don’t get many bands as purely dangerous as this, letting you know from the outset that they don’t care if it all explodes in their faces. The Stooges, the Sex Pistols, these guys, and then I don’t know, not much since then.
Nick the Stripper
Zoo Music Girl
The Wedding Present: George Best (1987)
What you hear, when you first play this album, is hyperactive fast-paced guitar and a miserable North England voice droning on about how horrible his lovelife is. But give it time. These are really good songs, and they reveal subtleties the more you listen to them. British indie music was undergoing a renaissance in the late-Eighties, what with the Smiths taking all before them, the Cure retooling their sound for wider consumption and the C-86 movement unleashing a slew of bands onto the radio. C-86, for those who don’t already know, was a 1986 NME compilation on cassette, featuring 22 independent bands – it didn’t launch many careers, but it did force a change of direction in the music scene in general. The Wedding Present, the last band on the cassette, did pretty well out of it, with a career that’s still going. What held them back a bit – apart that is from a backlash from the music press a couple of albums in – was that singer David Gedge’s voice didn’t have a whole lot of range, and tended to get mixed too low, such that it got lost in the general buzzy guitar sound. Up against the vocal gymnastics of the Smiths’ Morrissey he did pale a bit. But the songs are great, particularly on this no-fuss, no-indulgence set. Gedge is always less sorry for himself than disappointed with others. On “Shatner” he’s ticking off a girl for romanticising a domestic violence situation. On “All About Eve” he has a go at apartheid. And on “Nothing Comes Easy” he’s telling a couple of elopers to just get on with it. But mainly he’s just pissed off with girls – girlfriends who lie to him, girls who tell him they’re not home, girlfriends who flirt with other guys, ex-girlfriends who flaunt their new guys in front of him. He’s got a great way of expanding the theme, never lapsing into self-pity but resisting the urge to let disappointment devolve into bitterness. He’s just irritated that these differences will never be resolved, that we’ll all be subject to them all our lives.
My Favourite Dress
Why Are You Being So Reasonable Now?
The Sunnyboys: Sunnyboys (1981)
I have this idea I’ve been developing that pop songwriting, as a creative force, more or less exhausted itself around the mid-Eighties. Up until then, going right back to the start of ‘rock and roll’ in the Fifties, there’d never been a shortage of bands who could crank out an album of 10 or 12 quality pop/rock tunes – I should say individualistic pop/rock tunes. After that, what with rap and metal pulling bands in different directions, and the rapid commercialisation and homogenisation of chart music, the market for that sort of thing dried up, and bands started to lose the knack for it. The stuff worth listening to in the Nineties was largely experimental in conception, genre-based in categorisation, or ‘concept album’ in execution. And progressively mechanised, with control panels doing a lot of the work that once came from instruments. That’s an oversimplification, but it is true that when basic pop/rock practitioners such as the White Stripes or the Strokes came along in 2001, it sounded revolutionary. Things had gone that far. Back in 1981, bands like the Sunnyboys could hit the charts with simple, melodic, riff-driven pop with no particular overriding message or attitude. The songs on Sunnyboys are bright, smart and mostly pacy, with just a hint of teenage melancholy lurking beneath them to give them weight. Critics at the time were probably right to say that the album constituted a good first step, one which singer/songwriter Jeremy Oxley needed to develop in order to make the band significant. But due to various difficulties that didn’t happen, and we are left with this document to his potential greatness. The two hits – “Happy Man” and “Alone With You” – are as good as anything released in Australia that year, and the whole album is a quality listen with a few other high points and no disappointments. It’s a testament to an era where writing chart hits was something almost any band had the tools to do.
Alone With You
Cocteau Twins: Treasure (1984)
I wish I could track down the article I read years ago where it explained that all the songs on Treasure were named after cats. Nobody seems to be aware of it these days, so much so that I’m starting to doubt myself. But then no other suggestions have been offered (apart from “Ivo” sharing its name with 4AD identity Ivo Watts-Davies, but no link has been confirmed), and I really hope it’s true because these songs are so feline. By which I mean they reflect the dreamlike, insular, incomprehensively motivated, randomly savage existence of cats. I can’t listen to the album without thinking of it that way, anyway. So much time has been wasted by so many people trying to get to the bottom of Elizabeth Fraser’s lyrics, but it really doesn’t matter. Her vocals are supposed to be opaque, something you think you can grasp but are never quite able to. It’s easy to sing along with the gibberish and interpret it whatever way you want; the feel is unmistakable, and that’s what the Cocteau Twins are aiming to project. The other thing about it is that, on this album more than any other in their catalogue, the vocals are subservient to the instrumentation. The mood, the tension, the emotion are all being conveyed through the musical arrangements, and for once Fraser is simply feeding into the mix instead of dictating the direction. They’ve never really come across as simply backing music for an amazing singer (as they so easily could have, because that is one incredible voice), but on Treasure everything is at an artistic and creative peak. It’s not easy to imagine, but you can just figure out what these pieces would sound like without the vocals, and they’d still be compelling – as they are on the largely voiceless penultimate track, “Otterley”. The Cocteau Twins created an utterly unique sound – vibrant/ethereal is hard to pull off – and Treasure captures them deploying it at their peak.
Robert Cray: Strong Persuader (1986)
The only time Cray displays any true compassion or regard for others’ feelings here is on the song that lends a lyric to the album’s title, “Right Next Door”. And on that one he’s eavesdropping on a break-up he caused and plans to do nothing to make right. It’s a great song because the economical unfussy guitar work perfectly suits the economical unfussy emotions on display: ‘I should go to her, but what would I say? It’s because of me.’ The whole album works like that, rolling tales of infidelity, suspicion, betrayal, revenge and jealousy over you so easily they almost sound like fun. “Smoking Gun” is a neat, three-part story of a cheating girl and him responding the only way he knows how to. “I Guess I Showed Her” plays its hand halfway through – the reason he’s taken this motel room is because he found his girl with another man; leaving her is revenge enough. The release of Strong Persuader caused a bit of excitement at the time, because sales of blues music had been on the outer for years, and Cray had brought it back to the charts again. At times, especially toward the end of the album, the blues influences are very strong, but it’s also a bit of a hybrid, with the hooks on the better-known songs quite commercial-sounding. It’s a wonder that approach hasn’t diluted the sound, because it still all sounds very authentic; you can put that down to Cray’s distinctive guitar style, which has absorbed a lot but has come out very genuine, individual and tight. The mix of blues mastery and saleability was something he developed through the early-Eighties but never quite nailed until this point. The magic was still there for the next album, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, but the chart success didn’t come and the approach was a little more forced. Cray’s been busy ever since, but Strong Persuader is the only time he intersected with the mainstream.
Right Next Door (Because of Me)
I Guess I Showed Her
Tom Waits: Swordfishtrombones (1983)
It’s no revelation to say that Waits underwent a significant change in direction between 1981’s Heartattack and Vine and this album. The musical style went from edgy cocktail piano to a more austere Weill/Beefheart combination. And it’s easy to put it down to the old direction getting stale and outdated, and a shake-up being required. But what’s happened here is far more seismic than that. It’s not like Radiohead from Ok Computer to Kid A, for instance. That was a radical shift in musical approach with them, from grandiose to minimalist; but the attitude remained the same, Thom Yorke saw the world in much the same alienated, insular way, and you could trace a throughline. Waits, however, completely destroyed his old persona with Swordfishtrombones. Snuffed it out. He was no longer casting a jaded and cynical eye over his milieu, he was no longer sniggering at it and occasionally letting you in on the joke. He’d made the decision somewhere deep inside himself to identify with his oddballs and misfits, to share in their stories and properly empathise with them. So, although this disparate and at times jarring collection of songs and instrumental pieces is difficult to come to terms with, it is direct. It aims straight at you, as for instance with “Johnsburg, Illinois” a naked love song to his wife; or “Frank’s Wild Years”, a narrative not unlike those he’d employed earlier in his career, but with no smart ‘commentary’ on his protagonist, just a straight telling of his macabre tale. Until this album, Waits was a respectable enough musical practitioner with a devoted if smallish audience. But from this point on he mattered. That kind of transformation is rare. And that he never subsequently regressed to the old style demonstrates that it really was life-changing, whatever brought it about. Swordfishtrombones is a thrilling album because of the joy of the change, the utter commitment to this new life; and it’s a thrill that echoes in every track. It really is an amazing listen, like a new world dawning.
In the Neighborhood
Aztec Camera: High Land, Hard Rain (1983)
You can’t not like this album. You might find it inconsequential I suppose, maybe you could find the sound a bit lightweight, it certainly doesn’t take music anywhere it hasn’t been before. But on the other hand it’s intelligent, it’s breezy, the music is uplifting without being cloying, and the 35 minutes or so just fly past. Roddy Frame occupied similar territory to Orange Juice, Lloyd Cole, UK Squeeze, even the Smiths in part, but he stamped his own character on his work right from the start. His was a more passive and observational approach – whereas most of the other folkie/guitary artists fashioned complaints and demands out of their lyrics, Frame concentrated on making the music do the work, offering merely earnest and literate sentiments in the main. In fact, I’ll be honest here; I’ve been reading over the lyrics to these songs, and I’m not getting a lot of meaning out of them. It’s almost as if they’re written to sound significant without being specific. They may actually mean something strongly personal to him, he injects them with meaning and passion, they’re just not conveying all that much. Which is fine with me. Lots of pop music is like that, and at least he’s not lapsing into clichè. Besides which, it leaves the field uncluttered so you can focus on the wonderful music, which is deceptively intricate, confident, and ranges nicely over a number of styles. It’s an uncommonly well-rounded debut album, especially considering Frame was still only 19 on its release. The pity is that his label never quite knew how to market him and which direction he should go from here. They pushed him for more chart-friendliness on his next couple of albums, and it compromised hims output pretty badly. He never really recaptured the freshness of High Land, Hard Rain, although he did come up with the odd quality single now and then.
Walk Out to Winter
Neville Brothers: Yellow Moon (1989)
This is a legitimately underrated album. Maybe it’s because the Neville Brothers had been around forever without really igniting the charts, or perhaps because Aaron Neville went straight from here to uber-cheese, starting with “Don’t Know Much” with Linda Ronstadt in 1990. But for some reason this album doesn’t get the respect it deserves. The Neville Brothers are New Orleans born and bred, and that swampy bayou sound permeates all their work. Especially on this album. The title track, to take one example, is really quite simply put together, and its imagery is non-specific – the only nuggets of information you can glean are that there’s a railroad track nearby and she’s a Creole. But they’re enough to conjure up a whole landscape of dirt and lonely tracks and ramshackle houses, and it’s all in the mood and the feel that Daniel Lanois (a native of New Orleans himself) brought to the production of Yellow Moon. The songs the band penned for the album are more closely tied to that creole sound than the ones they chose to cover. But every one of the covers is a standout, none more so than Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”. Everyone notices the love and hurt Aaron Neville overlays on Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” – it’s a difficult song to pull off as a soul-stirrer, as it’s manifestly a hard-arse protest number, though Neville just about manages it – but he plays Cooke straight and the simplicity of his dedication is transcendent. The album opens with a ‘stand up’ style song, the quietly stirring “My Blood”, going out to all their African kin over the world. It ends with a pair of ’embracing’ tracks – the benevolent “Healing Chant” and raucous, inclusive, “Wild Injuns”. They’re as apt a pair of bookends as you could find for this uplifting album.
Fire and Brimstone