Depeche Mode – Music For The Masses

Calxie #4 – Dr. Feelgood: Albums with medicinal properties.

Have you ever wondered what great artists did in their creative infancy? Before he started painting the ceilings of religious buildings and sculpting big blokes with small penises, did Michelangelo earn his keep doing caricatures of Pope Pius III and selling them to pilgrim tourists? Before Steve Reich screwed beautifully with the DNA of music, did he write jingles for dish soap ads? Who knows, maybe Calgon paid for his first marimba or something? Well, even if either of those were true, we wouldn’t have seen or heard them because they’re uninteresting and insignificant. So why do we still associate Depeche Mode with the annoying fluffy 80’s relic ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’? Vince Clarke, who wrote it before subsequently leaving to churn out further monstrosities with Erasure, surrendered creative control of the band to multi-instrumentalist Martin Gore. Thank God.

Martin Gore, in his own words, had a top-ten list of topics: “Relationships, domination, lust, love, good, evil, incest, sin, religion, immorality.” That’s the spirit! And who would have thought that topics like “domination” and “evil” could make great, near-universal pop music? Great pop music, yes, but also loud. At last proving that synthesizers could fill stadiums and goths’ bedrooms as well as mainstream clubs, Depeche Mode were fast on the way to conquering the world. Opener ‘Never Let Me Down Again’ pounds and pummels through an anxious fret on heroin addiction; ‘Strangelove’ takes co-dependent and self-destructive relationships and turns them into strings of irresistible choruses; ‘I Want You Now’ is one of the most sonically threatening love songs ever written while ‘Pimpf’ actually dares to stray into bizarre monk-like chanting, which would sound comical if it weren’t so musically alluring.

It still sounds staggering and, dare I say, refreshing. Singer Dave Gahan seemed to constantly play the twin role of victim and perpetrator; a vulnerable, yet strangely intimidating force. Alan Wilder’s dense keyboard arrangements deserve as much credit as Gore’s songwriting, more informed by Michael Nyman and Philip Glass than The Human League. They also introduced sounds which other pop bands wouldn’t touch; they would use a sound because it was effective, or even threatening, rather than because it was pretty. One only has to listen to the skin-crawling breathing sound (actually an accordion with no keys in use) on ‘I Want You Now’ – which also samples a porn movie – to realise this. Even so, despite love and sex being an oft-discussed topic on the record, it is a desperately unsexy piece of work, which is why it earns its place in this category for being an anti-aphrodisiac. Even through all the strangely intimate moments found here, trying to get “busy” with someone with this playing would just feel wrong, especially with tracks like the funeral march for under-age love ‘Little 15’ or the aforementioned ‘Pimpf’ which may make you believe you’re about to conceive Damien from The Omen. So, yes, do not use it to woo potential love interests unless you absolutely refrain from physical contact when doing so, or else your libido will be disappearing faster than you can say “viagra”.

‘Music for the Masses’ was supposed to be an ironic title, seeing as, after the shameless/shameful ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’, Depeche Mode had become a cult band. However, it was this LP that turned them into one of the biggest bands in the world; by the time the hysteria peaked, they were playing to 60,000 fans in a Pasadena stadium. There’s a very good reason why; it’s a supreme pop album that has informed the sound of Marilyn Manson, The Chemical Brothers and Lady Gaga. It’s also stood the test of time remarkably well and it still sounds immaculate (even more evident on the DVD surround sound package). Who the hell would listen to ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ over this (apart from Karl Pilkington)?

Key track: Nothing
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Lotus Plaza – The Floodlight Collective

Calxie #4 – Dr. Feelgood: Albums with medicinal properties.

Deerhunter guitarist Lockett Pundt, despite having the name of a spoilt child of an airhead celebrity, is a shy, slightly mysterious character. When me and my friend Ben went to see Deerhunter in Shepherd’s Bush, he came onto the stage long before the rest of the band to help set up and everyone thought he was a roadie. No one gave the slightest indication that they knew who he was; they seemed clueless that this was one of the people that they had paid money to see play. An average height, brown-haired twenty-something with a faded orange t-shirt and an unreadable facial expression: he looked like a man who has never sought fame and he makes music that sounds of another reality.

His solo debut ‘The Floodlight Collective’ (named after the band he formed in high school) is dedicated to his best friend Bradford Cox and is full of a strange disconnected nostalgia. Simplistic drum patterns and unobtrusively memorable guitar melodies are bathed in a sepia wash of hisses and hums. Vocals rarely sound less like a lead-role instrument than they do here. Pundt could be singing the lyrics to ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy’ for all we know because they sound like some ghostly choir in a dilapidated subway tube station, the consonants and vowels smeared until they become one and the same thing. I wasn’t so keen the first time I heard it, but like so many albums I’ve come to be so fond of, it’s a slow bloomer. While it’s abundant in strange punch-drunk prettiness, it feels insubstantial until you spend more and more time with it. After a while, it’s fairly easy to allow yourself to be engulfed in this wonky, sensual soundscapes, gradually noticing the tunes and shapes sliding in and out of focus. However cloudy, Pundt does assert his influences. You can hear very distant echoes of Motown, indie rock and avant-garde minimalism. It also feels like it’s full of mistakes and imperfections, like you’re hearing a warped tape salvaged after a natural disaster, but strangely, this seems to work in its favour.

While it’s hard to get into at first, ‘The Floodlight Collective’ has a lot to offer; it’s a record for listeners like me who love to dig deep and delight in deliberate detail, as well as the daydreamers of the world who like nothing better than to flop on the nearest bed with a record on and see where semi-consciousness takes them. Even though it can be conveniently shouldered into the “shoegaze” genre, it still sounds like a fresh approach. The more time you invest in it, the more it becomes a sedative and a stimulant all at once. I think we can expect great things from Lockett Pundt both in and out of Deerhunter. Have patience because this average white male has a head full of dreams.

Key track: A Threaded Needle
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Lou Reed – Metal Machine Music

Calxie #4 – Dr. Feelgood: Albums with medicinal properties.

I first saw the the sharp off-beat comedy/drama (and functional contraceptive advertisement), ‘Juno’,  in the back of my local Odeon with four friends and a capacious hip-flask. I’d had a little too much of my friend Hannah’s whiskey, so there was one part that I wasn’t ready for. In a towering rage, the title character lashes out at Sonic Youth, a band beloved by both the person she’s shouting at and me who was wearing a Sonic Youth t-shirt at the time. “It sucks! It’s just noise!”. I stood up, all inhibitions forgotten, and called her a philistine bitch in front of a crowded Saturday night audience. Not one of my proudest moments. Still, it got me thinking, once I had calmed down, that if I thought that an album like ‘Daydream Nation’ was a masterpiece, but Juno thought it was “just noise” (I’ll forgive her, seeing as she was angry at the time), then is there a record out there that everyone can agree is pure unassailable aural torture? Well, ladies and gentlemen, look no further.

Lou Reed, the man who put feedback and noise on the map as a form of power and art in the field of rock n roll, finally went too far in 1975. Two differently tuned guitars are placed in front of their enormous amplifiers and left to spew the most unholy howl; an irredeemable racket that sounds something akin to Predator in continuous labour with Robocop’s illegitimate love-child. Reed then mixed this sound at different speeds producing different tones and textures, but this doesn’t help in the slightest. Maybe it’s slightly more interesting than if it was just one continuous tone, but that doesn’t make it any more listenable. The concept might have worked if it was an installation art project to simulate the horrors of mental illnesses, or if it lasted 5 minutes as a brief experimental interlude, but no. Instead we are treated to a staggering 64 minutes of the searing feedback. 64 minutes!!! It was released as a double LP!!! Why??? Rubbing salt into the wound, Reed then talked the album up as if it was a work by Beethoven and even tried to get it released on RCA’s classical label “Red Seal”. He also proclaimed it “invented” heavy metal music. Some people have a right to be arrogant and, in the light of his contribution to pop music as a whole, Lou Reed is one of those people. Is it therefore ironic that the work that he is probably most arrogant about is the one that no one is able to sit through without emerging battle-scarred?

However, this album is in this category for a reason. Have you ever been in one of those moods where no music sounds good anymore? You’re frustrated with yourself because your head is too full to deal with any decent records or coherent thoughts? Enter ‘Metal Machine Music’. Seriously, four minutes of listening to this and it’s like a mind enema. When it’s on, it feels like your entire soul is constipated, but as soon as you turn it off, your brain relaxes and it’s ready for anything. It’s a bit like being hungry and you’re offered a bowl of strawberries. You don’t really fancy the strawberries, so you refuse; however, you are then force-fed a handful of ash and salt. Suddenly, the strawberries don’t sound like such a bad idea do they?

Often when my mind is feeling turbulent and turgid, ‘Metal Machine Music’ is an absolute godsend. It’s a kind of therapeutic catharsis and I may even go as far as to say that it’s a work of art. Even so, to say it’s a work of art is not the same thing as to say that I enjoy it. It is merely functional like colonic irrigation. Sonic Youth on albums like ‘Daydream Nation’ made use of noise, certainly, but they wove it brilliantly into their songs, using it as a short diversion before kicking you in the teeth again and sending you back to reality. ‘Metal Machine Music’ makes no such creative use. It really is “just noise”. Uninspiring, boring and deeply unpleasant, the greatest pleasure you will gain from this record is the moment you switch it off. And what a pleasure it is.

Key track: n/a
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Isaac Hayes – Hot Buttered Soul

Calxie #3. Rated R: Album with the most strangely erotic overtones. Nominee 4 of 4

I’ll be honest, I created this flimsy category entirely for ‘Hot Buttered Soul’. Those already familiar with this silky soulscape will know exactly why, but those who aren’t are in for a treat. Hayes was an “also ran” artist on Stax records; when the label’s biggest star Otis Redding died in a shock plane crash, the label was in trouble and lost the rights to all its back catalogue to Atlantic. When a company is in dire need of a get-rich-quick scheme, no one would have thought to bank on an LP with only four tracks on it (one of which is nearly 20 minutes long) by an artist barely anyone had heard of. It would have to be pretty special, no? Well, it is, certainly, but special records don’t always sell that well… but sexy records do! Sure, Serge Gainsbourg was one of the most important and talented figures in French pop music, but there would have been a lot less l’argent in his poche if ‘Je T’aime, Moi Non Plus’ didn’t have what sounded like une femme mi-orgasme in it. Thanks to him and Jane Birkin, everyone in Britain in 1969 had a bedroom soundtrack (that lasted four minutes, so I’m guessing they would have to stop halfway through to put the needle back into the groove… so to speak…). Well, for all you lovers who wanted to last more than four minutes, 1969 also yielded ‘Hot Buttered Soul’.

Bacharach and David’s ‘Walk On By’ comes with added honey and grit. Stretched out to a staggering 12 minutes of some of the most gloriously sultry funk ever recorded, it comes with tight jams, soaring strings, swaggering guitars and Hayes’ own bruised-but-still-smooth vocal, proving himself to be one of soul music’s most subtly powerful and under-stated singers. The biggest condender for the album highlight comes next, in the form of ‘Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic’, hereafter to be referred to as ‘H…’ because my carpal tunnel syndrome can only take so much. While I haven’t a clue what ‘H…’ is supposed to mean, it’s smoother than a new leather sofa (with far more personality), with Hayes showing off his wonderful suave ivory tickling. The first side gives it the title of “sexiest LP ever” outright, but the second side feels like some kind of comedown. It’s like the morning after, kicked off by ‘One Woman’, a refreshingly frank song about infidelity that has us sympathising with Hayes completely, despite him being the guilty party in this scenario. Hayes takes a more bizarre, not to mention desperately uncommercial, route in a cover of Jimmy Webb’s ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’, starting out with an 8 minute spoken word intro setting the scene for the ensuing song. In so many others’ hands it would be a disaster, but Hayes makes a surprisingly good storyteller and has you listening attentively for what’s going on. It turns a simple “I’m leaving you” song into an epic drama, which finally spins itself out into a mournful aching-heart-on-sleeve funeral song for the death of a relationship.

So, yes, ‘Hot Buttered Soul’ is rather fantastic, but conceptually it’s a masterstroke in itself. The first side is tailor-made make-out music, but the second side is for lonely listening, when your date leaves without a note. That way, you’re covered both ways; if it goes right, you needn’t use the second side, but when you’re in a state of lovesickness, guilt or betrayal, hardly anything sounds better. It’s a glorious thing, it really is, when a talented artist is given creative control to make an album like this. Free-flowing, epic, yet carefully controlled soul for the heart and the brain. Plus, on the cover, Isaac Hayes becomes the first and last person to make bling look appropriate.

Key track: H…
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Radiohead – The King Of Limbs

Calxie #3. Rated R: Album with the most strangely erotic overtones. Nominee 3 of 4

If you’re looking for an explanation as to why a new post has taken so long, one need only look at the title… still clueless? Ok, since you’ve clearly been living in suspended animation this past few months and you still don’t know about ‘The King Of Limbs’, allow me to explain. Normally when the new Radiohead record is released, it is an event. Every self-respecting music lover is talking about it, it’s hailed as something akin to the reawakening of a hibernating beast that spews money and chocolate from its eyes, and, annoyingly, 5-star reviews appear on the Amazon pre-order page purely based on what the person “expects” the album to be like. The worst about this last regularity is that people never know. Radiohead don’t so much think outside the box as opposed to invent another box altogether and refuse to think inside that one instead. This time around, however, the hype didn’t have time. The period between the announcement on the band’s website and the release of ‘The King Of Limbs’ spanned just four days (the band changed its mind mid-step and released it a day early as if deliberately trying to confuse people). Naturally, there was a scramble to be the first to print a review, but as no promo copies were pressed, you’d be hard pressed to find one written by someone who had had a chance to fully absorb it. I’m not saying this one is a “proper” review, but I’ve tried my best to soak it up as much as possible. It just so happened that I decided it fitted rather nicely into this category.

A subtly sexual Radiohead album? I know what you’re thinking: next he’ll be telling us that Katy Perry has decided to release an album of pump-organ covers of her favourite Gregorian chants and homophobic football sing-alongs. Ok, I admit, maybe I tried to pigeon-hole this album into the category just so I’d have an excuse to write about it, but I wouldn’t have put it in here unless there was a grain of truth in it. Here the band make extensive use of loops; layers of textures piled on top and deconstructed, which ends up making it Radiohead’s most hypnotic album. Even so, each track still has its own distinct identity. ‘Bloom’s panting drums and flurrying pianos make for a head-turning opener; it neatly side-steps the cliches, constantly sounding as if something is going to come along and fulfil your expectations, but it doesn’t. It just spins, in a constant state of weightless unease. Paranoia asserts itself on ‘Morning Mr Magpie’ and ‘Little By Little’, the former featuring Yorke playing the part of an unsound man in a park mumbling accusations to a bird set over urgent, hyperventilating instrumentation; the latter a sea-sick snapshot of a relationship that’s about to overboil. You can hear a definite dubstep influence on ‘Feral’; Thom Yorke’s voice is cut up and stuck together as if the tape has been rescued from a paper shredder while the music throbs and clatters in an uncertain and gently mysterious way.

And here, ladies and gentlemen, where things get sexy… I’m not allowed to say that out loud… ‘Lotus Flower’ is the closest thing to a regular rock song the album gets (probably why it was released as a radio single, along with an instantly iconic video of Thom Yorke dancing). Thom Yorke’s strange, emotional and ethereal voice is put to wonderful use here, singing a siren-esque, surreal paean to love and addiction, while the music itself betrays the anxious, but warm sentiments, with as much tension as affection… sound familiar? As discussed two reviews ago, if you’re anything like me, the idea of sex both enthrals you and freaks you out (nervous virgins, I’m talking to you).  It’s this reason that ‘The King Of Limbs’ will make a winning soundtrack to the messy event itself; or at least 5 of the 8 tracks would. ‘Codex’ betrays a slight shade of melancholic romanticism. The lyrics are positively picturesque, but the music makes it an immersive experience; it’s a strangely lonely kind of paradise.

Once again, Radiohead dash and meet expectations by refusing compromise every single time. ‘The King Of Limbs’ is their shortest but still makes a deep impact and demands more listens. Radiohead don’t imitate what’s going on around them so much as take what they like and bend it out of shape until its completely their own. Plus it’s a strangely sensuous record, with textures both icy and snug. Its reception has been more lukewarm than the rest of their albums, but given time, I think people will appreciate its sturdy fragility and its great songs which are as otherworldly as ever.

Key track: Separator
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The Jesus and Mary Chain – Psychocandy

Calxie #3. Rated R: Album with the most strangely erotic overtones. Nominee 2 of 4

Until 1964, feedback was pretty much universally perceived as an obstacle and not a tool. Then, as usual, those pesky Beatles used it and everyone wanted to do it. The resulting buzz-saw grind heard at the start of ‘I Feel Fine’ was something fairly innocuous; no one saw what that sound would grow into. It was techniques like that that helped make records as breathtaking as Sonic Youth’s ‘Daydream Nation’ and as intolerable as Lou Reed’s ‘Metal Machine Music’, but The Jesus and Mary Chain used it in a very different way to everyone before and, for the most part, since. They wrote loveable guitar pop songs, influenced by The Beach Boys and The Velvet Underground’s poppier moments, but they were cloaked in a wash of howls and crashes from the amps. In its most violent moments, it very much sounds like riding a motorbike through a steel mill while a radio plays loud in the background to compete with the noise. While this may sound like an unnecessary and uninteresting novelty, this wash of aural mess makes a great pop record even better, at least, in this case it does. It swarms around you like a plague of locusts, but the melodies are usually so sweet and infectious you can’t help but get drawn in and eventually you come to love the dissonance.

Weirdly enough, they cite one of their main influences to be 60’s girl group The Shangri-Las (JMC guitarist William Reid once said “We all love The Shangri-Las, and one day we’re going to make Shangri-Las records”) which could explain a lot since these songs are often only a stone’s throw away from the likes of ‘Leader of the Pack’ with tired, semi-conscious vocals. Drummer Bobby Gillespie (also known as “that horse-tranquillized singer from Primal Scream” to his friends) played in a basic “Level One” style and Douglas Hart’s bass only had two strings, claiming “that’s the two I use”: this isn’t under-preparation or lack of effort, it’s economy. It’s all about stripping pop to its bare elements and lightly scribbling over it. As sober as the songs seem, drugs were a clear influence. Their early gigs were driven by amphetamines, during which they would play with their backs to the audience, refusing to speak to them, before walking off after only twenty minutes.

I sometimes regret making up this category since I’m about as awkward and introverted as they come (especially when it comes to talking about sex), but nonetheless, here I go anyway, in as prude a way I can muster. This record is in this category because it’s got just the right balance of sweetness and thrills. The whole sound of it recalls stumbling thoroughly drunk into a flat with a significant other, the long-gone sound of a deafening club still ringing in both your ears. If this isn’t the setting for some mind-blowing kind of romantic entanglement I don’t know what is. Even so, it seems nearly every album I pick for this category is never quite right, since some tracks are either too distracting or too threatening (trying to make love during a song like the end of ‘Never Understand’, during which horror movie screams make an inexplicable appearance, sounds like the potential soundbed for a particularly macabre HIV awareness commercial). Still, most of the songs here are ideal for any future fumblings you get yourselves into and it’s a great record regardless and you should damn well own it.

It pretty much spawned an entire movement on its own; before My Bloody Valentine tore down every sonic barrier left and blew the world’s mind out through its nose, they were basically a bad JMC rip-off band. ‘Psychocandy’ also gained fans in unlikely places: indie miserablist misanthrope hero Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields wrote an entire album inspired by it (‘Distortion’, which is also very worthy of your attention, except replace The Shangri-Las with Cole Porter). The band migrated to a clearer sound later on, but this is still a landmark pop record which still has the power to confuse as much now as it ever did.

Key track: The Hardest Walk

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The Black Keys – The Big Come Up

Calxie #3. Rated R: Album with the most strangely erotic overtones. Nominee 1 of 4

Sex. I’ve never had it. I think I speak for many male virgins when I say that the idea of it both enthrals and terrifies me. What women don’t seem to realise is that, very often, we are just as abjectly terrified of this level of contact and vulnerability as you are. Concerns dash through your head in the form of coy euphemisms which span from “what if I arrive early?” to “what if it’s somehow possible for me to be so bad at this that she starts batting for the other team?”. Gay men probably have just as much of a problem; I mean, sure, you know where everything is because you’ve got all the parts yourself and everything is conveniently on display, but where exactly are you supposed to put the damn thing? Thankfully, help is at hand. There are certain records that can iron out the creases a little. They may not turn you from Ron Weasley to Ron Jeremy, but they will at least give this significant and confusing ritual a bloody good soundtrack.
It’s very hard to believe that ‘The Big Come Up’ was written and recorded before the The Black Keys had even performed live together. Hard to believe, why? How cool does this thing sound?? It’s oozes confidence like thick crude oil, but despite this, Dan Auerbach still has this tender vulnerability buried in his otherwise gritty and roughly-sewn soulful voice. The is Blues rock with a capital “B” and a lower-case “r”. Either the budget was strictly shoe-string or it was deliberately made to sound that way, because whatever they’ve done (or couldn’t afford to do) makes it sound so much more refreshing than had these songs been recorded with a toybox of mixing desks and effects at their disposal. It literally sounds like these guys turned up, plugged in and banged it out. It has a swagger to it, but it still feels like they care about what they’re doing. Being Blues rock, it’s largely riff based, but the riffs are very memorable indeed. Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney know that they’re both normal white guys, so they can’t pretend to have been through the trials and tribulations of their blues-roots heroes, so the lyrics are fairly standard, but they do their job well, in that they’re easily singable (when they can be distinguished through the fuzz) and infectiously rhythmic. Still, it’s by no means their best. It’s not hugely diverse, but it’s still very good.

The Black Keys’ debut may have been recorded nine years ago, but it has that tried-and-tested (but rarely achieved) combo of being both up-to-date and retro – not to mention near-timeless by pop music’s standards. It’s down-to-earth, fun, not too emotionally heavy (though, as they show on later records, they can do “heavy” pretty well thank you very much) with just the right balance of masculine energy and feminine sensitivity. Plus there’s no fear, which makes it a fairly promising candidate for the above described situation. Or it might be too distracting… next nominee up soon; maybe that one will be more suitable.

Key track: Run Me Down
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