Favorite Albums: Synchronicity

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I’ve been hearing a few Police songs on Sirius 1st Wave lately, and it got me thinking: I haven’t listened to their last album Synchronicity in a LONG time. It occurred to me that this was one of the early non-Beatles albums that I connected with from start to finish in the early 80s. [I’d say Rush’s Moving Pictures and Thomas Dolby’s The Golden Age of Wireless are two others from this era…I’d listened to full albums all the time, but very few of them contained a full album’s worth of tracks I completely loved.  That would change within a year or so.]

I remember Synchronicity coming out as there was an amazingly detailed push by the label, A&M, on MTV, including multiple versions of the album cover, as well as a four-minute long teaser that was played on the music channel:

Having become a somewhat passive fan of the band on the previous album (1981’s Ghost in the Machine and the many hits that got airplay on rock radio, I loved what I was hearing. And when it was released in June of 1983, one of my sisters bought it and I damn near wore it out playing it. I’d dubbed a copy of it for my own listening until I finally found a used vinyl copy a year or so later.

Of course everyone knows the lead-off single, “Every Breath You Take”, which still gets an amazing amount of airplay over thirty years later. I was more a fan of its b-side, “Murder By Numbers”, which was treated as a bonus track on the cassette and CD. I was also a fan of the second single, “Wrapped Around Your Finger”. It’s not often you hear a song that uses the phrase “trapped between the Scylla and Charibdys”. Nerdy stuff indeed.

But what I found myself really enjoying was the strange mix of album cuts, from the jazzy “Miss Gradenko”…

to the new wave weirdness of “Mother”…

…to the jittery opener “Synchronicity I”.

I was only twelve when it came out, but budding writer in me really liked the idea that the album was all about different kinds of philosophies, both religious and profane, and how often they were linked in one way or another. Sting’s uber-intellectual lyrics were tempered by some brilliant melodies that seemed to transcend anything they’d recorded before.

Of course, it was also their last album together before they broke up (acrimoniously due to clashing egos, of course), so they certainly went out with a bang. Each member went on to vastly different solo careers and though they’ve reconvened a few times for one reason or another, they’ve never released anything new since.

Out of all the Police albums I listen to, Synchronicity gets the most plays by far.  It’s the tightest, the wildest, and the most interesting in my opinion.  The others tend to have weak spots that lose my attention, but this one I’ll still listen to from start to finish.

 

Recent Purchases, September Edition, Part II

More musical goodness from last month for you to enjoy!

Living Colour, Shade, released 8 September. Great to see these guys back, still rocking hard and writing some damn fine songs.

The National, Sleep Well Beast, released 8 September. A somewhat more somber affair for these guys (well, a bit more laid back than they already are!), but still a great album.

Lamb, “Illumina” single, released 13 September. A new track by Lamb? SWEET! A lovely track by one of my favorite electronic bands. Definitely looking forward to more from them.

Foo Fighters, Concrete and Gold, released 15 September. A harder, darker album, less catchy but just as great.

Ringo Starr, Give More Love, released 15 September. Ringo’s albums can be hit or miss, but he definitely hit it with this one. Very upbeat and confident on this one.

Prophets of Rage, Prophets of Rage, released 15 September. Music by the guys from Rage Against the Machine and rappers from Public Enemy and Cypress Hill. You’d better expect some fucking rage.

Gary Numan, Savage (Songs from a Broken World), released 15 September. I think I may have found another album that I will be listening to during writing sessions for the next Mendaihu Universe story. I’m amazed at how damn good this album is.

Cut Copy, Haiku from Zero, released 22 September. This band manages to create a new variant of their signature electronic sound with every new album, and I’m always fascinated by them. Yet another fine release.

Tricky, ununiform, released 22 September. Another ‘I will buy anything they release’ musician. Tricky’s not as grimy and gritty as he used to be, but he still retains the great triphop chill that defines his sound.

The Horrors, V, released 22 September. I stumbled upon this group a few years ago and I love their mid-80s goth retro sound that kind of reminds me of Comsat Angels. Definitely worth checking out.

Wolf Alice, Visions of a Life, released 29 September. This is such a fun band to listen to! You never quite know where they’re going next with each song, but the ride is a blast.

Coming soon enough: October releases! We have some fine albums for this month as well that I’m looking forward to picking up!

 

One Epic Release Day, 30 Years Ago

It’s not often that we put importance on an album release date.  When it is, it’s usually for a single album that’s considered a historical artifact, like 2 June 1967 with Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, or 9 March 1987 with U2’s The Joshua Tree.

But on 28/29 September 1987, we were treated with not one but four excellent albums that many consider a vital part of the 80s alternative rock movement.

First, we had a newbie:  Pixies’ debut EP on 4AD, Come On Pilgrim.

We all know the story behind the band by now…two UMass Amherst students (Frank Black and Joey Santiago) start up a noisy band and move to Boston; a smartass ad in the local paper pulls in exactly one audition, one Kim Deal; a friend of a friend, David Lovering, is chosen as drummer. Their off-kilter mix of punk, surf, folk and who knows what else is both frightening and intriguing. Ivo Watts-Russell is convinced signing them to his label is a bizarre move, and yet…

I remember hearing “Vamos” on WAMH probably around the same time their “Gigantic” single had come out (about six months after this EP) and thinking, what the hell is this…? By that time I was more into moody college rock, but this was something so leftfield yet so fascinating that I had to follow up. Of course, they were a local band by my standards, so I definitely had to check them out.

Next, we had a band on its way up, not quite there yet but already given a huge following: The Red Hot Chili Peppers, with their third album The Uplift Mofo Party Plan.

They’d been around since 1984 with the delightfully weird but funky first album, but their follow-up, 1985’s Freaky Styley, was a bit too weird for a lot of people. This third album was a return to their rock-funk sound and became a favorite. Tragically, their guitarist Hillel Slovak would die of a heroin overdose after this album’s tour. His death would deeply affect the rest of the band, especially singer Anthony Keidis, and their next album, Mothers Milk, would reflect that darker edge. Still…that album would clear their way even more (especially with their fantastic cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”), and a few years after that their popularity would peak with 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik.

 

Next, we had a band that had already reached significant heights with their distinctive sampling and synth-heavy sound, combined with curious lyrics (often about sex, emotional pain, and the darker side of love) and fascinating melodies. Depeche Mode had no way to go but up. Their album Music for the Masses would take their sound even further than before: louder, brasher, stronger.

“Never Let Me Down”, was the second single, released a month before the album (the first single, “Strangelove”, dropped a full five months previous, the usual habit for DM releases), and its in-your-face volume intrigued many fans. The rest of the album delivered just as much punch, to the delight of many, even as its lyrics seemed to be darker and more personal than ever. A little over two years later they’d return with their absolute best album, Violator.

 

And lastly, a band on its way out. It’s the story of too many bands; two front men with strong egos and opinions, writing absolutely stunning, gorgeously played music and proudly singing heart-on-sleeve lyrics that say exactly how you feel, splitting up in the most acrimonious way possible. The Smiths’ Strangeways, Here We Come was their last gasp, their Abbey Road, containing some of the strongest songs they’d written…and by the time it hit the shops, the band was already in the past tense.

The Smiths was the band for the wallflower, the weirdo, the proud outcast.  Morrissey’s poetic missives perfectly balanced Johnny Marr’s amazing guitar work, and in the short four-plus years they’d been together, they’d given teenagers a hell of a strong and massive soundtrack to their lives.  Though their work on Strangeways had been enjoyable, just like always, the clashing of egos caused the band to fall apart.  Both Morrissey and Marr have moved on from it all, now playing Smiths songs in their live sets, have even talked with one another over the years, but life has gone on.

*

Of course, there were other album releases that day — Yes’ Big Generator, Wet Wet Wet’s Popped In Souled Out, The Art of Noise’s In No Sense? Nonsense!, and Boston locals O-Positive with their Cloud Factory EP, for starters — but those four albums had to be the most important.  They were by four bands either on their way up or their way down, all four bands that could be considered integral to the growing alternative rock scene of the time.

Favorite Albums: Lonely Is an Eyesore

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CAD703, 4AD Records

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Martin Aston’s giant tome Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD, and already I’m revisiting a lot of my collection from that label, many of which I haven’t listened to in ages, including this one.

Lonely Is an Eyesore is another album that’s turning thirty this year, originally released 15 June 1987.  It’s a stellar mix that should be in the collection of anyone who listens to classic alternative rock.  I’d heard of this import via 120 Minutes, and knew the only places I’d be able to find it would either be Al Bum’s in Amherst or Main Street Music in Northampton.  I also knew I’d have to buy the cassette, considering I knew it would be part of my late-night headphone listening.

The album was produced and conceived by label head Ivo Watts-Russell as a multi-format release, provided with its own music video, which I believe was either directed or produced (or both) by Vaughan Oliver from the label’s art collective, 23 Envelope.  [As an aside, these videos partly influenced my decision to attend Emerson to study film.  A lot of my shooting assignments look very similar in style and composition to the images you see in these videos.  Granted, I did not become a filmmaker, but I did use these visual and aural ideas in my future writing.]

 

Side One starts off with the quirky, sample-heavy “Hot Doggie” by Colourbox, an oddball electronic group more known as being two fifths of MARRS (the band behind the 1987 surprise hit “Pump Up the Volume”). It’s a wonderful opening track, maybe a bit silly, but that was part of Colourbox’s charm: they were like listening to a Big Audio Dynamite clone that played a lot of soul music with just a hint of moody ambience.

Following up is This Mortal Coil, a loose label-wide collective put together by Watts-Russell to record unique covers of his favorite 70s folk songs as well as haunting originals. By this time they’d released two stellar albums, 1984’s It’ll End in Tears and 1986’s Filigree & Shadow, both which I highly suggest. “Acid, Bitter and Sad” is a bit scattered as a track, but its multi-part construction is actually quite similar to the feel of their albums as a whole; the different sections take you on a specific journey, leading you to the next section and sometimes cutting short and leaving you floating in midair.

The Wolfgang Press was one of 4AD’s earlier post-punk band signings (various members were in previous 4AD bands Mass and Rema-Rema) with a deconstructive, sometimes brutalist sound similar to The Birthday Party. “Cut the Tree” is one of their quieter songs but retains their trademark intensity.

Next up is Throwing Muses, then a recent signing (their self-titled debut had been released a year earlier) and one of their first non-UK bands. The Muses, like their labelmates Pixies, were from New England and frequently played the Boston club scene. “Fish” is a very good example of what an early Muses track sounds like: tight and tense, unsure of which direction it’s going in, yet somehow still catchy and amazing. Kristin Hersh’s lyrics are sometimes confrontational and frequently obscure (the album title comes from this song), but the emotions behind them were never hidden.

Side One ends with the first of two amazing tracks from Australian/UK/European band Dead Can Dance. “Frontier” (a demo of a track from their debut album) amazes on multiple levels, from Lisa Gerrard’s soaring vocals to Brendan Perry’s haunting counterpoint drone-hum to the hypnotic oil barrel percussion.

Side Two starts with the always lovely Cocteau Twins with “Crushed”, a gorgeous and uplifting track that features all the CT staples: Robin Guthrie’s chiming effects-laden guitar work, Simon Raymonde’s melodic bass, and Elizabeth Fraser’s unconventional singing style. If you love this track, you will most definitely love the rest of their work.

Following up is semi-instrumentalist band Dif Juz* with one of my favorite songs of the late 80s, “No Motion”. I’ve always used this song as a benchmark that I would love to hit in my own music playing and writing, though I highly doubt I’ll ever reach it.  It’s one of the first examples of the experimental post-rock we hear nowadays from bands such as Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor.  Their discography is criminally small but well worth checking out.

* – As an aside, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who knew how to correctly pronounce this band’s name. In my head it’s always been /diff jooz/, and there’s a fan theory that the j is silent it should sound like the word ‘diffuse’, but apparently according to Cocteau Twins’ Simon Raymonde, it is indeed /diff juzz/.

Clan of Xymox is one of the original darkwave bands that revel in their goth-like sound, maintaining that dark sound even when their style evolves from dark gloom to bright beauty. “Muscoviet Mosquito” (a much improved re-recording of an early EP track) is unrelenting in its speed and drive, even as singer Ronny Moorings meanders over the top.  They would follow this a few years later with an amazing album called Twist of Shadows that did well even in the US.

Finishing up the album is the second Dead Can Dance track, “The Protagonist, and an extremely good example of their more orchestral-esque works (like 1987’s Within the Realm of a Dying Sun and 1988’s The Serpent’s Egg).  Often DCD’s music isn’t so much about the melody as it is about the mood and the construction of the track; each attack and sustain is deliberate.

 

I believe I bought this cassette in late 1987, maybe early 1988, having heard a few of the tracks on 120 Minutes or on one of the college radio stations (I remember WAMH used to use part of “Frontier” for the background music of one of their PSAs about drug addiction).  I’d heard of most of these bands but sadly had not owned anything from any of them.  However, within a year I’d own most of the Cocteau Twins’ and Clan of Xymox’s discographies, a few of the Dead Can Dance albums (Within the Realm is still my favorite of theirs), and The Wolfgang Press’s 1992 album Queer would be one of my top favorite albums of that year.  A few years back Colourbox released a box set of their entire recorded output, which I of course picked up.  And every now and again I’ll pull this album back out and give it another listen.  I’d be a long-time fan of 4AD mostly because of this album, even as it evolved and changed their signature sounds over the last few decades.

Again — I highly suggest adding Lonely Is an Eyesore to your collection.

Recent Purchases, August Edition

The further we go along in 2017, the more this year seems to be that everyone is putting out an album!  Not that I’m complaining. There’s not just favorite bands releasing new stuff, I’m also finding new bands to obsess over. Here’s some of my favorites for August:

Life On Venus, Encounters, released 4 August. Dreamy, reverby shoegaze from Moscow? Sure, why not? Very Slowdive-y, in a really good way.

Black Grape, Pop Voodoo, released 4 August. Shaun Ryder once again proving he can’t hit a note to save his life, his poppier, dancier group returning after far too long with a new album.

Dan Wilson, Re-Covered, released 4 August. Known more for his songwriting and production now than his tenure in Semisonic, Wilson records some of his most well-known tracks that were recorded by other artists.

Frankie Rose, Cage Tropical, released 11 August. AllMusic described this album as sounding remarkably like a pop album from 1985, and they weren’t wrong. I most likely would have bought this at Strawberries back then.

Emily Saliers, Murmuration Nation, released 11 August. The other half of Indigo Girls finally releases her own solo album, and it’s a fun, poppy, maybe even a little electronic record worth checking out.

The Districts, Popular Manipulations, 11 August. A band that’s new to me, but won me over on the first track above. They kind of remind me of the Killers vocally but Beach Slang musically.

Paul Draper, Spooky Action, released 11 August. Draper has lost none of his quirky songwriting chops since leaving Mansun oh so many years ago. Definitely a welcome return!

Gold Class, Drum, released 18 August. It took me a few listens to realize they remind me a lot of The Cult, but without the overwhelming pomp and less Ian Astbury wail. I’m quite liking this one.

KMFDM, HELL YEAH, released 18 August. I really need to get back into Belgian industrial. I loved it way back in the day but could never find any of it (and when I did, I was usually too broke to buy it). Great to hear this band is still going strong.

Rainer Maria, S/T, released 18 August. I have been playing the hell out of this album. Over a decade since their last album, this is one hell of an excellent return. One of my favorites of the year.

UNKLE, The Road, Part I, released 18 August. Another band on the “I will buy anything they put out” list. They’ve come a long way from their more electronic sound, but James Lavelle still knows how to create a creepy ambience with his music.

Steven Wilson, To the Bone, released 18 August. It is kind of weird to see the Porcupine Tree front man playing alternapop here (and smiling in the video!), but it’s a great new record, apparently inspired by his favorite UK pop bands from the 80s.

PVRIS, All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell, released 25 August. Bonus points for one of my favorite album titles of the year! A group that was getting a lot of publicity that I just had to check out, and I wasn’t let down. And they’re from MA! Yay!

Cymbals, Light in Your Mind, released 25 August. Another record suggested by a music blog I read that I warmed right up to. Laid back but not blissed out, I find them quite pleasing to play during my writing sessions.

More to come…our September shopping list is going to be quite epic!

Coming Soon: Blogging the Beatles: Sgt Pepper Reissue Edition

Come on, you knew it was coming. 🙂

I’ve been obsessing about this release since hearing about it some months ago, and since it’s such a landmark album — not to mention this release being the only time so far that a full Beatles album has been given a completely new stereo remix — I think it’s only fair that I give it the BtB treatment, now that I have it my grubby paws.  I’d like to go over what one can expect: the differences in sound between the original mono and stereo mixes, and the new 2017 stereo mix.

[Alas, I do not have a 5.1 sound system so I won’t be able to provide any input on that at this time, though it’s part of the big box set edition.]

Stay tuned!