Last October, The Kinks continued their 50th anniversary reissues with 1969’s Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire). Forgoing the 4-disc super deluxe edition, we plunked our money down for the 2CD edition that features a remastered stereo version of the album, various extras, and a second disc of what could have been a Dave Davies solo album. Unlike 1968’s Village Green album, Arthur actually got The Kinks back into the US album charts, peaking at #105! The concept album was inspired by Ray and Dave Davies’ brother in law, Arthur as him and sister Rose decided to move away to Australia. The album theme was intended to also be a Granada television play that was never made.
The third single, the upbeat “Victoria” about England in the 19th century peaked at #62 on the US singles chart, their highest charting single in years. Well-deserved as “Victoria” is a great 60s rock track and the only song from Arthur to appear on TheEssential Kinks disc. “Drivin’” was released as a single in the UK and speaks to life at home while wars are waged in lands far away. “Some Mother’s Son” is a stunning track on the realities of war when it touches closer to home where, “back home they put his picture in a frame but all dead soldiers look the same”. “Mr. Churchill” is Arthur’s understanding that when politicians call citizens to war, that call must be answered with no questions asked.
“Brainwashed” is a more typical 60s rock number before “Australia” plays like an advertisement for moving to Oz and enjoy the surfing like they do in the USA. After a couple OK songs, the title track summarizes Arthur’s life to a great bit of a guitar playing. Closing out the disc, mono versions of “Drivin’” and quiet to loud single “Shangri-La” appear. Failed single “Plastic Man” appears alongside it’s harder edged B-side “King Kong” with several other B-sides included as well.
The second disc turns the singing over to brother Dave for several power pop tracks. Two of the best appear right away in “This Man He Weeps Tonight”, originally a B-side to “Shangri-La” and another great guitar lead in “Mindless Child of Motherhood”. Several of the Dave songs take on a more folky feeling with the best being “Hold My Hand”. A few songs are repeats from the 2004 bonus version of Something Else by The Kinks including one of their best singles in “Lincoln County” where the man has “been doing wrong but now I’m going home”. A similar story appears in “Mr. Shoemaker’s Daughter” that has a nice swing in the chorus and adds a few horns. “There Is No Life Without Love” is similar in style to The Beatles “Her Majesty” and clocks in at two minutes.
The first half of Arthur is a quirky master work with an almost as good second half. Hard to follow up the transcendent Village Green but Arthur forges ahead with several creative peaks in addition to the wonderful singles and B-sides included at the end of each disc. This anniversary series will hopefully continue later this year with 1970’s Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround Pt 1.
Over the past couple of years, Pet Shop Boys have re-released all their albums up to 2013’s Electric. This website has been going back and reviewing all these releases with the last being 1990’s Behaviour last December. In the midst of this, the new Hotspot album appeared online so we jumped in for a listen.
Several of the tracks have a harder hitting dance sound like first song “Will-o-the-wisp” that could have been released in the 90s or “I don’t wanna”, a dance track about not wanting to dance before the protagonist finally relents. Second single “Burning the heather” features Bernard Butler on acoustic guitar is a wistful track where Neil Tennant sings “the seasons are changing, time’s moving along” which is in stark contrast to the house-y dumb fun of third single “Monkey business” about 50 year olds out for a night on the town.
The best tracks here are the slower more atmospheric sounds that Chris Lowe creates on “Only the dark” where “only the dark can show you the stars” and second song “You Are The One”. The album closes with another highlight that was a gift for friends many years ago about their “Wedding in Berlin” that uses parts of “The Wedding March”. Pet Shop Boys have said that this is the last of a trilogy with Stuart Price producing. It’s dance music for 50 and 60-year olds that shows that there is still plenty of life left in the duo.
The release of Sleater-Kinney’s ninth studio album in August 2019 was overshadowed by the sudden departure of longtime member Janet Weiss. Produced by St Vincent, The Center Won’t Hold saw Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker wanting to move the band in a different direction with less input from Weiss who decided to exit.
You can hear some of the St. Vincent influence on tracks such as “Bad Dance” which for the first few listens I heard as “Bat Dance”. Upbeat and raucous with distorted vocals, the band shouts the chorus. First single “Hurry On Home” could be about politics or a relationship with lyrics that ask to “disconnect me from my bones so I can roam”. At times it sounds a bit like Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Second single “Can I Go On” has a distorted 50s sound with a bridge that ups the dance factor. The chorus on penultimate song, “The Dog / The Body” is genuinely uplifting which is in sharp contrast to the title track that is slower and more vicious.
The best tracks here are the more straightforward ones like “Reach Out” that rides a great groove and the laid-back guitar sound of “Restless”. The album closes with spare piano and a moving vocal from Corin Tucker on “Broken”, a song that sounds lifted from an 80s RnB single. There are a few skippable moments and it is a curious decision to relegate a powerhouse drummer like Janet Weiss to the sidelines. However, it would be hard to discount whatever musical plans Brownstein and Tucker have next.
Released in November of 1968, Astral Weeks was Van Morrison’s second album and first classic. Melding together jazz, rock, and folk the album is like entering into a different world. The lyrics read like a stream of conscience or listening to someone try and describe their dreams to you. There were no hits here, no “Brown Eyed Girl” so the first bits of listening for most are to the actual album. The expanded edition was released in 2015 and offers different versions of four of the album’s eight tracks.
Produced in New York by Lewis Merenstein, by most accounts Van Morrison would arrive to the studio and lock himself in the isolation booth with an acoustic guitar and let the talented jazz musicians play what they felt the song needed. Most followed Morrison’s singing along with Richard Davis’ bass. Several stories indicated that Morrison was aloof and never connected with the other musicians. Much to Morrison’s chagrin, strings were overdubbed afterwards and clearly not what the singer wanted however, the minimalist style throughout Astral Weeks make the strings welcome and never overwhelm the song.
The first song is the title track and gives an introduction of what the rest of the album will sound like. Morrison sings “If I ventured in the slipstream/between the viaducts of your dream” over a bed of folk and jazz stylings. One of several mantras, “Beside You” repeats “You breathe in/you breathe out” over spare instrumentation, mostly just an acoustic guitar that recalls the Leonard Cohen debut.
“Sweet Thing” is one of the tracks that stands out for the memorable music instead of the great singing and lyrics. “The Way Young Lovers Do” is the shortest track here, the upbeat swinging big band number sounds more like a performance vs the personal introspection that appears elsewhere. At nine minutes, “Ballerina” is the oldest song dating back Morrison’s time with the band Them. A vibraphone accompanies the loving and tender lyrics. A shorter run time could have made this a potential single.
Two of the featured tracks both centre around Cyprus Avenue in a wealthy area of Belfast. “Cyprus Avenue” lyrically revolves around a remembrance of a fourteen-year girl while a younger Morrison watches from the car and is too afraid to speak. He then imagines the girl of his dreams with ribbons in her hair being driven in a carriage by white horses. “Madame George” features excellent violin playing and another mantra in “and the loves to love to love to love” before a fine bit of hi hat drumming towards the end of the track.
I first really started listening to this album in January of 2019 then picked it up again recently. There is a lot to unpack on this album as it is truly an album to step into and live in for ¾ of an hour. I’ve always known Van Morrison as an older gentleman so it is fascinating to think that all of this was conceived when he was just 23 years old. Astral Weeks is an extraordinary album that will hopefully find new fans in every generation.
Back in 2016, we put Michael Kiwanuka’s second album, Love & Hate in our top five albums of the year. As is typical with our listening, we caught onto an artist just as a lot of other people did as well. Soon, Kiwanuka’s track “Cold Little Heart” was used as the theme for HBO’s Big Little Lies and his star continued to grow. Released In November of 2019, the Kiwanuka album placed very high on many year-end charts.
This is the second Kiwanuka album produced by Danger Mouse with Inflo. First single and track, “You Ain’t The Problem” sets the tone with its cool, retro 70s soul sound. “Living In Denial” starts with a fuzzy guitar and horn sound while “Rolling” does a similar trick with an added funky chorus and catchy drum sound. “Final Days” is another killer percussion track that sees Kiwanuka use his falsetto to great affect in the chorus.
With minimal backing, Kiwanuka sings “When it gets hard, I will roll those sleeves” on “Solid Ground” before the spiritual strings of “Light” appears. If we had been able to listen to this album in December, odds are it would have been in our top 5 for 2019. It’s a beautiful and often powerful record that easily hangs tough with many of the classic soul albums of the 70s. Timeless stuff.