Posted in Album Reviews

The Byrds – The Byrds Greatest Hits (1999)

Greatest Hits

One of the legendary bands of the 60s, The Byrds sound played a major role in ushering in folk rock to the Top 40.  The main line-up centered around guitarists Jim (Roger) Mcguinn, David Crosby, and Gene Clark; they were also joined by bassist, Chris Hillman, and drummer Michael Clarke. The band scored several hits including covers, most notably of Bob Dylan of which four appear on The Byrds Greatest Hits collection.  Originally released in 1967, the album was then updated with the addition of three songs in 1999 but keeps its focus on the first two years of the band. 

The Greatest Hits starts with Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and features one of the most famous guitar beginnings in rock history. The Byrd’s version of “Chimes of Freedom” has the band locked in with their excellent harmonies while “My Back Pages” was their last top 40 hit and a highlight here. Pete Seeger was another favoured source for material including “The Bells of Rymney” that adds a pop shine to a Welsh mining disaster.  More famously, is the band’s cover of Seeger’s “Turn Turn Turn” that also features another landmark guitar solo to start the track and wonderful harmonies.  The lyrics are mostly taken from the third chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes deal with peace and love, “A Time for peace, I swear it’s not too late”.

The band got into some radio trouble with their original songs.  The spaghetti western guitar on the darker and more complex “Eight Miles High” who’s lyrics are most certainly drug influenced. Another track banned by some radio stations is the title track of their third album, “5D (Fifth Dimension)”. Podcast Sound Opinions steals a snippet of “So You Want to be A rock and Roll Star”, another classic guitar sound.  The lyrics take aim at their more manufactured contemporaries.

Gene Clark turns in a fine original in “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better” while at the end of the disc, a final highlight appears with the Chris Hillman penned “Have You Seen Her Face”. The track leaves behind the folk influences and instead sounds more like the British Invasion. While the guitar sound is one of the band’s hallmarks, the drumming of Michael Clarke on several tracks really add a lot of life to the songs. The Byrds Greatest Hits doesn’t always burn bright, but the influence of the band on acts such as R.E.M, Big Star and Teenage Fanclub is immeasurable and still reverberates through rock and roll today. 

8/10

Posted in Album Reviews

Madonna – Like a Virgin (1984)

A little over a year after her successful self titled debut album, Madonna followed it up with one of the best-selling albums of the 80s, Like a Virgin. Fresh off producing, David Bowie’s Let’s Dance album, Nile Rodgers was brought in as producer.  The match up worked as Like a Virgin has sold over 22 million copies worldwide since its release.

The first two singles taken from the album also brought to life two of the most iconic videos of all time. Written by songwriting duo Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg (Whitney Houston, Cyndi Lauper, etc), the title track sees Madonna cavorting on a gondola down a Venice canal.  The cool synths and crisp drum beat of Chic’s Tony Thompson provided a track that was everywhere in late 1984.  In early 1985, the Marilyn Monroe styled video of “Material Girl” is one of Madonna’s most memorable visuals and singles, hitting #2 in the US charts. The lyrics of loving the material world in relationships gave Madonna one of her famous nicknames as the Material Girl.

In between those two classic pop songs is third single “Angel”.  A Madonna co-wrote with then boyfriend Stephen Bray, it is a simple but catchy synth track that went top 5. The second track on the album co-written by that duo is “Over and Over” where Madonna sings that “I get up again/over and over”.  Reminiscent of the plucky songs off her debut, it is the best album track here. Madonna has never been known for her voice but on the cover of “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore”, she turns in a fine vocal performance in front of a live orchestra that gets stronger as the song goes on.

The final single from the album, “Dress You Up” brings sex and fashion together. A good but not great single, it was left off the Immaculate Collection a few years later. Madonna gets a sole songwriting credit for “Shoo-bee-doo”, a Motown homage that is a nice change of pace from the rest of the album. Much like the debut album, the excitement starts to fade towards the end of the album as “The Pretender” and “Stay” do not move the needle much.

Like a Virgin is where Madonna the icon started.  The memorable videos played well across the world to wide eyed teenagers who started to replicate her style and dance moves. But more than that, the songs backed it up.  While the album is greatly overshadowed by the first two singles, it is a more than decent pop album albeit with a bit of filler at the end.

9/10

Posted in Album Reviews

Bjork – Debut (1993)

Bjork first caught the ears of alternative music fans in the late 80s as a member of Icelandic band The Sugarcubes who’s 1988 single “Birthday” became a hit with DJ John Peel listeners. Upon that band’s break up in 1992, Bjork moved to London and began working on her solo debut studio album also called Debut.  Many of the songs were already around in some form at that time but were transformed when she started working with producer Nelle Hooper (Soul II Soul, Sinead O’Connor).

The eclectic album starts off with the powerful tribal drums of first single “Human Behaviour” where listeners are introduced to Bjork’s impressive vocal gymnastics. The dark clouds of that track are blown away by the bright percussion of “Crying” before the clattering beat and luxurious strings of “Venus As A Boy” appear. The track floats with Bjork singing “he believes in beauty”.

The original version of “Big Time Sensuality” comes in half way through the album. It would take the Fluke remix to really set this off as one of the best singles of the 90s but the slinky beat of the original helps push the track before Bjork exclaims that “it takes courage to enjoy it” in the chorus.  More powerfully is when Bjork sings that she “doesn’t know my future after this weekend, and I don’t want to”, words that virtually every 20-year-old can relate to as they dance the weekend away.

While many of the bolder tracks are reserved for the first half, the second half of Debut takes on a dreamier side with the chill beats of both “One Day” and “Come To Me”.  Forty-five seconds into the last single “Violently Happy’ an irresistible club beat is introduced before the jazz horn stabs of “The Anchor Song” close out the original version of the album.

Depending on where you live, the reviews of the album went from ecstatic in the UK to a laughable review from Rolling Stone. The album is a wonder of musical styles that hold together exceptionally well. From here, Nellee Hooper went on to work with such superstars as Madonna and U2.  Bjork would spend the next 25 years releasing critically acclaimed albums to a devoted fan base. Debut is an remarkable release by an adventurous and consistently groundbreaking artist.

10/10

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Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Sideways To New Italy (2020)

On a recent episode of The Watch podcast, Tom and Fran of Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever appeared to talk about the new album, Sideways To New Italy, and lament that the COVID pandemic has not let them tour. Nevertheless, the band released their newest album among all the bedlam happening in the world. First single “Cars In Space” is punctuated by horns and a euphoric chorus outro. First track “The Second Of The First” is a punchy opener with terrific harmonies in the chorus before second single “She’s There” comes in with harmonies that appear out of nowhere.

“Sunglasses At The Wedding” has a laid back vibe with a guitar strum here and there with an incessant hi-hat. “Cameo” is a talk/sung track with fine chorus and drums that feel a bit like The Arcade Fire. And that’s where the rub lies with the album, it never really takes off like The Arcade Fire would. Sideways To New Italy has lots of decent songs but there is no true euphoric moment and the all the rough edges have been sanded off.

7/10

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Kate Bush – The Kick Inside (1978)

In late 2018, Kate Bush released her entire album collection over two CD box sets.  The first covered The Kick Inside through The Red Shoes.  My Kate Bush collection at that point covered four of the albums but it was still an easy decision to put money down and have everything in two box sets… Regardless of the peculiar fish head man on the box cover.

The first album is the debut, the aforementioned The Kick Inside released in early 1978 when Kate was just 19 years old.  The album is very theatrical with The “Saxophone Song” describing a scene in a Berlin bar but also featuring an unfortunate sax solo. “Strange Phenomena” is another cinematic song that sounds like it could have been lifted from a play. The first time I heard the second single that went to #6 in the UK, “The Man with the Child in His Eyes” was on the DJ Andy Smith’s Document II mix album. The dramatic ballad about an older man has a standout vocal from Kate in the chorus.

There are a few moments where the album does sound of its time such as the 70s arrangement on “James and the Cold Gun” and easy vibe of “L’amour Looks Something Like You”. The slick hi-hat percussion and male vocals in the chorus on “Oh To Be In Love” are used to great effect before the album closes with the excellent title track that sees Kate’s vocals soar.

The centre of the album is first single, “Wuthering Heights”. The video featuring Kate in a red dress, dancing in a field is a stunning visual. The song chronicles the Emily Bronte novel of the same name and is surely one of the most eccentric tracks to have ever reached #1 in the UK. The album followed the single up the charts later peaking at #3.  With several standout tracks, this is a solid debut album from the young star.

8/10