Sunday, March 12, 2017

Depeche Mode - Spirit

When looking for a band to make a “state of the nation” address, Depeche Mode isn’t the first band to spring to mind.  If you are looking for songs about relationships, sex or religion, then they’re your band.   

On this, their 14th album, The Mode have turned their gaze outward rather than inward.  New producer James Ford has obviously inspired the band to rise to new levels, rarely seen this millennium. It is new, yet familiar.  It is chunky and gritty but also soulful and electronic. 

First single Where’s the Revolution is easily the catchiest single they’ve released in years and it is a great indication as to the topics the band has focused on for this album.   Thematically the album talks about the state of the world.  It’s hard not to think about Trump and Brexit when hearing lines like “going backwards, to a caveman mentality” (Going Backwards), “there’s a lynching in the square, you'll have to join us” , "uneducated readers" (The Worst Crime), “Where’s the revolution, come on people you’re letting me down” (the call to arms Where’s the revolution) “Corporations get the breaks”, “when will it trickle down” (Poorman) and Fail ends the album on a depressing note “Oh, we’re f**ked” (yes, really). 

But not everything is concerned about the going on in the world.  Songs such as Poison Heart, Cover Me, You Move and So Much Love cover familiar lyrical ground (this is a good thing by the way).  You Move (the first song ever co-written by Martin Gore and Dave Gahan), will certainly do what it says on the tin and has a chorus that will get stuck in your head for days.  Even better is Scum.  Over a pulsing rhythm it feels that the band have taken matters about the world into their own hands.  The “pull the trigger” hook is hard to dislodge from your brain.

Historically, Martin Gore has been the sole songwriter for Depeche Mode.  On recent albums Dave Gahan contributed a few songs, but the results have always been a bit patchy.  On Spirit, however, it is hard to tell who wrote which song.   The album, while not having an over abundance of hooks, is filled with a gloomy and atmospheric mood that allows you to wallow in the recordings and let them wash over you. 

If I were to have one criticism of Spirit it would be that James Ford reportedly wanted a shorter album (10 songs), while the band wanted a longer one (12 songs).  I can’t help but feel that he’s right.  A couple of songs shaved from the track listing would have strengthened the album from being good to being great.  Still, Spirit shows a band very much on the top of their game.  It might not surpass the classics the band made from 1986-1997, but it can certainly stand confidently next to them. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

U2 – The Joshua Tree (30th Anniversary)

2017 sees the 30th anniversary of one of U2’s classic albums – The Joshua Tree.  It was the culmination of all the band had been working towards in the 80s.  It has soaring choruses, widescreen soundscapes, and at least three classic songs.  In celebration of the anniversary U2 have announced a stadium tour of the US and Europe for 2017. 

For a band that has always looked forward, this trip back 30 years seems a little odd.  Sure, to promote the tour, they’re saying things like: 

“It seems like we have come full circle from when The Joshua Tree songs were originally written, with global upheaval, extreme right wing politics and some fundamental human rights at risk,” reflects The Edge. “To celebrate the album - as these songs seem so relevant and prescient of these times too - we decided to do these shows, it feels right for now. We’re looking forward to it.”

“Recently I listened back to The Joshua Tree for the first time in nearly 30 years,” adds Bono. “It’s quite an opera. A lot of emotions which feel strangely current, love, loss, broken dreams, seeking oblivion, polarisation… all the greats...”

But it still feels strange that a band where wanting to feel “relevant” (whatever that means) is part of its DNA is doing a retro tour. Having said that, in light of these comments, I thought I’d listen to the album and see if those themes do resonate in 2017 as much as they did in 1987.

The main thing that hits you on re-listening to the album is that it is a really great collection of songs.  There’s really not a dud song on the album.  It starts off with the three above mentioned classic songs (Where the Streets Have No Name, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, With or Without You) but the quality doesn’t drop even for a second.  In fact, the album is quite varied.  There are rock songs (Bullet the Blue Sky), bluesy numbers (Trip Through your Wires), epic songs (One Tree Hill), moody jams (Exit) and probably the best U2 single that never was (Red Hill Mining Town).  It’s really great.  I think it would make for a great concert! 

By the time you get to the end of the album it does feel that Bono’s words aren’t entirely misplaced.  There are tales of love and loss and broken dreams.  The themes do resonate today (I mean it’s no shock that U2 write political songs).  While there is obviously some marketing spin about the album being relevant in 2017 the comments aren’t without merit. 

Special mention should be made about some of the B-sides (remember them) released at the time.  These can be found on the deluxe edition bonus disc.  Songs like The Sweetest Thing, Spanish Eyes, Luminous Times and Walk to the Water certainly hold their own alongside the album.  It really shows what a rich creative vein U2 were mining at the time.

The cynic in me thinks that there’s another reason they are doing this tour.  After the debacle surrounding the release of Songs of Innocence (good album, terrible marketing campaign – no need to mention the downloading onto your iPhone thing again is there?) they needed to do something to clear their plate in the minds of the public (so to speak).  What better way than to tour your most popular album and then (as has been promised) release the follow up to Innocence - Songs of Experience later in the year. 

Sunday, March 5, 2017

U2 - Pop

This year, U2 are celebrating the 30th anniversary of one of their greatest successes (the Joshua Tree), but it is also the 20th anniversary of the much maligned Pop album.  I would argue that this was U2’s last great album – their last brave album.

The 90s was, without doubt, U2’s most interesting decade.  They famously decamped to Berlin to seek the muse and they found her with the release of their greatest album Achtung Baby.  Starting off as a way to kill time on tour, the planned follow up EP grew into the excellent Zooropa album.  They filled a bit of time by writing songs that featured on soundtracks to films and the truly unique Passengers project.   It’s safe to say that U2 were on a creative roll. 

Obviously enamored with 90s dance culture the first sounds you hear from Pop certainly scared the horses.  Calling your first single Discotheque was one thing.  But dressing up in Village People gear for the video was another.  No wonder Middle America decided to head for the exits.  But that was their loss.  Looking under the fa├žade of the disco suits shows that U2 were still the serious young things that they always were.  Discotheque is a riddle wrapped in a mystery trying to decipher the enigma that is love.  You can reach, But you can't grab it, You can hold it, control it …

Following this is MOFO – a song about the loss of Bono’s mother.  All of this is presented in the shiny wrapping of dance music with U2 pulling the classic bait and switch trick of pretending to be superficial but delivering some of the most meaningful songs in their catalogue. 


The rest of the album, for better or worse, is a grab bag of songs showing the band wasn’t out of ideas.  There are straight ahead rockers (Last Night on Earth, Gone) trip hop numbers (Miami), torch songs (If you wear that velvet dress), a song about politics (Please), love songs in the vein of One (If God Will send his angels).  The surfeit of ideas was probably the undoing of the album in the end.  It’s unfocussed – the band created new versions of about half the album after its release (and I’m not talking remixes – complete new versions).  But what it lacks in focus, it shows a band having fun, not caring what anyone thinks of them and pretty much pulling it all off.  


There’s certainly an argument to me made that they should have cut some songs from the album and made it shorter, but the length and breadth of the music makes for a much more interesting album than the (more successful) follow up All That You Can’t Leave Behind (which features Beautiful Day -  a return to the top of the charts).


It feels that everything that U2 has done this century has been a reaction to the response to the Pop album (it wasn’t received to their usual fawning expectations).  The band felt that Pop wasn’t finished before they went out on tour, so albums seem to take forever to finish these days.  The strange and interesting songs have been replaced by safe choices.   They always seem to be searching for “relevance”. 


What Pop is crying out for is a reissue – there must be hours of the band early jams and alternative mixes showing the process about how the band came up with this album.  A reissue would also show that the band was ahead of its time.  They were fusing rock and dance right on the cusp of when that became “a thing”.    Certainly for a band searching for “relevance”, this would be no bad thing. 


Friday, March 3, 2017

Ed Sheeran ÷

Maybe each generation gets the singer songwriter that suits them.  Ed Sheeran is the tattooed hip hop loving singer songwriter much loved by millennials. 
On the surface, there’s not much really that Ed Sheeran does that is obviously unique.  He writes acoustic songs like a thousand artists before him have done, which raises the question of why he’s so popular.  Sure, he’s taken some of the hip hop aesthetic (think drum beats, occasional rap delivery) and incorporated that into his songs, but that’s not really enough to explain his popularity. 
The reason why, I think, is that he writes songs that connect with people.  It sounds so obvious, but is really the most difficult trick of all.  For me, it was the song Happier that did it on ¸ (divide).   Up until that point of the album it was just a collection of pretty inoffensive pop songs.  But Happier (not living up to its title) was your classic break up song.  It lulls you into a false sense of security and pulls the rug from underneath your feet. 
Elsewhere there is the almost cynical Galway Girl.  Not cynical in subject matter, but in anticipated audience reaction.  You’re my pretty little Galway Girl” go the lyrics, and I can imagine the Galway be replaced by "insert your city here" wherever he tours.  Something about it felt contrived. 
However, who am I to judge.  I’m clearly not a millennial.  I know that these songs will be inescapable this year, but is the album any good?  Perhaps it is best to get the opinion of an actual millennial.  Mr Thirteen’s review of the album is “some songs are good and some songs are meh”.  I couldn’t have put it better myself. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Elbow - Little Fictions

Elbow’s stock in trade is playing song mid paced contemplative songs.  Nothing much has really changed with this their seventh album.  Elbow play songs that feel like a warm embrace from an old friend, which is something that can be comfort in these uneasy times.  The album isn’t too exciting, and I doubt it will appeal to the unconverted, but for fans this album will be a welcome return. 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Simple Minds - Hordern Pavilion

Simple Minds

Hordern Pavilion

Sydney 9 February 2017

On the same night that Bruce Springsteen is playing across town, why would you choose to spend your evening with Simple Minds? 

Well, one reason is, before they became a byword for bloated stadium rock, Simple Minds were cool. How cool were they?  They were an art rock indie dance band before anyone knew what one of those thing was (OK, I’ll admit that I barely know what one of those things is now).  But they were ice cold cool.  Their name would fit seamlessly beside uber-cool bands like Kraftwerk and Can (look them up) and, yes, Bowie. 

But then they were tempted by stadiums had a small dalliance with the Breakfast Club (Don’t You Forget About Me was confidently played mid set) and they seemed to have left their cool roots behind them.  In came big choruses but what went out the door was that feeling of underground edge (for want of a better term).  For many that’s not a problem – they like the singalong songs - but for some they miss the interesting arty music of the early years. 

How did Simple Minds approach this problem while keeping everyone happy?  The set relied heavily on their greatest hits from the stadium rock years, but also the seminal New Gold Dream album with a few other early classics as well (Love Song was an early highlight).  They nicely balance the songs that are keeping them playing to large venues such as the Hordern Pavilion, but also reminding the faithful that they were a pretty interesting band to begin with.  A couple of tracks played from their latest album illustrate the point best.  They have a foundation in art-rock, but still manage to bring in the big choruses when necessary. 

This approach was best summed up in the three song encore.  One song from the new album, one singalong hit and then they finished with a storming version of the title track from New Gold Dream. 

As I said, something for everyone.    

At one point in a singalong chorus when the crowd wouldn't stop, Jim Kerr said "it's alright for us, we don't have to go to work tomorrow".  Maybe if Simple Minds had let us sing all night we might have had to explain to two bosses our choice in seeing the band.  But if you were there, no explanation was necessary.