Sunday, March 29, 2009

Joy Division's Closer

As a direct tie-in with the recent release of ‘Control’, photographer and video director Anton Corbijn’s deferential biopic of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, all three studio albums by the group have been re-released in remastered formats. Out of the three official Joy Division studio albums, 1980's 'Closer' remains the most compelling and outstanding, with a palpable air of bleakness hanging over the proceedings like a disembodied wraith.

This is probably due to the fact that it is the band's last recorded material, immortalised on tape just before Curtis' shocking suicide by hanging in May 1980. It is also Joy Division's most realised body of work, successfully bringing together all the artistic and lyrical elements and nuances that made the group such a persuasive musical force, even after nearly 30 years after their disbandment.

’Closer’ opens with the rumbling percussion, jagged guitar grindings and moaning vocalisms of the aptly named ‘Atrocity Exhibition’, a perfect showcase for the band's remarkable, almost instinctive synergy. The kinetic, proto-synth-pop ‘Isolation’ is up next, a clear indicator of the direction that Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris would embark upon as New Order after the dissolution of their first band.

However, the pace is slowed down for the third track, ‘Passover’, a disheartening, disconsolate ditty about the inevitability of a predestined fate, marked by Sumner's controlled guitar pyrotechnics. The skittish, restless ‘Colony’ brings things up to speed again, with Morris' extraordinary, suitably anxious percussion work, anchored by a curt, Hook-y (as it was) bass groove. This is followed by the insistent, stubbornly adamant ‘A Means to an End’, and the echoing, unearthly six-minute ‘Heart and Soul’.

The final run of ‘Closer’ is highlighted by arguably its most noteworthy number, the melodramatic threnody ‘Twenty Four Hours’, still the most compelling and engaging song in the band's entire oeuvre (complete with the foreboding line "Just for one moment, I thought I'd found my way/destiny unfolded, I watched it slip away"). The sepulchral, slow-motion funeral marches ‘The Eternal’ and ‘Decades’ that provide the joint conclusion for ‘Closer’ sound like appropriate epitaphs for Curtis, as he drifts towards a cul-de-sac of a future.

So, ‘Closer’ will remain a bona fide gem in the annals of rock history, simultaneously absorbing and accomplished, and ample evidence to the genius of the late, lamented Curtis. However, casual rock fans are well-advised to keep a distance from this austere masterpiece, lest they be frightened out of their wits. For the discerning rock fan, however, ‘Closer’ is surely one of the most realised works in late 20th-century rock, and for that reason alone, you need to pick up this reissue, if you don’t already have it.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Nightfly

In a professional career that has spanned the better part of four decades, ‘The Nightfly’ remains Donald Fagen’s most accomplished work, even after taking into consideration those seminal jazz-rock albums he did in his time with the pioneering Steely Dan. While he chose to dabble in wickedly wry anecdotes with Steely Dan, churning out sardonic songs about vagabonds, runaways and other lowlifes, Fagen opted for a more personal focus when he launched his solo jaunt with ‘The Nightfly’ in 1982. Fagen narrated in intensely vivid detail his childhood during the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras, describing the fantasies he had while growing up and his hopes for the future. These lyrical reminiscences were matched with some of the most polished, refined, jazz-inflected pop ever committed to record, making for a wonderfully evocative album that had no sonic precedent.

Given its historical significance in Fagen’s discography, its original eight-song track listing does merit a run-through again. The brightly coloured, optimistic ‘I.G.Y. (International Geophysical Year)’ provides a faultless start to the proceedings, a nostalgic tribute to the titular scientific event of 1958, marked by its pleasantly familiar, if slightly overused introductory horn-section melody. The impossibly classy ‘Green Flower Street’ is a wistful look back at Fagen’s childhood neighbourhood, while ‘Maxine’ is a touching piano-ballad paean to a high-school crush.

Meanwhile, a positively swinging reading of the Drifters’ ‘Ruby Baby’ displays Fagen’s hitherto hidden doo-wop proclivities. The propulsive, seven-minute ‘New Frontier’ is an atmospheric, early-60s slice-of-life narrative, driven along by an insouciant post-bop cadence and a distinctive four-note piano riff (the animated, era-specific promo for the song is included in this package). Meanwhile, the title track is an urbane smooth-jazz nugget that features Fagen at his storytelling best, a scene-setting tale of an all-night radio show and its charismatic disc jockey.

The album’s home run is marked by two remarkable cuts: the first one, ‘The Goodbye Look’, is a bouncy calypso groover about the last days of the Batista regime in Cuba, and the advent of the Cuban Revolution. The closing ‘Walk Between Raindrops’ is a dynamic, brisk show tune that sounds like an outtake from some ancient, long-forgotten Broadway musical.

Thanks to the proficient and dexterous execution in both production and performance, ‘The Nightfly’, to utilise an old cliché, has truly stood the test of time. Never has Fagen been more artistically purposeful or sounded more sonically vital than on here, and the overall sense that ‘The Nightfly’ imparts is that of a professional performer at the height of his powers. Immaculate, flawless and sophisticated, ‘The Nightfly’ remains one of the most evocative and stylish recordings of 20th century rock. A stellar example of Fagen’s enduring craftsmanship, and still the high point of his long career.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Free as a Bird

A lovingly crafted late-period John Lennon demo that was drafted into service as the lead single for The Beatles' historic 'Anthology' series in the mid-1990s, 'Free as a Bird' is also a meticulously constructed, carefully overdubbed recording that laid the surviving Beatles' impeccable harmonies on top of the existing original track. It is matched by a peerless montage video clip that features an abundance of visual allusions to the Beatles' past, with a slightly surreal feel throughout.

Monday, March 02, 2009

In Praise of King Crimson

Robert Fripp's ever shifting King Crimson collective is, without a doubt, the foremost and most accomplished purveyors of that often-misunderstood genre of rock called progressive rock. In stark contrast to the labyrinthine diversions of contemporaries like Yes, Jethro Tull and Genesis, King Crimson often brought an intuitive intelligence to their music, applying a decidedly cerebral approach and plenty of calculated firepower. Here are several stellar examples of the now-classic works that they have created throughout their forty-year existence in the industry.

The undisputed magnum opus of the band, and one of the true milestones of prog-rock. The textures on this album are varied and awe-inspiring: menacing Hendrixian freakouts and controlled post-bop craziness (the frighteningly explosive and efficient "21st Century Schizoid Man"), pastoral, lilting folk balladry ("I Talk to the Wind"), haunting, sinister medieval-influenced tonalities ("Epitaph") and theatrical, LSD-fuelled psychedelic rock ("The Court of the Crimson King"). In one word: breathtaking.

This sophomore effort might suffer in comparison to its more illustrious predecessor, but many virtuosic moments still abound here. The dramatic title track aspires to the epic heights of "The Court of the Crimson King", and succeeds to a certain extent, while "Pictures of a City" is another scholarly rock-out in the vein of "21st Century Schizoid Man". Meanwhile, the melodic ballad "Cadence and Cascade" practically glows with restful blissfulness, while "The Devil's Triangle" is Fripp's appropriately sly take on Holst's "Mars" suite.

LIZARD (1971)
Arguably the most misunderstood work from the first incarnation of King Crimson, this jazz-informed endeavour bears a heavy Miles Davis influence, circa the "Sketches of Spain" era. The acknowledged highlight is the cinematic, gargantuan 23-minute title suite (divided into four mini-suites), a brilliant, mercurial study in shifting generic textures, but there are other favourites too, like the lovelorn, airily placid "Lady of the Dancing Water" (which could well be the prettiest ballad the band has ever done), the jerky, atonal "Happy Family" (an underhanded dig at the Fab Four), and the ominous LSD-nightmare tone poem "Cirkus".

RED (1975)
The most realised effort from the mid-70s King Crimson line-up, renowned for their mind-expanding improvisatory instrumental jams. The lack of coherent melodic structures and the intentionally complicated production values might be cause for concern for some old-school fans, but on the plus side, it does possess tight, focused songwriting and intensely purposeful performances. The title track is a cacophonous but still melodic tour de force that compellingly displays Fripp’s one-of-a-kind tri-tone guitar-riffing method, while ‘Fallen Angel’ is an expansive six-minute ballad that abounds with lots of interesting sonic details. The indisputable standout has to be the 12-minute epic ‘Starless’, a carefully crafted, multi-segmented showcase that seems to incorporate everything that contributes to King Crimson’s majestic artistry.

The most cohesive effort from the 1980s manifestation of the band has guitarist extraordinaire Adrian Belew bringing a welcome new-wave sensibility to the proceedings. The excellently paced title track is the unquestioned progenitor of all math-rock, the herky-jerky, madcap "Elephant Talk" brings to mind a more insightful Talking Heads, the overlapping, interlocking grooves of "Frame by Frame" is as dense as dense can be, and the brutal "Indiscipline" is King Crimson's cleverly sardonic take on heavy metal.

THRAK (1995)
Fripp assembled an innovative six-man, double-trio format for this newest line-up of King Crimson, bringing an immensely powerful, new-millennium aesthetic to a tried and tested genre. The sheer, overpowering, take-no-prisoners dynamism of "Dinosaur" will overwhelm first-time listeners, while "B'Boom" is a terrifyingly precise drums-and-percussion duel, and "Walking on Air" and "One Time" are brooding, sweeping ballads that prove that this new formation has its relatively sensitive side too.