Submitted for your consideration: perfect pairs that have been engaging my two ears and two eyes for the past two months, recalled as a Michigan summer enters its last hurrah …
Three of A Perfect Pair: Live Albums
I’m thrilled that Esoteric Recordings’ reissue series from British folk-proggers Renaissance now includes 1976’s Live at Carnegie Hall; recorded over three sold-out nights at the legendary New York venue, this set has been a favorite since high school days. It captures Renaissance’s essence: Annie Haslam’s clear soprano vocals soar over Michael Dunford’s spacious acoustic guitar, John Tout’s supple piano and keyboard work, Jon Camp’s agile bass and backing vocals and Terry Sullivan’s orchestral drumming. Members of the New York Philharmonic join the band for most of the set, bringing out the delectable French and Russian flavors of extended classics like “Can You Understand”, “Running Hard” and the “Song of Scheherazade” suite. A bonus disc of BBC session versions show that Renaissance could conjure up the same magic without the orchestra as well. If you don’t know this worthwhile band’s music, Live at Carnegie Hall is a perfect introduction.
As is a pair of new live albums from the Norwegian trio Elephant9! Recorded during an extended Oslo residency, Psychedelic Backfire I and Psychedelic Backfire II (the latter with Dungen guitarist Reine Fiske sitting in) are two sets of unremittingly scorching jazz-rock improvisation. Organist/keyboardist Ståle Storløkken spins out one mesmerizing solo after another, whether by himself or trading licks with Fiske, while bassist Nikolai Hængsle and drummer Torstein Lofthus stoke relentless, hard-driving grooves. Whether subjecting Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” to a Bitches Brew-era Miles-style breakdown or building unstoppable momentum on “Habanera Rocket”, the music captured here is endlessly inventive and thoroughly compelling.
One of Robert Fripp’s “devil bugs” caught up with the Krueger household on February 24 — the same day a “bomb cyclone” hit West Michigan, causing a 30-degree temperature drop in 24 hours, along with whiteout snowstorms. It’s taken this long for us (and the region) to emerge from hibernation — but through the depths of winter to the cusp of spring, music has taken sad songs and made them better.
That very day late last month, I trekked across the state to catch The Neal Morse Band’s Great Adventour stop in suburban Detroit; Neal and his merry crew (including son Will and daughter Jayda at the merch table) didn’t disappoint. As I anticipated, The NMB’s live take on The Great Adventurewas even tighter, more driven and more finely honed than the fine studio album (first half glitches to Morse’s keyboard rig notwithstanding).
Hearing all of TGA in one go brought home how thoroughly integrated the new effort is. The key musical themes (as well as flashbacks to The Similitude of A Dream) aren’t just repeated, they’re developed in near-symphonic ways: transposed, transformed rhythmically and harmonically, recapped in unexpected contexts throughout the work. Kaleidoscopic contrasts of rhythm, instrumental color, vocal textures (mainly from Morse, guitarist Eric Gillette, keyboardist Bill Hubauer) and tonality meshed smoothly with drummer Mike Portnoy and bassist Randy’s George’s badass forward propulsion, ably mirroring the lyrical highs and lows of another journey to the Celestial City.
In sum, TGA is a genuinely impressive concept work, marked by ambition, intelligence, technique and sentiment in just the right proportions. The result at the end of each set (and the encore medley that covered Morse’s entire solo career, ending the night where it began) was sustained, extended, unforced ecstasy in the audience — a feeling that, I believe, couldn’t have been manufactured or manipulated into existence. I couldn’t help think that, consciously or not, Morse’s recent work fully embodies the ongoing ideal of American revivalist religion — an ideal, whatever its flaws, that’s been a cultural constant from the Puritan theologizing of Jonathan Edwards to the rough-hewn democratic juggernaut of today’s Pentecostalism.
And, in the inspired, paradoxically complex simplicity of its drive to the finish, The Great Adventure live reminded me of nothing so much as Gustav Mahler’s massive Resurrection Symphony. Like Mahler, Morse and band embraced everything that came to hand, running the risk of grandiosity to shape a new musical world — a payoff acknowledged by the heartfelt, fervent applause of the 300 souls in attendance.
For some reason yesterday, it popped into my head to pull out Catherine Wheel’s 1997 Adam and Eve for a spin in the CD player. I had not listened to it in years, but four consecutive listens later, I am compelled to share my love of this album. I think it is because it is the missing link between classic Pink Floyd, late-era Talk Talk, and ’90s Britpop, three of my favorite genres of music. And yes, it is definitely proggy!
Adam and Eve is Catherine Wheel’s fourth proper album, following the B-sides compilation Like Cats and Dogs. Their first two, Ferment and Chrome, had most people lumping them in with the “shoegazer” crowd – as a matter of fact, many consider Ferment a founding document of shoegazing, along with My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and Ride’s Nowhere. CW’s third album, Happy Days, went for a more American grunge feel and earned the band some stateside success. However, there was something unusual and intriguing stirring beneath the surface of those amped-up guitars. For one thing, there was a pronounced Pink Floyd influence (Storm Thorgerson of Hignosis fame was responsible for the art) and, even better, Tim Friese Greene and Mark Feltham from Talk Talk’s classic Spirit of Eden were on board contributing keyboards and harmonica. Eat my Dust, You Insensitive F***k sounds like a lost track from that album, with Rob Dickinson crooning in his best Hollis voice while Feltham’s harmonica shivers and shakes behind him.
So, attentive CW fans should have known something special was in the works for Adam and Eve, and the band did not disappoint. The lead track is not even listed – it is a spare acoustic blues with Dickinson singing, “Let’s get started” that immediately segues into Future Boy. The discordant opening chord recalls Talk Talk’s The Rainbow, as does the spare percussion and wide-open spacey production. Dickinson pleads with a woman that he’ll be anything she needs – “I’ll be your future boy/cos if that is what you need” – while acknowledging “A boy should know his limitations/but I’ve talked myself through less”.
Next up is the “hit” off the album, Delicious, which is a pure blast of guitar-based aural pleasure that builds and builds to a catchy chorus. Broken Nose continues the hard rock mode, with Dickinson’s vocals sounding ironically gentle while his and Brian Futter’s guitars swirl and intertwine. I love the line, “Hey you, with your public displays of pain/You’ve been painful for too long”. (A reference to Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, who released OK Computer the same year as Adam and Eve?)
The pace slows down with the keyboard-heavy Phantom Of The American Mother and the achingly beautiful Ma Solituda. The latter features the finest vocals of any CW song – Dickinson is an incredibly versatile singer, and on this track Futter and bassist Dave Hawes harmonize perfectly. It is followed by Satellite, another infectious rocker – it is a driving song in the best sense: it begs to be played full blast in a convertible while roaring down the highway.
To my mind, the final four tracks are an organic whole, beginning with one of the finest songs of the ’90s: Thunderbird. Here is where the Talk Talk influence is absorbed and used to full advantage. Beginning with a spare drum beat and brittle bursts of guitar, it builds to a shattering chorus that immediately pulls back into an open and sparse instrumental section.
Here Comes the Fat Controller continues the slow burn begun in Thunderbird, and it boasts these excellent lyrics: “Don’t you think the sarcasm’s a little hard to stomach/The cynicism’s boring/How do you feel/How do you feel?” Adam and Eve closes with two epics, Goodbye and For Dreaming, which, even though they are each more than seven minutes long, do not have a single wasted or superfluous note. Another unnamed acoustic track ends the album on a somber note.
Adam and Eve was the last album Mercury/Fontana Records released by Catherine Wheel, and it didn’t get much promotion. It received very positive reviews, but where Radiohead’s OK Computer has (deservedly) grown in stature year after year, A & E is slipping into oblivion. It is not even available on Spotify, and used copies are fetching hefty prices. If you come across one in a used record store, buy it! Adam and Eve is Catherine’s Wheel’s perfect amalgamation of Pink Floyd, Talk Talk, and Britpop. There’s nothing quite like it, and they never reached its heights again. It is truly a masterpiece of rock and deserves to be heard by a new generation of prog fans.
Let me just admit, I’ve been jealous of my excellent friend, Kevin McCormick (and fellow progarchy editor), for years. He’s been the proud owner of an original edition of Talk Talk’s special box set of b-sides from LAUGHING STOCK for some time. The set goes under a variety of names including LAUGHING STOCK CD SINGLES as well as AFTER THE FLOOD set. I’m guessing that Verve wanted it to be somewhat mysterious.
The cool thing–and remember, CDs were pretty new when this thing first came out 27 ago–is that the three CDs form a complete James Marsh picture.
Mark Hollis, MARK HOLLIS (Polydor, 1998). Tracks: The Colour of Spring; Watershed, Inside Looking Out, The Gift; A Life; Westward Bound; The Daily Planet; and A New Jerusalem.
If Mark Hollis wanted to show that he was no longer a member of Talk Talk, nothing could be quite so revealing as the album design of his first and only solo album, MARK HOLLIS. Gone was anything resembling James Marsh’s lush psychedelic landscapes, aching with sacramental if surreal beauty. Gone, too, were the hand written lyrics. Instead, if you find it attractive, the minimalist cover looks like something Apple might design as a part of its product line. If, however, you find it not so attractive, it looks like the label of some kind of generic grocery store product from the late 1970s: “Beer.” The white background supports a bizarre black and white photo. I’ve stared at this photo many times, and I still don’t have a clue what it is. Frankly, it looks a bit like roadkill on display in a museum. The label on the cd booklet merely states “Mark Hollis” in a plain font. On the actual jewel case, there are two stickers. One states “Made in the U.K.” The other states “Formerly of Talk Talk. 537 688-2.” I presume the latter stick refers to Hollis, not to the U.K.
As with LAUGHING STOCK, MARK HOLLIS came out on Polydor. When Hollis had originally signed to the label, the agreement was for four albums total. Considering that MARK HOLLIS came out in 1998, twenty years ago exactly, the chance of Polydor getting two more out of him seems more and more remote. As to what Polydor thinks of Hollis, it’s impossible to state. Clearly, the label knew what it was getting after SPIRIT OF EDEN. If they didn’t, they were fools, and I’m guessing they’re not fools.
Even for those die-hard Talk Talk fans among us, the band’s final album, LAUGHING STOCK, gets only a rating as “SPIRIT OF EDEN II.” It’s not that folks don’t absolutely love it. They do. But, when it comes to the history of Talk Talk and the history of rock, 1988’s SPIRIT OF EDEN is better remembered as the innovating album, the heroic but not so polite one in and on which Hollis told EMI and the commercial world where to go and what to do when they got there.
Begin obsessed with Talk Talk since 1986’s THE COLOUR OF SPRING, I, too, am guilty of ranking LAUGHING STOCK somewhere in the band’s top three, but never number one. Of course, I’ve always loved LAUGHING STOCK. No question there. What’s not to love? Yet, it’s always been—at least in my mind—a kind of final moment, a release, an innovative remake of SPIRIT OF EDEN, featuring the core that made the 1988 album so successful: Hollis; Friese-Green; and Brown.
I first purchased the CD of LAUGHING STOCK (even before I owned a CD player) at Waterloo records in Austin on the day it came out. Craig Breaden (also of Progarchist infamy) and I were attending a history conference there, and Waterloo was across the river from our hotel. Stunningly, when it came to the band, I actually knew far more than Craig. Believe me, this is important, as no one knows the history of rock from the early 60s to the early 90s better than does Craig.
Yesterday, I had the grand fortune of spending a serious amount of time listening to and writing about Talk Talk. There are few subjects in the world that give me so much pleasure as does TT. For years, one of my closest friends (and a friend since the fall of 1986), Kevin McCormick (a fellow progarchist and progarchy editor) and I have talked about writing a full-length book on Talk Talk. We even have a rather strong and detailed outline. The publishing venues, sadly, are not as easy to find as one might imagine. While Talk Talk has a loyal following, it is a small one. A few years ago, we submitted a proposal—which, from my biased perspective was really good—to 33 1/3 Books (Bloomsbury). Sadly, they not only felt no enthuasiam for our project, they deemed it unworthy, even of comment. Just a simple “no thanks.” But, Kevin and I are nothing if nothing if not persistent and enthusiastic. Indeed, some might even say “obnoxious!”
So, if there’s anyone in the reading audience who would like to publish a roughly 60,000 word manuscript on the significance and influence of Talk Talk, please let us know! We could have a completed book to you within a year or less.
For all intents and purposes, Mark Hollis disappeared twenty years ago.
No, not entirely.
Since releasing his last full album, MARK HOLLIS, in 1998, he has appeared, from time to time, on the work of other artists–most particularluy on the work of Phill Brown, Dave Allinson, Unkle, and Anja Garbarek. All of these collaborations, however, took place before 2002.
Ten years later, in 2012, Hollis again emerged, writing a stunning piece of music for the Kelsey Grammar TV series, Boss. That piece, “ARBSection 1,” lasts a full 54 seconds. No one in the music world has seen or heard from him since.
Not too surprisingly, Mark Hollis’s absence has only heightened the interest in him.
For those of us who love Talk Talk, there’s something unlrentingly fascinating about the trajectory of the band. As is well known in musical circles, Talk Talk had its origins in punk but quickly became an MTV showcase of glam rock and pop, producing one clever synthpop song (and video) after another–Talk Talk, Hate, Today, It’s My Life, Such a Shame, and Dum Dum Girl–between 1982 and 1984. They became a standard of the first half of the 1980s–easily lumped in with Echo and the Bunnymen, The Cure, Thomas Dolby, New Order, and Duran Duran—as part of the second British invasion of American pop culture.
Yet, even from their beginning, the band was different from all of their pop companions, even if many in the music scene of the time dismissed (or missed) those differences.
I suppose one could accuse me of being just a bit too obvious regarding this fourth installment of Second Spring. After all, it is April 5. I even contemplated using another Talk Talk track for this fourth part. Then, I put “April 5” on, and I realized immediately how right it is for today. After all, it’s following yesterday’s Big Big Train track, “The Permanent Way.”
Big Big Train is as close to perfect as the world will allow. Still, Mark Hollis joining BBT would make the band just a bit more perfect. . . .
Mark Judge praises Talk Talk in this remarkable piece on 80s nostalgia versus art; here’s an excerpt (with my correction of a typo):
As mentioned earlier, the poppy 80s group Talk Talk ignored the criticism of their record label to produce two albums that are now considered works of genius, Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, records that could only be realized after years of practice and experimentation.
More than thirty years later, the internet and our social media addictions have changed everything. Along with helicopter parenting, the digital grid allows kids to avoid the kind of risks and hard work that was once required of artists, and that made them want to break new ground. Our goal as young writers and musicians and painters in the 1980s was to be great, and that required toil. These days, why sweat it out for years when you can just upload a half-baked idea onto YouTube?
Today, anyone with a computer can write a song, anyone with a smart phone is a photographer, and anyone with a blog is a journalist. On one level, this is wonderful. After all, too often the gatekeepers of the pre-digital era were liberal censors, or simply had too much power to decide what was art or not and what should and should not be published. Yet as the art house theaters and record stores and quirky magazines that sustained the era’s creativity have shuttered, modern writers and artist suffer no difficult time of formation.
As pop culture continues to overtake the culture at large – what’s left is an echo of a partially recalled time. There is nostalgia for the past, for the time before the dominance of our lives by Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, when people could have ditzy fun with[out] distraction or the hostile filter of social media. But this nostalgia offers a distorted view of the 80s. The irony and kitsch of the era takes prominence; left behind is the sweat that went into creating the best art the decade produced.
In 2018, the slightest criticism offered to a young writer, musician or journalist on Twitter is met with a napalm strafing of invective and resistance. The internet is wonderful in allowing talent to be exposed to the masses, but it has also made people lazy. Our culture is stuck, like Wade Watts in Ready Player One, bathing in a digital realm of shiny pop culture while the real world is a wasteland.