5 fundamentally flawed albums you need to own

Girl Talk by Gwazda Paris 2007 via Wikipedia

Written for Collapse Board

You may have noticed that we don’t give marks out of 10 here, partly because it renders reviews pointless (you just read the number, not the words) and partly because it’s not fair on the recording itself.  The issue is one and the same: without the context of pointing out exactly what makes it a “good” or “bad” album, you’re doing a disservice to the band, to the listener and to the reviewer. I know why I like something, but if I don’t tell you why I like it, you’re not going to know if you’ll like it too. I could give a metal album 10/10 but if you just plain hate heavy metal, you’re not going to get past the first five minutes. Sure, you save two or three minutes reading the review if you can just get a score, but you waste – what? – an hour? A whole hour of your time struggling through something you were never going to enjoy in the first place because I gave it 10/10 and that means that obviously it must be perfect. I don’t want to waste your time or your money: I’d rather just give a few details about the listening experience and let you make up your own mind.

More problematic still is the 7/10 album. Why is an album less than 10? Because it’s mediocre? Well, that’s unforgiveable, isn’t it? Given the choice between a record that’s been branded “10/10″ and one that has not, you’re not going to bother with the latter, are you? Life’s too short – might as well reserve it for the best. But what about the ones that fail to be “the best” – not because they are boring, but because there’s one big problem marring an otherwise awe-inspiring album? Such as: 

1. Girl Talk – Feed The Animals

The album

Feed The Animals is the fourth album by Gregg Gillis, calling himself Girl Talk, released in 2008, and conceived as one continuous piece. It came out on the Illegal Art label, a stable notorious for the Deconstructing Beck compilation, which was composed entirely of Beck samples and landed the label in legal trouble. Gillis put the album out under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial licence, inviting fans to donate as they please, Radiohead-style, rather than selling it for a fixed price. (Donations above $10 netted you a physical CD; downloadees paying $0 had to explain via multiple choice why they were not paying.)

The problem

The unusual licensing arrangement and pay-what-you-like distribution was out of necessity: it is composed almost entirely out of unlicensed samples. That’s problematic from a conscience level because his “fame” is entirely off the backs of the ingenuity of other people. For my own part, I donated $4.99 – just below the $5 threshold for a seamless download, but enough to make a reasonable contribution for costs. I didn’t want to “buy” the album because of the iffyness of the whole copyright thing – though they’ve obviously recently thrashed that out since it’s now up on Amazon as a standard album purchase.

Why you need to own it

Because it’s f***ing brilliant. I was tipped off on the album by a friend who knew I loved music, so what could I possibly love more than just about every record ever all cut up and squished together, collage style? Hip-hop, metal, disco, 60s pop, nothing was off-limits. It’s the sheer variety of samples included – from Nirvana to Salt-n-Pepa, often at the same time – that makes it such an exhilarating experience. Guessing which incongruous clips you’ll hear next is half the fun – the other half is found in shuffling along to the delightfully accessible grooves he builds with these snippets – in many cases creating something much better than what he had to start with. If ever the “transformative work” argument for Fair Use has ever been made, this is the textbook example: we’re not talking Jive Bunny here; this is more than mere mash-up.

Feed The Animals works in its own right, as an exceptional new creation that requires as much original thought and creativity as someone writing an album using a synth. Sure, you can just use the presets, but that would be b*llocks. The real artist puts things together in ways that nobody else would even consider. You might think of putting Rihanna together with Michael Jackson, but would it ever cross your mind to put together The Carpenters and Lil Mama with Metallica?

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2. Cardiacs – Sing To God

The Album

Sing To God is the seventh album by Cardiacs – one of those bands who have managed to influence almost every band in existence despite never having had a hit themselves. It was initally released as a double album in a run of 3,000, and later as two separate CDs. It was named after a children’s hymn book owned by William D Drake, though is in no way a religious work. It was the first album that was written collaboratively between the band’s members: previous outings were generally entirely the musings of (lead singer) Tim Smith.

The problem

Like every double album I’ve ever heard – certainly Pink Floyd’s The Wall or Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile – there just wasn’t any need for it at all. As with those, if you’d cut it down to 12 tracks, you’d have unadulterated perfection, but as it stands you have unadulterated perfection diluted with extraneous fluff. Not that you could describe any of these tracks as fluff, but they’re definitely not perfect. ‘Dog Like Sparky’ is the first track that’s particularly interesting, and it’s only when you get to ‘Fiery Gun Hand’ that it’s apparent that Sing To God is one of the finest albums you’ll ever hear.

Why you need to own it

Because it only gets better from there. Manhoo is one of the few songs I’ve ever heard that gets The Beatles. Their other copyists – Noel Gallagher take note – ape the sounds without any concept of the spirit that made the band so loved. Cardiacs echo The Beatles’ mania and mischief, crafting densely layered and unpredictable nursery rhymes. Wireless features Tim Smith reading from kids’ story Dawn Of The Sea (by Cardiacs’ Dawn Staple), and is a perfect example of psychedelic minimalism, evoking everything from Terry Riley to early Foetus via Battles. It’s a twitchy, hypnotic dream of a song, both rapturously shambolic and jarringly precise. It’s a sonic itch; a prickly fairground ride, like one of those rickety ghost trains on the end of the pier that leaves you terrified you’ll plunge off any moment into the sea, all the while hearing the rhythmic clackety-clack of the wheels running over the tracks.

Dirty Boy is a devastating, sprit-shattering anthem beloved by fans and admirers (and can reduce grown men to tears) that isn’t even the best song on here, and Nurses Whispering Verses – a superior version of the song from Toy World and 1984′s The Seaside – is the full realisation of what it means to combine “punk” with “prog” – all the vitality of the former on the scale of the latter: it will leave you breathless. Odd Even makes Blur sound like a sh*te Kinks tribute band … and by this point we’re long past even deciding which the best track is. I remember the gigs that promoted Sing To God as being events, the likes of which I’d never forget. It’s soul-affirming, as if by not listening you’d forget you’re alive. So many tracks, so many of them incredible, that you just think if someone had trimmed it back a bit you’d see what a life-changingly, tear-inducingly, soul-shreddingly f***ing astonishing record you have in your hands. Dear God! It’s the type of album you should be getting down on your knees and thanking whatever deity that you worship that you were ever fortunate enough to have it cross your path, but you almost missed it because the first three tracks were a bit meh.

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3. Foetus – GASH

Oh, good grief! Can you get through an entire blog post without mentioning JG Thirlwell? Well, that would only be possible if he wasn’t like a combination of Kevin Bacon, Pete Postlethwaite and Christopher Lee in terms of sheer ubiquity. (That’s 445 films. This is Jim’s discography.) Case. In. Point.

The album

There was a phase in the 90s when major labels signed the unlikeliest of artists. Sony picked up Foetus, which in hindsight seems the craziest move in music history – but not much weirder than Interscope signing NIN, the band that brought you the Grammy-winning Fist F*** (remixed, of course, by JG Thirlwell) – but at the time was part of a policy of casting a wide net. I mean, if Chumbaf***ingwamba could have a Top Five record, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that such a determinedly oblique act could have widespread appeal.

The problem

It’s just completely anti-commercial. The first track is slow and dirge-y, the second is nasty and takes a careful listen to determine which side of the racism divide it falls on, and the third is sheer noise. It’s quite probably the least saleable album in Sony’s history. I don’t know what the Japanese is for, “What exactly the f***are we supposed to do with this?”, but I can guarantee it was heard in Columbia marketing HQ back in April 1995. Basically, half the album is unbearable – and I mean that in contrast to Thirlwell’s ear-torturing first album, DEAF. I can’t find an example of Downfall to play you, but it sounds like a vicious, possessed toddler on a sugar-crack high screaming in your ear for three minutes. It doesn’t really let up after that, either.

The story goes that Thirlwell kept making it bigger and louder and more until all the subtlety and nuance was buried under the sheer weight of the noise. (It took me 15 years to notice the xylophone on Steal Your Life Away.) When you turn absolutely everything up to 11, all that emerges is a cacophonous din. If that wasn’t enough, Alex Winter edited in so many cuts to the video for Verklemmt that watching it would give practically anyone a seizure.

Why you need to own it

Because, if you can get past the painful shrieking and unwatchable video, you have an album with several of the greatest songs ever recorded. If NAIL is Thirlwell’s Loveless (as good as albums get) then GASH is his Nevermind (the one with the best songs). The aforementioned Steal Your Life Away has one of the slinkiest, sexiest basslines ever, They Are Not So True is as intimidatingly pretty as a starry night at the North Pole, and Slung is a swoonsome, storming 11-minute jazz number that even your mother would like.

Hammer Falls sounds like Cop Shoot Cop beating up Cornershop by firing Henry Rollins out of a cannon at them. “Unique” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Mutapump is so brutally beautiful that I can only listen to it when I’m feeling down because it can wreck my mood – but whenever I’m unhappy, no matter how low I’m feeling, it can catch me in its arms and carry me home in five and a half minutes. Not many songs can so utterly transform a mood, but Mutapump couldn’t have a greater effect if it gave me a back rub while feeding me chocolate.

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4. Pink Floyd – Meddle

The album

As Pink Floyd’s sixth studio album, 1971′s Meddle was a rare collaborative effort in which the band’s members made equal lyrical contribution – contrasting with later fare like The Wall and Dark Side Of The Moon, which were essentially the musings of Roger Waters. The album is a result of creative experiments, such as one in which each member played on a separate track with no reference to what the others were playing. (As you can imagine, that particular experiment was jettisoned when no useable material was produced.)

Sessions were lazy affairs, with almost no contact with the record company. The band would drink, get stoned, play around with various riffs and ideas that would inevitably come to nothing. Finally, Rick Wright fed a single piano note through a Leslie speaker and produced a submarine-like ping. They were unable to replicate the sound, but managed to obtain a sample from a demo they’d made and developed the note from there into the basis for Echoes. The ostinato double-tracked bass on One Of These Days was fed through a Binson Echorec; the famous vocal was Nick Mason’s falsetto recorded at double speed and replayed at normal speed. The seagull-squall sound on the guitar was achieved when Dave Gilmour accidentally plugged his wah wah peddle in the wrong way round.

The problem

These experiments were necessitated by a severe case of writer’s block. The band spent their days noodling around and experimenting because they literally did not have the tiniest f***ing clue what they were doing. The result is collection of great individual songs that don’t really work as an album. There’s the snarling proto-metal of One Of These Days, the tranquil Pillow Of Winds, the contemplative Fearless, the lazy jazz of San Tropez and the canine blues of Seamus.

There’s not much here to suggest it’s even the same band, let alone the same album. While not every release needs to be a concept album – and I often make a fuss about bands needing more diversity in their repertoire – some sort of general theme that ties it all together makes for a more satisfying experience.

Why you need to own it

Because of Echoes. Yes, the preceeding five songs are pretty good, but Echoes is one of those unique moments in music history that is like some sort of stellar convergence. It was, unusually, written by all four members of the band – and rather than pulling in all directions as they had done on the rest of the album, the genre-spanning result is a summary of all the band’s work to date. It begins as melancholic whimsy, swells to an intricate duel of guitars and organ, kicks back to a laconic funk groove, dissipates to a wasteland of distant squalls, gathers to an ominous and insistent metal thunderstorm and then relaxes into a reprise of the opening sunny bliss. It’s one song that works as one song, without sounding like a compilation tape that’s been chopped up and gaffer-taped together. If only the rest of the album was this cohesive.

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Roger Waters considered legal action after hearing The Phantom Of The Opera‘s opening bars (see 3:55 on this clip), but decided against it after declaring “Life’s too long to bother with suing Andrew f***ing Lloyd Webber”. That’s not the only time Echoes has been plagiarised: I once cheated in English by submitting the lyrics as my descriptive writing assignment. I got an ‘A’.

5. Skinny Puppy – The Process

The album

Skinny Puppy’s ‘difficult’ eighth album was one of those stories that you couldn’t make up if you were a writer on Hollyoaks. Earthquakes, fires, internal squabbles – it wasn’t the easiest record to make. There were conflicts with the record label – the usual stuff – and Nivek Ogre walked out. Soon after, Dwayne Goettel died from an overdose. The Process got through three producers: Roli Mosimann, Martin Atkins and Dave Ogilvie. It was intended as the band’s final album, though Skinny Puppy eventually reformed in 2000.

The problem

Too many cooks. It sounds like all the members of the band, plus all the production crew, standing in a room together having a blazing row. It’s one thing to have complex arrangements, but this is a traffic jam of loud noises going off at once. It’s a total f***ing mess. It sounds like Momentary Lapse Of Reason-era Pink Floyd having a nervous breakdown in a room full of the toys Trent Reznor threw out of his pram.

Why you need to own it

Because this is followed by this and I recall that – at the 10-second point of Death – we were actually tripping over each other trying to run to the phone to fix up an interview with the band. No amount dicking about on the production side could ruin a song like that. The sheer ferocity, the vitriol, the passion … white hot hate. You could dance to it. “Spiky, black, hard-edged”, monstrous metal riff and a chaotic wall of beats and bleeps, Ogre grunting over the top, some gloriously clashing synth pad, and a chorus you can hum.

Candle plonks a delicious sub-bass dubby little groove beneath Ogre’s usual indignant rambling yelp, stabby riffs and a pretty acoustic guitar line. Blue Serge is Puppy’s most accessible track, and was used in a couple of soundtracks. It’s only surprising that it didn’t become as well-known as something like Front 242′s Headhunter – though I’d classify this as straight out breakbeat rather than “industrial” in any way. It’s almost impossible not to dance to it, it’s just so damnably bouncy, like that bit on Buffy where they dance themselves to death. It’s compulsive, addictive and imperative. Oh yeah, oh yeah.

On Amnesia, Ogre foregoes his usual demented hamster squeak in favour of a confident, tuneful vocal delivery. It stands in the midst of chaos and owns it, like Paul Atreides commanding the sky. Finally, it drops back to a single piano line. Beneath the deafening fury of a thousand samples thrown randomly at each other, the strength and simple beauty of the melody win out. It’s like no matter how hard they tried to make The Process suck, they failed.

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I’m not going to pretend it’s a perfect album. I’m not going to pretend any of them are perfect albums – they’ve all got something deeply, catastrophically wrong with them – but ignoring them because they don’t have that arbitrary metacritic 100% means missing out on some of the most pleasurable aural experiences of your life. It’s your choice, I guess – I can love them enough for both of us.

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