“What’s the worst album you’ve ever heard in your life?” As a reviewer, I often get asked this question. The worst album I ever heard? There are so many ways one can define bad music! One could go the completely subjective route and say all music is based on taste and that there is no way you can objectify taste.
However, one could also go the ultra objective route and rate music based on the notes played, the construction of the songs, the quality of the playing and the quality of the lyrics (if it’s song based music to which you’re listening) as well as the memorability and harmonious nature of the music.
Well, if one wants to rate music on such an objective scale, I’d have to say that “Half Gentlemen/Not Beasts” the triple (!) debut (!!!!!) by the Michigan-born Fair brothers would undoubtedly be, objectively one of the absolute worst albums I’ve ever heard.
This is an album with six sides of ridiculously written, out-of-tune music played on out of tune instruments by two idiot-savants that obviously barely know what they’re doing. The lyrics are the absurd droolings of a permanent man-child with a touch of autism. Objectively, listening to this album from start to finish is absolute agony.
Subjectively, this album is also one of the best albums I’ve ever heard in my life.
Okay, here’s where things start to get a little too intellectual (and perhaps more than a little stupid). David and Jad Fair are infamous for their naivety, crude approach and their dedication to never, ever getting better. Ever.
This can be viewed as a crime against music or as a refreshing breath of fresh air. There is nothing else in the world that sounds like this…except for perhaps the Shaggs which I won’t get into right now. Jad (usually) plays guitar like somebody who just picked it up for the first time. David (usually) plays drums in the same manner.
Both scream childish gibberish that focuses on girls they like, bands they love, girls they hates, bands they love, things they like doing, things they hate doing and an unending obsession with Jodi Foster, of all things.
Does this album sound a bit “serial killer” to you? Well, the Fair brothers are genuinely harmless but I think with a tad more insanity they’d be on some kind of watch list: both are rather nerdish, nebbish weirdos that have to be hovering near Asperger’s.
The music is always loud (cept when it’s not) and always noisy and sounds like a barely in control improvisation session: every song sounds the same but every song sounds different. The band tries their best to make each song stand out but over three sides of vinyl (including two complete concerts indexed as one track!!!) one starts to get a headache.
Basically, it sounds like the worst garage band ever (skills wise) playing whatever pops into their head and trying to create a diverse, unique experience and failing most of the time.
However, as one listens to the album, it starts to create its own unique soundscape and world view. Yes, it’s endless and the songs basically sound the same but you start to hear little weird touches…the kind of thing a real musician would have never included or “fixed up” to make it sound “better.”
This includes single note, endlessly repeat riffs, go nowhere solos, guitar tuning that’s done by “string tension” rather than actual notes played (or sometimes even stringing it with the same string six times) and a complete lack of care and abandon.
It all starts to make sense which can (and should) become terrifying: am I becoming a nerdy, nebbish, Asperger based potential serial killer too?
No: you’re just experiencing the unique sensation of absolute musical freedom. Kind of…I mean, as naive as the band wants to present themselves as being they still have a musical philosophy which guides them…that being that knowing what you’re doing is inherently limiting.
The basic concept is that if you “know” how to tune and string a guitar, how to play the “right” chords, all the “right” scales and how to “properly” write and arrange a song, you are falling victim to rules created for you by somebody else…rules that should not apply to you as they are rules you did not create and which will lead to music inherently limited by those rules.
I’ll admit it: this philosophy is intriguing to me and I agree with it to a certain extent. I have found that musicians simply have to play and write as if they know no boundaries. Try out new things, different sound combinations that they’ve never played and hopefully they can create something that’s somewhat unique and free of the “limitations” of the correct way to do things.
Which is why this album is, subjectively, one of the top 10 albums ever created. Because it’s music created with absolute freedom by two lunatics that are barely able to bash out anything even accidentally coherent on their instruments (they swap instruments a lot and both sing so it’s hard to know who is doing what and when).
But here’s the thing: completely unhinged and unschooled creativity such as this ultimately leads to…everything sounding exactly the same. As the band “expresses” themselves “absolutely freely” they end up making everything sound like everything else as they lack the skill to…differentiate their playing or “composing” approaches in anyway.
This is another reason why the album is objectively awful: a completely uniform sound palate.
But then there is the personality factor, the charisma and the charm which are impossible to define and bottle and which will vary from person to person. One person’s “charming masterpiece” will be another person’s “incoherent gibberish.”
So, long story short, the album is simultaneously the best album ever made and the worst. Both opinions are completely, perfectly, 100% valid and both can be proved using both subjective and objective definitions.
Which is why you should buy it and listen to it once a day for the rest of your life. And it’s been re-released on CD!
Songs to Youtube:
You kidding me?!
The early 80’s was a time of relative musical chaos. The 60’s had all coalesced into the hippie movement and The Beatles which fell gradually apart to be replaced by bands taking the “complex” sound of the times and running with it. This produced the incredible sounds of “progressive” rock which inevitably turned to crap.
Then, there were the “heavy” bands such as Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple who took the “heavy blues” vibe and ran it head first into the ground of wild (stupid) mysticism (in the case of the former) and lazy, riff nicking (in the case of the other).
Then punk came around and created the myth that it destroyed “bad” music forever by destroying the former “dinosaurs” and bringing rock back to the masses.
That lasted about a day: if punk was the “huge thing” in the late 70’s, how come crap rock bands like Foreigner and REO Speedwagon still existed?
I’m not knocking punk (I like a lot of it) but just the idea that it destroyed the careers of the dinosaurs. Yes, a few bands disappeared but most just warped into other, more mainstream styles of music.
The best influence of punk is that it did inspire amateur musicians to pick up their instruments and try out new styles, sounds and ideas that were neither “punk” or “mainstream” and which would come to influence a wide variety of musical stylistics in the decades to come.
This is where the “Young Marble Giants” come into the picture.
The Young Marble Giants was a three-piece with guitar playing brother Stuart Moxham writing the tunes, Phillip Moxham playing the melodic and nimble bass lines and Alison Stratton singing the “vibrato free” vocals. A drum machine (sometimes treated) keeps up the rhythm while an occasional organ pops up, played by Stuart.
What the band did reads very easily on paper: they created an airy, minimalistic “pop” style that influenced dozens of future indie bands looking to avoid the strum and drang of rock and roll and to develop a more subtle attack.
Hearing the album is a whole different experience. In my opinion, there are two possible reactions to this album: complete excitement or complete boredom.
The boredom is easy to explain: nothing happens. The songs all sound the same. The singer sucks. What’s the big deal? Next record, please.
The excitement that arises in the right person (such as yours truly) comes from an appreciation of how little the band is doing to create the atmosphere and style they are creating. Stuart is a capable rhythm guitarist and an excellent songwriter who’s signature guitar style comes from palm muting the guitar during most of the album.
Yes, palm muting, that thing you hear metal guitarists do during “breakdowns” in songs. Except Stuart plays his guitar mostly clean with just a touch of distortion for the “harder” parts i.e. those parts where he plays simple but memorable non-muted riffs.
The drum machine plays along with Stuart’s model: the beats are muted and warped through a slight phase effect. The drum beat is never more complex than a basic 4/4 but the phased beat creates an absolutely unique pulse that has never been repeated.
Phillips is perhaps the most important member of the band instrumentally as he has the most freedom to play. Stuart has surrendered himself to the rhythm: as Gabriel said, it has his soul. Phillip plays to the beat, around the beat, adds simple runs, plays melodies and does everything he can to color in the spaces between the beats.
Even then he picks his notes carefully (he’s not exactly doing Chris Squire stuff) and chooses careful, simple parts and pops them in from time to time, all adding to the slight, airy beat that is the sound of this band by adding a slightly more muscular attack.
And then there is Stratton. Her simple, child-like voice (forced on Stuart, who had wanted to be the band’s singer) floats above the simple rhythm bed singing simple, but catchy, memorable and endearing melodies as if commenting on the band playing beneath her.
Her voice is simply something: not much there technically but her vibrato free, no nonsense approach practically defined female indie singing for…well, ever it appears.
All of this praise would be to nothing if the band simply played atmospheric airy nothingness (a million bands do that) but this band does nothing of the sort. Stuart writes the kind of snappy, simple pop songs that defined the early punk era but plays them in the gentlest way possible.
“Looking for Mr. Right” is a perfect start for the album: the distant fade in of the atmospheric, faded drum beats slowly builds into a trademark Stuart palm mute rhythm. Phillip starts playing simple, stabbing bass lines that raise the tension. Stratton then comes in bemoaning her ability to find “Mr. Right.”
Bemoaning isn’t the right word: simply stating. She’s simply stating how difficult it is to find the right guy to a Stuart melody that is hard to deny.
A serious complaint that can be lodged at this album (that I can’t deny) is that it all sounds the same. This is very true: the band does throw in an organ from time to time, but generally when they do that the organ becomes the predominant instrument. With arrangements this simple, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve heard it all before.
However, and I insist this is the case, the band is obviously doing everything they can to diversify the songs within their formula. “Searching for Mr. Right” may serve as the prototype but “Include Me Out” breaks the mold by featuring some slight distortion, a straight forward guitar riff and the type of fluid bass lines that came out of the punk world.
Seriously, throw in a real drummer, a bit more distortion and Joey Ramone and you got a punk tune.
“Credit in The Straight World” is a similar “punk like” song that is so good, Hole of all people, did a cover on “Live Through This” that follows this arrangement to the letter except it adds a real drummer and another guitar to make it the hard core punk song it never quite becomes (for good or bad) in the hands of the Young Marble Giants.
And then the band slows things down, brings out the organ and croons about a “Wurlitzer Jukebox.” This song is a great example of how the band changes their style: by slowing down, focusing on the organ and developing a solid “ballad” vocal melody they create a song that stands out from the album.
Honestly, each song qualifies as either “good” to “great” but differentiating all of them would require focusing on the type of tiny details that only pop out after multiple listens.
Final verdict? Buy the shit out of this, especially the “Special Edition” as it contains two more discs: the first being “Colossal Youth” the second a disc of singles and EP’s the band recorded that are now impossible to find and a series of Peel Sessions. The band was right on the cusp of making it big and were the “next big thing” before the tension within the group finally broke them up for good.
Songs to YouTube:
Any I mentioned in the review plus a live performance of “N.I.T.A.” It gives you a solid feel for their live presence (which wasn’t much to be fair) and giving you a solid look as to what these strange, enigmatic people could possibly look like in the real world.
They look like a few British gits and a daffy broad (in the good sense of the word). Awesome.
Somehow, I feel that “Big Black” is a group that never really gets their due. Yes, any alternative rock fan worth their weight in salt knows the name “Steve Albini.” Albini is an infamous producer that patented a rather trebly, high pitched industrial-ish rumble that mixed drum machines, punk rock, high pitched guitar sounds (everything in “Big Black” is “treble”) and an absolute dedication to DIY that has made him one of the most respected and sought after producers in the business.
He is also one of the grumpiest guys in the world of rock and roll: his lengthy rants on well…everything are rather infamous. He called the CD edition of “Atomizer” “The Rich Man’s Eight Track Tape” and chastised the buyer in the CD liner notes for wasting their money on an “inferior” sounding product.
Whatever his hang ups and personality quirks, the man is a living legend but mostly for his production skills and not for his songwriting. Which is a shame: the man developed an intriguing production style, had a way with catchy riffs and melodies and even had something to say lyrically, especially on the previously mentioned debut album “Atomizer” which is, naturally, our review of the day.
Now, what Albini has to say lyrically isn’t very pretty. His topics generally concern boredom, mid-western insanity, serial killers, self harm, serial child rapists and a variety of other nasty topics. There is no bright lights or sunshine in the lyrical world of Albini, as made clear on the track “Steelworker” from debut EP “Lungs” where he chants “I work with my hands…and I kill what I eat” over a harsh, grinding groove that makes it clear that Albini is coming for you.
Focusing on negative lyrical matters is nothing new but Albini goes the extra mile and sings everything from the first person perspective. It’s never “they’re steelworkers, they kill what they eat” or “they live in Jordan, they do what they like.” It’s “I’M a steelworker…I kill what I eat” and “this is Jordan, WE do what we like.” He puts himself right into the boots of the negative people about which he sings.
This caused some serious controversy when “Atomizer” came out, especially because of the song “Kerosene” Albini’s magnum opus and a masterpiece of rock and roll theatrical performance.
Albini would no doubt baulk at such a statement: calling his music theatrical would no doubt insult him more deeply than calling him a sell out.
But I don’t know how else you could define this song: it starts out with an insane, high pitch ringing (one of Albini’s trademark sounds) that builds into a wild, rampaging guitar, bass and Roland Drum stomp that eventually drops out to a bass and drum groove.
Albini then begins detailing the mentality of what he believes is a typical, mid-western, small town loser with no ambition, no future and no hope. He uses a minimum of words and phrases and repeats them regularly to reinforce their strength.
“There’s never anything to do in this town…lived here all my life…probably come to die in this town…lived here all my life…nothing to do but sit around home, sit around the house and stare at the walls, stare at each other and wait till we die, stare at each other and wait till we die…there’s never anything to do in this town…lived here my whole life…”
Chilling and a feeling that anybody who’s ever lived in the mid-west can identify with completely. And then he says a single phrase that reawakens the monstrous guitars “there’s kerosene around…it’s just something to do…” He repeats this phrase a few times, with various degrees of intensity before screaming “SET ME ON FIRE!”
The rest of the song then de-evolves (in a good way) into a noisy mess of over trebled guitars, bashing drum machines, screams and even a false start. The song perfectly defines the Albini mythos and style in a matter of seconds.
But there are other songs on this album too! Imagine. Opener, “Jordan, Minnesota” is a song about the (alleged) child abuse ring in the town of Jordan and while the truthfulness of the story has been hotly debated for years, hearing Albini sing “this is Jordan…we do what we like” over and over again is truly creepy. But only if you know the story: without knowing the story it’s nowhere near as effective but it still has a great riff and great drive.
“Passing Complexion” features more wildly over trebled guitars (really, how the hell doe she make that high pitched “shing!” sound on the guitars?) playing intricate, strange and relatively complex guitar parts.
The album does have a basic sound and style that bleeds over to the rest of the tracks: if you’ve heard one track, you’ve heard them all. They vary in the riffs and melodies as well as the arrangements and the lyrical focus but all set this mood of grinding, inescapable mid-west despair that is simultaneously gripping and wearing on the consciousness.
The CD version of “Atomizer” contains some bonus tracks from the “Heart Beat” EP. The title track is a cover of the Wire tune from “Chairs Missing” and has a similar menacing atmosphere but builds to Albini screams instead of the chanting of the original. It’s the highlight of the bonus tracks.
Final verdict? If you like noisy, difficult but well composed punk/industrial style rock, it’s worth a buy. In fact, buy everything by Big Black: you only need to get three CD’s: this, The Hammer Party and Songs About Fucking.
p.s. Big Black doesn’t really sound like “punk” or “industrial” but those are the closest genre terms I can find for the style they play. It’s definitely a unique sound that Albini utilized in all subsequent bands with minor variations.
Song to YouTube:
“Kerosene” and “Jordan, Minnesota” will tell you all that you need to know about Big Black. If you like those songs, you’ll like the rest.
The last 70’s was a magical time for debut albums: 1976’s “The Ramones”, 77’s “Nevermind the Bollocks,” 77’s “The Clash” as well as “Talking Heads ’77.” All these bands had something to say about old guard music and that message was: fuck off, we gun do our thing now.
Perhaps my favorite debut and band from that period is “Marquee Moon” by Television. Anybody that’s heard the album can understand why: creative, sprawling guitar interplay; a non-faked sense of epicness; concise, catchy songwriting; drive, power and intensity; wild dynamics; beautifully crafted, intricate guitar solos; truly poetic (yet biting) lyrics. All of this combined with a garage rock punch that made Television stand toe-to-toe with “The Ramones” in intensity but with better chops and more diversity.
Such an album would be hard to follow in any circumstance: as a result, 78’s “Adventure” by Television is often ignored, overlooked and disparaged. “How could Television top ‘Marquee Moon’?” is a question that has haunted the band, main songwriter, singer and co-lead guitarist Tom Verlaine and their fans as soon as the album came out.
Naturally, they couldn’t and the band was smart enough to realize that fact. Instead of trying to top it, they simply made another Television album: a collection of well written, catchy songs with intricate, unique guitar interplay and great lyrics.
The big difference between this album and “Marquee Moon” really lay in one single word: softer. The band has toned down their energy and rawness considerably on this album. The rawness of the Andy Johns production has been replaced with a “cleaner” production with more “sheen” (if that makes sense) to it that definitely puts it a notch lower in the eyes of many fans.
There is also a distinct lack of “epicness” on the album that seemed to be the stock in trade of “Marquee Moon”; no longer are there 10 minute songs that seem to contain the drama of 10 songs. Instead, songs are written around self contained song structures, easier to understand melodies and simpler ideas.
So, the band has softened up, simplified and lost much of the “raw” and “epic” feel of their first album. Clearly, “Adventure” is crap right? Not even close. Tom Verlaine and Television were too smart and too good to release a bad album. Instead, this is an album of “smaller” pleasures and “simpler” ideas.
Let me put it this way: I feel its only a disappointment compared to “Marquee Moon.” If this was their debut album, it would be hailed as a masterpiece of songwriting and guitar interplay that strikes a solid balance between punk aggression and folk simplicity.
Yes, a song like “Fox Hole” would have hit much harder with “Marquee Moon” production but isn’t that song something as it is? The intricate two guitar riff and great “pinch harmonic” at the end of the riff that helps give it a unique sound; the simple but catchy riff and chorus of “Fox hole! Fox hole!”; the solid (but not exceptional) anti-war lyrics and the occasionally dissonant guitar playing of Verlaine and Richard Lloyd.
Lloyd really doesn’t get enough credit for Television’s success: his rawer, edgier, less schooled style of guitar soloing is a great contrast to Verlaine’s smoother, more technically adept style. Some of the best leads on the album are Lloyd’s and help add an edge to the album.
Plus, things don’t really get much better than “Glory.” What a great way to open the album: a somewhat simple but catchy riff opens things up, Verlaine pops up with a complex but catchy verse melody that leads flawlessly into a catchy and uplifting chorus and a lyrical message of celebrating the greatness of life.
And how could an album be bad with songs as effortlessly complex and moving as “Careful’? The way if shifts between simple verse riffs (with great country rock-ish leads popping up here and there) into a simple but catchy chorus and a great bridge section with solid piano, organ and even hand
claps makes the mind boggle at how easy it all goes down without drawing attention to itself.
Not everything is perfect, of course: Television had a hard time with “dirges” (“Torn Curtain” from “Marquee Moon” being perhaps the slowest and weakest song on the album) and “The Fire” is perhaps the weakest tune on the album. Its slow, slow and has a nearly funeral-esque atmosphere that doesn’t really work with Television or the album in general. And it’s six minutes seem infinitely longer than “Marquee Moon”’s 10.
Plus, the opening riff to “Ain’t That Nothin’” sounds way too close to the riff of “Marquee Moon” for its own good. Yes, it’s different and the song itself sounds nothing like that classic song but I always get uncomfortable when the song starts as I keep expecting a different song to pop out of the ether.
However, not even “Marquee Moon” was perfect so we shouldn’t hold these problems too heavily against the album: even “The Fire” has interesting melodies and guitar ideas but simply drags for far too long.
“Adventure” is a fine album with great songs, great playing, great ideas and great lyrics that is worth a place in any Television (or punk) fan’s collection. However, I do feel that the opening riff repetition in “Ain’t That Nothin’” does speak of a certain limit in Television’s sound: a third album after this may not have been a good idea. It was perhaps a good thing the band broke up at this point before they made a bad album.
And yes, I know of the self titled album but that was a long time later and was basically a Verlaine solo album. I haven’t heard it though so I won’t judge it.
1) Synchronicity I; 2) Walking In Your Footsteps; 3) O My God; 4) Mother; 5) Miss Gradenko; 6) Synchronicity II; 7) Every Breath You Take; 8) King Of Pain; 9) Wrapped Around Your Finger; 10) Tea In The Sahara; [BONUS TRACK:] 11) Murder By Numbers
8+ out of 10
“The Police” went out in a bang with their biggest selling album, laced with the heaviest amounts of hits-to-songs ratio they ever released. Five of the songs off this album were hits in most territories with most of them being major, major hits that defined the radio of the early 80’s and still live on as some of the most memorable, nuanced and cleverly written songs of the decade.
However, listening to the album now it’s not hard to understand why some writers (such as Mark Prindle) find the album to be the band’s “most boring album.” It also shows a complete domination of the band’s songwriting and sound by the Stingster. Yes, he was always the primary songwriter and ideas guy but the rest of the band seems to bend to his will like never before, especially poor Stewart Copeland who seemingly turns into little more than a session drummer at certain points.
That being said, there is still a lot to like about this first album. Many people consider the first side to be a complete throwaway but I can’t quite agree with that assessment. After all, how can an album that begins with “Synchronicity I” being a complete waste? Yes, the song is dominated by synthesizers in a way that had never been approached before.
The song is not just a complete wash of synthesized wimpiness: they actually create a solid atmosphere while Sting plays a capable bass line, Copeland bashes like he rarely does on the rest of the album and Summers plays an excellent supporting role.
Summers role on the album is one of the most interesting aspects of the album. In many ways, he takes a back seat like never before. Pianos, synthesizers and other keyboards tend to fill out the majority of the songs rhythmically, melodically and atmospherically. However, Summers goes nutty with effects and background noise guitar.
In essence, it is some of his most experimental playing and some of the weirdest guitar playing I’ve heard on a mainstream pop album. It’s a testament to Summers strengths and intelligence as a guitarist that he colors the proceedings so thoroughly while still remaining a background, supplementary element to the album at times.
That said, Summers does contribute the worst song to the album, “Mother.” It’s not a bad song musically and lyrically but Summers takes on an exaggerated singing voice that doesn’t really work that well. It’s a shame because if he’d taken it a bit easier on our ears, it might have been a highlight of the album.
Andy does show off his chops quite well on “Synchronicity II” the most guitar dominated song and the hardest rocker on the song. The lyrics are completely and utterly unintelligible (something Sting later admitted) but it’s a nice piece of hard rocking energy that helps end the first side.
Of course, the first side also had a handful of other songs that many people tend to dismiss. Copeland’s one contribution “Miss Gradenko” is one of his better tunes with an incredibly catchy chorus melody and rather strange lyrics. Probably one of his best songs and although I used to kind of hate it it’s really grown on me in the last few years.
“Walking In Your Footsteps” is highlighted by great electronic drum playing by Copeland (all those “bloop bloop” noises) droning guitar by Summers and a pompous lyrical importance matched with an elegant vocal melody. “O My God” it’s Sting’s worst song on the album: pretty dull in all honesty and probably my second least favorite song on the album. The lyrically flow is rather unengaging and Sting really starts showing off how he was going to suck in a few short years.
And now to talk about the four huge hits of the album (“Synchronicity II” was a relatively decent sized hit as was “Tea in the Sahara”). These were such big songs I feel silly even talking about them. What else can you say about “Every Breath You Take”? The song flows as smoothly as the best song written by the Beatles and features one of the most clever lyrical twists ever. I lament Copeland playing like a drum machine but the song is still very well composed.
“King of Pain” is a bit much Sting agony (“there’s a little black spot on the sun today/that’s my soul up there” is a tad melodramatic) but I love the way the song builds from a simple piano, percussion jam into a Summers lead guitar groove and into an excellent chorus build up. One of the best songs on the album musically.
“Wrapped Around Your Finger” is a bit mushy (those guitar/synth chords at the beginning are a tad fey for my taste) and the lyrics can be awful (“I came here seeking only knowledge/things they would not teach me of in college” is one of Sting’s worst) but it ends up being soothing and romantic. Much like “Tea in the Sahara” the most generic “New Age” song on the album that still comes through based on Sting’s vocal charisma and the solid lyrics
The CD edition ends with the hilarious “Murder by Numbers” with a jazzy background contributed by Summers and hilarious, out of place lyrics about planning a perfect murder by Sting. Later covered well by Frank Zappa with Sting chanting along.
I hate to give such short shrift to the second side of the album while concentrating more on the first side but most reviewers take the opposite tact: concentrating on the over heard, over played and well known hits while avoiding the potential “filler” of the first side.
And it’s understandable. Although I think the first half of the album is very solid, it definitely has moments that seem more filler-ish than the Police allowed in the past (“Mother” and “O My God” are a pretty rough patch for me) and the more atmospheric arrangements can make the album float through your mind at times.
The big hits on the albums were rightfully hits because they were the best composed songs on the album. Even though the first side is solid and I love listening to it (it’s very weird and seemingly non-commercial) it’s definitely not as well written as the song side. The experimental streak of the first side is less pronounced on the second side but is still there, making it the stronger of the two sides
And this was the last Police album ever after a pretty acrimonious split that made it clear Sting was going to have a huge solo career. It was the last great album he worked on (“Dreams of the Blue Turtles” has its defenders) as he went completely jazz/new age and went completely schlocky. Summers had two solid albums with Robert Fripp while Copeland drifted off into photography. All in all, a solid swan song from a great band.
1) Spirits In The Material World; 2) Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic; 3) Invisible Sun; 4) Hungry For You (J’Aurais Toujours Faim De Toi); 5) Demolition Man; 6) Too Much Information; 7) Rehumanize Yourself; 8) One World (Not Three); 9) Omegaman; 10) Secret Journey; 11) Darkness.
9 out of 10
“Ghost in the Machine” is the fourth album by The Police and is often criticized as the point where the band “loses” it. “Man,” says the Man, “this is where the band brought in SYNTHESIZERS and a fucking HORN SECTION and they totally mellow out and lame it up. It helps set the stage for the EVEN LAMER ‘Synchronicity’ as well as the WORST THING EVER Sting solo career. This band only had two good albums as ‘Zenyatta Mondatta” was only half good.”
Naturally, judging by my rating, I don’t quite agree with this assessment. In fact, I think this album is only slightly less good than “Regatta de Blanc” and is actually a self assured and interesting expansion of the sound of the band. After all, the sound is still dominated by guitars, bass and drums and the band plays just as hard and interestingly as ever.
Plus, it’s not as if the synthesizers and horns are New Wave lame. The horns (all played by Sting) are actually more funky than lame and more minimalistic than overbearing. Of course, the simple horn riffs are obviously played by somebody who JUST learned how to play (Sting) and there is a certain element of annoyance in hearing the same riff over and over again.
In fact, that’s one thing that can be lodged at this album in certain points: a certain repetitiveness that comes from the band hammering a more funky style in some songs. For example, “Hungry for You” seems to go on forever based on a simple but instantly memorable riff and melody. The synthesizers on the song, if they are even prevalent, are so minimal as to not be “lame.”
Let’s go through a few of the songs first. The album is a bit heavy loaded with three of the best songs at the very beginning. “Spirits in the Material World,” “Invisible Sun” and “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” are three of the biggest hits the band ever had. The new “synthesizer first” approach rears its head on “Spirits in the Material World” with a reggae rhythm based out on the keys instead of the guitar. The riffs are simple but the melodies (especially the chorus) are memorable although some of the lyrics are horrendous even by “Sting-Standards” (“with words they try to jail ya/they subjugate the meek/but it’s the rhetoric of failure” ugh!).
“Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” is also a synthesizer and keyboard based fiesta that still features excellent performances by all band members especially Copeland. The vocal melodies are the best Sting ever cooked up in his career and the “race to the end” ending is magical. Yes, it’s pure pop froth but it’s pop froth of the highest caliber.
“Invisible Sun” is more “New Age” than anything the band had yet done but it features an ominous atmosphere as well as “we care a lot” lyrics that actually seem sincere. The stateliness of the song doesn’t seem faked (as much of Sting’s later stuff does) but seems well deserved by well chosen chords and well composed melodies.
“Hungry For You” shows off the bands new funky style as well as Sting’s awful French. “Demolition Man” rides a simple but addicting bass riff to the point of no return. Sting’s horn arrangements are especially thick and effective on this song while Summers goes apeshit on the guitar. Summers starts coming into his own with this song, going in a more psychedelic and noise based direction as opposed to a funk direction.
“Too Much Information” features more of the simple horn riffs, funky repetitiveness, great guitar and drum works and a very simple but instantly memorable vocal melody (you’ll never get “too much information, running through my head” out of your head).
The first Copeland song follows and its one of his best: “Rehumanize Yourself.” This is one of the hardest hitting songs on the album with another excellent vocal melody, great band interplay (the band was nearly telepathic in that regard by this point) as well as reasonably decent Sting lyrics. Sting also sings this particular song, saving us from Copeland’s slightly flat vocalization style.
“One World (Not Three)” is another funky pop song with simple horn riffs that repeats the same parts over and over while remaining catchy and non-annoying. I’m not sure how the band (especially Sting) gets away with it, but somehow these repetitive melodies and riffs avoid becoming stale and turn catchy and trance-like instead of boring.
Summers turns in his best performance on the next song with his “Omegaman” one of his best songs ever. Not that Summers ever had too many great songs in the first place but this stands above them. Not because it’s really that heavily catchy or memorable but because it’s not annoying. The guitar work is some of his wildest, noisiest and most atmospheric. I especially enjoy his guitar solo here as he doesn’t go wild with finger flashing nonsense but plays with a weird tone that I’ve never heard anywhere else.
The album does go out on a bit of a slower note. So far, the album has had a lot of funkiness and only a slight touch of synthesized New Age style. “Secret Journey” is much closer to solo Sting than anything else yet played by the band. The “mystical” atmosphere created by the song is much closer to being authentic and much more enjoyable. I especially like the simple vocal melody in the chorus as well as the more synthetic atmosphere. The band still plays well but in a more laid back, less severe manner.
Copeland ends the album with “Darkness” another slow, downbeat song which features the great line “Life was easy when it was boring” and a lot of synthesizer based atmosphere and solid melodies and decent arrangements. A bit of a strange way to end the album in all honesty but not unenjoyable. It may be the least accomplished song on the album though.
As is obvious by now, I’m rather fond of the album. It should also be obvious that a lot of the album focuses on a more atmospheric approach and a more repetitive, groove based approach as opposed to the more dynamic, song-oriented approach from the band’s past. This isn’t a huge deal and it isn’t a major negative for the album but it’s clear that the band is better at songwriting than they are at grooving.
Perhaps this tendency to run a simple groove into the ground over and over is indicative of a lack of creativity and a tendency by the band to “rush” albums. However, it works on this album: if the band had always taken this approach, I would have liked them a lot less.
This tendency to run a groove into the ground mixed with the more synthetic and horn based style as well as Summer’s growing experimental guitar ideas turns this album into a curious mixture of “more commercial” and “more experimental.” It’s a weird style and an odd combination that somehow works here.
1) Message In A Bottle; 2) Reggatta De Blanc; 3) It’s Alright For You; 4) Bring On The Night; 5) Deathwish; 6) Walking On The Moon; 7) On Any Other Day; 8) The Bed’s Too Big Without You; 9) Contact; 10) Does Everyone Stare; 11) No Time This Time.
9+ out of 10
The singles from “Outlandos d’ Amour” were pretty successful instantly, giving “The Police” a commercial success that many of their more respected and critically acclaimed compatriots struggled to obtain or sustain.
In contrast, “The Police” continued to have more and more commercial success while becoming more and more experimental and textural. A strange contrast perhaps and more of the more interesting success stories of the “New Wave” period. Of course, some argue that their last and most successful “Synchronicity” was a total bland sell-out while others claim it was their best, most experimental album.
All of this build up has a point, I promise. Basically, there are two ways to look at this band: as a complete sell-out band that jumped from a once-promising punk/reggae band into an ego-vehicle for Sting’s pop pretensions and desire for money. Or you can look at them as a cutting edge band that successfully blended light experimental and texture tendencies with a rock and pop sensibility.
1979’s “Reggatta de Blanc” is the first warning sign that this band was not going to be “just” a punk or reggae band. While there are perhaps a few instances of punk speed and reggae styling (especially the Sting-Copeland co-write “It’s All Right for You” and the hard hitting “No Time This Time”) the band expands their sound to include a more atmospheric sound.
The best example of this is the classic, immortal “Walking On the Moon.” In spite of a few of Sting’s worst lyrical gaffes (the first lines “Giant steps are what you take/walking on the moon/I hope my legs don’t break/walking on the moon” are grammatically and logically erroneous) the song creates a unique atmosphere that hadn’t really been heard in the world of rock.
The basic set-up for the song is a simple but memorable Sting bass line which creates the melodic hook. Copeland plays some of the most interesting and intelligent atmospheric drumming I’ve ever heard: his work on the high-high defies description.
And who can’t forget Summers echoey, reverbed “BAM!” guitar chord? An instant atmosphere of moon walking. During the verse, Summers plays a more reggae based rhythm but it doesn’t detract from a song that matches the lyrical message of escapism.
Perhaps the most famous song on the album is “Message in a Bottle” one of the band’s main calling cards and a huge hit. It can be easy to dismiss the silly lyrics here (“seems I’m not alone in being alone” is almost good, though) but what can’t be denied are the constant barrage of great musical ideas. The simple but memorable guitar arpeggios. The way the songs transitions between sections organically and flawlessly. The drive of the song.
Yes, the song is very atmospheric but it’s also a hard driving, instantly memorable pop song. Yes, Sting repeats his annoying tendency of repeating a single phrase at the end of the song until you want to slap him but somehow it works better here than the first album.
The band pulls off another solid instrumental with “Regatta de Blanc.” The song isn’t as “world beat memorable” as “Maskogo Tanga” but it has a great build, amazing energy and is highly atmospheric. The same is true of the semi-instrumental “Deathwish.” Both of these tunes were band co-writes, leading me to believe that they were at the very least semi-improvised.
Copeland steps into his own as a songwriter with three solo-written songs to go with his earlier co-write. His first, “On Any Other Day” shows off Copeland’s rather…blunt sense of humor. It is funny, especially to hear and Copeland harmonizing (flatly) during the chorus. However, the song’s a bit too unmemorable to be a highlight.
“Does Everyone Stare” is perhaps the best Copeland written song on the album. It starts out with a mumbled Copeland vocal supported by cabaret style piano. Later, the band comes in and supports it with an appropriate rock cabaret arrangement as Sting takes over the vocalizations. It may depart slightly from the rather “blue” atmosphere of the album but it’s still a good tune.
“Contact” is a very strange song with deep synth bass swoops during the verse contrasting with the guitar arpeggios driving the “have we got contact?” chorus. Summers plays up a storm on this song, including simple arpeggios and driving rhythm guitar that show off his skills as a rock-solid, in the pocket rhythm guitarist with an almost unlimited knowledge of chords.
Speaking of Summers, his best showcase comes with the reggae ballad “The Bed’s Too Big Without You.” The chords he’s playing are rather simple but he nails that interesting hammered on progression perfectly. He also messed with the beat, throwing in off beat chords. Sting perhaps puts in his best vocal performance on this song. You actually believe him, for once.
The list of ballads and songs ends with “Bring on the Night” another semi-reggae ballad that features pretty sharp guitar playing, excellent singing and more of Copeland’s amazing drumming. The guy isn’t exactly the king of flash but he really knows how to throw in interesting variations on rhythms to keep the song from becoming too boring.
“Regatta de Blanc” is an improvement over “Outlandos d’Amour” because it (mostly) eliminates the weird stylistic detours of the debut album (such as “Sally”) and eliminates any serious songwriting gaffes (such as “Born in the 50’s”) and tightens up the playing to the point of pain. The band plays so tight during the album it almost seems uncanny.
However, the biggest improvement on the album is that it feels like an album. Instead of feeling like a collection of songs, it feels cohesive, atmospheric and engaging. The band uses synthesizers fairly sparingly throughout the album but it often feels like there are is something creating that depressing, despairing mood throughout the album.
The band might throw in more reverb than normal and play a bit slower but the atmosphere comes not from any real production tricks but from the songs and playing. These are moody tunes that all combine to create a moody album. It’s easy to feel blue while listening to this album.
However, the band doesn’t seem to wallow in its own depression and pretensions of atmospheric mood making. They avoid becoming overbearing by making their little depressing pop tunes catchy as hell and avoiding blunt, over-obvious lyrical sadness. The songs are a little sad, yes, but Sting does his best to avoid pure unhinged sadness.
A breakthrough for the band that sets the stage for their critical and commercial success.