05 December 2009

Catching up with Echo & the Bunnymen and Stereophonics

Here are two albums by two bands that I have been listening to for years. It has always amazed me that neither band has really gotten the recognition they deserve here on the States side of the Atlantic. Regardless, these two are very interesting albums that I could not allow the year to run out on and not write about. But first, take a look at this World War II poster that the Britsh government issued; interesting to ask the population to just "keep calm and carry on" at time when arial bombing could break out at any moment. Reminds me of nowadays, as the world's economy is barely creeping, but are all asked to remain calm. (We'll come back to this poster.)

Echo and the Bunnymen: “The Fountain”

Longevity – that is the claim to fame that Echo & the Bunnymen can sport. From their debut album, “Crocidiles,” in 1980, the band has had a remaining presence in the UK charts and the indie scene. As one of the most influential band of their generation, E&TB proves that solid craftsmanship can weather time away. And though I am really enjoying “The Fountain” (12 October 2009), this is not what I have come to expect from E&TB. First off, this album is more indie than post-punk, more accessible than experimental. There is a feeling that the lyrics really come from Ian McCulloch’s point of view, and not a creative persona speaking.

Albums are funny things – there are times that songs are meant to go together, but individually they do not stack up well. The opposite is true as well, where the album is horrible, but the individual songs are amazingly brilliant. It is obvious that “The Fountain” is the first – Echo & the Bunnymen wrote an album, not individual songs, which I am thinking will give many critics a field day. The real problem comes from the fact that this album continues to see E&TB move further and further away from their post-punk roots, and not just in an aesthetic sense. For instance, though the Cure’s “4:13 Dream” pales in comparison to older material, there is a feeling that Robert Smith and company still believe that they need to challenge the convention and what is expected of them. Hence the array of musical styles, themes like suicide, and even mention of blowjobs (“I love what you do to my hips, when you blow me outside…” “The Only One.”) But, by comparison, E&TB are becoming more and more conventional, while losing their urgency. In a field of musicians that are looking back to the past for their cues, from White Lies to Bombay Bicycle Club, this was the moment for Echo & the Bunnymen to shine through, show why they are revered veterans, and just what they contributed to the post-punk legacy.

Nevertheless, if this were an album by a new band, we would be having a different discussion. We would be saying, “Wow! Amazing use of 80s style guitar playing, and what pop sensibility!” And that is what the album has on offer. Ian McCulloch and Will Sergeant are amazing songwriters and rarely, if ever, write a bad song, though admittedly these songs are not the strongest in their repertoire. The opening track, “Think I Need It Too,” may start off with a few seconds of etherealness, but quickly becomes the kind of driving song that E&TB are known for, and from this point on the rest of the album will not sound anything like what you expect. Catholics beware, the band does take one stab at a bit of unconventionality with the song “Shroud of Turin,” or at least that is what you are going to brace yourself for with that title. But with lyrics like “I love you saccharin, I love that shroud that you’re in, I love that you’re from Turin…” you immediately realize that this is a misused metaphor. That shroud could have been from Albuquerque and not change the song’s meaning. My favorite track on the album is “Drivetime.” Great acoustic strumming (something rare) and beautiful key arrangements, the song is significantly more emotionally inspiring than the other songs on the album.

It is unfortunate that many of the (80s) veterans have not lived up to their potential, especially when you consider all of these nascent bands imitating the older masters. Echo & the Bunnymen are guilty along side many of their generation for not living up to their potential. Though “The Fountain” is a beautiful album, it does not always work well as individual songs. But if you are an Echo & the Bunnymen fan, you really should get the album. It really is an interesting step in the band’s history, and it only will leave you baffled to answer “What next?” If you are not a fan, do not skip it. This album is still better than much of what is out there, and it will give you an idea of why this band continues to be relevant.

Track Listing:
1. Think I Need it Too
2. Forgotten Fields
3. Do You Know Who I Am?
4. Shroud of Turin
5. Life of a Thosand Crimes
6. The Fountain
7. Everlasting Neverendless
8. Proxy
9. Drivetime
10. The Idolness of Gods

Keep up with Echo & the Bunnymen at their homepage (one of my favorite homepages of the year), MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter.

Here is a live performance of “Think I Need It Too” from the Jimmy Kimmel Show’s Youtube Channel: JimmyKimmelLive.

Stereophonics: “Keep Calm and Carry On”

Stereophonics released their seventh studio album on 16 November 2009, which is available in the USA as an import. The album derives its title from a World War II poster (above). And though there was definite excitement about Jim Abbiss producing the album – he did produce the likes of Arctic Monkeys, Editors, Kasabian, and Sneaker Pimps – his presence is not overwhelming at all. Actually, this is a Stereophonics album through and through, with little in the way of full-hearted experimentation with anything new in terms of genres or styles. That being said let me say/repeat: this is a Stereophonics album, and whether or not you are a fan, you are not going to be let down. From the very opening, “She’s Alright,” with some of the raspiest vocals on the album, the song has some of the most interesting guitar playing the band has ever arranged, that will draw you right into the mood of the album.

“Trouble” really brings out, dare I say, the punk influences of Stereophonics, and considering the economic crisis of the moment, this is a perfect track. Beautiful guitar playing and bass line, “Oh can you feel it? There’s no money in this town. Oh can you see it? There’s people dying all around. I’m in trouble, you’re in trouble, deep deep trouble; someone burst our bubble, I’m in trouble. Won’t you save our souls tonight?” Implied here is a truth that no one wants to admit, that money does buy happiness (just not contentment). Wrapped up in the reality of this economic crisis is this soul searching, this amazing let down, and depression, and Stereophonics (whether consciously or unconsciously) hit a universal chord with any working and middle class individual doing some introspection and trying to survive during this economic downturn. Then there is “I Got Your Number.” It is difficult to place your finger on the reason why this song is so damn infectious. The song is the least predictable on the album; the subtle shift from verse to chorus, both lyrically and musically, will definitely get your ears perked up. As many bands seem to be doing lately, they end the album with a song that aims at visceral, not sonic, in-you-face, effects. “Show Me How” is one of those songs that you think will hate and then you are hooked: “I want you to show me, I know you know how to live every moment like they all count. Teach me to love you, show me the light, ‘cause I’m in the darkness. It’s time I got out.” The song itself is not cohesive, but it is the lack of musical cohesiveness, the confusion of the music, that pulls the song off. (One other track that will perk your ears is “Could You Be the One?” with a reference to the Police: “Every little thing you do is magic…”)

Stereophonics, twelve years after their debut, are comfortably making the transition from hype-machine band to well-respected, established musicians. And this new release, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” is the evidence. This is a band that is more concerned with craftsmanship and longevity than the frivolity of the pop world and the hype-machine. Most definitely, this is an album that fans are going to appreciate; this is an album on which a band does what they want to do, with little attention to what the media may want. This is an album in which a band does not rehash anything they have done, but return to older formulas that their fan base adores to create new gems. And actually, in many ways, it may very well be the best album that Stereophonics has ever released. Furthermore, it is an album, for those who are not familiar with Stereophonics, or have dismissed them in the past, to take a look at. It may just convince you that this Welsh band is perhaps one of the few bands out there that hold the promise of longevity and relevancy into the future.

Side note: You should really take a good look at this album cover (below). Considering the inspiration for the title of the album, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” this is an amazing cover! I know that I do not often draw attention to the cover art, but I really should. This is one of these covers that really capture the urgency of a band, the concept of an album, and an element of tongue-in-cheek all in one. As they sit at a table, knee high in rough waters, eventually to be drowned, there is serenity to them. But is this meant to act as an example of what we should be doing at this moment in time, idly sitting back and hoping things return to normalcy? Or is this the image of what we should avoid: a false sense of calm when the world is exploding around us in many different ways? The power of the cover is its irony and an inability to know for sure what is going on, and come to think about it that sounds a lot like life.

Track listing:
1. She’s Alright
2. Innocent
3. Beerbottle
4. Trouble
5. Could You Be the One?
6. I Got Your Number
7. Uppercut
8. Live ‘N’ Love
9. 100MPH
10. Wonder
11. Stuck In A Rut
12. Show Me How

Keep up with Stereophonics at their homepage, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter.

Here is their video for “Innocent” from their YouTube Channel: stereophonicsmusic.

1 comment:

  1. Echo & the Bunnymen sound like a good band, their first track "I Think I Need it Too" I like because of the sounds of the guitar and how mellow it sounds to me. For Stereophonics, I can't tell which bands guitar sounds is better but for me I'm leaning towards Echo & the Bunneymen. But Sterophonics' lyrics make me wanna listen, that is what draws me in and makes me like this band.