Music life in lockdown week 25

This is a review of the albums that I have been listening to whilst working from home. Albums listened to for week 25 covers from 7 to 11 September.

Just noticed the typo in the last entry where I mistakenly put down week 23 for week 24. I am definitely losing track of time with this pandemic. However we are back on track here with week 25. Hard to believe it.

Monday 7 September

Kicking off the new working week was Glasgow’s finest Teenage Fanclub. I have been a fan of the band since seeing them support Nirvana when they came in Belfast in 1992. At the time I was really getting into grunge. Teenage Fanclub while not grunge definitely fitted the scene at the time.

Their sound is reminiscent of Californian bands like the Beach Boys and the Byrds, and their seventies counterparts Big Star.  A Catholic Education (1990), released in 1990, is largely atypical of their later sound, with the possible exception of Everything Flows which is my favourite song.

Bandwagonesque (1991) released on Creation Records in the UK and Geffen in the US, brought the band a measure of commercial success.  Bandwagonesque was more deliberately constructed, the hooks became stronger, the guitar riffs were brought under control, and the harmony vocals took shape.

It topped Spin magazine’s 1991 end-of-year poll for best album, beating Nirvana’s Nevermind, their Creation stablemates My Bloody Valentine’s album Loveless, and R.E.M.’s Out of Time. Quite an achievement. Even Kurt Cobain had it down as one of his all time favourites.

 Thirteen (1993) was a nod to Big Star. At the time the band were listening to them quite a lot but this record was their most difficult one to make and didn’t get get the success as Bandwagonesque. However, that would all change with the release of Grand Prix (1995).

It was both a critical and commercial success in the UK, becoming their first top ten album. Around this time Liam Gallagher of labelmates Oasis called the band “the second best band in the world” — second only to Oasis. The other way round I think, Teenage Fanclub are better!

Songs from Northern Britain (1997) followed Grand Prix and built on the former’s success. It became their highest charting release in the UK and contained their biggest hit single to date, Ain’t That Enough. They were on tour with Radiohead that year who had just released Ok Computer and the band supported them when they came to the RDS at Dublin.

The band have described the album title as “a joking reference to Britpop, and everybody who thought we were part of that scene”. Norman Blake expanded on the title in 2016, commenting, “We just thought it sounded funny. No one calls Scotland “Northern Britain,” although technically it is. The album is just perfect and a fantastic follow up to Grand Prix. Even author Nick Hornby namechecks the album in his book 31 Songs as one of his all time favourite albums. Can’t argue with that.

So if you wanted to introduce somebody to Teenage Fanclub where do you start? Maybe a gentle introduction is Four Thousand Seven Hundred And Sixty-Six Seconds – A Short Cut To Teenage Fanclub (2003). The title refers to the album’s total length, just 34 seconds short of the maximum running time possible on a single CD: as a consequence the track “My Uptight Life” was edited from its original version in order to fit on to the album. This best of album comprises fourteen singles, four album tracks, and three new songs written for the album.

Tuesday 8 September

I had got back into listening to a bit of Rush lately and today it was all about Rush in the 1980s. A friend of mine introduced me to the band around 1990-91 and I borrowed some of his albums mostly from the 70s and a few from the 80s and I was hooked.

For today’s run the focus was all on their music output from the 1980s. The band were very creative that decade releasing seven albums. I have some of them on vinyl but the ones that I played today are on CD and they were Permanent Waves (1980) which had just been reissued as a 40th anniversary edition, Moving Pictures (1981), Signals (1982) Hold Your Fire (1987), Presto (1989) along with standard live album release A Show of Hands (1989).

With the 80s the band would experiment in new sounds. The single from the album, The Spirit of Radio featured the band’s early experiments with a reggae style in its closing section, which was explored further on the band’s next three albums. They also used  synthesizers as well which added another dimension to their sound. The instrumental YYZ from Moving Pictures was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.  This is an amazing piece of work.

On Signals the band continues to incorporate the synthesizer into their songs with less emphasis on guitar-oriented riffs which had been the focus of their sound in the 1970s. This is not bad thing for a rock band like Rush as after Moving Pictures, Signals is one of my favourite Rush albums.

The last two albums from the decade, Hold Your Fire had the band moving to using computers for song writing and production but the last studio album from that decade, Presto saw the band return to a more guitar-driven sound from what is known to many as Rush’s “synthesizer period” of the last four releases.

The live album A Show of Hands was released in between Hold Your Fire and Presto with recordings of the 1988 Hold Your Fire tour. A Rush live album is right up with Iron Maiden live albums, releasing eleven of them during their career.

Neil Peart passed away at the start of the year and the band had already retired so the chance of ever seeing them again was never going to happen. I was really glad I got to see them in 2011 when they done the Time Machine tour came to Dublin which incredibly was the bands first and only Irish show. They played Moving Pictures in it’s entirety for the first time.

Wednesday 9 September

Back to the 90s and today it was the turn for a very underrated band from that era, Buffalo Tom. The band emerged from the same US underground scene as Dinosaur Jr and Pixies at the tail end of the 1980s and I got into them when they released Big Red Letter Day (1993) which was their fourth album and one of my favourite albums from that year featuring songs like Sodajerk, Treehouse and I’m Allowed.

Fifth album Sleepy Eyed (1995) and Three Easy Pieces (2007) were the last albums I bought by the band and like many things sometimes you forget about bands and move onto something.

However my interest in the band picked up again around 2012 when I went to Head Records for Record Store Day. I had picked up quite a few albums that day and I came across a bargain at the corner. It was a Buffalo Tom album, Besides: A Collection of B-Sides and Rarities from 2002 (not pictured here) which included a cover of The Jam’s Going Underground that I had not heard before.

I think it was only £2 so I bought that as well and what a bargain. It reignited by interest in the band and I went about trying to find out what they had done since 2007.

Skins (2011) was the first release since Three Easy Pieces after a period of four years and it was really great to hear new material. It wouldn’t be until 2018 that they were recording a new album, Quiet and Peace which I purchased through a Pledge campaign. They were also the one band I never got to see during the 1990s. They did visit Belfast once but I had never heard of them at the time, so I took a chance to go over to England to see them when they played in Birmingham.

One album that I was late getting was Let Me Come Over (1992) which reached its 25th anniversary in 2017. There was a couple of Record Store Day releases around that time and I picked up Big Red Letter Day for the first time on vinyl. I also bought the 25th anniversary edition of Let Me Come Over both on CD and vinyl. It is a great album and I often wonder how I didn’t hear of it first before Big Red Letter Day.

The second part of Let Me Cover Over is a bonus recording of a storming set recorded live at London’s ULU before the album came out.

Front man Bill Janovitz even appeared with Pearl Jam on one of their American shows playing Taillights Fade with the band. Eddie Vedder also done a cover of it on one of this own solo shows and Bill joined in too. I am glad they came back. Sometimes it is nice to be reminded of the bands that didn’t quiet hit the big time but you welcome them back like a long lost friend. Quiet and Peace was a great album and I loved it. I hope it won’t take too long before they do the follow up.

Thursday 10 September

A day late but this time 25 years ago, the Help album was released charity album to raise funds for the War Child charity, which provided aid to war-stricken areas, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina. All the songs were recorded in a single day. The album features British and Irish artists including Paul McCartney, Paul Weller, Radiohead, Oasis, Blur and the Manic Street Preachers.

 Help was recorded on Monday, 4 September 1995, mixed on Tuesday the fifth, and was in shops on Saturday the ninth. The original version release did not include any tracklist attached to the sleeve notes; the tracklisting was instead printed as a full page ad in the NME. There is not one dud track on this album and it is fantastic from start to finish.

There were other great compilation albums released in the 1990s and the next three are personal favourites. With grunge taking off it wouldn’t have been long before somebody decided to do a film on the era.

Singles is the original soundtrack album to the 1992 film Singles, primarily focused on the ascendant Seattle grunge scene of the early 1990s. It also features contributions from Minneapolis’ Paul Westerberg (his first solo material after the breakup of The Replacements), Chicago’s The Smashing Pumpkins, and past Seattle artists Jimi Hendrix and The Lovemongers (Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, the latter of whom was the wife of the film’s director Cameron Crowe at the time). This album got me into other bands Alice in Chains, Mudhoney and Screaming Trees who feature on this soundtrack. The film may not have been great but that was besides the point as the music on the soundtrack was what makes this a great album.

Another movie soundtrack Judgment Night came out a year later in 1993.

Again a terrible movie but what a collaboration for this line up. Every song on the soundtrack was a collaboration between hip-hop artists and rock artists. The album spawned four singles, Fallin’ by Teenage Fanclub and De La Soul, Another Body Murdered by Faith No More and Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E., Just Another Victim by Helmet and House of Pain, and Judgment Night by Biohazard and Onyx. This is a fantastic album and it definitely takes the genre of hip-hop and rock to a new level.

Overall my all time favourite compilation album from the 1990s is No Alternative from 1993 which was an album released to benefit AIDS relief. The album features original tracks and cover versions from bands who went on to define the alternative rock scene of the 1990s.

It was released with two different versions of album art: the standard version depicting a boy (without the Nirvana song listed on the back and liner notes), and the alternate version depicting a girl (some with and some without the Nirvana song listed on the back and liner notes). My copy of it includes the hidden Nirvana track.

A fantastic talent of who’s who of the alternative scene at the time included Matthew Sweet, Buffalo Tom, Soul Asylum, Urge Overkill, American Music Club, Goo Goo Dolls, Pavement, Smashing Pumpkins, Bob Mould, Sarah McLachlan, Soundgarden, The Verlaines, Uncle Tupelo, Patti Smith, The Breeders and Beastie Boys as well as the uncredited Nirvana track. This album is a solid 10 out of ten, all killer and no filler.

Friday 11 September

When you think of the significance of today’s date, the anniversary of the terror attacks in America this day in 2001 it was probably no coincidence that I picked Bruce Springsteen for today’s playlist. Had played most of his earlier stuff during lockdown so today I picked six albums by Bruce that all touch on the American dream and there is no better artist to write about it than Bruce.

The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) was Bruce’s second acoustic album, the first one being Nebraska. The album is mainly backed by acoustic guitar work and the lyrics on most tracks are a somber reflection of life in the mid-1990s in America and Mexico.

 The character of Tom Joad entered the American consciousness in John Steinbeck’s 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath, set against the economic hardships of the Great Depression. The film version starring Henry Fonda, which in turn inspired folk singer Woody Guthrie to pen The Ballad of Tom Joad. Bruce is no stranger to the works for Woody Guthrie and has even covered This Land Is Your Land. The tour that followed this album was a more stripped down smaller tour playing small venues. Bruce came to Belfast for the first time in 1996 when the tour stopped by here playing at the King’s Hall. A truly memorable gig.

The follow up to The Ghost of Tom Joad was The Rising (2002) but I opted for the next acoustic album, Devils & Dust (2005) as it had got an airing earlier during lockdown. Bruce was very open about that many of the songs from Devils & Dust dated back a decade.

He had written the song All the Way Home for Southside Johnny to use in his album Better Days which was released in 1991. The songs Long Time Comin and The Hitter were written and performed during Bruce’s solo Ghost of Tom Joad Tour in 1996. Devils & Dust is also known to have been written previously, and was featured in soundchecks during The Rising Tour beginning in the summer of 2003 and the following year during the Vote for Change Tour in late 2004.

Wrecking Ball (2012) featured tracks that featured Clarence Clemons, who died in June 2011. Clemons performs the saxophone solos on Land of Hope and Dreams and backing saxophone rhythms on the title track. An absolute legend and a sad loss. His nephew Jake would then join the E Street band for saxophone duties.

Wrecking Ball was described as Bruce’s angriest yet tackling subject matter such as economic justice, financial crisis and disasters like Hurricane Katrina. The album is a fantastic collection of songs that blend different styles from the muscular hootenanny folk-rock of his Seeger Sessions album, with touches of noble gospel, poignant jazz trumpet and feisty Irish rebel music. The Wrecking Ball tour came to Ireland where Bruce played at five venues throughout the country making another trip to Belfast the King’s Hall grounds only this time outside.

High Hopes (2014) featured his regular backing band, the E Street band as well as Tom Morello (Rage Against The Machine) on guitar. Tom would also join tour. Contributions from deceased E Street Band members Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici are also included on the album.

This is the first Bruce album composed entirely of covers, outtakes and reimagined versions of songs from past albums and tours. High Hopes was originally recorded in 1995 and released on the Blood Brothers (EP). According to Springsteen, Morello suggested they perform the song during the Wrecking Ball Tour, which ultimately led to it being re-recorded. American Skin (41 Shots) was originally written in 2000 in response to the death of Amadou Diall.  

During the Wrecking Ball Tour, Bruce started to perform the song again as a tribute to Trayvon Martin. The Ghost of Tom Joad has been performed many times, often featuring Morello on guitar and trading vocals with Springsteen. The track had been covered by Morello’s former band, Rage Against the Machine.

Morello also inspired the performances of two covers that ended up being recorded. Just Like Fire Would is a cover of Australian punk rock band The Saints’ 1986 single, while “Dream Baby Dream” is a cover of the protopunk band Suicide’s 1979 single.

I never got round to getting the Tracks boxset at the time, opting to buy the cheaper 18 tracks CD version which was released as 18 Tracks in 1999.

The single album was intended to capture more casual fans, and thus was oriented towards the shorter, more pop-oriented selections from Bruce Springsteen’s vault. The main boxset of Tracks released the year earlier had four discs of 66 songs. I will definitely be hunting this one out to add to my collection as it has passed me by all these years.

Last word on Bruce goes to his last release before the new album Letter to You came out – Western Stars (2019) is a different kind of album one that he has never done before.

The album was influenced by “Southern California pop music” of the 1970s, including artists such as Glen Campbell and Burt Bacharach. It is a very country orientated album and country music is not normally something that I’d listen to but Bruce really works his magic on this one. I wasn’t sure if I would have liked it but it is really brilliant.

With 2020 being the year it has been and soon coming to a close it is great to be able to look forward to his new album, Letter to You which is a welcome relief for this bleak year.