Cult Classics Album Breakdown 26

The Verve – Urban Hymns (1997)

When you’re short of a record that you know everybody will like, Urban Hymns is always a great choice – triumphant and upstanding in any company, and spanning a wealth of musical genres.

This now legendary record is a landmark in 90’s popular culture, and in my opinion, shits all over anything Oasis ever did. A genuine British masterpiece. Bitter Sweet Symphony – to this day The Verve’s most successful single – was a seminal release in British music history. Fusing classical chamber music with contemporary indie-rock is no mean feat. Performed by the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra, and written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the score to this track stood untouched for years before Richard Ashcroft got his creative mitts on it and wrote a lyric. The finished product is definitely a contender for single of the 90’s.

If that wasn’t enough of a revolutionary opening, the album rolls into Sonnet, another of the four big singles off Urban Hymns, and one of the outstanding examples of Ashcroft’s urban songwriting. It’s also extremely difficult to get melancholy to soar; though Ashcroft seems to find it easy. The Rolling People is Zeppy in its eye-closing heaviness and oblique escapism, perhaps with a splash of U2’s Achtung Baby era. “I just can’t make it alone” sums up the core of the record. And, if U2 meets Zep isn’t enough of a mesh-comparison to wet the lips, I suggest you take up crown green bowls. 

The Drugs Don’t Work is a necessary sombre; utterly sincere and affected from former junkie, Ashcroft. An endearing message to younger people about the perils of addiction. The mass of fans who flocked to buy Urban Hymns (over eight million in the UK alone) were people with kids and problems and real-life worries – these very human songs rang a huge collective bell. It’s the relate-ability of Ashcroft’s craft that makes this so compelling and accessible. Four songs in and you know you’ve definitely got a serious record on your hands.

Catching The Butterfly is, again, reminiscent of the industrial sounds used on U2’s Achtung Baby, and Neon Wilderness an immersing, spacial jam written by guitarist Nick McCabe. Ashcroft was quoted in the early 90’s saying ‘history has a place for us. It may take three albums but we will be there’ – turns out he wasn’t far off the mark. These songs are now fabled – take Space And Time for example – an atmospheric, wistful ballad that marked the hangover of Britpop. Just superb, as one might say on a Sunday afternoon nursing a pint. Suberb.

Weeping Willow is deeply and emotive. Comparisons have been drawn to Radiohead here, and why not. It’s a  groove that leads brilliantly into the album highlight, Lucky Man. I was fifteen years old when I became obsessed with this amazing single. I vividly remember being immersed in some History coursework on Native Americans when I first heard it, and it quite simply opened up another dimension in my mind. That intro is just mesmeric. And so very, very simple. A magical achievement, both from a songwriting and recording perspective. I’ve performed this song myself hundreds, if not thousands of times for live audiences, and it never fails to be one of the best received of all live tracks – simply because of its stature. A song that defined an era, not just in my own life, but the lives of many. A song that, long after The Verve are forgotten, will still be an enduring part of the woodwork. And let’s face it, how many amongst us can consider themselves a lucky man?

Just when you’re wondering where this record can possibly go after that audible hurricanethis band pull out another piece of musical treasure. One Day, a sublime, experimental ballad shows the delicacy and poetics involved in Ashcroft’s craft: “One day baby we will dance again under fiery skies/One day maybe you will love again, love that never dies.” Immense depth of feeling from such a young musician, and justification for their often touted Space Rock / Shoegaze hybrid label.

Ashcroft’s memorable and everlasting tunesmithery bleeds and swoons and crashes and howls. Urban Hymns has far outlived the band, and many of its contemporaries. It’s also worth mentioning that the rest of the band need equal affirmation since Ashcroft often swamps the limelight: Simon Jones (bass), Peter Salisbury (drums), Nick McCabe (lead guitar), and Simon Tong (guitar/keyboards). I hope that Urban Hymns sits snugly on every music lovers’ shelf, and is dusted off occasionally as a reminder that there was something worth caring about in the 1990’s.

It was, of course, Liam that snarled: “Is it my imagination or have we finally found something worth living for?” The answer, back in 1997, was yes: Urban Hymns.

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

© Roger Sargent / Shutterstock

Top track trio:

Lucky Man

One Day

Velvet Morning


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 22

Paolo Nutini – These Streets (2006)

When I cam out of university I used to work at a rather shitty little shampoo wholesalers, ironically enough, delivering hair and beauty products to salons in a little white van. I’m the most unlikely white van man ever, and my hair and beauty speaks for itself. Despite totalitarian, small-town jobsworth bosses, the job wasn’t all bad. It didn’t last long, and I got to work with a mate of mine, Shaun, who was into music. During this period we used to go to an awful lot of gigs, and he came into work one morning rather upset because he had two tickets to watch Paolo Nuitini at Manchester’s Apollo Theatre but nobody to go with. Being the stubborn little sod that he can be, he’d refused to ask me before that morning in case I berated him for his venture into ‘Pop’ music. Regardless, he swallowed his pride and asked me, and never being one for missing an opportunity to watch a live gig, I agreed. The deal was that if I’d drive he’d pays for the tickets. All of a sudden a boring Tuesday had become quite an adventure.

I had obviously heard some of Nutini’s singles – at the time Last RequestRewind, and Jenny Don’t Be Hasty were all over the radio stations. I actually quite liked him on first listen – particularly Last Request, which is a swooning, deeply-felt ballad about wanting one last moment with a lost love. By the time I’d heard These Streets, a mature autobiographical song by Nutini, I’d decided that I really liked the sound of this young fella. Of course, the aforementioned singles made up a sizeable chunk of the album These Streets – his emphatic debut album. So, on the quiet, I was quite happy to be going.

The gig that night, at The Apollo Theatre in Manchester, was a hoot. A great atmosphere with a really excitable young crowd. I left very impressed indeed – Paolo was a nervous but energetic performer, and his band were superb. It occurred to me that he had a bit of Van Morrison and Rod Stewart about him; maybe even John Martyn, or Ray Charles. I vowed to pick up a copy of the album, which I did the very next day, and found myself, for the first time in a very long time, hooked on a Pop record.

Any album written about a relationship breakdown usually gives me cause for concern – especially when written by a 19-year-old. However, there’s a believeability that stems from a complete honesty in the songwriting, and a passionate, soulful delivery from this great young singer. Uncut Magazine said “a major talent has hit the ground running“; The Herald claimed these were “tunes that sound like classics.” Metro deemed the album “mesmerising,” The Sun said it was “assured and timeless,” and The Evening Standard declared Paolo Nutini “a gifted songwriter.” This was no dirge laden, all-been-done-before, cry-baby teen lament. This was a serious collection songs worthy of a serious ear.

Million Faces, the album highlight for me, is the song that first demonstrated the potential that Nutini has gone on to show. It’s his heady mix of personal reflection and social commentary that makes such tunes so engaging, and this in particular is a gorgeous love song. New Shoes is a real feel-good rocker led by Paolo’s husky, soulful delicacy, and White Lies is an adorable acoustic number with cunning chord changes. Loving You rang my Motown bells, which can’t possibly be anything short of great, and features some nicely-executed falsetto.

Autumn is another lovely, piano-based ballad, which made me think of John Mayer, but also back to the folk-rock and singer-songwriters of the 1960s and 70s. There are definitely classic influences penetrating this record – he’s a singer-songwriter with conscience and taste.  

After five days of being rained on non-stop by torrential down pours at the 2007 Glastonbury Festival, I was thoroughly depressed. It was a great hour-long set on the Sunday lunch time as the sun finally broke through the clouds by Paolo Nutini that pretty much saved my festival. I was finally in the right frame of mind after that to go on and enjoy the rest of the final day – or, drink copious amounts of cider and go crazy to The Who, which is what really happened.

Thanks for that, at least, Paolo.

★★★★★★★★☆☆

8/10

Top track trio:

Last Request

These Streets

New Shoes


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 17

John Parish & Polly Jean Harvey – Dance Hall at Louse Point (1996)

This is a record so thrillingly sinister it leaves Paranormal Activity firmly in the shade. It was copied for me by my mate Andy, who has a cunning ability to grip me with weird and wonderful new music. Not only do the guitars seep under your flesh, but PJ Harvey’s split personality exercise in trying voices on like hats prove totally compelling. I went out and bought the record immediately afterwards. And, I also have to say, that album cover is stunning. Organic, mysterious, gripping.

On the very first listen I was a little unsure about Dance Hall At Louse Point, simply because it was so left-field. It was a bit of a shock to the audio senses, to be honest. However, once I’d realised the importance of immersing myself in this deep, jet-black, eerie, rather hectic record, it all made sense. PJ Harvey is just about the most unique British songwriter there is. John Parish, on this occasion, forms the perfect Yin to her Yang. As an album it was panned by multiple major magazines – Rolling Stone being one – but we’ve all got a right to our opinions, right?

Now, I can’t butter this up – Dance Hall At Louse Point is extremely challenging musically as well as intellectually. Parish is a genius at writing demanding and inventive music, and PJ Harvey’s lyrical contribution stands up to meet it head on, baring her insides and whispering at shadows. I can only liken each song to two trains heading for one another on a beautiful smoky sunset. It’s not for everyone. It was certainly for me.

I was lucky enough to witness a very rare gig by John Parish and PJ Harvey in Birmingham Town Hall early in 2009, in which their second collaboration album, A Woman A Man Walked By, was the focus of their attention. However, they also revisited songs from Dance Hall At Louse Point with style – a magical night of cult entertainment, complete with shrill screams and flashing lights and art-rock wannabes everywhere and gothic imagery and moments of outstanding, frustrating, mesmerising, enigmatic weirdness. I seem to recall a stunning live version of the shimmering opening track to this album, Girl, in which you could have heard a pin drop.

PJ Harvey is somewhat of an enigma; a musical recluse and cult star, she has quantum-stepped in and out of the shadows during a stunning near twenty year career that started in 1992 with her debut record Dry. Her achievements since have been on her terms, which is why she is quite rightly one of the most respected female artists around today. Dance Hall At Louse Point is a major achievement in my eyes – a dazzling record that explores the unlocked rooms in music that most artists dare not dream of entering. Rope Bridge Crossing – a curious, confessional wronged-love song – takes the album closer to the cliff edge. That is a songwriting trait in which Harvey has become exceedingly proficient. 

City Of No Sun is a frenetic and intimidating thrasher with idyllic, serene moments, slicing into the charming, acoustic That Was My Veil – one of the album highlights. Urn With Dead Flowers In A Drained Pool is a mixed tempo, experimental collage with lots of Gothic imagery – Nick Cave clearly rubbed off on Polly Jean. Civil War Correspondent shows Parish’s extraordinary ability to tinker with sound to paint unusual and percussive soundscapes for Harvey to work with. Her vocals are, essentially, the key strength of the record, but could not assume their power without this highly cerebral music accompanying. 

Don’t let anyone tell you a record is too weird to listen to. That’s my motto these days.

Taut is an alarmingly intense, and in parts terrifying track of the likes I’ve never heard before. In fact, I’ve heard this particular tune described as ‘complete madness’ in one review. It’s rather difficult to disagree, though there’s a very fine line between madness and genius. It’s a somewhat industrial and confrontational. Overall a totally unique, if not bemusing piece of art school noise. You might describe it as fucking about, if you were more cynical.

Un Cercle Autour Du Soleil (Circle Around The Sun) is a sombre ballad, and Heela reminiscent of something off Jeff Buckley’s Grace, or at worst something by Floyd, and is interjected by a delightful passage of vocals by John Parish layering Harvey’s pleasurable drone. In fact, Parish’s voice makes you want to punch him and salute him in equal measure – and there it is, the penny has dropped. This is an album that gets on your tits so much it’s simply brilliant. Either that, or my trained ear is so untrained it’s untrue.

The only cover version on the album – a haunting and despairing Is That All There Is – kind of shakes the innocence out of the Hollywood Blockbuster. Nobody but Harvey could deliver this with such morbid sincerity. Title track Dance Hall At Louse Point is a cheeky and brazen instrumental, whilst the final track Lost Fun Zone is an uncharacteristic boogie infused by Harvey’s instruction: “Take me one more time.” I’m not sure where she wants me to take her, and to be honest, I’m not sure I’d want to go. I find myself so exhausted at the end of this record that I’m ready to watch Mr Tumble with some Ben & Jerry’s.

This is by no means an easy record to get into. In similar fashion to Dr John’s Gris Gris, it is challenging from the first note until the sound of that final click. Even PJ Harvey’s own record label condemned the album as “commercial suicide.” However, I am a massive fan – it does something to me that is very difficult to explain. It’s a middle finger to the industry, its ballsy, it’s unhinged, it’s bizarre.

Dance Hall At Louse Point demonstrates artistic bravery, originality, and conviction, and I applaud PJ Harvey and John Parish for making such organic music.

I’d applaud you more if you had the balls to give it a chance.

★★★★★★★☆☆

8/10

© 2018 Condé Nast

Top track trio:

Girl

Rope Bridge Crossing

Heela


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 14

Gomez – Bring It On (1998)

I was visiting a mate who I was playing in a band with at the time, and he lived right by a huge Tesco store that had very recently become Southport’s first 24-hour supermarket. I was sixteen years old, and my musical interest was sparked. We decided to walk down there late one night and check out the records – it was only a short wander through a few back lanes and alleys, through a derelict carpark and then into the lights. Those were the days when supermarkets were like record shops – and I had this strange compulsion to buy this unusual looking album on the shelf. Something about the artwork seemed to swallow me whole. I just knew, somehow, from the artwork, that I would like the music. Gut instinct is a curious thing, isn’t it?

The album was Bring It On by Gomez, and I had no idea at the time how odd this compulsion would turn out to be. Buying it purely on instinct, I had no idea that I was paying for a record from a band hailing from my own home town, Southport, and I had no idea that the guys in Gomez had attended the same college where I was studying at the time. I had even less idea that this would become one of my favourite records ever. Sometimes you’ve just got to trust those instinctive feelings and ride with them.

The strength of this brilliant debut can be measured by the fact that it won the 1998 Mercury Music Prize for Album Of The Year, beating off contenders such as Urban Hymns by The Verve and Mezzanine by Massive Attack. I mean, it beat Urban Hymns. Holy shit! That’s massive.

Spin Magazine called Bring It On it “a damn beautiful album,” and it went Platinum in the U.K almost immediately. It was a time where indie bands had crept from the shadows of the stage into the full glare of the spotlight. Britpop had raged, and a new musical assault was forming. It was beyond indie – a fusion of vintage with futuristic. Gomez were in the right place, at the right time, with the right record.

Gomez combine a very clever, steaming cauldron of American Blues, Jazz, Grass-Roots, R&B and warm, harmonious melodies on Bring It On. It’s endlessly inventive, with its paeans to local weed dealers, trippy marshmellow-stepping horns, rollocking studenty drinking ballads and accidental jams-turned epiphanies. I saw the boys back in 1999 at Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre, where, funnily enough, Gomez were supported by a little known band called Coldplay. It was a great gig that demonstrated the depth of this unique line-up of musicians – and it only cost a tenner! Just imagine…

Bring It On begins with the russet tones of Get Miles, a captivating progression through colourful Americana tones. Whippin’ Piccadilly is a jaunty and truly British tune, which, whilst appealing to a slightly more commercial faction, also shows the songwriting diversity within the group. Make No Sound is folksy and brilliantly minimalist, 78 Stone Wobble a febrile two-step with a killer hook, and Tijuana Lady, the immense album highlight, a shambling, psychy epic. That’s a song with an afterlife, that one.

Other highlights on a warm and somewhat fuzzy record include the fascinating Love Is Better Than A Warm Trombone, the clumsy but endearing Bubble Gum Years, and the groovy, driving Rock-release of Get Myself Arrested. Here Comes The Breeze is a kind of back-country sonic Blues that provides a perfect platform for Ben Ottewell’s rusty, prematurely smoked vocal, Free To Run a Country soaked ramble, and Rie’s Wagon something straight off an indie-bleached, mysterious Spaghetti Western.

Gomez are a cult band. They’ve never attacked the charts or become famed personalities. In fact, they could all walk down the street unnoticed, which is remarkable when considering their achievements. Their legacy is in their sound; a whimsical, often strange, a little gauche but always compelling melting pot of beguiling influences.

You don’t win The Mercury Music Award without something special going down. Michael Kiwanuka won it in 2020, and if you follow my blog you’ll already know what I think of him. You don’t make a record like Bring It On without being inspired.

Check it out.

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

Top track trio:

Get Miles

Tijuana Lady

Love Is Better Than A Warm Trombone


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 10

Cooza – Our Day (2020)

Isn’t it fascinating how alternative genres of music emerge from standard genres we already know?

Cooza is a masked alt-folk musician from the west side of Liverpool’s River mersey who describes his music as freak folk. Freak folk. I love it, and I totally get it. It shouldn’t fit in. It shouldn’t really appeal, because ‘freak’ lives on the outside, right? The extremities? The borderlands of acceptability and beyond? Yes and no. I mean, who knows anymore? I feel that freak is chic in the roaring 2020’s. And Our Day is definitely chic.

In a world where artists are up against it if they want to make a living from the music industry, more and more independent projects are emerging. You see, when you write, record, master and self-produce your own music, you don’t have to deal with record executives, the unfortunate business of record labels, rip-off merchants and con-artists. You don’t have to have your image crafted to what they prefer. You don’t have to guide your art towards sales and the grip of the commercial jaw. You can do whatever you want, however you want, and use the multiple platforms afforded us in the technological age to reach an audience.

Now, I’m a record man. I like to buy a vinyl or CD copy. Cooza’s Our Day is currently still only available on streaming platforms, but I’m working on it. I’d love nothing more than this album on my vinyl shelf tucked neatly between Joni Mitchell and The Beatles. Hint Hint.

Cooza’s contemporary tones draw inspiration from the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Adrianne Lenker, Bon Iver, Big Thief, Ben Howard and Flatsound, and his poetic lyricism derives from an attraction and preoccupation with the natural world. Other slightly more melancholy soaked themes explore the complexities of love, and the struggle to comprehend post-millenial relations. It’s no coincidence that this talented young songwriter is a Joni Mitchell and later-career Kate Bush fan. The aching and mystery is all there.

The highlights include hypnotic single Wooden Frame, in which the combination of guitar loops and delicately layered vocals bleed beautifully all over the audio waves. You Look Good In It could have been written by David Crosby in 1969 – an absolutely sublime, gentle anaesthetic. I adore the background noises, and the vocals that sound like they’re coming from another room. It’s as indie as it gets.

The fascinating Love Love (Interlude) has Dr John’s Gris Gris stamped all over it, Be My Man a spacious, ethereal lament, and Gentle Into The Good Night (Interlude) such a brain-worm mind-fuck that it could rest perfectly adeptly in a Boris Karloff film.

Henrio, a Spanish master of melody and fellow Liverpool based musician, joins Cooza for Hores De Capvespre in what becomes a lyrically intense, roomy declaration, and quite frankly, I could lie back in a field, eyes closed, and listen to Cut My Hair for just about forever. The album concludes with I Can See New Zealand From Here – not just a concept that raises a smile, but a simply gorgeous, scattered refrain.

When asked about the concept behind Our Day, Cooza had this to say:

“…the whole album is a series of snapshots from a relationship told through the narrative timeframe of a day- starting with waking from a dream full of questions, and ending on going to sleep and falling into a new dream that promises more freedom. ‘Our Day’ is about how you can claim a whole day as your own, forgetting the world exists when you’re with someone you love. It’s about trying to keep the feelings of love from that day alive for however long…” (courtesy of: http://www.gigsoupmusic.com)

And so here is a melting pot of extensive and diverse influences – Cooza is clearly a muso who listens with more than just two ears. The melodies that he crafts are an intriguing mix of melancholy & sunrise & soothing & aching & longing & surprise & grief & hope & green meadows & lemon trees & soul. His voice is unique, and his guitar playing so sparse that it makes the spaces in between do all the work. It’s brilliant.

I love nothing more than to discover a local artist whose music touches me. And it’s no wonder this record has already amassed more than 200,000 Spotify streams.

Listen to the album here: https://open.spotify.com/album/5EpS9xRiHoo93AsV1Y6ShI

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

© Joel Saunders

Top track trio:

You Look Good In It

Wooden Frame

I Can See New Zealand From Here


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 2

Paul McCartney – McCartney III (2020)

It’s absolutely remarkable to me that a man of McCartney’s age is still doing what he’s doing at 78. The man is a melody machine. I mean, how can one guy have so many incredible, magnetic, dopamine soaked, feel-good bangers in ONE BRAIN?!

Paul McCartney is not only the most successful commercial songwriter in contemporary music history, but he is also one of the richest, has record breaking stats falling out of his jacket pockets….and most importantly….he was a BEATLE! He could have retired in 1970 when Liverpool’s famed fab-four split, and lived more than just a comfortable life. Instead, fifty years later, after already showcasing a body of solo and Wings work that the world will never see the likes of again, he’s been back in the studio completing his trilogy of indie inspiring, self penned, produced and engineered masterpieces in what only Macca could coin ‘rock-down’.

McCartney III proves one thing for sure – the man is still in love with his one true love….music. This album is far from going through the motions. It isn’t in the least bit stagnant, over-chiselled, sappy or contrived. Yet again, the genius that is (staggeringly…) heading for 80, has pulled out an absolute gem from yet another wardrobe door in his Narnia of imaginations. I’m not gushing over this record because it’s McCartney. I’m gushing over it because it’s bloody great.

As a writer myself, it always amazes me to see someone as prolific as Macca. Consider his discography: 23 studio albums credited to The Beatles, a further 26 studio albums credited to Paul McCartney, either solo or with Wings, 7 classical albums, 5 electronica albums (as The Fireman), and countless live albums, compilations, EP’s and box sets. I know his career has spanned almost 60 years, but the man has literally never stopped. That can only be down to his burning desire to create, and the need to fulfil that incredible gift that he has been given to craft a melody and pin it down with words the world over can relate to.

McCartney III opens with what is already an iconic riff – an almost eerie descent into Long Tailed Winter Bird, an all out attack on the musical senses, and the signature theme for this surprise release. It left me thinking shit, there’s so much more left in his tank! The album really takes off with Find My Way – a classic McCartney hook, and though the power of that crème-de-le-crème vocal has faded, he’s found ways to still work it. The very best in every walk of life adapt rather than disappear.

Lavatory Lil could have been on the classic B-side of Abbey Road, Slidin’ shows that Macca has been listening to the Foos (and that he’s no slouch on lead guitar), and Deep Down is the most contemporary McCartney track I’ve heard this side of the millenium. Fascinating to hear an old man singing about throwing parties every night. I’m sure Macca is no stranger to a party, even now. His eternal youth shines through this record.

The true highlight for me though is the mesmerising, 8-plus minute Deep Deep Feeling. For me, it generates a similar intensity that I Want You (She’s So Heavy) does, also on The Beatles’ seminal album, Abbey Road. The song swirls into a deep vortex of beautiful loops, and probably Macca’s most innovative vocal in years. Also….what a drummer he is!

The other highlight is the final track, Winter Bird / When Winter Comes. An outtake from the 1997 Flaming Pie sessions, McCartney has finally put the finishing touches to what is a beautifully raw, singer-songwriter masterpiece – the likes of which James Taylor, Stephen Stills, John Martyn or John Prine would be proud of.

Paul McCartney’s importance in the realms of contemporary popular music doesn’t need to be chanted from the rooftops. The man is the Beethoven of our times. Yes, he’s made better albums. Not many, but he has. I’m actually a fan of much of McCartney’s 21st century output, but I think this album probably snatches top spot of that batch from the 2006 album Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, which was also outstanding.

It leaves me excited for what else may come from the master tunesmith. It’s so refreshing to see the likes of Macca, Dylan, the Stones et al in the studio producing music that stands up. With his 80th birthday looming, we may be in for yet another original surprise from Paul….and if so, all hail the old guard!

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

© Mary McCartney

Top track trio:

Find My Way

Deep Deep Feeling

Winter Bird / When Winter Comes