Cult Classics Album Breakdown 24

Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)

It was initially a joke that prompted a mate of mine to give me this album. He was convinced that I was so anti-hip-hop I wouldn’t even take it off him, let alone listen to it. Forever willing to be challenged, I took it and put it straight in the CD player when I got home. After that I never looked back. Hip-hop became a ‘thing’ in my musical dictionary.

I think the thing that grabs me most about this record is the power in which Ms Hill delivers her no bullshit stand against dickhead men who can’t stop hurting the women that adore them. It’s a record that bellows liberation from the rooftops, and bellows it LOUD. It’s a self-serving, self-healing album that just so happens to connect with millions. I’m not at all surprised that, moving into 23 years later, there still hasn’t been a follow-up. I mean, what do you say after this – when, as an artist, you’ve basically exercised your soul in one almighty blast? And, while we’re on the subject, the other thing that grabs me is the fact that I instantly imagined the likes of Roberta Flack, Aretha, Bob Marley, Donny Hathaway, and a whole host of Motown artists. That’s the point; this record has got serious Soul.

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill won a record five Grammy Awards from 10 nominations – there’s your retirement pot right there. It also reiterates how important this was as a cross-over record. I, for example, had never cared that much for or listened to hip-hop before this album slapped me round the chops. Hip-hop is at the core of Hill’s work, just as it was in her previous incantation, The Fugees, but it’s her ability here to garnish the record with bonafide Soul, elements of Reggae, splashes of Funk and some startlingly powerful Gospel that smashes the doors wide open to a huge audience. Ex-Factor, my favourite song on the album, is one of the great cross-over tracks I’ve ever heard, meandering between genres and blowing your musical mind skywards. Intensely personal, it’s one of those songs that never leaves the brain-worm jukebox.

The album is about the many manifestations of love. The emotions communicated here are complex and varied. I Used To Love Him is drenched in pain, though Nothing Even Matters is quite the opposite – a realisation laced with joy. It’s fascinating that both Superstar and Forgive Them Father could even be interpreted as attacks on Hill’s former bandmates, Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel – relations declined rapidly after they both claimed Hill needed psychiatric help.

The astuteness of To Zion is staggering, and the beautiful optimism in Can’t Take My Eyes Off You really endearing. Having not been a broad consumer of hip-hop, there are a few tracks on here I still find testing, but generally the artistry and sensitivity pervading these songs completely submerge me. Lauryn Hill is a poet, and a damn good one. She’s also got a voice that, at times outspoken, commands your ear.

The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill is self-indulgent without being self-obsessed – and though that may seem like the biggest oxymoron ever, I know what I mean (LOL!). It’s an incredible skill to bare your soul whilst remaining universal. It’s a profound album that was forward-thinking at the time in its reaching for the new millenium, and displays the songwriting craft of the likes of Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon to name a few – yes, Lauryn Hill has climbed the ladder into that bracket of greatness as a result of this one record. I got to see her 20th anniversary performance of this album in Manchester, and though she strolled on stage typically late, it had all the traits of a cultural event, not just a gig.

I never thought I’d be writing this review, but here I am. I’m saying it out loud – hip-hop has made my classic cult album blog. I didn’t think I’d ever go to North Korea or jump off the world’s highest bungee either. Isn’t life strange?!

★★★★★★★★☆☆

8/10

© Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

Top track trio:

Ex-Factor

Doo Wap (That Thing)

Can’t Take My Eyes Off You


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 20

Beth Rowley – Little Dreamer (2007)

Born to missionary parents in Lima, Beth Rowley is a woman of the world who has paid her dues. She started at the very bottom, navigating the Bristol music scene, playing in pubs and clubs to those who don’t necessarily want to listen. She also studied under Soul singer, Carleen Anderson (who spent years in Paul Weller’s band) and also, as a schoolgirl, provided backing vocals for Ronan Keating and Enrique Iglesias. Excuse my cynicism, but if that isn’t paying your dues, I’m not sure what is.

The point being this – Rowley has a thickened skin because she’s not one of those artists who sang karaoke on The X Factor then became a star. She’s roamed the open-mic nights, packed her own gear into the boot, played the job-gigs and used such experiences to work out who she is and what she does. She’s also soaked up a wealth of musical and cultural influences on her passage to this record – primarily Blues, Soul, Gospel and singer-songwriters such as Carole King, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Jamie Cullum. You can tell – and some would hold this against her – that she has swallowed the posthumous Eva Cassidy output too, though this makes the whole concept more charming for me.

Some of the highlights include Rowley’s take on Nobody’s Fault But Mine, a song first recorded by Gospel Blues artist Blind Willie Johnson in 1927. There is a sincere warmth in her voice, and it feels like she means it when she sings “And if I should die / And my soul becomes lost / Then I know it’s / Nobody’s fault but mine”. It’s pretty damn convincing, and the music doesn’t intrude. The other cover, Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released borders on a little giddy for the thematic nature of the song, but it’s still charming with its reggae slant.

The main issue here is the safe production. Some of these tracks could really soar at the risk of making some Radio 2 listeners spill their tea, and it’s a shame that the production team decided not to gamble. It doesn’t take much away from the song-craft though, or how well Rowley and Ben Castle (yes, son of Roy) have put their influences in a blender and spilt them all over this lovely record. It’s certainly refreshing to see a young artist realise such a traditional, authentic sound. Beth Rowley is certainly a great Soul singer – not at all an impersonator or imposter.

The two stormers on the record are Sweet Hours & Oh My Life. You can tell that she’s the daughter of missionaries by the fervour in her voice, and her vocal performance is no better across the record than on these two tracks. I’ve read reviews that criticise Rowley’s menace when singing these deeply spiritual songs, but for me her pitch is where it needs to be – somewhere between lost in music and gentle thunder. Again, I must touch on the fact that the production is so safe that it almost prevents Rowley from striding out of the shadows of her influences and assuming her own identity. I fear that this will forever be a bargain bin purchase for middle-of-the-road oh isn’t that lovely music (un)listeners, and it’s so much better than that.

Or, certainly it should be.

★★★★★★★☆☆☆

7/10

Top track trio:

Nobody’s Fault But Mine

Sweet Hours

Oh My Life


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 19

Stephen Bishop – Careless (1976)

What a very special record this is.

I was gifted Careless by a fellow muso with twenty years worth of information gathering on my musical taste. It fell through the letter box one day with the kind of clink that makes you wince. Yes, the case was shattered, but the CD emerged like an untouched pearl. I put it straight in the record player and was instantly gripped. Like that moment when the music starts in a rowdy pub and it all goes quiet.

Stephen Bishop. The name had floated round in conversation for years, though any further investigation had never been undertook. Better late than never, as they say. When you think you’ve heard it all and then something this good appears it’s so exciting. It makes me feel like the search is endless – even if I live a hundred years (I’ll have to give the biscuits up, like) I think I’ll still be discovering amazing music I’ve never heard. Isn’t that great?

The album begins with the very intimate On and On, a delicate song with sublime production. It struck me that the audiophiles would be rampant with this record – it has that perfectionist element of Steely Dan about it. The irony about the following track, Never Letting Go, is that this is exactly how the song makes you feel. I find myself watching the seconds ticking down on the song and hating it when it reaches the end. Bishop’s voice is like silk mixed with hope mixed with bright white light and trust and a gorgeous, warm sunny day. Honestly, his voice – at times Paul Simon-esque, at other’s knocking on McCartney’s door – is just about as accessible and feel-good as I’ve ever heard.

Careless, the beautiful title track, features backing vocals from Art Garfunkel, and is probably my favourite on a stunning album. It’s very early, solo McCartney, with a totally unique melody. In fact, having mentioned Garfunkel, a host of familiar names feature on this album. Session regulars Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour are heavily involved, and there are even contributions by Andrew Gold, Chaka Khan and Eric Clapton. Quite a roster for a debut record. Maybe they knew something that everyone else didn’t.

It’s got lazy Sunday afternoon written all over this album. Sinking In An Ocean Of Tears has something distinctly Boz Scaggs about it, with those emphatic horns and slight infiltration of 70’s Soul. Madge could well have been lifted from James Taylor’s debut record, and Every Minute written on a balcony overlooking the California surf. Maybe it was. Bishop’s sound is very scenic, and very emotive. Great music does that to you – places you somewhere and makes you feel something strongly. This music makes me feel very relaxed, satisfied, mellow and content. Little Italy breaks the mould slightly, with its slightly chirpier tempo – maybe one for late afternoon when the drinks arrive.

The album can be, at times, deeply introspective and moody. One More Night is personal, but again soaked in melody. He appears not to take himself as seriously as say, Jackson Browne, but the instincts to penetrate are there. Save It For A Rainy Day feels like the Bee Gees and solo-career Paul Simon have met on the street corner and decided to collaborate – and I mean that in as complementary a fashion as possible. Clapton rips out a tantalising little solo too that pulls an otherwise inoffensive record into rockier territory.

Bishop goes on to declare “I’ll be your Rock and Roll slave / I’ll be your warm sunny day” in the penultimate track, and for this 35 plus minutes that’s exactly what he is – serving us magnificent soundscapes as we lie back and inhale. The Same Old Tears On A New Background closes the record with a poignancy – it’s light but heavy, if you get me. He sings this like it’s the last song he’ll ever sing. That’s an achievement in itself.

Bishop has never been a chart star, despite this album making number 11 on the Billboard Album Charts, though he has remained in hot demand by movie studios to write or record title themes for their films. Most of his contemporaries from the 70’s wouldn’t have dared. He’s respected by the very best, and this is an absolutely brilliant, soulful, honest, immaculately crafted cult classic.

Oh, by the way. I let the postman off.

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

© Stephen Bishop

Top track trio:

On And On

Never Letting Go

Careless


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 18

Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (1971)

Before Marvin Gaye was tragically gunned down by his own father on 1st April 1984, he’d already secured his legacy. This masterful album, What’s Going On, was the primary reason.

Responsible for massive global hits such as How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), I Heard It Through The Grapevine, and SexualHealing, this multi-instrumentalist and three-octave vocalist was one of the most respected and successful Soul artists ever to grace the stage. His death was a waste – shot dead one day before his 45th birthday – a consequence of many feuds within his parents’ home. Marvin’s tale is a sad one lined with gold. I’m here to tell you that, in my opinion, What’s Going On, Gaye’s seminal 1971 album, is the goldest of all his gold.

What’s Going On is a concept album written from the point of view of a returning Vietnam War veteran, who arrives back home to the country he has been fighting for to see nothing but injustice, suffering and hatred. At the time, music wasn’t used to such subversion, and his label, Motown, had no previous history or experience releasing such profoundly political music. This was no Standing In The Shadows Of Love, though in Marvin’s case, the heartaches had already very much come. The opening title track – a very personal and brave statement – is proof in itself. Motown boss Berry Gordy rejected What’s Going On, reportedly calling it “the worst thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” Thank God he woke up and smelt the coffee.

Whereas the track What’s Going On is the universal declaration of pain, What’s Happening Brother is the personal appeal that peels Gaye’s skin right back. The Funk Brothers are the band bleeding such bitter-sweet sounds all over this – already a landmark recording after just two tracks. Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky) is a moody and ominous admission that speaks fearfully of heroin addiction, giving us a glimpse at Gaye’s declining state of mind.

Save The Children is an anthemic, atmospheric plea with a universal message of peace and salvation, and God Is Love a religious dedication, rather ironically, to his eventual murderer, Marvin Pentz Gay Senior. By now in his early 30s, Marvin Gaye would accept nothing but complete control over his music, and you can tell – this is not a man sat in the shadows watching others work the faders. This is the most avant-garde record that Motown ever released; the softest Marvin ever sang with the loudest metaphorical voice.

The album highlight, Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), is a magnificent, masterpiece of a track. It has been inducted into The Grammy Hall Of Fame, and boy, do the ghosts of these tracks appear all around us today. It’s an album full of songs that probably resonate more with the state of the world now than it ever did then. There’s not just relevance at the time, but a massive foreboding throughout this record. Despite it’s sorrowful message about the mistreatment of the environment, Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and has been covered by artists as diverse as Robert Palmer, MC Hammer, Todd Rundgren, The Strokes, Pearl Jam, Aswad and Boyz II Men.

Right On changes the landscape of What’s Going On, bringing in a Latin-Soul percussive element that is dominated by a flute – a beautiful change of mood and tempo. Wholy Holy is gospel – a hymn almost. Solemn but sensual. The closing track, Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler), brings the record full circle, ending in the same stunning way that it began. And yes, it makes me wanna holler.

As far as Soul records go, I think it gets no better than this. Soul sensibilities pervading such deep, spiritual subject matter. The man had many personal demons, but he was an incredible musician. One of the finest. Rolling Stone Magazine voted Marvin Gaye #6 on their ‘Greatest Singers Of All Time’ poll, and #18 on their ‘100 Greatest Artists Of All Time’. A legend, and What’s Going On the peak in a glorious career. It’s a must own record for anybody into music. Full stop.

This record set a precedent for change within that genre. The album went on to achieve mass commercial and critical acclaim, being voted ‘Greatest Album Of The 20th Century’ by The Guardian in 1999, and in 2003 voted #6 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s ‘500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ poll. In 2004 the title track, What’s Going On, was voted #4 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s ‘500 Greatest Songs Of All Time poll’. Huge plaudits for a song that was initially turned down for release.

“Mercy, mercy me,” his voice continues to plead, calmly, desperately, longingly, forever.

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

Top track trio:

What’s Going On

Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)

Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 1

Dexys Midnight Runners – Searching For The Young Soul Rebels (1980)

Released in 1980 at the height of the Northern Soul revival, this record by Birmingham’s quirkiest of quirksters draws on a profound Soul sensibility, whilst also experimenting with Funk, Ska, and booming powerhouse Pop melodies.

Searching For The Young Soul Rebels is truly a record of its time; a powerful statement of defiance and fun by Kevin Rowland and his eight-strong army of “boys”. It’s the intense, four-dimensional soundscapes that first grabbed me when I got my hands on a second hand, semi-battered CD copy in the early noughties. New wave meant fresh air; and in a music chart dominated by Punk bands and semi-irrelevant popsters, Dexys were one of the larger waves sweeping over a changing musical landscape.

The album begins with the brilliant, cymbal crashing Burn It Down – full of balls and lifeblood and culture-shifting-angst, it’s a passionate attack on all those who dare demean the Irish and their heritage. Rowland reels off a host of Irish literary giants in defense of this great nation – Oscar Wilde, Brendan Behan, Sean O’Casey, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett and Lawrence Stern, to name but a few. The horns are exquisite, and the vocals thumping. One of Dexy’s finest ever recordings.

Followed by Tell Me When The Light Turns Green – a rousing shifter, once again brought to life by a brilliant horn section, it’s more The Team That Meets In Caffs that pulls the ear into the speaker and wont let go. A moody, edgy instrumental, it demonstrates the true power of this band, and the voice behind them without needing voice. In fact, I ramble. The true voice of this band are those compelling horns.

I’m Just Looking is a gripping song of longing with yet another stunning brass section, followed by the epic bounce of Geno – one of the band’s staple super hits. The beauty of this band is that their music gets inside you before you realise it has to somehow get out. I’ve had many a night pumping the jukebox with Geno, much to the delight of EVERYONE. Seven Days Too Long, quite simply a Northern Soul institution, is every inch as rousing as the original.

I Couldn’t Help If I Tried is a gorgeous ballad sang with deep, raw emotion by Rowland, who flirts with falsetto throughout. It is bluesy in parts, jazzy in others, but at all times grabs you by the shirt collar. A superb change in tempo on an otherwise lively album. Thankfully Not Living In Yorkshire It Doesn’t Apply – just about the oddest song title of them all – certainly lends an ear to the Punk movement of the time with its machine-gun bass, but the organ, coupled with Rowland’s fascinating flying-falsetto, throws the overall sound back into the Northern Soul scene. There is even a suspicion of Disco influence in this track – and that is never anything short of exciting.

And so, it seems that the only way to review this record is track-by-track. There is a spinal cord throughout the music. Love Part One is a unique, spoken word track complemented by a solo saxophone in the background, with an intrigue and poignancy: “They all dedicate lines to you/Thin lines – easy to see through/Of course they do it to be like others who/All feel something I wont pretend just for you.” Now that is cool.

The closing track on the album, There, There My Dear, is an exuberant and emphatic closing performance featuring dynamic backing vocals and a great lyric. And so comes a shock when the vinyl stops spinning and the needle clicks because your world has been nothing but Dexys indulgence for that space in time. As a complete package there are one or two dips, and it’s not looking to tear your heart out and stitch it straight back in. But, damn, it’s a cool record.

Searching For The Young Soul Rebels is a powerful piece of work that captures its time so well – a time when music called for rowdiness and energy and all-out passion.

★★★★★★★★☆☆

8/10

© Jacob Sweetman

Top track trio:

Burn It Down

Geno

Seven Days Too Long