University Albums 101 (Faster Louder – 2012)
University isn’t just a time of experimenting with alcohol and paraphrasing Wikipedia – it’s also about expanding your music collection. Chances are you’ll start the academic year with an ipod as questionable as your haircut. Counting Crows, Jamiroquai & Lenny Kravitz aren’t going to cut it here. You’ll come across fellow students older and wiser than you with dazzlingly eclectic tastes. These people will most likely bore you to tears with references to late 70’s New York punk bands and/or Joni Mitchell, but bare with them, they may adorn your Glee pocked memory stick with some life changing albums. Here are four that I only discovered after leaving school.
NICK DRAKE – BRYTER LATER (1970)
In 2003 I dated a mentally interesting girl ten years older than me. She had a friend who was in a Beatles tribute band and nine times my age. At a party he showed me a simple album cover of a lavender background with a long-haired, leggy recluse posing on a chair. I can’t remember his exact words but “before Nick Drake / after Nick Drake” was the sentiment.
Drake suffered a whole lot of depression, barely performed or gave interviews and left behind a three album legacy of guitar tunings and arrangements that are the musical equivalent of crop circles. Bryter Later is his happy album. Happy in the ‘I’ve taken my Prozac and enjoyed a nice bowl of jelly’ way – his voice softer than the ghost of a cartoon butterfly.
Hazey Jane II is a smooth, rollicking journey through late 60’s musical countryside, while At The Chime of a City Clock is a swift acoustic jazz number. It unfortunately falls victim to a disease of the time – Sax Crimes! (Same thing that kills Lennon’s Whatever Gets You Through The Night and Bowie’s Young Americans.) It is a fine example of the glorious string arrangements and subtle backbeats provided by producer Joe Boyd.
There are two types of people. Those that find Nick Drake hopelessly depressing – and those who see him as a profound comfort. A graceful woodland nymph whispering pretty truths about pain and beauty.
Please give me a second grace
Please give me a second face
I’ve fallen far down
The first time around
Now I just sit on the ground in your way
This from a man who ‘accidentally’ took an overdose and slipped softly into the ether. A folk messenger far too sensitive for the harsh exteriors of the people scene.
BOARDS OF CANADA – MUSIC HAS THE RIGHT TO CHILDREN (1998)
I attempted a relationship with a Manic Pixie Dream Girl musician who had this in her collection. The morbidly haunting synth chords of An Eagle In Your Mind, like slowed down panpipes, evoked such cavernous woe that I had to turn it off. Even though I was fascinated by electronic music, I wasn’t quite old enough to enter this haunted house.
Boards of Canada, a duo from Scotland, are now pretty much my favourite band. They build downbeat soundscapes using warbly synths that resemble early 80’s educational shows. The results evoke a majestic sense of nostalgia and longing. To me, they are the natural evolution of electronic music – from Popcorn through to Guru Josh, Fat Boy Slim and the Chemical Brothers. While these artists feel dated, BoC are maestros of emotionally intelligent retro futurism.
Sharp, rhythmic beats drive past like highway lines. The synth bed is a holographic backdrop of green screen glow. The fuzzy blue atmosphere of harmonisers, glitches and bleeps draws your third eye toward the sonic horizon and beyond. The precipice between consciousness and dreams, where logic turns abstract. An emotional kaleidoscope.
Telephasic Workshop sounds like an audio tour of a comatose brain, where electro pulses have been turned into vector diagrams and fed back into a laboratory Moog. Vocal samples are spliced with precise silences, creating an eerie strobing effect, as a chugging beat pounds rhythmically over a lava phaser of minor pulses. At the height of the intensity they drop a robotic voice pronouncing “Boards of Canada.” For a band who have since refused to tour or do interviews it’s an oddly self-serving DJ watermark, reminding us who is responsible for this atomic deconstruction of melody and sounds.
It’s not all queasy-listening. Roygbiv is the closest thing to a single. There’s something instantly recognisable about it, like the themesong to an children’s sitcom about a crime solving robot and her wizard apprentice. The thick, ominous synth is dusted with a naïve, warbly jingle and 80’s hyper-cheese jazz piano. It’s like audio déjà vu, your brain is sure you’ve heard it before but has no record of it. While The Campfire Headphase is my favourite album, Music Has The Right To Children heralded a decade of ’80s fascination.
MILES DAVIS – BITCHES BREW (1970)
I remember when I first saw a Miles Davis album in my muso mates CD collection. On the cover was a very cool black man playing a trumpet. I was scared. This was music for people who studied music.
“Oh man….Miles,” they say, on a first name basis and everything.
“Yeah…” you reply…turning the CD over and nodding as if gaining further understanding. “…just wanted to make sure….yep it’s got….oh love that track….classic….”
“It’s like….man…it’s rock and jazz…it’s loose and totally structured at the same time…. so ahead of it’s time…”
“yeah…like Lenny Kravitz.”
Bitches Brew is regarded as the greatest jazz album of all time and probably is. But it’s too far out for me. I’m from Tasmania and am white and grew up in the ’80s and don’t take drugs and I really like choruses. I’m more Kinks yeah? Like, I’m so uptight I can’t even listen to that much Hendrix. I’m just not invited to those kinds of parties. I ruin it for everyone…standing in the corner with that look that says ‘when does the singing start?’
I guess I could take everything I just said about Boards Of Canada being meditative audio balm for people who like to think themselves into oblivion and apply it to this – but I can’t. This is music for your stoner housemate to vacuum to on a Sunday afternoon. It’s important, but not necessarily…riveting…like musical quinoa. A super music.
THE KINKS – VILLAGE GREEN PRESERVATION SOCIETY (1968)
There is no band less served by their ‘Best Of’ than The Kinks. For years I thought of them as nothing more than the You Really Got Me and Lola guys who probably invented distortion according to my Uncle Ken. Like The Ramones are just a t-shirt, I only knew this album from the badges. Village Green is a cult classic generally regarded as The Kinks best, although in the year of its release it was a critical success but commercial failure
Frontman Ray Davies was all about social commentary, writing songs about old friends settling down and places he missed from his childhood – a refreshing change from the ‘I’m sad / I’m sorry / I love you’ lyric school. It’s a playful album for people who have long left home and are finding the real world kinda disillusioning.
“We are the Skyscraper condemnation Affiliate/God save tudor houses, antique shops and billiards/Preserving the old ways from being abused/Protecting the new ways for me and for you/What more can we do”
Perhaps Davies was forty years ahead of his time, predicting the nostalgia obsession of Gen-Y (who helped kick-start a Kinks revival in the early 2000’s led by badges.) Through the course of the album Davies takes on Religion:
“Big Sky looks down on all the people who think they got problems/They get depressed and they hold their head in their hands and cry/People lift up their hands and they look up to the Big Sky/But the Big Sky is too big to sympathize”
“Walter, you are just an echo of a world I knew so long ago/If you saw me now you wouldn’t even know my name/I bet you’re fat and married and you’re always home in bed by half-past eight/And if I talked about the old times you’d get bored and you’ll have nothing more to say”
And in Picture Book, the obsession with nostalgia:
“Picture book, pictures of your mama, taken by your papa a long time ago/Picture book, of people with each other, to prove they love each other a long time ago/Picture book, when you were just a baby, those days when you were happy, a long time ago”
The Kinks deploy some luscious production, like the gorgeously jaunty piano ambience of Sitting By The Riverside. They give The Beatles a run for their money in pop smarts and The Rolling Stones a shake in the rock-steady department. Last of the Steam Powered Trains is a barnstorming blues stomp with an exhilarating tempo turbo boost at the end.