Mark Lanegan is a man of many projects, but I always like his solo work the best, where the songs and performances have an added element of intimacy that places him in the same discussion as performers like Nick Cave, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. He’s been sporadically releasing solo albums since 1990’s The Winding Sheet, and I love them all. Knowing that, I approached Phantom Radio with a bit of trepidation, brought on entirely by the pre-album press which discussed the influence of New Order (a band I’ve never liked much) and noted that the album began its life as a series of recordings on an app called Funk Box. Was Lanegan about to start following trends and go electro-pop?
Thankfully the answer is no. Sure, many of the songs on record are based around programmed beats and other electronica sounds, but Phantom Radio is nowhere close to being dance-floor fodder. If anything the music is based more the hypnotic proto-electronica of Kraftwerk than anyone else, which works great with Lanegan’s distinctively deep vocals and darkly introspective lyrics. In fact, this may be his best batch of songs in twenty years. The only place where I hear any echoes of New Order is on “Floor of the Ocean”, which has a bass-run that can only remind you of Peter Hook – but, unlike New Order, this song has a good singer and lyrics. “Torn Red Heart” is, for me, the album’s centerpiece, a heart-wrenching ballad with a heavenly trajectory that could very easily have come from a Spacemen 3 as from Mark Lanegan. It ends with the hard-driving “Death Trip to Tulsa” with a title referencing songs by the Stooges and Neil Young, which is a pretty great combo. Each of Phantom Radio’s ten songs are among Lanegan’s best and as of today (November 1st) this is my favorite album of 2014.
The promo cd also comes with the five song No Bells On Sunday EP, which you should get if you find it. Standout tracks include “Dry Iced”, a hypnotic number with traces of Suicide’s “Cheree”, and the ethereal title song which has a Joy Division funeral march vibe to it.
Slowdive seems, on record, to float away, barely tethered to pop and rock history, a contrast to other other shoegaze acts that make up the “big three,” My Bloody Valentine and Ride. MBV was and is rooted in the Beach Boys, 1960s girl groups, and the Brill Building sound, and Ride wouldn’t exist without the jangle of The Byrds and the mod scene of the late 60s. Slowdive only hinted at MBV’s guitar squall and Ride’s nod to influences, instead crafting slight, ethereal songs on Just for a Day, eventually becoming so ambient that the group recorded with Brian Eno, and dissolved while working on the experimental Pygmalion.
In concert, however, the group rocked, combining the best of all worlds. “This is a pop song,” announced singer-guitarist Rachel Goswell, before starting Souvlaki’s lead track, “Alison,” and so it was, clearly indebted to The Byrds, as was concert opener, “Slowdive.” Torrential sheets of guitar–I counted over twenty-five pedals between Goswell, Neal Halstead, and Christian Saville, all of which got a workout on “Crazy For You”–filled the venue, grounded only by Simon Scott’s expert drumming, which focused on snares and hi-hats early in the set. Bassist Nick Chaplin alternated between the traditional rhythm section and threatening to blast off with the guitarists.
Befitting the shoegaze moniker, the vocals were buried in the mix at times; one could barely hear Halstead’s flat, slightly nasal voice and Goswell’s was sometimes reduced to coos, especially when she contributed to the three-guitar attack. Saville turned the solo on “Souvlaki Space Station” into a slide guitar clinic, an alt-country, sci-fi, spaghetti western that exploded into ambient noise. Even the dream poppy “Catch the Day” and the hushed, folky “Dagger” got workouts, drenched in reverb and delay.
Unlike MBV’s live struggles last year, Slowdive didn’t show many signs of rust. Goswell joked with Halstead throughout, and the only false start was corrected without tension. The band live-premiered the b-side “Albatross,” a post-rock song that follows the “loud-quiet-loud” formula they helped to pioneer.
In 2013 I saw MBV live. This year I saw Slowdive. It’s your move in 2015, Ride.
You may know the name Pete Astor from his time as the singer for The Loft and Weather Prophets, two rather likable bands from the early years of Creation Records. Well, in addition to his credentials as a performer, he also has a position giving lectures on Musicology at the University of Westminster, so he understands rock from an academic perspective as well as a visceral one. This makes him just about the perfect person to write the book on Blank Generation, an album that brilliantly combined the intelligence of Hell’s poetry with the rebellious force of rock music. Astor comes through big time here, combining personal stories regarding Hell and the album, with an explanation of a wide range of influences that, when combined, made Blank Generation such a powerful statement, musically, lyrically and aesthetically. Personally I’ve loved the album ever since I first heard it about 15 years ago, and even though I’ve read Hell’s autobiography and countless other books on the early years on New York punk, Astor adds a lot of new information and perspective to the story. Take the album’s title song for example, a well known (a often misunderstood) classic, yet I never realized that it was a combination of the chords from Ray Charles “Hit The Road Jack”, and a novelty single called “I Belong To The Beat Generation” purposefully designed to create a statement similar to The Who’s “My Generation”. The book also gives just due to The Voidoids, explaining the crucial role guitarists Ivan Julian & Robert Quine, along with drummer Marc Bell, had in enhancing Hell’s visions in a unique and actually quite accomplished way. Astor details their pre-Voidoids resumes, showing that these were no punk amateurs – not even close. As with any volume of the 33 1/3 series, the book’s success lies squarely on whether or not it makes you think differently about the album and if it made you want to listen to it again with fresh ears. Mission accomplished on both fronts.