Holy Moley, the sun is shining in Ireland!

April 11, 2010

Now there are few things in life better than driving on a nice warm day, window open a crack, nice breeze blowing in and (importantly) being on your own for it. Even though my commute is directly into the sun in the morning and likewise on the way home and ordering prescription sunglasses has moved to the “how I save money” side of the list, I don’t mind. The unusual feeling of sunny wellbeing outweighs the squinting, occasional blind spots and blurry yellow blobs in my vision. Driving into the sun has the effect of making you feel that  a bright future awaits, that you’re somehow driving to a golden place (Thurles or Limerick?). It makes you feel like you’re in an advertisement for real butter and it’s reeaalll tasty.

So like any person living in Ireland, I take these uncommon bouts of sunny weather very seriously indeed. If you don’t have a plan for squeezing every last moment out of those two days of sun then you’re going to miss your Summer! Whilst half of Limerick heads for Kilkee or breaks out that old encrusted bottle of Factor 50 and lies out on the cracked patio, I head upstairs and go searching for my good vibe, sunny music CDs, lob them in the car and get driving with the windows down.

So if you have to go to work on a nice day, some of the following might help you get there whilst maintaing that sunny disposition.

Blue Oyster Cult’s “Mirrors” album has always represented a difficulty for their fans. Known rightly as a band that makes “thinking man’s heavy metal”, this album has a light, breezy, west-coast vibe to it, unlike their darker, denser material. The bright guitar, keyboards and female backing vocals of Dr. Music, Moon Crazy and The Great Sun Jester put one in the mood for shorts and flip-flops rather than studded leather pants and biker boots. The outstanding In Thee with its soaring guitar solo and poignant lyric represents what’s always been great about Blue Oyster Cult – they’re good for any weather!  We’ll keep Tyranny and Mutation for the Winter and we’ll break out Mirrors for these sunny days. 

Jamiroquai - Return of the Space Cowboy

Next up on my sunny-day-drive list has to be the mighty “The Return of the Space Cowboy” from Jamiroquai. This has the best feel-good song of them all – “Stillness in Time“. The original video has them larking about on the beach so somebody somewhere knew that this song was meant for the sun. The great, effortless vocals of JK along with a flute solo and more girly backing vocals will make you want to drive past work and keep going. 

Transatlantic - SMPTe

And finally, for those of us with the benefit of a long commute, I must introduce you to the wonderful world of Transatlantic. A progressive rock “supergroup” that gives you equal measures of  stellar musicianship, jaw dropping audacity, spiritual lyrics and heart-stopping musical moments. All of which can be found in one track on their debut album “SMPTe”. Aptly named “All of the Above“, it’s a half-hour of intertwining parts that always has me hitting replay so my hour-long commute is generally taken over by two runs through this opus. The production is perfection, the music is ridiculously good and I promise you will not notice the time pass by – surely the point of music on a  sunny day commute 🙂

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Drowning out the voices in my head…

February 21, 2010

I suppose one of the minor drawbacks of commuting long distances on one’s own may be the descent into total madness. Such commuting (and this may only be for high-altitude commuting as through the Tipperary mountains) does have the tendency to allow a singleton commuter to engage in frequent “conversations” with himself.

Now such internal dialogues can be most useful if they, for example, form the basis of preparation for upcoming meetings (also known as “inevitable altercations with work colleagues”) – allowing a commuter to counter many potential arguments that may be put forward by those poor types who are disadvantaged by living close to their workplace. Often involving the acerbic playing of many parts, the imitation of people’s voices during such solo skits may well be the second sign of madness (the first sign of madness is Suggs coming up the driveway of course).

The real worry however, as I established recently for myself, is when inner dialogue involves the pathological replaying of old or even ancient conversations. Last week I found myself coming up with the perfect rejoinder to a rather spurious point that a member of the managing classes put to me. Sadly the point was put to me several years ago – it was a good comeback though…  No good can come from such behaviour, I know this, I’m not an idiot – I’m just a commuter.

These inner conversations lead to the driving down of one’s patience as well as the accelerator pedal – a poor combination. But they spring from legitimate needs to self analyse and (mostly) to fill time and these are deep-rooted needs amongst the commuting brethren. So what to do?

Walter Becker - 11 Tracks of WhackWell, as with all things in life, the answer comes from Walter Becker (going solo from Steely Dan) and Paul Buchanan (playing under the name The Blue Nile) respectively. Of course! Replace your own ancient conversational regrets and internal dialogues of despair with those of seriously talented and doggedly introspective musicians. These guys wear their hearts on their sleeves and have produced several great albums of gut-wrenchingly honest examinations of past misdemeanours, or in Becker’s case, what seems to be borderline criminal activity (excellent!)

The albums here represent the heights of both parties; deceptively uncomplicated arrangements (which apparently took forever to achieve) accompanying lyrical The Blue Nile - Hatsfrankness delivered with vocals that bear witness to their authenticity. The effect is to push aside your own squeaky inner voices and instead force you into a world of other people’s conversations and arguments with dead hang-gliding friendsstrangers inhabiting lonely Scottish cityscapes, or long gone paramours.  All these play out on musical landscapes that defy the simple pigeonholing techniques of modern music criticism and the lyrics provide levels of warm wistfulness (in Buchanan’s case) or ice-cold vitriol (in Becker’s case)  that could be bottled, sold at a premium and then most likely banned.

Both The Blue Nile and Walter Becker have many great moments in their back-catalogues (Becker was in Steely Dan for goodness sake) that deserve many listens, but Hats by The Blue Nile and 11 Tracks of Whack by Walter Becker are their finest moments. These albums often leave me driving open-mouthed but saying nothing.

Datamining me arse!

January 22, 2010

Erik Truffaz - Walk of the Giant Turtle

I have to apologise to Bob Brown who, I seem to recall, lives somewhere in Wisconsin. About two or three years ago Bob ordered a CD from the good people at Amazon.com but it came to me, included by accident at the bottom of an order I had placed for a couple of fairly random heavy metal albums. There was Bob’s invoice packed into my box (oo er matron!) and a strange looking , clearly avant-garde, Jazz CD by someone called Erik Truffaz; “Walk of the Giant Turtle“. Now I’ve always had a low tolerance for moral dilemma and I didn’t deliberate too long about what to do. It looked interesting, it was in my Amazon box, they’re a big multinational, Bob would probably get a refund, it was free and it juxtaposed nicely with the Iron Maiden and System of a Down CDs that I thought I was looking forward to. Bob lost out, so did Maiden and SoaD – Erik Truffaz was the find that day, a surprising, strange, faintly disturbing accident – a bit like finding a buried treasure chest full of medieval pornography (well, maybe a little like that).

It turns out that trumpet-player Truffaz fills a similar place in the jazz ecosystem as was once filled by the freewheeling style of John Coltrane or late-era, drug-fuelled and crazily brilliant Miles Davis. He’s not bound by modal scales, is extremely innovative, plays the notes-in-between-the-other-notes and often does it through distortion or flanger pedals. So, pretty “difficult” as they say in Jazzworld, but this is tempered because whilst Truffaz plays these extremely “out there” solos (more soundscapes really) on this record, the remaining three members of the superb quartet play more like a rock combo, laying down both heavy and gentle but always airtight backing tracks for Truffaz to juxtapose his ethereal trumpet musings into.

The result is a jazz album that combines virtuoso performances (on every instrument) with some of the funkiest (Scody Part II), heaviest (King B, Next Door, Seven Skies), prettiest (Flamingos, Turiddu)  jazz instrumental compositions I’ve heard in a long time.  The album drips with atmosphere, starting with Scody Part I which is just the sound of a distant alarm through a rain storm – then taking you through myriad styles and vibes to leave you at the end feeling that you’ve just rolled home in the daylight from an all-nighter with the cast of an Andy Warhol home movie (very blue and very strange yet somehow strangely compelling). The feeling that you’d like to do it again – not for a while, and not untill you’ve had a shower, but definitely sometime you need a break from the normal run of things is the satisfyingly odd result.

That’s why I’m always led back to this accidental find – usually when I feel a bit constrained by the run of the mill (back to work after Christmas, driving in the dark at 5.30 in the afternoon anyone?). This album makes me feel that I have a whole other – much cooler, more interesting life. I also really like the fact that for all their datamining, software-driven relationship building emails and recommendations to me – the best thing Amazon ever did for me was by pure accident.

And sorry Bob, I hope you got a copy of this eventually!

Forward military planning for January mountain offensive by man in Avensis

January 3, 2010

Well maybe military planning is putting it a bit strongly but having been away from commuting for both holiday and weather-related reasons for a wee while I have found my mind wandering at certain late-night, belly-full, slightly-tipsy moments as I half-listen to comfortably familiar family anecdotes,  to which CDs I might put into my cleaned-out car for the upcoming  January, frosty morning commutes over the Tipperary mountains. 

Yes, I’m afraid I do think like this, almost looking forward to going back to work so I can listen to more than two minutes of uninterrupted music again. I can’t even manage to fit in a whole Beatles song at home over Christmas without having to open brand new toys (now THAT is something that requires military planning), fix slightly new toys or explain the rules to Qwirkle one more time.

So this short blog (mostly short because this is the last day of my holidays and ye can all feck off) will attempt to elucidate my ruminations (how about that!) on what music might make January driving seem a little less like, well, January driving.

So I think I’ll go for some never-fail-to cheer-me-up  good music. These should raise my spirit-soaked spirit after Christmas time. Not that I might ever actually put them in the CD player because I know some of them off by heart but just having them beside me in the car makes me smile. You know the feeling when you look at a record and just the cover is enough to remind you of the entire album? Like the joke about the monks telling jokes (don’t ask…).

Huey Lewis and the New - SportsSo, good mood album No.1 is Huey Lewis and the News “Sports”. This was the album just before they released Power of Love on the Back to the Future soundtrack but this has so many great upbeat numbers I think it’s still their best. Heart of Rock and Roll and the great I Want a New Drug stand out. Apparently I Want a New Drug was wanted for the Ghostbusters soundtrack but the film company didn’t like the lyrics so they commissioned Ray Parker Jr to do “something very similar” for his eventual theme song to the movie (I think law suits ensued if memory serves – then fast forward to Jedward singing it in X Factor and the insult to Huey and the boys is complete!) The News had a great guitar and sax player (Johnny Colla) who remained underrated for much of their career – they’re still going by the way so fair play to ’em! They recently brought out a new album “Plan B”, the title track of which is classic Huey (the rest, not so sure!)

Pendulum - In SilicoGood mood album No.2 has to be the new album by Pendulum “In Silico”. These guys are just an insanely up tempo dance/DJ act that mix some real instruments into the beats to make music that will just make you punch the air repeatedly as you shout “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!” to no-one in particular and mysteriously also make you want to drink lots of bottled water… ShowDown from this album is about as good as this music gets. They’re relatively new (i.e. for the purposes of this blog, not from the 70’s or 80’s!) and they blew Glastonbury away with their performance this year. Their guitarist plays a “Keytar” and nobody’s quite sure what the hell it is (it’s not one of those cheesey 80’s keyboards worn like a guitar, it’s much cooler than that 🙂 but it sounds good to me). Check this out if you liked the Prodigy back in the day or if hard acid house died too soon for you – I know that won’t really sell it too well but check it out for fun.

Donald Fagen - The NightflyAnd last but not least, good mood album No. 3 must be Donald Fagen’s “The Nightfly”. I’m proud to say I bought this album early in my musical journey and not, for once, influenced by my brothers or my mates or Larry Gogan himself. I just heard New Frontier one day (on a random TV show that showed the video no less) and went “yes please, can I have some more?”. Fagen was,  and now is again, one of the dynamic and beautifully sarcastic duo that make up the mighty Steely Dan. But for me this album was the one that got me into Steely Dan retrospectively so when I hear it, it reminds me of that entire masterful catalogue also (nice!) Every track on this album is a laid-back classic and I can’t urge you to listen to it enough if you don’t know it.
I.G.Y., Maxine, Green Flower Street – ah yes, I’m looking forward to going back to work already… 🙂

Music to dent your wheel rims to: Banned from the commute

December 15, 2009

So my commute to Tipperary Institute takes me via some interesting towns, villages, mountains, pot-holes-that-pose-as-roads and bridges-built-on-corners. Suffice to say, this commute that I started in 2001 has always tempted me to write to Top Gear and suggest they do a feature on the most dangerous drive to work (I don’t think I’d win because I’m sure they’d find some poor chap who has to drive to work through Gaza in a Lancia) but this road would give the Stig a good run for his money.

The point being, I learned long ago that certain music encouraged me to drive with my heel embedded in the mat beneath the acceleratrix and this has led to the loss of 4 perfectly good tyres and three wheel rims (a pricey business in these recession fuelled days). So, to reduce costs, I have built up a “banned from the commute” batch of CDs. These represent the most aggressive music – not the loudest necessarily – but there’s something about these particular CDs that gets the blood running if you ask me, and therefore, they must remain under lock and key in the CD vault.

The first of these are some crazy Space Rockers called Monster Magnet:

Monster Magnet - Just say no!

Now I don’t remember how these guys entered my life, but enter they did (perhaps through my nightmares like Pinhead in Hellraiser) and they’re still going. They’re heavy but not metal and they have some genuinely great songs (Spacelord being a perfect example of what they do). But when I put on these guys they just pump me up, it’s the lyrics by Dave Wyndorf I think – they’re just, well, nasty, and he sings along with his guitar riffs which drives the songs relentlessly forward. “Heads Explode” and “Bummer” on their Greatest Hits just kill me – but doing 100km/h on the Newport Road will kill you for sure so Monster Magnet must stay under the bed. Highly recommend them though if you’re not driving or had a day where you just don’t care.

Now the next banned (sic) really just need a pic to highlight the problem – so here it is:

F you I won't do what you tell me

I regret to say that I think I hit (and most likely killed) a cat on my commute several years ago whilst listening to “Killing in the Name of” from this album by Rage Against the Machine. Tom Morello’s guitar work on this album is stunning – equally as stunning as Zack de la Rocha’s ranting vocals. This is where Rap met Metal and it never, ever, ever got any better (and don’t let that Rap/Metal tag put you off – if you’ve never tried it, you’ll like it in a dirty, dirty way). For pure aggression that will make you jump around (yes, even whilst driving and yes, even whilst being much too old for it) there can be nothing better than “Bombtrack” or “Know Your Enemy” from this, one of the greatest debut albums of all time. If you have frustrations in life (if???) then you need this tonic, trust me. But it will dull your ability to respond quickly to something jumping out in front of your car (which I think was de la Rocha’s point all along…)

Barreling down Sweetleaf Road

Finally for now (and yes I know this blog is too long). May I submit to you The Workhorse Movement. Now I don’t know how Monster Magnet entered my life but I do know that the Workhorse Movement snuck in with them around the same time. They had one album and one song especially (the brilliant “Keep the Sabbath Dream Alive” in honour of Black Sabbath – we’ll come to them another day) and I totalled my car last February on some black ice near Clonmel to the strains of that very song. Oh well, this earned them a ban even though I wasn’t going very fast (officer) and it probably wasn’t their fault that the temperature dropped, but they were close to taking Rage Against the Machine’s mantel in the Rap/Metal arena for a while – great one-off album if you fancy something a bit more “street-cred”. That one song is a cast iron Avensis killer though…

This week I ‘ave mostly been listenin’ to… (anything but the budget)

December 9, 2009

Now when I started this blog (oh, all of two whole weeks ago now) I was conscious that I didn’t want it to come off like “Jesse’s Diets” from the Fast Show. That being said though, this week I certainly have been mostly listening to two albums in particular and, although separated by many genres and 25 or so years, they have a couple of things in common. These are, happily, things that I really like in the music I commute to.

To begin with, neither album abuses the storage capacity of the medium. These two CDs clock in around the 35 minute-mark and that’s very nice indeed for an hour-long commute. You can sneak most of both of them in on one leg of the journey and never have to listen to even five minutes of the radio (perilous, especially on Budget Day here in Ireland). I have to admit that on my way home I was hoping to be stuck in about ten minutes worth of traffic heading into Limerick just to get the last two songs of the second album in. CDs that make you hope for traffic are rare enough.

Also, both albums have lyrics that you want to know, learn and (yes, yes) sing along to. 25 years ago I learned the lyrics to one of these albums and when I bought it recently on CD (as part of a retro-returning-to-my-musical-roots-buying-the-first-albums-I-ever-bought-on-vinyl frenzy) the words came back to me almost Suzanne Vegaperfectly on the first listen, and they are beautiful words indeed. The album (by the way) is Suzanne Vega’s debut album, mostly famous for “Marlene on the Wall” but if you listen to “Some Journey” or “Small Blue Thing” I think you get an even better feel for what Suzanne Vega does really, really well. It happened to be a nice crisp, frosty morning (usually dodgy for car commuters in the mountains) when I first gave this CD a spin and with songs like “Cracking” and “Freeze Tag” and the overall New-York-in-Winter vibe this record gives off it was just kind of perfect, making treacherous roads a little more bearable for a while. This album left me wanting more when it finished with the last few bars of “Neighbourhood Girls” and that really took me back to the days when I’d just flip over the LP and play it again (as I did my Maths homework slowly and badly).

Pearl Jam - Backspacer

Now on to the second CD with these qualities. I wanted to balance out my retro CD buying with some 2009 albums and so I bought “Backspacer” by Pearl Jam. And it rocks, it’s great. It’s short, snappy and Vedder delivers some seriously odd-ball lyrics but you have to concentrate to catch them or you’ll mistake them for typical rock n rolling. But it’s not as dissimilar to Suzanne Vega as you might think, there are some really sweet acoustic moments here too . “Just Breathe” is beautiful and shows Eddie Vedder at his lyrical and musical best. I have to admit I lost touch with Pearl Jam over the years, they became “high maintenance”. They sure did produce some classic Grunge albums early on but then they fought with Ticketmaster, started making experimental albums, toured with Neil Young and it all just got too confusing (for me anyway). Not bad or anything, just confusing.

But this album shows me how wrong I was to lose touch with these old friends, it’s a classic style album that opens with four  fast and furious, straight-up rockers then goes into some nice quiet stuff then comes back with some more rock and ends with a song called “The End” (like all good rock albums should 🙂 ) Check out “Gonna See My Friend” and “The Fixer“, it won’t take long and you’ll feel better after it, no matter how the switchblade budget cut you.

A journey through time and storage space: Prog rock is taking over my car (Part 1)

December 7, 2009

So a strange thing happened when I entered the realm of the 1-hour commute. I found a startling increase in the number of Progressive Rock CDs finding their way into my music collection via my car. Now I, like many others, had always felt that Prog Rock was fine in small doses but the excesses of bands like Yes or ELP just weren’t for me (embracing as I had, some secondhand Punk credentials through Nirvana in the early 90’s, as well as some well dodgy thrift-store shirts).

However, I had always been a huge fan of certain Prog bands and the following albums are now permanent in my car’s CD storage area (just behind the hand-brake). If you want to find some hardcore, yet accessible Prog albums you cannot beat (not even with a rhinestone stick):

  •  “2112” by Rush (the story of which was stolen for the storyline of the Queen musical “We Will Rock You”)
  • “Animals” by Pink Floyd (their last great album before the concepts overtook the content on grim offerings such as “The Wall” and “The Final Cut”) and
  • “Thick as a Brick” by Jethro Tull (a single song over two LP sides and replete with writing credits for a fictional teenage boy – very Prog indeed).
One track, one fictional writer Pink Floyd - Animals, Last album before the grimness took hold Rush - 2112, Classic Prog

These are Progressive Rock classics in the best of terms, with whole sides dedicated to single songs or concepts, complex song arrangements (beyond the aul 4:4), brilliant musicianship and with musical and lyrical themes running throughout. If, like me, these Progressive characteristics sound tempting to you, there are no better introductions to the world of proper Prog than these Rush, Floyd or Tull albums and they simply must be tried by an adventurous soul with commuting time on their hands such as yourself. Go on, I dare ya 🙂

It is exactly these characteristics that have resulted in more Prog making it into my own limited car storage space. A 1-hour commute allows me to listen in-depth to whole albums, where themes expand and concepts develop in the privacy behind the wheel and I don’t have to explain myself to anyone (or indeed explain it to myself). 

I find that  “shuffle” on the iPod or Zen becomes disconcerting after a while, I want to be lulled into a nice meditative place (to make the commute seem more like I’m in an independent road movie of some sort). I don’t want to be jarred out of my reverie by disparate parts of a schizophrenic record collection randomly colliding (making me career into a ditch outside of Upperchurch as “God Save the Queen” comes rollicking on after “Albatross“, that was a good day…)

But enough philosophy, God bless the commute for reminding me that whole albums have a point, a much bigger remit than delivering the hits. They represent a more challenging (and satisfying for me anyway) art form and it’s no coincidence that the classic albums above have no hits on them at all (despite those bands having had their share of hits at other times) – better off that way if you ask me. Check them out for something beyond…

Frankie Say Blast from the Past!

December 4, 2009

Well, on my way to work in Thurles this morning I stopped at An Post’s parcel pick-up office in Limerick City to collect my latest batch of CD’s from Amazon.

I was in a retro mood when I ordered these and so top of the pile was “Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s” “Welcome to the Pleasurdome”.  I think this latest retro-buying-frenzy also sparked me to begin this blog, starting as it did with this, the first album I ever bought. So I popped it in the CD player and off I went on my commute.

Welcome to the Pleasuredome

As it happens this CD (despite originally being a double-LP, with very short sides) is almost the perfect length for my hour-long commute – I just missed the end of “The Power of Love” as I pulled into the car park at work. I have to say the commute flew by as I was transported back to my parent’s back room with the first few bars of “The World is my Oyster”. This album sounds as amazing today as it did in the 80’s. Trevor Horn produced these guys into something greater than the sum of their parts.

I think it’s that production that created something I always loved about this album – it’s almost impossible to divine the band’s own specific influences. There’s funk, disco and new wave in there but no specific bands come to mind which is always the sign of a good album I think.

But it was the album tracks, long forgotten, that were most pleasurable (pardon the pun!). I had forgotten the covers of San Jose and War that surprised me back then. I wasn’t too sure about them at the time but I love them now – even if the Reagan sound-alike is seriously out of date. Also, the final side (as I will always think of it) has some great forgotten Frankie songs – “Only Star in Heaven” and “Ballad of ’32”. Few would remember that Frankie did an instrumental and you get the feeling that Trevor let the boys be themselves on these end-of-album tracks.

I was to buy their second album “Liverpool” a few years later and having revisited “Pleasuredome” it has made me want to revisit their second album also. I bought their greatest hits on CD a few years back but it’s this CD that reminds me of why I loved these guys back when I was the “target market” for Pop music.

Conlusion: A pleasure, albeit a guilty one and this CD will stay in my car for a few weeks at least, receiving a place in the pile on the passenger seat. It won’t make the storage compartment for the long-term listens (some of which will receive the blogging treatment soon no doubt) but it will get revisited again when I hit the serious mid-life crisis in 2014 or so…