Album: Back to Black
Artist: Amy Winehouse
Released: October 27th, 2006
Highlights: Rehab, You Know I’m No Good, Back To Black, Tears Dry On Their Own
“Frank” was, before everything else, an album rooted in jazz. Its eventual nods towards other rhythms, such as when Amy Winehouse’s backing band tackled soul grooves, toyed around with bossa nova acoustic guitars, and dabbled in hip-hop and R&B beats, were detours that added some flavor to the music. “Back to Black” does not completely abandon jazz: the looseness of the playing, with occasional turns towards sober improvisation, and the horns are still here. However, as if “Frank” was an unpretentious display of Winehouse’s vocal prowess and musical taste and “Back to Black” was intended to break her into the market in a big explosive way, the latter chooses to take the jazz inclinations of the former and present them with the twists of modern rhythm and blues, a genre that is no stranger to dominating contemporary music charts.
Stylistic shifts aside, “Back to Black” comes as a more focused and better-written work than “Frank”, which should come as a resounding statement to anyone who sat down and listened to Winehouse’s fantastic debut. “Frank” was sprawling and relaxed; “Back to Black” is tight and delivers numerous punches, even if it still often swings and sways like its predecessor. Those differences are quickly announced by “Rehab”, the opening track about the singer’s relationship troubles and how they led her to alcohol addiction, which mixes soul and R&B to create a modern classic with a remarkable chorus that is written to stay in the listener’s head and verses that are carried by a thumping bass and horns, producing a groove that is absolutely irresistible.
Although her well-documented vices are not often revisited during the rest of the album, her turbulent love life is essentially omnipresent, which – given how “Rehab” spends its time building an unbreakable link between those two themes – makes both of those elements the gravitational center of a work that is absolutely personal. “Back to Black”, possibly the record’s best song, depicts – on top of a dark soundscape that has hints of pop music from the 50s – how Amy was abandoned by her then-boyfriend, who left her for somebody else; “Tears Dry on Their Own”, a stellar soul track, touches on that very same situation, but presents it through sunnier, more mature and optimistic lenses; and “You Know I’m No Good” talks about an inconsistent relationship that alternates intimacy with hurtful distance and indifference.
“Back to Black” ends up being, like numerous other classics that have come out across the years, a musical example of Newton’s famous quote, in which the scientist claimed “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. Amy climbs onto the backs of her idols – Marvin Gaye, The Ronettes, Ella Fitzgerald, and many past black music stars – and, instead of lazily sitting up there, she uses those influences to reach higher grounds. “Back to Black” plays like an old-school R&B album that pays homage to those invaluable artists but it also presents itself as a work that knows how to grab those elements and take them somewhere else, whether it is via its lush production – which features strings and other rich arrangements – or through Amy’s voice and lyrics. It is, by all means, a modern-day classic.
Album: The Hope Six Demolition Project
Artist: PJ Harvey
Released: April 15th, 2016
Highlights: The Community Of Hope, A Line In The Sand, The Orange Monkey, The Wheel
“Let England Shake”, the 2011 masterpiece that gave PJ Harvey her second Mercury Prize, was drenched in politics. It was a record that looked at the two World Wars of the past and, from the distance of a handful of decades, hauntingly analyzed their effects on the world as if they were ghosts rising from their graves to remind people of the horror, the bloodshed, and all the lives that were wasted. It evoked the dead and made listeners look straight into their traumatized eyes and broken souls. In a way, “The Hope Six Demolition Project” comes off as a sequel to that album, for although it does not approach the same theme, it still uses sociopolitical issues as its source of inspiration. Sadly, while “Let England Shake” was completely brilliant, “The Hope Six Demolition Project” falters more often than it should.
As it turns, it is easier to romanticize and, consequently, write poetry about the past than the present, because our proximity to the latter forces us to react to it, giving us little to no time to reflect on its nature until some time has passed. It is from that situation that most of the problems with “The Hope Six Demolition Project” rise. Harvey wrote the album as she was traveling through Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Washington D.C. with photographer Seamus Murphy, and due to that much of the record’s lyrics read like a scene-by-scene description of a documentary. Polly Jean talks too much about what she sees (ravaged cities, poverty, and people – especially children – that the state has failed to protect), and little about what she feels. It is arguable that such approach to songwriting could be a way to let listeners get a glimpse of what she saw and reach their own conclusions, but it is hard to deny that lines like “And here’s the one sit-down restaurant / In ward seven, nice / Okay, now this is just drug town, just zombies / But that’s just life” sound awfully clunky and uninspired.
Despite its overly literal content, “The Hope Six Demolition Project” does deliver its message. Taking Washington D.C. as its starting point, where the titular Hope VI project that aims to revitalize areas of the city by tearing down old housing and building new homes is accused of fomenting gentrification, Harvey leaps to Kosovo and Afghanistan to highlight how the United States, which is unable to solve major problems inside its own turf, has also failed in its often questioned attempts to fix the issues plaguing other nations around the world. Because of the lyrics, those ideas do not always resonate, but when they do, they hit home hard and get close to the poignancy of the spiritual “Let England Shake”, such as it happens in “The Wheel”, which broaches the subject of children that are either missing or dead; and “A Line In The Sand”, a song about the murdering ways of the human race.
“The Hope Six Demolition Project” sees PJ Harvey returning to the swamp-dirty rock of her early records, albeit without the same aggressiveness. She is backed up by a full-fledged rock ensemble that usually plays like a military marching band, in heavy contrast with the odd instrumentation of “Let England Shake”; and prominently features saxophones that frequently accompany the songs, occasionally even providing some extended jazz-like solos in numbers like the closer “Dollar, Dollar”. Although the instrumentation is stellar and the melodies are often good – albeit too simple and jingle-like at times, the apparently rushed lyrics seriously hold “The Hope Six Demolition Project” back, stopping it from gaining the same emotional resonance achieved by “Let England Shake” and making it come off as too heavy-handed.
Artist: Learning to Crawl
Released: January 9th, 1984
Highlights: Middle of the Road, Back On the Chain Gang, Show Me, 2000 Miles
In the current music business, two years and a half is not an incredibly lengthy lull between studio releases; most bands, in fact, take far more than that to release a new album. For the Pretenders, though, who were cruising through the early 80s and leading the way of the New Wave movement on the heels the chart-hitting “Pretenders” and “Pretenders II”, such interval could have caused a severe loss of momentum. That absence, though, was more than justified, for following “Pretenders II” the band led by Chrissie Hynde had been hit by the deaths of both its guitarist and its recently dismissed drug-addled bass player. Faced with the choice of breaking up the band or moving forward, Chrissie opted for the latter, and “Learning to Crawl” is the gift the world received from that choice.
Knowledge of the record’s background makes it impossible to see the songs outside the context of the passing of James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon; although the lyrics are pretty ambiguous and could be used in a number of situations, it is hard not to think that Chrissie is singing about and to them. Perhaps, nowhere is that feeling, and Chrissie’s brave attitude, more epitomized than in the hit “Back On the Chain Gang”, where the singer says “I found a picture of you / Those were the happiest days of my life / Like a break in the battle was your part / In the wretched life of a lonely heart / Now we’re back on the train / Back on the chain gang”. Courage, reminiscences on the past, decisions, and losses are frequent themes approached on the album, all underlined by Chrissie’s inherent defiant attitude towards life; with that daunting soul, the subjects gain resonance.
The victories of “Learning to Crawl” are not merely attached to its context, they also happen to come forward in a musical sense. The Pretenders continue to explore the punk edge of their nonchalant New Wave sound in incredible tunes such as “Time the Avenger”, “My City Was Gone”, “I Hurt You”, “Watching the Clothes”, and “Middle of the Road”, the latter of which is drenched in pop sensibility; however, what takes “Learning to Crawl” over the top is its brilliant shots at balladry. In its mellower tracks, Hynde unlocks a level of melodic beauty she had yet to reach as a songwriter: “Back on the Chain Gang”, “Show Me”, and the blatantly dedicated to James Honeyman-Scott “2000 Miles”, in their mixture of vulnerability and braveness, are some of the most gorgeous tunes ever pressed onto a rock record. In the midst of that guitar-powered emotional hurricane, Chrissie finds the time to take jabs at rockabilly and R&B, with – respectively – the original “Thumbelina” and the fantastic cover “Thin Line Between Love and Hate”.
“Learning to Crawl” winds up being far more than a comeback album or the start of a new phase for the Pretenders. Indeed it is the product of a band pulling itself back together, or almost starting from scratch, after the death of half of its members. However, it is not just a timely recovery; it is the very best album the Pretenders have ever put out, and a testament to the strength of Chrissie Hynde as a human being and her skills as a songwriter.
Released: February 14th, 1983
Highlights: K, Crazy, No Clocks, Gyrate
Born in the same pulsating and creative college rock environment of Athens, Georgia, that gave the world both R.E.M. and The B-52’s, Pylon certainly never made it as big as those two acts, failing to rise above its local cult status like many of its peers had succeeded in doing. In a way, it is easy to see why: although the New Wave sound and the American underground scene of the early 80s had been directly influenced by the British punks and their pioneering American counterparts, especially The Stooges and MC5, the links to that movement were blurred in the music itself. R.E.M. took a turn for the folk and Gothic; The B-52’s explored dancy beats; The Replacements and Husker Du turned to a garage sound; and the Talking Heads embraced world music. Pylon, meanwhile, retained a rough and noncommercial soul that was inherently punk in its spirit.
It is not that the band lived in an isolated bubble into which no outside influences managed to enter: “Chomp”, their second album and the last one released before their breakup, is filled with mannerisms extracted from the alternative scene inside which the group existed. “Crazy” and “No Clocks”, for example, are perfect representations of the murky jangle pop that drove R.E.M.’s first albums, with the former featuring an impressive melody that walks the line between beauty and threat. Meanwhile, tunes like the weird “Yo-Yo” and the energetic “Beep” are filled with a kind of weirdness and aggressive awkwardness that could only be found in a Talking Heads record, as the former could easily fit among the synthesizer-led wackiness of “More Songs About Buildings and Food” and the latter being blatantly inspired by the utter classic “The Great Curve”.
Despite the fact that connecting Pylon to its muses is an easy task, the group nevertheless emerges with a thoroughly unique sound in its hands, and much of that is derived from the ferocity of its leader: Vanessa Briscoe Hay. Vanessa, as if feeding off the restless bouncy beats with sharp teeth created by her bandmates, sounds like a caged animal that alternates moments of tense calm in which, like a suddenly quiet maniac, she is able to control her instincts, and instances in which she is shouting wildly while throwing her body against the iron bars that keep her locked in. The foggy mystery created by R.E.M. in its early days, then, gains dark and menacing contours – as it can be seen in “Buzz”, “Spider”, and “Reptiles”, as if The Cure, instead of choosing to explore melancholic slow dirges, had opted to express the sadness of Robert Smith through bleak revisions of the catchy post-punk music they forged in “Three Imaginary Boys”.
Although it works as the ultimate document on Pylon, “Chomp” was clearly not designed for massive exposure, which is far from a bad decision, given the band that created it is incredibly idiosyncratic. It is a raw, edgy, punky, and true album, one that captures a group of musicians that is led by untamed instinct and that chooses to play whatever it is that comes to mind instead of polishing its musical ideas to an alluring state. It might not be universally moving, but it sure is a lot of fun.