Album: Let England Shake
Artist: PJ Harvey
Released: February 14th, 2011
Highlights: The Last Living Rose, The Glorious Land, All and Everyone, In the Dark Places
A séance conducted over the sounds of British folk music. That is what PJ Harvey’s eighth studio album, “Let England Shake”, appears to be. Recorded inside an isolated church in the United Kingdom’s countryside, it seems the building’s proximity to the sea and the green vastness that surrounds it led the often brilliant Polly Jean to meditate on her country’s past, present, and future. She looks to crimes and atrocities England perpetrated in the name of its perceived exceptionalism and for the glory of its empire, she sees a nation that is still trying to accept its reduced role in the world’s economy, and she raises questions about the paths it must follow and the doubts it must overcome during a century that is still in its infancy. “Let England Shake” calls upon the ghosts of the dead soldiers of the First World War (“On Battleship Hill”) and summons the souls of the children who were left orphaned or deformed due to the human greed for land and power (“The Glorious Land”), and out of their graves they come.
The consistent ghastly nature of “Let England Shake” does not exist solely because PJ Harvey spends many of her words poetically describing or alluding to mistakes and ideas that have left piles of corpses in their wake. Alongside her closest collaborators – multi-instrumentalists Mick Harvey and John Parish, as well as producer Flood – she strikes upon a brand of folk music that seems to be floating in a spiritual realm. The guitars, the drums, the bass, and her new instrumental acquisition, the auto-harp, stay suspended into the air like a faint English fog, and with a wispy high-register tone that is far removed from the roughness of her garage-rock origins, PJ sounds like a siren that has witnessed all the events she narrates. Her voice is not just that of a mythological creature that speaks from inside the mist, though, it is that of the past itself, as if she is channeling the memories of the hills, leaves, tombstones, and valleys that have watched the stupidity of the human race unfold time and time again.
Although it is easy to think of “Let England Shake” as a record that points its fingers exclusively at the artist’s country of birth, much of its beauty actually stems from the universal nature of its haunting message. There is, of course, a predilection for rubbing salt on English wounds: she sarcastically derides how England sees itself as better than its European counterparts even though it is just as prone to modern issues (“The Last Living Rose”) and often returns to the Gallipoli Campaign (“All and Everyone”, “On Battleship Hill”, “The Colour of the Earth”), a major defeat for the British Empire during World War I. However, when she speaks of the failings of diplomacy (“The Words That Maketh Murder”), the dead left by a blind sense of self-righteousness (“The Glorious Land”), and numerous wars (when her lyrics generically depict the despair of soldiers and the anguish found on the occasional silence of battlefields), she is targeting Western civilization as a whole. As the title cut states, Harvey sees the hemisphere weighted down by the dead it left throughout history, and the music of “Let England Shake” implies they do not ever really go away and that, to progress, the West needs to accept what it did, fix its existing shortcomings, and work together to stop going down the same dangerous path in order to avoid repeating those mistakes.
“Let England Shake” simultaneously respects the traditions of folk music and updates the genre to make it appealing to a contemporary audience. Whether it is in the simplicity of “England”, PJ Harvey’s love letter to her country; in the grandeur of “On Battleship Hill”; in the catchy call-and-response construction of “The Glorious Land”; in the poppy radio-friendliness of “The Words That Maketh Murder”; or in the clever sampling done in “Written On the Forehead”; PJ is, at the same time, expanding the boundaries of her songwriting, pushing forward the genre in which she chose to set the record, and creating tunes that somehow strike a balance between being timeless due to their remarkable qualities, ancient because they seem to come from a distant era, and modern as – despite the artistic boldness of their construction – they easily insert themselves into the current mainstream musical vocabulary. With “Let England Shake”, PJ Harvey and her collaborators created a 21st century masterpiece; an album that will forever stand as one of music’s finest achievements.
Album: Trompe Le Monde
Released: September 23rd, 1991
Highlights: Planet of Sound, Alec Eiffel, U-Mass, Motorway to Roswell
“Trompe Le Monde” is the fourth and final album the Pixies released in their original run of madness and greatness, marking the end of a career frequently hailed as nearly immaculate before the band walked into the studio (albeit without bassist Kim Deal) in 2014 to release the often maligned “Indie Cindy”. Given its arrival came roughly one year before the group’s conflicted separation, “Trompe Le Monde” is usually accompanied by a narrative that sees it as some sort of drop; a result of the increasingly distant and hurtful relationship between bandleader and main songwriter Black Francis, and Kim Deal, who – blocked from contributing creatively to the band – had formed The Breeders on the previous year to serve as her artistic outlet. In a way, it is a story that is backed up by the music: Deal’s sweet backing vocals, always a powerful counterpoint to Francis’ insane screams, are nearly absent; moreover, “Trompe Le Monde” is indeed more inconsistent than what came before it. In another way, though, the plot does not hold, because while “Trompe Le Monde” may actually have a few holes in it, it would have been celebrated as an achievement if produced by any other band.
With a whopping fifteen tracks that somehow deliver their messages within less than forty minutes, “Trompe Le Monde” executes the usual Pixies formula of entering the ring, punching listeners with quick loud songs filled with catchy hooks, and walking out victoriously. Barely none of the tracks last for over three minutes; they efficiently lure fans into their grasp with the seemingly impossible consonance between punk guitars, aggressive vocals, and pop skills, and move out into the sunset, making way to the next barrage of delightful lunacy. There is eardrum-rupturing screaming, blissful quietness, and sheer sugar-coated melodic goodness, usually all combined into the same two-minute tracks, but also occasionally being individually used as the backbone for some compositions. “Trompe Le Monde” falters in the tuneless talking-singing of “Space (I Believe in)” and “Subbacultcha”, which are quite dull despite their hilarious subjects: a dude named Jeffrey, but with only one F; and the mocking of groups of people who try too hard to be cool, and succeed only inside the bubbles in which they inhabit.
Everywhere else, the album presents varying levels of greatness. The title song is an exciting combination of rough instrumentation and floaty vocals. “Planet of Sound”, about a space traveler, and “Alec Eiffel, centered around the French architect, are easily among the Pixies’ greatest songs. “The Sad Punk” takes the band’s quite-and-loud dynamics to an absurd extreme, being spit into a shouting segment and a highly sweet and melodic portion, resulting in a three-minute rock opera. “Head On” turns The Jesus and Mary Chain’s original, sung by an amusingly bored Jim Reid, into a high-energy punk anthem, a description that also applies to “Distance Equals Rate Times Time”. “U-Mass” uses a brainless riff composed when Francis and Santiago were in college as the support for a song about the brainlessness of a wild campus life. “Palace of the Brine” and “Bird Dream of the Olympus Mons” slowly build into incredible hooks. “Letter to Memphis” is the most straight pop-rock tune in the Pixies’ four classic albums. “Lovely Day” toys with lo-fi ethics. And “The Navajo Know” is hypnotic in its clockwork-like progression.
No other tune on the record, though, is as great as the magnificent “Motorway to Roswell”. A rarity for the Pixies, and a suiting exclamation point for the end of their run, it is a five-minute epic with a ballad-like acoustic strum in its verses, a climatic chorus, and a masterful guitar performance by Santiago that chronicles the Roswell UFO incident from the perspective of the friendly extraterrestrial that decided to pay humans a visit only to be dissected by scientists not long after his crash landing. Although it is not positioned as the album’s closer, which is perhaps another minor shortcoming of “Trompe Le Monde”, it displays the band’s incredible creative force lasted until the final seconds of their trajectory, and sends the Pixies’ original lineup straight from record players around the world to the pantheon of musical greatness. They rocked fiercely, loudly, boldly, weirdly, and relentlessly until the very end.
Album: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
Artist: The Smashing Pumpkins
Released: October 23rd, 1995
Highlights: Tonight Tonight, Zero, Bullet with Butterfly Wings, To Forgive, 1979
Billy Corgan envisioned “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” as his generation’s equivalent of The Beatles’ “White Album” and Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”. They were certainly high bars to aim for, but Corgan – always rightfully convinced of his greatness as a songwriter – was fully aware that he could pull off something of the sort. The Smashing Pumpkins’ third work is, however, far removed from those albums. Although its two discs are meant to represent the passage from dawn to starlight, its music hardly evokes that transition, and the lack of an overarching theme (save for Corgan’s usual melodramatic angst and depression) makes it fall short of the conceptual greatness of “The Wall”. At the same time, despite the fact that “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” does show the band stretching their wings past the walls of guitars that dominated “Gish” and “Siamese Dream” and venturing into new musical terrain, it does not quite embrace as many styles as the schizophrenic “White Album”.
However, not being any of those records actually does “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” quite a whole lot of good. Containing two hours worth of material and twenty eight songs – hence making it far longer than the two works that inspired it – the album ends up amounting to a mesmerizing set of rock songs rather than an opera (“The Wall”) or a vicious, ultimately unfocused, competition between two songwriters (“White Album”). It is, undoubtedly, a lot of content, which makes getting through the album’s full length one challenging listen; still, even though it is undeniable the record could have been edited into one amazing fifteen-track piece, “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” is one double album that does not reek of overindulgence. Firstly, because blatant duds are rare (with the shouted “Tales of a Scorched Earth” probably being the sole exception); secondly, because even the songs that are not flawless gems have redeeming qualities, such as one or two strong melodic moments; and finally because the album catches Billy Corgan at such an astounding songwriting groove that the twenty eight tunes offer a nice balance between instant classics and curious experiments.
When The Smashing Pumpkins go loud in “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”, they usually trade the long buildups and instrumental passages of “Siamese Dream” for more immediate tunes, such as the guitar crunch of “Jellybelly” and “Zero”, the explosion of “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”, or the highly melodic “Muzzle” and “Here Is No Why”. In “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans”, “Thru the Eyes of Ruby”, and “X.Y.U.”, though, the band expands upon the lengthy nature of their past compositions and builds tunes that are borderline progressive in their complex construction. The album also holds space for gorgeous guitar-centered ballads (“To Forgive”, “Galapogos”, “By Starlight”); grandiose orchestration that is stunningly integrated into sweeping rock (“Tonight, Tonight”); acoustic introspection (the amazing “Thirty-Three” and the merely solid “Take Me Down”); brushes with pop music (“Love”, “In the Arms of Sleep”, and “Beautiful”); violent attacks with overdubbed guitars (“An Ode to No One”, “Where Boys Fear to Tread”, and “Bodies”); piano-based tracks (the title cut and “Cupid de Locke”); and, of course, a moving classic about coming of age where The Smashing Pumpkins integrate Corgan’s sensibilities, a soft guitar riff, loops, and samples (“1979”).
“Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” could indeed have been a better record. Most of its hits, and a considerable portion of its greatest tunes, are found in the first disc, meaning that a more sober track sequencing could have avoided the front-loaded vibe many listeners will get from the album. Additionally, in spite of how Corgan succeeds in connecting to a younger and angry audience via his depictions of pain, broken expectations, and other hurtful experiences, he occasionally veers too far into caricature, uttering sentences that would only have worked as parodies of teenage angst and that will automatically sink a handful of the tracks to some. Nevertheless, “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” is a perplexing achievement, for it sees one of the nineties’ greatest bands and one of the decade’s finest songwriters pour the results of their talent and prolificness into a highly ambitious double album, and – on the way – produce more hits than many artists are able to come up with during their entire careers while also daring to be artistically bold at some points.
Album: L.A. Woman
Artist: The Doors
Released: April 19th, 1971
Highlights: Love Her Madly, L.A. Woman, Hyacinth House, Riders on the Storm
From the very start, The Doors were always a blues band at heart. However, the organ of Ray Manzarek, Jim Morrison’s poetic aspirations in his lyrics and behavior, as well as the band’s tendency to venture into long jams that recalled acid trips hid the fact the foundations of their sound rested on the genre that was born in the Deep South. As their career arch developed, the group dove deeper and deeper into their psychedelic ways, eventually losing itself amidst all their experimentation in the coldly received “The Soft Parade”. Upon reaching such a crossroads, The Doors – whether consciously or unconsciously – made the decision to, instead of further navigating down the path of art rock, dial down on the psychedelia and strip their music to its most essential and basic elements. Naturally, then, blues emerged as the grand sovereign of the final two records of the group under the control of Jim Morrison, and the band closed out their classic era with their strongest material ever.
If in “Morrison Hotel”, released in early 1970, some of the experimental elements persisted and could be easily spotted, in “L.A. Woman” The Doors’ turn towards the basics was complete. Much like Led Zeppelin’s first couple of albums, “L.A. Woman” was not ashamed to obviously – and frequently – borrow established blues beats, chord progressions, structures, and guitar licks, and to modernize them in order to make those sounds more palatable to a modern audience. Differently from the British quartet, though, The Doors achieved that update not through guitar virtuosity or hard rock, but via the signature features of their music: the mesmerizing and prominent keyboard work of Ray Manzarek, the tasteful brief and soft guitar solos of Robby Krieger, the firm drums of John Densmore, and Jim Morrison’s writing skills and thick voice, the former heavily clashing with the lyrical simplicity of the genre and the latter fitting it like a glove.
What emerges in “L.A. Woman” is, thereby, a take on blues that is utterly fascinating, engaging, and unique, for it marks the sole instance in which The Doors and their distinctive tools tackled the style head on. “The Changeling” merges the blues of Muddy Waters with the funk of James Brown; the joyful keyboards, melody, and guitar of “Love Her Madly” contrast with sad lyrics about the anguish of being abandoned by a lover; “Been Down So Long” and “Cars Hiss by My Window” utilize traditional blues grooves and structures to different effects, with the first slowly rising in instrumental and vocal intensity as its verses are repeated and the second locking into a quiet lethargic rhythm that makes the song rely on Morrison’s alluring aloof interpretation and Robby Krieger’s piercing guitar licks; and “L.A. Woman” closes the record’s first side with a forward-driving groove that seems perfect to be blasted out of the windows of a car as it challenges the speed limit of an interstate.
The album’s second side, meanwhile, is slightly more varied. “L’America”, the weirdest song of the set, alternates a trippy chorus, built on a marching drum and a circular guitar riff, with a catchy mid-section. The sweet “Hyacinth House” flirts with balladry and radio-friendliness. “Crawling King Snake” and “The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)” return to the blues and let Morrison add to the mythology constructed around him by, respectively, delivering plenty of sexual innuendo and enunciating like a preacher over another traditional blues groove, while Manzarek and Krieger add color to his words as they are given a lot of room to improvise in that pair of tracks. Finally, “Riders on the Storm” brings the album to a close. Featuring overdubbed vocals that harmonize singing with ominous whispering, which are – in turn – backed up by a soft blues beat and rain sound effects delivered by Manzarek’s keyboard, the dark song tells of a hitchhiking murderer that is on the run and works as a worthy conclusion to The Doors’ greatest record and as a potent final statement by both the classic iteration of the band as well as Jim Morrison himself, who would die four months after the release of “L.A. Woman”.