The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter

The Incredible String Band

I wish I'd heard this album when I was 18. I would probably have been impressed with it: the brave exploration of vocal microtones, pioneering extended song cycles, primitive instrumental skills on an eclectic variety of ethnic instruments, and existential lyrics (the hangman represents death and his daughter the afterlife, apparently) are all guaranteed to go down well with a young, impressionable, pretentious mind and a few joints.

However, with the benefit of age and a much broader musical experience, I now hear it differently: out-of-tune singing, an inability to write a simple, solid tune, inept musicianship and hippy babble. It really is painful to listen to.

I know I've said that some albums require several listens to really know, but I think it's fair to say that sometimes you just take an instant dislike to an album. I've listened to this about three times now and I'm very reluctant to inflict it on myself again.

It's very much of its time, a kind of acid-folk that reminds me, at its most whimsical, of the previous year's Piper At The Gates Of Dawn - albeit without the same knack for a tune or musicianship. There are echoes of other folk music, of course: parts of "A Very Cellular Song" remind me of Simon & Garfunkel's "A Simple Desultory Philippic", although the latter was intentionally amusing. And talking of comedy, are we absolutely sure that "The Minotaur's Song" is not actually Monty Python doing an early prototype of what became "The Lumberjack Song"? The only song I can vaguely stand is "Swift As The Wind" because it has a tune I like a bit. Only a bit though, and the title just reminds me of Spinal Tap ...

All in all, badly dated, hippy folk rubbish of historical interest only. Still, that's another one ticked off the 1001 Albums project.


Hercules And Love Affair

Hercules And Love Affair

This is a curious mix of an album.  In too many respects, it's a fairly pedestrian modern disco (or would that be "nu-disco" these days?) collection, with some house flavours.  What occasionally raises it above also-ran status is the presence of Antony Hegarty on a few key tracks.

"Time Will" wouldn't sound out of place on I Am A Bird Now if the instrumentation was changed from the sequenced bass and drums arrangement.  It's a slow song that reminds me of some Zero 7 pieces - except for Antony's unique voice, which sounds far away from the identikit soul vocalists used elsewhere on the album.  He also does his best Sylvester diva turn on "Blind", a fantastic slice of disco which was the reason I bought this album (and which rockets in at #93 on my "Best Of The Noughties", fact fans!)

His wonderfully overwrought vocals on these two tracks make them really stand out and they are, by some distance, my favourites on the album.  Of the rest, only "Hercules Theme", a slice of mid-pace Philly soul, appeals at all.  The other tracks are OK, being a mix of some house-y, garage-y influences, and a couple of tracks that sound very like Remain In Light-era Talking Heads.  Overall, only really worth it for those two songs.


Out Of Season

Beth Gibbons & Rustin Man

What attracted me to this album was not just Beth Gibbons' headline name, but the knowledge that Rustin Man is an alias for Paul Webb. "Who?" you may ask. Only the bass player for one of my favourite bands of all time - Talk Talk.

The short and lazy summary of this music would be that it sounds like a folky version of Portishead. But that's only by assuming the broadest sense of "folk music", that includes, say, Nick Drake and John Martyn, influences reflected in songs such as "Sand River" and "Drake" (the title's a bit of a give-away here). However, this categorisation doesn't give you a clue to songs such as "Tom The Model" or "Romance", which sound more rooted in the Bacharach & David classics of the sixties.

In some ways the overall feel is of a cross between Portishead and Talk Talk. That this should be is perhaps not as obvious as it might seem. It's generally acknowledged that from 1986's The Colour Of Spring, Talk Talk's sound was largely driven by Mark Hollis and Tim Friese-Green. However, Beth Gibbons has similarities in vocal style to Mark Hollis - that intimate, whispered, quite dry sound - and some instrumentation is the same - Lee Harris, Talk Talk's drummer appears, as does Mark Feltham, harmonica player to the stars and the man responsible for some remarkable solos on The Colour Of Spring.

My favourite song is "Show", in which Beth weaves plaintive verse, bridge and chorus melodies across the same, simple, unchanging four bar piano and double bass refrain. The aforementioned "Tom The Model" has a great chorus, and wouldn't be out of place on more recent retro-sixties efforts from the likes of Amy Winehouse. Overall, an enjoyable album and a worthy addition to the discographies of both Talk Talk and Portishead.


Breaking Free

Vanessa Hudgens & Zac Efron (& Drew Seeley)

I really like High School Musical.  It crept up on me.  I was originally dismissive; to someone of my generation, any musical set in an american school has to compare with Grease - and the squeaky-clean sensibilities of Disney are never going to come out well against that.  But repeated exposure (thanks K - I've probably seen it more times than just about any other film now) has allowed it to work its charm.  Yes, it's fluffy, lightweight and contains several times the RDA of movie cliché.  But it's full of knowing winks, little touches and winning performances.  Remarkably, for a film with such relative lack of ambition - it was made as a Disney TV movie - it survives being watched multiple times.

And the songs bear repeated listens too.  There's nothing ground-breaking or, indeed, particularly remarkable about them, but they are masterpieces of craft.  They work best in the context of the film, but this, for me, is the pick of the bunch and stands on its own.  It has such a lovely melody and builds perfectly from a simple beginning to a crescendo before ending on a boy/girl harmony that's a dead ringer for that of "Summer Nights" - just another deliberate nod, in my opinion.

It grates slightly that the producers felt the need to replace Zac Efron's voice; it's him singing the first few bars but then the rest of the male performance is Drew Seeley, who probably has a better range but has a less distinctive voice.  And did no-one notice that the cover of the single is a shot from much earlier in the film than when this song appears?  I know, I know, I should get out more ...

Back to the complete Best Tracks of the Noughties


Greetings From L.A.

Tim Buckley

I bought this album on our shopping trip a while back, mainly because it's on the list of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, which I am very slowly working my way through (although I'm a little out of sequence here, I haven't made it out of the fifties yet). There must be something special about it to warrant its presence in the book. Unfortunately, I can't figure out what it is.

It is quite a short album by modern standards, at just under 40 minutes - classic vinyl album length, of course, before all the extra bonus track nonsense afforded by CD - so I can listen to it twice on the way to work and twice again on the way back. I've done this for a few days now, so I think it's fair to say I've given it a good go.

Still, all I hear is perfectly pleasant seventies rock & soul. Even after a dozen listens, none of the tracks really stand out to me. I quite like the slower "Sweet Surrender" for its sense of late night regret, heavily effected rhythm guitar and strings, but that's about it. "Make It Right" is nice enough. Tim Buckley's voice is incredible, although I don't get any real sense that he's stretching it here. The instrumentation is pretty standard soul - swirling hammond organ, scratchy guitar, funky bass - but used to less effect than, say, Bowie's take on the same inspiration a few years later with Young Americans.

Overall, I'm not sure why I had to hear this album. Maybe it's just Tim Buckley - I've tried other albums of his and never really gelled with them. Oh well. Love the cover though.