Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Disappointing Albums

The topic today is albums that follow a masterpiece that, you discover, turns out to have been the career peak - as good as they'd ever get. 

Or, in a few cases, a temporary falling-off that is soon corrected. For a while.

Exhibit One

 The Beat – Wha’ppen

Did actually buy the first or was it second single off this - ‘Drowning’ . Seem to recall the concept was they were going psychedelic. But it just sounds really enervated, all the delicious twitchy tension in I Just Can't Stop It era Beat went slack.

Some speak highly of Special Beat Service - never listened to it. 

B52s, Mesopotamia

After the first two, so so disappointing. and I think there was even a really lame remix version of the album. Produced by David Byrne, here proving to have the anti-Midas touch

Talking of which.....

Talking Heads, Speaking In Tongues

In a 1983 take-down Barney Hoskyns identified a syndrome at work:

"For important groups, the fatal turning point is always the same: when there's no way to stretch further, only the past to rediscover. Groups will always look over their shoulders, gaze fondly back at the innocence of the first tunes, written when commercial success seemed not only improbable but irrelevant....  In Talking Heads' case, it's only amazing it hasn't happened before. To push rock beyond Fear Of Music, to open it into 'Listening Wind' and 'Once In A Lifetime', was extraordinary. What would you do if you'd made the supreme disco version of WASP paranoia — perfectly justifying David Byrne's contention that black dance production was more radical than punk rock — then expanded disco into an oceanic, subliminal trancefest? The pub-rock revival starts there, right?

Gang of Four – Solid Gold 

Tried so very hard to get into this, having coughed up my month’s album buying money, hard earned at the egg stall in Berkhamsted's Saturday market.  Recall being very nervous about buying it on account of hearing bits on the radio and also the uninspired, leaden 1980 single "Outside the Trains Don't Run On Time". Approaching the counter in a sort of red-hazy mist of anxiety. Which turned out to be justified.

Didn't even bother with Go4 after this, Songs of the Free and "To Hell With Poverty" etc. And let's not even talk about Hard, influenced as it was by Lexicon of Love. Bringing us neatly to... 

ABC – Beauty Stab 

And even worse was How to Be A Zillionaire.

Heaven 17 – the Luxury Gap

Following on the supremely up to the minute, ahead of the game, very entertaining and clever Penthouse and Pavement, and the pretty exciting between-albums single "Let Me Go", this was....  most unsatisfying. 

Didn't bother with How Men Are at all

Grace Jones, Living My Life

S'alriiiiiight..  But no Nightclubbing

Elvis Costello and the Attractions  – Goodbye Cruel World

Goodbye Cool Career more like. After seven great albums in a row (discounting Almost Blue as an aberration, a detour) (eight, though if we count Ten Hail Marys / Taking Liberties) and coming immediately after the upful high of Punch The Clock... what went wrong? 

For the 1995 reissue of Goodbye Cruel World, EC penned an in-depth inventory / diagnosis/ mea culpa as regards its defects.  The opening lines are:
"Congratulations! You've just purchased our worst album. At least that is the impression I've given over the years and I am sure that you could find many people who would agree with me. "
The whole sorry business got hashed over again, with a tad more hindsight-wise serenity, in the 2004 reissue liner notes .

Good Lord, if ever an album didn't deserve to get reissued once, let alone twice, it would be Goodbye Cruel World.

So bereft is it, it earns the privilege of two videos in this run-down of let-down. The making of the below horror also gets described in those GCW reish linernotes. 

The Smiths - Strangeways, Here We Come

Mystifyingly rated by Moz and Marr as their best album.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seed – the Firstborn is Dead

After the incredible From Her To Eternity... this just seemed hokey, clunky, and tune-deficient. Funny Folkways style pseudo-ethnological sleevenotes, sure. However it turned out to be a brief mis-step, with Cave rising again with the covers album Kicking Against the Pricks, Your Funeral... My Trial, and "The Mercy Seat"

Siouxsie and the Banshees, Hyena

After the sublime self-reinvention of Kiss in the Dreamhouse, and the pausing-for-breath, career-summation live album Nocturne, this is where it all sputters out. But at least it's ungainly, struggles to renew,  whereas Tinderbox (which I reviewed for Melody Maker, damningly) was just tepid and pro forma. 

Cocteau Twins, Treasure

Some love this record, I just find it unbearably frou-frou and precious. Then followed some odd, hard-to-get into EPs but eventual reflorescence with the Budd collaboration, "Love's Easy Tears" and Bluebell Knoll.

Just looked over their discography  and suddenly realised that I don't recall ever having listened to Victorialand, which is listed as an album. 

Prince -  Parade

Now I was going to  nominate Parade but the truth is the whole rhythm of releases during his alleged Creative Prime goes GENIUS Dud Dud GENIUS Dud Dud GENIUS

When I say Dud, I mean that while the single(s) might be great and probably one other good track on the album, overall it's a pretty poor record.

So GENIUS would be Dirty Mind, Purple Rain, Sign of the Times

Dud would be Controversy, 1999, Around the World In A Day, Parade

That’s regardless of the genius of ‘Controversy’ the single, ‘1999’, ‘Pop Life’, ‘Kiss’ etc

Okay, now for the piss de resistance, the absolute Golden Manky Turkey, the glistening black turd of Disappointing Albums....

Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Laughter

Following the half-great Do It Yourself,  the terrific big-big-hit "Reasons To Be Cheerful , Part 3" and that monster Blockheads tour of the entire length and breadth of the UK, the band's melodist and musical director Chas Jankel quit, exhausted by proximity to Dury's overpowering personality. 

His replacement Wilko Johnson has many virtues but he's not a tunesmith. The first fruits of the new line-up, the single  "I Wanna Be Straight" just about made it through chutzpah and greasy funk. But then this lumbering hookless single "Sueperman's Big Sister" came out, herald of the album Laughter -  and there was a sicky feeling in the stomach. 

Just about the only interesting thing about "Sueperman's Big Sister"is that at least one reviewer thought it  was about Dury's recent "encounter" with Vanessa Redgrave. I don't know whether that's a euphemism or not, but the idea of those two converging in space-time is quite a thing to contemplate. 

Laughter's reviews were positive, though (clearly in retrospect looking desperately for reasons to be cheerful). So I shelved my apprehensions, ponied up the cash. What a waste, what a waste.... and I ruddy well did mind. A LOT.  

Only one half-way amusing tune ("Over The Points" - sung from the point of view of a train - "Sometimes we track this line with decapitated schoolboy's heads still wearing their caps/ Upon me at any given moment ten or twelve people might be taking craps"...).  Otherwise it's pub-funk rowdiness all the way, with titles like "(Take Your Elbow Out of the Soup) You're Sitting On the Chicken", and "Uncoolohol", "Oh Mr Peanut"  and "Dance of the Crackpots".  A cover of "Manic Depression" apparently fitting the mood-swingin' mental state of both Dury (not coping well with fame - see the LP's "Delusions of Grandeur" - and addicted to booze and Mogadon)  and guitarist John Turnbull, who'd suffered a head injury.  

Apparently Dury called it Laughter to cheer himself up, because the experience of making the album - and the end product - was so miserable.

And that was it for Ian Dury really, sadly.... the reunion with Jankel for Lord Upminster ignited few sparks, even with Sly & Robbie in the engine room. 


But of course with all of the above you can get into thinking that you might be up for reevaluating some of these duffers, things you once dismissed or got rid of – in those days I was always selling off things to raise funds to get other stuff, being a cash-poor sixth former or student or dole-claimer... 

Like maybe just maybe there’s something salvageable to be found on them...

All these examples are postpunk or first half of the Eighties, which probably reflects the fact that I felt the disappointment more harshly when I was paying my own money, whether it was hard-earned from the egg stall or gardening or odd-jobbing (and one summer packing insecticide at the Wellcome factory) or it was cutting into my limited stipend from the state -  student grant, then later supplementary benefit....

By 1986, though, I would be getting records for free as a journalist, so when a duffer came through I'd be scathing if reviewing it, but it wouldn't sting in quite the same way. Or it might sting, if one had invested a lot of critical capital in supporting and hailing the artist. But you moved on quickly, for there was always a new thing to hype and have high hopes about. You'd take the offending article down the M&VE and convert it into something good or intriguing, usually from the past. 

But yeah disappointing albums after the mid-80s...  I would have to say the two records the Pixies did after Doolittle are just nothing. 

And Goo, following Daydream Nation -- tres disappointing.

Hunkpapa by Throwing Muses, after an incredible run, was merely solid.... and which I gave a "they can do better" ticking-off type review, which upset the band.  They did do better, soon, and got more praisefulreviews from me. 

The electronic era is another kettle - examples of let-down would include Ultramarine United Kingdoms, Aphex Twin's I Care Because You Do (save for "Alberto Balsam"), and Foul Play with "Total Control" b/w "The Stepper" (and if I'm honest, the album Suspected)...


There is a separate category for Disappointing Debut Albums, coming after a lot of press-generated expectations, some cool singles.... One obvious example being A Certain Ratio's To Each..... (although it's a moot point whether the Graveyard and the Ballroom cassette counts as a debut LP - I would say not). But that's a topic that will have to wait for now...  

Stop Press: Loads of good suggestions in comments and also on Facebook, the one that struck me as a big omission in terms of personal disappointments would be:

The Associates, Perhaps

Really badly missing the magic of Alan Rankine....   Sort of camp without delight.  Solemn camp. 

Admittedly this song / vocal performance is great, and nice beetling bass work

This one's a stiff, though


Tim 'Space Debris' said...

Pretty hard to top Colossal albums such as Daydream Nation, Doolittle, Entertainment, The Queen Is Dead, A kiss Inside The Dreamhouse, Up On The Sun and Remain In Light innit? Did anyone even listen to Television's Adventure?

Tim 'Space Debris' said...

Victorialand is probably the most disappointing of The Cocteau's 4AD records, I reckon. The debut Garlands is perhaps a little too in awe of Siouxsie & The Banshees. Having said that both albums do have their charms.Treasure's mos def in their top 4, for me anyway. I remember being underwhelmed by Four Calendar Cafe though after the brilliant Heaven Or Las Vegas.

Right box this time Simon I think.


Yes it's hard to top them, Tim, but that's what we unreasonably expect, isn't? Do we ever say of an artist, "okay, you've slaked me, that's enough genius from yous lot. Go now, your work is done - rest on your laurels. You deserve a rest".

Yes Adventure is a good one - it actually did get bought and listened by a lot of people, Ithink it went UK Top Ten, off of accumulated Marquee Moon love. They even had a hit single I think with "Foxhole". Really enervated but it does have one absolutely sublime track - "The Dream's Dream"

Tosh Berman said...

"Strangeways" is my favorite Smiths album. But then again, I actually like the Morrissey albums more than the Smiths. But as an album or set-piece I think "Strangeways" is much more interesting to me than "The Queen is Dead." With respect to some of the others, it is hard to beat the first album that is so perfect. ABC and Television made perfect albums - then what? How can you do better than Marquee Moon or ABC's first - or Heaven 17. Their moment happened, and what do you do after such a perfect moment or a series of moments?

Phil said...

GCW is a dreadful, dreary, depressing album, but it does have some really good songs on it ("Only Flame" included); not sure how that works.

Smiths, GO4, Talking Heads, Dury... check, check, check (although Songs of the Free is worth a listen - doesn't sound like GO4 though). But Wha'ppen is a brilliant album - edgy, urgent, slightly surreal and *very* political. Really well worth checking out.

Simon Pitchforth said...

Many would consider "Victorialand to be the Cocteaus' crowning achievement. As for "Speaking in Tongues", it has its moments but is two dimensional next to the amazing depths of "Remain in Light". Heads post Eno like Velvets post Cale. Still a great band but a huge part has gone missing.

Tim 'Space Debris' said...

Be good if they could spontaneously combust before their Strangeways or Bossanovas.

Everett said...

I find it quite scary how much am I in agreement with you here... like there's some sort of mindset that affected people of our generation. Exceptions: The Smiths never made a good album, of course - but Ian Dury and Elvis Costello (in particular) are spot on).

Two additions.

The Raincoats - Moving
Anything by PiL after Flowers of Romance, surely?

Electronick Brane said...

Ramoes - Road to Ruin

Phil said...

I loved Perhaps, although I don't really think of it as an Associates album. I think I prefer it to Sulk, let alone Fourth Drawer Down - that was a real slog.


With respect, Phil, an insane opinion.


The Associates album I've never managed to get into - The Affectionate Punch. I got the remix version that came out not long after Sulk. Never heard the original.


Everett, there is a school of opinion that would say Flowers of Romance is a disappointment after Metal Box. I only really love the title track and 'Under the House' but I suppose the rest of it is brave / an interesting addled mess.

Re. The Smiths, you say that as someone who thinks it would be impossible for the Smiths to make a good album, being a shit band, or as something who thinks they never managed to capture their thing on vinyl? (The first, naturally I disagree with it, and the second -- well, I never thought they were that great live. They seem like a studio proposition to me - and perhaps a singles band far more than makers of a wholly satisfying album. Meat Is Murder felt disappointing after the debut - but then a lot of fans don't like the debut either. Even Queen has some duffers and fluff on it.)


Of course The Smiths also put out some terrible singles -- "Shakespeare's Sister", "Girlfriend In A Coma"

Tim 'Space Debris' said...

Coming from an Australian angle, something which I posted about on me blog a while back, disappointing Aussie follow ups include Mars Needs Guitars by the Hoodoo Gurus after their stellar debut. The one that really stung me though was Gold Afternoon Fix from the Church after the great Starfish. There went me hard earned pocket money on a dud. This was followed though with Priest=Aura which many regard as their magnum opus. Steve Kilbey has stated it was the true follow up to Starfish. Then of course many years later the excellent Untitled #23.

Simon Pitchforth said...

As well as ABC going duff there's also the stuff they inspired, specifically ZTT. After legendary debuts, Art of Noise and Propaganda left the label, apparently due to somewhat disadvantageous contract terms, and crashed back down to earth with a mighty thud. Without Morley's fun pop-structuralist conceits and Trevor Horn (and protege Stephen Lipson's) amazing production, both acts became pale shadows of their former glory days.