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Archive for the ‘Alternative’ Category

Take Five: The huge influence of the Velvet Underground


In November 2012, we started a series called ‘Take Five’, which would recommend five albums or artistes from various genres of international music. This series will be carried once in two months. The first six parts talked of British alternative rock, classical crossover, world music, electronic music, early female blues legends and the Motown superstars, respectively. This month, we look at the Velvet Underground influence.

On October 27, rock music lost a true icon with the passing of Lou Reed. Both as guitarist, vocalist and main songwriter for the Velvet Underground (VU), and in his solo career, he created a highly original sound, blending the energy of rock with the experimentation of the avant-garde, and talking of social realism and sexual kinkiness. Songs like ‘Heroin’, ‘Rock and Roll’, ‘Sweet Jane’, ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, ‘Street Hassle’, ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’, ‘Perfect Day’, ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ and ‘Satellite of Love’ attained a cult following.

Featuring Reed, multi-instrumentalist John Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison, drummer Maureen Tucker and later singer Nico, the American outfit had lesser commercial success, when compared with some of the other 1960s acts. But both the band and Reed as a songwriter had an enormous influence on scores of other musicians. The punk, post-punk, new wave, electronic, alternative rock, grunge and garage rock movements of later years all find their roots in the VU sound.

Brian Eno, a pioneer in electronic and ambient music, famously said only 30,000 people may have bought VU’s debut album, but each of them was inspired enough to start a band. Even Rolling Stones star Mick Jagger claims to have been influenced by the band, as he said in a 1977 interview: “I mean, even WE’VE been influenced by the Velvet Underground… I’ll tell you exactly what we pinched from (Lou Reed) too. You know ‘Stray Cat Blues’? The whole sound and the way it’s paced, we pinched from the very first Velvet Underground album. You know, the sound on ‘Heroin’. Honest to God, we did!”

Clearly, one wouldn’t be exaggerating by saying Reed and VU were among the biggest-ever influences in the history of rock. See the names of bands which have followed them, and the list is mighty impressive. Let’s take five such acts, who have all been path-breaking in their own way, and then name some of the others:

The Jesus and Mary Chain: A British alternative rock band formed by brothers Jim and William Reid in 1983, JMC were known to be hugely influenced by VU, and also by the Beach Boys and punk group Sex Pistols. Naturally, their sound was a neat blend of all the three diverse styles.

Commercially, JMC were never too big, but their artistic impact was amazing, as their albums ‘Psychocandy’, ‘Darklands’ and Automatic’ inspired a large chunk of alternative bands.

Joy Division: Also from Britain, Joy Division spearheaded the post-punk movement of the late 1970s. Inspired by VU, David Bowie, Kraftwerk and Roxy Music, the band created a melancholy alternative rock sound, and unlike the anger and rebelliousness of the punks, used mood and expression
Frontman Ian Curtis was a star in his own right, but sadly, committed suicide after suffering from depression and epileptic seizures. The group released only two albums ‘Unknown Pleasures’ and ‘Closer’, but their sound was strong enough to set a trend. The band New Order, for instance, derived their early sound from Joy Division before adding more dance elements later on.

Patti Smith: Often called the ‘godmother of punk’ or ‘punk-rock’s poet laureate’, Smith was inspired by VU, Bob Dylan, the Doors, the Rolling Stones and James Brown, besides writers Jack Kerouac and William S Burroughs, and poets Allen Ginsberg and Arthur Rimbaud. Some have even hailed her music as the best fusion of rock and poetry since Bob Dylan’s heyday.

Best known for her albums ‘Horses’, ‘Radio Ethiopia’ and ‘Wave’, Smith was an icon to subsequent generations of female rockers. Her best-known song is ‘Because The Night’, co-written with Bruce Springsteen.

REM: The most successful of the bands directly influenced by VU, REM marked the point when post-punk turned into alternative rock. While vocalist Michael Stipe is recognised for his own distinct quality, the American band’s typical sound was attributed to guitarist Peter Buck’s unique style, which was derived from the sound of VU and folk-rock group the Byrds.

Best known for the albums ‘Out of Time’, ‘Automatic for the People’ and ‘Monster’, REM attained legendary status in the early 1990s, and were a huge influence on the alternative rock movement. Sadly, they decided to disband in 2011, but left behind a rich legacy.

The Strokes: Blending influences as diverse as VU, Buddy Holly and John Lennon, New York band the Strokes hit the headlines with their 2001 album ‘Is This It’, ranked No 8 by Rolling Stone magazine in its list of ‘top 100 debut albums of all time’. Even today, they are equally popular in the US and the UK, besides having a fan base in South America and Australia too.

The Strokes are said to herald the garage rock revival, and all members have been inspired by Lou Reed. Their latest album ‘Comedown Machine’ was released earlier this year.

Others: As mentioned, VU was an influence on bands from different sub-genres of rock and alternative music. Indirectly, they created an impact on the styles of such renowned acts as David Bowie, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, Mott the Hoople, Sex Pistols and electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk.

Others influenced by them include Talking Heads, Television, Sonic Youth, Dream Syndicate, Duran Duran, New Order and Simple Minds from the 1980s, and The Verve and Dandy Warhols from the 1990s. Even greats like U2 and Nirvana have openly acknowledged their influence, however small it was. This is besides scores of lesser-known artistes who have worshipped Reed.

Clearly, Reed’s demise marks the end of an era. In the list of most influential rock artistes ever, he’d definitely be in the top 10.


Take Five: Gems from the British alternative scene

This article begins a new series, ‘Take Five’, recommending five albums or artistes from various genres of international music. The series will be carried once every two months, and this time, we shall talk of British alternative/ indie albums released in 2012

WHEN it comes to new sounds, the alternative/ indie genre is surely bubbling with innovation. If heavy metal, thrash, punk and rap-rock largely stick to a specific formula, musicians creating ‘non-metal modern rock’ often blend influences as diverse as psychedelic, progressive, folk, electronica and symphonic music to create their own unique sound.

While both the US and the UK have led the way in the alternative scene, 2012 has arguably belonged to the Britishers. Yes, the Americans have produced gems like ‘Some Nights’ by Fun (reviewed earlier in this blog) and ‘Blunderbuss’ by Jack White (very innovative mix of garage rock, blues and folk), but England is obviously brimming with such acts.

Here, we take a look at five such albums released this year. Some are by relatively older acts which have been around for a decade or more, and some are by debutants. None of these albums would have achieved whopping commercial success, but musically, the quality is just up there. What’s remarkable, of course, is that all of them sound totally different, and despite some obvious influences, have a style of their own.

In no specific order, you could check out:

Richard Hawley/ Standing at the Sky’s Edge: The Sheffield-born singer-songwriter-guitarist has been on the scene for a decade now. He’s had a following of his own, mainly for the rich timbre of his voice. But while earlier albums like ‘Coles Corner’ and ‘Truelove’s Gutter’ boasted of brooding ballads straight out of the Frank Sinatra and Roy Orbison style sheets, his latest venture is a trippy diversification into space rock territory.

Wailing distortion-filled psychedelic guitars and effortless rock-friendly vocals characterise this nine-song effort. The opener ‘She Brings The Sunlight’ begins with Indian-styled strings but soon settles into screaming riffs. The title track, which begins with the lines “Joseph was a good man though he killed his wife,” sees Hawley in prime vocal form.

Every other track is a gem, but personal favourites are ‘Down in the Woods’, which has traces of Jesus & Mary Chain, and the mellowed-down and moody ‘Don’t Stare at the Sun’. The final number ‘Before’ starts in a balladsy mood (check the way he sings “It won’t be me who closes the door”) before marvellously picking up tempo, to bring an energetic climax to an absolutely first-rate album.

Alt-J/ An Awesome Wave: Alt J was somewhat rejected by the media till it won the coveted Mercury Prize last week. This Brit indie-pop quartet combines the individual talents of guitarist/ bassist Gwil Sainsbury, keyboardist  Gus Unger-Hamilton and drummer Thom Green to create a heady mix, but it’s vocalist Joe Newman’s distinct vocals that give the sound an edge.

The sound is a smooth cocktail of elements ranging from alternative pop, hip-hop, trip-hop, folk and synthesiser-driven rock. The instant charmer here is ‘Breezeblocks’, with its infectious vocals, strong bassline and neat choruses. Other stand-out tracks include ‘Tesselate’, with its electronica flavour, ‘Something Good’, with its consistent drum beat and groovy synths, and ‘Taro’, which has incredible vocals and melodic orchestrations at the end.

The album may take a while to grow on you, but turns out to be one of the freshest sounds of the year. A well-deserved Mercury.

Spritualized/ Sweet Heart Sweet Light: Fronted by Jason Pierce, Warwickshire outfit Spiritualized isn’t new in the business. In fact, it has been around since the early 90s, and ‘Sweet Heart Sweet Light’ is its seventh studio album, coming after acclaimed efforts like 1997’s ‘Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space’ and 2001’s ‘Let It Come Down’.

The group’s sound is characterised by repeated vocal lines and choruses set against neo-psychedelic sonic structures. The new album has a very offbeat cover which just says ‘Huh?’ One of the highlights is the nine-minute ‘Hey Jane’, also known for its provocative and ultra-violent video revolving around a transvestite. ‘Little Girl’ slows down the tempo, with philosophical lines like “Sometimes I wish that I was dead, ‘cause only living can feel the pain; sometimes I wish that I could fly; you get so grounded that life will pass you by.”

Also worth checking out are the haunting ballad ‘Freedom’, which has the lines “Freedom is your if you want it”, and ‘I Am What I Am’, which blends strong lead vocals with crisp female back-up lines. Finally, ‘So Long You Pretty Thing’ builds up in a very ‘Hey Jude’ manner, complete with the incessant choruses at the end.

One of Spiritualized’s biggest strengths is its lyrics. And aided by a versatile set of songs, they have a winner here.

Django Django/ Self-titled album: The psychedelic quartet, which met at art school in Edinburgh, has recently released its self-titled debut. It won a Mercury Prize nomination, but lost out to Alt-J.

Consisting of drummer-producer David Maclean, singer-guitarist Vincent Neff, bassist Jimmy Dixon and synth-man Tommy Grace, the band relies on vibrant drumming and spacey synthesisers, aided by melodic and charming vocals. Some of the numbers have a dance feel too, broadening their appeal. And if you’re looking at influences, you’ll find a bit of Kraftwerk electronic pop and the Beach Boys’ surf-rock here, mixed with a contemporary club feel.

Adrenalin-filled tracks like ‘Waveforms’ and ‘Default’ were popular even before the album was released in January, but each of the 13 tracks has a certain vibrancy. ‘Zumm Zumm’ begins with the lines ‘Got to get to know… know you’ against strong synthesisers and rhythms, and ‘Wor’ kicks off with a wailing siren against a thumping drum-‘n’-bass line.

‘Life is a Beach’ has an incredible guitar line and snazzy vocals. ‘Firewater’ has a stunning bass backdrop, and vocalist Neff is on great form on ‘Storm’ and ‘Hail Bop’. Finally, the Middle Eastern ambience ‘Skies Over Cairo’ is something to die for. The kind of stuff you can play all day.

Muse/ The 2nd Law: What an album, really! Devon-based Muse is another band which has been on the scene for a while, earlier impressing on the album ‘Black Holes and Revelations’ and ‘The Resistance’. Their latest ‘The 2nd Law’ again sees them at their versatile best, blending alternative rock, space rock, prog-metal, electronica and even strains of symphonic music.

Matthew Bellamy is simply outstanding on vocals, guitars and keyboards-synthesisers, and he’s ably assisted by bassist Christopher Walsteinholme and drummer Dominic Howard. The rhythmic ‘Supremacy’, the freaky ‘Madness’ and the marvellously constructed and chorus-heavy ‘Survivors’ are among the highlights. The two-part epic ‘The 2nd Law: Unsustainable’ and ‘The 2nd Law: Isolated System’ boast of incredible keyboards and conversational dialogues.

The picks of the lot are ‘Animals’, with its tuneful guitar-drum interaction, and ‘Explorers’, with its outstanding vocals and Beatles-ish influence. They are just among the best songs created this year, proving Muse is here to stay.

All five bands are worth checking out. Press play!

A date with Cutie

There are times when one doesn’t hear a great band because one has never been exposed to it. There are also occasions when one hears a great band simply by accident, quickly becomes a huge admirer, and goes on to recommend it to almost everyone. In my personal experience, American alternative rock band Death Cab for Cutie would come under the latter category.

While working at EMI Music over five years ago, I handled the repertoire of Warner Music, with whom EMI had a licensing agreement. Every few weeks, Warner would send copies of CDs it had released — or was due to release — in the US. Death Cab for Cutie’s 2005 album ‘Plans’ was one such instance, and for many months, I never bothered to listen to it, probably because I found the band’s name as weird as Britney Spears’ dress sense.

Death Cab for Cutie??? Was it dark and deathly-depressing, was it plain taxi music, or was it boringly cute bubblegum-pop?

While leaving EMI, I took a whole lot of CDs home, mainly because there was nowhere to dump them in office. Most gathered dust for a few months. In one sudden brainwave in early 2007, I played ‘Plans’. A cross between a ‘Let’s-see-what-it’s-like’ approach and a ‘Try-it-before-you-dump-it’ decision.

I didn’t really pay attention to the first few songs. But suddenly, ‘I Will Follow You Into The Dark’ hit me like a bullet — wonderful tune, great voice, outstanding lyrics, qualities of a clear-cut anthem. Must have heard it 20 times at a stretch, and then made sure I carried it everywhere to play in front of friends. Almost everyone who heard the song was converted, including the tone-deaf. Of course, I cursed myself royally for not releasing it while I could officially do so. What a waste!

Today, Death Cab is my favourite band from the 2000s. There’s something about vocalist Ben Gibbard’s heavenly voice, compositional style, guitar and piano that captivate me totally. The support of guitarist-keyboardist Chris Walla, bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr makes it a perfect blend. Yes, I have loved other 2000s bands like Coldplay, Kings Of Leon, Maroon 5, Arcade Fire, Doves, the Decemberists and The National — all of them outstanding in their own way — but Death Cab just has that extra edge, in my hideous opinion.

Though the band was formed in 1997, and was primarily known for its 2003 release ‘Trans-Atlanticism’, it actually went trans-Atlantic with ‘Plans’ two years later. Besides the classic ‘I Will Follow You Into The Dark’, the album had brilliant numbers like ‘Soul Meets Body’, ‘Crooked Teeth’ and ‘What Sarah Said’. The next album ‘Narrow Stairs’ is best known for ‘I Will Possess Your Heart’ (whose intro is just out of the world), ‘Grapevine Fires’ and ‘No Sunlight’, though overall, it wasn’t quite as consistent as ‘Plans’.

So far, so cute. Superb vocals and great guitar riffs — the basic ingredients of good rock music. The band could have stuck to that winning formula forever. But it didn’t.

Cut to the latest release ‘Codes and Keys’, and Death Cab has gone in for a more keyboard-driven, ambient, moody sound. Though some of the fans may not have welcomed this change, it comes as an amazing proof of the group’s versatility and willingness to experiment and move on. Yes, one does find influences of Brian Eno, David Bowie, later-day Radiohead and even Pink Floyd here and there, but the compositions are so remarkable that one would love to keep them on repeat mode.

My favourite from ‘Codes And Keys’ is ‘Unobstructed Views’, with an intro that just keeps building up, and a finale that makes you long for more. ‘You Are A Tourist’, ‘Home Is A Fire’ and ‘Monday Morning’ grow on repeated hearing, and ‘St Peter’s Cathedral’ grabs you with its lyrics and melodic simplicity.

‘Codes And Keys’ is one of the nominees for Best Alternative Album at the forthcoming Grammys. Needless to say, the band has attained a pretty huge following in the rock/ alternative community. At the moment, it may be more of cult worship than mass fan-dom, but I’m sure people are now discovering it more because it is showing the right consistency and getting the right exposure, and not by sheer accident.

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