Album Digest, November 2011

Just three albums this month as I’ve been listening to a lot of Brian Eno records ready for an upcoming understated classic. First up is 50 Words For Snow by Kate Bush, the second album that she has released this year. Back in May I wrote about Director’s Cut, which presented re-recorded and re-mastered versions of songs from her albums The Sensual World and The Red Shoes. This time around it is an album of brand new material, the first since Aerial in 2006.

Ariel was divided into two discs and 50 Words For Snow is similar to both A Sea Of Honey (discrete songs) and A Sky Of Honey (a thematically linked suite of songs). It’s a smart move to release such a wintry album just as the weather starts to get really cold. Listening to the opening track Snowflake while walking home in the dark and cold mist the other night was a surreal and beautiful experience.

The first three songs languidly sprawl over thirty-four minutes, just like so much snow over the hillsides, streets and houses. The pace perfectly evokes the sense of a landscape held completely still by the elements. It really reminds me of last year when so much of the landscape around me was hit by a blast of snow that seemed to come out of nowhere.

The second half of the album comprises four slightly shorter tracks (with an average run time of about seven and a half minutes) that are a bit more disparate in terms of arrangement, if not theme. Three of the songs are about winter or snow: Wild Man (the abominable snowman used as metaphor for elusive celebrity just as a still-alive Elvis was on King Of The Mountain from Aerial), 50 Words For Snow (Stephen Fry forced to list 50 words for snow, as though Kate has held up an edition of QI) and Among Angels (a sweet closer that seems to celebrate that peculiar darkness that falls on a snowy night). Meanwhile Snowed In At Wheeler Street is perhaps the runt of the litter, crow-barring a snow reference into a song that features Elton John’s voice going from interesting to kaput in about three verses. It somehow manages to be simultaneously more odd and less believable than Misty, a song from the first half of the album that details a one night stand with a snowman.

It is very difficult to make a winter album that is separate from Christmas and this has led to some bloody awful albums over the years (with Michael Bublé and Justin Bieber continuing this “noble” tradition this year), so it is really nice to come across one that captures the season consummately without resorting to bells or mentions of holly etc. It will be hard to listen to it after February next year but I don’t doubt that it will also be one to dig out and treasure next year once the frosts start to bite and that bloody Slade song is back in rotation in the shops.

Next up is New Blood by Peter Gabriel, which much like Kate Bush’s Director’s Cut revisits and repackages old material, this time with the aid of a full orchestra. The selection ranges over his entire career and is not exclusively based on his biggest hits, the intersection with his recent greatest hits compilation is quite small. Besides these are new recordings and it probably helps the exercise if there is a bit of unfamiliarity. Hence we get two songs (well one is an instrumental) from OVO, the soundtrack for the central show at the Millennium Dome, and one from Up, the last studio album that eventually trickled out of Box.

Nevertheless the track listing is dominated by songs from the middle of his career with four from So and three from 4 (AKA Security) and as these are probably the best seven songs, it is no surprise that they feature the best arrangements. Red Rain, Mercy Street and Don’t Give Up probably have the safest arrangements of all but there is no sin in delivering great songs in a straightforward fashion. San Jacinto is perhaps remarkable because of how well the jittery Fairlight sounds of the original are converted to the orchestral arrangement. The jewel in the crown though is The Rhythm Of The Heat, which retains its original sinister atmosphere and trades the drum-based outro for a full on orchestral wig-out.

Other tracks disappoint though, OVO is forgotten for a reason and Digging In The Dirt was never the most interesting song on Us: it certainly isn’t with the guitars stripped away and a rather poor version of the vocal. Meanwhile Darkness is exposed as a fragmented mess (as pretty much any song off Up would have been, save perhaps for The Drop or Sky Blue) and made all the worse by what sounds like a poor Tom Waits impersonation.

Tom Waits you say? I managed to forget about Real Gone last month. This was because I hadn’t had much time to listen to it at the time (mainly because I bought the Coldplay album and hadn’t expected to). Getting to know it a bit more, I can say that I really like it. I don’t think it is the best album that he has ever produced but it is better than Real Gone, it’s shorter, more direct and for the large part sweeter. I think you could probably live without the last two tracks but that would make for a very short album indeed.

For me, the highlights are Talking At The Same Time, Back In The Crowd (though I originally thought it was rather morbid, having heard the chorus as “put me back in the ground”), the title track and Satisfied.

There are a few albums that I’d like to get hold of next month but I get the feeling that I may end up writing an overview of the year on New Year’s Eve (much like last year) and not an album digest. We’ll see how it goes.

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· Music, Album Digest, November, Kate Bush, Tom Waits, Peter Gabriel, Eleven

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