College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #840 to #837

fixx walkabout

840. The Fixx, Walkabout (1986)

Formed in London in 1979, the Fixx were a regular presence on album rock radio throughout the decade that followed. Despite indications that they might be able to cross over to the Top 40 charts — the single “One Thing Leads to Another” made it all the way up to #4 — by the the Fixx’s fourth album, Walkabout, label heads and the band’s management were openly fretting about a growing indifference among key programmers. The prior release, Phantoms, was considered a disappointment, so there was a hearty push to get the brand greater exposure, including a gig as opening act for the Moody Blues, then touring on the strength of a surprise late-career hit.

As had been the case on their prior three albums, the Fixx worked with producer Rupert Hine. There is a continuity of sound and style, but also a clear sense that everything was caressed into a more agreeable shape, all the better to connect with a broader audience. Although the Fixx were never exactly hard rockers, lead single “Secret Separation” is noticeably gentler than their earlier hits, any and all abrasion dutifully sanded away. The tactic didn’t exactly work. The song made it into the Billboard Top 40 (and became their second song to top the album rock chart), but peaked at a lower point that the first single from Phantoms.

The rest of the album is right in line with that uninspiring single. “Treasure It” is a piece of wimpy pop with inane lyrics (“We’ll have our turn to use what we’ve learnt/ And stand into the light of our lives/ So please yourself, feed yourself/ Take a seat for this coming attraction”), and “Read Between the lines” clumsily goes for quiet drama, winding up sounding like a watered down Marillion song. The welcome sonic weirdness injected into “Sense the Adventure” is the closest the Fixx comes to an adventurous creative spirit. Everything else is sadly rote.

 

 

vamp pop

839. Transvision Vamp, Pop Art (1988)

With their brash, melting-candy guitar pop and image-first aesthetic, Transvision Vamp struck more than a few observers as a band almost genetically engineered to prosper when MTV was arguably still at the long plateau height of its powers. The deep history of the group back that assumption up, at least somewhat. Lead singer Wendy James and guitarist and chief songwriter Nick Sayer first collaborated on a film treatment inspired by the weird Canadian rock fantasy animated film Rock & Rule. When they shopped it to movie studios, they were redirected to record labels. Not long afterward, the band was in place, and their debut album, Pop Art, was released.

On the off chance that the tight dresses James was wriggled into didn’t provide enough of a signal as to how much Transvision Vamp was willing to use sex to sell records, the track “I Want You Love” really drives it home before the end of the first stanza as the singer essentially rhymes “love” with an orgasmic groan. Subtlety clearly wasn’t an attribute that much interested the band.

Then again, subtlety wasn’t really a prized quality for most of rock ‘n’ roll, and Transvision Vamp impressively romped through the glittery muck built into to form. Single “Tell That Girl to Shut Up” is the album’s truest winner, charging forward with braggadocio, chunky instrumentation, and a vocal performance by James that convincingly combined come-hither sweetness and fierce attitude. Originally recorded by Holly and the Italians, the standout was also borrowed from someone else, which hints at some broader trouble. On Pop Art, anyway, Sayer isn’t much of a songwriter.

Some of the tracks rely on needy references to creations and people with cool kid credibility (“Andy Warhol’s Dead,” and “Hanging Out with Halo Jones,” about the 2000 AD comic book character). The rummage pile of pop culture detritus is arguably at its nadir on album opener “Trash City,” which includes lyrics such as “From LSD to MTV/ From backpack to Pac-Man.” More problematically, the song includes stabs at futuristic effects that make it sound like the specific song Flight of the Conchords were mocking on “Robots.” The lyrics keep tripping up the band, no matter how much vivid glam rock oomph they put into the music. “Revolution Baby” impressively evokes T. Rex, but there’s no disguising the problems with “Your mama’s rich and your daddy’s good looking/ I got the hunger so tell me what’s cooking.”

As if sensing the short window they had, Transvision Vamp released their sophomore album, Velveteen, less than a year after their debut. There was one more album (Little Magnets Versus the Bubble of Babble, in 1991) before the group called it quits.

 

 

ac rock

838. AC/DC, For Those About to Rock We Salute You (1981)

There were plenty of bands across the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties that delivered defining hard rock epics, but Australian powerhouses AC/DC were arguably unique in their ability to craft tracks that played like anthems for budding metalheads everywhere. “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” is such a perfect blast of fist-pumping, cymbal-crashing, soaring guitar solidarity, it’s as if it was handed down from the power chord gods. In a way, I guess it was.

There’s no overstates the popularity of AC/DC at the time the album For Those About to Rock We Salute You was released. The group’s prior effort, Back in Black, was absolutely enormous. (By now, it has sold more than fifty million copies worldwide.) in fact, Back in Black was such a hit that their U.S. label, Atlantic Records, capitalized by releasing the 1977 album Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap after previously rejecting it as too poorly produced for the stateside market. It, too, was a big seller, so AC/DC suddenly had the highest of expectations weighing on their next studio effort.

For Those About to Rock We Salute You kept the band’s streak of mighty achievements alive, becoming their first to top the Billboard album chart, a feat it would take them over twenty-five years to repeat.

 

 

talk colour

837. Talk Talk, The Colour of Spring (1986)

Talk Talk sounded like a completely different band on The Colour of Spring, their third album. The English group enjoyed effusive critical praise for their austere synth pop of crystalline perfection, but that hadn’t quite translated to significant commercial success. Whether through natural evolution or an attempt to reach a wider audience, Talk Talk pushed to a more robust sound on The Colour of Spring, filling in the margins with bright, bristling musical adornments.

Despite the changes, the material remains fairly light and pretty. Album opener “Happiness is Easy” is decidedly precious, even before the children’s choir joins in. But the The Colour of Spring is delivered with a such a vibrant abundance that, positioned properly, it could dominate and then redefine pop radio. There’s a funky churn to “Life’s What You Make It,” and “Living in Another World” is sharp and lively. On “April 5th,” lead singer Mark Hollis Hollis finishes the song with quiet yelps and murmurs, like a version of the Waterboys succumbing to heavy sedation. Then the album-closing mini-epic “Time It’s Time” spreads a fleet of ideas across its running time, giving an assured sense that Talk Talk possessed the capability to master just about any pop music technique.

The Colour of Spring gave Talk Talk the success that was previously elusive. It charted in the Top 10 in the U.K. This wasn’t smash territory, but it gave the band the clout — as well as the added time and budget — to do whatever they wanted with their next outing, leading to nearly a yearlong process in the recording studio on the way to Spirit of Eden, which retreated almost entirely from the commercial accessibility they’d finally achieved.

 

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

From the Archive — The Last King of Scotland

last king

I don’t have much to add about this review, originally written for my former online home. I’m a little surprised it’s as long as it is, given this is a film I’ve barely spared a thought for in the years since, even if it was responsible for Forest Whitaker winning an Academy Award.

I would argue that film has a greater capability than any other medium to forcefully depict the unthinkable acts perpetrated by humanity against itself. The shock of visually seeing something awful can transcend even the most intricate descriptions of the same act, and the immersive quality of film — that settling into a theater seat and allowing the images to create an overwhelming experience — can lock out distractions that would otherwise blunt the impact. Whether in a documentary or a fictional depiction of actual events, filmmakers can make the desperate horrors of the world more real to those of us removed from them than they would be otherwise.

Idi Amin was took power in Uganda in 1971 and remained the president until deposed in 1979. During that span, as many as 500,000 were murdered under his regime. In the new film The Last King of Scotland, those deaths are reduced to a few photographs scattered onto a table in front of the the protagonist. The movie is about Idi Amin and his rule, but the missed opportunity to make us feel the damage of his rule, perhaps even the abdicated responsibility to bring us the emotions and fear and terrors of that time and place, suitably encapsulate everything that is wrong with the film.

Strangely enough, director Kevin Macdonald’s previous film, the reenactment-aided documentary Touching the Void, was all about recreating and conveying the emotions of the story he depicted. That film related the tragic consequences of a duo’s mountain climbing adventure in the Andes, and every agonizing bit of their dilemma is there on the screen. With more freedom in Last King, Macdonald counter-intuitively winds up with a final product that is far less impactful.

The film is based on an award-winning 1998 novel by Giles Foden. The story centers on a fictional Scottish doctor who impulsively journeys to Uganda for relief works, and finds himself drawn into Amin’s circle as a personal physician and political confidant. Not only does this follow in the sorry filmmaking tradition of examining the history of Africa through the eyes of white lead characters, but it ostensibly provides a conduit to reasonably accessing any facets of Amin’s rule that the film wishes to examine. If the character is completely invented and established as close to Amin, he can get anywhere, see anything the filmmakers want him to see. He is also, theoretically anyway, always in danger. The film decisively establishes Amin’s volatility, but there’s little tension. Moments that should be harrowing are instead distant. James McAvoy does a passable job with the role of the doctor, but he’s given little to do beyond pine after married women and spiral into guilty despair over the history he’s witnessed. His character is there to build some contrived conflict into the film (a largely unnecessary conceit given that the region itself is already rife with conflict) and spiral into guilty despair when a third act is needed.

Forest Whitaker is admittedly a powerful presence as Idi Amin. Whitaker captures the swagger in Amin’s self-composure, the boldness in his public pronouncements of dedication to the people. Without every compromising the undercurrent of madness in the dictator, Whitaker manages to demonstrate how he could be a compelling figure. He shows why Ugandans would initially cheer for this man. He digs as deeply into the character as the film and the script will allow, but when he largely disappears for significant stretches — at one point doing little more than play the accordion during a crucial stretch in the middle of the film — it’s hard to buy into the enveloping quality the man had, and harder still to understand him as a full-blooded character. It’s nice work by Whitaker, to be sure. It’s just a shame that the film builds in so many buffers to keep us from feeling the performance and the horrible touch of the man he portrays.

One for Friday — Keith Richards, “Take It So Hard”

keef

Thirty years ago, in the fall of 1988, Keith Richards released his debut solo album, Talk is Cheap. Under any circumstances, the first out-on-his-own record released by the lead guitarist in one of the biggest and most important rock ‘n’ roll bands in the history of the of the form was likely to draw enthusiastic attention, but Richards got even more press — perhaps not through calculation, admittedly — by leaning into the very public melodrama then defining his relationship with Rolling Stones bandmate Mick Jagger. The pair were feuding, largely due to Jagger prioritizing his own fledgling solo career over the group that made him famous and was still fully capable of raking in millions at the drop of a tour schedule.

“You Don’t Move Me” is the track commonly cited as direct put-down of Jagger, but the whole album comes across as a surly rebuke. By his own account, when Richards finally relented to working on a solo album, he opted against raiding unused material he’d developed for the Stones and instead started from scratch, co-writing new songs with drummer Steve Jordan, who also served as producer. The track listing has ample evidence of the preoccupation Richards surely had with the fractured professional relationship: “Struggle,” “I Could Have Stood You Up,” “Make No Mistake,” “How I Wish.” Calling the album Talk is Cheap even feels like a snarl directed at Jagger.

The album’s lead single, “Take It So Hard,” is an extension of that heart-hardened sentiment. Built on a classic Richards guitar riff, it has a quick familiarity, but felt just tough enough, raw enough, new enough to make it feel like a suitable addition to a college radio playlist. As someone who was new to the left of the dial at the time of the album’s release, I appreciated having something right there in the new music rotation that spoke to my rock ‘n’ roll radio upbringing, providing me a sort of air lock as I transitioned to the wilder — and better — stuff on the shelf. That’s not to imply the track was merely compromise. Back then, it sounded damn good. It still does.

Talk is Cheap was far more well-regarded than Jagger’s solo albums, which may have reminded the famed singer of the value delivered by his longtime collaborator. Lessons learned, the Rolling Stones were recording together again by the spring, and the resulting album, Steel Wheels, arrived in the summer of 1989, less than one year after Talk is Cheap.

Listen or download —> Keith Richards, “Take It So Hard”

(Disclaimer: I believe Talk is Cheap is unavailable as a physical object that can be purchased from your favorite local, independently owned record store in a manner that compensates both the original artist and the proprietor of said business. I’m sharing this under the legal principle of fair use. I don’t intend to impede commerce. In fact, I mean to encourage it. Go buy some music from that record store. Richards gets plenty of money from old Stones records if you’d like to help him shore up his recent financial losses in the New York real estate market. Or buy something else, but get new music. It’s good for your soul. Also, I must note that I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

Now Playing — Bad Times at the El Royale

bad times

Drew Goddard’s feature directorial debut, The Cabin in the Woods, has aged very nicely for me. The film’s impish deconstruction of the horror genre was fun from the start, but the layers of cunning stirred in me a long-lasting appreciation for the ways in which Goddard embraced the inherent power in well-worn tropes while also giving them a knowing tweak. The delighted meta shenanigans give the whole enterprise a winning intelligence and low-sizzle current of insightful commentary.

The follow-up has been a long time coming, in part because Goddard got waylaid by Sony’s bumbling management of their Marvel properties, working for ages on a Sinister Six project that was eventually scrapped. An Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Martian kept Goddard somewhat in play (and he deserves extra credit for directing the wildest episode of The Good Place), but it’s taken too long for the latest film to bear his full authorial signature.

Bad Times at the El Royale is another genre exercise, albeit one less ruthless in its demolishing of established narrative devices. Set in the late nineteen-sixties, the film brings together several disparate characters in a border-straddling motel that’s seen better, far more glamorous days. As they check in, it’s clear that all carry heavy, tricky secrets, and Goddard’s ingenuity is in the way he systematically reveals all, holding back key details until the most opportune time to foist them on the audience, like bursts of confetti that just may carry toxins, or maybe wisps of psychotropics. All the ingredients of twisty thrillers are in place — kidnappings, gunplay, missing stashes of stolen money, sordid doings of all stripes — and Goddard absolutely revels in the grand excess he’s created.

And Goddard has assembled a band of game collaborators. The art direction, production design, and costume design are all dazzling, as is the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey. And the assembled actors tackle their complicated roles with verve. Jon Hamm continues his stretch of roles that reward (and benefit from) his robustly playful instincts, Lewis Pullman somehow keeps finding new pockets of internal turbulence as the sole employee of the motel, and Cynthia Erivo is nothing short of sensational as a girl group singer trying to eke out a living in a hard business that rejected her. The actors have the enticing but tricky task of using bold strokes while also keeping the characters grounded enough that there are real stakes to the mounting mayhem. Largely, they succeed admirably.

The film loses its way somewhat in its final act, in part because Goddard allows one particularly character to push too far into outright villainy, at odds with what’s been previously established. Following the intricate care of the earlier portions of the film, the descent into simply drawn conflict seems too pat, even as Goddard stages it energetically. Bad Times at the El Royale misplaces some of its inventiveness when it’s arguably needed the most, when a sharp ending could have served as the perfect bookend with the film’s crisp, shrewdly conceived opening sequence. It’s a touch of disappointment that isn’t likely to linger. As I’ve come to realize about Goddard’s work, it’s the strengths that endure.

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “Your Song”

These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.

stewart song

By 1991, discerning music fans with perspective that ranged back a few decades already felt embarrassed about what Rod Stewart had become. As lead singer for the Jeff Beck Group and then Faces, Stewart was a world class rock ‘n’ roll belter, filling songs with careening vocal performances that could evoked a whole journey of emotions in a single line. His first few solo albums were equally impressive, but then the curdling pop culture of the nineteen-seventies took hold of Stewart. Hits came in bunches for Stewart. Some were perfectly fine songs, but he eventually learned he could make a lot of money with absolute garbage, a lesson reinforced during the following decade. Why struggle and scrape for good material when any old song would do.

And the nineteen-nineties was when Stewart really locked into the idea that old songs, the more familiar the better, were the key to keeping his bank account stuffed full. He was always an interpreter of songs and never shied away from giving well-known numbers a spin, but he eventually become little more than an overqualified karaoke singer, churning out an endless series of painfully generic compendiums of drably crooned standards.

Before that factory line fully fired up, Stewart’s instinct for tepid covers converged with the nineties trend of haphazardly conceived tribute albums, bringing together an array of artists to record their own versions of another act’s songs. Often, these comps drew in up-and-coming bands, taking advantage of the helplessness both college radio and the emerging new alternative rock radio felt when confronted with a ragged, raucous take on a bygone favorite hit. Two Rooms, a tribute to the songwriting duo Elton John and Bernie Taupin, was a whole different mess. I’d have to do some digging to confirm, but I don’t think there are that many other releases that include tracks from Kate Bush, the Beach Boys, Sinéad O’Connor, and Jon Bon Jovi. (In an act of kindness and self-preservation, I have only included a link to one of those songs.)

Stewart was right in the middle of the scrum, with his version of the treacly mainstay “Your Song.” It’s precisely as bad as expected, scrapping the spareness of John’s original — a quality that lends it at least some sincerity — in favor of twinkling studio glop. Released as a single, it just missed the Billboard Top 40.

It feels like the sort of track that represents the end of an artist’s relevance, but Stewart managed to cross the threshold to the hit side of the chart five more times in the following few years, including a three-week run in the top spot as one part of a trio. Consistent with Stewart’s uncanny gift — or perhaps ruthless strategizing — for staying fully aligned with the most dismaying pop culture trends, his final chart-topper was connected with one of the most terrifying and unavoidable of nineties musical artifacts: soundtrack contributions by Bryan Adams.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.

The New Releases Shelf — And Nothing Hurt

spiritualized

And Nothing Hurt is the sound of a seasoned rock ‘n’ roll artist in beauteous collapse. On the eight studio album with Spiritualized (and the first in six years), Jason Pierce doesn’t sound worn out, not in the slightest. But there is a sense that he’s easing toward a well-earned rest. The layers are less dense, the squalls of sound somewhat tamed. This is Pierce in a ruminative space, making music that can be nestled into rather than ridden, clinging to a rock slab bobbing on a cascade of lava. If it’s slightly more sedate, it’s also thrilling in its offhand elegance. Pierce is presenting a self that’s present, emotional, wistful, and properly engaged with his surroundings. He’s not floating in space any longer. Without sacrificing any ethereal artistry, Pierce is down on Earth.

Largely built upon melancholy melodies, several of the tracks call to mind the spare offerings of Lambchop, albeit with the significant difference of Pierce’s evocative tenor instead of Kurt Wagner’s weighty baritone. Where Lambchop is often so stately as to become inert, Pierce’s predilection for teetering stacks of sonic exploration keeps the songs robust and textured. He hasn’t jettisoned his big ideas, merely brought them down a manageable size. “Here It Comes (The Road) Let’s Go” is a fine example. Its mildly Beatlesque, swooning pop suggests what Oasis could have accomplished unburdened of their swelling pomposity. The cut is lithe and alluring, tilting to less in order to achieve more.

The relative lightness of touch reveals a splendid tenderness in Pierce’s songwriting. The lovely “I’m Your Man” finds Pierce putting himself before a potential partner with affecting humility: “But if you want wasted, faded, uneducated/ Doing the best that he can/ I’m your man, I’m your man.” As if signaling kinship with another artist who had an enviable talent for grand magnificence but also understood the value in intimacy, Pierce gives the familiarly titled “Let’s Dance” a Bowie-esque fragility. Yet more vulnerable, “The Prize” posits uncertainly that love may be the thing that best confers meaning on this messy thing called human existence.

Not everything is so withdrawn. And Nothing Hurt has room for the rollicking fuzz of “On the Sunshine,” and the requisite epic, “The Morning After,” rapidly builds to a boisterous cyclone of sound. These moments are somewhat unique on the album, and yet they feel a proper part of the whole, another facet of Pierce’s swirling musical concepts starting to settle where it’s calmer, on the floor of the rumbling sea. I suppose language like that implies the approach of a creative ending, but that’s not what I hear on this Spiritualized release. It sounds to me like an amazing new beginning.

Playing Catch-Up — T2 Trainspotting; Game Night; RBG

t2 train

T2 Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 2017). From the moment it was announced, director Danny Boyle’s choice to develop a sequel to his breakthrough film, Trainspotting, seemed highly suspect, a seemingly desperate creative retreat for a filmmaker whose recent projects — even when generally well regarded — just weren’t quite clicking. I was wrong. In peeping back in on the Scottish hooligan drug users twenty years later, Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge (working with characters created by novelist Irvine Welsh) craft a cinematic effort of stinging emotional bruises, grimly wise humor, and marvelous visual invention. The dabs of nostalgia, in the form of imagery echoes and musical cues (in one perfect moment, literally presented as a needle drop), are consistently presented with jolting ingenuity. It also helps that the various returning actors have all grown stronger at their craft. T2 Trainspotting is equal to its predecessor. It might even be better.

 

game night

Game Night (John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, 2018). This comedy is essentially a riff on The Game, David Fincher’s 1997 feature that trapped Michael Douglas’s wealthy misanthrope in an enjoyably ludicrous LARP of dangerous riddles and mounting conspiracy. The regular gathering of board games and generous wine pours hosted by married couple Max and Annie (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams, respectively) is infiltrated by Max’s hotshot brother (Kyle Chandler), who wants to add a little excitement by hiring a company that specializes in elaborately dramatized mysteries, a little like an escape room place that makes house calls. Then the make believe mayhem coincides with real thugs storming, but the genial suburbanites think its still a harmless diversion. Mark Perez’s screenplay is clever and well-constructed, and directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (who were shockingly artless in their approach to the Vacation update) handle the plot’s complexities and splintered perspective with admirable skill. It’s the cast that really sells it, though, led by Billy Magnussen, who nails the requisite dumb guy role, and especially Rachel McAdams, who works wonders in a bar scene in which her character is delightfully invested in the whole affair.

 

rbg

RBG (Betsy West and Julie Cohen, 2018). Rather opportunistically, this documentary grabs ahold of the Supreme Court Justice who’s surged to unlikely superstar status in recent years and squeezes tight with lots of love. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career merits reverence as much for the gender discrimination cases she argued as an attorney before the highest court in the land as it does for her decades served as a justice. Initially a pragmatist, Ginsburg has become a bulwark for progressive values as new colleagues have skewed far to the right. Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen deliver a survey more than a deep consideration on Ginsburg’s work and legacy, which sometimes keeps the film at such a surface level than it’s almost glib. Despite the flaws, Ginsburg — who gave the filmmakers ample access — shines through as a vital, inspiring presence.