Syd Barrett - Opel
Besides having a really cool surname (although admittedly there are better spellings), his music is also wonderfully playful. The work he did with Pink Floyd before his erratic behaviour forced them to pass, was some of their most interesting. "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" hints at what they were going to work on later, but had much less of the seriousness of the albums after Gilmore took over from Barrett.
Released in the late 80s, Opel contains a combination material previously unreleased on his 1970s albums and outtakes, which all live up to the exuberant playfulness of his other work. The real highlights for me are the last 3 tracks before you get into the bonus materials "Wouldn't You Miss Me (Dark Globe)", "Milky Way" and "Golden Hair (Instrumental)", which capture the best parts of the album in different ways. This version of Dark Globe seems much more melancholic than the version on "Madcap Laughs" and also the vocals seem to hold together better, we then move onto his playfulness with "Milky Way" and then finish with the weepy guitar of "Golden Hair" which seems to echo from the work he did with Pink Floyd.
Floored Genius - The Best of Julian Cope and The Teardrop Explodes 1979-91
Following on the theme of vocalists who took far too many drugs and became very erratic as a result. Cope shares a lot of the playfulness of Barrett and doesn't think twice about singing about things like trampolines and space hoppers. The album is split into 4 phases, of the 4, phase 2 appears to be the most interesting corresponding to the time after the break up of Teardrop Explodes when his use of hallucinogenics reach it's height. "An Elegant Chaos", "Sunspots" and "Reynard the Fox" all from this phase are 3 of the highlights of the whole album.
"An Elegant Chaos" sounds strangely like what you'd get if you crossed Syd Barrett with Morrissey. It's got a certain cheerful moroseness to it, sort of like saying "The world is doom, smile". "Sunspots", in a way is an echo of Barrett's "Milky Way", it's got exactly the same playfulness to it. "Reynard the Fox", is the most inspired song on the whole album, it starts off as this slightly eccentric pop tune with a catchy chorus and then dissolves into spoken word before exploding into something far more erratic.
Phases 3 becomes much more mainstream, although retains the playful eccentricity with songs about trampolines and things. "Charlotte Anne" has a wonderful contrast in the chorus between really short punctuated notes on the guitar against the drawn out vocals and keyboards. Phase 4 enters into something much more along the lines of sixties throwback to start with, especially in "Beautiful Love". The final track "Safesurfer" is another highlight and really stands for being somewhat darker and more serious then the other songs on the second half of the album. The vocals transform into something more along the lines of Nick Cave, while the backing music allows the guitars to take more of the center stage and dominate through.
The Divine Comedy - A Secret History
I first discovered the Divine Comedy when I went on work placement at school. I went to this small workshop place producing parts for the telephone network, where they had the radio playing most of the day. It was at this time that Chris Evans was giving a lot of airplay to "Something for the Weekend". When most of the songs played were songs by boy or girl bands wanting to tell us about the contents of their underwear, this made an interesting change.
There's a wonderful dry wit within the lyrics of a number of their songs, particularly in tracks like "The Frog Princess" and "Songs of Love". Underlying this are grandiose orchestral arrangements, which get more and more indulgent as you get into the later work particularly things like "In Pursuit of Happiness" and "The Certainty Of Chance" (as can be seen by the number of musicians on each album, which massively increases on the later stuff) at a time when most of the charts seemed to be either grungy guitars or synthesised dance music, but they kept a contemporary edge to it. It's something like Noel Coward meets REM meets the Waterboys. They even do a modern dance version of Noel Coward's "I've Been to a Marvellous Party", which constantly switches between highbrow toff spoken word and 90s over the top dance anthemy type stuff.
Any band which isn't afraid to use a harpsichord has to be approved of.
Japan - Exorcising Ghosts
I always used to think those pinging noises that came from the old dial-up modems were just part of the connection process. Turns out it was clearly the ISPs using this lot as holding music. Having a couple of older brothers who were teenagers in the eighties I grew up with a lot of the music around me. I even went through an 80s pop phase while I was at school, but thankfully I've recovered now. However, it did lead me to discover this lot.
They were part of the New Romantic movement of the 80s, but the thing that set them apart was that they were originally aiming to be Glam Rock in the style of David Bowie until they went with the fashion. As a result they seem to have ended up as a strange amalgamation of the 2, but it somehow works really well and ends up somewhat minimalist compared to the other stuff that was around at the time.
As with all music of this style, there are times when you cringe so much that you want to go and hang yourself to make them go away, but then you get this sudden interweaving of very synathesised tunes and rhythms and acoustic drums coming together in an entirely unexpected way and you suddenly forgive them. Then all of a sudden they'll stop be completely silent for a bit and then carry on as if nothing happened.
Highlights must include "My New Career", "The Other Side of Life" and "Ghosts". "My New Career" just has lots of simple tunes and rhythms interacting together, so there's a lot going on to listen too, but at no point does it get too much to take in. "The Other Side of Life" does an excellent job of the stop-start thing. It just stops and then you get a note on the piano and it all starts again. "Ghosts" was their biggest single and is probably the tune that sounds most like a modem. Not really a tune, but a minimalist collection of sounds that just carry the haunting vocals over the top.
However, the real gem of the album is "Life Without Buildings", which is about 6 minutes of random instrumentals with a couple of lines of vocals about halfway through.
The Best of The Move
The main reason for buying this, was because I like the cheerful innocence of "Flowers in the Rain". Other than "Blackberry Way", I didn't really know anything else the Move had done other than pretty much become ELO.
The collection opens with "Blackberry Way" then moves immediately onto something less well known "Curly" with it's prominent interjections of recorder. I'm struggling to think of other examples of recorders used in popular music (I'm sure there must be some obvious ones I'm failing to think of), but it's a shame there's not more of them as it seems to work really well.
There are several songs in the same vain as "Blackberry Way" and "Flowers in the Rain", the highlights being "I Can Hear The Grass Grow" (pretty much as the name implies), "Fire Brigade" (cheery tune about school boy love including being hit with a ruler), "Kilroy was here" (although I have to remind my brain it's about the graffiti rather than horrible UKIP people every time I hear it - although I love the mental image of Robert Kilroy-Silk being a "dustman who's insane") and "Useless Information" (a song about using the internet from the 60s, how psychic!).
Then there's the wonderfully random bits like inclusion of the bit about "The Duke of Edinburgh's Lettuce" at the end of "Feel Too Good" or the use of rifts from the "1812 Overture" in "Night of Fear".
Then it moves onto heavier guitar based stuff with things like "Brontosaurus" and "Turkish Tram Conductor Blues".
The highlight of the lot has to be "Cherry Blossom Clinic" though, which humorously covers the topic of clinical madness before dissolving into a medley of fairly random tunes centering around "Jesu, joy of man's desiring" on guitar and later on slightly insane vocals (it's obviously what you sing when you go mad!). It was going to be the single release following "Flowers in the Rain", but that was cancelled to avoid more offence after having to apologise for the postcard featuring the caricature of Harold Wilson in the nude which had been used to advertise the previous single. Shame really.
That's half of them done. The rest will have to wait...