Best albums of 1997: #1 Spiritualized “Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space”

Remember when I said a couple of weeks ago that there was another good reason I saw Radiohead live (and that I would get to that later)? Well, this band and this album is that other reason. I had seen Spiritualized perform at a small club a few months earlier on the same tour for this album and when I heard they were opening for Radiohead, I was sold.

In my opinion, “Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space” is one of the greatest breakup albums of all time. And though Pierce denies it, saying that most of the record was written before his breakup with Kate Radley, it has since come out that she had secretly married Richard Ashcroft in 1995. Yeah. So if you haven’t put two and two together yet, two of the best albums of 1997 (obviously, my two favourites) were directly or indirectly inspired by one woman: Kate Radley. I’ll just leave that there.

This album was lauded at the time and continues to be appreciated today. Much has been written, especially last year when celebrating its 20th anniversary, about how it is considered frontman and driving force, Jason Pierce’s masterpiece. Even he must’ve known it at the time. It was recorded relatively quickly but the production took several months, as if he knew he had to get it just right. The album is almost a symphony in its scope. The four main band members at the time (still including Kate Radley) were joined by contributions from string quartets, horn sections, gospel choirs, and even virtuoso session pianist, Dr. John. It has been performed live in full a number of times over the years, where Pierce manages to amass a massive cast of musicians on stage to recreate the album’s gigantic sound. Otherwise, plenty of electronic trickery is required.

But beneath all the madness and sounds on the album is Jason Pierce and his struggles. The emotion and insanity he imbues into the music reflects his perceived state of mind. He mixes metaphors and imagery, juggling drug addiction, religion, love, and love lost. A friend of mine from university once said to me that whenever she saw him perform live, or even just listened to this album, she just wanted to give Pierce a big hug and not let go. Indeed, for all the boldness of his compositions, he sounds so fragile when singing, like a strong gust of wind might take him down at a moment’s notice.

Yeah, so what is “Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space”? It is space rock, shoegaze, ambient, psychedelic rock, free jazz, and gospel, all packaged together in one album. It may sound scattered on paper but it works. And I’ll tell you, the two times I saw the band perform live on tour for this album, they were truly religious type experiences.

It just so happens that my three picks for you are the first three tracks on the album, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the album pales. Far from it. But these are as good a starting point as any. Enjoy.

“Come together”: It’s a droning beast. Heavy handed bass is relentless and the drums crash. Then come the wailing guitars and the crushing and ominous organs, flashes of horns, and a gospel choir somehow makes a jubilant appearance. Yes. All this happens in one song. It’s a chaotic cacophony but as ringmaster and orchestrator, Jason Pierce keeps it all together. It’s a perfect sample of this album, the structure, the sanity just seemingly on the verge of crumbling away. It’s a great tune for earphones because if you turned it up as loudly as you wanted without them, the neighbours would be complaining. Or not. I wouldn’t, if I was that neighbour.

“Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space”:  The title track opens the album with the aforementioned Kate Radley saying the album’s title on the phone, presumably on an answering machine. There was a lot of conjecture and rumour about whether or not this was a real message left for Pierce but I think that would have been too much really. The song itself is a beauty. Lush strings play with Quindar tones while Pierce sings different lines and melodies in round. It sounds space age and classical (specifically, Pachelbel’s Canon) at the same time. Original versions had Pierce merging in parts of Elvis Presley’s “I can’t help falling in love with you” but they were taken out at the behest of Presley’s estate, though he usually adds them back in when performed live. Either way, it doesn’t get much more heart rending than this.

“I think I’m in love”: I don’t know how true it is but I’ve heard the only reason Jason Pierce let The Chemical Brothers remix this track was to somehow prove to them that the perfectly timed drum beat that wends through the song’s back end was recorded live, not by a machine. And while it is remarkable, that rhythm is only one piece of this fantastic masterpiece. Its eight minutes is divided in two parts or movements. The first is blissed out psychedelia: bass, washes, harmonicas, all floating in the ether with Pierce’s drugged up vocals. After about three minutes of this, the drums kick in and everything comes alive. Pierce’s vocals become a call and response, by turns, optimistic and cynical. “I think I can fly. Probably just falling.” So awesome. So sad. So brilliant.

In case you missed them, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Cornershop “When I was born for the 7th time”
9. The Dandy Warhols “The Dandy Warhols come down”
8. Teenage Fanclub “Songs from Northern Britain”
7. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones “Let’s face it”
6. Ocean Colour Scene “Marchin’ already”
5. Blur “Blur”
4. James “Whiplash”
3. Radiohead “OK computer”
2. The Verve “Urban hymns”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Best tunes of 2001: #17 Camera Obscura “Eighties fan”

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I stumbled upon Camera Obscura while on the internets and saw their name in connection with Belle And Sebastian, a band I’ve been into quite heavy for years. I listened to their second album, 2003’s “Underachievers try harder”, first and worked backwards.

You can definitely here the B&S influence on the Glasgow-based indie pop band’s debut, “Biggest bluest hi-fi”, especially since it was produced by Stuart Murdoch, but they definitely are their own band. Led by the delicate to the point of crumbling vocals of Tracyanne Campbell, Camera Obscura’s is even more retro sounding, harkening back to girl groups crying over broken hearts in the 60s.

“You say your life will be the death of you
Tell me, do you wash your hair in honeydew
And long for all of them to fall in love with you
But they never do”

“Eighties fan” starts off with a drum beat you’re sure you’ve before a hundred times, hinting at something upbeat, but Camera Obscura doesn’t go there. Instead, they run up crying to their bedroom and slam the door. They put something sad on the turntable and crank the volume, ignoring the shouts of their mother below. They pull out the tiny bottle of vodka that an older teenager had procured for them and sip lightly but still coughing and sputtering. There curse the name of their more attractive and hipper older sister for catching the eye of their cute boy they had a crush on and cry, tears streaming everywhere. And… well… you get the picture.

An incredible first single off the debut album that started it all.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2001 list, click here.

Best tunes of 2011: #30 Dawes “A little bit of everything”

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We kickstart off this new series on my favourite tunes of 2011 with a song for those who like their songs with a side of sentimental. Yes. As much as I like my alt-rock and shoegaze, I do have my sappy side, obviously to a point. I enjoy sunsets and walks by the river and romantic comedies. But let’s not carried away.

This particular song stuck out to me when I was listening to Dawes’ sophomore album, “Nothing is wrong”, in preparation for catching them live at the 2011 edition of Ottawa Bluesfest. In fact, I distinctly remember taking the bus home after one of the earlier nights during the festival and “A little bit of everything” begged repeat listens, over and over, right up to the moment I stepped on to my front porch. Indeed, I really liked their sound from the moment I first heard them, despite it not being something I typically invest a lot of time in. They’ve been described as “Laurel Canyon” folk rock, whatever that means. I just recognized a lot of classic rock bands in their songs, some CSNY here, some The Band there. The music is welcoming and inclusive.

“A little bit of everything” is a ballad that starts off with Tay Strathairn’s quiet piano accompanying Taylor Goldsmith’s vocals and slowly the rest of the instruments join in. There are three verses, each laying out a different scenario: a man explaining to a police officer why he’s decided to jump off a bridge, an old man at a buffet line suddenly reexamining his life, and a bride-to-be explaining to her fiancé why she is stressing herself out planning their upcoming nuptials. (It might have been this last that struck a chord with me, since my wife and I had just been married two years prior.) Each of these tales isn’t really a definite explanation, more of a reproach and an embrace of life. It’s a little bit of everything.

“Oh, it’s a little bit of everything,
It’s the matador and the bull,
It’s the suggested daily dosage,
It is the red moon when it’s full.
All these psychics and these doctors,
They’re all right and they’re all wrong,
It’s like trying to make out every word,
When they should simply hum along,
It’s not some message written in the dark,
Or some truth that no one’s seen,
It’s a little bit of everything.”

By the time Goldsmith gets to this final verse, the song quiets right back down to him and the keys just before the drums come back in for that fist-punching, anthemic exclamation mark. Yeah, I know. I just can’t help myself.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2011 list, click here.