Best tunes of 2002: #30 Richard Ashcroft “Check the meaning”

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So it’s time to start in on a new list and today’s as good a day as any. And at number thirty to kick things off, we have Richard Ashcroft’s “Check the meaning”.

Some of you might be familiar with his name and those of you who are not, are surely familiar with the band he fronted through the 1990s: namely, The Verve. His solo work has already appeared in these pages when his first post-Verve solo single appeared at number five on my Best tunes of 2000 list. And in that post, I talked about how excited I was when I first brought home a copy of “Alone with everybody” because I was such a fan of “Urban hymns” and how there was a modicum of disappointment when the album didn’t immediately blow my socks off. I also waxed philosophical about how Ashcroft had moments that really worked and those that didn’t and that he was likely missing a sounding board to temper his flights of fancy.

All of that to suggest that when 2002 rolled around and news came of a second solo album, I wasn’t as quick to go out and purchase the CD. In fact, I think it wasn’t until a year or two later that I finally got around to listening to it. And even then, it was only because I had seen a copy of it at the library and taking it home for a spin was a no risk investment. Of course, with my expectations low, I was pleasantly surprised but not completely bowled over by “Human conditions”. I found it was at best great background music, save for a few moments that stood out.

The opening track, “Check the meaning”, is one of the grander moments. It is also a good example of how Ashcroft could use some editing. The album version is a bloated eight minutes in length, the video below has it cut to just over five minutes, but I think if it had even been trimmed by yet another minute, the song might be a good ten positions or so higher in this list. It’s huge in scope and multilayered, strings and horns and guitars that flit back and forth between the speakers. The drums are just so, not really moving the song along but allowing it to be and breathe. Ashcroft’s vocals are exactly those that we have come to know and love, looped and mixed in upon themselves, singing words that question what it is to exist. In the end, he tells us that everything is going to be alright and after all this beauty and majesty, I’m inclined to believe him.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2002 list, click here.


Best albums of 1997: #2 The Verve “Urban hymns”

The Verve is one of the few bands that I truly regret not seeing live and I’m pretty sure my wife Victoria would join me in those sentiments. And this is how it played out.

If you’ve been following my list of my favourite tunes of 1991, you would know that one of my pastimes in the early nineties was recording alternative music videos to videocassette tapes off of MuchMusic’s “CityLimits”. I discovered a lot of music in this way, including The Verve’s early single, “Slide away”, except in the case of this song, I didn’t get around to exploring the rest of their material. I duly forgot about the band until the fall of 1997 when I first heard the single, “Bittersweet symphony” while dancing at York University’s largest pub and its infamous alternative pub night, “Timebomb Thursdays”. Suddenly, the song was being playing on Edge 102 and every week at the aforementioned pub night. I distinctly remember standing in line for a Charlatans UK concert near the end of September with Victoria and being handed a leaflet for the new album by The Verve and Victoria asking me about it. By the time we were hooked on the album, their Remembrance Day show at the Phoenix in Toronto was long sold out and then, when they returned the following year, it was in Hamilton! We were pretty jazzed when we heard they were reforming in 2007 but the tour swing through Toronto came mid-week, which made the trip from Ottawa a bit difficult to maneuver. So unless we see a fourth reformation of the band, Victoria and I will have to be happy with the Richard Ashcroft solo slot we caught, opening for Coldplay, a great set that was nothing at all to complain about.

But enough whining, I’m supposed to be praising “Urban hymns”, right? Ok, let me try.

The songs written for “Urban hymns” were meant to be for frontman, Richard Ashcroft’s debut solo album, after the band had dissolved following their second album. During the sessions, he began working with the various members of his old band and realized that he would need Nick McCabe’s guitars to truly realize his vision for the sound of the album. So The Verve was reformed and we are all truly thankful.

According to my wife Victoria, there are very few albums that she can listen to from beginning to end and not only not want to skip a track, but actually love pretty much the whole thing. “Urban hymns” is, for her, one of those albums and on that, we are agreed. I think we may even have the same favourite songs (but perhaps she might have subbed in “Sonnet” for “Lucky man” in the three songs below). It is a long album that doesn’t feel very long. One song leads quite logically and emotionally into the next. It is a big album with enormous sound, each song epic in scope and passion. It is real and honest but because McCabe was involved, holding Ashcroft back a bit, it doesn’t teeter into sappy and navel-gazing territory. It is a guitar rock album that lives in its own universe, nothing else can touch it, the sound is atmospheric and full and layered like a Russian doll.

Is it better than Radiohead’s “OK computer”? I am sure that is debatable either way. I personally think so but admittedly, it may be be nudged slightly ahead due to all the memories I have invested in it. But hey, have a listen to my three picks for you below and let me know your thoughts.

“The drugs don’t work”: “All this talk of getting old. It’s getting me down my love. Like a cat in a bag, waiting to drown, this time I’m comin’ down.” Such a beautiful song. Acoustic guitars and gentle string arrangements that build to a bombastic, full band accompaniment to Ashcroft’s ruminations on his life and his drug addiction. This track always reminds me of the earliest days of my relationship with my wife. But before you get any ideas, it’s not because either of us were heroin addicts. “Urban hymns” was released at the tail end of our first year ‘together’. Victoria and I both fell in love with the album and listened to it incessantly when we convened to my bedroom to get away from my roommates. The lyrics of the song spoke to us, especially those about being “better off dead” if “you leave my life” and singing “in your ear again”. So yeah, this song reminds me of being young and in love and singing softly to the lyrics in that tiny bedroom, lit only by a candle.

“Lucky man”: “Happiness, more or less. It’s just a change in me, something in my liberty.” This track is probably one of the most uplifting on the album but as evinced in the preceding quote, even that is tempered. The lyrics suggest contentment of a sort and with the benefit of hindsight, we know that there is a hint at Ashcroft’s battles with depression and also, that he was newly in the throes of early love. When Victoria and I saw him perform solo a number of years ago, Ashcroft performed this track and his preamble was a dedication to his wife Kate Radley, who he said, made him feel like the luckiest man every day. But even before I knew any of this or did any of my own deconstruction, this was one of my favourite tracks from the start. There’s plenty of whirling guitars and effects, layered over the simple guitar strum and drum beat, then the strings come in and the heavens open up for us to witness all the glory possible. It is utter brilliance and beauty.

“Bittersweet symphony”: “Cause it’s a bittersweet symphony this life. Trying to make ends meet, you’re a slave to the money then you die.” Yeah, this song. If you don’t know any other track on “Urban hymns”, you definitely know this one. Much has been made about how popular his track is and how it didn’t make the band any money due to the legal question of its use of the string sample. There have also been words written to the effect that this is the song that broke up the band but the band had always been in trouble. No, this song just adds a bit of tragedy to the story because of how brilliant it is. And yes, I can use the word ‘beautiful’ to describe this song too (for those counting, I’ve mentioned the word for each of these songs). It stomps and dances and flits and flirts. As Victoria is always telling me, you want to close your eyes and go to that place: the music is the place. You want to march straight down the road without stopping or changing course, like Ashcroft does in the video, ignoring all around you but the song. I don’t care how many times I’ve heard it, “Bittersweet symphony” is new every time, like true love, and it just has to be one of the best songs ever written and recorded.

Check back next Thursday for album #1. In the meantime, 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”

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


Best tunes of 2000: #5 Richard Ashcroft “A song for the lovers”

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For the first two thirds of 2000, I shared a two-bedroom apartment in the St. Clair and Bathurst area of Toronto with my good friend Ryan and my cat Lucy. Ryan and I met while at York University and whiled away many an evening over beers, discussing music. After I graduated, I moved to the apartment and he moved in after my previous roommate moved out with her boyfriend after one year. Ryan and I got along pretty well as roommates. When we weren’t working or spending time with our respective significant others, we’d hang out, go out to watch films, attend concerts, take a quick streetcar down to the Dance Cave on a Saturday night, or just stay in and spin tunes.

I remember when Richard Ashcroft’s first solo record, “Alone with everybody”, was released because Ryan and I both came home with a CD copy of it the day it came out. We had both been fans of The Verve’s final record, “Urban hymns”, and though were sad at the band’s passing, had reason to be optimistic for his solo work, given the debut’s advance single, “A song for the lovers”. I may be completely reinventing the evening in my mind now but I feel like we ordered takeout (probably Pizza Gigi), grabbed some beers, and gave the album a listen or two. There was likely a sense of disappointment after the first spin that it wasn’t a masterpiece. On the second, we began to identify the obvious high points and after the third, realized that though Ashcroft is a mad genius, he needs a sounding board. There are some incredible tunes on Ashcroft’s debut, lush and beautiful, yes, but he also had a tendency to get bloated and over-extravagant without Nick McCabe reining him in.

“A song for the lovers” is one the great tracks on “Alone with everybody” and telling that it was one of a handful of tracks on the album that he originally wrote for “Urban hymns”. It is not a pure love song like “Lucky man” but a love song nonetheless, very likely inspired by his muse wife Kate Radley. It starts with the riff of a string orchestra and a plaintive horn response and then instantly deepens with layers and layers of sound. The song is pure Ashcroft in its construction. There’s almost too much going on with the different guitar effects, the aforementioned horns and strings, and bongos but everything is okay once he starts singing. That voice of his is inimitable.

“I spend the night
Yeah looking for my inside in a hotel room
Waiting for you”

It sounds like he must’ve found his insides somewhere and poured them all into this tune, not just the lyrics but every facet of the song. And that’s what is great about Richard Ashcroft. You may not like every tune but you really have to be impressed by his passion.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2000 list, click here.