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 2010: #1 Broken Bells “The high road”

<< #2

After almost a full year, we’ve finally come to the number one song on this best of 2010 list. So many great songs but this single off the self-titled, debut album by Broken Bells wins it all for me hands down.

I remember first hearing about the Brian Burton and James Mercer collaboration and thinking (whether rightly or wrongly) that this was all made possible by another collaboration six years prior by Jimmy Taborello and Ben Gibbard, called The Postal Service. Still, when I first gave “Broken Bells” a spin and first heard the opening seconds of the opening song, this one, I was hooked. The album then spent a lot of time with me after that, keeping me company with its hooks and multi-faceted magic.

Apparently, the seeds were sown for this collaboration when The Shins’ frontman, James Mercer met producer/musician/wizard, Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) at a music festival in 2004 and they got to talking and discovered each other’s mutual respect. They didn’t actually get around to working together for another four years and the first album came a couple of years after that. By this time, Burton had already been riding a wave of successes, such as his collaboration with Cee-Lo Green as Gnarls Barkley and the production of albums by Gorillaz, The Good, The Bad and The Queen, Beck, and The Black Keys. Indeed, he was becoming like a musical Midas. Mercer, for his part, had put his own band, The Shins, on hiatus, citing fatigue after three relatively successful albums and achieving a sort of cult status. Working together, the two members of Broken Bells brought their own styles with them to the workshop and seemingly reinvigorated each other, creating beautiful, otherworldly music in the process.

“The high road” is hipster funk for martians. It opens up with synths that feel like free jazz random notes played on an underwater harpsichord, filtered through a C64’s speakers. Then, that laidback beat kicks in and you can just imagine Burton and Mercer coolly walking down a back alley with graffiti on the walls, decked out in bandannas and jean jackets with the collars turned up. Mercer’s vocals here are unlike anything he had previously done with The Shins, which I suppose is the point, affecting a devil may care attitude, almost to the point of irony. The whole thing is so much fun, right down to the backing vocals that invite you in to be part of the gang. That’s right. Step right up and join the choir that is the human race.

Cheers folks and thanks as always for reading.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2010 list, click here.