In this second issue of The Bubble Album Reviews, our writers have appraised records by Rihanna, Four Tet, Carole King and Frank Zappa.
Before sitting down and listening to Rihanna’s latest offering, I was aware that she isn’t really my cup of tea. I always figured she was more for the sort of person who doesn’t like the sound of real instruments. Nevertheless, she’s famous and therefore must have something about her, even if it’s just inventive haircuts and one of the best-known songs about umbrellas in recent times.
Loud begins in rousing, raunchy style with the don’t-play-to-your-parents “S&M”, guaranteed to become 2011’s anthem for horny teenagers gravitating towards each other on the sticky floors of scummy nightclubs. It plays out like the dark side of Shania Twain, and, in spite of the decline in values it represents, is simply delicious.
This dance tour de force is followed up with plenty more diversity, the Enya-in-space pizzicato of “What’s My Name?” providing a distinctive accompaniment to the moving poetry of its lyrics:
“Hey Boy, I really wanna see / If you can go downtown with a girl like me / Hey Boy, I really wanna be with you / ’Cause you just my type, oh na, na, na, na...“
although the track as a whole is somewhat ruined by the talentless dribbling of some idiot called Drake.
“Fading” also seems to have Enya as a primary influence (if she covered Black Eyed Peas’ “Where Is The Love?”, that is), and is quite lovely. Not that it’s all good; “Cheers (Drink To That)” is pleasingly quirky at first but seems to go on forever, and the second half of the album verges from the merely forgettable (“Complicated”, “Skin”) to the offensively bad (“Raining Men”), although the evil-toy-shop syncopations of “Man Down” are the album’s creative highlight.
However, even the weaker tracks have a clear musical spine, and herein lies the frustrating thing about Rihanna; she is melodically aware, often inventive, and clearly has a knack for a decent song, but these just get buried under all that electronic production. Ironically given the amount of bass on show, such minimalist production on the tracks means that they lack that vital pulse. There’s a feeling that most of these songs would benefit greatly from being half as long and twice as fast. Look how slick and catchy a song “Umbrella” became when The Baseballs covered it! With real drums and crunchy guitars instead of some godless machine, tracks like the fabulously dramatic “Only Girl (In The World)” would absolutely rock the house. Rihanna herself seems half-aware – the acoustic arrangement of “California King Bed” cutting through the thick synthetic buzz like a refreshing breeze through a bag of peanuts. As it is, this album sounds for the most part comprised of dance-remixes of much better tracks. Which I suppose is great if you like dance music.
Kieran Hebden, the 31-year-old Londoner behind the Four Tet moniker, has been releasing music since 1997, when at the tender age of 15 he signed his first recording contract. Whilst it is There is Love In You that has brought his music to a wider audience, in the intervening 14 or so years he has managed to indulge in free-jazz hook-ups, supported Radiohead, and apparently single-handedly created a new genre – “Folktronica”, if you’re interested. His most significant achievement though is surely 2010’s There Is Love In You, 47 minutes of beautifully understated electronica, an album seemingly born under a guiding principle of “Why use 10 words when a drum loop and distorted vocal shards will do?” This is far from being a criticism however. There is Love in You is a rare commodity in modern pop music – an album that attempts to convey emotion almost completely without words. While these songs are unlikely to be covered by the next winner of X Factor, the record hit the UK top 40 and was bandied around as a potential Mercury Prize contender.
From the outset, Four Tet show themselves to be masters of understated melancholy and ecstasy. In its opener “Angel Echoes”, layer upon layer of indecipherable vocal distortions and bubbling synths are gradually revealed, drawing the listener to a mournful conclusion that suddenly dies away. “Circling” transforms itself from a simple loop into a climax of darting synthesizer sparks that create an electrifying tension which is suddenly released.
This is what Four Tet do best – create minimalist soundscapes that transport the listener to a hypnotic, perhaps even repetitive world, but a world nonetheless shot through with tender feeling and vulnerability. All of this makes There is Love in You that rare thing in electronica – an album that will make you feel something when you hear it in your headphones at one in the morning after finishing work, just as much as it will in the depths of the trendiest London club.
Released in January 1971, Tapestry was, and remains, an album of enormous significance. Picking up four Grammies along the way, the album spent a total of fifteen weeks at No. 1 in the US pop charts – a record that still stands today for female solo performers. In all, five of King’s compositions topped the singles charts, including “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, which had both already reached the top spot for The Shirelles and Aretha Franklin respectively. King’s decision to record her own songs herself marked her personal transformation from songwriter to performer, and signalled a newfound confidence in her own abilities.
In doing so, King captured the mood of a society in transition. From the bluesy, foot-tapping “I Feel the Earth Move” to the more melancholy “It’s Too Late”, there is an emancipatory frankness that runs throughout the album. As second wave feminism began to challenge contemporary conceptions of sexuality and the family, Tapestry indicated the birth of a new genre of white female solo performers – strong, individual, and liberated from existing stereotypes.
King’s voice and piano can be heard clearly above the rest of the band, including Joni Mitchell – who would ride so triumphantly in Tapestry’s slipstream – supplying backing vocals. Whilst it’s undeniably introspective, the album manages to retain a universality that goes some way to explaining its success. This generalism, as well as the album’s pared down production, may also account for its continued popularity. “You’ve Got A Friend”, for instance, after being taken to number one by James Taylor, has been covered by artists as diverse as Michael Jackson and The Housemartins, as Ella Fitzgerald and Jimmy Cliff.
It’s an album of musical putty, with a confessional honesty that has allowed it to withstand the ravages of time. Yes, it’s easygoing and lighthearted, but don’t be surprised if you catch yourself unwittingly singing along to tunes that have been long-since seared into your musical memory.
Album reviews often utter the words “although not a masterpiece…” then continue on to praise the quality of almost every track. Hot Rats has this quality, but is also a genuine masterpiece. How refreshing. Titles such as “Willie The Pimp”, “The Gumbo Variations”, and musicians with names like Shuggy Otis and Sugar Cane Harris, indicate that this is no ordinary album. They hint at the sheer zeal, mania and greatness of Frank Zappa’s 1969 avant-garde jazz-rock album. And if you think that description contains too many genres, listen to the album – I didn’t use enough.
Opening with the emphatic “Peaches En Regalia” we are blasted with a modern jazz-fusion that sounds so fresh that it wouldn’t be out of place released in the 21st century. And if four minutes later we are still trying to work out what on earth we are listening to, step forward Captain Beefheart to confuse us further. Featuring the outlandish voice of this recently deceased musical hero-figure, Hot Rats’ second offering is the ten minute epic of “Willie The Pimp”. Not only do we hear a gritty blues-rock anthem through a kaleidoscope of psychedelia, but we also see Frank Zappa the guitar legend emerge – one of the greatest, and most unexpected, guitar solos of all time. Perhaps the album reaches its peak too early but there’s certainly no serious letdown in the subtle “Little Umbrella” and the rhythmically intriguing “It Must Be A Camel”.
The impact of Hot Rats was huge. One of the first ever 16-track recordings, the world hadn’t heard anything like it before: flutes, clarinets, saxophones, percussion, keyboards, guitars and even everyday objects used as instruments all perfectly woven together by Zappa’s idiosyncratic yet paradoxically succinct arrangements. Its defiance of genre and its value as an entry point into not just Zappa’s solo work but the earlier Mothers of Invention material, ensures its place in most listings of key albums of the twentieth century.
People are always surprised when I say how much I love this record. It is complex, intriguing, technically innovative but still accessible. Chris Welch, writing in a 1969 issue of Melody Maker, managed to sum up the album in far fewer words than me though: “Hot Rats – Hot Zappa!”