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Albums of the Month: August 2014

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Album: Parklife

Artist: Blur

Released: April 25th, 1994

Highlights: End of a Century, Parklife, Jubilee, This is a Low

If The Kinks' Ray Davies' was the great musical chronicler of British life during a portion of the 60s and most of the 70s, then Damon Albarn kept that heritage rolling when the Britpop movement came around. While “Modern Life is Rubbish”, Blur's stellar second record, had already proved he could – armed with humor and wit – write about curious blokes masterfully, “Parklife” retained the same character-centric songwriting but was more consistent.

Parklife is, during its sixteen songs, driven by social commentary. Blur's blend of punky fast-paced songs sprinkled with delightful hooks, and beautiful weary ballads were the perfect ingredients to fuel Albarn's satirical spirit. His relationship with his country mirrors what every average citizen thinks of his homeland: he loves it and is proud of some cultural quirks, but at the same time he can't help making fun of lingering customs and attitudes that bother him.

He attacks what displeases him through nearly cartoonish characters. There is Tracy Jacks, who bulldozes his house after being driven mad by social pressures. There is Jubilee, a perfect picture of the doomed lazy youth. And the title track, which features a parade of bizarre people going about their daily business. Simultaneously, he seems to be bothered by how American culture was slowly “corrupting” the British ways – perhaps a reaction to Blur's struggles to break into the US – and he makes it clear in Bill Barrett, who sees America as an immaculate paradise of malls, TV and opportunity.

Although “Parklife” was not the original Britpop record – that distinction belongs to either “Modern Life is Rubbish” or Suede's self-titled debut – it represents a lot of the cultural pride the movement was partially responsible for resurrecting during the early 90s. It is an album that looks inward to find something to hate light-heartedly and love dearly, and it reveals the value and style of being British. From its greyhound racing cover to the last moments of “Lot 105” it is a whimsical, and sometimes gorgeous, journey through the ups-and-downs of UK life.

Album: Animals

Artist: Pink Floyd

Released: January 23rd, 1977

Highlights: Dogs, Pigs (Three Different Ones)

Squeezed between the sonic lush of “Dark Side of the Moon” and “Wish You Were Here”, and the theatrical hit-ridden “The Wall”, lies Pink Floyd's angriest record: “Animals”. Based on George Orwell's “Animal Farm”, which portrayed classes of society around different groups of animals, the album follows the same recipe with a twist. Whereas the book was an attack on communism, by stating that all men – regardless of political affiliation – were equally corrupted once they achieved power; the album was an acid take on capitalism.

Bookended by two parts of the same short folky song, “Pigs on the Wing”, are three lengthy Floydian epics: “Pigs”, “Dogs”, and “Sheep”. Waters makes use of those numbers to spill his hatred towards the injustices caused by greed. “Pigs” are those who sit on top of the social ladder – politicians and businessman, growing richer through the hard work of others. “Dogs” are their loyal soldiers – bosses who seek to perpetuate the insane desires from their leaders in order to gain their favor. And “Sheep” are the numerous workers who are restlessly explored.

Deriving from that contempt is a vicious sound that was not replicated on any other Pink Floyd album. “Pigs” and “Sheep” are particularly belligerent. Both gravitate around heavy riffs, the former more sludgy and the latter brutally fast-paced, and Waters delivers his vocals with challenging despise. Gone are the velvety harmonies that had starred the band's three precedent records, and in comes distilled violence.

The signature bluesy quiet Pink Floyd groove is only present in the middle section of “Dogs”, the only song penned by both Gilmour and Waters and where the guitarist delivers one of his finest solos. But even in its low-key country aspirations, “Dogs” - a seventeen-minute tour de force – still presents a rebellious edge, culminating with a mad vocal attack against the song's titular beasts. Despite its demanding structure, “Animals” stands tall as one of the band's finest works (it's certainly the most unique of the bunch) and, as a concept album, it is more consistent and engaging than the very good “The Wall”.

Album: Preservation Act 1

Artist: The Kinks

Released: November 16th, 1973

Highlights: Sweet Lady Genevieve, One of the Survivors, Sitting in the Midday Sun

At some point during The Kinks' legendary career, Ray Davies' storytelling ambitions corroded his incredible songwriting skills. “The Village Green Preservation Society”, “Arthur”, “Lola Versus the Powerman”, and “Muswell Hillbillies” were records that presented a perfect balance between music and story – mostly achieved via a plot that served the songs, and not the other way around. However, such equilibrium would eventually become one-sided to lengths that would cause the ship to capsize spectacularly.

“Preservation Act 1” is not the moment on which the boat sank, but it marks the occasion when the sea started to become angry. Here, the plot is still loose enough to allow Davies to freely manufacture his trademark tunes, melodies, intriguing characters, and funny remarks, and although they are not as stellar as fans were used to seeing during the band's peak, they are are still pretty damn good.

By painting the outline of life in a peaceful village green, and the greedy forces seeking to demolish the place and turn it into something more profitable, he is able to explore the group's many facets. There is the pleasant and laid-back pop/rock of “Sweet Lady Genevieve”, an overlooked masterpiece of British music; the hard rock riffs (something that The Kinks pioneered) that are made even more aggressive by Dave Davies' guitar playing on “One of the Survivors”; and the theatrical vibe of “Demolition” and “Money and Corruption”.

In a way, “Preservation Act 1” is the album Ray, a vaudeville lover, had always wanted to write. After all, its plot development is very sensible to be shown on a stage, making it a true rock opera – whereas the other classic Kinks albums play more like collections of thematically cohesive songs. Its legacy is somehow tarnished given that its sequel “Preservation Act 2”, and a couple of Kinks albums that would follow, lacked in songs and drowned in plot; however, given the quality of its numbers and its bright humor mixed with social commentary, it should be more fondly remembered.

Album: Stage Fright

Artist: The Band

Released: August 17th, 1970

Highlights: The Shape I'm In, The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show, Daniel and the Sacred Harp, Stage Fright

“Stage Fright”, The Band's third record, is frequently overlooked when most rattle off what they consider to be the group's classic output. However, such oversight turns out to be glaringly unfair when one weighs the album's outstanding qualities. It is, by all means, just as good as its two predecessors and the legendary “The Basement Tapes”; the works that are often used to define the musicianship presented by the group. In fact, it would not be absurd to call it slightly more consistent than its more popular brothers.

It is a concise work: ten original songs and thirty-five minutes. Consequently, from beginning to end, it does not present a single weak link. The ethereal value that is infused in The Band's efforts remains strong here. These are simple folky songs alternating between beautiful and catchy that could have been written anywhere at anytime. In an era where rock bands were looking to expand their horizons, The Band trimmed theirs down to the most basic and organic elements, and “Stage Fright” is the third display of that heavenly straightforward approach.

The simplicity of the compositions also meant they would have sounded marvelous regardless of how one decided to tackle them; whether it was with a brass band or with just a guitar. But they are lucky to find – in the voices of Helm, Danko, and Manuel – gifted interpreters that truly put their souls into their singing, not to mention Robertson's precise guitar-playing and Hudson's layered – but never exaggerated – pianos and organs, which come together to produce a traditional and roots atmosphere.

The ultimate magic of “Stage Fright”, just like The Band's other great works, is how it mixes influences that are common to most rock groups (blues, country, folk, and R&B) and turns them into songs that are seemingly protected in resistant time capsules. It is impossible to file them under a time or genre; they simply exist away from all kinds of erosion. They were tunes made in a bubble – unaware of the market and shifting trends that surrounded them – and there they remain. It is music at its purest form performed by geniuses that know how to treat a masterpiece.

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