Friday, 23 December 2011

Diamonds on the soles of her shoes: Graceland - Paul Simon (1986)

Every now and then you get a concept album on which everything pulls together and creates a magical musical experience. I was a bit reluctant to cover what many regard to be Paul Simon's opus but I was cajoled into giving it an in depth listen by one of my friends. From the accordion which opens the album, the tribal drums, chanting backing vocals and fretless bass, this album is steeped in traditional African music fused together with Simon's insistent voice and folk sensibilities. Expansive would be a good word for describing this album as each track seems to be built on a far grander and wide scale than a large number of more introspective albums from the singer/songwriter genre. It has something reminiscent of Pat Metheny's music (especially 'New Chataqua' and 'American Garage').

Quite rightly, it is consistently touted as one of the greatest albums of the 1980s and with very good reason. The marriage of different musical genres id one made in heaven, with stand out tracks like the mega-hit 'Call me Al', the catchy 'Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes' and the mystical 'Graceland', this is an indispensable album for the collection. Like most of Simon's records there are whole host of accomplished and outstanding session musicians including the prolific Brecker Brothers, Adrian Belew, Steve Gadd, The Everly Brothers and even a guest vocal from Linda Ronstadt. The famed writing talents of Paul Simon and crispness of the production on this album on adds to the other fantastic parts on this album. This album must have been a huge gamble for Paul Simon despite the growing interest in traditional African and Creole music (The Zydeco, whilst an interesting instrument was not something often heard on pop records) and on this occasion its paid of for the artist.

I don't really like giving a perfect ten score, and for the reason that it is not one of my top ten albums I cannot score it that! However it is an amazing record and I would urge you to get off your arse and either download or buy a copy! it is definitely a high 9/10 but for personal taste I cannot give it a 10!

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Ride like the wind: Christopher Cross - Christopher Cross (1979)

If there was any album that defined a genre then it was Christopher Cross's chart topping, quintuple platinum debut album. Rarely has a soft rock album sounded so good as it does here… what can I say, I am biased because to me it really is one of the best made and most entertaining albums of its kind. Move over Fleetwood Mac, stand aside Kenny Loggins and 'hit the road' Doobie Brothers, this album is the culmination of many sleepless nights spent at the production desk in the recording studio. If Steely Dan had set the rules for the soft rock genre during the mid 70s then Cross (and a powerhouse team of session musicians) had refined and improved them creating the peak of the genre.

The Album cover does not set the album to a promising start. With what must be one of the worst, yet sterotypical album covers of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Cross (like Toto) had sought to create a symbol for his act by which he could be easily identified in the future. The flamingo (why?) would be used subsequently on his sadly mediocre follow up Another Page (1983) but here it seems fitting - I don't know why. However the naff design is secondary to the fantastic music that this album possesses.

Many critics looking back like to be sniffy about music from the soft rock/AOR genres which I think is remarkably unfair, for this work definitely deserves a place amongst the other fantastic albums that came out in 1979 (A very good year for pop and rock music). The fact is that it didn't sell millions of copies or win the Grammy for record of the year (1980) for no reason, but I guess it was this commercial 'FM' quality coupled with the clean, flawless production from Michael Omartian that made many critics dislike it all the more (similar to the reception that Toto's IV  or Phil Collin's No Jacket Required would also receive in comparison to their success).

Looking at the tracks there are plenty of fantastic pop numbers and plenty of fodder for the charts. The first tune that really stands out is the bass driven 'I really don't know any more' with backing-vocals from the king of AOR Michael McDonald (of the Doobie Bros.). This is followed by the subdued 'Spinning', a soft duet with Valerie Carter (Who she?), yes it's a little saccharine but it is saved by fantastic vocal performances from the lead singers and a well placed trumpet solo. The two big hits on the album are the real highlights, 'Ride LIke the Wind' is a rollocking and catchy anthem with a killer guitar solo which you can just imagine listening to whilst speeding to the border of Mexico (a ref to the song for any of those not familiar with this cut). The other is the anthemic 'Sailing' a wistful ballad which just begs to be listened to outdoor whilst waving a lighter above your head.

I know I must sound incredibly gushing about this album but it really is one that, for me at least, has not one dud cut on it - very rare for a soft rock album. It also has one of the most impressive groups of musicians who Cross called upon to help create it: Don Henley, Jay Graydon, J D Souther, Larry Carlton, Victor Feldman, Nicolette Larson and the aforementioned Michael McDonald. But let us not forget Cross, who has a unique and very engaging vocal talent as well and an incredibly good hand when it came to writing pop music and gauging the popular mood at the turn of the 1970s. If I am right this was one of the last albums to be released in 1979 and serves as an exceptional and truly awesome end to the decade.

Therefore, I sincerely urge you to add this album to your purchase list. It is definitely in my top 10 records of all time and as such gets a solid full marks from me (10/10). It is such a shame that Christopher Cross never reached the artistic heights of this album again, but like most of the best albums, they stand solo as an island of brilliance in a sea of mediocrity.