Sunday, 12 October 2014

Pop Should Lay Off the Fast Food and Eat Itself : Manic Street Preachers and Kelis need attention

Unused artwork from Bloodlines album cover
Good music of established artists is forgotten to promote the new.
Manics and Kelis are good to march to work to in the summer

Biggest music disappointment for me this year, other than one of my favourite organisations - ATP - acting like crooked Keystone Cops,  was investing in latest new La Roux album. The aching Soft Cell tragedies of her classic first release are replaced with what I can only describe as bad Wham! Of course the increasingly moribund music industry exploded all over it, despite it being essentially an 80s revival album.

For me the disappointment of that album is highlighted by recent albums by two established artists, both of which were so good they prompted me to explore their back catalog.

While walking across London to work I've been buried in Kelis and the Manic Street Preachers for months. I'm quite surprised to find that both acts can put out great new albums, that sound new and inventive and yet build on their previous work. I'm even more surprised to a find a similar career trajectory for both - Initial breakthrough - mainstream acceptance - loss of media interest - experimentation - current renaissance. I'm even more surprised to find their neglected middle period work is as good as anything they did in their breakthough, prompting the thought that the fallow middle period has less to do with the artists and more to do with the industry and marketing around them just losing interest.

I was working in London at Forbidden planet when the Manic Street Preachers were playing their first shows at the Marquee just down Charing Cross road. I couldn't get anyone interested in seeing them at the time as they weren't related to either Sisters of Mercy of Skate Punk. Anyway I did what many did with the Manics, loved their initial punk period and then lost interest slowly after Everything Must Go. They never stopped being good, they just looked like they were trying to hard.

Intrigued by some talk on 6music I purchased the Manic Street Preachers album of summer 2014, Futurology, and I shouldn't have been surprised at how good it is. First draft of this post actually compared it to Achtung Baby/Zooropa and any further comparison with that band would would be cruel and unfair, but it has a similar euro inventiveness and daring. The "Trying to hard" pontificating is now bitter snarkiness and it suits them. The lyrics thankfully have slowly climbed down off the cross and it the usual great tunes of the Manics, and when I mean the usual I mean it, because this band is fantastically consistent in this area.

The real shock, and the real point of this post is that when I investigated the back catalog this band I'd previously ignored I found it was nearly as good as their new stuff.
Case in point : Bloodlines, the 2003 Manics album. At the time it was taken as such a creative nadir that their next release was called as a comeback album. Produced by frequent Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti, Bloodlines is definitely a change of pace to something much slower and moodier. The standout track, 'To Repel Ghosts', sounds more like something from the last Bowie Album or good early Snow Patrol album.

It is almost as if having a back catalog of good music is a handicap - If you released Bloodlines now under another band's name I'm convinced it would be a success but as it is labelled 'just another Manic Street Preachers album' it is filed away and forgotten.

It is perhaps telling of they way that the Welshmen's career and talent has been developed that Lipstick Traces, their B-sides collection, now sounds better than the band's own official greatest hits album.. more inventive, more daring and catchier. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that this is a band for another perhaps harsher, more politically engaged era. Or that someone did a really lousy job of promoting them.

Supporting that is the realisation that that both their B-sides and their A-sides are by some distance more inventive and smarter than more lauded contemporaries.  I think Oasis's later albums are similarly underrated but given what I've been hearing recently it is pretty shocking to compare the relative cultural importance given to Oasis vs Manics. Oasis's soundtrack contributions to Snatch deserved a BAFTA nomination but their general level of success is embarrassing  in retrospect, they were the British Brian Jonestown Massacre at best.

The original draft again wandered off into a long rant about novelty Mancunians.. but I'll drag this back into the positive by including the other back catalog discovery of the summer. It a similar manner to Futurology, Kelis's new Food album opened up a whole artists life of good albums.

Again this shouldn't have been a surprise as I've been waiting to go through a Kelis Period for ages, but I was still knocked out by how good forgotten albums can be. So much so that I'm shocked to hear the first Kelis album now, Kaleidoscpe, because it is so boring compared to her later work.
Kaleidoscope is still seems to a feature of every woman's CD collection in Britain

It is nearly always the only Kelis they have, and this is a crime as she gets a lot more interesting. This is why I never got into Kelis in the first place, Kaleidoscope was dull sub-Aaliyah RnB promoted at the time as a kind of Cosmic Dee-lite.

2014's Food, is an absolutely balsy and brilliant concept album about cooking which is daring mostly because plays it safe - it goes from afrobeat to outer space in usual Kelis style but maximses her great voice by generally orbiting sultry 70s retro by way of Marvin Gaye. Try keeping any part of your body sensible to 'Fish Fry'.

How did Food some right out of left field to surprise us? I immediately bought her previous, Flesh Tones, and initially it is a catastrophic scifi disco inferno. A complete embarrassment at first listen, like the release it seems to be clumsily replicated from, Madonna's Confessions on a Dance Floor, it is a a slow but unstoppable grower. (Example : the track 'Home' is great to march out onto a road straight in front a London taxi). Taking Flesh Tones too seriously is a huge mistake, once you can exercise to it and smile at the same time it becomes a big brassy robot you can love. It is the Metal Mickey of RnB albums, a big budget remake of "I Lost My Heart To a Starship Trooper", too daft and "cool" to realise how loveably dorky it is

Before Flesh Tones, Kelis Was Here is a Prince inflected boiling stew of invention (try standout tracks Till them Wheel's Fall Off and Like You). She is never too far from including a guest male vocal from some identikit RnB scumbag but is consistently unpredictable and I'll be buying her music or recipe books from now on.

What kind of industry creates and throw's away talent like this? I've never worked in or with the music industry. (About all I do know is they seem to love male identikit RnB scumbags).

I used to think the sudden collapse of the British motorcycle industry was scary. It was the leading British export at the end of the 1960s, and yet was totally extinct a decade later.  It is a real business horror story but bad as they were its not as if Triumph, Norton BSA etc were bringing out a new inferior model every week and teaching a new generation of buyers via talent shows that home builders could do the same if not better,,,

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