In an effort to further her musical education, Susan Omand has been set "homework" of listening to albums released after the 1980s that she has missed out on. This week she doesn't get the blues...
Find the full list of albums for Educating Omand: Year 3 here
I feel cheated! When an album is called 12 Bar Blues you (well, at least I) expect just that – a blues album. I had been looking forward to listening to this one from way back at the start of the year when I got my Year 3 curriculum listening list and pressed play full of syncopation anticipation and a need for laid back trad rhythm.
Yeah…. No. This is not that.
What this is, is STUNNING!
I must sheepishly admit that I have no idea who or what Scott Weiland is at the start of this (sorry to everyone that has just done the whole sharp intake of breath thing, but you have to understand that I completely missed out on the Seattle grunge scene back in the day) and, coupled with my preconceptions based solely on album title, track one was a true assault on the senses.
From the electronic feedback intro to the subtle, almost whispered verses and a boppy chorus that sparks of REM, this is so much not what I expected. It’s not just yer typical pop song though, there’s such a lot going on here, it’s a really complex piece of music. Wood block enhances the percussion, reverb wobbles the vocals, marimba-like sounds highlight the grungy guitars, each listen adds some new detail and the intricacy is immaculate.
Barbarella comes next (somewhat literally if you listen to the lyrics) and the simple pub band style melody is lifted with some gloriously unexpected orchestration. As well as more of the startling of beat rhythm, there’s vocal loops, piano, twangy country style guitar and an insidious buzz in the bass. What’s most incredible though is Weiland’s a capella vocals in the middle. What a voice! There are not enough superlatives for it. I love it. Favourite track on the album.
About Nothing builds industrially, even down to the feedback filled factory hammer noise, with atonal tuning that turns melody into percussion. The sudden switch to a richly harmonious, almost Beach Boys style, chorus is so exciting because there’s always that edge of feedback and slight atonality to keep you on edge.
The thumpy guitar intro of Where’s the Man devolves into a truly gorgeous Celtic style ballad, complete with strings, that again showcases Weiland’s vocal. The build on this from that simple start is beautifully wrought with strands being added to the tapestry until it ends up overflowing with a richness that drops off so, SO well to the single cello at the end.
Divider is a complete change of pace with subtle latin rhythms, including marimba, shakers, and complex jazz piano under a soft unctuous vocal. It reminds me in a lot of ways of Sade – which, for aficionados of Weiland’s work is probably heresy, but I could really hear her doing a cover of this.
Cool Kiss rattles you out of your reverie though in with a return to a much more multi-layered richly industrial noise. I had to check that the track hadn’t changed though with that ending. Bravo for the counterpoint.
The Date washed over me in the same patchwork of contented confusion that I get from Avant Garde Classical composers, in that it makes very little “sense” but is absolutely mind blowing because of it. The percussiveness of it is astonishing and I love the use of speech samples.
Son is beautiful. The strings, from the Hitchcockian glissando start to the cello that underpins this melancholy ballad, work so well. The vocal harmonies are, again, reminiscent of the Beach Boys, and that bend in the lead guitar riff is just gorgeous.
In total contrast, Jimmy Was A Stimulator starts with full on electronica that smacks of 80’s nightclub dancefloors for me. This is not a bad thing of course. The robotic monotone of the verse is mixed with woozy hippy-dippy choruses that make a very fun song… as long as you don’t listen too closely to the words.
Lady Your Roof Brings Me Down starts with Cabaret-esque piano, strings and strict tempo snares. And accordion. Because of course it does. If it hadn’t been on this album, it would have been “the quirky song” but, with every song having something totally unique to commend it, this one fits in beautifully. It brings to mind music hall stages, aspidistras and The Beatles (for some bizarre reason.)
Mockingbird Girl is probably the closest to 90s grunge that you’ll find on the album but, alongside the muddy guitars and the achingly 90s bassline, there’s still a real lightness of touch to the melody that is maybe more pop punk than grunge.
The album rounds out with a very rock and roll start to Opposite Octave Reaction with the intro chord progressions taking me back to The Beatles and I Wanna Hold Your Hand. As it goes on, the Beatles feel continues for me with a sophisticated texturally layered dissolution into organised chaos in the same way that Love Is All You Need does in Yellow Submarine. But so much better.
Beatles notwithstanding, this is an incredible album, one whose artistry means it immediately found a place in my top 10, and you can very definitely call me educated this time. So much so that I’m going to say something that could be controversial – Weiland reminds me of Bowie. Not just in his vocal tonal quality, which is very very similar, but also in the excitement of his experimentalism with sound. This is a man who is confident in his creativity. Successfully walking the very thin line between being “shocking for the sake of it” nonconformance and being totally uncompromising in his artistic vision. He wields instruments and twines tonality in the same way that modern artists create with a palette knife to produce works which, on the surface, are sumptuous, rich and beautiful, interesting and intriguing, drawing the attention to closer inspection. But he also has the ability which bears out that closer inspection with clinical precision and technique. There is nothing “happy little accident” about either composition or execution here. Weiland knew what he was doing with each and every instrument, every phrase, building each track into a masterpiece in its own right. But the genius, the real genius, is that he does it completely differently every single time. And he makes it work. Every. Single. Time.
Image - Amazon