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October 31, 2005

Countdown to Aerial 1: The Kick Inside

The Kick Inside begins with a brief recording of whale song; once the actual music starts, it wastes no time. Piano, voice (ooooh, what a voice), half a verse before the band kicks in with a Pink Floyd-like tempo. "Moving" doesn't linger either: 3 packed minutes, then it's over. " The Saxophone Song" recorded three years before most of the rest of the album, lasts a little longer, almost four minutes, but still makes its point succinctly. Both tracks wear their influences on their sleeves – the shadow of David Gilmour, who discovered Kate and produced the early sessions, practically looms over the opening sequence – but are distinctly Kate, not just because of her piercing, love-it-or-hate-it soprano voice and piano-driven songwriting, but also because they already show her use of repetition and timing to build tension between sections of the songs.
But it gets even better with song number three, "Strange Phenomena". Where the first two songs stick closely to late 1970s, late-night soft-rock style, "Phenomena" takes the album in a more uncomfortable direction. It's the earliest song in which Kate uses the lower end of her vocal range, creating an eerie, witchy sound. Unlike on her later albums, the menace is relieved by an anthemic chorus. "Kite" then establishes her long-standing relationship with reggae music. Of course, in 1978, there was practically a law requiring each new album to have at least one reggae-oriented number on it, but Kate would return to reggae throughout the rest of her career. It's a catchy tune as well. A mood of Gothic romance dominates the next two tunes, "The Man With The Child In His Eyes" from the Gilmour sessions, and Kate's famous debut "Wuthering Heights". The two songs are two sides of the same coin, in a way: in one, the protagonist, let's call her Fictional!Kate in the tradition of contemporary fannish criticism, has a night-time, possibly imaginary visitor who seems haunted; in the second, Fictional!Kate is Kathy, the protagonist of Emily Bronte's novel, haunting her lover.
The mood shifts radically with "James and the Cold Gun" violent lyrics and Thin-Lizzy-style hard rock. It worked better on Kate's one tour than it does on the album, but it's another signpost – another idiom that Kate would later return to and develop more sophisticated variations on.
Sex and infatuation are the themes of the next three songs, "Feel It", "Oh, To Be In Love" and "L'Amour Looks Something Like You". On "Feel It", Kate allows herself to sing off-pitch in the descending lines of the chorus, as if losing control at the end of each line. It doesn't quite work for me, and this trio of tracks doesn't quite live up to the standards of the rest of the album; however, the record as a whole has such momentum that it can survive a three comparitively weak songs in a row. What they does show is that Kate was fearless even then, singing about after-party quickies and taking her voice places where nice, obedient, record-company-groomed girl singers don't go.
Reggae gets another outing in "Them Heavy People", another catchy, memorable tune if not the sort of thing to hit the listener in the gut like much of Kate's later work.
The album is closed with two songs refering to pregnancy, and again, they seem deliberately paired. In the up-beat "Room for the Life" the ability to bear children is treated as a source of feminine pride; in "The Kick Inside", Fictional!Kate is impregnated by her brother and kills herself. "Kick" is a much-overlooked track, probably because it comes at the end of a rollercoaster of an album. Listen carefully and it's gut-wrenching.
I have no memory of a world without Kate Bush's music. I suppose it must have been 1978 or 1980 when I first heard "Wuthering Heights", and my musical memories simply don't stretch back much further. I've pretty much always been a fan of her work, even when I only knew it as "that strange song with the high voice".

I was born too late to be aware of the musical landscape before Kate arrived on the scene. My interest in classic rock has made up for a lot, but I simply am not equipped to tell what, if anything, the impact of The Kick Inside must have been. I've been told that it affected one or two people.
Today, I tried to listen to it as if I heard it for the first time, giving it multiple spins in one day like I do with all records I review. I don't think I quite succeeded - I just know this album too well.

And you know what? It's damned good. One of three essential albums that Kate has made so far.

November 1, 2005

Countdown to Aerial 2: Lionheart

Would it really have been so bad if Kate had done the obvious thing and become a piano-driven singer-songwriter, churning out an album a year focusing on just the songs? Lionheart has gone down in history as one of Kate's lesser albums, a quickie intended to cash in on the success of The Kick Inside, released the same year. I disagree with history's verdict. It's true, I'll admit, that Kate's second record doesn't surprise the way her debut does, but on its own merits, it's a very strong album. There's no sense at all that the songs were mere leftovers from the previous batch - more likely they were deliberately kept in reserve.
The recording, arrangements and production seem more cohesive and focused than on The Kick Inside, and the finished product may well have benefited from a faster recording process. If you have good songwriting and no immediate ambition to try something completely new, you might as well cut down on the frills and get on with it.
Lionheart is one of the most worn-out records in my vinyl collection. I've mentioned this on the blog before; I've since managed to clean it up a bit and my copy's now quite listenable again.
The songs themselves? Sex, arsenic murder, secret homosexuality, the confusion of a child faced with the machinations of the adults around him, some more sex, piano, voice, some good banshee shrieks... business as usual. Slightly less twee in feel in the gentler numbers, more balanced in the harder ones. "Fullhouse", "Wow", "Hammer Horror" and "Don't Push Your Foot On The Heartbrake" alone make the record well worth buying. One like this a year from 1978 to 2005? I'd have bought every one of them. Highly Recommended, and no, I won't be saying that of every Kate album.

November 2, 2005

Countdown to Aerial 3: Never For Ever

I had my review of Never For Ever all written up in my head. I'd given the record another spin at the studio during the afternoon and it confirmed what I was going to write. Then I made the mistake of taking the CD home and playing it on the stereo at high volume. Ehrm.
Okay.
I was going to write that Never For Ever was a transitional album, with Kate's new production approach, learned through working with Peter Gabriel in 1980, hastily grafted on to material that couldn't really carry it off. Certainly some of the songs were old by the time the album was recorded: The opening track, "Babooshka", is widely bootlegged as a demo from before the release of The Kick Inside, and "Violin" was played on Kate's only tour in early 1979. Some of the songs might have been newer but still have the stylistic features of earlier Kate Bush compositions; they are, at heart, piano-backed, melody-based songs rather than the rhythmic, textured pieces of The Dreaming and Hounds of Love.
I was also going to write that the album didn't hang together very well, that despite its short length, it has several songs that outstay their welcome and that the thing as a whole drags on a bit. I was going to mention that the three indisputably great songs on the album, "Babooshka", "Army Dreamers" and the spine-chilling "Breathing", are all on the The Whole Story collection anyway, and that that compilation is a pretty good starting point for newcomers to Her Kateness. Finally, I had concluded, in my head, that many of the songs are clever and well-done rather than engaging and that the record as a whole lacks the emotional intensity and urgency of her best work.
I suppose all of those things are still true. But it is also true that when a record doesn't quite hit home, it's often because you're not playing it loud enough. Never For Ever has quite a few rocking moments (she sounds like Nina Hagen in "Violin" and "The Wedding List") and uses dynamics and crescendo a lot in the arrangements, so playing it at high volume definitely improves it. It still isn't my favorite Kate Bush album, but it's a cracking good listen nonetheless.

November 3, 2005

Countdown to Aerial 4: The Dreaming

The difficult question when it comes to writing about The Dreaming isn't so much "Can I write about this record without gushing?" as "Should I?". Having thought about it a bit, I can't see why not. The Dreaming is not merely the best Kate Bush record; it's THE BEST RECORD EVER MADE BY ANYONE IN THE HISTORY OF POPULAR MUSIC!!! It's perfect from beginning to end: strange, innovative, melodic, exciting, packed with raw emotion, violence and clever storytelling. It also has Kate braying like a donkey.

But that doesn't happen until the end. "Sat In Your Lap" opens the record with a pounding cymbal-less drum pattern, Stevie Wonder-inspired piano, ska-like afterbeats and Kate's characteristic banshee voice; but it's immediately and startlingly different from anything on the previous album. The Dreaming's melody lines are shorter than on earlier albums, taking a back seat to the tapestry of sound and rhythm. Having said that, "There Goes a Tenner" and "Pull Out The Pin" still showcase Kate's piano playing. In the former, it's part of another ska rhythm, somewhat slowed down; in the latter, it is woven into the menace created by Danny Thompson's double bass and Brian Bath's eerie, effect-heavy guitars.

The next two songs are the fast waltz "Suspended in Gaffa" and "Leave it Open" with its slowed-down and muted heavy metal stomp. Jimmy Bain (then of Dio) plays bass on that track as well as "Sat in Your Lap" and the album closer "Get Out Of My House". In "Leave it Open", Kate's voice is distorted by a flanging effect which makes her use of her lower register extra scary.
The second half of the album begins with the title track, notoriously backed by Rolf Harris on didgeridu. It seems to be some sort of British tradition to make fun of Rolf Harris and claim that his didgeridu playing was the reason the record wasn't commercially succesful, but it's not a tradition I want anything to do with. The didgeridu sounds like every other didgeridu outside of a Gjallarhorn record and the album made the UK top 10 and spawned two hit singles, one of which was that title track. So there. It's a good track; not the album's best but sitting innocuously in the middle. Through a short bridging section, it leads into the much better "Night of the Swallow" a dramatic track with Irish folk instrumentation courtesy of Bill Whelan. Vocally, "Night of the Swallow" is a tour de force in which Kate allows her voice to break just enough to convey the character's anguish and frustration.

"All The Love", by contrast, has a sad, elegiac mood, ending with choirboy singing and answering machine messages bidding farewell in response to the lead vocals. It's the closest on the album to old-style Kate Bush.

"Houdini" alternates between moody menace in the verses, sexy sweetness in the first parts of the choruses and panic and horror in the second parts of the choruses. It's quite a ride, but not as much of a ride as "Get Out Of My House", the highlight of an already perfect album. It's a violent, layered track with pounding drums, echoing guitars and throbbing heavy metal bass. The vocals alone contain three separate musical threads: the repetitive shrieks of "Get out of my house!", the repeated, high-pitched taunts of "With my key I – With My Keeper I" and the litany of things found in the house. The second half of the song evolves into a duet followed by animal sounds and drum talk. Play it loud; if you're already playing the album loud, play this track louder.

Many of the lyrics feature a character, the Fictional!Kate, in a moment of intense concentration and/or crisis. The protagonist of "Pull Out The Pin" is a Vietnamese guerilla about to make a kill. The bank robber protagonist of "Tenner" is about to pull of a heist. Their stories are compressed into the moment where "it" happens.

Then there's the references to chains and bonds, keys, locks, and crime. The character in "Gaffa" is struggling through invisible bonds (as if restrained by gaffa tape) towards an unattainable goal. The Fictional!Kate of "Leave it Open" responds to "a trigger come cocking" by shutting herself off from the world, but heals and learns to leave herself open and let the weirdness in. In addition to the bank robbing tale of "Tenner", there's the drug smuggler narrative of "Night Of The Swallow"; in that song, Kate takes on the role of the smuggler's wife trying to prevent the smuggler from going on one more trip. The penultimate song "Houdini" features the line that was the tagline for the original vinyl edition: With a kiss, I pass the key - the key being the one Houdini will use to free himself from his chains. "Houdini" actually weaves two stories: the one of Houdini's death in the fishtank, and the one of his widow holding a séance - ostensibly to contact Houdini in the afterlife but really to expose the medium for the fraud she believes him to be. The medium, however, uses the secret passphrase her late husband gave her.
The final song returns to the themes of violation and seclusion, and mentions keys again. In "Get Out of the House" Fictional!Kate protects herself, her house, her life, herself against an unseen intruder. Withdrawing into herself, she sees a part of herself as a concierge barring and bolting the doors that would otherwise have provided an opening for the intruder. When that fails, she engages the intruder in a "Two Magicians" routine, in which they take turns transforming themselves into something stronger than the opponent's last shape. Fictional!Kate ends up as a mule, braying and ugly, but victorious.
Much has been written in the papers lately about Kate Bush's intense wish for privacy, and especially for safety from the prying eyes of the press. "Leave it Open" and "Get Out of My House" show that this desire to be left alone has long been present in Bush's mind and in her recorded music. "Gaffa" and "All The Love" show why she values privacy – because the intrusions of public life distract a person from her own goals and from the pursuit of intimacy with those who are close to her.
Or maybe not. Is it worth the trouble to sum up the meaning of The Dreaming in a few words of analysis and criticism? The only thing that could sum up this album is the album. If The Dreaming was a world, it would need a map the size of that world to represent it fully. It is that rich, with more emotion, meaning and passion crammed into its 43 minutes than many artists can hope to portray in a lifetime.

It's fun to try though; The Dreaming excites me not just emotionally but also intellectually, and I can't help but try to create a clearer picture of just what makes all the pieces fit together so well. But maybe I should just have gushed.

The Dreaming is essential, with polished brass knobs on and extra swearing. Did I mention that you should play it loud? And that often when "Get Out Of My House" comes on I can't resist the urge to dance (when no one is watching)?

November 4, 2005

Countdown to Aerial 5: Hounds of Love

[Note: as of today, this is no longer, strictly speaking, a countdown. When I started the series, I hadn't taken note of Aerial's German/Dutch release date, which was today. I have the album, have heard it, and will undoubtedly be influenced by these facts while reviewing the final three pre-Aerial Kate Bush records. But I'll stick with the series title and the schedule so that readers in the United States and ditto Kingdom can pretend I'm still gearing up for the momentous events of Monday, October 8.]

Having made the perfect album in 1982, Kate takes three years to produce one that, in places, is even better. However, there are some faults in Hounds of Love that relegate it to the status of only the second-best album ever made by anyone in the history of popular music, without all-caps, multiple exclamation marks or curly brass knobs (although I'll be more than happy to throw in some swearing). The production is a bit too clinical for my tastes although those big gated '80s drums that so many recent reviewers of Kate's work complain about suit the record just fine. A bigger problem is that the album has too many singles. Specifically, too many similar singles. The album opens with its biggest hit single, "Running Up That Hill", a sensual, sexy track built on a commando beat and synth vamps over a synth pedal tone. There are verses and choruses, but the overal feel is very free-form. For a while in the 1990s, I used to dislike this one, but I now think it's great again. The second track, the title track, is every bit as good, but is another beat-driven number with a loose verse-chorus structure on top of it. In fact, I have a twelve-inch single version of it in which Kate sings a completely unrelated melody over the same beats, fitting equally well - that's how much freedom the structure gives her. The third track, "The Big Sky" is another rhythm-based number with free-flowing song over it, and by this time, it's getting to be a bit much. It's the weakest of the three and while perfectly listenable and a hit single in its own right (it's got a great bass part by Killing Joke bassist Youth), it might have been better kept for a B-side or CD bonus track. You'll understand that I'm only grumbling about it because the rest of the record is so good; in any case, it picks up momentum quickly enough with the fourth track, "Mother Stands For Comfort". That is actually one where the clinical production enhances the work: the coldness of the drum machines makes for an exciting contrast with the soft vocals and especially German jazz bassist Eberhard Weber's moving fretless bass accompaniment. I love the bass, I always make a point of listening closely to what it does in any song, but nowhere else that I know of has the instrument carried so much emotion. "Cloudbusting", a rhythmic, free-flowing track with repetitive backing from two drummers and a string sextet, closes side A of the album, the singles-oriented part that is properly entitled "Hounds of Love"

Side B has its own title, "The Ninth Wave" and is much more conceptual. It does the impossible by topping the undescribable goodness that is The Dreaming for 20 minutes. The seven songs are held together by a thin storyline about a woman's near-drowning, near-death experience and rescue from the water, but that story is merely a peg for her to hang a series of mood pieces on. It starts dreamily with "And Dream of Sheep" conveying the protagonist's slow fading in and out of awareness through Satie-like piano vamps and crystal clear singing. The second song, "Under Ice" intends to scare the bejeesus out of the listener. Having succeeded at that, Kate turns the fear factor up a notch with the hallucinatory, claustrophobic "Waking The Witch", a collage of electronic noises, sound effects, grunts and shrieks similar to the dialogue sequences in "Get Out Of My House" on The Dreaming. If that sounds disorganised, it isn't - everything makes musical sense. That death metal grunt, by the way, is Kate's own voice slowed down.
Panic gives way to acceptance as the nearly-drowned protagonist moves out of her body to watch her loved ones at home. "Watching You Without Me" is a serene, simple song with little in the way of frills. It sounds vaguely Chinese, especially with the strange backing vocals towards the end.
The most upbeat moment of "The Ninth Wave" is "Jig of Life", a hybrid Celtic/Hungarian dance piece with changing time signatures. It has the Irish folk musicians from The Dreaming again and works really well to lift the spirits. Lyrically, it does just that: the protagonist is lifted from her slide towards death by the vision of herself as an old lady telling her that

This moment in time
It doesn't belong to you
It belongs to me
And to your little boy and to your little girl...
Where on your palm is my little line
When you're written in mine as an old memory
which for some reason always makes me choke up.
Speaking of choking up, "Hello Earth" hits that spot more than once in its six minutes of playing time. Compositionally, it's one of Kate's most daring and most succesful ever, which is saying a lot. The opening notes manage to be simultaneously quiet and urgent (partly due to Kate's vocal delivery, which is assured and clear as a bell), and what follows is a slow-building storm of a song, with the drums kicking in at a Pink Floyd tempo before disappearing into the first of two choral sections. It builds up again with the main melody, this time backed by the Irish folk guys, a response melody sung by Kate as overdubbed backing vocals, and then the second, longer, choral section, shifting the mood to one of loss and longing.

"The Morning Fog" is almost an afterthought. It fits; it promises hope and renewal. But alone among the tracks on this wonderful album, it would have difficulty standing up on its own. It has some nice bass and guitar work though and works well as a coda allowing the listener to recover from the rollercoaster ride that is "The Ninth Wave".

Hounds of Love, then, is really two great albums compressed into 40-odd minutes' playing time. It's essential. The 1997 remaster has a few bonus tracks that are okay; a bit of a grab bag to be honest. Simply Vinyl in the UK released a high-quality vinyl edition a few years ago, but it no longer appears to be on their catalogue. It is that vinyl version I used as a reference for this review.

Link of interest: Choral arranger Michael Berkeley on the creation of the choral sections of "Hello Earth"

November 5, 2005

Countdown to Aerial 6: The Sensual World

Four years after Hounds of Love, Kate comes up with a record that isn't nearly as good. The Sensual World doesn't try to be Hounds of Love part 2, which is a good thing, but the record lacks a strong direction of its own. The biggest problem with the record is a lack of what made the previous ones so appealing to me: compressed, urgent songwriting. For the first time, Kate allows the songs to drag on, or worse, dither before getting to the point. The track "Heads We're Dancing" is the best example of that: the rhythm track is innovative, there's a tension to the arrangement and the singing, but it feels padded, too long to carry the limited melodic and lyrical ideas. "Between a Man and a Woman" also suffers from this problem. In others like "Love and Anger", I hear the first signs of a certain awkwardness creeping into the melodies, a sense that what Kate is singing sits uneasily on top of a rhythm track.
There's plenty that's good on the record though. The title track is lush and erotic - Kate is probably the only arranger who can make uillean pipes sound sexy. "The Fog" has a lot of the urgency and complexity of the best material on Hounds of Love, "Never Be Mine" and "This Woman's Work" are sensitive, introspective and above all melodic pieces that should appeal to musical traditionalists; and best of all, "Rocket's Tail" is a monster composition, starting with a wailing chorus from the Trio Bulgarka, which counterpoints Kate's main vocal throughout the song, even after they're joined by Dave Gilmour's soaring guitar work and a backing band sounding more like Pink Floyd than Pink Floyd themselves did at the time. An exciting, cathartic song that showed Kate still had it.

Given the choice between The Sensual World and any of the previous five albums, I wouldn't pick The Sensual World to play. But the stronger tracks are doing fine in my MP3 collection.

November 6, 2005

Countdown to Aerial 7: The Red Shoes

There's a strong critical consensus that Kate's seventh studio album is her weakest. The consensus is not wrong, but I'm not sure the reasons for the record's failure are well understood.
The Red Shoes is not at all a bad album. If it had been awful, it would have been better. If Kate had gone out on a limb and failed heroically, creating a memorably rubbish album, she would at least have gone out on a limb with memorable results. Instead, the only innovation we get is a few tracks on which she attempts to make danceable, funk- and Latin-inspired music, and sort-of succeeds.
The album has few actual faults. A few tracks, most notably "Eat The Music", could have done with a serious trimming and her collaboration with Prince, "Why Should I Love You" falls rather flat through no obvious fault of either artist, but on the whole, The Red Shoes is listenable. It gets the odd spin at the studio, from people other than me, even. It just... doesn't grab, doesn't irritate, doesn't connect.
Again, there is the ponderousness creeping in. Many fans single out "Moments of Pleasure" as an exceptionally strong, emotionally convincing composition; I find it awkward and over-wrought although the piano and orchestration work are nice.
Highlights for me on the album are "Lily" with its urgent beat and vocals and Kaballa-derived lyrics (yup, Kate practised Kaballa before Kaballa was cool) and "Big Stripy Lie" in which Kate plays deliberately crude guitar and bass parts over a rudimentary beat. The mood is lifted in a few places within songs: by the Star Trek pastiche in "Constellations of the Heart", Gary Brooker's organ work on "You're The One" and Kate singing "I don't want your bullshit" on "Song of Solomon" which has the Trio Bulgarka backing her again. But for the most part, The Red Shoes just goes right through me.
Postscript: It benefits from playing it louder. Still not her best.

November 7, 2005

Countdown to Aerial 8: Aerial

So the album is out, and European fans in particular have been all over it as a Technorati Search will reveal. But is it any good? Is it really, as some fans have gushed, Kate's best since Hounds of Love?

I've listened to it a few time and my preliminary judgement is that Aerial just about manages to be her best since The Red Shoes. I can't stress enough that this is preliminary: I've lived with her other albums for over a decade, in some cases two, and there are many tracks on them that took me a long time to learn to appreciate. But after half a dozen listens, it seems to me that the album suffers from the same problems that its 1993 predecessor did: a lack of urgency, focus and strong melodies.

What I'm hearing on both records is some very pretty, well-recorded music, influenced by jazz, electronica, reggae and latin in equal measures. The singing is often jazzy as well, especially in tracks like "Pi" from the first disk and "Sunset" from the second.

Ah, yes. It's a double CD. I think that was her first mistake. Rather than compressing all her ideas into concise, poignant songs, Kate has allowed each individual composition to stretch to the point where most of them wear out their welcome. A version of Aerial cropped to 50 or so minutes still wouldn't be my favourite Kate Bush album, but it would be a much stronger one.

The reason such a hypothetical cropped version still wouldn't be my favorite is more due to Kate's direction than anything else. It is in this area that my opinion of the album is most likely to change over time. Kate has chosen to write and sing mostly quiet, meditative material about the beauty, contentment and romance of everyday life, and right now, that's not what I want out of a Kate Bush album - or indeed any album. But who knows what I might want in a few years' time?

Even keeping that in mind, though, Aerial could have made its case more convincingly. The best art in any medium draws the observer into the creation, compelling the observer to "get it". There are few such moments on either of the two disks. "Sunset" with its steady pace, simple melody and lyrics sung so as to emphasise the dead stops at the ends of each line, comes closest. After a few tense silences, the joyous Latin section at the end provides release. For all its seeming simplicity, the song is a tour de force.
For the most part, though, the album sticks to the background, prettily washing over this one listener just like much of the previous record did. There is, on the whole, more to pique the interest in the first disk, the collection of Kate songs, than in the second, conceptual one, but in both, there simply isn't enough.
I find myself at the end of either record wondering what I just listened to.

In another few years, though, who knows?

November 8, 2005

Two quick music links

Everything Sounds Like Coldplay Now by Mitch Benn and the Distractions. Dig the song, dig the URL even more. (Via one of the miscreants at Tapelounge)

Kate vs. Tori with photographic comparisons between the two. The winner gets to fight a bear.

September 22, 2006

"I loved you a long time ago...."

Just how good is YouTube?
This good:
Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush singing Roy Harper's "Another Day" for some BBC TV program in 1979. The audio and video quality aren't too good, but as I'm very familiar with the work of both performers and the songwriter, I can fill in the gaps in my mind easily. Spine-tingling stuff, this, in which Gabriel and Bush's voices play off one another perfectly. That little quaver in Kate Bush's voice? One of these days that's going to kill me.
I knew that this cover version existed but had no idea it had been broadcast. Many thanks to YouTuber JustinX30 for digging this up.

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