Another look at U2’s brand new album, which has finally come out (via a free download on iTunes). This review comes from Jon Parales in The New York Times, Sept. 10th…
With Songs of Innocence, U2 Recasts Its Youth
Memories are a blast on Songs of Innocence, the album that U2 released on Tuesday afternoon as a worldwide giveaway. With a title that echoes William Blake, the album is a blast of discoveries, hopes, losses, fears and newfound resolve in lyrics that are openly autobiographical. It’s also a blast of unapologetic arena rock and cathedral-scale production, equally gigantic and detailed, in the music that carries them.
The immediate news was that Songs of Innocence (Interscope) can be downloaded free until Oct. 13 by everyone with an iTunes Store account: half a billion people in 119 countries. (Physical and digital versions of the album go on sale Oct. 14.) The giveaway is a dream scenario for U2, a band that has always wanted everyone to feel its choruses and sing along. Apple has made distribution the easy part; the bigger challenge for U2 is to make people care about a new statement from a familiar band.
During its five years between albums, U2, which released its first recording in 1979, publicly pondered how to stay relevant. Its solution, on Songs of Innocence, is to reimagine its young, retrospectively innocent selves and recall what fired them up: family, neighbors, lovers, street action and of course, music. Liner notes by Bono, the band’s lead singer and main lyricist, fill in many of the back stories, describing the songs as “first journeys.”
There are tributes to Joey Ramone, whose example showed Bono how to sing melodically but feel punk, and to Joe Strummer of the Clash, whose social consciousness inspired U2. In other songs, traumas are as significant as joys. Songs of Innocence includes “Raised by Wolves,” about a terrorist car bombing in Dublin in 1974 and its aftermath; “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight,” a prettily sinister depiction of a pedophile priest; and a nostalgia-defying song about “Cedarwood Road,” the Dublin street where Bono grew up. In the song he calls it “a war zone in my teens.”
The music on Songs of Innocence doesn’t hark back to the open spaces of early U2; it exults in multitrack possibilities. But it connects emotionally to a time when, as Bono sings in “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” “I wanted to be the melody/Above the noise, above the hurt/I was young/Not dumb.”
As U2 worked on the album, producers came and went, including some now-vanished flirtations with dance-music hitmakers and the back-to-basics guru Rick Rubin. Of U2’s longtime production brain trust—Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, Steve Lillywhite, Flood—only Flood has a few credits on Songs of Innocence. Instead, the album credits Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley, Broken Bells) as overall producer, with frequent collaborations from Paul Epworth (Adele) and Ryan Tedder (OneRepublic). And U2 sticks decisively to rock.
Clearly determined to compete for radio play with the many younger rockers who studiously emulate U2, most of the album puts a higher gloss, and sometimes a heavier fuzz tone, on the band’s instantly recognizable sound. The music is still defined by Bono’s buttonholing vocals, the Edge’s echoing guitars, Adam Clayton’s brawny bass lines and the steadfast march beats of Larry Mullen Jr. on drums. But there’s a newly eruptive sense of dynamics in these tracks; when the band assembles a celestial vocal choir or a gorgeous swirl of guitars and keyboards, a pummel or a distorted roar is rarely far behind.
U2 also makes clear its sense of history. The first verse of the Joe Strummer tribute, “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now,” looks back to the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” before switching to a Clash beat. An homage to the Beach Boys—a chorale of vocal harmonies and then a surf-tinged beat—runs through “California (There Is No End to Love),” a song about U2’s first visit to Los Angeles and broader thoughts. “There’s no end to grief,” Bono sings. “That’s how I know/And why I need to know there is no end to love.”
The songs ground philosophical musings and high-flown imagery in concrete reminiscences and events. “The star that gives us light has been gone a while/But it’s not an illusion,” Bono declares in “Iris (Hold Me Close),” which memorializes Bono’s mother, Iris Hewson, who died in 1974. It has the album’s most poignant chorus: “Hold me close,” he sings, “I’ve got your light inside of me.”
Conscious of mortality and tied to personal stories, most of U2’s new songs don’t sell themselves to teenagers like the generalized pop anthems of current U2 imitators (including Mr. Tedder’s OneRepublic) or, for that matter, the 1980s U2 that came up with songs like “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Even the album’s two most direct songs about romance, with sturdy melodies and straightforward buildups—“Song for Someone,” about meeting a soul mate, and “Every Breaking Wave,” about a looming breakup—are tinged with misgivings and ambivalences. U2 can’t return to innocence, and knows it.
The album’s closing song, “The Troubles,” moves abruptly away from glimpses of volatile youthful aspirations to envision lingering adult disillusion. The arrangement moves U2 considerably closer to Danger Mouse’s songs with Broken Bells. Over minor chords backed by a string section, a guest vocal by the Swedish pop singer Lykke Li warns, “Somebody stepped inside your soul,” and Bono follows up: “You think it’s easier to put your finger on the trouble/When the trouble is you.” It’s a dark postscript, a reminder that growing up doesn’t resolve youth’s contradictions; it brings sorrows of its own.
A first look at U2’s new album, which was, surprisingly, sprung on an unsuspecting public (via a free download on iTunes) last night (physical release comes mid-October). This review comes from Neil McCormick of The Daily Telegraph, Sept. 9th…
U2 have announced the release of their 13th studio album, Songs of Innocence, available now and free to all iTunes customers. And, after several years’ gestation, five producers, ever-shifting release dates and Bono publicly fretting that the biggest band in the world was on the verge of irrelevance, fans will be relieved to hear that it sounds a lot like U2.
It is an album of big, colourful, attacking rock with fluid melodies, bright anthemic choruses and bold lyrical ideas. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that, despite apparently being created in a spirit of self-doubt, it sounds fresh and cohesive, bouncing out of the speakers with a youthful spring in its step.
On first impressions, Songs of Innocence is not an attempt to create a grand masterpiece that redefines the band, but rather, as the title suggests, to reconnect them with an elusive pop elixir of youthful energy and passion. Lyrically, it reflects on the past, on their origins as a band and as individuals, which is unusual territory for the usually forward-looking Bono and The Edge (who share lyrical duties). Lead single and opening track, “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” sets the confident tone, with its “oh-way-oh” choral chant, glam rock stomping rhythm and surges of grungy guitar. Lyrically, it is a celebration of the transformative power of music, and in particular the effect on the young U2 of hearing The Ramones, and in that spirit it keeps things simple and direct. There are songs about growing up on the north side of Dublin (the fierce and strange “Raised by Wolves” and the dense, somewhat ungainly “Cedarwood Road”), memories of Bono’s late mother (the chiming disco driving “Iris [Hold Me Close]“) and appreciations of musical inspirations (the loose, groovy “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” is dedicated to Joe Strummer, and celebrates the Clash spirit of passion and purposefulness).
Each track seems very defined in itself, opening with a trio of songs aimed directly at American radio (“The Miracle,” “Every Breaking Wave” and “California [There Is No End to Love]“), packed with chiming guitars, synth hooks and epic choruses. It sounds like U2 taking on such young stadium rock pretenders as Snow Patrol and The Killers, intent on beating them at the game U2 themselves invented.
An immediate standout track is “Volcano,” a thrilling, thumping yet delightfully quirky celebration of the power of rock and roll that sounds a bit like Franz Ferdinand on steroids. The Ryan Tedder-produced ballad “Song for Someone” is probably the track that will have fans holding their phones aloft in stadiums, a mid-tempo ballad that builds from plucked acoustic intimacy to heart-bursting emotion. It is one of the songs that hints at ideas and feelings in the deeper currents of an album made up of dazzling surfaces.
It clearly hasn’t been an easy album to make. It is six years since No Line on the Horizon (itself widely deemed a flawed album) and three years since they completed their record breaking 360° tour. There were long sessions with cool American producer Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, who started working with the band in 2010. The album was first mooted for release at the beginning of 2014 (hence the release of a one-off single, “Invisible,” in February), but since then there have been sessions with Paul Epworth (British producer for Adele, Coldplay and Florence and the Machine) and Ryan Tedder (top songwriting collaborator with the likes of Adele, Taylor Swift and Beyonce), both highly commercial producers who bring some contemporary sheen. Long-time collaborator Mark Ellis, aka Flood, is also involved, although, in the end, it appears to have been U2’s engineer Declan Gaffney who has put in the long hours to tie it all together (leading to promotion to a full production credit).
With the album’s October release only confirmed at the very last moment (with the pressure of the Apple iPhone launch looming), I have the sense that it was plucked from the band’s grasp in the mastering suite, probably with The Edge protesting that he’s not finished yet and there’s one more echoing guitar note to be added.
For me, on first contact, it is the Danger Mouse tracks that hold the most interest, and perhaps hint at directions U2 might have rewardingly explored if they had stayed their original course and weren’t quite so intent on maintaining massive stadium-level success. Touching synth ballad “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight” and dreamy, sinister album closer “The Troubles” (with a perfectly pitched vocal chant from Swedish singer Lykke Li) are the kind of strange pop songs that can really get under your skin.
Lyrically, here and elsewhere, hints emerge that these reminiscences of the past are not quite as innocent as they first appear, and that this is an album laced with guilt, working towards self-forgiveness and redemption. “I’m a long way from where I was and where I need to be,” Bono croons on “Song for Someone,” suggesting that there is perhaps more experience at work in this album than there is innocence.
It is, at heart, a highly personal set of songs. There are no flag waving anthems, no big social causes. If there is a moral, it appears in the coda of “Cedarwood Road”: “a heart that is broken is a heart that is open.”
As a long time U2 fan and supporter (in the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I am thanked in the album credits, albeit with my name misspelled), I wouldn’t put it on a par with their greatest work – Boy, The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby or even the seamless songs of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. At times it does sound like it is trying a bit too hard to please. But it’s more pop than Pop ever was, and it certainly does the job it apparently sets out to do, delivering addictive pop rock with hooks, energy, substance and ideas that linger in the mind after you’ve heard them.
A review of several Sun Ra reissues, taken from Rolling Stone, March 4, 1993…
Last year’s Horde Tour featured an extended tribute to Sun Ra’s music. He shared a wild July 4th concert in New York’s Central Park with Sonic Youth. He’s been on the cover of Rolling Stone. Until very recently, members of his band lived with him, and they consider him a spiritual as well as musical leader. He has influenced a staggering array of musicians over the years, from NRBQ to the MC5, from Tangerine Dream to George Clinton. He soberly claims to have come from the planet Saturn.
Sun Ra, a.k.a. Herman “Sonny” Blount, is the missing link between Duke Ellington and Public Enemy. Over the past forty years, Sun Ra has led a multimedia circus that combines light shows, exotic dancers and one of the most accomplished large bands of the century, his self-styled Arkestra. In the course of performances that have been known to run for six uninterrupted hours – including those by the hundred-piece band he briefly assembled in the Eighties – Sun Ra deftly juggles swing-band arrangements by Ellington and Fletcher Henderson with searing blues stomps, free-jazz improvisations, gutbucket R&B, wild electronic-music excursions, introspective solo-piano passages, chanting Afro-beat rundowns, gospel call-and-response exchanges, extraterrestrial rap sequences and New Orleans second-line funeral marches.
This dizzying stylistic range was not absorbed overnight; Sun Ra arrived at his musical vision sometime in his thirties (since he claims not to have been born on Earth, his age is indeterminate) after playing in a wide variety of contexts. He organized bands at Alabama A&M and performed in the Fess Whatley orchestra during the Thirties. He toured the South, backing up blues singers such as Wynonie Harris and Lil Green before moving to Chicago, where he finished out the Forties in Fletcher Henderson’s band at the Club DeLisa. Sun Ra worked for close to a decade at this glamorous nightspot, arranging music to accompany the extravagant floor shows and dance marathons that helped form Chicago’s musical legend. By the time he was ready to assemble his first Arkestra, Sun Ra had mastered the full spectrum of swing blues, bop and show music and was ready to put it all together in an otherworldly mix that would anticipate future styles, from free jazz to rock & roll.
Sun Ra’s noble eclecticism has unfortunately contributed to his falling between the cracks of a genre-driven recording industry. Jazz purists refused to hear the evidence that placed him firmly in the tradition of enlightened experimentation epitomized by Ellington and Charles Mingus, choosing to disqualify him as hype because of the sequined skullcaps and gold lamé capes he wore, not to mention the metaphysical homilies he delivered onstage and off. All but the most imaginative rock & roll ears were never exposed to Sun Ra via the usual channels of radio and, in the last decade, video. As a result, virtually all of the scores of recordings on Sun Ra’s own Saturn label have been unavailable to the general public – obtainable only in the most intermittent fashion at live performances.
Or in specialty stores like Third Street Jazz and Rock, in Philadelphia, owned by Ra-phile Jerry Gordon. When Gordon decided to get out of the retail business and launch a record label, Evidence, his first creative decision was to retrieve and re-release as much of the Sun Ra catalog as possible. The ten titles covered in this review offer the first real opportunity for people to hear this music in its intended form, with meticulously remastered sonic quality and accompanied by the original a work and poetic observations from Ra: “This is the sound of silhouettes/Images and forecasts of tomorrow/Disguised as jazz.”
These CDs combine to create an essential picture of Sun Ra’s career. Sound Sun Pleasure!! combines the original release of the same name, thought to have been recorded between 1958 and 1960, with Sun Ra’s earliest recordings, an album originally called Deep Purple, mostly done in 1955, with the title track possibly being completed as much as two years earlier. The material consists primarily of standards, with Ra backing Chicago vocalist Hatty Randolph on several tracks, including an atmospheric reading of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight.” Ra was already experimenting with otherworldly sounds on this set, playing a crude pre-synthesizer device called a Solovox. Holiday for Soul Dance is another group of standards arranged for a small group and dates from 1960 to 1961.
Monorails and Satellites, a 1966 solo piano recording, showcases Ra’s unique style, which bridges the bluesy architecture of Jelly Roll Morton with the angularity of Monk and Cecil Taylor’s ascent beyond traditional structure. It’s easy to hear in the stuttering layers of harmonic fragments that Ra spins out the basis of his influence on keyboardist Terry Adams of NRBQ.
By the time Sun Ra started recording the Arkestra, in 1956, the band had reached full stride after endless rehearsals and several years of nonstop performing. The vitality of this group is nothing short of astonishing, and its innovative nature, so radical at the time, now sounds aggressively fresh, even mainstream – a mainstream this outfit helped define.
Ra experimented with modal improvisational blueprints years before Miles Davis and John Coltrane made breakthrough recordings using similar techniques. Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth, from 1956, which opens with the incendiary “Reflections in Blue,” includes “Saturn,” one of the band’s most beautiful signature tunes, as well as some more-exotic material recorded in 1958. The Evidence CD also includes the 1960 session Interstellar Low Ways, a space-music suite that finishes with “Rocket Number Nine Take Off for the Planet Venus.” NRBQ’s cover of that tune in the late Sixties introduced a generation of rockers to Ra’s extraordinary vision.
The official recorded debut of the Arkestra, Super-Sonic Jazz, also from 1956, will prove a revelation to anyone nurtured on rock & roll. The band is, first of all, electrified – with Ra on electric piano and Wilburn Green on electric bass. This kind of instrumentation would be considered sacrilegious by the jazz world for at least another decade. On “India,” the opening track, Ra’s piano intro is the clear inspiration for the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm.” The arrangement of “Super Blonde,” with its flute fills cruising over pounding toms, anticipates “Sing This All Together,” from the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request.
Jazz in Silhouette, from 1958, is a showcase for the Arkestra’s tenor-sax giant, John Gilmore, and introduces the band’s show-stopping finale, “Enlightenment.” We Travel the Spaceways/Bad and Beautiful, recorded between 1956 and 1961, presents Ra on “cosmic tone organ” and includes another of Ra’s “hits,” “We Travel the Spaceways,” which Colonel Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit dropped on the HORDE audiences as part of a medley with “Rocket Number Nine.” Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy and Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow are together on one early-Sixties package of the music that paved the way for acid rock. Listen to “Infinity of the Universe” and you’ll see where the Chambers Brothers got the idea for their psychedelic classic “Time Has Come Today.” Ra’s synthesizer work at the dawn of the Seventies on My Brother the Wind Volume II augured the synth bands that would emerge in the next few years. Other Planes of There is a full-blown free-jazz session from 1964 that, for all its experimentation, has a trancelike beauty that flows irresistibly from the spiritual cries of Gilmore and the Arkestra’s other soloists, Pat Patrick (baritone sax), Marshall Allen (alto sax), Walter Miller (trumpet), Ronnie Cummings (bass clarinet) and Danny Davis (alto sax).
The Arkestra is about much more than simply the brilliance of Ra’s conception. It was, and still remains, the medium for some of the most distinctive voices in American music. Many of these voices have been stilled – Davis and Patrick have died, along with the brilliant trumpeter Hobart Dotson, the soulful bassist Ronnie Boykins and the inventive vocalist June Tyson. Sun Ra himself has been all but silenced since suffering two debilitating strokes. It must be a comfort for him to see his life’s work retrieved from the out-files of history and preserved on these discs. His comfort – and our treasure.
For more information, write Evidence Music, 1100 East Hector Street, Suite 392, Conshohocken, PA 19428. (RS 651)
This song was produced by Bono and released on U2’s own Mother Records imprint…