The song “Queen of Denmark” was made to known to me, and to many others I would presume, in its venomous but life-affirming cover version by Sinead O Connor which featured on her most recent album and was an obvious highlight. I wasn’t aware of the original and had never heard of the former lead singer of The Czars before; sorry. Since then I’ve been curious enough to listen to John Grant’s much-adored, very good indeed debut album (also called “The Queen of Denmark” )released 3 years ago and am curious as to what fans of that recording will make of this, the follow up, “Pale Green Ghosts”.
The “Queen of Denmark” album was predominantly acoustic, occasionally full-on jokey but mainly folky, tongue in cheek Carpenters-aspiring melancholia. The song writing here remains pretty unchanged, every song is about John Grant and his emotional, cognitive state; there is a lot of humour and a lot of anger. Musically however there has a been a very significant change, give or take a couple of tracks every song is awash with electronics, executed perfectly and extremely well produced courtesy of art pop Icelandic group GusGus’s Biggi Veira. The leading title track and “Black Belt” are typical examples of that with “Pale Green Ghosts” also incorporating Sergei Rachnaninoff’s “Prelude In C Minor” and sounding very much like Barry Adamson’s late nineties, cinematic stuff. “GMF” follows and is the first of the 2 acoustic tracks but it’s not until the beautiful and biting “Vietnam” (hold out for the striking string coda at the end), which signifies the start of an amazingly strong run of 6 songs, where Grant ups the song-writing ante and everything comes together magnificently as a whole.
“Sensitive New Age Guy”’ could be considered to be the most throwaway track here and is a delirious, techno sneer at the irritation that phrase conjures up. It sounds like it’s been produced by Felix Da Housecat in his prime and shares DNA with Donna Summer’s “Sunset People”; you wouldn’t have seen that coming after listening to Grant’s debut. “Ernest Borgnine” refers to Grant being informed of his recent HIV diagnosis and it isn’t depressing; it’s funny and catchy and one of the closet things here to an actual, albeit wonky, pop song. This and the elastic “You Don’t Have To” more than anyone else bring to mind Rufus Wainwright, another gay smarty pants; ironic, bitchy, scene-hating intellectuals who still feel outside of any supposed community and both of these tracks bear a strong resemblance to Wainwright’s best, most-realised work from the “Want One” and “Want Two” albums.
So John Grant must have also really enjoyed Sinead O’Connor’s take on the ‘Queen of Denmark’ because she features on 4 songs here (and is amusingly referred to as Mrs Grant in the credits) and what a joy and surprise it is to hear her in such a bleak, electronic setting and no more so than on the razor sharp “Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore” which is the darkest and probably the best song here. More of a duet than the backing vocals she provides on the other 3 songs, O’ Connor sings the whole song with Grant as a ghostly duet, echoing back each line with both suspended in the most chilling electronic soundscape, the pile up of duelling synth melodies at the end just continues the sense of a couple’s relationship disintegrating.
I think some of Grant’s original fans could struggle with the musical direction he has taken here and although understandable I think it adds a dimension that was in fact needed, the weightiness of some of the lyrical themes justify an equally substantial and edgy musical surround. He is an interesting, complex and sometimes challenging artist and this album finds him successfully experimenting and taking risks in areas where he could just have easily replicated the original sound of his much loved debut. Bravo big guy, one of the best releases of the year so far.
Oh no, it’s that time of the year again; Christmas, and I hate it. No sooner do we get Halloween out of the way than the compilation CD ads start to appear everywhere. It’s bad enough that we have to listen to the usual festive dross without watching the unsavoury annual spectacle of music business grave robbery; it makes Burke and Hare look like Ant and Dec. And who do you think is so potless this Christmas that they need to release a compilation to raise a couple of quid so they can enjoy the festivities properly this year? Only the Rolling Stones, that’s who.
Do you know when the first Rolling Stones greatest hits package was released? 46 years ago in November 1966, just in time for Christmas market. You won’t be gobsmacked to hear that every track on that album, “Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass)” , except “Lady Jane” (more about that one later) features on the new 3 CD set “Grrr”. Now, I like to do my research, but I’m on a deadline here, so I’m going to say that the number of UK Stones hits packages must be in double figures by now, so how many copies of “Jumping Jack Flash” does anyone need? As for “Lady Jane”, it is possible to get it on “Grrr” if you buy the 4 CD set, which is a bargain at about £100. You do want Mick and Keith to get those deluxe mince pies, don’t you? Grrr indeed.
But, let’s be honest, the Stones aren’t the only offenders. If you take a look at the most expensive box sets available from a well-known online and high street music retailer (see, research again), you can find Neil Young very near the top with an eye-opening (or watering) £230 for 4 vinyl albums. If you’re buying that package I’m willing to bet you’ve already got them on the original vinyl, CD and probably a remastered CD. What a great piece of marketing that is (please don’t tell me that you also paid to download them on iTunes as well), making the punter pay 3 or 4 times over for the same album. Did you know you can get a 21 CD box set of Manfred Mann’s Earthband? Can you name me 5 Earthband singles (not the Manfred Mann 60s stuff)? No, thought not, and this is 200 or so tracks we’re talking about; how many Dylan and Springsteen covers can you possibly scrape together?
How much quality control do you sacrifice to stretch out Rufus Wainwright’s work to 13 CDs? Simple really, you bulk it out with live CDs, previously unreleased material (generally unreleased for very good reasons) and a CD of covers by other artists; all for the cost of a reasonably good guitar. Who buys in to this nonsense?
And just to stray into unfamiliar contemporary territory, what about “Born to Die”? It was originally released in standard and deluxe editions, but now Lana’s decided we need the “Paradise Edition” which will be released 2 weeks before Christmas. It’s a great album but it’s gone beyond a joke now. Instead of encouraging the media companies in their barrel-scraping, why don’t you go out and watch some live music instead; there’s loads of it out there and most of it affordable without selling any internal organs (unless you want to see the Rolling Stones).