Sunday, December 18, 2011

Best albums of 2011

8 Glasvegas – Euphoric /// Heartbreak \\\
Since the beginning of time, or at least the music industry, second albums have always been a problem.

First albums sometimes sound completely new and original, crammed with ideas and stories from before the band became stars and set-up sky-high expectations for the next record. A lot of this is down to critics and fans always on the look out for the next big thing, but it also helps that the bands tend to not really know anything about the music industry and just do their own thing without too much record company interference.

The first self-titled Glasvegas album fits this model perfectly. It was a perfect combination of working class Glaswegian stories about absent fathers, social workers and stabbings delivered with soaring vocals and thumping wall of sound that sounded like The Jesus and Mary Chain produced by Phil Spector. I loved it and my favourite song, Polmont on My Mind, made my best of compilation for 2008. Glasvegas made all the best of lists for the year, was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize and even seemed to sell pretty well. (Later I discovered a download of the demo tapes for the album and amazingly most of them are even better than the final re-recorded versions that made the album. Do a search for 'Glasvegas artist promo' if you don't believe me.)

Following a first album like that is always going to be trouble and what normally happens is that bands in this position start writing songs about how difficult it is to be in a successful band, take too many drugs and start taking the record company's advice seriously. Glasvegas certainly looked like they were following this script with the band decamping to Santa Monica, lead singer James Allen disappearing for five days when he was supposed to appear at the Mercury Music Prize awards, their drummer leaving before writing had even started and super-producer Flood drafted in to oversee the recording.

Given the background it's not surprising that Euphoric /// Heartbreak \\\ can't really be described as an un-qualified success. The songs are more vague and ambiguous, less specific and consequently less powerful. The music also ups the bombast and further polishes off the rough edges, losing a bit of the variety and charm in the process. Luckily though they prove the old maxim that you can take the boy out of Glasgow, but you can't take the Glasgow out of the boy. The stories here are more personal and shift the focus more firmly onto James, but they are completely lacking in self-indulgence and the usual rock-star concerns. As the title suggests many there is a lot of pain and heartache here, relationship troubles and shame about sexuality in a young life without many options.

The album starts with Bladerunner-esque synth lines and a voice intoning the title Pain Pain Never Again in French before James' voice arrives with the English version, building slowly into a menacing deluge before kicking straight into the anthemic The World is Yours. There are plenty more big anthems and even a power ballad – Whatever Hurts You Through the Night – that could stand in for Take My Breath Away in the proposed Top Gun sequel. Penultimate track Lot's Sometimes is the cathartic big finale, but subverted by placing the low-key Change as the album's last track. The one track that probably wouldn't sound out of place on the first album, this is an emotive pledge to turn his life around from a young man being released from prison to his mum. James' mum contributes a spoken reply which ends with her advising that 'before you change for me, change for you'.

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