I conclude – well, kinda – the short song title series with four-letter-word song titles, and this one took a lot of work.
It turns out that there are a lot of four-letter words in English alone. Answers on Quora (and indeed elsewhere) suggest that there around 5,000 four-letter-words accepted in Scrabble (which is a pretty good pointer), from 456,976 (26^4) possible permutations, as obviously there are a lot of four-letter combinations that don’t create valid words.
At points, as I recorded all the suggestions, it felt like there might have been every possible word suggested. There did, however, turn out to be a new record number of suggestions for one single post – no less than 435. 52 of those had been used before (in 26 different /Tuesday Ten posts). 348 unique songs were suggested, from 271 unique artists, using 236 unique four-letter words. No less than 103 contributors got involved, too, so thanks to all of you.
Once again, too, there was a bit of a lean into bands I’ve loved for a long time this week. Thanks for a few reminders of old favourites, folks!
A quick explanation for new readers (hi there!): my Tuesday Ten series has been running since March 2007, and each month features at least ten new songs you should hear – and in between those monthly posts, I feature songs on a variety of subjects, with some of the songs featured coming from suggestion threads on Facebook.
Feel free to get involved with these – the more the merrier, and the breadth of suggestions that I get continues to astound. Otherwise, as usual, if you’ve got something you want me to hear, something I should be writing about, or even a gig I should be attending, e-mail me, or drop me a line on Facebook (details below).
Remarkably, I’ve only ever featured one song from Violator before in this series. This album was where Depeche Mode cemented their place at the top table, truly breaking through in America, and since then, it has sold at least eight million copies, or thereabouts. It’s not hard to see why – four of the nine tracks were all songs that became part of the modern rock/electronic canon, and the rest of the album isn’t far behind it. The sublime Halo – one of a good many DM songs to use and twist religious imagery into other forms – remains one of the bands’ greatest album tracks, as the group create a lush electronic base for Dave Gahan’s pleading vocals as he tries to change the mind of a paramour wracked with guilt. Also well worth your time – the staggering, quasi-orchestral remix by Goldfrapp from Remixes 81>04.
Another album that sold in large quanities both sides of the Atlantic in the nineties was Portishead’s still remarkable debut album. An album that nearly three decades on, still mostly sounds like it was beamed in from an alternative universe where most of the modern world didn’t exist. Beth Gibbons sounds like an old-school chanteuse, with the weight of several worlds on her shoulders, while the bringing together of shuffling hip-hop beats and bluesy, jazzy samples, guitars and strings shouldn’t work at all. Numb, the striking first single, nails every element from the off, and the result is an extraordinary song that is so devoid of hope and happiness, unlike almost anything that came before it.
Like a surprisingly small number of my friends, my favourite Covenant album remains their third, 1998 release Europa. This was the transition point from their stark electro of their early material, toward the anthemic synthpop that made them a huge deal in our thing. Riot is a song that definitely belongs to their earlier style, though, with a punchy rhythm providing the backing for Eskil to ride a rush of adrenaline in the chaos of the protest and the crowd, as if he’s cheering on the whirlwind around him.
If ever there was a better advert for the quality of music produced by a musician on drugs. Bowie’s cocaine usage was off the charts across much of the seventies, but somehow he held it together enough to produce a run of albums that were all fantastic in various ways. Young Americans was the beginning of his short “Plastic Soul” era (between the glam of the Ziggy Stardust years, and before he fled to Berlin), where Bowie seemlessly pivoted into sharp-suited, slick soul music – and nailed it. The closing track on the album – and his first US Number One single – was the snarling, cynical Fame, co-written with John Lennon, and when you listen to it in the context of the album, it very much feels like an outlier. It has a funk power that the rest of the album doesn’t have, not to mention Bowie’s anger that ripples through every syllable. There have been a great many songs about the perils of fame by someone who has discovered it firsthand, but none perhaps as good as this.
Sadly, Headswim remain something of a footnote in nineties UK alternative. Perhaps that was because they never really fitted in. Their early material (the Tense Moments EP and exceptional album Flood) was psychedlic-tinged alternative rock, the psych-element thanks to their heavy use of synths in particular, and their later return was much-more straightforward, melancholic guitar-music. Dead was their second single – appearing in differing versions on both the Tense Moments EP and the album Flood – and is noticeably heavier and darker than much of the rest of their output. Built around a thundering bassline and squalling guitars, the nightmarish visions in the lyrics leave the listener with a deep sense of dread, frankly. Still – twenty-eight years since I first heard it – a cracking song, too.
I recently found a Headswim group on Facebook that has seen lots of reminiscing – as well as contributions from band-members, interestingly – and thanks to someone there, footage of the early version of Dead on The Word in 1993 has recently been posted.
Now I think about it, I’m perhaps surprised that I never used this sublime lament on /201/The Clock Is Ticking, but then, perhaps, it was too obvious a choice. Which, at least, means I can feature it here. Just Waits and an acoustic guitar, mostly, as he – or a representation of Death, according to one interpretation I’ve read – observes New Orleans (I think?) and the people in it, wondering when their time will come, and how their lives will end. For such a macabre, unusual take on people-watching, it remains one of Waits’ greatest, and most tender, character sketches.
Anathema were originally one of the Peaceville Three, the three doom-oriented, Northern England-based bands that cemented the label’s reputation as one of the prominent metal labels. All three bands – Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride the other two – have evolved their sound over three decades, and sadly Anathema became the first of them to end, as they effectively announced their cessation as a result of unsurmountable issues during lockdown. Anathema, too, perhaps had the most dramatic changes to their sound, going from harsh, doomy metal to sleek, epic goth-prog with clean-vocals. Judgement wasn’t their first album in this style, but it was the one that cemented the change for good, and the delicate picked guitars and soaring vocals of opener Deep were quite the shock at the time. But the more I think about it – and listening to this fantastic album once again – Anathema never sounded better than this.
/Bring It Down
Now here is a blast from the past. Another of my MTV – and specifically 120 Minutes – discoveries, as I recall, Madder Rose were a jangly, melodic alt-rock band from NYC that had a sweet-voiced vocalist in Mary Lorson, while Billy Coté painted the songs with classic-rock solos to great effect. There was much more to them than their one MTV hit, too. That said, the Americana-leaning Swim is a lovely, laid-back song that was released at a time where this style was gaining traction, and it’s something of a travesty that more people don’t remember it.
Nearly three decades on, in a strange twist of fate I could never have predicted in my teens – I’m happily married to a woman whose name bears a resemblance to this bands name (Madder her surname, and her first name also a – different – flower…).
Nadine Shah came to prominence during lockdown not for her music, but for her strident responses to politicians and campaigning on behalf of her fellow musicians as they were pretty much left to fend for themselves by the UK Government, along with the rest of the entertainment industry. But Shah deserves to be better known for her music too.
On Holiday Destination, her furious third album that dealt with Brexit fallout and British attitudes to just about everything, she perhaps told unpalatable truths. On Evil, she faces down xenophobic and racist attitudes as a second-generation immigrant and mixed-race woman, as if she is “the living devil himself”. I’d love to proclaim that these attitudes are becoming a thing of the past, but we all know it’s not the case at all. I want an inclusive Britain, one that is welcoming to the world, and respects the wants and needs of all, but I’m beginning to wonder if I will ever see that in my lifetime.
Trent Reznor was pushed hard by his label at the time, TVT Records, to make another Pretty Hate Machine – one that would sell millions more and continue to be radio-friendly. That he disagreed couldn’t have been made any clearer by the 1992 follow-up, Broken, and the companion rework EP Fixed. Broken is full of jagged edges – distorted and treated guitars smother the electronics like a layer of shattered glass – and raging, angry songs, while Fixed saw the band, Coil and a few others tear the original songs to shreds and create anew from the fragments (it is worth it alone for the thundering Coil rework of Gave Up, a dizzying, chaotic spectacle). There was more, too – Danny Hyde and various NIN Forum people eventually got the unreleased versions of Coil takes on NIN reissues as Recoiled a few years back.
Last on Broken is probably the most guitar-heavy track Reznor ever released under the NIN name. Everything on this song is about that thick layer of guitars that bulldoze out of the speakers, but special mentions too for Reznor’s vocals that sound like he’s straining every sinew, and that thrilling breakdown of a chorus, too. Remarkably, it wasn’t ever played live until 2007 – apparently, it was too hard to sing for many years! – and there exists an excellent official live video from the Wave Goodbye Tour, when they used then-new Canon 5D with HD video to film performances from the stage.