Thursday, February 27, 2014

U2 Ranked - #144-#135

A ten-pack this time, as we continue to march along. 

#144 – “Salome”
This “Even Better Than the Real Thing” B-side has a nicely slinky groove, with more sex and less solemnity than we usually get with U2, even during this more groove-ey Achtung Baby era. The Edge’s guitar sound on this track is rawer than usual, and the structure of the song, with the guitar absent for the verses and then coming snarling in at the chorus, makes it sound even more prominent. This is a fun little throwaway track, but in the end nothing more.

#143 – “North and South of the River”
Yet another B-side (there will be a lot of them up here), this one to the “Staring at the Sun” single. The impassioned political lyrics (lovers divided by a metaphorical barrier) is kind of ruined by the odd “bubbles popping” synth effect in the bass line. Songs where the lyrics are undercut by the music can work, but this one doesn’t quite. Add on top an ill-advised synth string line and what could have been a fine enough little ballad gets kind of muddied up and derailed by the too-playful production.

#142 – “Miami”
See #155 – this is the other Pop song where the experiment doesn’t pay off. Starting with a fuzzy, wanting-to-be hip-hop-but-failing beat with travelogue lyrics ("Print shirts and southern accents/Cigars and big hair") half-sung, not-really rapped over it, the song seems to be trying just a little too hard. This is the kind of thing Radiohead would pull off years later (electronic effects, mumbled lyrics, distortion) but that U2 couldn’t really. When people think of All That You Can’t Leave Behind as a striking return to form, it’s in contrast to songs like this that they are making that comparison. Still, the John Bonham beat Larry brings in at the end is fun, and I do admire the effort.

#141 – “Is That All?”
Another U2 song, here a track off of October, that feels like a half-finished thought. When the guitar comes in at the beginning of the song it sounds as if the band had forgotten to record the first half of the track. The riff is sort of classic, and would get used elsewhere (U2 fans who came to the group with the Red Rock disc, like me, will recognize it immediately), but the song it surrounds never really coheres into something complete. Some nice pieces though, and a bit of foreshadowing of what would come later.

#140 – “Heartland”
One of the Rattle & Hum originals, this song has much to recommend it, with some very clean Joshua Tree-style guitar riffs and some nicely galloping drums, but something about Bono’s too-serious delivery clashes with the music. The knock on Rattle & Hum is that it’s far too serious and far too obviously a band playing, not too effectively, with American music they had heard while on tour, and this song is the one I think those accusations most solidly land on.

#139 – “Trash, Trampoline and the Party Girl”
This early B-side gained some traction as a live entry on the Under a Blood Red Sky EP, but in studio form it’s just a little too self-conscious to work. Many, many artists can sell the old “roughly-strummed acoustic chords” thing, but it’s never really been U2’s forte. On top of that, Bono is playing with some kind of drunken, slurred delivery that conveys not rough poetry but mental handicap. Finally, the lyrics, which aim at Who-like character creation (a boy named Trash Can, a girl named Party Girl), are flat and do not really paint character the way the band meant.

#138 – “Luminous Times (Hold On To Love)”
The “With or Without You” B-side, with declamatory piano chords and crashing drums, falls a bit flat, and never really builds to the climax it clearly wants to. U2 would do much better with the kind of slow-build to a big climax thing they go for here on the Zooropa single “The Real Thing.” I do like the rapid, “Pinball Wizard”-esque strumming we get at the end.

#137 – “A Room at the Heartbreak Hotel”
How many more B-sides do we still have to get through? This “Angel of Harlem” track actually has a bit to recommend it, with a nice slow start that builds to a climax that actually feels earned and exciting. I’m not sure the back-up singers and horns at the end completely work, but you can see what the band was shooting for. I’m also a fan of Bono’s vocal here, which melds the shouty thing with his natural rich tenor nicely.

#136 – “A Celebration”
Early punk rock-aping U2. Not a classic, not a keeper, but fun in its view into the band’s early toying with identity and sound. There’s a scent of classic rock sound here that makes this a fun listen, but not enough to return to.

#135 – “Stateless”
Another Million-Dollar Hotel oddity, this slow, moody quasi-ballad has a nicely yearning melody and a pleasant enough groove, with a slinky and fun bass line from Adam. The lyrics are lesser U2 aphorism-lite stuff (“There’s no race, only the prize/There is no tomorrow, only tonight”) but this one goes down easy.

Until Whenever

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

U2 Ranked - #149-#145

So if you have even a passing, nodding acquaintance with contemporary pop culture you probably have noticed that U2 is cycling up the machine again. It started in the fall with the release of “Ordinary Love,” written for the Nelson Mandela biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. “Ordinary Love” won the Golden Globe for Best Song and was then nominated for the Oscar. Then, with the Super Bowl, U2 released what they are saying is not the “first single” from their as yet unnamed and unscheduled new album, but rather “a song from the album.” Released to raise money for Bono’s AIDS charity RED, the single, “Invisible,” has done relatively well, with a few million downloads and some very modest chart movement. Then, this week, U2 helped Jimmy Fallon launch his version of The Tonight Show by appearing to play both songs, “Invisible” from the roof of 30 Rockefeller Plaza (with an assist from the Rutgers University marching band), and “Ordinary Love” in an acoustic rendition from the couch.

All of which is to say that, a year and a half after rather quickly abandoning it, I’ve decided that the time is really right to complete the “every U2 song ranked” project I started lo those many months ago. Given that we will likely not see the new album until late spring or summer (or later), the thinking is that I can complete the project roughly in tandem with the release of the new stuff, which seems like pretty good timing.

So - last year, I had taken us from #161 down to #150. The original post describing the project and its guiding principles is here.

#161-#155 are here.

#154-150 are here.

And now we can continue:

#149 – “Falling at Your Feet”
Up here in the stratosphere, where the least of U2’s catalog sits, we are still looking at lots of oddities and offshoot songs, and at #149 we have our first entry from The Million Dollar Hotel, an odd little vanity project of a film to which U2 contributed several songs and the original story idea (well, Bono gets to take sole credit for that). “Falling at Your Feet” (a duet with Daniel Lanois) is a slight song, with a shuffling drum beat, a lilting circus-like up-and-down melody, and some softly sung listed lyrics. Without much of a build or destination in mind, the song really doesn’t go anywhere. U2 is pretty famous for a protracted and haphazard songwriting process in which they just kind of goof off in the studio until an idea emerges that they can, sometimes over the course of months, push into a song. “Falling at Your Feet” has the feel of one such idea that never really developed further than that original thought. 

#148 – “Spanish Eyes”
The B-Side of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “Spanish Eyes” features another instance of what feel like improvised Bono lyrics and a performance that they never really moved beyond. There’s a little too much growling and squalling from Bono in here than is necessary, and the driving, mid-tempo music, with a pretty boilerplate Joshua Tree-era Edge sound, doesn’t really stick to the soul. For a band that can take so long in between albums, and that can come off as so perfectionist, they really do have a number of songs that feel unfinished and not really thought all the way through.

#147 – “Walk to the Water”
Continuing with our tour of Joshua Tree B-sides, here we have a very Unforgettable Fire-era-sounding B-side to “With or Without You.” This one has a bit of a groove to recommend it, with a very, very (very) slightly funky loping bass line driving things forward. Bits and pieces of other song lyrics float through, and while the whole thing is somewhat ethereal and misty (not necessarily in the good way), there is a kind of hippy-dippy pleasantness to the overall vibe. Sill, another pretty forgettable B-side.

#146 – “Wave of Sorrow (Birdland)”
Another Joshua Tree outtake, this one lost until the 20th anniversary release. Piano leads the way here instead, in yet another mid-tempo slog forward. More rain imagery, rather than being evocative, just kind of reminds you that maybe The Joshua Tree had a little too much weather imagery to begin with? I kind of like the somewhat tribal-sounding drums, and there are some vaguely interesting sound experiments going on in the background, including some kind of buzzing effect, but this is not a keeper either. 

#145 – “Winter”
Another entry from the world of cinema, this is a song written by the band for the Jim Sheridan Iraq war drama Brothers. Neither the song nor the movie made as much of a mark as expected, and I can’t say (for the song at least – I haven’t seen the movie) that the lack of impact was unjustified. Really, after listening to this batch of songs back to back I’m hard-pressed to differentiate too much between them. In particular, this, “Wave of Sorrow (Birdland,)” and “Spanish Eyes” have a very familiar feel – think of it as the U2 base color, the starting point that eventually leads to interesting or great songs in other cases. Not here.

Until Whenever