Thursday, April 21, 2011

Second Coming

hey everyone

Well, what better time that at the threshold of an Easter weekend to post some thoughts on The Stone Roses' somewhat infamous second album? Looking at how much i have written to post here, please be rather liberal in interpreting "some thoughts".

Second Coming is often spoken of as "the album that took five and a half years to make". Whereas that makes a nice comment in articles and reviews, it's something that isn't particularly true. Yes, it was released five and a half years after their debut album, but it's not like they spent all that time writing and recording. far from it, in fact.

As Mani has pointed out in interviews, an awful lot of time between 1990 and 1993 was taken up with the prosecution of the band for trashing the offices of record label FM Revolver (they who re-issued what the band considered an "inferior" version of their first single proper, Sally Cinnamon) and the legal battle to get themselves out of the rather unfair record deal with the label Silvertone. in regards of the latter, they were more or less legally prevented from making or performing any music.

This of course hasn't prevented all sorts of wierd and wonderful legends being created as to what the band got up to that ate away at so much time. The best of those legends is easily the one which involves singer Ian Brown deciding that he should be addressed only as "King Monkey" and reportedly storming off whenever someone called him anything else, refusing to return to the studio for weeks. Ian was so taken by this particular story that it led to him calling his debut album Unfinished Monkey Business. On top of stories like that, there were of course the tales of usual rock excess, mostly relating to rampant drug use, none of them ever confirmed.

The fact that not quite as much time as people assume was spent making the record doesn't make the album any better. It was received with general disappointment by fans of the band and music lovers in general, to be honest. With by this stage the band pulling in different musical directions (John Squire favoured pursuing the rock sound of the band, Mani, Ian and Reni were rather more keen to explore the formidable dance groove) and subsequently a number of different engineers, producers and recorders brought in to try and assemble an album that all were happy with in retrospect the album was always going to sound rather disjointed, in particular in comparison to their debut.

It seems that for everyone who reviews Second Coming as "dire", "poor" or any other such variant someone comes along who declares it to be a "masterpiece" or an "underrated classic". Having played the album again a few times this week, here's my (rather lengthy) track by track take on the album.

Breaking Into Heaven : If the title of the album was as much an allusion to the final track of the debut album as it was a reference to the bands’ absence, then this opening track seems to have been intended as a follow up to the majestic I Am The Resurrection. As an opening track it’s certainly a bold statement of intent with an over ten minute long running time, but overall it ranks as one of the biggest disappointments on the album.

If the sprawling opening instrumental is supposed to echo the sprawling, magnificent instrumental finale of I Am The Resurrection then it rather engages in Chinese whispers rather than reminding. Whereas the ending of Resurrection was a dazzling, free flowing loose odyssey, as loose as the Atlantic Ocean is wet, the opening of Breaking Into Heaven is a methodical, cold by the numbers affair, inspiring nothing in the listener beyond thoughts of “when will this end”.

Lyrically, it hints at one of the worrying trends on the album – an attempt to cross the aforementioned wet Atlantic with words and phrases seemingly penned with the American market in mind. Here I have in mind the quite frankly atrocious lines “Heaven’s gates won’t hold me / I’ll saw those suckers down”. Firstly, if the song is about breaking in to Heaven, what’s the “holding” all about? Secondly, and much worse, “I’ll saw those suckers down”. Really, boys, suckers? How very un-English a phrase, let alone un-Manchester, and how very, very American it all sounds.

Driving South : If the opening salvo left you unaware that The Stone Roses appeared determined to appeal to an American audience, the second track could surely have left no one in any doubt. Everything you ever read or heard about the album sounding like little more than a Led Zeppelin tribute album isn’t strictly speaking the case, but here’s where the evidence for that view is clear. In short, it’s a horrid attempt at some sort of “quasi-Blues” number, with Reni’s drums and John’s guitar mixed up far too high, just about hiding Mani hitting the bass with a hammer on call and Ian working through the lyrics.

As for the lyrics, time to quote Dickens really, as in the case of this song it is surely the best of times and the worst of times. At one point Ian Brown delivers one of the greatest sets of Stone Roses lyrics ever :

I’m not trying to make you
I don’t want to touch your skin,
I know all there is to know
About you and all your sins.

Wow! The band that wrote Made Of Stone, I Am The Resurrection and Fools Gold haven’t completely vanished! Sadly, though, it gets undermined somewhat by the remainder of the verse, which would be this rubbish :

Well, you ain't too young or pretty
And you sure as hell can't sing
Anytime you want to sell your soul
I've got a toll free number you can ring.

If that’s some sort of reference to the cynics who attacked Ian’s singing voice then it’s not a particularly good one. Overall, I think it’s just John Squire trying to create something a bit like Robert Johnson’s infamous Crossroads to suit the American rock audience without resorting to an actual cover of that song. Although that would have been preferable.

Ten Storey Love Song : at last! A song that carries with it the recognizable, much loved sound of The Stone Roses that we all came to worship. Only a mere 16 minutes into the album that we had waited close to 6 years for!

This is a fairly straightforward love song, to put it simply. A wonderful mellow, melodic number, with lyrics filled with the kind of solitary yearning, pining and want that created such widespread appeal across their debut album and the majority of the extra tracks on their singles. To that end, this song is the sentiment of Standing Here given the soundtrack afforded to Where Angels Play.

A lot of people, in particular my good friend Shaun, argue that if this was released as the “comeback” single instead of Love Spreads then the history of the band could have been more positive and the demise perhaps avoided. They may well have a point, really – within a year of this coming out Oasis released Wonderwall, which does not sound all that different from Ten Storey Love Song, and it sold millions of copies, cementing Oasis as one of the biggest bands in the world. If anything could have saved The Stone Roses is debatable, but as this song sounds “more Roses like” than much of the album, I’d have to agree that this should have been the first single.

Daybreak : and, after the brief flurry of hope from Ten Storey Love Song, here we go again with a very Americanized sound and song. This song is little more than a jam session with some hopefully random lyrics thrown in for good measure. I say hopefully, for if the words and sentiment expressed here are considered and thought out things then it’s possible we all misunderstood everything The Stone Roses were about.

A key example of this would be “from Atlanta, Georgia / to Moss Side, Manchester”. I could just about put up with the remainder of the American references in the song, but from Atlanta to Manchester, the birth place of The Roses? What’s going on here? How sad that one of the most innovative, inspiring bands to come out of England felt the need to imply they had some sort of American origins, in the hope (presumably) of selling a few records Stateside. One can really only hope that this was a lyric that their record label insisted on having in.

Your Star Will Shine : a straightforward enough acoustic ballad, complete with dream-like lullaby lyrics that serve to mislead. For all the pleasant imagery conjured up by the song, the final line is almost as dark and sinister as the words hidden away within the likes of Made Of Stone :

And your distant sun will shine
Like the gun that's trained
Right between your Daddy's eyes

Often considered as something of a “throwaway” number as it first appeared as the b-side of Love Spreads, but that does it an injustice. Much like Ten Storey Love Song, this is the sound of the band that the England music scene fell in love with.

Straight To The Man : Ian Brown is credited as the sole writer for this song, but if you are unfamiliar with it please do not expect anything close to the magnificent work he has produced on his solo albums.

This song is basically a set of confused, unrelated metaphors broken up with the occasional (perhaps all too frequent) “do do do do do” bits, set to some sort of ragtime vs duelling banjos style music. Something of a low point on the album, then, if not the lowest point. Perhaps just the most forgettable moment on it, hence their not being all that much to say of it.

Begging You : is this really by the same band who managed to build the bridge between a rock sound and dance music with Fools Gold? If this was an attempt to emulate the success of Fools Gold then it crashes and burns so very, very badly. And it’s hard to see how it was intended as anything else, this somewhat bewilderingly being selected as the third (and final) single from the album.

What to say about this? Well, if you want a positive, there’s some inspired lyrics to the song, in particular “Here is a warning, the sky will divide / Since I took off the lid, there's nowhere to hide”, but unfortunately the lyrics seemed somewhat irrelevant to the band. Ian Brown’s vocal track is all but drowned out all together beneath a colossal drum and bass beat that sounds more sampled than it does Reni & Mani working together, with that trying to compete with one of the single worst guitar work outs that John Squire has ever conducted.

By the point that this was released Reni had left the band, the Ten Storey Love Song single had done very badly indeed and everyone who was going to buy the album had bought it. As none of the remixes on the single did anything to improve the track (a phrase about you being unable to polish something springs to mind). If the record label was attempting to recuperate costs or generate interest in the record then I would really be at a loss to say why this song was chosen to do that.

Tightrope : behold, for here is one of the few high points of the album. And it’s a very high highpoint indeed, possibly even higher than the 9 miles referred to in the song.

It is, interestingly enough, another semi-acoustic ballad, filled with images of love in the universal sense that one would expect from the band. Other than sounding like a song that The Stone Roses actually wished to perform, it contains some of their greatest ever lyrics. If you haven’t heard the track then seek it out to find this for yourself, but here’s possibly the best example of what I am talking about :

Are we etched in stone or just scratched in the sand
Waiting for the waves to come and reclaim the land?
Will the sun shine all sweetness and light
Burn us to a cinder, our third stone satellite?

If only the thought and effort that went into this song was allowed to prevail across the album entire then it might have been such a different, better story for the band. Well, you can’t undo what’s been done, so we fans are just left to enjoy the brief moments of brilliance like this tune for what they are.

Good Times : oh dear. Whereas there is a decent level of competition for this title, this song is easily the lowest low point of the whole album. The opening lines, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned / I'll tell you my story man, I wish I'd never been born”, somehow sung with a straight face by Ian Brown in some horrid attempt at a “Blues” voice, should tell you that this is a track to skip over and never play.

If you do play the whole song then for your troubles you get John Squire indulging in his strange Led Zeppelin fantasy to an even worse extent than earlier in the album. The whole thing is a messy, disinterested presumed go at “The Blues” and is a failure at every level you can imagine. It’s hard enough to imagine the band had any interest in this song, let alone contemplate just who it is they thought this may appeal to.

A very easy way to have improved the album would have been to just rather leave this song off it.

Tears : after some failed attempts throughout the album, the band “nearly” get it right here. This is a go at melding some of the sound that made Led Zeppelin so big in America into the more traditional Stone Roses sound. It damn nearly works, too.

The opening couple of minutes showcase the astonishing sound that The Stone Roses were somehow easily capable of dispensing to the universe. It’s a hazy, dream-inducing melodic sound, with John Squire doing with his guitar what we know he can do and Reni’s drums providing an eerie, haunting and addictive echoing foundation. Complementing this, rather than being buried by it, is Ian Brown’s voice, delivering again another fine example of classic Roses lyrics :

Lost in a maze of my own making
No way out that I can find, send home your hard working jury
I'm going down this time

However, it is after the first couple of moments that the “nearly” part of this being a great song comes in. a drum roll from Reni signals we are back off to the world of an attempted flat out Led Zeppelin conquering America tribute sound, the major difference being that Ian Brown all of a sudden starts shouting lyrics that Robert Plant would no doubt have delivered with an ear piercing shriek. If the band had just kept the momentum from the opening of this song going it would have been one of their greatest ever tracks.

How Do You Sleep : and, as we get towards the end of the album, one of the greatest moments on the album. That not might sound like saying too much in the light of the shortcomings discussed, but trust me, this is a really, really great song.

The key to this song being a great seems to be the band are all on an equal footing in the mix. John Squire’s guitar provides a great melody, Reni’s drumming is as creative and free flowing as anything you’d find on the celebrated debut album and Mani is very much Mani with the bass. Ian sings with a conviction all too often lacking on the rest of the album, helped no doubt that he seems to have been mixed to equality with the musicians here, rather than left to hang around behind them.

Once again, lyrically the band gets it spectacularly right. The words might well be something of a sugar coated variant of I Am The Resurrection, but it’s sweet sugar and it stands in its own right as a great set of lyrics, defying the need for or reliance on comparison. For example :

So raise your glasses, here's a toast to wasted lives
May all their ghosts come back to haunt you
And tell you how they died

This song above all others seems to match the existing Stone Roses sound with the apparent wish to appeal to a more rock-orientated, presumably American wider audience. If vast chunks of the album could just have been given the musical treatment that How Do You Sleep and Tightrope got, mindful of the mostly excellent lyrics, then this album could well have been one of the all time greats.

Love Spreads : the final official track on the album which was also the comeback single, released shortly beforehand. It was, and indeed is, a heavy handed rock opus, taking just about everyone by surprise but eventually taking everyone in.

If the heavy rock sound of Love Spreads had prevailed across the whole album then there wouldn’t have been as much disappointment with it as there was, really. Mani, Reni and John Squire were at least recognizable on this far harsher sound than we were used to, and Ian’s vocals were mixed to perfection on the tune. You could identify it as having all the hallmarks of a Stone Roses tune before Ian’s vocals kicked in, a factor sorely lacking in the other tracks of a rock nature discussed here.

Lyrically it stands as one of the best things they have ever done. The band have been reluctant to give any interpretation to any of their songs (“Love and Death, Peace and War, Laurel and Hardy” was John Squire’s famous response to being asked what Elephant Stone was all about), but few have provoked theories and debate quite like this one. The most common interpretation is that it’s the tale of a black woman called Love who overdoses on heroin and has messiah-like visions, this mostly stemming from the opening :

Love spreads her arms, waits there for the nails
I forgive you, boy, I will prevail
Too much to take, come cross to bear
I'm hiding in the trees with a picnic, she's over there, yeah

The song goes on, however, to suggest far more sinister, darker themes are what the band are hinting at :

She didn't scream, she didn't make a sound
I forgive you boy, but don't leave town
Cold black skin, naked in the rain
Hammer flash in the lightning, they're hurting her again

But then again the chorus, for what it is, hints that it’s really as straightforward as the band presenting their universal ideals of equality and love over the conventional :

Let me put you in the picture, let me show you what I mean
The messiah is my sister, ain't no king man, she's my queen

Sometimes the great works of art in any format are the ones that are never quite fully understood but yet attract enough interest to draw out interpretations long after their initial appearance. Love Spreads fits very well into this category.

The Foz : ahem. After some 77 individual tracks on the CD, all of silence and each of a few seconds in length each, we are treated to a “special” hidden track. And my, how special it is. Basically it’s the band, quite possibly stoned out of their brackets, messing about and jamming with an array of unusual and arguably incorrectly played instruments. If it was intended as some sort of private joke then it’s exceptionally private, for I have yet to work out who exactly it was for the benefit of. Lazy and predictable journalists of course seized on this track, amusing themselves by saying it was “better than anything else on the record”. This is quite frankly not the case, but sadly it is the last recorded track released by the band, save the instrumental “Moses” on the Ten Storey Love Song single and quick charity re-recording of Love Spreads for War Child.

And, if you are here after reading that lot, a very big thank you indeed!

In short (ahem), Second Coming was a distinctly average album. It features a few high points and some disturbingly low ones. For the precedent set by the debut album it was, quite frankly, just not good enough, no matter how hard the Roses apologists would wish to argue that it was.

Whereas there are a few thousand speculative reasons around as to how Second Coming could have been a much better album, one way in particular has always lingered. A couple of years after he left the band John Squire formed a new group, The Seahorses. Leaving aside for the moment that the bands name is an anagram of He Hates Roses, their debut album, Do It Yourself, was filled with reasonable, decent pop songs, carrying an air of influence of Oasis about them. Nothing really wrong with that, except that Squire wrote the majority of them in 1991 and 1992, long before the Oasis sound gained popularity. This was revealed when Ian Brown was asked about the album, and he responded that he had not heard it and did not need to, as he'd heard them in the early 90s and rejected them as being "not good enough for The Stone Roses".

That last statement is curious. A good many numbers on The Seahorses album, in particular the lead single Love Is The Law, surpass the likes of Good Times and Driving South for a start. If John Squire had all these tracks around, it is odd that they did not revisit them when the Second Coming album was taking shape and it surely must have been clear to all that not every track was quite up to standard.

If for some reason you've read all of this and do not already own Second Coming then my advice would be that it is still very much worth getting. The high points compensate for the low points, and in regards of the low points, well, there's always a "skip track" button at your disposal.

As I suspect you feel like I do that this post has covered quite enough, I'll leave the demise of the band and the varied solo careers for another day!

be excellent to each other!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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