Synonymous with The Rolling Stones and "Madchester"'s Ecstasy-fueled rave scene, whose other main members included the superior Stone Roses and inferior Happy Mondays, Screamadelica is Primal Scream’s most critically acclaimed album, particularly in the U.K. where it is already considered a classic. In many ways this is an era defining album in the way that it brought together trippy dance music with old time rock 'n' roll virtues, but what seemed incredibly innovative at the time seems less impressive today, perhaps due to the many subsequent bands they influenced but more likely due to the patchy nature of the album itself. Basically, I want to keep things simple, so I'm going to neatly divide the album into several different categories. My least favorite one would be comprised of songs such as "Don't Fight It, Feel It" and the Jah Wobble-featured reprise of "Higher Than The Sun," which feature repetitive, hypnotic dance grooves without offering much in the way of memorable melodies. Better are spacey, dreamy tracks such as "Inner Flight," "I'm Comin' Down," and "Shine Like Stars," which deliver pretty, pleasant background music that’s perfect for going to sleep to, while the atmospheric, almost ambient first version of "Higher Than The Sun" and the soulful "Damaged" are successful ballads that are among the best of the rest, as is their trippy, trancey update of "Slip Inside This House," an unrecognizable cover of an old 13th Floor Elevators song. The albums legitimate claim to classic status, however, lies in the terrific triumvirate of "Movin' On Up," "Come Together," and "Loaded." Along with “Damaged,” with its shades of “Fool To Cry,” "Movin' On Up" was produced by legendary former Stones producer Jimmy Miller, and indeed it has a superb gospel touch that’s the salt of the earth. The 8-minute "Come Together" (which recently appeared in a popular car commercial), arguably the album's best song, has an even catchier gospel chorus and another great groove; though the chorus is way better than the verses, the chorus is undeniable. "Loaded" follows and is another winner, this one with an everything but the kitchen sink approach (movie snippets, violin, the ever-present rolling piano, moodier keyboards, a country twang on guitar, more female gospel-tinged backing vocals), though a great groove is again the primary foundation for the song. In addition to help from Miller, group leader Bobby Gillespie also gets plenty of help elsewhere, from Denise Johnson’s soul diva lead vocals on “Don’t Fight It, Feel It” to The Orb and Jah Wobble’s trancey takes on “Higher Than The Sun” (unfortunately though I prefer the former the latter is the one that’s over twice as long). But producer Andy Weatherall gives the most aid, lending his acid house touch to eight songs and really pointing the band towards the dance floor. I’m sure Gillespie and the rest of the boys had a major hand in this sample friendly album’s sound as well; they did write most of the songs, after all, and Gillespie is the lead singer, though the vocals are secondary to the atmospheric trance and dance rock soundscapes, some of which are too repetitive, flaccid, and flat-out long for their own good. That’s to be expected from almost any dance album, however, and at its best this organic mixing of many styles is outstanding.
Give Out But Don’t Give Up (Sire ’94) Rating: B
This album surprised and disappointed many fans who were hoping for Screamadelica 2, but Give Out But Don’t Give Up is hardly the disaster that many people have made it out to be. Rather than Weatherall, Hugo Nicholson, and assorted others, the co-conspirators this time are legendary producer Tom Dowd and George Drakoulias, the latter best known for his work with The Black Crowes. Unsurprisingly given how the producers they work with seem to greatly influence them, this album has often been derided as being a second rate Rolling Stones/Black Crowes tribute album, and while there’s some truth to that criticism, I like both of those bands a lot and this album more than a little. OK, so the album’s unambitious, retro-minded genericism after the groundbreaking rock 'n' rave of Screamadelica was disappointing, and the album is too slickly modernized for its own good. The album is also quite patchy, with some truly grating efforts such as “Funky Jam,” “Struttin’” (which of course is 8:29 long), and “Give Out But Don’t Give Up” (6:16). Basically, when the band try to be funky like James Brown the results are flat out awful, despite vocals from P-Funk mastermind George Clinton on “Funky Jam” and the title track, but when they stick to their simplified strengths on either loudly energized, raucously straightforward boogie rockers (“Jailbird,” “Rocks,” “Call On Me”) or relaxed, soulful ballads (“(I’m Gonna) Cry Myself Blind,” “Big Jet Plane,” “Sad and Blue,” “I’ll Be There For You,” “Everybody Needs Somebody”), the results are extremely satisfying. Granted, Gillespie is far from the charismatic singer that Mick Jagger and Chris Robinson are, but he does deliver some fine performances (“(I’m Gonna) Cry Myself Blind,” for example), and between the plentiful sing along choruses, rolling piano riffs, gospel-based backing vocals, moody keyboards, jaunty horns and/or sultry saxes (supplied by The Memphis Horns), all the ingredients for a successful Southern American rock album are in place. It's pretty good for a British band in any event, though the more I listen to Primal Scream the more I think of them as a first-rate singles band (the undeniable hits here are the first three songs: “Jailbird,” “Rocks” (which does!), and “(I’m Gonna) Cry Myself Blind”) who make worthwhile but inconsistent albums.
Vanishing Point (Sire/Reprise ’97) Rating: B
After the scathing reviews and relative commercial failure of Give Out But Don’t Give Up, Primal Scream unsurprisingly returned to the colorful, kaleidoscopic soundscapes of Screamadelica. The colors were much darker this time, though, despite lighter respites such as "Get Duffy," a nifty little loungey instrumental that's modest but thoroughly enjoyable, "Star," an overt pop attempt with a breezy dance groove, and "Long Life," a dreamily pleasant finale. Elsewhere, album opener "Burning Wheel" starts slowly but turns into something akin to early Pink Floyd brought into the '90s (that's a compliment), while "Kowalski" is an obvious standout as its ominously churning groove highlights high profile new bassist Mani (ex-Stone Roses), who's a real beast throughout, bulking up and improving the band's bottom end. Alas, patchy songwriting is again a problem, as much of the album can be described as "trippy mood music," some "songs" are overly reliant on groove ("If They Move, Kill 'Em") at the expense of a memorable melody, while others offer mere background music ("Stuka" and "Trainspotting," the latter also included on the best selling Trainspotting soundtrack) that soon grows boring. The straightforwardly Stonesy "Medication" stands out as different here but would barely qualify as a decent Give Out But Don’t Give Up album track, but "Motorhead," a danceable yet rocking cover of an old Motorhead song, was much better, being a neat idea that's lots of fun. Unfortunately, the fun factor is too often overlooked in favor of the "far out" factor, as the band perhaps were trying too hard to seem experimental and/or cutting edge, possibly in reaction to the criticism received for their previous effort. Anyway, there's still some fine stuff here, but again, even with Andrew Weatherall back on board, Vanishing Point is yet another (overly long) album that adds up to less than the sum of its sometimes impressive parts. Inspired by and including samples from the cult movie Vanishing Point, I can't really say how that all fits in, having never seen the movie, but this is another album that requires a fair amount of patience from its listeners, some of whom might not be willing to make such an investment. I doubt I'll play this from start-to-finish much myself, though I do expect I'll sample it from time to time, and I'm really starting to look forward to the band's eventual "best of" compilation.
XTRMNTR (Astralwerks ’00) Rating: B+
After Echo Dek (1997), a remix album of eight Vanishing Point tracks by Adrian Sherwood, came XTRMNTR, an even darker, flat out incendiary statement of purpose that starts with the most exciting 1-2 punch I’ve heard in some time. “Kill All Hippies” has a huge electronic sound and provides a danceable yet air guitar worthy cacophony that’s as unsettling as it is thrilling. Simply put, this ominous song features a fantastically escalating buildup that sounds like the end of the world; my favorite parts occur at :50 and especially 1:36, respectively (check it out for yourself). Continuing, the enormous riffs of “Accelerator” only accelerates the breakneck pace, with it’s explosive “come on” exhortations being worthy of The Clash or the MC5 and its massive wall of sound recalling My Bloody Valentine (fittingly, it turns out, since it was mixed by M.I.A. MBV mastermind Kevin Shields). Damn, the sonic overload on this ultra-intense track is damn near overwhelming; it sounds like there are about 1000 guitars on the song (props to the guitar tandem of Andrew Innes and Robert Young) along with Lord knows what else, and like the previous track the sounds come at you from seemingly everywhere. Alas, after such an awe-inspiring and rocking beginning, the rest of the album is almost a disappointment, despite some other notable achievements. “Exterminator” is all throbbing bass with electronic accoutrements in the background, while the fast and furious anti-authoritarian death disco of the provocatively titled “Swastika Eyes” provides a can’t stand still thrill that’s so good that the band unnecessarily decided to do it twice (the latter a less interesting Chemical Brothers remix that should’ve been sequenced as a "bonus track" at the end of the album). Of course, the 7+ minute song is overly repetitive and overstays its welcome (as do several other songs), but I can’t help but yearn for it during the angry but awful rap “Pills,” which along with “Insect Royalty” and “I’m Five Years Ahead Of My Time” are largely undone by annoying vocals (though "Pills" is by far the worst offender on that front), which is ironic given how secondary to the music the band’s vocals generally are. The Miles Davis-influenced instrumental “Blood Money” continues with a futuristic showcase for their rhythm section that has an invigorating and experimental mixture of freeform skronk and psychedelia, and “Keep Your Dreams” follows with a rare mellow track containing pretty, trance-inducing electronic atmospherics and a warmly inviting Gillespie vocal. Finally, the freeform flute and horn enhanced “electronica” grooves of “MBV Arkestra (If They Move Kill ‘Em)” eventually grows monotonous despite its interesting intermingling of instruments, but churning riffs provide a welcome return to exemplary form on the repetitive but rocking guitar groove of “Shoot Speed/Kill Light” before the annoying beat-heavy boast-fest “I’m Five Years Ahead Of My Time” brings down the curtain well after this album should’ve ended (this could’ve been a phenomenal 40 minute album). Still, significant flaws aside, by and large these twelve intense blasts darkly ushered in the new millennium in impressive fashion, as an assortment of notable producers (David Holmes, Brendan Lynch, Shields, Dan The Automator, Hugo Nicholson, and the Chemical Brothers) yielded a surprisingly cohesive set of songs that are tied together by their overall intensity and angry uneasiness. Wildly inconsistent but at times spectacularly impressive, XTRMNTR is always ambitious and disconcerting, but more importantly, for all its flaws (and what dance album these days isn’t a little overly repetitive and long?) the album is a vividly alive reminder of how vital and exciting rock ‘n’ roll and dance music can be at its very best. In fact, if excessively hyped bands (circa 1997/98) like The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers had produced something as uncompromising and thrilling as this album’s best tracks - dance rock songs for the apocalypse like “Kill All Hippies,” “Accelerator,” “Swastika Eyes,” and “Shoot Speed/Kill Light” - perhaps “electronica” would’ve actually been “the next big thing” like many predicted it would be (by the time this album was released that ship had already sailed).
Evil Heat (Sony ’02) Rating: B
The problem with the this album, which received only lukewarm reviews from professional critics, isn’t that it’s not good (it is), it’s that we’re used to being surprised by Primal Scream, and Evil Heat merely confirms previous strengths without really offering anything new. Really, this is probably one of their more consistent albums, but we don’t listen to Primal Scream for their consistency, do we? No, we (or at least I) listen to them for their knockout individual tracks here and there, and the highlights here are less obvious than in the past. Musically, the album is most in line with the previous XTRMNTR, but Bobby tones down the political diatribes in favor of silly fragments and sexual come-ons. OK, so the lyrics are definitely a weakness, but to me Primal Scream have always been much more about their sound than any kind of message, and as far as that goes I personally would like to hear more (real) drums and guitars and less samples and electronics. In fact, when the grimy glam guitars of “City” kick me in the gut it comes as a welcome relief, and likewise the screaming riffs of “Skull X” overpowers the ridiculously dumb lyrics. As per usual given that virtually all of the band's albums (the ones I have anyway) are frontloaded, the album gets off to a rousing start with the spacey (yet at times rocking) "Deep Hit Of Morning Sun" and "Miss Lucifer," whose briskly percolating grooves are bound to get hips swaying and feet moving, again provided you can overlook the insipid lyrics and Gillespie's at times irritating vocals. I also like the enticing electro-grooves of (the obviously Kraftwerk-influenced) “Autobahn 66,” which will have listeners swaying casually back and forth, as will the not quite as laid-back but also airy “A Scanner Darkly,” while “Space Blues #2” provides a pretty, low-key finale. Otherwise, most of these bass-led (Mani is again the band’s not-so-secret weapon) tracks tend to blend together, though the annoyingly simplistic “Rise” and “The Lord Is My Shotgun” (with especially grating Gillespie vocals) stick out for all the wrong reasons, and their cover of Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazelwood’s “Some Velvet Morning” (for some reason featuring the filtered vocals of supermodel Kate Moss) is likewise uninspired. Truth is, though the album exudes plenty of professionalism and features several other notable guest spots (Weatherall and Shields again at times man the controls, while Robert Plant blows a blues harp on “The Lord Is My Shotgun” and Jim Reid sings “Detroit” - did I mention that Gillespie got his start drumming for Reid’s former band, the Jesus and Mary Chain?), there’s precious little that's inspired on Evil Heat, the first Primal Scream album in some time that can be classified as mere product. Still, at least it’s good product for the most part.
Dirty Hits (Sony ’03) Rating: A-
I've been waiting for this "best of," and though it's not all that it could've been it nevertheless does a solid fine job of showcasing a stellar singles band and in my opinion it stands as their single most consistent album. Dirty Hits samples almost equally from all the albums listed on this page and does an excellent job of selecting the right songs (my set list would only have very minor alterations) and smartly sequencing them chronologically. That said, there are a few problems. For one, this isn't quite a career spanning retrospective, as it doesn't contain anything from their first two albums, Sonic Flower Groove (1987) and Primal Scream (1989) (Screamadelica was actually their third album, though it was the first to attract significant attention). Secondly, the songs for Screamadelica, Give Out But Don't Give Up, and Vanishing Point are markedly different from one another, so the album predictably lacks cohesion; the transition from the chill out "Higher Than The Sun" to the aptly titled, party time "Rocks" is an uneasy one, for example. Lastly, there are several songs ("Loaded," "Burning Wheel," "Swastika Eyes") that are significantly edited, while others ("Kowalski," "Kill All Hippies") have been shortened slightly. Personally, I feel that though perhaps some of the epic grandeur of the long versions are lost, the album versions of "Loaded," "Burning Wheel," "Swastika Eyes"those three songs were way too long in the first place (I expect others will feel differently, though), and my biggest disappointment is that they shortened the awesome original beginning of "Kill All Hippies" and that they ("they" being the record label, the band, or both; not sure who) included the far inferior 7" mix of "Come Together," which is very different from the Screamadelica version. Also, though the new version of "Some Velvet Morning" is an improvement from the one on Evil Heat, it still falls short of the surrounding songs (not to mention the Nancy Sinatra version). By and large, though, this album does what it set out to do in that it shows off the many sides of the band side by side and trims the fat and schizophrenic inconsistency that plagues even their best albums. It's still not all that it could've been, but Dirty Hits is likely as good as we're going to get. Note: Supposedly the Limited Edition of the album, which I don't have, comes with a second cd containing various remixes.
Riot City Blues (Columbia ’06) Rating: B+
Gone are guitarist Robert Young and Kevin Shields, and presumably with them the experimental dance/electronic tendencies of recent releases. Instead, what we have here isas the band instead surprisingly delivers the long-delayed sequel to Give Out But Don’t Give Up, and unsurprisingly the hipsters such as Pitchfork (which gave it a ridiculous 2.3 out of 10) hated this one as well. As with many a Primal Scream album, this one was a U.K. success that came and went uneventfully here in the U.S., but there are quite a few things I like about this album. First and foremost, it’s amazing what a difference a simple aesthetic change can make, like having 10 songs run on for a concise, largely filler-free 40 minutes as opposed to 13 songs and an all too ambitious 60 minutes. Secondly, derivative and dumb though this album may be, and it is both of those things, the album’s plentiful amounts of greasy guitars and catchy choruses, not to mention its unpretentious overall energy, makes up for its simplistic shortcomings. The album gets off to a rousing start with “Country Girl,” with its propulsive country-ish groove and catchy sing along chorus, but other tracks such as “Nitty Gritty,” “Suicide Sally & Johnny Guitar,” and “Dolls (Sweet Rock and Roll)” also offer lots of good grimy fun. This is a party album, plain and simple, and the band aren’t trying anything grander other than to make you shake your ass and break out your air guitar. Mission accomplished for the most part, as even the more hopelessly derivative tracks are generally catchy and rocking, and only “We’re Gonna Boogie” strikes me as an obvious filler track. I suppose I could also live without "Little Death," as this trippy dance tune doesn't really fit since it's basically background music whereas the rest of the album is in your face; although I like it much better, you could also make a case that the album's lone ballad, "Sometimes I Feel So Lonely," provides a similarly ill-fitting finale (it doesn't help matters that these are by far the albums longest songs at 6:22 and 5:06, respectively). As for the rest of the tracks, another obvious standout is the moodier, menacing “When The Bomb Drops,” featuring Echo and the Bunnymen’s Will Sergeant on guitar; elsewhere, Warren Ellis (Bad Seeds, Dirty Three) adds violin to “Hell’s Coming Down” and Allison Mossheart (The Kills) lends backing vocals to “Dolls (Sweet Rock and Roll)” and “Sometimes I Feel So Lonely”. This album may not be hip, but it is good, and that's good enough for me.
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