Hugh Cornwell – Totem & Taboo

18 08 2012

The follow-up to 2008’s Hooverdam is a continuation of Cornwell’s recent back-to-basics approach.  Where the production on Hooverdam (by Liam Watson) harked back to the 60s, I felt that the production on the vocals let the songs down.  Hugh recorded his latest album in Chicago late last year, with Steve Albini (Nirvana, Pixies, PJ Harvey) behind the desk.  The result is Hugh’s best sounding album to date, and surely up there with Nosferatu and Guilty as one of his finest albums.

A lot of credit must go to Albini for capturing the rich vocals and dirty, raw guitar from one of the class of 77’s finest performers. The Totem & Taboo title track is driven by powerful  drums and a guitar line reminiscent of early Bowie ala Rebel Rebel.

The albums second track, The Face, is about attending a party in honour of the material girl.  The pace picks up with I Want One Of Those, a real new wave thrasher, with lyrics bemoaning the consumerism of society, and the constant upgrade, give me it now culture. Albini captures Hugh’s guitar sound perfectly, with a wonderful solo closing the song.

Stuck in Daily Mail Land has shades of The Jam / Kinks & The Who (check out the nods to Start / Taxman in the bassline and the Keith Moon freakout drums in the break). It’s so refreshing to hear an album where all the musicians are clearly playing live in a room, at the same time, without countless overdubs.

Hugh Cornwell April 2012. Photo Copyright Kevin Nixon.Bad Vibrations is a highlight of Hugh’s live set, and has a wonderful, dirty overdriven bass sound, and Nosferatu‘esque  / Wired discordant guitar / drums interplay after the chorus.  The guitar at the end of the song has a real early Skids feel to it. One of my favourite tracks on the album, I never tire of this song.

God is a Woman features some great interplay between the three musicians, and is the result of bringing well-rehearsed, road-tested songs into the studio environment.

“You know she made the birds and the bees,
You know she made the plants and the trees

I want to see you down on your knees
God is a woman.”

Love Me Slender could be a comment on our image-driven society, as well as obviously being a misappropriation of Presley’s Love Me Tender.

The album ends strongly, with a trio of the albums most powerful songs, all connected by the United States.  Gods Guns and Gays is driven by a wonderful guitar line reminiscent at times of his former band’s Always The Sun, and lyrically discusses the contradictions and obsessions of the Country. Timpanis underpin some sections of the song (possibly a wry nod to another acerbic USA lyric, Dead Loss Angeles and it’s symphony of lonely tympanis line?).

Street Called Carroll is a new wave firecracker and a love song to LA. There is something about this song that reminds me of The Lovin’ Spoonful‘s Summer In The City, and I love the “staying cool, staying cool…” refrain.

“He’ll be drawing in the chalk again,
They are telling me the dead can walk again.”

From the polluted, smog-filled inner-city jungle of LA, the album slips to a more mystical side of the USA with Totem & Taboo‘s closing track, the epic In The Dead of Night.  The sound of assorted wildlife and a real feel of the wide open spaces of the Mojave Desert usher in the track, with it’s walking bass and loping drums.  Cornwell delivers a Riders on the Storm for the 21st Century, with the most effortlessly cool song you will hear this year.

The 60s feel continues as a riff that references Peter Gunn underpins the solo in the middle of the song. I love how Cornwell & Albini resisted the temptation to over-complicate the arrangement.  It remains true to the live version premiered last year, and is a great finish to the album.

Buy the CD on Amazon

Visit the Hugh Cornwell website

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