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Friday, 24 August 2012

Ian Brown - Unfinished Monkey Business (1998)

I first got into the Stone Roses when I was 15. A mate of mine bought the Complete Stone Roses from the second-hand section of the now long-defunct Mike Lloyd’s Records in Wolverhampton. Every weekend, my mates and I would go around each others’ houses, instruments in tow, and jam, often covering some of the easier-to-play Stone Roses songs like ‘Sally Cinnamon’ and ‘Made of Stone’ . We wrote our own songs which were sub-Manic Street Preachers teenage-angst fused with a guitar style that tried to emulate Bernard Butler and John Squire – we weren’t very good, but we always had fun. Every few weeks we’d go around a mate’s house who was more into video games and anime than music. He was fast-tracked through puberty at the age of 12, and was the only 15 year-old I knew with thick mutton-chops and real moustache. He was also the only 15 year old I knew who could get served alcohol – and so that’s what he did. His parents had split up, and he’d moved in with his dad who lived a free and easy bachelor lifestyle. His dad has some great music in his collection (New Order, Stone Roses, Primal Scream, etc.) and we’d always ended up listening to the Stone Roses and drinking really bad whiskey.

It was about this time when it was announced in Select magazine that Ian Brown was set to release a solo album and I remember feeling a triumphant rush of excitement. The first single from the album, ‘My Star’, was great. I was glad that Brown had departed from the Stone Roses’ trademark sound and produced an ambitious and catchy track that seemed perfect at the time. I remember how pleased I was that the single utilised the magic of CD-ROM technology and included the music video on the disc to play on my PC. The sound was crap and the picture was grainy and jerky, but at the time this was the coolest thing ever. This was the first single I’d owned where the music video was on the disc, and I loved the fact that I could watch it any time I wanted without having to wait for it to fortuitously come on MTV, or call one of those other music channels where you could choose what was played so long as you were willing to phone a premium-rate number – I wasn’t.

When the album was released, I made real effort to like it. On first listen I thought it was terrible, but as I listened to it more and skipped past some of the dodgier tracks, I realised that it was quite a good album. It was nowhere near as good as the Stone Roses, but it was still pretty decent.

Album opener 'Intro Under The Paving Stones: The Beach' isn’t exactly what I’d call a song: it’s barely a piece of music. It’s more of a collage of beats and sounds that blend into the intro to ‘My Star’. As noted above, I love this song: it has a lot of swagger and confidence. It’s the perfect antithesis of David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, with its rumbling bassline and marching band drums. ‘Can’t See Me’ is another great track, and is probably the nearest in sound to the Stone Roses on the album. With its funky Reni-esque break beat phasing in and out of the mix, dual basslines, and a great vocal hook, it is reminiscent of tracks like ‘Straight to the Man’, one of the groovier tracks from the Stone Roses’ Second Coming. It is from this point that Brown comes across as incredibly bitter: ‘Ice Cold Cube’, with its layered beats and driving guitar, seems to contain thinly veiled references to Stone Roses guitarist John Squire. Indeed, ‘What Happened To Ya’, ‘Deep Pile of Dreams’ and ‘Corpses’ all seem to be aimed at Squire in some way. Take, for example, this line from ‘Ice Cold Cube’: “I suggest you think again my friend / Love is a circle with no end / A message given heaven sent / I've seen you cause your own descent“, or the chorus from ‘What Happened to Ya?’: “What happened to ya? / Did you change your mind? / What happened to ya? / We were one of a kind.” The album is littered with lines like these, and although was probably great therapy for Brown, it just comes across as really sad. ‘Sunshine’ is a pretty decent track and reminds me of something that Beck would have done during his Mellow Gold period. A knackered-sounding acoustic guitar, bongo drums and a wobble board make it sound like a track produced in the early hours of the morning after smoking a bit too much weed. ‘Corpses’ is probably the stand-out track of the album: the vocals are smooth; the tune is great; and there’s this dark emotional quality to the song that gives it a similar feel to ‘Ghost Town’ by the Specials.

Though Unfinished Monkey Business has some brilliant tracks, there are some which are just embarrassing. I read an interview with Ian Brown once where he said something along the lines that he wanted to make some of the tracks on the album sound like they were made by someone who couldn’t play keyboard. Well his plan worked: tracks like ‘Deep Pile of Dreams’ and the titular ‘Unfinished Monkey Business’ are just horrible. The stinker on the album, however, has to be ‘Lions’. I don’t have a vocabulary or writing style sophisticated enough to articulate just how bad this song is. It’s a perfect storm of bad drum machine meets terrible music meets terrible dual vocals meets awful lyrics... there’s just too much horror to put into words. Where’s Stephen King when you need him? Just look at these lyrics: “I'm alone in the country / Took a walk in the country / All alone in the country / Blade of grass in the country / Sour mash in the country / All the cash in the country / There are no lions in England.” Eugh.

I was in a bit of a quandary with this album as to whether to keep or cull it, as the album is such a mixed-bag. Luckily, my decision was made easier by the fact that I have the Best Of Ian Brown, a CD that I will definitely be keeping. As for Unfinished Monkey Business, I’m afraid it’s got too much filler to justify keeping. Perhaps if the album was more consistent, I wouldn't be resorting to the same tactic employed by Alan Partridge when he declared that his favourite Beatles album to be the Best of The Beatles.

Sorry Ian, please don’t threaten to chop my hands off.... remember what happened last time?


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