Posted in 2009, tagged b-side on May 27, 2013|
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I feel the love within me / And love can’t be removed
I’ve debated for a while whether to include this here or not as I’ve wanted to keep this list limited to the band’s official studio releases, and when this was originally released it was noted down as a demo. It’s however really hard to view it as one – the sound quality, composition and production are far from the band’s usual demos. So without much further ado, it now finds a place here as it’s more or less a fully-fledged Manics track.
That said, it is in fact a Shirley Bassey track. The legendary Welsh singer’s 2009 comeback album The Performance featured songs written by a number of contemporary artists, and “The Girl from Tiger Bay” was Manics’ contribution. While written for Bassey, and about Bassey, it doesn’t really move itself away from Manics’ safe zone; in fact, after Journal for Plague Lovers this could be seen as a precursor to Postcards from a Young Man as it carries much the same sound and feel. It’s a swooping orchestral rock track in exactly the vein you’d expect to come from James Dean Bradfield’s hands, to the point that the Shirley Bassey version never really feels like it’s actually hers. It’s probably its Manics-ness that lead to the release of Manics’ own version (free on the band’s website at the time); something that any of the other songs Manics have written for other artists have never gotten.
While not even thinking about reinventing the wheel and certainly not a important hidden rarity, “The Girl from Tiger Bay” has the feel of a timeless classic, even if not the strength of one – it’s clear that the idea was to write something befitting for a respected artist full of style and class. Wire’s lyrics, offering his interpretation of Bassey’s mindset at her old age, aren’t bad either even though it’s the first time he’s tried to write from the viewpoint of someone else. It’s overall rather enjoyable and would have slotted fairly effortlessly somewhere within Postcards or its b-sides.
The Bassey version’s main difference outside her vocals is the added orchestra behind the track, replacing the faintly audible synth strings on the Manics version. Otherwise they’re more or less identical.
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If there’s blood in your tracks then let it lead you back
An air of cant-be-bothered-itis surrounds the band’s second compilation, the singles collection “National Treasures”. The collection itself is a good idea – gathering all the singles after 10 albums inside one set of covers is a pretty nifty thing, but there’s quite a lot of little things surrounding the compilation that make you realise that this is a band who are about to take a few year break and who aren’t really going to pull out any major effort from their sleeves just before they’re about to begin it. The lack of any promotional tour or appearances (not that any is really needed tbh), the half-arsed singles boxset that’ll forever be known as a pile of wasted potential (by only including a small fraction of the b-sides that came with the singles), the fact that the token new song for the compilation is a very b-side-y cover and that the b-side for that new cover is a yet another acoustic James solo b-side.
By now, it’s started to get really hard to actually come up with anything new and interesting to say about James’ acoustic solo spots. The very first thing I ever wrote for this project was entry for “1404” and already there I lamented how these days the concept of a solo acoustic b-side reeks a bit of laziness and a way to make a token b-side really easily and quickly. During the 90s and early 00s the band didn’t really practice it all that much which ensured that each one was clearly distinctive. Ever since the mid-00s however, and especially during the Postcards-era, they’ve been churning them out with such pace that they’ve all began to sound the same. James sounds fine, he knows how to write a decent enough melody that ensures some memorability and most of the time there’s at least some tiny element that makes it diminishingly different to the others of its kin, but they still sound like they’ve been written in about five minutes and then thrown out into the wild just to bulk up the single tracklist. It’s the Manics equivalent of elevator music.
So I suppose it’s fitting enough that even I’m acting lazy and moaning more about things I’ve mentioned before in these articles rather than actually tackling the song itself. The proper reason for that though is that there’s very little to mention. James sings nicely enough, he strums his guitar pleasantly enough, there’s enough of a tiny hook to make you remember the song five minutes after it’s finished, and that’s it. This time there’s not even a special element involved, unless you count some faint backing vocals by someone not-James in the chorus (which we don’t because that’d be silly). To quote TV Tropes, it’s so ok it’s average.
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Sometimes justice can be sweet and so pure
If you look at Inky Fingers musically, it’s not particularly interesting. There’s very little in terms of hooks or anything to grab onto, and it’s another victim of the Manics’ recent desire to cut b-sides abrupt almost as if they cannot be bothered to spend time on them anymore. A stereotypical single bonus track, then. Nor is there anything eye-catching in the lyrics either, it’s more of Wire’s somewhat awkward political criticism.
But the sound of the song is one of the more interesting ones in the past handful of years for the band. While the band’s been spicing up their music with some electronic features in the past, nothing’s really sounded similar to this. The song is entirely carried by a soft, minimal electronic beat on top of which a big fat bass riff strums a more hard-hitting rhythm. All the other sound elements that go with them – which aren’t many – follow similar whimsical routes. It’s atypically quirky and absolutely fascinating. The mood follows a similar route: despite the lightweight tone of many of the elements and almost upbeat vocal melodies, the atmosphere of the song is very tense and almost a bit warped. A menacing prowl disguised as something more innocent.
In the end it doesn’t lift the song far higher than “interesting b-side” status because it lacks a strong tune and suffers from abruptenditus, but it’s certainly a strong curio.
Wouldn’t be surprised if this was one of Nicky’s.
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I won’t cheer those sad refrains anymore
In all honesty, there’s little of anything special to mention on The Passing Show. It’s a short, simple and very straightforward song – a mid-tempo, acoustic-driven little thing that doesn’t show off with any instrumental or structural quirks. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, finish and that’s it, with no fuss. It’s not really even worth it to mention it’s a Nicky-lead song because in the gallery of Nicky songs, it’s also a bit unspecial and not attempting to really establish anything extravagant that stands out. It has a certain weariness to it that makes it sound somewhat personal but even that’s not really a large enough factor in the song. It’s just a song.
But it’s a good song. It doesn’t attempt to do anything particularly ear-catching or special, but it doesn’t need to either. It’s an enjoyable little ditty and that’s all it wants to be. It’s pleasant and surprisingly catchy; it’s one of those songs you find yourself repeating not because of any “this is a TUNE!!!” reactions but moreso simply because it was such a pleasant little thing that you might as well give it another whirl (or several) if there’s nothing else in the queue.
The main point of intrigue arguably is the final set of lyrics that seem completely detached from the “can’t stop us now” sentiment of the rest of the song. For a band that’s always loudly criticised all sorts of governmental establishments and had a bit of a rebel attitude in the political view of things, it’s fairly surprising to hear Wire proclaim that he’s always believed in high taxation and he’s never been bitter or blamed the tax-man. It’s a sentiment that’s intriguingly peaceful and at ease compared to some of the political statements that’s come from the man’s writing pen in the past.
Apparently this song is a tribute to Ronnie Lane of the Small Faces.
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The hardest thing to do is to forgive yourself
A song where all the melodic tendencies of the band have been allowed to frolic freely and dominate the music. There’s no hard edges, no rock guitars, no raising anthemic qualities – just soft, lush melodies layered on top of eachother and set to a mid-tempo shuffle. It’s hard to state with words just how gorgeous it sounds: the piano that acts as the headlining star of the song is arguably the most elegant piano part in Manics history and the whole song moves with suave class and effortless beauty.
It’s also short as hell, in a typical modern Manics fashion, but it’s a rare case (for this band’s current trends) of the shortness not feeling completely abrupt. The song runs for little under three minutes but in that time we’re not only treated to the usual verses and choruses but even an instrumental section (a rather refined, subdued guitar solo) and a lyrical middle section. The final half-length chorus does give the feeling that the band panicked as they saw the three-minute barrier approaching but the song is still actually closed rather than awkwardly stopped on its tracks like many recent b-sides. This time the song is short simply because it doesn’t need to go any longer.
You’d love it to go on though. Kiss My Eyes for Eternity is a delightful gem, a lovely warm breeze of fresh air that showcases just how great a melodic ear Bradfield has. It’s a gorgeous song, in fact, and one of the best Postcards-era bonus tracks no doubt.
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Unlocking your true potential
Somewhat surprisingly, Nicky Wire seems to have become the embodiment of the element of surprise in the Manics these days. Once the guy who self-degraded his musical abilities with every chance he could get and who sometimes left the recording of his chosen instrument to James’ hands, ever since creating his solo album and then subsequently writing the band’s biggest hit in the recent years with Your Love Alone Is Not Enough Wire’s started to offer his writing pen to the Manics’ music more and more and the results have been staggeringly good, and acts as the member who’s most interested in thinking outside the usual box.
And then we get these. I’m tempted to say ‘as a flipside to that’ or prefacing a sentence or paragraph with ‘unfortunately’, but it’d feel like a lie despite that I find it hard to actually find a praising word for Engage With Your Shadow either. It is the first Manics song I’ve heard that has left me completely baffled. It is… what it is.
And what it is is Wire croaking some form of an incoherent anti-technology(!?) rant (complete with repetetive mantras that make sure the words ‘engage with your shadow’ and ‘unlocking your true potential’ are forever imprinted to your mind) over a hard-hitting, monotonous electronic beat and dischordant guitar noise, for three and a half minutes. Which doesn’t read like a long length but sounds far longer than it actually is when you’re faced with a song that sounds this confrontational. It’s almost as if Wire knew that this was going to get a dodgy reputation among the fans (already regarded as one of the worst songs put out under the Manics name!) and decided to just up the ante of the song for additional laughs. It’s not abrasive, experimental or in any way anything any music fan of today hasn’t heard before – it simply sounds like all it wants to do is be a nuisance and something you can hate and it’s loving it.
But as I said, I’m baffled. I’m not hating it. I’m not liking it either. It’s not mediocre. It’s… something else. It just is. It always jumps out like a sharp nail when it appears on the tracklist or shuffle, but it’s oddly compelling to listen. Almost hypnotic.
It’s Engage With Your Shadow.
As a final note, the sequencing on the Postcards From the Young Man single issue this is on is ingeniusly done as the music moves from this to the extremely melodic and warm Kiss My Eyes for Eternity.
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Time keeps us beneath while autumn sheds its leaves
There is an element of unearthing a treasure from underneath the sands of history with Midnight Sun. It may have been released as a single b-side in early 2011, but its origin is ten years before that – written and recorded during the Know Your Enemy sessions or ones succeeding it for its single b-sides, but then lost in the archives for whatever reason. The KYE sessions were a hotbed of mad creativity with no idea left unused and being a bit of a fanboy for that era, excitement for it was rife. Especially when it was found out that the version of Midnight Sun on the b-side of the Postcards single is the original 2001 recording rather than a remake.
The thing is, we’re dealing with a band who rarely leaves anything to the archives. The Manics are workaholics and love to release what they record, filling each of their singles with several b-sides even during a time when most bands have abandoned the entire concept of a single altogether. The KYE era especially was a time of the ‘anything goes’ ideology, as witnessed by the… eclectic nature of the songs recorded during that era. Unlike a lot of acts who make it clear that not everything survives through the recording sessions, Manics have been a very open band about what they’re doing and while the fans know of a lot of songs that only exist as names, we also know those never made it past the demo stage. So how come Midnight Sun was simply ‘lost’?
Listening to the track, it’s fairly obvious – Midnight Sun sounds unfinished. It’s a fully-fledged and fully-formed song in its own right, but lacks the finishing touch. Its recording is somewhat stuffy and muddled. It’s not a demo but it also sounds like the band stopped working on it before the process was finished and in the aftermath, the song was shelved. Why it got resurrected now, who knows.
That said, it still has an element of the magic of its era. The band sounds more relaxed, James’ vocal delivery is more effortless rather than rock-shouty even during the song’s calmly high-reaching chorus and, as a meaner point, it’s actually a finished song with a full lyric and musical progression rather than the repeated verses and abrupt endings of a lot of modern Manics b-sides. And it’s not a bad song in general – it has a nicely weary atmosphere, the organ of the choruses is genuinely fantastic and overall it’s an enjoyable song, albeit far from the general high quality of the era it belongs to. It carries the feeling of lacking the final touch, that extra polish that would take it one step further. It’s a bit of an odd one – and maybe it being a bit of an odd one was the reason it got initially shelved.
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