26 August 2010

Exclusive - RPA & The United Nations of Sound review

A Critique of RPA & The United Nations of Sound
By J. Adams

Rock ‘N’ Roll shaman and former Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft first gained the moniker “Mad Richard” for his space cadet persona and awkward habit of telling journalists he could fly. That was long ago, the title all but retired after a tepid but fitfully brilliant solo career, but the baffling release of his haphazard new album RPA & The United Nations of Sound suggests that Ashcroft has got some madness in him yet.

Following a brief and tempestuous reunion tour with The Verve, which yielded 2008’s solid-but-not-revelatory album Forth, Ashcroft reportedly considered retiring – not all that surprising considering clear signs of writers’ block on Forth and his previous solo LP. But a burst of inspiration last year led to an exploratory session with Hip-Hop producer NO ID, best known for work with Jay-Z and Kanye West. Ashcroft had long promised (threatened?) a “hip-hop soul” album, and ten days of recording with NO ID and a new session band formed the heart of this new record. With minor embellishment, it entered stores quickly, less than two years after the release of Forth.

In many ways, the virtues of this material are clear. Ashcroft’s previous solo projects were laden with limp, bloodless session musicians, but the ‘United Nations of Sound’ have the energy and chemistry of a real band. They can’t compete with The Verve, one of the great combos of modern rock and a perfect sonic fit for Ashcroft’s often grandiose ambitions, but succeed in giving his music a vitality mostly lacking in earlier solo material. Motown veteran Benjamin Wright contributes some lively string arrangements that are more memorable than past efforts, and producer No ID’s production is rich and bold. Songs like ‘Let My Soul Rest’ and ‘Life Can Be So Beautiful’ break new ground, while tracks like ‘Good Lovin’’ and ‘Royal Highness’ draw from familiar templates, but more dynamically than before. Ashcroft himself sounds passionate and energized – sometimes too much for his own good.

The sound is not perfect. Ashcroft suffered from Walking Pneumonia during the recording, which takes a toll on his voice if not his intensity. For the most part, his scratchy vocals fail to equal the impressive achievements of Forth. Guitarist Steve Wyreman is a capable soloist, but many of his passages outstay their welcome and verge on cheesy 80s hard rock. NO ID’s production is mostly effective, but multiple tracks are marred with an irritating R&B singer pseudo-rapping or repeating something ad infinitum in the background. And many of the songs are far too long. The Verve’s elastic and colorful sound could justify an extra few minutes, but several songs on this LP – particularly ‘Are You Ready,’ ‘Born Again,’ ‘America,’ and ‘Beatitudes’ – could use substantial editing.

Also in need of work are many of Ashcroft’s lyrics. The better tracks feature his trademark philosophical ramblings, inspirational sermonizing, and paeans to spiritual love, but several include at least one line cringe-worthy enough to hurt the song. It’s not encouraging for the man who wrote ‘Science of Silence’ to randomly name check Venus and Serena Williams in the middle of ‘Born Again,’ or for the talent behind ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ to refer to people “out there in The Matrix tonight” in ‘This Thing Called Life.’ Such lyrics are adequate for demos, but it’s somewhat shocking that someone who’s done as much multi-tracking as Ashcroft didn’t overdub something less awful for an album release – or at least leave the offending bit on the cutting room floor.

Ashcroft’s songs have frequently (perhaps usually) been somewhat underwritten – his material often boasts extraordinarily passionate singing, poetic lyrics, and beguiling choruses, but rarely does it all gel into truly great songs. The explanation is simple: early Verve’s evocative psychedelia did not require much in the way of elegant songcraft, and even as he became a formidable songwriter Ashcroft could rely on The Verve’s dynamism to flesh out the track. 1997’s Urban Hymns is probably his peak as a writer, and even there the band played an integral role in bringing his material to fruition. Subsequent solo albums featured a handful of developed gems, but mediocre production and listless performances left the records feeling incomplete.

More than one song on Forth had questionable lyrics, and many of his contributions felt like unfinished rough drafts. But some of the recordings’ flaws could be ascribed to fraying relationships within The Verve, and at any rate Richard’s accomplished singing and the band’s sheer chemistry more than compensated for those issues. On the new LP, though, many of Ashcroft’s lyrics and vocals are weaker than ever and the band sometimes amplifies songs’ flaws without mitigating them. Perhaps the rushed recording and release of Forth can be seen as a race against The Verve’s implosion, but the parallels on this record have no such excuse.

Ashcroft reportedly went over budget, and perhaps he simply ran out of money for his expensive collaborators. But he toured this album before its release, so the band could easily have rerecorded a few parts during rehearsals. Pretty much any sound engineer with Protools and a microphone could have tightened the over-long material and helped Ashcroft overdub a few fixes for the worst moments. These simple steps would have led to a leaner and more consistent LP – one that made the most of its basically strong material rather than let sloppy distractions undermine its impact. Instead, Mad Richard essentially released an unfinished album consisting mostly of professionally-produced demos.

The irony is that NO ID and the “United Nations of Sound” are the best collaborators Ashcroft has yet found for his solo work. They provide enough vigor to energize and enhance his music. With live renditions of older tracks that easily eclipse earlier versions, they certainly would have enhanced his earlier solo albums and tours. But, unfortunately, Ashcroft’s best collaborators got saddled with his worst batch of songs and could not quite redeem this weakest LP of his career.

For all of the album’s many flaws, though, it’s still a Richard Ashcroft record – a musical postcard from one of modern rock’s greatest voices. Even his weakest material has more soul than most, and there are a number of excellent tracks on the new LP. ‘Let My Soul Rest,’ a stunning confessional that builds to a euphoric catharsis, is one of the best songs Ashcroft has ever written. ‘Royal Highness’ cheekily nicks riffs from The Velvet Underground and The Who to offer infectious and joyous summertime pop. The mostly acoustic ‘Glory’ is an affecting ode of devotion to his wife. And while the falsetto-filled Curtis Mayfield pastiche ‘Life Can Be So Beautiful' is initially hard to swallow, careful attention to Ashcroft’s captivating call and response reveals one of his deepest and most sensual love songs.

Considering Richard Ashcroft’s past accomplishments and immense potential, RPA & The United Nations of Sound is a frustrating and frequently disappointing album. It should not have been released in this form, and it’s not likely to win many new converts. But fans of Ashcroft, accustomed to sifting through his spotty solo material, will nonetheless find much to appreciate – and some to treasure – on this LP. From a talent like Ashcroft, even some of the weaker material is more than enough to warrant fans’ attention, and the best is excellent. Here’s to the dimming hope that, next time, he’s finally able to sustain a whole album worthy of his talents.

Grade: B-

RPA & The United Nations of Sound Track by Track

- Opener and preview track ‘Are You Ready’ gets things off to a solid if not spectacular start, channeling Oasis with a pumped-up anthem about preparing for the rapture. It’s a mostly well-written song that’s perfect for the gym, and Ashcroft sounds authoritative, but the refrain becomes repetitive and the concluding guitar solo seems to last forever.

- First single ‘Born Again’ gets the sound and energy right for Ashcroft’s latest rock ’n’ roll pep talk, but unfortunately falls short with some weak lyrics and an overwrought sing-along outro that feels a bit canned. He tries valiantly and it’s a decent song, but it’s one of the weaker singles he’s released and not unsurprisingly a commercial flop.

- ‘America,’ despite some promisingly adventurous production that evokes spaghetti westerns, is the worst song on the album. Ashcroft’s lyrics are vague, the chorus uninspired, and the track mind-numbingly repetitive. There’s some potential to a few elements, but it all goes sadly unfulfilled.

- ‘This Thing Called Life’ is a mess that’s embarrassing and inspiring in equal measure. It starts beautifully, with striking keys and sighing background vocals, and then lurches into some overwrought lyrics delivered with melodramatic overkill. The chorus is one Ashcroft’s best and most stirring, and solo acoustic renditions prove the song’s potential, but too much of this version sounds like an ungainly Frankenstein assembled from several incompatible takes.

- ‘Beatitudes’ starts unpromisingly with an annoying rap from the album’s needless R&B singer, but builds into a relentless glam-inflected groove that sounds like a distant cousin of A Northern Soul’s title track. That the vocals serve more as counterpoint to the groove sort of excuse some of the weak lyrics, but unfortunately the R&B woman returns to conclude matters. Still, it’s a fresh approach – though it feels more like a b-side.

- ‘Good Lovin’ is among the most archetypically Ashcroft material on the album, seeming to hover somewhere between ‘Music Is Power’ and ‘I See Houses.’ With intriguing lyrics, stately strings, and a regal stomp, the song marks the point where the album at last hits its stride.

- Despite its eyebrow-raising title, ‘How Deep Is Your Man’ is a fresh and loose John Lee Hooker tribute like nothing else Ashcroft has done. It’s a cool one-off, and one place where the unfinished quality of the album works to its advantage.

- ‘She Brings Me The Music’ is pretty for what it is, but something of a missed opportunity. It’s a passionately intense love song with a beautiful chorus, but it never quite goes anywhere. Eventually it breaks into a storming bridge that seems poised for a triumphant Coldplay-esque return of the chorus, but it builds and builds and… just ends.

- ‘Royal Highness,’ built on the famous riff from the Velvet Underground’s ‘Royal Highness,’ is an upbeat and soulful celebration of the creative process. The production is a bit too clean, but the song’s got an irresistible chorus and a cool bridge borrowed from The Who’s ‘Baba O’Reilly.’ Excellent summertime pop.

- ‘Glory’ is a stirring and passionate love song that could fit on anything Ashcroft’s done since Urban Hymns. It’s well-written and Richard sounds great – the only weakness is the R&B singer incessantly repeating “glory” in the back of the mix.

- Though currently one of Ashcroft’s most mocked songs, ‘Life Can Be So Beautiful’ is a definite highlight of the album and his entire solo career. Finally realizing the sound Ashcroft aimed for on ‘Check The Meaning,’ it's ambition and scope recall the earlier song as well. Ashcroft’s falsetto and spoken word go back and forth in an engrossing call & response that meditates on love, sex, evolution, and God. No one but Richard Ashcroft could pull this off.

- ‘Let My Soul Rest’ concludes an inconsistent album on a brilliant note. An epic plea for redemption, the song finds joy in the cathartic release of the soaring emotion Ashcroft and very few others can evoke. Again, no one but Ashcroft could pull this off.

- ‘Third Eye (Columbus Circle),’ released as a fan club exclusive, is the most hip-hop inflected song released from these sessions, and closer than most of the album to what fans were expecting from the LP. As on other tracks, the lyrics are weak, but it’s an intriguing new direction and Ashcroft sounds great riding the groove.

- ‘Captain Rock,’ an iTunes bonus track, is uncharacteristically intimate and low-key for Ashcroft. With a slacker vibe reminiscent of 90s Beck or Pavement, it seems to address the depression Ashcroft has discussed in interviews. It’s a little long, with some pointless profanity and a few dodgy lyrics, but overall a unique song with a certain gawky charm.

J. Adams is a New York-based writer and critic.