One of the knock on affects of the growth of streaming and downloads has been the near universal demise of the greatest hits album. In a world where every track released by every artist is available at a small number of clicks of a button, the former record label cash cow that was the greatest hits compilation has fallen by the wayside.
Whilst the predicted demise of cassettes, the album format and even CD have been to some extent mourned, it’s fair to say that not many tears have been shed for the greatest hits. Amongst music snobs (us included if we’re honest) there was always a scepticism as to what the motives of the format were. In a world where Jamiroquai were able to release two separate greatest hits compilations, did anyone not feel a bit short changed by paying for songs you already owned? As youngsters we were Blur obsessives, but shelling out the price of a double album for essentially Music Is My Radar and a couple of live versions was, if not completely taking the piss, at least taking advantage of our naive fandom.
What was the point of greatest hits compilations? We doubt there’s anyone when pressed for their favourite Radiohead album would ever select Radiohead: The Best Of, an album Parlophone released without the bands permission. Do any Manic Street Preachers fans think Forever Delayed is better than The Holy Bible? Even the biggest selling compilation album of all time, Madonna’s The Immaculate Collection, which has outsold every Madonna studio album, is unlikely to be anyone’s personal favourite.
The problems with greatest hits, from the point of view of fans of a band, is that they can’t be that exciting; they never offer anything more than a couple of new tracks, they often flow badly with little thought to running order, and they shoe-horn music from every era of the band into the same record. No Blur fan really wants to hear Tender shift into Girls & Boys, they are different parts of the bands journey, and take you to different moments of your past. Farewell then to Greatest Hits Compilations, there’ll be someone somewhere who’s still a bit sad that you’re gone, but it sure isn’t us.
Following the release of his third album, Darling Arithmetic, Villagers main man Conor O’Brien faced a slightly tricky scenario. Whilst second album Awayland was a rich dense collection of full band material, incorporating swathes of electronics, Darling Arithmetic was a stripped back affair, often incorporating little more than Conor and an acoustic guitar. With a live tour to head out on, he was forced to rework old material to tie in with his new sound a daunting prospect. Thankfully it was so good he decided to not only take it on road, but to record it as well.
The result is his new live album, meets greatest hits collection, Where Have You Been All My Life. Recorded in just one day at London’s RAK Studio alongside engineer Richard Woodcraft, known for his work with Radiohead, and Villagers’ live engineer Ber Quinn, the record is a collection of new versions of older tracks, interwoven with live cuts from Darling Arithmetic. The recordings were, very impressively, all either first or second takes, the entire songs put to tape without overdubs or any form of studio trickery. That they sound so professional and polished is down in no small part to the quality of the players in the room, the versatile four piece sounding equally well versed on instruments from harp to mellotron, flugelhorn to double bass as well as some frankly beautiful vocal harmonies.
The success or otherwise of this album falls not in the quality of the material, but the rationale behind its release. The older material that is re-imagined is injected with a new freshness, the arrangements taking the music in directions that it has not previously been, the reason for releasing these is clear: it shows the progress of Villagers as a band, of Conor’s skills as a songwriter and an arranger. What’s far more questionable is the need for new versions of tracks from Darling Arithmetic, the likes of Courage, Hot Scary Summer and So Naïve, lifted from his latest album these are essentially just session versions of the same songs, little has evolved from that record, because there has been neither the time nor the need to re-work. These versions are essentially just adverts for the record they are lifted from, and would only be of interest to the most obsessive of Villagers fans.
That however is probably our only criticism of the record, place aside any cynicism of this record, forget that this is just a compilation of songs you already know, and there’s something truly magic about this collection. Thought and time have clearly gone into making this flow as a record, into making the songs work with the band available and to making something that is actually worse listening to. The addition of beautiful Crosby, Stills and Nash-style harmonies turn Set The Tigers Free into a gorgeous, slowly unfurlling beauty, My Lighthouse is smoothed and softened by haunting mellotron before being given a triumphant twist, by distant flugelhorn and harp, it’s as if someone opened the very heavens above you. That Day, unquestionably one of his finest tracks, is kept fairly simple and stripped, but it’s given a new found confidence by the way the track is clearly so ingrained into his conscious, he now has the confidence to play with the songs melodies, taking his vocal in new directions and allowing other instruments to fall into their place, it is exactly what you want from a new version of an old favourite, the tracks essence remains but so does his ambition and his ability to constantly evolve his back catalogue.
The biggest departure comes in the shape of The Waves, a track that on record is a buzzing electronic menace, here given a completely new sound. Synths are replaced by guitar lines and swells of organ, and as the drum beat kicks in there’s the feeling of huge proggy sound, it’s not a comparison you’d ever imagine but it sounds quite a lot like Pink Floyd. By the time you roll around to the outro it’s become huge and spacey, the whole track is unrecognisable from the original, and every bit as intriguing.
As with all compilations they throw in a couple of curve balls; there’s a version of Memoir, a track Conor wrote for Charlotte Gainsbourg which is a live favourite, and a cover of the Jimmy Webb track Wichita Lineman, of course made famous by Glen Campbell. They are enjoyable bonuses, Memoir showcasing his ability as a classic-folk songwriter, while Wichita Lineman is an oddly enjoyable match with Conor’s vocal, adding much to the classic version and making the track his own without falling back onto the sound of the original version.
Ultimately this record is one for Villagers purists, the casual observer would be better served by listening to his studio output, but for fans of the band there are more than enough twists and turns to feel you’re not being short changed. It’s a collection of tracks that more than anything reminds you of just what a talented songwriter and musician Conor is, a very enjoyable stop-gap whilst we await whatever direction he decides to take his music in next.
Where Have You Been All My Life? is out now via Domino. Villagers UK tour starts this month, click HERE for details.