It’s a difficult task, naming your favourite album. Taste changes over time, while new favourites go on heavy rotation for a few weeks, then disappear from mind, rarely to be played again.
If I have to pick just one album to be my all-time favourite, however, I plump for one I repeatedly come back to. It’s one that sounds fresh every time I listen to it, partly because it doesn’t belong to any one particular genre or era, and partly because it sounds quite unlike anything else in my collection.
Chances are that if you’ve heard any track from Alabama 3’s Exile On Coldharbour Lane, it’ll be Woke Up This Morning. Or, as it’s better known, the theme tune from The Sopranos. It’s one of the bluesier cuts on an album that veers all over the place, mixing in country, rock, techno and gospel into a riotous formula that somehow works.
The charge often levelled at Alabama 3 is that they’re a novelty band. There’s something in this – it’s a group of malleable numbers, led by an Elvis-obsessed preacher man character called D Wayne Love. The lyrics inhabit a cartoonish world of sex, drugs, church and militant socialist rhetoric. The listener is not stepping into a conventional universe of boy meets girl love songs here.
Many of the tracks display a staggering chutzpah. U Don’t Dans 2 Tekno sounds like Rednex if their follow up to Cotton Eye Joe had been about a girl dying after taking an ecstasy tablet and The Old Purple Tin (9% of Pure Heaven) is a devotional ode to Tennant’s Super.
Mao Tse Tung Said is thoroughly terrifying, looping itself around a crazed rant by Jim Jones, the cult leader of Jonestown Massacre fame. And Hypo Full of Love (The 12 Step Plan) is a marvellously filthy take on sex, rehab and conman spirituality.
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The latter is laced with superb lines, showing off one of Alabama 3’s strong suits – they can be very, very funny. Nowhere is this more true than in the vitriolic anti-hippy anthem Ain’t Going To Goa. D Wayne lays into those who travel to find themselves, spitting: “Cos the righteous truth is there ain’t nothin’ worse than some fool lying on some Third World beach wearing spandex, psychedelic trousers, smoking damn dope, pretending to be getting’ consciousness expansion. I want consciousness expansion, I go to my local tabernacle an’ I sing.”
The album’s bizarreness can’t hide its strength, though. In the swirl of harmonicas, slide guitars, disco beats and Marxist chanting, this is a set of twelve incredibly well-written songs played by genuinely talented musicians. The last two tracks, in particular, show this. Sister Rosetta cuts out the comedy to be a rollicking beast of swampy blues-rock, while the enormously catchy Peace in the Valley hits the pop/ country/ gospel borderland perfectly.
Exile On Coldharbour Lane is equally parts silly, singalong and soulful. It doesn’t fit any box, and still sounds gloriously, distinctively fresh 15 years after it was first released.
Top tracks: Converted, Woke Up This Morning, Peace In The Valley