Monday, November 28, 2011
Artist: Big Star
Album: Third/Sister Lovers
Year: 1978 (recorded 1975; Rykodisc 1992)
I began working on this post a month ago, and am going to try to salvage what I have. I think that's pretty appropriate considering the album I'm reviewing!
From one of the most gloriously uplifting albums to one of the most gloriously distraught, Big Star's final album (sans a reunion in 2005) is one of the most haunting and tragic masterpieces of music. Though known for their incredible ability to write melody around glorious harmony and shining guitars, today, Big Star's reputation also largely rests on this, their final album as an active rock band. For all it's melodic gorgeousness, the fact that it is an album that almost never happened, and in a way, was never completed, adds to its legacy tremendously. Few albums capture the sound of a band going through what these guys were experiencing, and as I maintain, that aides in one's appreciation of the album immensely.
Founded in 1971, Big Star was the brain child of Alex Chilton (formerly of 1960s soul-pop group The Box Tops) and Chris Bell. Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens rounded out the lineup...and as the name indicates...the group had big dreams. Unfortunately, the dreams never coalesced...and a lack of commercial success, mixed with booze and drugs and in-fighting saw the group all but broken up by 1975.
The strength and majesty of the album is two-fold...it's mystique and beautiful melodies (that are a part of the former). Many (hell, most?) classic albums have a story: a band with a purpose gets together in some definitive situation at the height of their powers and either methodically and systematically, or just because they are that damn great...bust out a classic. But Big Star in 1975 were broken and bruised. And the album they produced...well it sounds nothing like what built their early albums: chiming guitars, gorgeous harmonies, and a class rock and roll feel.
///Re-picked up in November.
The album as it stands now opens uncomfortably with "Kizza Me." While a strong track and great opener with lots of energy, the dark instrumentation is a radical departure from what came before for the band. Guitars are incredibly low in the mix, and a bizarre piano track and fuzz bass dominate the mix. The following song, "Thank You Friends," is a little more "polished"...and some gorgeous melodies open up the song...and there's even a guitar solo reminiscent of the first two records. With "Big Black Car," we have the band's slowest and darkest song yet, and these three opening songs pretty much summarize the album. There are really odd-ball rockers, with a traditional Big Star melody but that really don't sound like them; there are some dark songs that often sound as if they are about to fall apart; and there are even a few beautifully composed songs that hold together so well, they almost sound out of place. In the first category, along with the opening track, you have "You Can't Have Me" and "O, Dana" which also have a strong, very audible fuzzy bass and piano riffs. The frustration inherent in each song and the fact that with a different arrangement these could sound more "like" Big Star might be related (I wanna feel you kizza me!; O, Dana, come on!; You can't have me, no not for free!"). What often gets the most attention when discussing the album, and rightfully so, is perhaps the slow songs. The way they constantly sound like they are falling apart is magnificent. The way Chilton ends the bridge in "Big Black Car," holding out the last lyric ("It ain't gonna lassssss...t-ah") is not dissimilar from the weakness he exhibits in "Kangaroo" where a perfectly used cowbell seems to be exemplifying his despair. There is also my favorite song on the album, "Nighttime," whose closing lyric "Get me out of here, get me out of here...I hate it here...get me out of here" accompanied by a stand-up bass, sounds like it sums up all of the anguish Chilton must have felt at this point.
The album is rounded out by some well put together songs, too. "Stroke It, Noel" and "Take Care" have gorgeous string melodies (and apparently, the use of strings was inspired by Jody Stephens wanting to use them on his contribution to the album "For You"). Whereas the rest of the album sounds messy and falling apart (which again, adds to its greatness) these songs don't, almost making it feel that if the band hadn't been so desolate, the rest of the album might have sounded this way. We can only speculate at this point.
If ever there were an album that required knowledge of its back-story to help understand its greatness...this is certainly it. It's a truly difficult album to get into that I'm sure many are turned off by after hearing the charm and melody in the band's first two records. But many, after repeated listens and a lot of patience (myself included) seem to finally come around to the record. How do artists whose masterpieces go ignored or unheard feel when they eventually get their due? Chilton has passed, and never really seemed keen on discussing the past, so we may never know. But this album deserves to be cherished, and fortunately, it seems like these days that it is.
Monday, October 10, 2011
Album: Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space
Jesus Christ, are the 90s on pace to become the best decade? For everything, that is. Visible social protest, a strong economy, independent movies, and great popular music (especially with hip hop, but lots of wow-I-can't-believe-they're-getting-airplay as well). Make no mistake about it, Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space is not an album that would be made today. But with people re-buying their entire collections in a new format, the music industry was booming in the pre-Napster late-90s. So it's not that crazy that what was really an indie band on a major label with a strong niche audience...got to make one of the most ambitious, expansive records of the decade. Personal preference for "most artistic" or "favorite" record of the 1990s aside, there is no doubt that Ladies and Gentlemen is a project whose scope in terms of length and size of production was unmatched through the decade.
Of course, none of this would matter with sub-par songs (as the sometimes-good, but ultimately weaker follow-up to this album, 2001's Let It Come Down, proves), and therein lies the genius of J Spaceman: "simple things done well" as a friend of mine once put it. On paper, the structure and layout of his songs dating back to the earliest Spacemen 3 recordings isn't that different from the songs here: two or three chords, verses and a chorus that are very similar and rarely is there a bridge that changes the chord shapes...diversity of song-structure is certainly not what his Spaceman-ness is known for. But the execution of Spiritualized's music is anything but typical, and while most current artists that are ripping off blues legends or writing garage rock songs sound derivative and painfully un-original, J Spaceman's compositions are a testament to how an artist can use a familiar form and do something new with it.
The album opens with the title-track: a lyric-for-lyric (partially, at least) cover of Elvis Presley's "I Can't Help Falling In Love With You". Restored for it's recent reissue, Spaceman gives the song new life, with superb vocal harmony rounds throughout the song. There are at least four vocal tracks by my count on the original release (1. Spaceman with distortion 2. Spaceman without distortion 3. Choir 4. Spaceman loud at the end), along with guitars, keys, and all sorts of other instrumentation. There's a lot going on, but rarely is everyone playing at once, giving the song an amazing amount of space to breathe. That's the album's primary strength: lots of instrumentation, but used well. The album never feels overblown, no matter how much is going on.
Another example is the superb third song "I Think I'm In Love." Though ten-minutes long, the foundation of the song is a 7-note bass riff played at the end of a measure. No matter how far out the song goes...it always rests on that riff. The song has only two parts, and within those two sections they don't stray from their core melody. Still, the simple lyrics and simple melody are carried by the song's ability to just have everything in the right place.
With Ladies And Gentlemen, Spiritualized turned a pretty big corner. The first album and early singles were obviously extensions of what Spaceman was doing with his side of the Recurring LP. Pure Phase was a more diverse, but slightly less cohesive album. At this point, the band was still relatively stripped down and doing simple things. Ladies and Gentleman, however, is longer, more diverse, and bigger than anything he'd tried. The songs are not all guitar-centric, and songs like "Come Together" and "Electricity" showcase Spaceman's newly-found ability to rock out (something he'd really never done before). The symphonic strings of "Cool Waves," the cool jazz of "Cop Shoot Cop" and the bombastic orchestration of "The Individual" are further examples of new things. Whereas earlier album's featured abstract, drone-scapes for instrumentals, the one's here are more aggressive and really fit the album a lot better.
Spiritualized started the 2000s off with high popularity, before Spaceman's pneumonia side-lined the band for three years. They've recently come back in vogue, and with reissues and tours around this album, it's easy to see why. Perhaps it was a bit dwarfed when it was released the same year as OK Computer, the album finally seems like it's getting it's due. And Spiritualized are certainly not alone in terms of 90s bands finally getting the respect they deserve. The album is more dynamic and diverse than most albums in general, let alone the 90s. It remains a remarkable testament to what a band can do when given major label resources (besides just selling more records, like most indie bands strive for when going big time). There's unlikely to be another album like it anytime soon, so enjoy it now!
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Album: Double Nickels On The Dime
Jeez I've been slacking. Been trying to motivate myself to write this thing for a few weeks now! We enter the top 20 with one of the masterpieces of 1984. This record and band, especially in the last few years (with the help of the superb documentary We Jam Econo: The Story Of The Minutemen), have received plenty of documentation which would be easy to re-hash. Instead, I'll talk about my own perceptions (do I usually do that?) of the album. And Double Nickels certainly isn't the kind of album one is really into after one or even half a dozen listens. Patience is certainly the name of the game, and with an album this diverse, it could take months or years to fully appreciate (I know it did for me). Perhaps it is even best listened to in its original vinyl format, using four-nearly 20-minute long mini-albums as a way to get into it. I don't really know what the best way is. But Double Nickels is the kind of album that, once it clicks, will continue to click in new and fascinating ways with each listen.
As those of you who've read Our Band Could Be Your Life or watched the aforementioned We Jam Econo documentary already know, the title has many meanings. Though most directly a jab at Sammy Hagar (whose "I Can't Drive 55" was a reaction to Jimmy Carter lowering the speed limit), where the Minutemen sought to be "adventurous with music (as Hagar was pretty tame) but safe on the road", the album oozes classic driving record. The record sports a cover photo of the band driving on the freeway with their home exit of San Pedro in view. Each side of the record (lost on the CD, as are several songs, most notably a few covers) begins with the sound of each band member revving the engine of their car. That adventurousness that the band sought comes across in various ways.
Not only is this clearly the band's longest record (and a mammoth one at that, with 46 or so songs!) but stylistically, the band enters territory not even they had charted. From noise-fragments (I guess you could call them that) from Watt and Hurley, to solo, acoustic guitar playing from D. Boon which really allows him to flex his guitar playing muscle, the album is all over the place. Classic Minutemen/working-man anthems like "Corona", "History Lesson Part 2" and "This Ain't No Picnic" play alongside pop-topical gems like "Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing" (this album came soon after Thriller, remember...Michael was still the king!) Minutemen were already punk-as-fuck for not being afraid to mix in spoken-word/dream like lyrics and more adventurous music than most of their peers, but with Double Nickels, they were able to really break the mold. And that's really the album's legacy.
Double Nickels On The Dime was the Minutemen's best-selling record. Punk's founding was based on making music fun and exciting again, and eschewing the false rules of rock that had come to dominate popular music. But by 1984, hell by 1980, many of those rules were back in place, only within the subculture. Punk had to be fast, or political, or no-guitar solos, and you couldn't like classic rock, etc. etc. But as people who grew up listening to Creedence Clewater Revival and T-Rex, Minutemen didn't have the same heavy metal background of a band like Black Flag. Just like The Replacements, it seems that early-on, a large part of what made them great is because they didn't know what they were "supposed" to be doing. But with Double Nickels not only did they know what they were supposed to be doing and already outright reject it, they helped change everything punk could be. With Let It Be, Meat Puppets II, My War and Zen Arcade released the same year, bands that had come from similar backgrounds began to find their voice and really come into their own, which they couldn't do without going further in their own direction. It's unlikely indie rock would be as diverse as it is today without the help of these fantastic albums. Double Nickels is an album where exploring song-by-song would be pretty futile...but as a whole, cohesive work, it somehow manages to make more sense than any record of its time. The diversity coalesces into a mad genius. Take your time with this one and listen to it while driving really fast.
Thursday, September 8, 2011
Artist: The Rolling Stones
Album: Beggar's Banquet
This was the second album I reviewed for this blog, and it can be found here: (original review!). I've spent time in this blog and with friends going back and forth between this and Exile On Main Street as favorites, and I had been flip flopping a lot. I won't waste time comparing the two here, and just analyze this album on its own merits, again.
The first of the Stones' run of four classic albums comes from 1968. Having started out as a gritty, bluesy, garage band, the Stones began to come into their own with 1966's Aftermath (their first cover-free record) and Between The Buttons. They took a detour with a poorly-executed (though songs like "She's A Rainbow" indicate, perhaps potentially great) psychedelic record before going back to their roots with Beggar's Banquet. Obviously using the term "adversity" when talking about the Stones, a major label, million-song-selling band, must be understood in perspective, but like most great art, the Stones best stuff was made under adverse conditions. This album was the last to feature any shred of founding member Brian Jones, whose contributions are minimal and often mixed to the point of being inaudible. As a founding member, the stress of having a weak link around certainly must have been difficult. But it allowed for Jagger and Richards to fully seize control of the band, and certainly there must have been a liberating feeling for them to really have artistic control in an un-checked way...with Jones not being part of the equation (all speculation from me, but certainly with Jones as a founding member his voice must have been required to be heard before this record). The results of this album and the few that follow showed the importance of having Jagger and ESPECIALLY Richards be at the forefront of decision-making in the band.
Banquet starts off with classic rock staple "Sympathy For The Devil," a song that actually lives up to the hype with incredible lyrics as Jagger embodies the devil, boasting about destroying old Russia, the Kennedys, and plenty other stuff in-between (don't forget how recent the Kennedy assassination was, Robert's included!). The rest of side one is brilliant, with "No Expectations" a solid old blues number, "Dear Doctor" one of their earlier country forays (though not first), and the Dylanesque "Jig-Saw Puzzle" to end the side.
Side two however is even better. It's the perfect document to show just how hell-bound these sinners were. "Street Fighting Man" calls for support with the youth, "Prodigal Son" is an old blues cover (all those motherfuckers are going to hell), "Stray Cat Blues" is about doing underage groupies, "Factory Girl" is about the innocent girl and her beauty...it's just an exceptional side.
I've written about this record plenty, and I don't have too much more to say. While Aftermath started off their era of releasing great albums, there didn't seem to be a unity to the sound or sequencing of the album. This is really the first Stones album that's great and is more than just a collection of wonderful songs. Fortunately, there was more of that to come!
Friday, August 26, 2011
Artist: Charles Mingus
Album: The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady
As Mingus's career progressed, his scope and the overall volume of his work (in terms of just LARGE-ness) constantly increased. Earlier works like The Clown featured relatively small groups. Though albums like Blues And Roots and Mingus Plays Piano would be examples of him returning to his "roots," there is a definite upswing of players on his albums throughout his career (culminating in the likes of Let My Children Hear My Music). His 1963 album, composed as a ballet, is one of the high points of his career and in all of jazz history as well.
No other Mingus album, and certainly few in jazz history, benefit from sequencing and playing-off-itself in a way this does. It's strength lies in the fact that while a pretty sizable ensemble performed the album, and while it's scope is pretty large and ambitious, it still feels intensely personal. Volume in records tends to reduce intimacy, but that's not the case here.
The players on the album are out of this world: Jaki Byard, Richard Williams, along with Mingus are just a few of the notable players. In addition, Jay Berliner's acoustic guitar work is possibly the highlight of the record, personally.
I know this isn't a large review, or even that detailed. But it's a record whose magnificence must be experienced. While the whole thing is built around one theme, it never grows monotonous and constantly brings surprises. One of the finest records of the 1960s and a landmark jazz record.
Friday, August 19, 2011
Artist: Moby Grape
Album: Moby Grape
This one's a bit of a hard sell as a greatest album ever, but it deserves to be on the list by sheer quality alone. As I look ahead to the rest of my list, it's a mixture of a wide variety of albums, all linked by being pretty standard fodder for this sort of list. Moby Grape's first record is not a music or genre-defining record. It did not have a measurable change on the course of pop music. And every subsequent release by the group falls under the category of disappointing. But for just under thirty minutes and across thirteen songs, the first Moby Grape album speaks volumes about the possibilities of group composition, group playing, group contribution, and amazing melodies. That the album has retained its popularity from just being on the fringe of the Summer Of Love is a testament to just how great it is.
Moby Grape didn't come out of nowhere with this record. Skip Spence was Jefferson Airplane's original drummer, and Matthew Katz had also been associated with the group. The rest of the quintet also had spent time in various minor bands up and down the west coast. There is a guitar trio on the album, and every band member sings and contributed to songwriting duties. Yet while in many cases this could prove disastrous or totally unnecessary, Moby Grape pull it off exceptionally. "Hey Grandma" is an immediate garage rock classic, and sets the tone for the album with soaring melodies, intricate and wonderful, but never overly complex, guitar work. The upbeat songs on the album that follow are absolutely killer, with side 1 chocked full of should've been hits, including "Fall On You" and "Come In The Morning." The classic "Omaha," penned by Spence was the only song to crack the top 40 (but more about that in a moment).
Still, the second side reveals an even greater songwriting prowess than the first. Bluegrass is touched on with "Ain't No Use" while the slow "Someday" and ominous "Sitting By A Window" really showcase their abilities. It's shocking to see that some of the songs on this side clock in at WELL-UNDER the 2-minute mark.
At under thirty minutes the record is an absolute breeze, and the amount of superb melody and harmony packed into it is superb. In an era that saw the excesses of rock music begin (for better or for worse) with concept albums and jams, this record remains as fresh and enjoyable as when it was released. Of course, it could not last. Columbia Records released seven singles simultaneously, thus ensuring none would chart, and only "Omaha" did. Their next record featured a record full of jams, which is the opposite of their strength. They eventually (not sure exactly which) would release a record that required the speed of the turntable to be adjusted mid-side. These gimmicks and poor songs are so sad when compared to the majesty of this debut record. Only available in a poor CD edition after the Sundazed reissue quickly went out of print, you'd be well-served to pick it up on vinyl. A real underrated gem.
Thursday, August 18, 2011
Artist: Stevie Wonder
For his third masterpiece in two years, and the middle album to his perfect string of five albums (from Music Of My Mind through Songs In The Key Of Life) Stevie Wonder created the most political album of his career. In a lot of ways, Innervisions shares much in common with the other albums he created during this period of his career, certainly dominating much of the instrumentation as well as creating an incredibly diverse album stylistically. The album features, like the rest of those albums also, some sure-fire hits, some legendary tracks of his, and some of his most underrated work. What separates Innervisions from the others is its perfect flow and its topicality. While I do personally enjoy the songs more on this release than any of his others, I believe that it stands out so significantly in content also is what makes it his definitive release.
It would be unfair and a bit disingenuous to find any real fault with the other albums Wonder created during this period. I wouldn't call this a critique...and I'm sure this idea could be challenged, but I've never found there to be an extraordinary amount of clear organization to his albums of the era (aside from perhaps the first and last songs--the singles, really). John Bush makes this point in his review of Fulfillingness' First Finale on allmusic, saying that it feels more like a collection of songs than a whole unique album. While Songs In The Key Of Life sets out to be a concept album built around an incredibly diverse amount of musical, social, and political ideas, that isn't as evident on its predecessors. Therefore, the clear political nature of Innervisions allows it to stand out.
Stevie's more-politically themed songs here vary extraordinarily. They are important because just as the Civil War didn't end slavery, the end of Jim Crow laws and the Black Power movement didn't exactly end racism, either. The epic, album-stealing "Living For The City" paints a perfect portrait of this, describing the hard-ships of black families. Why should they be the ones who find themselves most often in horrible living situations with the fewest opportunities for employment? Though this album is another showcase for Stevie's lyrical talents, they pale in comparison to his music. The keyboard on the song is magnificent, and the way it builds in tension and emotion throughout the song, backed with excellent backing singers, makes it a real treat. It flows into my favorite song on the album, "Golden Lady," with deceptive lyrics that could be mistaken for Stevie pining for another girl, but really underscore the dangers of materialism (notice how the natural elements in the song are attainable, but the gold is where Stevie would only LIKE to go).
The rest of the album continues this trend brilliantly. "Too High" opens the album, but the songs I just discussed are tracks three and four. At the point where many great albums go on auto-pilot after a killer intro, Innervisions achieves the opposite. After side one ends, we get the hit "Higher Ground", and the second side continues the funky "Jesus Children of America", the beautiful "All In Love Is Fair", another hit with the Latin-themed "Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing" and the Nixon-themed sendoff of "He's Misstra Know It All."
Throughout the whole album Stevie is as gorgeous and generous with his melodies as ever. No long-song overstays its welcome, and the range of emotions on display is magnificent. Innervisions remains one of the finest R&B albums of all-time and a definitive statement from one of music's giants.
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Artist: The Kinks
Album: The Village Green Preservation Society
We enter the last quarter of the list with an album that, while I have nobody to blame but myself...I guess I just can't believe it's not higher. I suppose that'll be the case with all of these albums from here on out, but Village Green is certainly one of the more understated and underrated moments of genius from a band already acknowledged by many as rock's most underrated. Though their quietest album, it comes right in the middle of an era of prolific genius from the group, that also saw the creation of six other magnificent albums and countless singles as well. It is tame in tone, but often nasty in lyrical content. While Ray Davies expresses a longing for simpler times, it's always with a hint of sarcasm, pointed both towards the preposterous nature of longing for the past, and certainly those around him that can't let it go.
Much has been made about the album's place as a counterpoint to other pop music of the era. The Kinks in 1968 were definitively un-hip: they were in the midst of a ban from touring in America, their last hit had really been in 1966 ("Sunny Afternoon") and their previous album, though well-reviewed, was incredibly calm and tame (compared to the burgeoning hippie movement, at least). Indeed, if anything, Village Green is an even more extreme version of Something Else. While that album introduced the tameness that would inhibit their popularity for a few years, it still had some genuine pop hits. Indeed, songs like "Waterloo Sunset", "Harry Rag" and "Tin Soldier Man" and "David Watts", even, were pretty logical extensions of earlier songs and singles that had celebrated in an almost silly way the small town follies of England. This is something that the group had begun with "Well-Respected Man" years earlier. From this point on, their lyrical themes would bear little resemblance to most of their peers, but at least through Face To Face there was some significant loud, rock and roll-ness to their songs. Something Else was, like its predecessor, a general account of a town, almost. The events, emotions, and people portrayed could've been anybody. This was not the case with Village Green.
By contrast, the band's 1968 album featured all songs related to a "Village Green." Rather than songs about a hodge-podge of various happenings that have no real geographic or chronological theme, the band creates an album with songs linked by this location. In some instances, like "Big Sky" and "Animal Farm" and "Sitting By The Riverside," as well as the two title tracks, this is achieved through lyrical content that could only take place in a town like Village Green. In other instances, the only real link is the consistent and mostly-acoustic instrumentation. "All Of My Friends Were There" for example, an early precursor to Davies' theatrical obsession of the 1970s, gives off a feel that all of the characters you've been hearing about in the early songs are the ones that were there to see this failed performance. If Something Else has an achilles heel, it's that the style of the songs is almost too-diverse, and it's really their only album of the era that this can be said about. Yet apart from a linkage in styles, the Kinks already were capable of and celebrating-while-mocking their own background, it's really The Kinks sense of humor and attitude towards the content of the album that makes it so special.
The Kinks lyrics must not be taken at face-value. As mentioned earlier, "Well-Respected Man" is a pretty good precursor to the band's lyrical themes for the rest of the decade. After early singles like "Tired of Waiting For You" and "You Really Got Me" which were, lyrically at least, nothing exceptional compared to what would come, this song hints at their sardonic tone they would use consistently. The "Well Respected Man" in the song ends up being the butt of the joke, as his regiment and routine really aren't to be celebrated. It's even more clear the Kinks treat these people with sarcasm on a song like "Mr. Pleasant" where the man who has done everything right and done what he was supposed to do is beating cheated on. These songs take to task a culture of people who do nothing but what they are supposed to do, which is its own downfall. Looking at Village Green, it may seem like "People Take Pictures of Each Other" is a tale about looking at old pictures and missing the good old days, but I don't think that's the case. The narrator asks that you "show me no more, please," indicating that he misses the days the world was young and free, which it isn't anymore. The next verse, singing "People take pictures of each other, and the moment to last them forever, of the time when they mattered to someone" shows the absolute fraud that is taking all of those photos, and reminiscing about the good old days. The good old days were really lies, and photos have the ability to accentuate the fakeness of the past, not happy nostalgia. "Picture Book" earlier in the album does the same, with "Picture book, of people with each other, to prove they love each other, a long time ago." These lines all prove, to me at least, that the themes on this album are not of a time that should be missed. One begins to think in "Village Green" when Ray sings that he will return there and drink tea with Daisy, it's during a different moment. If the narrator of the picture songs is realizing or experiencing the lies that the photos bring, then in "Village Green" he's under the false spell of nostalgia again. In songs like "Do You Remember Walter" and "Big Sky" this loss of innocence and youth hinted at is again in place. Both of those songs ALSO feature lyrics about freedom ("do you remember how we said we'd fight the world so we'd be free" and "one day, we'll be free, we won't care, just you wait and see," respectively). Ray is now old enough to know it was all a lie. To sum it up: as great as it is to think the world is at your fingertips and everyone around you is wonderful when you are young and small, the world has a way of crushing your dreams. When you return home, you know the truth, but the hardest part is watching a new generation live out the lies you once believed in. In yearns for nostalgia, Ray Davies doesn't want to "go home" he wants to go back to his past and have something better to believe in, as foolish as it may really be.
So really, it's an incredibly dark album. That it retains its pop sensibilities is another monumental achievement for the band. Beautiful string arrangements on "Animal Farm" make it the album's centerpiece. The only two really electric songs on the album, "Last Of The Steam Powered Trains" and "Wicked Annabella" retain a subdued charm that balances out the power of the themes (a steam powered train and a wicked woman). The steam-powered train is the perfect metaphor for the album, which at one moment is the most powerful vehicle we have, but in its current incarnation, pales in comparison to its modern peers. One more song worth pointing out is "Johnny Thunder" which is this album's "David Watts." But if the latter represented the feeling a peer has when viewing the big man on campus (I would not say there's much irony in that song--it's really a celebration of that feeling when one is a youth), "Johnny Thunder" is from a more adult perspective. The people of the town can't get through to him or bring him down...which implies they must be trying to do so. This big shot needs to come down from the clouds and be grounded. And again, that idea of freedom is here, as Johnny has vowed to never end up like the rest.
The album is just perfect in every way. It has a back-story that's interesting, and after being finished at 12-tracks, Davies had it pulled, and it eventually was its final 15. This added to some degree of its commercial failure--that is--not having a well-planned out release/marketing schedule. The group would continue to make more well-organized concept albums for years to come, and still had some great albums ahead of them. But their high point, and their last album as the original quartet with bassist Peter Quaife, was this one. An essential album that requires significant attention.
Artist: James Brown
Album: Live At The Apollo
The original Apollo concert album for James Brown was recorded in 1962. While not the funk legend he would eventually become, as evidenced by the introduction at the beginning of the album, he was already known as "the hardest working man in show business" "Mr. Dynamite" and other nicknames. As magnificent as Brown's output for the next fifteen or so years would continue to be, the album remains a testament to the greatness of an artist who still has so much to prove. While the greats' greatest work can requires more thought than the raw energy that marks their earliest works (think the early Beatles, Who, and Kinks versus their best albums later on in their career), they often have an energy in their early work which can't be replicated...likely due to the amazement and excitement they still feel early on. Not to say there isn't an energy in the later recordings or some deep thought in these group's early records...but can you think of a Beatles song more energetic than "Twist And Shout"? James Brown was still at the dawn of a brilliant career during this recording, but for sheer enjoyment and energy, nothing he ever did would top it.
The album is barely more than thirty minutes in length. With the exception of the 10-minute long "Lost Someone" each song (including the many played in a seven or so minute medley) goes by at a ridiculously fast-pace and with incredible energy. From the opening guitar work of "I'll Go Crazy" through the wonderful "Try Me" (which elicits more than its fair share of howls from the ladies in the crowd) through a cover of The "5" Royales "Think" into "I Don't Mind"...the album starts off with a frenzy. Two of those songs are played at a slower pace, but you can hardly tell considering the energy with which they are pulled off. While "Lost Someone" cools the album off before an explosive medley and the closing "Night Train," it is imperative to accent HOW energetic this record is.
There's really no live album like this one. The likes of At Folsom Prison are often, rightfully so, praised for their atmosphere. But it still pales next to Live At The Apollo. The Apollo is not the world's most intimate venue, yet when Brown screams "I GOT SOMETHING I WANT TO SAY RIGHT NOW" you get to hear his bandmate egg him on. The girls that scream at random moments throughout "Lost Someone" frequently bring out laughter and other emotions from the crowd. James Brown is the center of the show, but everyone is very clearly involved. The band is absolutely tight and magnificent. The album goes by in a fury, and Brown would go onto define a genre and in many other ways an era, but his finest moment is still this one.
Monday, August 15, 2011
Artist: The Band
Album: Music From Big Pink
Oh man three weeks have gone by? Busy at work, my apologies. Today I will discuss album #27 on my list, Music From Big Pink the debut album by The Band. The group was originally known as The Hawks, and were a backing band to 1950s rock and roller Ronnie Hawkins. The original incarnation of the group changed dramatically between their inception and split from Hawkins in 1963. Eventually, the group wound up backing Bob Dylan, touring with him during his Blonde On Blonde tour, and shacked up with him to make what became known as The Basement Tapes in Woodstock, NY in the late-1960s. Perhaps being associated so closely with Dylan during these years helped add to and influence their mythology. The group adopted the moniker of The Band at least partially to counteract rock-stardom...wanting to remain anonymous as people and just be known as a band unit (as opposed to say, how each Beatle was unique: George the "Quiet One", etc. It's sincerely tragically ironic that the group's decline came with certain rock-star tendencies like drug-use among other things).
Though selling only modestly (the record has still, to this day, never reached platinum status), the album was a landmark upon its release. The story I know is that Dylan played it for Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton (among others) simultaneously, and it blew them all away. It's certainly one of the best-paced records, and achieves the rare feat of allowing each song to flow perfectly into the next but they also all stand out very well on their own. The album's songs exemplify everything that was great about the band. "Tears Of Rage" is a subtle, slow and incredibly subdued song...but at five and a half minutes, it's a bizarre choice for an opener. And for a song from 1968 to be played with such folk-y instrumentation...at the height of psychedelia...their music was truly radical. The songs never celebrated mind-expansion or rebellion, but a return to simpler time...not unlike being The Kinks, perhaps, of the North American musical landscape.
The rest of side one flows brilliantly, as three quiet and plaintive songs follow the opener, which leads to the colossal "The Weight" one of their and one of the most well-known songs of the era. It's fame and quality are without question at this point, and few songs are more well-justified as being so well revered. While the instrumentation and topicality of the song might not reflect the era, it really actually speaks to the generation in an elegant way, and it's lyrics exhibit a confusion and fear that only such veterans of the music scene like The Band would really be able to put into words so well.
Side two is just as strong, if not better than the first side. Opening with the relaxed "We Can Talk," which showcases the ensemble-type playing/singing that goes throughout the album (at any point, it feels like anybody could take the lead or take vocal duties), we get a superb cover of "Long Black Veil" and the downright rocking and evil "Chest Fever" with some of the best organ/keyboard playing the band would ever exhibit. The album ends with a similar note to how it began, and if "Tears of Rage" works as an overture, "I Shall Be Released" certainly feels and sounds like a perfect finale.
The group would make one more undisputed masterpiece before their 1970s output would be hit and miss. But this, their first record, is still an achievement and a sound unmatched by any of their peers then and any release since. A truly superb record that belongs in every household.
Friday, July 22, 2011
Album: The World Is A Ghetto
Label: United Artists
By 1972 War were fully confident and one of the most engaging funk bands around. After parting with Eric Burdon a few years earlier, their first two albums as their own act, The World Is A Ghetto delivered on their commercial promise, and would become their finest album. Thanks in part to those roots with Burdon, the group also drew heavily from pop music of the late 1960s: psychedelia and soul mixed with their own brand of California funk.
The album begins with the sensational and legendary track "The Cisco Kid." The lyrics are a simple tale of (probably?) an outlaw described with a "man with no name" sort of style-an outlaw who plays by his own rules. Right from the outset the Latin flavor of the group is put into effect. Almost immediately afterwards introducing that sound (with tremendous piano melody helping it along) the group slides into a cool groove with a harmonica in the forefront. The feel of the album continues on the equally strong second track "Where Was You At." As songs, rather than have distinct messages, they set-up the tone of the album and the group, at least one dimension of it that is, wonderfully. Free-wheeling, sing-along, community-sounding R&B. The first side of the album ends though with an abrupt turn with the gorgeous "City, Country, City." If the first two songs emit that sound of a group of friends in the inner-city getting together and jamming on a sing-along in the middle of a hot summer afternoon (this image is certainly helped in my mind by the cover art), then "City, Country, City" paints a picture of the twilight. It's just as laid back, but the instrumental just feels like the soundtrack to a night. And that it ends side one with such a different feel is excellent sequencing.
Side two opens with "Four Cornered Room," a dark and paranoid song. It sets the tone for the rest of the album. When you're not with the friends and enjoying a day-there is such entrapment to your world. "Four Cornered Room" and "The World Is A Ghetto" both paint a tortured and limiting picture of what that world is like...the same world that produces the all day music--the picture on the album cover. As "Beetles In The Bog" closes the album, the feeling of the song is closer to side one's upbeat moments...but with an element of darkness that the second side has certainly placed upon it.
Though known for hits like "Spill The Wine" and "Why Can't We Be Friends," War were really one of the more thoughtful groups of their era. Their blend of Latin funk was absolutely inventive and all of their early-70s work is worth checking out. The World Is A Ghetto remains their landmark work and another highpoint for early 1970s funk.
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Artist: The Flying Burrito Brothers
Album: The Gilded Palace Of Sin
Gram Parsons was one of the great 1960s wandering musicians. Like Al Kooper, Eric Clapton and even Neil Young he would briefly appear in/form bands (brief relative to the band's entire career), make a tremendous contribution, and then be on his way (the rest of the band's output would never be of such a great quality). He got his start fronting The International Submarine Band where he began to hone his country-rock stylings. (Note: I feel it's worth pointing out that Parsons, contrary to popular belief, didn't invent this style. He rightfully acknowledged a debt to England's Downliner's Sect. Their second album, The Country Sect is probably the true beginnings of country-rock.) He would give his most popular work as a member of The Byrds, contributing inspiration, a few songs, and a couple of vocal tracks to their landmark album Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. The Byrds inability to keep a steady lineup and Parsons being not allowed to sing on songs due to label restraints meant that the partnership didn't last long. A year later Parsons had a new band, The Flying Burrito Brothers. His stint with them would also prove all-to-brief, and the end of his time with the band marks the beginning of his personal downfall, but their first album, The Gilded Palace Of Sin, is still the finest album of the entire genre, and one of the best of the 1960s.
There's no denying the diversity of styles that emerged in popular music in the 1960s was radical. Miles Davis and The Grateful Dead playing together in San Francisco; Sly and the Family Stone playing to a rock crowd; even hillbilly music was given an update (though interestingly, the genre's old guard, people like Roy Acuff, vehemently disapproved of "long-hairs" playing country, especially in locations like The Grand Ole Opry). One of the most striking things about the record is not that it's rock merged with country, but that most of the songs are original. Parsons' aforementioned records featured a majority of covers, but Gilded Palace only features two (not including a coda at the end of the last song), and those are both R&B covers. The Byrds had done this with "You Don't Miss Your Water," but The Burrito Brothers' two covers are breathtaking: "Do Right Woman" is given an incredibly tasteful performance, but their cover of James Carr's "Dark End Of The Street" may be the highlight of the record. Their ability to merge black and white music in such a direct yet forgotten about way is still breathtaking. This leaves nine original songs, and for a record that's part of a genre that's so built on covers and reinterpretation, Parsons's ability to pen such amazing songs is another wonderful thing.
From the opening bars of "Christine's Tune" it's clear that Parsons has mastered country music interpretation. Lyrics of a "devil in disguise" tearing apart men mixed with unbelievable slide guitar litter the song. Musically, we're also met with that kind of "You Really Got Me"-sounding psychedelic distortion guitar. The rest of the album constantly updates classic country themes with a 1960s sensibility. "My Uncle" is about hitting the road-but it's due to draft-dodging (obviously topical during Vietnam). Classic love songs like "Hot Burrito No. 2" have a similar psychedelic guitar to the one in the opening track, and "Hot Burrito No. 1" almost has a loungy, jazzy feel. For a country record, it's one of the most diverse of its kind.
"Sin City", the album's second song, is generally considered the band's high point. It achieves with one song the same thing that Let It Bleed does throughout an album: the 1960s are over. The song predicts the fate of a generation that will have to atone for an era of sins. A true revolutionary spirit based in moral philosophy had given way to hedonism, and it was clear then to some as it is now to many that children of the 1960s took it too far. The song's lyrics about "the 31st floor" and a friend trying to "clean up this town" are a reference to Bobby Kennedy's assassination, which, along with MLK's a year earlier and the Nixon election, certainly began to destroy the dreams of the era. It's a masterpiece of pop music and one of its most sobering moments.
The greatness of the band would not last more than an album. While their second album, Burrito Deluxe technically featured Parsons again and had a few nice songs, it pales in comparison to its predecessor, and Parsons had mostly checked out (and that goes double for the band's third and fourth albums). By this point, Parsons began enjoying celebrity status, hanging around The Rolling Stones and...engaging in sin. He would release two very highly regarded solo albums in the early 70s that sold poorly, he died of a drug overdose in 1973. But that first album, made during a period of considerable output for Parsons, is still a masterpiece, and its legacy and stature has only grown over time.
Friday, July 15, 2011
Album: Forever Changes
Love's third album is not only their masterpiece, but a classic of California in 1967, and that the record fell on relatively deaf ears upon release during a year that produced so many landmark albums, and now enjoys classic status, is a testament to album's quality. Psychedelia, folk, garage rock and poetry, as well as bits of jazz and Mexicali are all touched upon during the record. When looked at even closer, the background of the band makes the masterpiece seem all the more unlikely to have existed, and therefore, that much more rewarding that it does.
Love were a garage rock band based out of Los Angeles in the mid-1960s. Like their peers and city-mates, The Standells they were playing a grittier brand of American garage rock rather than leaning towards the tamer, hippie-based sounds of San Francisco. Early singles like a cover of "My Little Red Book" (from their debut) and the scorching "7&7 Is" from their second album Da Capo gained the band attention. Of course, drug addiction and unwillingness to tour kept the band grounded. (They also maintain that race was a factor, but that seems unlikely to me. They were the first rock band signed on Elektra Records, and while they were soon followed by The Doors, who enjoyed much more success, their had been black folk artists before. Why would the label hold back one of their own acts because of race? It makes more sense that their lack of success can be attributed to them never leaving town). By the time they set out to record Forever Changes, frontman/lead-songwriter Arthur Lee was leaning towards recording the album Pet Sounds-style, with session musicians playing the songs instead of the band. The early results weren't "gritty" enough for Lee, and he decided to let his band back in the mix. Certainly this tension might've hurt the intra-band relationship, but I suspect it contributed to the quality of the music, as well.
Forever Changes sounds like it was created under the exact conditions I just described. Lush orchestrations and arrangements are matched note for note with ferocious playing and ominous lyrics. Lee maintained he felt he was going to die at soon, and wanted this to be his final piece, and the lyrics of the album can be attributed to that. Every song on the album features haunting lyrics, such as: "Sitting on a hillside/watching all the people...die/I'll feel much better on the other side"; "This is the time in life that I am living/and I'll face each day with a smile/for the time that I've been given's such a little while/and the things that I must do consist of more than style." There's something about the words that, while generalizable, feel more personal coming from Lee than many of his 1967 counterparts. Perhaps this could be his use of the first person, and not "we" (or "you") in many of his songs. These song lyrics are of a spiritual nature, and rather than the second person calls to arms of Jefferson Airplane (feed YOUR head) or Jimi Hendrix (are YOU experienced), Lee never really invokes the rest of the world into his songs, unless he's putting them into perspective through his personal feelings. (I know a lot of this/all of this is my interpretation, and I'm sure there are contradictory examples and other first person spirituality from this time, but I can't think of them off the top of my head, so be it).
Apart from the beautiful lyrics, the music is truly one of a kind. Mexican horns/guitar playing litter tracks like "Alone Again Or" and "Live And Let Live." Ferocious guitar playing is also featured on songs like "A House Is Not A Motel." The group may not have any longer been the simple garage rock band they were just months earlier, but they come off as one of the tightest rock bands of the day with this release. Surrounded by lush orchestration, the album is just gorgeous.
Stories go (from the Love Story documentary and Wikipedia) that the group got kicked in to shape after Lee had temporarily dismissed them, and they were motivated NOT to mess up after this. Though the album they produced at that point is a classic, Lee kicked the rest of the band out afterwards, and Love released a few more unremarkable records. The band also had trouble on their final tour with Lee in the 2000s, and quit mid-tour. Lee was known to always have drug and eventually legal troubles, so its hard to say who really "held them back" during the 1960s (likely: they all did). But Forever Changes is an undisputed classic whose status among music fans is now far greater than most of their peers.
Monday, July 11, 2011
Album: Album-Generic Flipper
During the last few years I've been connected with the punk culture in New Jersey pretty closely. During that time I've learned of dozens of important bands from the 80s, 90s and today that I never knew of before. I've also found that there are tons of bands I never cared for that have a much more devout following than I ever realized. Flipper, however, remain one of those bands that...it seems like nobody really cares about. In the last few years they almost did a reunion tour, had albums reissued, and have been surrounded by so many peers getting highlighted (Germs reunion show/Biopic; Minutemen documentary); and yet their stature seems as low as ever. Admired/adored by a few, but largely neglected by the larger punk community---even by the record collectors it seems. Which is really a shame, and I can't offer any insight as to WHY that is (perhaps just because they are slow?) but I can say that it is certainly one of the best punk records of the 1980s, nay, all-time, and it still sounds amazing today.
I could heap praise at the album with adjectives like nihilistic, challenging, and dark...but the album doesn't really sound like a dark masterpiece that was carefully constructed punk norms. I've always felt the album was more a product of heroin-addicts in the punk scene. But even if their intention wasn't to destroy punk conventions, it's still a masterpiece. Listen to the side 1 ending "(I Saw You) Shine" as it plods through 9-minutes. Drugged-out nihilism is in full swing. Will Shatter's lead vocals are hypnotic. And while often it's just that slow, eerie delivery that makes the album amazing, the lyrics are absolutely punk anthem writing 101.
"Ever" is the perfect call to arms for the band, with Bruce Loose screaming "Ever do nothing, and gain nothing from it?" among many other perfect lyrics. "Living For the Depression" similarly is of an anthemic nature, and the fastest/shortest song on the album. Its lyrics take to task the white-collar man of the 80s-taking vacations, shopping in supermarkets. It might seem trivial now, but the anger the song is delivered with is perfect. "Shed No Tears" similarly points out the contradictions of life, and "Life" is probably the most anthemic with a sing-along chorus.
But again, all of this catchiness is delivered in the most messed-up way possible. The guitars rarely play anything discernible, really just muddled noise. The bass and steady drum rhythms carry the melody of every song. It's an album so anti-punk that it's punk (or something)? The mixture of catchy melodies, disgusting instrumentation and nihilistic, slow songs somehow combine to make this one of the best albums in punk history.
Friday, July 8, 2011
Artist: The Fall
Album: Hex Endunction Hour
Woo I haven't opened this in two weeks since I started this review.
Oh man. So few albums so perfectly encapsulate everything perfect about a band. Most of my favorite records by my favorite artists are, for lack of a better word, merely them hitting a perfect moment. Exile is almost great because it takes what the Stones were best at and does it differently than they'd ever do it again. Sgt. Pepper, In A Silent Way and others (which will appear high on this list) are alone in their respective artist's canon. The Fall have no album like that, which sticks out for its different-ness. All of the band's work is pretty logically intertwined. But Hex Endunction Hour is perfect in that it works as one of those perfect albums that summarizes everything great about the band. Some Fall albums are more literary, some weirder, and some focus on rocking hard. Hex Endunction Hour manages to simultaneously be the band's most literate, focused, and forceful record.
As usual, the circumstances that worked for The Fall might not have worked for other bands. They were on a new label, Kamera Records. Most classic (and current) indie bands would probably love to be on Rough Trade Records, who released previous Fall work, but Mark E. Smith found the label stifling, as they insisted on lyrics that made sense, etc. Kamera, a label accustomed to heavy metal music, was all for the Fall doing what they wanted, as well as making the record an HOUR long and giving the band creative control without question. The group also elected to record three of the songs in Iceland, a less than friendly environment. Those sessions produced three of the band's greatest songs ever, the epic two-sided suite "Winter", "Iceland" (one of the group's darkest songs of this era) and the classic "Hip Priest." These three songs alone give a great "Fall overview" if you will: the former is a two chord riff over about...eight minutes with lyrics of a warped short-story variety. In "Iceland" we have one of their most repetitive riffs and minimal songs (which the next song, album closer "And This Day" turns on its head to be the same style, but incredibly bombastic) and the latter has MES pumping his own chest better than ever ("They can imitate, but I teach, cus I'm the Hip Priest!").
The band is built on repetition, and this might be the most repetitious of all their work. Most of their songs at least have a bridge or SOMETHING that breaks up the monotony, but not this one. Actually, except for the bridges in "Hip Priest" and "Just Step S'Ways" I can think of no instance where the core of a song is broken up in any way.
Lyrically the album is also genius. "The Classical" sets the scene perfectly, with "There are 12 people in the world/the rest are paste" and "I just left the hotel amnesia, I had to go there--where it is I can't remember..." Short story-esque lyrics also abound (the aforementioned "Winter" for example), but Mark E Smith's delivery is as caustic as ever. And lyrically, this is really the beginning of the end for lines like the above. Once Brix Smith joined the band/they join Beggars and turn to a less chaotic sound, the lyrics, while retaining greatness, are totally different. Gone is the young MES of old spewing forth beat honky tonk crazy poetry comic genius.
The band, unlike many others I praise here, are not known for their subtlety. From what I've read, MES seems to have understood how over-the-top Hex was, which led to the stripped-down tone of their next release, the mini-LP Room To Live. While what I've read primarily points to a feeling that Hex was overproduced, Room To Live sets the production tone for the relatively (compared to Hex) subdued sound they'd employ over the next year, before jumping to Beggars and really changing things up. Hex Endunction Hour is rare and brilliant in that it's a band on top of their game, who would then reinvent itself and reach equal highs again. But nothing of theirs is like Hex Endunction Hour, and as good as the albums are that were (and still are!) to come, nothing beats this record for the band.
Thursday, June 23, 2011
Artist: The O'Jays
Album: Ship Ahoy
Philly soul group The O'Jays had origins in Ohio in the late-50s. Though their roots and initial sound didn't separate them from many peers initially, by the early-1970s, they found success in the songwriting talents of Gamble and Huff and in a Philly scene whose sound was not too dissimilar than The Spinners and Chi-Lites, marked by bright guitars and a more pop-oriented take on 70s funk. They found real success with the 1972 album Back-Stabbers, the title track of which was a huge hit for the band. Their follow-up the next year however, would be an even greater triumph.
Back Stabbers proved The O'Jays were a force to be reckoned with, but Ship Ahoy is a more cohesive record. It's themes of almost hopeless pessimism are often frequently met with an upbeat sound, making the songs. "Put Your Hands Together" is a call to arms, clearly making the claim that things in the community/in the country aren't as they should be. "The Air I Breathe" is equally upbeat in sound, but in the song the group laments, "Why won't they find a solution/to what's causing the pollution," before going on, "Don't they care/what's happening to the earth?" Truly, these songs help to illustrate an incredibly un-selfish group. "Now That We Find Love" even points out the fear of the future--one so dark that upon things turning around socially, people won't even know what to do with positives.
The album is also really noteworthy for the scope of the epic tracks. The near-10 minute title track is a superb dramatizing of the slave ships Africans were brought in. It doesn't try to tell a story or "feel" like the journey, it's just a song about it in the most general sense. Using fewer lyrics and letting the music do what it needs is one of the reasons it works so well. "Don't Call Me Brother" is the other epic on the other side of the record, and equally good.
While there are a few personal tracks, they fit in with the general theme that seems be taking a wide look at the world as it currently is (at least to The O'Jays). "You Got Your Hooks In Me" and "People Keep Tellin' Me" lament the classic feeling of being in a relationship you can't get out of, no matter how much you should. Simple lyrics, great singing, and wonderful instrumentation. Throw in the now famous for its inclusion in The Apprentice, "For The Love Of Money" and you round out this sensational record.
The O'Jays never matched these highs again. The sound of early 70s funk that still had pop roots in the older, grittier R&B sound soon started giving way to the polished sound of disco. While slick and polished in terms of production, The O'Jays deliver this epic with grit that gives it character, rather than distracts from it (as a more polished work might). Ship Ahoy is one of the great 1970s funk albums, and definitely one of the last of its kind.
Friday, June 17, 2011
Artist: Marvin Gaye
Album: What's Going On
Marvin Gaye's masterpiece, What's Going On? has only grown in importance since it's 1971 release, now forty years ago. The question mark's absence isn't a mistake. As Marvin says in the title track, "I'll tell you what's going on." A statement of purpose that at the time had substantial impact. Few commercial R&B artists got involved and became topical in the way that Gaye did with this release. More importantly, however, it was a call for those same artists to take more artistic control of their work. While certainly not the first R&B artist to take control of his career, Marvin's influence on the likes of Stevie Wonder and The Temptations, among others was huge.
Marvin Gaye got his start on the Motown label, and scored a wide-variety of hits throughout the sixties. As the decade wore on, however, Gaye became disillusioned with the material he was performing. Along with the obvious changing signs of the times around him in public, his brother returned from Vietnam with horrific tales about what he'd experienced. All of this drove Gaye's desire to create a more "important" album, and after releasing the title track as a single gave him a smash hit (thus burying Motown President Berry Gordy's fear about the music), he worked on the album through 1970 and in 1971, What's Going On became the biggest selling Motown LP ever. With it, Gaye became a leader for R&B musicians taking creative control of their careers, and the 1970s became a decade where the entire genre went from singles-to-album based. The success of groups like Earth, Wind, and Fire, Ohio Players, Parliament, Stevie Wonder, and countless others, is due in some part at least to the success of What's Going On.
But as I feel has become a theme for these albums, none of this back-story of the album really means anything without also noting the superbness of the music. Working with The Funk Brothers (Motown's house band throughout the 1960s and until the riots in Detroit that led for the label's HQ to move to LA), What's Going On was not only topically, but technically advanced in ways Motown hadn't seen before. Gaye's incredibly influential vocal harmonizing/doing background with himself is fully on display here. (What would hip hop music be without this?). And The Funk Brothers take a jazz-y approach to playing here. The songs are not built as a series of singles (so common on Motown up to this point) but rather one cohesive album, and so they take time in every song to flex different muscles. There's no need to show off everything they can do in three minutes.
Few soul albums can claim to be as cohesive as What's Going On. "What's Happening Brother" is the perfect follow-up to the title track that opens the album, and "Flying High in the Friendly Sky" lends considerable atmosphere to the record, allowing the musicians to show what they can do. It illustrates that Gaye had the compositional chops to convey messages without words (something he would really expand on his next record, the mostly instrumental soundtrack to the blaxploitation film Trouble Man.) The more experimental tendencies displayed on the record, however, are balanced out by near perfect pop from Marvin. "Mercy, Mercy Me" and the closing track "Inner City Blues" are arguably two of his finest songs. "Right On" is one of his grooviest songs to this point, showing an influence from the likes of War that he would certainly use later on in his career.
Those who think context doesn't matter when evaluating music need to look at What's Going On. There may be soul albums with better songs, more hits and more flair (and this certainly isn't the highest-ranking album of the genre on this list). But imagine what wouldn't have been without this album...without Marvin Gaye of all people deciding to speak out...and to make a point about societal issues that the entire public needs to deal with, not just a limited population. If Let It Bleed marked the death of the 60s, What's Going On shows that some people weren't giving up the fight during the "me" decade.
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Artist: Miles Davis
Album: Kind Of Blue
One of my remarks about Mingus Ah Um was about how well it sort of..."overviews" the history of jazz, for lack of a better phrase. Mingus's greatness always seemed to lie in his ability to update and pay homage to the masters of jazz. This came across in his music and the people he played with as well (Duke Ellington and Max Roach for example). Kind Of Blue, released the same year, is equally important and definitive as a Jazz album. But as Miles looks towards the future and continues to refine a sound uniquely his own, it's legacy is greater and the album even more essential.
Like Ah Um, almost every song on Kind Of Blue is a classic-a next generation "standard" (if the original jazz standards date back to the 1920s-1930s). But rather than a joyous celebration that gives off a near-giddy atmosphere, Kind Of Blue is the definitive of all of Miles' cool albums. Really, what I love about Miles is how understated he is. Many of his peers as well as predecessors were known for an aggressive style. Coltrane (who appears on this album) has a box set called Heavyweight Champion. Charlie Parker, a key influence on Miles (and one of Miles' first notable gigs was to play alongside him) was known for his aggressive sax style, which was in contrast to the smooth stylings of Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young before him. Miles would later in his career prove to be capable of playing with unmatched ferociousness, and Kind Of Blue is just another example of how capable he was of playing any style.
I could write more, but really, I think my love of Miles comes from a "less is more" place, and I have one more album of his to review on this list. There is a quote somewhere in Miles's autobiography about John Coltrane. Generally he told Coltrane he could improve his solos by taking the horn out of his mouth. Davis' genius lies in his ability to leave everything understated...forcing you to find the greatness of his music, rather than beating you over the head with it. Kind Of Blue is a perfect example of him doing just that.
Friday, June 10, 2011
Artist: Meat Puppets
Those middle-ground albums are the ones I love best. I find so often (and must have by now, at some point, indicated that on this blog) that the best albums are by bands in the middle of two points in their careers. Meat Puppets II is a perfect example of that: the band has begun to embrace lighter, more melodic tunes, but have certainly not fully abandoned their aggressive and far more ferocious roots. If any classic 80s punk record really doesn't fit in with its peers, it's Meat Puppets II.
Take a moment to think about the band and their music. They hailed from Arizona...far from the liberal establishments of San Fran, southern California, New York, and DC. Meat Puppets weren't just from a far-away land culturally, but musically as well. While The Replacements, yes, covered Hank Williams and Husker Du wore their 60s influence on their sleeves, I feel that there's a slight difference between how bands that weren't the Meat Puppets bore the influence of their parent's music. Of course youth from the late-70s and 1980s was going to have some of the 1960s rub off on them, but whether Black Flag doing "Louie Louie" or Minor Threat doing "Good Guys Don't Wear White," we just see punk bands emulating their garage rock forefathers. Even in Husker Du's "Eight Miles High," The Byrds' psychedelic high-point is run through that Husker Du system. The Meat Puppets, however, retained the aesthetics of the psychedelic years more concretely than many of their peers. "Oh, Me" uses effects perfectly, and the song drags along at a sloth-like pace, rather than amphetamine-driven fury. "Lost" like many other punk songs of the 1980s can be described as a "driving" song, with a rhythm that propels you. But it is not maniacal in a way that "Nervous Breakdown" is (or even, "My War" if we're sticking with 1984). It's more laid-back and easy going, not unlike a Big Star song.
None of this means that there aren't moments of menace or craze more in line with Meat Puppets as a punk band. "Split Myself in Two" the first track on the album is blisteringly fast and it seems that the singing can't even keep up with the song's delivery. "New Gods" is just as ferocious in every way.
But most of the album owes a lot to the 1960s. The poetry of "Plateau", the Nixon reference in "Lost" and the laid back instrumentals. After this album, Meat Puppets become just an undeniably softer band, for better or for worse (many others celebrate the late-80s period for the band). However, II's genius and perfection can't be under-appreciated. 1984 was a huge year for punk rock, and saw the release of many of the greatest records in the genre (several that appear on this list). Meat Puppets II though on the SST label, still feels like it occupies a world of its own. Spot's production is not as evident, and the songs sound like they're from a world outside of punk.
Friday, May 27, 2011
Artist: Gilberto Gil
Album: Expresso 2222
As he steps out of Caetano Veloso's shadow, Gilberto Gil makes one of the finest albums of all time. Certainly his best work as a solo artist, and arguably the definitive Brazilian record of the Tropicalia era. Gil gained fame alongside Caetano, and its hard, at least in hindsight, NOT to view the two as a team. Their first three self-titled records are stylistically incredibly similar (straight Tropicalia pop; a little more experimental; a longing for home during exile). Their songwriting was used by many of their peers, they both encouraged political involvement from their peers, and they were both exiled for the beliefs and practices...landing them in the UK for two years. Today Caetano Veloso is heralded as the Bob Dylan of Brazil and his work speaks for itself. But after 1971, while Caetano Veloso certainly released some great albums (all very different from each other), they pale in comparison to the artistic renaissance Gilberto Gil began at that time. His collaboration with Jorge Ben is one of the most celebrated records from Brazil in the 1970s, and his first record back in Brazil, 1972's Expresso 2222, is his finest moment.
The Tropicalia movement was borne out of political unrest, and certainly inspired by American music of the late-60s. The music was fuzzed out and experimental and trippy. But by the 1970s, psychedelia was no longer at the forefront of American music. Nor was it really predominant in Brazil. Many of the musicians from the late-1960s went in different directions, and Gilberto Gil was no exception. With this album, he takes an intense foray into R&B and funk. Every song is full of incredible drumming and funky bass. What's remarkable about it is how full the record is. Every instrument is incredibly clear and well-produced, sitting perfectly in the mix. Gil and his background singers all sing beautifully. The album tops out around 40 minutes, and every second of it is enjoyable.
So many remarkable albums by artists already established in their careers are followed-up by lackluster efforts. Rather than this being his last blast of glory, it started a second period of incredible creativity and rewarding music that lasted through the late-1970s. Who would have thought it would come from Brazil's second favorite Tropicalia artist?
Friday, May 20, 2011
Artist: The Fall
Album: This Nation's Saving Grace
Label: Beggar's Banquet
A lot of these albums I'm writing about...I'm trying to present an idea of what I find in them to be so great...hopefully I can turn someone who is reading this ear's on to a record. While I would argue The Fall are one of the most important rock band of all time (and my friends know they are my favorite), it's incredibly difficult to peg one or two of their albums as definitive statements. The Fall's influence and greatness is the product of their entire body of work and ongoing nature, not one or two "game-changers." So with that, I introduce the first of two Fall albums I put on this list: 1985's This Nation's Saving Grace. Their second during the Beggar's Banquet years, the album is often heralded by critics as one of their best (both of which are on this list). While the choice of Fall fan's is as varied and radical as the fans themselves, its a safe bet to call this one of the definitive Fall albums. So what's the big deal?
The Fall's early albums grew out of, defined, and then re-defined the post-punk sound and feel. Literate lyrics meant the bands could be working class and intelligent (rather than just gutter punks). But as their peers faded away (either breaking up or poor output), The Fall never slowed down. For a variety of reasons (anybody that points to just one is oversimplifying), including Mark's marriage to Brix Smith and a natural desire to expand their sound, The Fall entered a more commercial (see: less abrasive) period. The songs were catchier as well as richer in production.
Again, none of this points to WHY I'm ranking this album (especially in relation to others). So let's tackle that. After two albums with Brix, one that accidentally turned out great (I think had some production issues, thus leading to it's 8-song tracklist: Perverted By Language) and it's slightly weaker follow-up, The Wonderful and Frightening World Of The Fall, This Nation's Saving Grace got everything right. Mark E. Smith's takes to task those who are full of themselves ("Bombast"), but for the most part, his rants are built around more repetitive lyrics than usual. While the album is full sonically full, the ideas are really kept to a minimum. It's a few great ideas, all hammered out. "L.A." is their first real foray into the electronic tendencies that would never really leave their lexicon. "I Am Damo Suzuki" takes cues from several CAN songs to pay homage to the frontman. And "My New House" and "What You Need" prove the band can be as dark and heavy as any other, even with just an acoustic guitar at lead.
There's really not a week spot on the record. Not even a spot that's kinda weak but gets a pass because it's short and is compared to the greatness around it (that can happen to other Fall releases). This Nation's Saving Grace is just perfect, and unlike most bands, after they released this, what is now considered their definitive statement by many...they just kept going as they always did.
Thursday, May 12, 2011
Artist: Bob Dylan
Album: Blonde On Blonde
Blonde On Blonde. One of those Citizen Kane's or Einstein's of pop music, where its name alone, no matter the context, must be synonymous with greatness of some kind. As the first double-album in rock (a fact that I feel is often neglected, as this is pretty damn important--unless I'm missing a record which I don't think I am) it lays the foundation for what all great double-albums should be: diverse, yet focused. It touches on all the elements that had guided his career up to that point, and progresses it by doing so; by taking his songwriting quality to new heights. While so many double albums are bogged down by (among other things) a need for the artist to touch on any and everything in their songwriting abilities, Dylan wisely eschews this approach. So rather than a solo-folk song that reminisces his first four records, or any political approach, he does what even his greatest detractors couldn't deny: he continues his approach of always going forward with his music.
It's also important because it marks the end of his first era. Every year since 1961 had seen at least one new record that took a huge step for him. After the album's release, Dylan would be in a now legendary motorcycle accident, that led to his fleeing from the public life. Though he'd release his next album at the end of 1967, there is a world of difference between Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding. It also features a new backing band, as Mike Bloomfield's definitive guitar work is replaced by Robbie Robertson and other members of The Hawks, who would go on to form The Band. The album was recorded over a period of two-weeks, and Dylan was known to have been editing snogs at the eleventh hour constantly, making adjustments right before the band was set to record. The creative tension that surely existed, as well as Dylan riding the tail end of a superb creative wave helps to create one of rock's most enduring masterpieces.
Though 1967-1969 are seen as the psychedelic years for pop music, some of the best pop music really precedes that era by a year. Dylan never really made any "psychedelic" music (thank God) but the lyrical imagery on this album is some of his most stolen. "Jules and binoculars hang from the head of the mules" he sings in "Visions of Johanna." The side-long epic "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" is another high point in his lyrics, but the album gets personal in a way he barely had before. Lyrics from "Just Like A Woman" and "One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)" allow one to suspect that there is a single person these songs could be inspired by--not just Dylan's generally poetic nature. But musically, this is an even greater achievement than lyrically.
Dylan's first two electric albums were brilliant because they gave rock and roll a new voice. Not as poppy as The Beatles or blues-y as The Stones, Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home seemed like a follow-up album to a Chuck Berry record more than anything else. And at the time, the mid-1960s, with the fallout of the first era of rock and rollers (Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly), that stuff wasn't exactly in vogue. But on Blonde on Blonde, Dylan goes beyond that template, borrowing more from the blues ("Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" and "Pledging My Time") and New Orleans brass ("Rainy Day Women #12 and 35"). Beyond that, the songs no longer have that "boogie" feel, which both his slow and fast numbers really did. Instead, there's actually a return to a folkier vibe, but the rock and roll, full band instrumentation gives it new life. Think about the repetitive nature of the lyrics on Bringing It All Back Home: "I ain't going to work on Maggie's farm no more" is how each lyric begins. But here, on Blonde, the song structure is much folkier. When he does get into the boogie woogie, on the penultimate track "Obviously 5 Believers" it's brief, to the point, and still fits in with the sprawling record.
I don't know if I've made a point...or ever make a point for that matter. Blonde on Blonde is still the first and one of the best double albums ever. Afterwards, Dylan and pop music would really never be the same again. That may be more of a correlation than anything else, but it's still an important marking point. If you have any doubt about the album's greatness, think about the scene in High Fidelity (the movie) where Jack Black's character exclaims, "You don't own Blonde on Blonde!?" Try to substitute a different album title for Blonde, and see how effective it is.
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Artist: Gang of Four
Gang of Four's Entertainment! is so perfect it's tragic. In the months since I originally concocted a best-of list, I've regained my love of this album and haven't felt this much love for it in years...really since the numbing effects of modern-day rip-off artists (mid-early 2000s dance punkers) made me put it down for a while. But away from a place where I'm listening to new music over and over again, I can enjoy it for what it is: a perfect debut. Absolutely astounding, and I can't stress enough that this album would likely be 10-20 places higher if I re-did the list right now. But whatever, on to the record.
Gang of Four were not some original band that existed in a vacuum, separated from all contemporaries and peers. Like most great music scenes, they did their best work at a time of highly prolific artistic output from a certain geographic area, and put their own spin on the music. Their fierce, razor sharp guitars, a punk take on R&B and reggae, was akin to that of PiL and The Fall. They certainly had the former's penchant for blasts of funk as well, and their place in the pantheon of post-punk from that era is certainly cemented, at least partially, from that sound. Their politics, while a bit more academic and well-articulated than some of their peers (Pop Group) were also not that far off the map from their peers. I repeat my earlier point, that while so much current discussion of this band and this album calls out these points as essential and influential...the band really weren't alone!
So what does separate Entertainment! from its peers? Simple: pop. There's a catchy-ness and ability to sing along throughout the album not unlike the kind that makes Ramones and Black Flag songs so worth singing along to. Pop-punk can be generic chord progressions and time signatures, but punk rock with a dose of pop music can be great. Choruses and verses...standard structure...and really that's what sets the album apart from its peers. While PiL ripped off Big Youth and Lee Scratch Perry and Pop Group took cues from Ornette Coleman, Gang of Four kept the structure of the songs simple, knowing that the sound and lyrics would be revolutionary enough on their own.
It's also a superb album that's built around moments: In "5.45" as the song reaches its final chorus, we hear "Guerilla war struggle is the new entertainment" over a huge crescendo of crashing cymbals and downstrokes. The moment as we leave the chorus from "Damanged Goods" and go back into the "Your kiss so sweet/your sweat so sour." The album is really a perfect pop album, with excellent choruses that build tension and provide an incredible release (as most/all great pop music does!) That these songs are built around visceral lyrics and aggressive guitars and funky rhythm just adds to its awesomeness.
The twelve songs here are really all you need from Gang of Four. I could go on a rant about how disappointing it's follow-up is, but that's not really the point. Some post-punk bands had one or two great moments and then dulled themselves into obscurity; some made one moment of genius and exploded/imploded; very very few were able to consistently make great/relevant music past those initial few albums (The Fall come to mind, obviously, and after them it seems only the likes of Wire and New Order come close). But there's nothing wrong with a band just having one great album, especially amongst Gang of Four's peers-it's a triumph really. One of the finest punk debuts ever. Not dated at all, and as fresh as ever.
Artist: Jimmy Cliff + Various Artists
Album: The Harder They Come
Oh blog, it's been too long, sorry for the neglect. I will try to tackle the superb soundtrack to the film The Harder They Come, starring Jimmy Cliff who is also the performer/composer of four separate (six total, counting repeats) songs on this album. While Bob Marley has become the face of reggae music around the world, this album had a significant impact in popularizing the music outside of its native Jamaica, and it's breadth of styles from such a diverse group of important reggae musicians allows it to be the quintessential reggae album.
The film the album is the soundtrack for is not strongly linked with the songs. With the exception of Cliff's contributions, the tracks are really more of a compilation--not songs necessarily recorded for the film. While I have a staunch anti-compilation rule for best of album lists...I guess we can have one exception. But it's because of the album's importance and influence. Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, and UB40 may be some of the only household names in reggae if not for this soundtrack. But with it, Americans were given an LP with names of Desmond Dekker, Toots and The Maytals, and The Slickers. Without a Duke Reid compilation, such greatness all in one place is nigh unattainable (or at least was so at the time!)
And the songs just can't be beat. Cliff was never one of reggae's heavyweights, but his four contributions here are some of the most well-loved (and with good reason) songs in the genre. Two tracks from The Maytals, including their smash "Pressure Drop." Every song is a winner, and they are perfectly sequenced, with the album getting better and better as the tracks go on.
I guess not being a reggae expert has made this kind of a short review for me, but that's okay. If you haven't heard this album, it's one of those "this should be your next purchase--no matter what" kind of records. It really is superb. The kind of record that turns people onto a genre.
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Artist: Max Roach
Album: Percussion Bitter Sweet
No shit, it's been exactly a year since I first reviewed this album! What are the odds. I skimmed my first review, but didn't read it in detail. I can't promise this review will be anything totally new, but here goes.
Percussion Bitter Sweet does not mark the first jazz album influenced by African roots or that serves as an appetizer for the black power movement (not only culturally, but in the late-60s that exploded in the jazz world with the likes of Archie Shepp and so many others). It's not even Roach's first album to do so, really, as the previous year's We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite really lays the groundwork for what this album is about. But if there was ever a sequel that improved upon and built off the original...this is it. Percussion Bitter Sweet is one of the finest jazz albums of all-time, and still does not get its due when compared to other jazz greats.
That really can't be attributed to tone or context, really, either. Black pride had always been a part of the roots of jazz, as far back as Jelly Roll Morton, as recently as Charlie Parker, and was certainly continued with the likes of Miles and Mingus. But I would argue that few albums ever musically reflected, or perhaps more accurately, predicted, the tone and air of dissonance surrounding the era. Whether the fire of Abbey Lincoln's vocals or the aggression of the band (certainly aided in this regard by the presence of Eric Dolphy). The unbelievable melodies that are wrapped within this cacophony of sound make for such a splendid album, it's really always a delight.
I've already talked about this album enough I suppose, coupled with my other review and my admittedly limited knowledge about jazz in any sort of technical or official sense. But I know this album is, quality-wise, on par with the giants like Mingus Ah Um and Kind Of Blue, and Max Roach's legacy in jazz is still monumental, even if he's not a household name (and his death a few years ago seems to have added little to his legacy). Percussion Bitter Sweet is one of the most fiery aggressive and magnificent albums of its time, and certainly does a lot to predict the era that would come next.
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Artist: The Zombies
Album: Odessey And Oracle
Odessey (sic) And Oracle is one of the finest swan songs pop history. Apart from their perfect single, though, "She's Not There," before the album's recording and release, there really was no reason to believe that the group was any different than many of their peers...capable of some strong singles and certainly a good band, but nothing great. But recorded in the famed summer of love around high tensions and an incredible amount of creativity, the group was able to put together one proper album before they imploded, breaking up before the album was even released.
There is no shortage of overrated 60s icons just as there is no shortage of genius from the era that has never gotten its due. Partially recorded at Abbey Road Studios at a time where the studio also hosted recording for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, and S.F. Sorrow. While those albums would grow legendary in their status as classic psychedelic records, Odessey and Oracle doesn't really fit in with them. The Zombies album owes more to baroque pop and, admittedly, Pet Sounds than it does to the famed summer of love. But the group's pop masterpiece doesn't exactly come off like a counter-hippie record, either, and it's not a classic for avoiding the sounds of the day, in the way bands like The Band and The Kinks built a legacy on. Instead, the group puts together a record that spans decades both musically and lyrically.
Some of the greatest records from the psychedelic 1960s still sound dated, with single-channel drums and ridiculous lyrical content. But none of the weaknesses that characterize some great records from the era are present here. "Butcher's Tale," "Changes," and "Beechwood Park" feature exotic instrumentation, straying far from the typical keys/bass/guitar/drums instrumentation of rock records. The lyrics, generally, seem to carry a timelessness not unlike The Lovin' Spoonful, and they are truly simple. "The warmth of our love is like the warmth from the sun/this will be our year/took a long time to come" Colin Blunstone sings on "This Will Be Our Year." "Care Of Cell 44" is about the excitement of one's girlfriend coming home...after spending time in a penitentiary. It's that little twist that gives the album such a classic status. A normal topic is given a splendid twist. "Changes" is really just a song about the...uh...changes that someone has undergone and the emotional distance that creates. However, with poetic lyrics, such as "I knew her, when summer was her crown, and spring, her voice, she spoke to me" (backed up by the "Now: silver and gold..." response), the album shows that it's more than just classic pop: it's modern, too. The whispered production and excellent use of stereo on songs like "Changes" as well, give the album an excellent balance of classic and timeless.
The album culminates with the undeniable classic "Time Of The Season," which, as legend has it, almost wasn't cut right, with lead singer Colin Blunstone not singing the way songwriter Rod Argent had requested. This is an example of the tension that led to the band's eventual split. But luckily, they got this track and the album down. Not only is the track still timeless, and apt to appear in any number of movies, TV shows, and all around pop culture. The song became a smash hit, but not until after the band had split. Leading up to it are 11 other songs of an equally high quality, allowing the band to go out on top in a way so few have. Only Big Star's 3rd/Sister Lovers better represents a band who couldn't hold it together long enough to enjoy the public's enjoyment of their own masterpiece. But Odessey And Oracle remains a classic, and even if it wasn't obvious at the time, it's better late than never.