Sunday, January 30, 2011
Artist: Jesus Lizard
Label: Touch & Go
The Jesus Lizard, and certainly Goat specifically, stand out in so many important ways. Members of the group had been veterans of the 1980s underground and in bands like Scratch Acid and Rapeman, but with the popularity boom in the early 1990s, and some other record that also came out in 1991 (...), the underground was poised, and would, creep into the mainstream (or at least...not so underground) in a lot of ways. And while the Jesus Lizard certainly, intentionally or not, were able to capitalize on the burgeoning popularity of indie/punk rock music, their impact, relevance, and quality, are still a product of their uncompromising style (at least early on), and the way they didn't follow trends early on.
Goat isn't an incredibly original album, especially by the standards of members of the group. David Yow had already shrieked like a maniac in Scratch Acid, and Texas-style hard rock guitar and a pulsating rhythm section had already been a product of the music members of the band had made. What makes Goat stand out though, even within the rest of the Jesus Lizard catalog, is the album's cohesiveness and sense of purpose. "Then Comes Dudley" is like a fucking atom bomb, that features a minute-and-a-half of two verses and two bridges before the vocals even come in. Whereas Head, their first album, wastes no time for the first song to get-going, Goat is patient. For the first time there is actually kind of discipline in the music. Now that's not to say it's tame or even restrained in any way, though. The songs ends with Yow's signature chaos. The next song, "Mouth Breather" is also prone to chaos, and it's not surprising that Yow's mania is central to the album. In "Seasick" he screams "I can't swim!" and in "Lady Shoes" he sings about jacking off on pianos. While Yow is 100% on point throughout the whole album, the band is in top form as well, and plays some of their best stuff.
The slide guitar that plays throughout "Nub" is one of the most ferocious moments in the band's career. The opening chords right before the pummeling bass in "Monkey Trick" are vicious, as is the lead guitar line. And as verse's end, the music underneath Yow's screaming of "What are we doing inside" are mesmerizing.
Everything is in your face on this record. The instruments are clear and vicious and as usual, it feels like Yow is going to jump through the speakers and grab you. In the decade where Brit-Pop really took off and in the aftermath of The Smiths decline there was little great rock from the UK, and real rock and roll in the states was seen as stadium schlock AOR crap from Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins, Jesus Lizard were one of the last bands to do what they did on such a large stage. Not until Mclusky would emerge years later with an obvious nod to Jesus Lizard would a big band on a real indie label be playing such great kickass rock and roll. Goat is the high point of the Jesus Lizard's music, and in just 30 minutes, you have one of the best records of the 1990s.
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Artist: The Band
Album: The Band
The definitive evidence that it really took a group of Canadians to produce the great American album. After the success of their debut Music From Big Pink, a product at least partially of their time in a basement with Bob Dylan, The Band's second album was even tighter, more deliberate, and in many ways, more cohesive. Every song is a delight, and with Robbie Robertson taking over lead songwriting duties, The Band deliver possibly their deliberate statement.
Music From Big Pink is an absolute triumph, and will appear later on this list, but The Band is a more deliberate and directed album. It uses narrative gorgeously to paint an amazing picture of an old America, far distant from the progressive turmoil of the 1960s. After "Across The Great Divide" sets both a musical and lyrical tone for the album, "Rag Mama Rag" takes it up a notch even further, talking about 100-proof bourbon, cabooses, and absolutely amazing fiddle. The album's superb opening run goes on with "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," a tale from one soldier's perspective about the night the South fell in the Civil War. It remains a timeless classic with the previous album's "The Weight" for so many reasons: it has not only that "The Band" feel of unique instrumentation, but it's an epic song that is gorgeously subtle. The drums, piano, and acoustic guitar are all incredibly sparse, and the group's gorgeous harmonies lift the track.
There are other songs in the vein of the aforementioned that work extremely well. "King Harvest" is a song about the dust bowl, and as the group so perfectly does, paints a depressing portrait of the hardships associated with the everyman. While all of these songs are fascinating looks at the hardships and big issues involved in American culture, many of the songs take a individuals and their plights.
"Up On Cripple Creek" is a hilarious tale of one man and what he goes through with his women, and their oddball romance. "Look Out Cleveland" is an awesome, old-time rollicking song about what we might not expect in life. And "When You Awake" is one of the group's most beautiful songs, and again, everything about the instrumentation is a triumph: subtle keys, barely any drums, incredibly light guitars, and amazing vocals. There is so much to enjoy on this album, and like a lot of the greatest art ever, it's done with so much subtly, you might miss some of it.
The Band never released another masterpiece after this. Some fans might like their 70s work, but even the most die-hard among them acknowledges those first two albums are special in a way that was never matched by the group. But on their self-titled sophomore album, they did everything right, and it's still a remarkable album today.
Artist: Caetano Veloso
Album: Caetano Veloso (1967)
Caetano Veloso's first solo album (he'd done an album with Gal Costa previously and was second-billed on it) lays the groundwork for everything you need to know about the man, and sets a perfect tone for what is one of the greatest careers in pop songwriting ever. Across twelve tracks, there is gorgeous instrumentation, psychedelic songwriting, a longing to see the world and an obvious affection for his home of Brazil. It helped launch the Tropicalia movement in Brazil and is arguably the album of that genre and time period against which all of its peers are measured.
The album kicks off with the song that defines a genre, "Tropicalia." It sets the tone of the album with gorgeous strings, horns, and a uniquely Brazilian take on the pop music of the day. "Clarice," is a slower track, and marks the beginning of a new way for the songs to progress. Rather than feature songs where every instrument in the ensemble is constantly contributing, instruments like guitar often drop-out. The organ takes over, or a simple tambourine, even. Beyond the unique instrumentation (and especially dirty electric guitar tone) that defines Tropicalia music, the structure within the song that allows for the use of each instrument is truly unique. As orchestrated as the album is, it often feels stripped-down and incredibly personal, which adds to its power greatly. Caetano's vocals and sparse arrangements are absolutely delightful throughout.
By the time you reach the album's final track, "Eles," we are introduced to Caetano's more experimental side, which appears again on his next album, and would really flower on his albums in the 1970s. A sitar appears with an introduction that is certainly eastern-influenced, as well as jazz-influenced bass and organ playing. The warped-style continues as the song progresses, eventually ending in spoken word and distorted vocals.
Caetano Veloso has one of the most storied careers and stories in pop history, and his first album still sounds fresh and invigorating over forty years after its release. It is important in any context and indisputably a gem of popular music.
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Artist: The Who
Album: The Who Sell Out
They just don't make rock albums like this year anymore. Hell, maybe they didn't even make albums like this then. The Who's 1967 album The Who Sell Out is one of their boldest, and certainly their best album. While this is the moment where The Who really transform from a sixties beat band into a classic rock powerhouse, this is a markedly different band than the one that would play Isle Of Weight and write rock operas. It's the last album where Keith Moon is really the star of the show, and it's the last album where the band has a genuine sense of humor. The Who Sell Out is a titan of a record that is as fresh today as the day it was released.
The idea behind the album was, the story goes, concocted in the pub adjacent to the recording studio. Bassist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon thought up the concept of mock-commercial jingles here, and combined with Pete Townsend's, uh...more formal songs, we get a real treat of an album. The album opens with the band's first real foray into psychedelia, "Armenia City In The Sky." Much of the band's trademarks are on display here, especially guitar feedback, and we have a new treat: Roger Daltry singing in a high-pitch. Everyone is aware of The Beatles successes with psychedelic music, and The Stones occasional greatness/sometimes lameness, but really, The Who's psychedelic year is easily on peer with the best music of the summer of love. It's also really their only pop album: "Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand" is just one example, but "I Can't Reach You," "Relax," and "Our Love Was," showcases a new audio mix for the band, with acoustic guitars, keyboards, and much more interesting vocal harmonies than ever before. Now many of these great songs are broken up by faux-commercials, which almost all stand up on their own: "Odorono," and "Heinz Baked Beans" are great songs on their own, and the faux-Radio 1/BBC jingles add to the texture of the album. Even the supposed filler on the album kicks ass, and again, for a band whose next few years and the music produced would almost exclusively be about youth, alienation, and the search for self, it's really refreshing to hear songs about deodorant and how you got beat by your parents for getting tattoos but you were just trying to become a man (which seems a lot more genuine in terms of "coming of age" songs than "Behind Blue Eyes".)
While the jingle-part of the concept album really doesn't stretch throughout the album length, it's not really missing. Partially due, of course, to the inclusion of two of the best Who songs of all time. "Rael" incorporates a melody introduced in the previous year's "A Quick One, While He's Away" and would be re-used throughout Tommy. "Rael" is a gorgeous mini-opera that betters a Quick One, through awesome cymbal crashes, superb harmonies, and the fact that it builds to such an amazing climax. "Rael" could be the best song on the album if not for one of the best Who songs ever, "I Can See For Miles." A deceptively simple look at the song would say it's one about catching an unfaithful lover, but a closer look at the lyrics shows such an incredibly wild imagination: "The Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal are nice to see on clearer days/you thought that I would need a crystal ball to see right through the haze." Even the sinister tone that the end of the lyric's "You're going to choke on it too" presents is wonderful. The chorus has soaring guitars and an everlasting drumroll from Keith Moon. Everything about the song is perfect, and it still sounds as fresh, even more fresh, than the rest of the album, today.
The Who would go on to make some of the greatest concert appearances, and release some great works. But even if you think albums like Quadrophenia and Tommy are great cover-to-cover (they aren't), they don't deliver the greatness that The Who Sell Out does, and few albums since then by any band do.
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Artist: John Coltrane
Album: A Love Supreme
A Love Supreme is not the final John Coltrane record and certainly not the farthest out he would go with his music before his untimely death in 1967. But like so many other great records, Coltrane uses the saying "less is more" unlike ever before. The length of the album and the players on it are stripped down to an essential core, and there isn't an unnecessary moment on the record.
Elvin Jones's drumming really gets the album going. A rush of cymbals introduces the album proper before Coltrane goes into a long solo which essentially comprises the entire first track on the album. Over seven and a half minutes, the quartet (rounded out by McCoy Tyner on piano and Jimmy Garrison on bass) build tension and lay the foundation for the classic opening track, the climax of which features the quartet (or just Coltrane? not sure) chanting the title of the album over and over. As they repeat "A Love Supreme" over and over, you know the album is special, and the deceptively simple melody and chord structure shows real beauty. It's so good in fact, that future Coltrane sideman Pharaoh Sanders would borrow the melody a bit for his album Karma.
"Resolution" is the second song and features more prominent playing from the other players, especially McCoy Tyner. The saxophone melody, again, remains the central focus of the song, however. After the second side of the record opens with the absolutely blistering "Pursuance," the closing track, "Psalm," reads like a real ode. A Love Supreme is an album where Coltrane pours his soul into the music like never before--giving praise for what he feels that he's been blessed with. Coltrane's bout with heroin addiction is common knowledge among jazz fans, and with A Love Supreme, he claims a victory over the demons he's fought for years.
Thursday, January 13, 2011
Artist: The Rolling Stones
Album: Sticky Fingers
I've already reviewed Sticky Fingers here, but, I haven't really put the thing down since my first review, so I feel it deserves another look. While some of the things I said I still believe are true, the album is so good, that a lot of what I considered to be shortcomings I don't view in the same light anymore.
"Brown Sugar" is still one of the most killer opening tracks ever, and it sets the tone for what pretty much every song on the album has some level of fascination with: blues, heroin, and slavery. "Sway" is a much more hopeless song, and in it, life is viewed more as a chore than as anything else. If Let It Bleed was identifying with a lost-dream kind of mindset in 1969, Sticky Fingers is an album where a band has been searching for that dream and are clearly as spiritually lost as ever. "Wild Horses" illustrates peacefulness in being lost with someone, but at least being lost and together has some sort of redeeming quality to it. However, album closer and the best song on the album, "Moonlight Mile," destroys that idea, because even if there's some sort of beauty to being lost and being isolated, the fact that you're alone and surrounded by strangers if anybody at all is truly unsettling. Songs like "Wild Horses" and "Moonlight Mile" are great because of the wide range of emotions they bring out: while there is beauty in the music, there is a haunting sense of paranoia and regret within the lyrics. All of these emotions are reflective of the drugged-out nature of the music as well, which also comes across in Mick Jagger's often-impossible to understand lyrics, which would become a huge part of the next record, Exile On Main Street.
Along with the cerebral and the regret and angst of the songs mentioned, there is also an important decadence that the subject matters in the songs brings out. There is an upside to the drugs and the lifestyle, and The Stones don't shy away from it at all. "Brown Sugar" celebrates the forbidden fruit in the form of sexual relations with slave women. "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'" is a junkie dying for a hit, but the upbeat music and saxophone outro make it much more upbeat than some of the other songs on the album. "Bitch" celebrates how a woman can have the exact same effect on a man that junk can. And in one of their countriest songs to date, "Dead Flowers" lets that woman know that drugs make a fine substitute if the woman doesn't want to be with the man anymore.
There are songs which directly illustrate the pain of being without junk, and "Sister Morphine" and "I Got The Blues" paint a picture that nobody would want to experience in terms of helplessness and need. Sticky Fingers as a whole is paranoid, dark, deranged, and an album which is really messed up. When The Stones awake from their decadence (to a degree, at least), in 1973, it would be the end of some of the greatest music of the rock and roll era. Few albums are as stylistically diverse and true to one subject as Sticky Fingers is, and over the course of the record, you go up and down with the band. It's really a fantastic record, and one that deserves your attention just as much as their other classics.
Artist: Dr. John
By the time he released his 1968 debut album Gris-Gris, Mac Rebennack was already a seasoned veteran of the New Orleans R&B scene, having played with and learned from the greats like Fats Domino and Professor Longhair for years. His best work in the 1970s would also be a reflection of that background and upbringing, as he release some awesome albums with the help of The Meters. But his first and still greatest album, warps the New Orleans R&B vibe through an insane 1960s psychedelic looking glass. Their is no album that sounds like it, even if Dr. John's discography, and that's why it remains so unique today.
The album opens up with a tone more blues than New Orleans R&B. A single harmonica blow, followed by Dr. John's raspy voice. From then on, the album takes shape through a unique blend of hoodoo voodoo R&B goodness. The instrumentation is fascinatingly exotic.
Some albums are all about atmosphere, and this is one of them. Sure, the songs are awesome and the way they are presented is great as well, but the idea that Gris-Gris was painfully crafted in a studio over days or weeks seems absurd. It feels like we are listening to field recordings of a real-deal New Orleans get together. In "Danse Kalinda Ba Doom," it's as if when vocals and every instrument except drums drop out, it's not for a dynamic effect, but to give everyone a rest because of the energy, because they certainly must be dancing around and performing as they sing these songs. Not every song is as exotic as that one, though, and "Mama Roux" is a pretty straight ahead structure. Every song on the album builds up to one of the greatest closing tracks ever, as well, in "I Walk On Guilded Splinters." The closing track is a seven minute gem with a great melody and a haunting vibe, that goes on longer than you expect it to, with the band wringing every possible note they can out of the song.
Dr. John would make another album similar to this one (or two?), but his best work after this point would be more traditional work in the 1970s. Gris-Gris remains a one-of-a-kind album that neither John nor anyone else could hope to replicate, and that's why it's still so good all these years later.
Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Artist: Big Star
Album: #1 Record
Big Star's first record is glorious. Alex Chilton, a veteran of the late-60s pop music scene with his group The Box Tops formed this band with co-songwriter Chris Bell. The first album by the group was a commercial dud, but began the saga of one of the finest American bands of all-time. I don't know what I can say that hasn't been constantly said in the last however many years, as the band's status continues to climb and their greatness if finally appreciated, but I will say the elements that make the album great: the harmonies, the guitar playing, the production---they all still hold up today brilliantly.
The first four songs on the record perfectly set the tone. "Feel" introduces gorgeous guitar interplay, sweeping vocal harmonies, and even Memphis horns. The lyrics are also markedly different from the band's other two records. On #1 Record, there is a simplicity and youthfulness to the lyrics that is abandoned for greater maturity on Radio City and 3rd/Sister Lovers. "Feel" is an incredibly simple song about a simple feeling of heartbreak. When that first girl is making you crazy in your life, what man doesn't feel like they are being "driven to ruin"? "In The Street" and "Thirteen" expand on these ideas, as the former is a celebration of pre-college goofing off, and the latter expresses that first need for independence. While "The Ballad Of El Goodo" might not have the same lyrical themes, it introduces Jesus into their vocabulary, something that was very important to Christopher Bell, and would still make its way into the lyrics as long as the band existed.
Those first four songs set the tone for a beautiful album. "Don't Lie To Me", though certainly a bit rough, perfectly illustrates a simple frustration one feels with the opposite sex. "My Life Is Right" continues the themes about Jesus as well. And then the album ends with a group of toned down, acoustic songs. Normally, I would complain that four songs with such similarities in tone, instrumentation, and feel, are lumped together at the end of the album rather than spread out equally, but on the first Big Star record it works, and that certainly has something to do with the quality of the songs. In a lot of ways, it's like the band at the end of the record is already a mature version of the band at the beginning. The songs find joy in the simple things. The slide guitar that appears in these songs as well is gorgeous and accents the songs well.
Much ado is made about the legend of Big Star, their tumultuous existence, their lack of success and of course, their massive influence. But none of it would matter if the songs weren't so brilliant, gorgeous, and relateable. The first Big Star record is still a treat that hasn't aged a bit.
Tuesday, January 4, 2011
While I wasn't alive when Funkadelic first hit the music scene, it seems their popularity is always overshadowed by sister-group Parliament. I always found it bizarre that the Funkadelic albums that get the most attention are Maggot Brain and One Nation Under a Groove considering how funky and...well...Parliament-esque they are. Funkadelic's first album is a real product of the 1960s (though released in 1970), and more than any of their other albums truly reflects the nature of their "why can't rock bands play funk and vice versa" nature. Funkadelic's first album is not only their best because of the heavy psychedelic rock influence, but the outrageously strong songs as well.
At the point this album came out, it had many peers. Many black guitarists were drawing influence from Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone had become superstars merging rock and R&B music, and even Motown groups like The Temptations were incorporating a psychedelic influence. So Funkadelic's debut, arriving three years after The Parliaments hit "I Wanna Testify," makes a lot of sense in terms of fitting in with its time. But the difference between them and their peers is that Funkadelic is step one. The group had R&B/Doo-Wop roots dating back to the 1950s, but they had enough lineup and name changes that Funkadelic seems like the start of this collective, not the early Parliaments recordings from the 50s. And what better way to do it than "Mommy, What's A Funkadelic?" A nine-minute song built around one killer riff sets the tone for the whole album.
There is just so much space throughout the record, and it really remains the first great funk record. While Isaac Hayes's work at this point is equally brilliant, his basis was still pop songs in a lot of ways. But Funkadelic were the first to really take just one riff, and just fucking GO with it. Beyond that simplicity, the lyrics throughout the album are hysterical and brilliant. In "I Bet You" we hear, "Ice cubes on a red-hot stove'll melt, and I'll bet you" and other such situations. "What Is Soul?" is a tribute to an old school black lifestyle. Chitlins and hamhock and joints rolled in toilet paper are given a celebratory piece.
The album ends very similar to how it starts: one stone groove played for a long-ass time. The whole album is a treat, and really one of the few albums where they are actually rocking. The psychedelic stuff is way out there and the songs are genius throughout. If you consider yourself a fan of anything related to George Clinton, you need to hear this record.
Monday, January 3, 2011
Artist: The Byrds
Album: Sweetheart Of The Rodeo
Starting off the new year is this country-rock gem from The Byrds. After six albums and line-up changes, the group added Gram Parsons to their ranks. Gene Clark and David Crosby were long gone by this point, and a change of direction stylistically led to the band's greatest album.
Sweetheart starts in familiar territory for the band: a Bob Dylan cover. This one, "You Ain't Going Nowhere" is culled from sessions with The Band that would later become The Basement Tapes. While the jangly guitars remain, they are underscored by organ and pedal steel guitar. The beautiful harmonies and melodies are still present, but the style almost comes as a shock if you're familiar with their earlier work. As cynical as it may be to say, however, the reason the album works so well might be due to 9 out of 11 songs being covers. There is no filler here, as even the covers are great songs that the band is working with. The traditional "I Am A Pilgrim" is tackled, Merle Haggard's "Life In Prison," and Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd" get the treatment as well.
The Parsons influence is what still holds the album together, and makes its best moments shine bright. While his vocals are hidden in the final product (contract/label dispute bullshit), his two originals, "One Hundred Years From Now" and "Hickory Wind" are two of the strongest songs on the album. And his R&B influence, which really comes through on his first Flying Burrito Brothers album, begins to emerge here, with a cover of the William Bell tune "You Don't Miss Your Water."
Over eleven songs, The Byrds put together one of the finest country-rock hybrids there is. It would be the final great album for the band, who would continue to release sub-par records. In 1968 pop music and bands in it took many different turns, and few are as rewarding and memorable today as Sweetheart Of the Rodeo.