Monday, February 21, 2011
Artist: Big Black
Label: Touch And Go
The first Big Black album, released three years into the band's existence and after three constantly evolving and improving 12" EPs (collected in the CD copy of The Hammer Party is their masterpiece. (I wrote a whole long review that I accidentally lost by signing out of my account. I will try to re-capture its essence now, but it won't be as long as I had wanted).
So what really sets this album apart from other Big Black efforts is its stripped-down to the band's core sound. Big Black's aesthetic is what always set them apart as a band: violent/disturbing imagery, a pulsating drum machine, and shrieking guitars. Through all of their music though, there is a relatively "normal" approach to what Big Black did, and catchy bridges and choruses underline the best songs on the EPs and their final LP Songs About Fucking. But what makes Atomizer stand-out head and shoulders even above the band's other fantastic work is its lack of convention.
The album reminds me a great deal of the first Killing Joke record: repetition is engaged in over and over. Single-words or instrumental choruses are frequent. Steve Albini's love of Wire is well-known, and bands like that and The Fall are clearly a huge influence on the album. Just look at it: "Bad Houses" has one part, and a monster chorus. "Kerosene" is one and a half parts. "Passing Complexion" is one riff. Like so many great, minimalist bands before them, Big Black, with Atomizer succeed in finding the essence of their songs, and just playing them into the ground. The songs don't need flourishes and fancy effects or choruses at all--just one good riff. Around that riff is, of course, plenty of variation, with rhythmic and verbal fills and feedback and the rest of the stuff that people love about Big Black.
Other Big Black records might be more popular, with some of their catchier songs, but none of them come close to hitting as hard as Atomizer does. Stripped down of extra parts and lyrics, it is this band's most minimalist effort, and thus, its most effective.
Monday, February 14, 2011
Artist: Miles Davis
Album: Bitches Brew
This is Miles Davis explosion. Bitches Brew is a radical departure from everything he'd done beforehand, including and especially its predecessor, In A Silent Way. With his movement in the direction of what would come to be known as fusion, Miles moved away from quintets, and created new dimensions for sound to exist in. Not since his work with Gil Evans had Miles' music been so orchestrated, and every album was a subtle step towards this bold, new direction. Whereas previous albums (Silent Way, Files De Kilimanjaro) had a feel more akin to his bop and acoustic work (in tone and volume, at least), Bitches Brew is closer to opening the gates of hell and attacking. It's a powerful record in a way Miles had never been powerful before. Every moment is sublime.
An attempt to sonically describe this record seems useless. Miles' trumpet is hard, no longer soft like it was back in the days of Round About Midnight. But the rest of the players...the lineup...they are able to make it a masterpiece. The group of musicians on the record both recalls jazz's past and looks to its future, in a way that many who came after Miles could not achieve: they didn't have the history. Mark Prindle points out that the best indie bands had punk backgrounds and decided to do new things with it...but those with only indie backgrounds tend to suck. I feel that this is why bands like The Weather Report were bound to suck: because their background was in fusion, not jazz. So while already-legendary players like Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and Larry Young litter the album, so does new faces like Joe Zawinul and John McLaughlin whose playing on guitar would be key to the album's greatness.
Like I've said, this is a hard album to describe. Just sit down for an hour or so and dig in.
Tuesday, February 8, 2011
Artist: Pete Rock & CL Smooth
Album: Mecca And The Soul Brother
I want to start by saying this album is far too high, and while it is certainly one of the finest hip hop albums ever, I certainly could've ranked it a little lower. But no big: on with the review.
Mecca And The Soul Brother is the shining achievement of superb MC CL Smooth and one of the greatest producers in hip-hop history: Pete Rock. The combination of the two is great throughout as the album defines golden era hip hop. It does so because everyone from Tribe to NWA to Eric B & Rakim influence the album, but the duo takes what they are doing in an entirely original direction.
Every lyric is drenched with bravado. Lyrics like "Save the sarcasm/I'll hit you like an orgasm" or "Always had an alibi/Even if I lie." The lyrics are so great because they never go too far one way or the other in the interest spectrum. Black politics are touched upon like calling on brothers to "Straighten It Out" ("All black people must: straighten it out"). "Ghettos of the Mind" achieves this well, also. "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)" has had its legacy grow as one of the five greatest hip hop songs ever, and with good reason. The horn sample that begins the track, and the lyrics in memory of a fallen friend are just perfect. There are movies about coming of age that don't come close to doing what the song does in just under five minutes.
And not enough can be said about Pete Rock's production. His samples set the perfect tone of the album. I'd be hard-pressed to find an album that more directly can be traced back to its R&B and funk roots. Rock has over the years perfected his method of sampling, and the roots go back here. Every track is soulful and uses its source material perfectly.
It's a truly remarkable album. One of the few hip hop albums that stands tall for the entire near-80 minutes. Is there a bad moment on it? Yeah, the fourth track "Love Lots of Lovin'" is weak and boring. Some people like the emotional depth it provides, but I feel the track is totally out of place. But besides that, this is the ultimate NYC hip hop album, and every moment deserves to be heard over and over.
Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Artist: Velvet Underground
Album: The Velvet Underground (3rd Album)
The third Velvet Underground album is perfect from beginning to end and absolutely powerful. Though the first two are the ones that gained the group their reputation, and helped establish what would become rock's underground, I almost feel that more indie rock groups rip-off this third album. How many groups performed pop music like this at this point, and how many wrote the songs themselves? Had such diversity and such a way of delivering their song? What kind of group before them released a song like "Pale Blue Eyes" before they did? I really can't think of any. This third album is so unbelievably gorgeous, and every little detail is fantastic.
Just why the group went from the feedback-soaked rock and roll attack they had perfected to such a subdued effort is up for debate. Many point to the departure of co-songwriter John Cale, who was the primary avant-garde influence on the band. He and Andy Warhol were both out of the picture at this point, and that new sort of freedom could have inspired Lou to do something new with his songs. Of course, I've also read (though I forget where or when) that the band had amps stolen before they recorded the album, so they had to make a quieter affair! While I doubt that story, it is pretty cool. They also brought in Doug Yule to replace Cale on this album, and his new and pretty voice for the band was clearly used differently than Cale's. Really, this is a totally new band at this point.
The album is so much more personal than the other two records. "Heroin" and "I'm Waiting For The Man" could've been about anyone, really. "All Tomorrow's Parties" and "I'll Be Your Mirror" as well, and though they all reflect the singers (and are really great songs), you never get the impression that they are limited to being about/for Nico or Lou. When you hear "Candy Says," you get the impression Lou's lyrics come from a direct conversation he's had with Candy. "I'm Beginning To See The Light" really feels like Lou is making a change in his life. And I know these are my subjective interpretations of the songs, but the intimate recording and instrumentation give off that impression. Similarly, "Pale Blue Eyes" "Some Kinda Love" and "Jesus" all feel like you're having a direct conversation with Lou, or reading from his personal diary.
The whole album is restrained...and by pulling back, The Velvet Underground were able to better showcase new talents. The organ in "What Goes On?" is one of the best sounds on any song on any album. And the lyrics have taken a new turn, and are more poetic than before. "Down to you is up," still resonates as one of the band's best lyrics.
The third Velvet Underground record is one of the best moves in rock history. They totally changed what they had done before, but kept the superb quality of their songs. Every moment is special and beautiful, and every song is unique. Even "The Murder Mystery" which feels closer to their previous works, fits in and kills. The third album is maybe not their most important work, but it's just as strong as the first record with song quality.
Artist: The Beatles
There isn't much I could say about this record that hasn't been said by...everybody. I will do my best to say something, though. At 1966, the band was both blossoming artistically like never before, and more than ever: sick of Beatlemania and touring and the stresses of being The Beatles. Revolver is the end of the "early" Beatles period, and its greatness is not unlike that of many other bands at this point in their career, that is, there is sometimes more to enjoy about that period right before they took a huge leap then that period where they fully embraced their next step (Superchunk, The Replacements, Husker Du: the quality of all of their middle-period records). Many have said this is The Beatles at their finest moment, and some even have said that it's the best album of all-time. While I feel that there are some shortcomings to the album that invalidate those claims, some of the songs here are unbeatable, and certainly among the group's best work.
Let's talk about those great songs. At this point, The Beatles are still expressing their psychedelic tendencies through dreamy melodies and the feel of their electronic instruments. While Magical Mystery and Sgt. Pepper are great, a lot of the moments seem more like a straight-forward pop band doing just "weird" shit. It's like Van Dyke Parks, or some crap. While The Beatles pulled off songs like "I Am The Walrus" well, there is a world of difference in that brand of psychedelia and "Strawberry Fields Forever." So more in context, "Taxman," "She Said, She Said," and "And Your Bird Can Sing" do this exquisitely. The tracks feature some of the best guitar work by the band. But while they are certainly in a psychedelic foray at this point (as well as is the superb single released around this time: "Rain") these songs represent a middle ground for their work. And some of the best stuff on the album represents other extremes: pure pop songwriting and really far out experimentation.
The last three songs on the album represent that divide well. "I Want to Tell You" has a superb dissonance at the end of the bridge. The song is so short but has so much space and time...it feels like an eternity at the end of that verse. And while Lennon had authored the previous album's sitar song "Norweigan Wood," "Love You To" not only brings the instrument back, but Harrison starts using an eastern philosophy in the lyrics. "Got To Get You Into My Life" feels like a Stax song with superb horns, and while it's relatively simple songwriting, the energy the horns bring out (absent in much if not all of the band's work at this point) is great. And of course, the album ends with "Tomorrow Never Knows" their most daring and experimental track in every way at that point. Backwards drums, daring lyrics, it's one of their finest songs. And coupled with "For No One" and "Here, There, And Everywhere," the band proves they could still nail perfect pop songs.
Of course, not every moment on the album is so brilliant and indicative of the band's immense talent. The two big singles, and regrettably the songs most remember from the album, "Elanor Rigby" and "Yellow Submarine" are incredibly overrated. The former does a horrible job at making some statement, and perhaps a song about one person we gave a shit about (e.g. "She's Leaving Home") might've been more effective than every lonely person. And the latter has the problem that some of the songs in their psychedelic era had: a "wacky" and "zany" concept with unbelievably tame, and tepid, and predictable songwriting. Beyond those two, their ode to the Lovin' Spoonful "Good Day Sunshine" I've also never been madly in love with, and feel it's proto-Wings McCartney at his most bland. While sappy loves songs on The White Album make sense ("Honey Pie", etc.) because of the breadth of songwriting subjects and diversity of songs on that album, here it's just out of place.
Revolver has some of the greatest Beatles moments ever. The weaker songs are only weak in that the rest of the 10 or so songs are of such a high quality, they are hard to sustain for a whole album, even for The Beatles sometimes.