Thursday, March 31, 2011
Artist: Television Personalities
Album: And Don't The Kids Just Love It
Label: Rough Trade
Television Personalities began as one of the definitive bands of the post-punk movement (e.g. punk in everything but sound). Their early singles and charming sound put them on the map, and they were able to stay there for a little while, until their musical quality kind of took a hit. But no matter! Their first album, 1981's ...And Don't The Kids Just Love It is still one of the best albums of its time and place for so many reasons. The artistic name-dropping, glorious pop hooks, and rarely-better-utilized lo-fi production allow for the record to remain today such a masterpiece.
Lead singer Dan Treacey was the band, and his voice and attitude carried so many of their early singles, perhaps most famous among them: "Part-Time Punks." His signature style is what continues to carry so many of the songs here. "La Grande Illusion" and "A Picture Of Dorian Grey," while really not reflective of the pieces of art they are named after, are clearly the spawn of Wire-based "art" punk. Throughout much of the album, Treacey is self-depricating but always endearing. In "Look Back In Anger" he opines, "Said some things/I shouldn't have said/should I have kept it to myself instead" and later "I was wrong/I admit/I was wrong." Treacey's lyrics carry a lot of regret, as the opening track "This Angry Silence" he reminisces about less than fond memories of childhood. This is also done in "Diary Of A Young Man." But what makes all of this work is that the personal, often depressing, lyrics are backed up by an incredible band. Sharp guitars and gorgeous melodies drive the tracks.
Against the seriousness, though, are some classic Kinks-esque celebration of the UK/old-times songs. "Geoffrey Ingram" at least in terms of subject and lyrics, is certainly a nod to The Kinks "David Watts." "Parties In Chelsea" and "World Of Pauline Lewis" are quaint stories about people from the old times, or at least fantasy. I'm not quite sure where the literary references end and personal stories begin on this record, but that's not really that important I guess. It's all about the music.
Everything on the album is stripped down. The guitars play very simple riffs, often buried in the mix by the just-as-simple bass. Sometimes it feels as if Treacey is just whispering the lyrics to you. In under 40-minutes, he paints a fascinating picture of his world, with humor, darkness, and some kickass music. The group never bettered this moment (partially because they couldn't keep a lineup together, I'm sure), but that's okay, because we'll always have this album around.
Television Personalities-And Don't The Kids Just Love It
Monday, March 28, 2011
Artist: Curtis Mayfield
Curtis Mayfield's first solo album is also his best. A triumphant display of his innovative abilities, it is arguably the best record of that early-70s/late-60s time period where the line between soul and funk was still being drawn, and black artists were still incorporating some white stylings (e.g. psychedelic guitars) into their music. So much of what makes Curtis Mayfield great is also what makes him so unique: his world outlook, his soaring falsetto, message-driven lyrics, and yet the sinister undertones at the heart of it all are explored in such a rich way on the album.
That sinister-ness is never more present than in the album's first track: "(Don't Worry) If There's A Hell Below, We're All Gonna Go." While it has a title that seems damming, the reality though is that this song sets the tone for the album: togetherness. The first song condemns those corrupt and wicked in the world, and calls for people, especially the downtrodden, to stick together. With "We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue," he makes a similar plea, calling on minorities to not fight with each other, but get together. This togetherness is coupled with a yearning by Mayfield for people to achieve greatness in life.
Curtis Mayfield always wanted people to be the best they could be. His songs with The Impressions included "Keep On Pushin'" and "We're A Winner," and that sentiment is maintained on this album. "Move On Up" (all glorious 8-minutes of it) declares "Keep on pushing/take nothing less/not even second best." Beyond just telling people to reach for their dreams, he's celebrating the people who haven't gotten their just due, and does so beautifully in "Miss Black America" (a celebration of black youth) and "Give It Up" (the black mother).
What makes the songs so beautiful is the instrumentation. The Impressions always had a soul style their own, instrumentally similar to more upbeat music, but never really making "dance" songs, and Curtis takes that to another level here. Big horns, strings, and exquisite production are all a part of the album. Few albums are as much of a joy to listen to as they probably were to make. If you've heard Curtis Mayfield's 1971 live album, you know there isn't an unpleasant bone in the man's body. His music is a direct extension of his philosophy and way of living life, so for such a beautiful man, it's no surprise such beautiful music flowed from him.
Thursday, March 24, 2011
Artist: Elvis Costello and The Attractions
Album: This Year's Model
Label: Radar Records
while I struggle to finish album #46's review...here's a record I've been listening to a bunch the last few days...
Sandwiched between his debut My Aim Is True and the close of Costello's slightly-more-punk beginning of his career Armed Forces, This Year's Model is miles away the finest album of the guy's career. I'm sure his middle and later albums have their fans and followers, but nothing he ever did comes close to This Year's Model. No poetry, no bullshit, just fucking anger and sexual frustration, as most great albums represent in some form. While My Aim Is True is often viewed as his best, the lack of power from his backing band continues to hold it back in my mind. I can think of few performers who owe so much the quality of their music as Elvis Costello owes The Attractions. While Armed Forces, it's follow-up, would be an admirable effort, the political ramblings just aren't as genuine as Costello's near-psychotic romantic ramblings. The album's greatness lies in the humor, craziness, and out of control feeling that every song features.
Costello had already established himself as a romantic on his first album, as well as certainly the most talented artist in the "new wave" movement. But from the opening chords of "No Action," it is clear that with This Year's Model, Costello has taken everything up a notch. It sets the perfect tone for the album; not so much about romance as about the messed-up mental games people play with each other. "I thought I told you we were just good friends," Costello implores, but throughout the album, he plays the role as both victim and ...well...asshole. And Pete Thomas's sensational drumming is out of this world. Every cymbal crash is exciting, every tom roll is magnificent. In under two minutes, Costello unleashes a vicious opening track that does exactly what a song in that slot must do.
Every song has some perverted undertone. "This Year's Girl" really introduces the paranoia that underlies a lot of the album, and "Living In Paradise" is another example of paranoia and jealousy, as Costello wonders who the next guy will be used is from the girl he just split from. And let's not forget the sexual innuendo/perversion. In "Hand In Hand" he sings "If I'm gonna go down, you're gonna come with me." And in a lot of the album, he just hates romance. In "Lipstick Vogue" he sings "Love is just a tumor you've got to cut it out," before declaring, as hysterically, "sometimes I almost feel, just like a human being."
There is no weak cut on the album. "Pump It Up" is one of his most loved songs at this point, and even with the crazy way the album sounds, nearly careening out of control at points as Costello's lyrics lag a beat behind and are delivered in an accelerated pace, the album lasts. The American copy replaced two cuts (deemed "too British") with "Radio, Radio" and while that album is from the same period and certainly as good as everything here, it doesn't fit. It's a single, and while vitriolic and excellent, doesn't have the maniacal feeling the original twelve tracks do.
I am by no means a huge fan of Costello, only having heard the first three albums in full repeatedly, and never loving Aim or Armed Forces save a track or two. But This Year's Model is excellent on every possible level, and should be heard by all.
Saturday, March 19, 2011
Artist: Wu-Tang Clan
Album: Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers
Revolutionary in every possible way, Wu-Tang Clan's first record re-defined hip hop forever. It stands today, almost two decades later, as not only the finest hip hop record ever, but one of the greatest, most ruthless albums of all time. It's one of those albums that proves volume is nothing, and attitude is everything when you are defining roughness. The Stooges could've played acoustic guitars and bongo and still been the roughest band in rock with their attitude. Coming towards the tail-end of one era of gangsta rap, but before the next era began, Enter The Wu-Tang couldn't have come at a more perfect moment. Rap's golden era was all but officially over, and it was time for a new voice and style to bring rap forward. Make no mistake about it: contextual factors, the lyrical content, the music itself, and the entire identity of Wu-Tang was revolutionary, and all of it is a part of its brilliance. Let's examine each of these in backwards order.
Underground rock music had featured mystery of identity as a concept for a long time. Bands like The Beatles and Stones gained popularity as band member's identities were marketed (look at The Who Sell Out's iconic album cover). So it makes sense underground music would not do this: The Velvet Underground dressed in black, Sun City Girls and The Residents wore masks/kinda sorta hid their identity, and even The Band didn't want to have their faces photographed for a while, and their name is an attempt to get away from selling based on the band and not the music. Still a genre in relative infancy, rap needed an underground supergroup--a group with such a small possibility of hitting the big time, that it was inevitable that they would.
And it's all a product of the right place at the right time I guess that cemented the legacy. Funky, full-sounding production had brought hip-hop into the 1990s, away from the (relatively) thin beats of EPMD and the like: funky, jazzy samples were in vogue. Commercial hip hop was taking off with Vanilla Ice and M.C. Hammer popularizing the genre in new ways that not even Run-DMC and Public Enemy's collaborations could have predicted. The RZA's mixture of Kung-Fu samples and thick in a new way beats are the centerpiece of the record. And every song features anywhere from one to eight MCS laying it all down with multiple assaults. It's so unique, it had to make a splash.
Reminiscent of Paul's Boutqiue in that there are multiple MCs, but they seemingly don't take turns, but rather demand turns. In "Shame On A Nigga" ODB does two verses and the choruses, probably because he had more to say. On "Method Man" and "Clan In Da Front", Method Man and GZA have the spotlight the entire time. There's no "fair" allocation of turns that often happens in groups with multiple "leads." This shows how every personality of every Wu-Tang member (even the sparsely heard Masta Killa and U-God) lets their personality shine through.
The album is often hilarious, and everybody who loves hip-hop knows the entire album inside-and-out. Even the final track, a funk'd up remix of "7th Chamber" is unbelievable. Every verse is crazy, every lyric is hilarious, and every beat kills. This is hip-hop 101, and changed the rules forever of what hip hop could be.
Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Album: Chocolate City
By 1975, the Parliament and Funkadelic crews were at the height of their powers. Parliament-the funk leaning group of the two-was coming off a huge hit with 1974's Up For The Down Stroke, and the group was really starting to be on the map. Their later albums, starting with the follow-up to Chocolate City, Mothership Connection would cement their popularity and reputation among the all-time pop music greats. But Chocolate City, relatively unpopular among the group's albums, is really their greatest and most triumphant moment.
In a lot of ways, as I listen to the album, I'm reminded of Mingus Ah Um (just jump back a few posts for my opinion on it). Mingus's record was meant to trace many of jazz roots and pay homage to his heroes, and in many ways, Chocolate City sets Parliament up for the future, but also gives a strong eye to the past and present of black music in America. Of course, this all occurs with a very-Parliament-esque sense of humor, and not too much seriousness in the world.
There are political songs. "Chocolate City," the title track, is a reference to the prevalence of black people being such high populations in urban areas, no longer just in the south. "We got Newark, we got Gary, someone told me we even got L.A....and we're working on Atlanta" Clinton says early on. Perhaps a bold statement at the time, his words have obviously maintained an element of truth. Clinton once remarked something to the effect of wanting to put black Americans somewhere they weren't normally found. Later on, that would be outer space, but on this album, he's happy to have them running the nation's capital. But really, that's as political as the album gets. Most of the songs really celebrate black culture and art, whether directly or indirectly.
"Ride On" is another minor hit from the album, and has certainly been heard in its share of commercials in recent years. Check out this gem from the song: "It ain't what you know/it's what you feel. Don't worry about being right/just being real." Feeling/groove/getting down--they are all critical aspects of the album. And some of the most memorable moments are just sing-alongs. The "yeah yeah yeah" part of "Together" is sensational. It reminds me of Sly and The Family Stone's finest work, especially with the bass tone...except with a more upbeat feel.
The rest of the album has the feel of classic funk. "Side Effects" deals with the hardships of a tough woman. "Force It" draws significant influence from Ohio Players. "I Misjudged You" points to their classic soul influence, clearly reminiscent of the band's 1950s doo-wop roots. And through it all there is a definite consistency to the songs on Chocolate City, more so than on any of their other albums. One of the finest funk albums of all-time.
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Artist: The Beatles
Album: Rubber Soul
Revolver has grown in stature in recent years to their finest moment, and while there are several moments of absolute brilliance, Rubber Soul is more consistent. Maybe it's because Revolver marked the beginning of the third (of four) eras for The Beatles, while Rubber Soul took everything the band had been perfecting after the initial rush of Beatlemania and did it one more time. Stacking Beatles albums against each other is a difficult task, but this is where The Beatles lost their youth, lost their innocence, and their songs really start to reflect that they are aware of their youth being gone. The Beatles by Rubber Soul are really clear and reaching maturity, and with albums that came after it, that maturity would manifest itself in a more abstract, poetic way. But Rubber Soul is direct, and their inward reflection would not seem like this at all until the group was ready to call it quits.
(Note: I do not hate any of the Beatles songs I'm about to mention. I love them all. Please keep that in mind.) Look at the evolution of the songs. A Hard Day's Night is the last album where they sing about love in a really simplistic fashion. "I'm Happy Just To Dance With You" and "And I Love Her," are so simple. "I give her all my love/that's all I do/and if you saw my love/you'd love her too." With Beatles For Sale there are new dimensions of love (namely: heartbreak) that they sing about, but still in a simple way. In "No Reply" John can't figure out why his woman would leave him, because he loves her more than anyone else. This simplistic view of love litters the album. In "I'm A Loser," is it just a coincidence that the one romantic regret in his life is the girl who left him, and not vice-versa? Help! continues these lyrical themes, even "Yesterday" with general lyrics, emphasizes the way they are composing. With Rubber Soul, the details get more vivid, the songs (even the somber songs) are more lively.
With Rubber Soul, The Beatles begin to use objects for the idea of a song to revolve around. "Drive My Car" is about a man chasing a woman who has big dreams...and eventually she realizes her dreams are out of reach, but at least she has the man who has believed in her the whole time. "The Word" reaches for that word "love", purposefully over-simplifying the impact of a single word. The album as a whole is incredibly even.
"Michelle" is a simple love song by Paul, and whereas his later stuff is often a bit kitschy or too poppy, "Michelle" is so simple, it works. All he wants to do is expressive his love, a feeling we all know and adore, especially early in a relationship. George's songs are also dark on this album, a theme he's continued since "Don't Bother Me." In "Think For Yourself" he does everything he can to distance himself from a woman. He sarcastically continues this with "If I Needed Someone." Both of these are two of his best songs ever.
But the best songs on the record belong to John. "Norweigan Wood" reflects on his days of sneaking around on his wife. It's unbelievably brilliant, and not just because of the sitar melody. The details of the song are magnificent. And "Nowhere Man" and "In My Life" are some of their most reflective and effective songs. "Nowhere Man" takes aim at those looking for direction in the world through other people. Along with "Revolution" it's one of the few times they are addressing a societal problem, and not personal matters. "In My Life" is just the opposite, but just as effective, and it's odd, because it's one of their most general songs. But it sticks because you know that John is just feeling, "Shit, the world is big out there. There's a lot to life."
The most important fallout of Beatlemania is the group looking outside of themselves. With Beatlemania, all the world cared about was them, and when they were able to start escaping it, and looking back on the world, their new perspective graced their music beautifully. It's no longer "If you saw my love, you'd love her too" because the world is far too complex to know how he feels. Instead, Paul is content just knowing he has Michelle, and Michelle knowing that he loves him. This is their most personal record they'd ever make, as the music that came after is, like I said, more abstract and more obtuse and more poetic. Rubber Soul is their best album of the early period, and of course, points to the further genius they'd produce.
Artist: Sly And The Family Stone
In hindsight, Stand! is a pretty tragic album. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson talks about the rising tide and how it fell...and it kinda feels like this album was made right before that moment: right before Altamont crushed the 1960s, six months before Let It Bleed definitively declared that the 1960s were over, so pack it in. This album pre-dated Woodstock, and that sense that the world was going our (us leftist's) way was possible. But we know how history turned out, and we know the direction this band took after this. So let's ignore the social context of the album (in places) and focus on its musical context. In 1968, "Everyday People" gave the group not only their best song, but a template to build this magnificent album off of.
Sly and the Family built their career as truly one of the first groups to combine the sounds of rock and roll and R&B (as similar as their roots may be...). Other bands like The Chambers Brothers weren't that dissimilar, but it was clear by 1968's Life, Sly and the Family Stone were doing things head and shoulders above their peers. Sly took a lot of artistic control with Stand! and produced it as well. But while The Chambers Brothers really leaned towards rock/pop music, Motown was geared towards a white audience, and Otis Redding stood-out for more reasons than just talent at white music festivals, Sly and The Family Stone were the most integrated into white society. Hits on the pop charts and white band members were a part of the formula, and the band always maintained a sound that was more black than white music. We have the first multi-racial pop act that really write their own songs and are their own band at the height of their popularity, and Stand! is a testament to amazing songs.
With the exception of two jams, one on each side of the record, this album is chock full of pop hits. The aforementioned "Everyday People" is one of the finest songs of all-time. A celebration of peace and harmony, the songs is to the point, gorgeous, and catchy as all hell. While it's a masterpiece that few have equaled, other songs on the album work great. The title track is a peaceful call-to-arms, almost a micro-, individualistic look at standing up for what you believe in. "Sing A Simple Song" and "I Want To Take You Higher" are great songs that lack on the direct lyrics front, but have a strong impact with R&B vocal roots. The Family Stone even allude to paranoia with "Somebody's Watching You." The two jams, "Sex Machine" and "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey" have their social influence (well, mainly the latter), but they effectively point to the band's roots, and balance out the pop flavor of the rest of the album.
As I mentioned and hindsight has shown, the high didn't last forever. While two great singles in 1970 continued in the vein of Stand! ("Hot Fun In The Summertime" and "Thank You ((Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin))"), their first album of the 1970s would be a dark affair, and their finest hour. The 1970s marked the end of the dream, and Sly would slowly become a serious recluse. But Stand! remains one of the finest album of the 1960s, and a pop album for the ages, even if it was naive at points.
Artist: Charles Mingus
Album: Ah Um
Dear lord, how I've been slacking. Let's get March going as we approach the half-way mark with one of the finest albums from one of jazz's grandest figures, Charles Mingus. By 1959, he had established himself as one of the most important figures in modern jazz, having spent his early career working with the likes of Louis Armstrong and Max Roach, by the mid-1950s, he was releasing superb albums of his own. As they evolved, some jazz purists questioned the liveliness of the music he made, and early in 1959 he made Blues And Roots, as an effort to combat critics who said he didn't "swing" enough. Mingus Ah Um would go even further to show the history of jazz, and it covers all possible elements.
Ah Um really is a history lesson. "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" is an elegy for Lester Young, a soft song for one of the smoothest tenors to ever play. He also pays tribute to Charlie Parker in "Bird Calls," and Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton's namesakes are also name-dropped in song title. It really paints an autobiographical picture of the album, as people who were clearly vital influences on Mingus's life are paid direct tribute to. Another obvious important part of Mingus's life is race relations, and in "Fables of Faubus," he takes to task Senator Orval Faubus of Arkansas for his anti-integration stance. Though the lyrics are censored on this version, Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus features them in full. But even without the lyrics, the song has a powerful punch.
While all of this context is crucial to the album's greatness, it is also one of Mingus's most stylistically diverse. There are some slower, ballad type songs, as well as songs with lots and lots of space. For someone who has so much power in his songs, his subtle approach in songs like "Self-Portrait In Three Colors" and "Pussy Cat Dues" is impressive. And of course, it still features one of his most epic tracks, as Mingus albums tend to open up with. "Better Get It In Your Soul" does what many of his best numbers do: start with a beast of a melody, play themselves out, and return triumphantly and bigger than ever. While the form isn't necessarily unique, Mingus's melodies are often some of the most memorable and wonderful in all of jazz.
1959 was a rather critical year for jazz. Miles Davis recorded Kind Of Blue. Max Roach was on the verge of creating some of his most wonderful music, and bop was on the rise once again. Leave it to Mingus to not only help lead the way for a new generation of bandleaders, but to ensure that none of them forget where they came from.