Wednesday, April 20, 2011

#42 Max Roach-Percussion Bitter Sweet

Artist: Max Roach
Album: Percussion Bitter Sweet
Label: Impulse!
Year: 1961

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

#43 The Zombies-Odessey And Oracle


Artist: The Zombies
Album: Odessey And Oracle
Label: CBS
Year: 1968

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.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

#44 Spacemen 3-Playing With Fire


Artist: Spacemen 3
Album: Playing With Fire
Label: Fire
Year: 1988

Ah, Playing With Fire: the finest moment from one of the finest groups of all-time. Playing With Fire is superb because Spacemen 3 prior to this album had spent six or so years on the same set of songs. Everything from their earliest demos to seminal album The Perfect Prescription featured the same songs done and re-done over again. After laying down the definitive versions of those songs though, the duo went back to the studio with a very different approach than the one that had produced the preceding record. What they created was an absolute masterpiece that defines the band: able to lift from so much that came before and really make it something that is uniquely theirs.
Fans of Spacemen 3 might know that The Perfect Prescription almost was much different than it ended up, and the original album was a polished, heavily produced beast (this original version was released in the mid-2000s as Forged Prescriptions. The band opted to strip-down the album towards the end to ensure it was a better representation of their live sound. But that didn't happen on Playing With Fire, and the production ends up being one of the highlights of the record. It allowed for layers of guitars on the quieter tracks like "Come Down Softly To My Soul" and beautiful vocal overdubs on "Honey." Yet with all the production put into it, the most amazing thing about the album is how stripped down it is.
Just listen to "I Believe It." The song has an organ and a flute and tambourine...and then just a light guitar at the end. It is a good indicator of how Spacemen 3 like to experiment: with less and less and less. Previous Spacemen 3 songs and albums were definitively indebted to the sound and song structure of old blues songs...but there is very little traditional song structure on this album (possibly due to Sonic Boom's penning of the majority of the songs...J Spaceman's tracks still fit that mold to a degree). "Revolution" rocks hard on one chord for the majority of the time. "Suicide" is ten minutes of two chords and is absolutely brilliant throughout. The whole album really features so little going on, yet everything that makes up every song is so effective, it works beautifully.
Of course, there is a lot regrettable about the album. For one thing, the live version of "Suicide" from Performance is better and is absolutely astonishing, kind of lessening the effect of the album version (I've included it in the download below). In addition, this is the beginning of the end for the band: where the two lead songwriters/singers began to fade as friends and as working partners. They'd release one more album before breaking up. But the music they produced is indisputably brilliant, and never was that more the case than on Playing With Fire.

Spacemen 3-Playing With Fire