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.