Thursday, June 23, 2011

#33 The O'Jays-Ship Ahoy


Artist: The O'Jays
Album: Ship Ahoy
Label: Epic
Year: 1973

Philly soul group The O'Jays had origins in Ohio in the late-50s. Though their roots and initial sound didn't separate them from many peers initially, by the early-1970s, they found success in the songwriting talents of Gamble and Huff and in a Philly scene whose sound was not too dissimilar than The Spinners and Chi-Lites, marked by bright guitars and a more pop-oriented take on 70s funk. They found real success with the 1972 album Back-Stabbers, the title track of which was a huge hit for the band. Their follow-up the next year however, would be an even greater triumph.
Back Stabbers proved The O'Jays were a force to be reckoned with, but Ship Ahoy is a more cohesive record. It's themes of almost hopeless pessimism are often frequently met with an upbeat sound, making the songs. "Put Your Hands Together" is a call to arms, clearly making the claim that things in the community/in the country aren't as they should be. "The Air I Breathe" is equally upbeat in sound, but in the song the group laments, "Why won't they find a solution/to what's causing the pollution," before going on, "Don't they care/what's happening to the earth?" Truly, these songs help to illustrate an incredibly un-selfish group. "Now That We Find Love" even points out the fear of the future--one so dark that upon things turning around socially, people won't even know what to do with positives.
The album is also really noteworthy for the scope of the epic tracks. The near-10 minute title track is a superb dramatizing of the slave ships Africans were brought in. It doesn't try to tell a story or "feel" like the journey, it's just a song about it in the most general sense. Using fewer lyrics and letting the music do what it needs is one of the reasons it works so well. "Don't Call Me Brother" is the other epic on the other side of the record, and equally good.
While there are a few personal tracks, they fit in with the general theme that seems be taking a wide look at the world as it currently is (at least to The O'Jays). "You Got Your Hooks In Me" and "People Keep Tellin' Me" lament the classic feeling of being in a relationship you can't get out of, no matter how much you should. Simple lyrics, great singing, and wonderful instrumentation. Throw in the now famous for its inclusion in The Apprentice, "For The Love Of Money" and you round out this sensational record.
The O'Jays never matched these highs again. The sound of early 70s funk that still had pop roots in the older, grittier R&B sound soon started giving way to the polished sound of disco. While slick and polished in terms of production, The O'Jays deliver this epic with grit that gives it character, rather than distracts from it (as a more polished work might). Ship Ahoy is one of the great 1970s funk albums, and definitely one of the last of its kind.

Friday, June 17, 2011

#34 Marvin Gaye-What's Going On


Artist: Marvin Gaye
Album: What's Going On
Label: Motown
Year: 1971

Marvin Gaye's masterpiece, What's Going On? has only grown in importance since it's 1971 release, now forty years ago. The question mark's absence isn't a mistake. As Marvin says in the title track, "I'll tell you what's going on." A statement of purpose that at the time had substantial impact. Few commercial R&B artists got involved and became topical in the way that Gaye did with this release. More importantly, however, it was a call for those same artists to take more artistic control of their work. While certainly not the first R&B artist to take control of his career, Marvin's influence on the likes of Stevie Wonder and The Temptations, among others was huge.
Marvin Gaye got his start on the Motown label, and scored a wide-variety of hits throughout the sixties. As the decade wore on, however, Gaye became disillusioned with the material he was performing. Along with the obvious changing signs of the times around him in public, his brother returned from Vietnam with horrific tales about what he'd experienced. All of this drove Gaye's desire to create a more "important" album, and after releasing the title track as a single gave him a smash hit (thus burying Motown President Berry Gordy's fear about the music), he worked on the album through 1970 and in 1971, What's Going On became the biggest selling Motown LP ever. With it, Gaye became a leader for R&B musicians taking creative control of their careers, and the 1970s became a decade where the entire genre went from singles-to-album based. The success of groups like Earth, Wind, and Fire, Ohio Players, Parliament, Stevie Wonder, and countless others, is due in some part at least to the success of What's Going On.
But as I feel has become a theme for these albums, none of this back-story of the album really means anything without also noting the superbness of the music. Working with The Funk Brothers (Motown's house band throughout the 1960s and until the riots in Detroit that led for the label's HQ to move to LA), What's Going On was not only topically, but technically advanced in ways Motown hadn't seen before. Gaye's incredibly influential vocal harmonizing/doing background with himself is fully on display here. (What would hip hop music be without this?). And The Funk Brothers take a jazz-y approach to playing here. The songs are not built as a series of singles (so common on Motown up to this point) but rather one cohesive album, and so they take time in every song to flex different muscles. There's no need to show off everything they can do in three minutes.
Few soul albums can claim to be as cohesive as What's Going On. "What's Happening Brother" is the perfect follow-up to the title track that opens the album, and "Flying High in the Friendly Sky" lends considerable atmosphere to the record, allowing the musicians to show what they can do. It illustrates that Gaye had the compositional chops to convey messages without words (something he would really expand on his next record, the mostly instrumental soundtrack to the blaxploitation film Trouble Man.) The more experimental tendencies displayed on the record, however, are balanced out by near perfect pop from Marvin. "Mercy, Mercy Me" and the closing track "Inner City Blues" are arguably two of his finest songs. "Right On" is one of his grooviest songs to this point, showing an influence from the likes of War that he would certainly use later on in his career.
Those who think context doesn't matter when evaluating music need to look at What's Going On. There may be soul albums with better songs, more hits and more flair (and this certainly isn't the highest-ranking album of the genre on this list). But imagine what wouldn't have been without this album...without Marvin Gaye of all people deciding to speak out...and to make a point about societal issues that the entire public needs to deal with, not just a limited population. If Let It Bleed marked the death of the 60s, What's Going On shows that some people weren't giving up the fight during the "me" decade.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

#35 Miles Davis-Kind Of Blue


Artist: Miles Davis
Album: Kind Of Blue
Label: Columbia
Year: 1959

One of my remarks about Mingus Ah Um was about how well it sort of..."overviews" the history of jazz, for lack of a better phrase. Mingus's greatness always seemed to lie in his ability to update and pay homage to the masters of jazz. This came across in his music and the people he played with as well (Duke Ellington and Max Roach for example). Kind Of Blue, released the same year, is equally important and definitive as a Jazz album. But as Miles looks towards the future and continues to refine a sound uniquely his own, it's legacy is greater and the album even more essential.
Like Ah Um, almost every song on Kind Of Blue is a classic-a next generation "standard" (if the original jazz standards date back to the 1920s-1930s). But rather than a joyous celebration that gives off a near-giddy atmosphere, Kind Of Blue is the definitive of all of Miles' cool albums. Really, what I love about Miles is how understated he is. Many of his peers as well as predecessors were known for an aggressive style. Coltrane (who appears on this album) has a box set called Heavyweight Champion. Charlie Parker, a key influence on Miles (and one of Miles' first notable gigs was to play alongside him) was known for his aggressive sax style, which was in contrast to the smooth stylings of Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young before him. Miles would later in his career prove to be capable of playing with unmatched ferociousness, and Kind Of Blue is just another example of how capable he was of playing any style.
I could write more, but really, I think my love of Miles comes from a "less is more" place, and I have one more album of his to review on this list. There is a quote somewhere in Miles's autobiography about John Coltrane. Generally he told Coltrane he could improve his solos by taking the horn out of his mouth. Davis' genius lies in his ability to leave everything understated...forcing you to find the greatness of his music, rather than beating you over the head with it. Kind Of Blue is a perfect example of him doing just that.

Friday, June 10, 2011

#36 Meat Puppets-II


Artist: Meat Puppets
Album: II
Label: SST
Year: 1984

Those middle-ground albums are the ones I love best. I find so often (and must have by now, at some point, indicated that on this blog) that the best albums are by bands in the middle of two points in their careers. Meat Puppets II is a perfect example of that: the band has begun to embrace lighter, more melodic tunes, but have certainly not fully abandoned their aggressive and far more ferocious roots. If any classic 80s punk record really doesn't fit in with its peers, it's Meat Puppets II.
Take a moment to think about the band and their music. They hailed from Arizona...far from the liberal establishments of San Fran, southern California, New York, and DC. Meat Puppets weren't just from a far-away land culturally, but musically as well. While The Replacements, yes, covered Hank Williams and Husker Du wore their 60s influence on their sleeves, I feel that there's a slight difference between how bands that weren't the Meat Puppets bore the influence of their parent's music. Of course youth from the late-70s and 1980s was going to have some of the 1960s rub off on them, but whether Black Flag doing "Louie Louie" or Minor Threat doing "Good Guys Don't Wear White," we just see punk bands emulating their garage rock forefathers. Even in Husker Du's "Eight Miles High," The Byrds' psychedelic high-point is run through that Husker Du system. The Meat Puppets, however, retained the aesthetics of the psychedelic years more concretely than many of their peers. "Oh, Me" uses effects perfectly, and the song drags along at a sloth-like pace, rather than amphetamine-driven fury. "Lost" like many other punk songs of the 1980s can be described as a "driving" song, with a rhythm that propels you. But it is not maniacal in a way that "Nervous Breakdown" is (or even, "My War" if we're sticking with 1984). It's more laid-back and easy going, not unlike a Big Star song.
None of this means that there aren't moments of menace or craze more in line with Meat Puppets as a punk band. "Split Myself in Two" the first track on the album is blisteringly fast and it seems that the singing can't even keep up with the song's delivery. "New Gods" is just as ferocious in every way.
But most of the album owes a lot to the 1960s. The poetry of "Plateau", the Nixon reference in "Lost" and the laid back instrumentals. After this album, Meat Puppets become just an undeniably softer band, for better or for worse (many others celebrate the late-80s period for the band). However, II's genius and perfection can't be under-appreciated. 1984 was a huge year for punk rock, and saw the release of many of the greatest records in the genre (several that appear on this list). Meat Puppets II though on the SST label, still feels like it occupies a world of its own. Spot's production is not as evident, and the songs sound like they're from a world outside of punk.