Friday, July 22, 2011

#28 War-The World Is A Ghetto


Artist: War
Album: The World Is A Ghetto
Label: United Artists
Year: 1972

By 1972 War were fully confident and one of the most engaging funk bands around. After parting with Eric Burdon a few years earlier, their first two albums as their own act, The World Is A Ghetto delivered on their commercial promise, and would become their finest album. Thanks in part to those roots with Burdon, the group also drew heavily from pop music of the late 1960s: psychedelia and soul mixed with their own brand of California funk.
The album begins with the sensational and legendary track "The Cisco Kid." The lyrics are a simple tale of (probably?) an outlaw described with a "man with no name" sort of style-an outlaw who plays by his own rules. Right from the outset the Latin flavor of the group is put into effect. Almost immediately afterwards introducing that sound (with tremendous piano melody helping it along) the group slides into a cool groove with a harmonica in the forefront. The feel of the album continues on the equally strong second track "Where Was You At." As songs, rather than have distinct messages, they set-up the tone of the album and the group, at least one dimension of it that is, wonderfully. Free-wheeling, sing-along, community-sounding R&B. The first side of the album ends though with an abrupt turn with the gorgeous "City, Country, City." If the first two songs emit that sound of a group of friends in the inner-city getting together and jamming on a sing-along in the middle of a hot summer afternoon (this image is certainly helped in my mind by the cover art), then "City, Country, City" paints a picture of the twilight. It's just as laid back, but the instrumental just feels like the soundtrack to a night. And that it ends side one with such a different feel is excellent sequencing.
Side two opens with "Four Cornered Room," a dark and paranoid song. It sets the tone for the rest of the album. When you're not with the friends and enjoying a day-there is such entrapment to your world. "Four Cornered Room" and "The World Is A Ghetto" both paint a tortured and limiting picture of what that world is like...the same world that produces the all day music--the picture on the album cover. As "Beetles In The Bog" closes the album, the feeling of the song is closer to side one's upbeat moments...but with an element of darkness that the second side has certainly placed upon it.
Though known for hits like "Spill The Wine" and "Why Can't We Be Friends," War were really one of the more thoughtful groups of their era. Their blend of Latin funk was absolutely inventive and all of their early-70s work is worth checking out. The World Is A Ghetto remains their landmark work and another highpoint for early 1970s funk.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

#29 The Flying Burrito Brothers-The Gilded Palace Of Sin


Artist: The Flying Burrito Brothers
Album: The Gilded Palace Of Sin
Label: Edsel
Year: 1969

Gram Parsons was one of the great 1960s wandering musicians. Like Al Kooper, Eric Clapton and even Neil Young he would briefly appear in/form bands (brief relative to the band's entire career), make a tremendous contribution, and then be on his way (the rest of the band's output would never be of such a great quality). He got his start fronting The International Submarine Band where he began to hone his country-rock stylings. (Note: I feel it's worth pointing out that Parsons, contrary to popular belief, didn't invent this style. He rightfully acknowledged a debt to England's Downliner's Sect. Their second album, The Country Sect is probably the true beginnings of country-rock.) He would give his most popular work as a member of The Byrds, contributing inspiration, a few songs, and a couple of vocal tracks to their landmark album Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. The Byrds inability to keep a steady lineup and Parsons being not allowed to sing on songs due to label restraints meant that the partnership didn't last long. A year later Parsons had a new band, The Flying Burrito Brothers. His stint with them would also prove all-to-brief, and the end of his time with the band marks the beginning of his personal downfall, but their first album, The Gilded Palace Of Sin, is still the finest album of the entire genre, and one of the best of the 1960s.
There's no denying the diversity of styles that emerged in popular music in the 1960s was radical. Miles Davis and The Grateful Dead playing together in San Francisco; Sly and the Family Stone playing to a rock crowd; even hillbilly music was given an update (though interestingly, the genre's old guard, people like Roy Acuff, vehemently disapproved of "long-hairs" playing country, especially in locations like The Grand Ole Opry). One of the most striking things about the record is not that it's rock merged with country, but that most of the songs are original. Parsons' aforementioned records featured a majority of covers, but Gilded Palace only features two (not including a coda at the end of the last song), and those are both R&B covers. The Byrds had done this with "You Don't Miss Your Water," but The Burrito Brothers' two covers are breathtaking: "Do Right Woman" is given an incredibly tasteful performance, but their cover of James Carr's "Dark End Of The Street" may be the highlight of the record. Their ability to merge black and white music in such a direct yet forgotten about way is still breathtaking. This leaves nine original songs, and for a record that's part of a genre that's so built on covers and reinterpretation, Parsons's ability to pen such amazing songs is another wonderful thing.
From the opening bars of "Christine's Tune" it's clear that Parsons has mastered country music interpretation. Lyrics of a "devil in disguise" tearing apart men mixed with unbelievable slide guitar litter the song. Musically, we're also met with that kind of "You Really Got Me"-sounding psychedelic distortion guitar. The rest of the album constantly updates classic country themes with a 1960s sensibility. "My Uncle" is about hitting the road-but it's due to draft-dodging (obviously topical during Vietnam). Classic love songs like "Hot Burrito No. 2" have a similar psychedelic guitar to the one in the opening track, and "Hot Burrito No. 1" almost has a loungy, jazzy feel. For a country record, it's one of the most diverse of its kind.
"Sin City", the album's second song, is generally considered the band's high point. It achieves with one song the same thing that Let It Bleed does throughout an album: the 1960s are over. The song predicts the fate of a generation that will have to atone for an era of sins. A true revolutionary spirit based in moral philosophy had given way to hedonism, and it was clear then to some as it is now to many that children of the 1960s took it too far. The song's lyrics about "the 31st floor" and a friend trying to "clean up this town" are a reference to Bobby Kennedy's assassination, which, along with MLK's a year earlier and the Nixon election, certainly began to destroy the dreams of the era. It's a masterpiece of pop music and one of its most sobering moments.
The greatness of the band would not last more than an album. While their second album, Burrito Deluxe technically featured Parsons again and had a few nice songs, it pales in comparison to its predecessor, and Parsons had mostly checked out (and that goes double for the band's third and fourth albums). By this point, Parsons began enjoying celebrity status, hanging around The Rolling Stones and...engaging in sin. He would release two very highly regarded solo albums in the early 70s that sold poorly, he died of a drug overdose in 1973. But that first album, made during a period of considerable output for Parsons, is still a masterpiece, and its legacy and stature has only grown over time.

Friday, July 15, 2011

#30 Love-Forever Changes


Artist Love
Album: Forever Changes
Label: Elektra
Year: 1967

Love's third album is not only their masterpiece, but a classic of California in 1967, and that the record fell on relatively deaf ears upon release during a year that produced so many landmark albums, and now enjoys classic status, is a testament to album's quality. Psychedelia, folk, garage rock and poetry, as well as bits of jazz and Mexicali are all touched upon during the record. When looked at even closer, the background of the band makes the masterpiece seem all the more unlikely to have existed, and therefore, that much more rewarding that it does.
Love were a garage rock band based out of Los Angeles in the mid-1960s. Like their peers and city-mates, The Standells they were playing a grittier brand of American garage rock rather than leaning towards the tamer, hippie-based sounds of San Francisco. Early singles like a cover of "My Little Red Book" (from their debut) and the scorching "7&7 Is" from their second album Da Capo gained the band attention. Of course, drug addiction and unwillingness to tour kept the band grounded. (They also maintain that race was a factor, but that seems unlikely to me. They were the first rock band signed on Elektra Records, and while they were soon followed by The Doors, who enjoyed much more success, their had been black folk artists before. Why would the label hold back one of their own acts because of race? It makes more sense that their lack of success can be attributed to them never leaving town). By the time they set out to record Forever Changes, frontman/lead-songwriter Arthur Lee was leaning towards recording the album Pet Sounds-style, with session musicians playing the songs instead of the band. The early results weren't "gritty" enough for Lee, and he decided to let his band back in the mix. Certainly this tension might've hurt the intra-band relationship, but I suspect it contributed to the quality of the music, as well.
Forever Changes sounds like it was created under the exact conditions I just described. Lush orchestrations and arrangements are matched note for note with ferocious playing and ominous lyrics. Lee maintained he felt he was going to die at soon, and wanted this to be his final piece, and the lyrics of the album can be attributed to that. Every song on the album features haunting lyrics, such as: "Sitting on a hillside/watching all the people...die/I'll feel much better on the other side"; "This is the time in life that I am living/and I'll face each day with a smile/for the time that I've been given's such a little while/and the things that I must do consist of more than style." There's something about the words that, while generalizable, feel more personal coming from Lee than many of his 1967 counterparts. Perhaps this could be his use of the first person, and not "we" (or "you") in many of his songs. These song lyrics are of a spiritual nature, and rather than the second person calls to arms of Jefferson Airplane (feed YOUR head) or Jimi Hendrix (are YOU experienced), Lee never really invokes the rest of the world into his songs, unless he's putting them into perspective through his personal feelings. (I know a lot of this/all of this is my interpretation, and I'm sure there are contradictory examples and other first person spirituality from this time, but I can't think of them off the top of my head, so be it).
Apart from the beautiful lyrics, the music is truly one of a kind. Mexican horns/guitar playing litter tracks like "Alone Again Or" and "Live And Let Live." Ferocious guitar playing is also featured on songs like "A House Is Not A Motel." The group may not have any longer been the simple garage rock band they were just months earlier, but they come off as one of the tightest rock bands of the day with this release. Surrounded by lush orchestration, the album is just gorgeous.
Stories go (from the Love Story documentary and Wikipedia) that the group got kicked in to shape after Lee had temporarily dismissed them, and they were motivated NOT to mess up after this. Though the album they produced at that point is a classic, Lee kicked the rest of the band out afterwards, and Love released a few more unremarkable records. The band also had trouble on their final tour with Lee in the 2000s, and quit mid-tour. Lee was known to always have drug and eventually legal troubles, so its hard to say who really "held them back" during the 1960s (likely: they all did). But Forever Changes is an undisputed classic whose status among music fans is now far greater than most of their peers.

Monday, July 11, 2011

#31 Flipper-Album: Generic Flipper


Artist: Flipper
Album: Album-Generic Flipper
Label: Subtarranean
Year: 1982

During the last few years I've been connected with the punk culture in New Jersey pretty closely. During that time I've learned of dozens of important bands from the 80s, 90s and today that I never knew of before. I've also found that there are tons of bands I never cared for that have a much more devout following than I ever realized. Flipper, however, remain one of those bands seems like nobody really cares about. In the last few years they almost did a reunion tour, had albums reissued, and have been surrounded by so many peers getting highlighted (Germs reunion show/Biopic; Minutemen documentary); and yet their stature seems as low as ever. Admired/adored by a few, but largely neglected by the larger punk community---even by the record collectors it seems. Which is really a shame, and I can't offer any insight as to WHY that is (perhaps just because they are slow?) but I can say that it is certainly one of the best punk records of the 1980s, nay, all-time, and it still sounds amazing today.
I could heap praise at the album with adjectives like nihilistic, challenging, and dark...but the album doesn't really sound like a dark masterpiece that was carefully constructed punk norms. I've always felt the album was more a product of heroin-addicts in the punk scene. But even if their intention wasn't to destroy punk conventions, it's still a masterpiece. Listen to the side 1 ending "(I Saw You) Shine" as it plods through 9-minutes. Drugged-out nihilism is in full swing. Will Shatter's lead vocals are hypnotic. And while often it's just that slow, eerie delivery that makes the album amazing, the lyrics are absolutely punk anthem writing 101.
"Ever" is the perfect call to arms for the band, with Bruce Loose screaming "Ever do nothing, and gain nothing from it?" among many other perfect lyrics. "Living For the Depression" similarly is of an anthemic nature, and the fastest/shortest song on the album. Its lyrics take to task the white-collar man of the 80s-taking vacations, shopping in supermarkets. It might seem trivial now, but the anger the song is delivered with is perfect. "Shed No Tears" similarly points out the contradictions of life, and "Life" is probably the most anthemic with a sing-along chorus.
But again, all of this catchiness is delivered in the most messed-up way possible. The guitars rarely play anything discernible, really just muddled noise. The bass and steady drum rhythms carry the melody of every song. It's an album so anti-punk that it's punk (or something)? The mixture of catchy melodies, disgusting instrumentation and nihilistic, slow songs somehow combine to make this one of the best albums in punk history.

Friday, July 8, 2011

#32 The Fall-Hex Enduction Hour


Artist: The Fall
Album: Hex Endunction Hour
Label: Kamera
Year: 1982

Woo I haven't opened this in two weeks since I started this review.
Oh man. So few albums so perfectly encapsulate everything perfect about a band. Most of my favorite records by my favorite artists are, for lack of a better word, merely them hitting a perfect moment. Exile is almost great because it takes what the Stones were best at and does it differently than they'd ever do it again. Sgt. Pepper, In A Silent Way and others (which will appear high on this list) are alone in their respective artist's canon. The Fall have no album like that, which sticks out for its different-ness. All of the band's work is pretty logically intertwined. But Hex Endunction Hour is perfect in that it works as one of those perfect albums that summarizes everything great about the band. Some Fall albums are more literary, some weirder, and some focus on rocking hard. Hex Endunction Hour manages to simultaneously be the band's most literate, focused, and forceful record.
As usual, the circumstances that worked for The Fall might not have worked for other bands. They were on a new label, Kamera Records. Most classic (and current) indie bands would probably love to be on Rough Trade Records, who released previous Fall work, but Mark E. Smith found the label stifling, as they insisted on lyrics that made sense, etc. Kamera, a label accustomed to heavy metal music, was all for the Fall doing what they wanted, as well as making the record an HOUR long and giving the band creative control without question. The group also elected to record three of the songs in Iceland, a less than friendly environment. Those sessions produced three of the band's greatest songs ever, the epic two-sided suite "Winter", "Iceland" (one of the group's darkest songs of this era) and the classic "Hip Priest." These three songs alone give a great "Fall overview" if you will: the former is a two chord riff over about...eight minutes with lyrics of a warped short-story variety. In "Iceland" we have one of their most repetitive riffs and minimal songs (which the next song, album closer "And This Day" turns on its head to be the same style, but incredibly bombastic) and the latter has MES pumping his own chest better than ever ("They can imitate, but I teach, cus I'm the Hip Priest!").
The band is built on repetition, and this might be the most repetitious of all their work. Most of their songs at least have a bridge or SOMETHING that breaks up the monotony, but not this one. Actually, except for the bridges in "Hip Priest" and "Just Step S'Ways" I can think of no instance where the core of a song is broken up in any way.
Lyrically the album is also genius. "The Classical" sets the scene perfectly, with "There are 12 people in the world/the rest are paste" and "I just left the hotel amnesia, I had to go there--where it is I can't remember..." Short story-esque lyrics also abound (the aforementioned "Winter" for example), but Mark E Smith's delivery is as caustic as ever. And lyrically, this is really the beginning of the end for lines like the above. Once Brix Smith joined the band/they join Beggars and turn to a less chaotic sound, the lyrics, while retaining greatness, are totally different. Gone is the young MES of old spewing forth beat honky tonk crazy poetry comic genius.
The band, unlike many others I praise here, are not known for their subtlety. From what I've read, MES seems to have understood how over-the-top Hex was, which led to the stripped-down tone of their next release, the mini-LP Room To Live. While what I've read primarily points to a feeling that Hex was overproduced, Room To Live sets the production tone for the relatively (compared to Hex) subdued sound they'd employ over the next year, before jumping to Beggars and really changing things up. Hex Endunction Hour is rare and brilliant in that it's a band on top of their game, who would then reinvent itself and reach equal highs again. But nothing of theirs is like Hex Endunction Hour, and as good as the albums are that were (and still are!) to come, nothing beats this record for the band.