Friday, August 26, 2011
Artist: Charles Mingus
Album: The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady
As Mingus's career progressed, his scope and the overall volume of his work (in terms of just LARGE-ness) constantly increased. Earlier works like The Clown featured relatively small groups. Though albums like Blues And Roots and Mingus Plays Piano would be examples of him returning to his "roots," there is a definite upswing of players on his albums throughout his career (culminating in the likes of Let My Children Hear My Music). His 1963 album, composed as a ballet, is one of the high points of his career and in all of jazz history as well.
No other Mingus album, and certainly few in jazz history, benefit from sequencing and playing-off-itself in a way this does. It's strength lies in the fact that while a pretty sizable ensemble performed the album, and while it's scope is pretty large and ambitious, it still feels intensely personal. Volume in records tends to reduce intimacy, but that's not the case here.
The players on the album are out of this world: Jaki Byard, Richard Williams, along with Mingus are just a few of the notable players. In addition, Jay Berliner's acoustic guitar work is possibly the highlight of the record, personally.
I know this isn't a large review, or even that detailed. But it's a record whose magnificence must be experienced. While the whole thing is built around one theme, it never grows monotonous and constantly brings surprises. One of the finest records of the 1960s and a landmark jazz record.
Friday, August 19, 2011
Artist: Moby Grape
Album: Moby Grape
This one's a bit of a hard sell as a greatest album ever, but it deserves to be on the list by sheer quality alone. As I look ahead to the rest of my list, it's a mixture of a wide variety of albums, all linked by being pretty standard fodder for this sort of list. Moby Grape's first record is not a music or genre-defining record. It did not have a measurable change on the course of pop music. And every subsequent release by the group falls under the category of disappointing. But for just under thirty minutes and across thirteen songs, the first Moby Grape album speaks volumes about the possibilities of group composition, group playing, group contribution, and amazing melodies. That the album has retained its popularity from just being on the fringe of the Summer Of Love is a testament to just how great it is.
Moby Grape didn't come out of nowhere with this record. Skip Spence was Jefferson Airplane's original drummer, and Matthew Katz had also been associated with the group. The rest of the quintet also had spent time in various minor bands up and down the west coast. There is a guitar trio on the album, and every band member sings and contributed to songwriting duties. Yet while in many cases this could prove disastrous or totally unnecessary, Moby Grape pull it off exceptionally. "Hey Grandma" is an immediate garage rock classic, and sets the tone for the album with soaring melodies, intricate and wonderful, but never overly complex, guitar work. The upbeat songs on the album that follow are absolutely killer, with side 1 chocked full of should've been hits, including "Fall On You" and "Come In The Morning." The classic "Omaha," penned by Spence was the only song to crack the top 40 (but more about that in a moment).
Still, the second side reveals an even greater songwriting prowess than the first. Bluegrass is touched on with "Ain't No Use" while the slow "Someday" and ominous "Sitting By A Window" really showcase their abilities. It's shocking to see that some of the songs on this side clock in at WELL-UNDER the 2-minute mark.
At under thirty minutes the record is an absolute breeze, and the amount of superb melody and harmony packed into it is superb. In an era that saw the excesses of rock music begin (for better or for worse) with concept albums and jams, this record remains as fresh and enjoyable as when it was released. Of course, it could not last. Columbia Records released seven singles simultaneously, thus ensuring none would chart, and only "Omaha" did. Their next record featured a record full of jams, which is the opposite of their strength. They eventually (not sure exactly which) would release a record that required the speed of the turntable to be adjusted mid-side. These gimmicks and poor songs are so sad when compared to the majesty of this debut record. Only available in a poor CD edition after the Sundazed reissue quickly went out of print, you'd be well-served to pick it up on vinyl. A real underrated gem.
Thursday, August 18, 2011
Artist: Stevie Wonder
For his third masterpiece in two years, and the middle album to his perfect string of five albums (from Music Of My Mind through Songs In The Key Of Life) Stevie Wonder created the most political album of his career. In a lot of ways, Innervisions shares much in common with the other albums he created during this period of his career, certainly dominating much of the instrumentation as well as creating an incredibly diverse album stylistically. The album features, like the rest of those albums also, some sure-fire hits, some legendary tracks of his, and some of his most underrated work. What separates Innervisions from the others is its perfect flow and its topicality. While I do personally enjoy the songs more on this release than any of his others, I believe that it stands out so significantly in content also is what makes it his definitive release.
It would be unfair and a bit disingenuous to find any real fault with the other albums Wonder created during this period. I wouldn't call this a critique...and I'm sure this idea could be challenged, but I've never found there to be an extraordinary amount of clear organization to his albums of the era (aside from perhaps the first and last songs--the singles, really). John Bush makes this point in his review of Fulfillingness' First Finale on allmusic, saying that it feels more like a collection of songs than a whole unique album. While Songs In The Key Of Life sets out to be a concept album built around an incredibly diverse amount of musical, social, and political ideas, that isn't as evident on its predecessors. Therefore, the clear political nature of Innervisions allows it to stand out.
Stevie's more-politically themed songs here vary extraordinarily. They are important because just as the Civil War didn't end slavery, the end of Jim Crow laws and the Black Power movement didn't exactly end racism, either. The epic, album-stealing "Living For The City" paints a perfect portrait of this, describing the hard-ships of black families. Why should they be the ones who find themselves most often in horrible living situations with the fewest opportunities for employment? Though this album is another showcase for Stevie's lyrical talents, they pale in comparison to his music. The keyboard on the song is magnificent, and the way it builds in tension and emotion throughout the song, backed with excellent backing singers, makes it a real treat. It flows into my favorite song on the album, "Golden Lady," with deceptive lyrics that could be mistaken for Stevie pining for another girl, but really underscore the dangers of materialism (notice how the natural elements in the song are attainable, but the gold is where Stevie would only LIKE to go).
The rest of the album continues this trend brilliantly. "Too High" opens the album, but the songs I just discussed are tracks three and four. At the point where many great albums go on auto-pilot after a killer intro, Innervisions achieves the opposite. After side one ends, we get the hit "Higher Ground", and the second side continues the funky "Jesus Children of America", the beautiful "All In Love Is Fair", another hit with the Latin-themed "Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing" and the Nixon-themed sendoff of "He's Misstra Know It All."
Throughout the whole album Stevie is as gorgeous and generous with his melodies as ever. No long-song overstays its welcome, and the range of emotions on display is magnificent. Innervisions remains one of the finest R&B albums of all-time and a definitive statement from one of music's giants.
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Artist: The Kinks
Album: The Village Green Preservation Society
We enter the last quarter of the list with an album that, while I have nobody to blame but myself...I guess I just can't believe it's not higher. I suppose that'll be the case with all of these albums from here on out, but Village Green is certainly one of the more understated and underrated moments of genius from a band already acknowledged by many as rock's most underrated. Though their quietest album, it comes right in the middle of an era of prolific genius from the group, that also saw the creation of six other magnificent albums and countless singles as well. It is tame in tone, but often nasty in lyrical content. While Ray Davies expresses a longing for simpler times, it's always with a hint of sarcasm, pointed both towards the preposterous nature of longing for the past, and certainly those around him that can't let it go.
Much has been made about the album's place as a counterpoint to other pop music of the era. The Kinks in 1968 were definitively un-hip: they were in the midst of a ban from touring in America, their last hit had really been in 1966 ("Sunny Afternoon") and their previous album, though well-reviewed, was incredibly calm and tame (compared to the burgeoning hippie movement, at least). Indeed, if anything, Village Green is an even more extreme version of Something Else. While that album introduced the tameness that would inhibit their popularity for a few years, it still had some genuine pop hits. Indeed, songs like "Waterloo Sunset", "Harry Rag" and "Tin Soldier Man" and "David Watts", even, were pretty logical extensions of earlier songs and singles that had celebrated in an almost silly way the small town follies of England. This is something that the group had begun with "Well-Respected Man" years earlier. From this point on, their lyrical themes would bear little resemblance to most of their peers, but at least through Face To Face there was some significant loud, rock and roll-ness to their songs. Something Else was, like its predecessor, a general account of a town, almost. The events, emotions, and people portrayed could've been anybody. This was not the case with Village Green.
By contrast, the band's 1968 album featured all songs related to a "Village Green." Rather than songs about a hodge-podge of various happenings that have no real geographic or chronological theme, the band creates an album with songs linked by this location. In some instances, like "Big Sky" and "Animal Farm" and "Sitting By The Riverside," as well as the two title tracks, this is achieved through lyrical content that could only take place in a town like Village Green. In other instances, the only real link is the consistent and mostly-acoustic instrumentation. "All Of My Friends Were There" for example, an early precursor to Davies' theatrical obsession of the 1970s, gives off a feel that all of the characters you've been hearing about in the early songs are the ones that were there to see this failed performance. If Something Else has an achilles heel, it's that the style of the songs is almost too-diverse, and it's really their only album of the era that this can be said about. Yet apart from a linkage in styles, the Kinks already were capable of and celebrating-while-mocking their own background, it's really The Kinks sense of humor and attitude towards the content of the album that makes it so special.
The Kinks lyrics must not be taken at face-value. As mentioned earlier, "Well-Respected Man" is a pretty good precursor to the band's lyrical themes for the rest of the decade. After early singles like "Tired of Waiting For You" and "You Really Got Me" which were, lyrically at least, nothing exceptional compared to what would come, this song hints at their sardonic tone they would use consistently. The "Well Respected Man" in the song ends up being the butt of the joke, as his regiment and routine really aren't to be celebrated. It's even more clear the Kinks treat these people with sarcasm on a song like "Mr. Pleasant" where the man who has done everything right and done what he was supposed to do is beating cheated on. These songs take to task a culture of people who do nothing but what they are supposed to do, which is its own downfall. Looking at Village Green, it may seem like "People Take Pictures of Each Other" is a tale about looking at old pictures and missing the good old days, but I don't think that's the case. The narrator asks that you "show me no more, please," indicating that he misses the days the world was young and free, which it isn't anymore. The next verse, singing "People take pictures of each other, and the moment to last them forever, of the time when they mattered to someone" shows the absolute fraud that is taking all of those photos, and reminiscing about the good old days. The good old days were really lies, and photos have the ability to accentuate the fakeness of the past, not happy nostalgia. "Picture Book" earlier in the album does the same, with "Picture book, of people with each other, to prove they love each other, a long time ago." These lines all prove, to me at least, that the themes on this album are not of a time that should be missed. One begins to think in "Village Green" when Ray sings that he will return there and drink tea with Daisy, it's during a different moment. If the narrator of the picture songs is realizing or experiencing the lies that the photos bring, then in "Village Green" he's under the false spell of nostalgia again. In songs like "Do You Remember Walter" and "Big Sky" this loss of innocence and youth hinted at is again in place. Both of those songs ALSO feature lyrics about freedom ("do you remember how we said we'd fight the world so we'd be free" and "one day, we'll be free, we won't care, just you wait and see," respectively). Ray is now old enough to know it was all a lie. To sum it up: as great as it is to think the world is at your fingertips and everyone around you is wonderful when you are young and small, the world has a way of crushing your dreams. When you return home, you know the truth, but the hardest part is watching a new generation live out the lies you once believed in. In yearns for nostalgia, Ray Davies doesn't want to "go home" he wants to go back to his past and have something better to believe in, as foolish as it may really be.
So really, it's an incredibly dark album. That it retains its pop sensibilities is another monumental achievement for the band. Beautiful string arrangements on "Animal Farm" make it the album's centerpiece. The only two really electric songs on the album, "Last Of The Steam Powered Trains" and "Wicked Annabella" retain a subdued charm that balances out the power of the themes (a steam powered train and a wicked woman). The steam-powered train is the perfect metaphor for the album, which at one moment is the most powerful vehicle we have, but in its current incarnation, pales in comparison to its modern peers. One more song worth pointing out is "Johnny Thunder" which is this album's "David Watts." But if the latter represented the feeling a peer has when viewing the big man on campus (I would not say there's much irony in that song--it's really a celebration of that feeling when one is a youth), "Johnny Thunder" is from a more adult perspective. The people of the town can't get through to him or bring him down...which implies they must be trying to do so. This big shot needs to come down from the clouds and be grounded. And again, that idea of freedom is here, as Johnny has vowed to never end up like the rest.
The album is just perfect in every way. It has a back-story that's interesting, and after being finished at 12-tracks, Davies had it pulled, and it eventually was its final 15. This added to some degree of its commercial failure--that is--not having a well-planned out release/marketing schedule. The group would continue to make more well-organized concept albums for years to come, and still had some great albums ahead of them. But their high point, and their last album as the original quartet with bassist Peter Quaife, was this one. An essential album that requires significant attention.
Artist: James Brown
Album: Live At The Apollo
The original Apollo concert album for James Brown was recorded in 1962. While not the funk legend he would eventually become, as evidenced by the introduction at the beginning of the album, he was already known as "the hardest working man in show business" "Mr. Dynamite" and other nicknames. As magnificent as Brown's output for the next fifteen or so years would continue to be, the album remains a testament to the greatness of an artist who still has so much to prove. While the greats' greatest work can requires more thought than the raw energy that marks their earliest works (think the early Beatles, Who, and Kinks versus their best albums later on in their career), they often have an energy in their early work which can't be replicated...likely due to the amazement and excitement they still feel early on. Not to say there isn't an energy in the later recordings or some deep thought in these group's early records...but can you think of a Beatles song more energetic than "Twist And Shout"? James Brown was still at the dawn of a brilliant career during this recording, but for sheer enjoyment and energy, nothing he ever did would top it.
The album is barely more than thirty minutes in length. With the exception of the 10-minute long "Lost Someone" each song (including the many played in a seven or so minute medley) goes by at a ridiculously fast-pace and with incredible energy. From the opening guitar work of "I'll Go Crazy" through the wonderful "Try Me" (which elicits more than its fair share of howls from the ladies in the crowd) through a cover of The "5" Royales "Think" into "I Don't Mind"...the album starts off with a frenzy. Two of those songs are played at a slower pace, but you can hardly tell considering the energy with which they are pulled off. While "Lost Someone" cools the album off before an explosive medley and the closing "Night Train," it is imperative to accent HOW energetic this record is.
There's really no live album like this one. The likes of At Folsom Prison are often, rightfully so, praised for their atmosphere. But it still pales next to Live At The Apollo. The Apollo is not the world's most intimate venue, yet when Brown screams "I GOT SOMETHING I WANT TO SAY RIGHT NOW" you get to hear his bandmate egg him on. The girls that scream at random moments throughout "Lost Someone" frequently bring out laughter and other emotions from the crowd. James Brown is the center of the show, but everyone is very clearly involved. The band is absolutely tight and magnificent. The album goes by in a fury, and Brown would go onto define a genre and in many other ways an era, but his finest moment is still this one.
Monday, August 15, 2011
Artist: The Band
Album: Music From Big Pink
Oh man three weeks have gone by? Busy at work, my apologies. Today I will discuss album #27 on my list, Music From Big Pink the debut album by The Band. The group was originally known as The Hawks, and were a backing band to 1950s rock and roller Ronnie Hawkins. The original incarnation of the group changed dramatically between their inception and split from Hawkins in 1963. Eventually, the group wound up backing Bob Dylan, touring with him during his Blonde On Blonde tour, and shacked up with him to make what became known as The Basement Tapes in Woodstock, NY in the late-1960s. Perhaps being associated so closely with Dylan during these years helped add to and influence their mythology. The group adopted the moniker of The Band at least partially to counteract rock-stardom...wanting to remain anonymous as people and just be known as a band unit (as opposed to say, how each Beatle was unique: George the "Quiet One", etc. It's sincerely tragically ironic that the group's decline came with certain rock-star tendencies like drug-use among other things).
Though selling only modestly (the record has still, to this day, never reached platinum status), the album was a landmark upon its release. The story I know is that Dylan played it for Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton (among others) simultaneously, and it blew them all away. It's certainly one of the best-paced records, and achieves the rare feat of allowing each song to flow perfectly into the next but they also all stand out very well on their own. The album's songs exemplify everything that was great about the band. "Tears Of Rage" is a subtle, slow and incredibly subdued song...but at five and a half minutes, it's a bizarre choice for an opener. And for a song from 1968 to be played with such folk-y instrumentation...at the height of psychedelia...their music was truly radical. The songs never celebrated mind-expansion or rebellion, but a return to simpler time...not unlike being The Kinks, perhaps, of the North American musical landscape.
The rest of side one flows brilliantly, as three quiet and plaintive songs follow the opener, which leads to the colossal "The Weight" one of their and one of the most well-known songs of the era. It's fame and quality are without question at this point, and few songs are more well-justified as being so well revered. While the instrumentation and topicality of the song might not reflect the era, it really actually speaks to the generation in an elegant way, and it's lyrics exhibit a confusion and fear that only such veterans of the music scene like The Band would really be able to put into words so well.
Side two is just as strong, if not better than the first side. Opening with the relaxed "We Can Talk," which showcases the ensemble-type playing/singing that goes throughout the album (at any point, it feels like anybody could take the lead or take vocal duties), we get a superb cover of "Long Black Veil" and the downright rocking and evil "Chest Fever" with some of the best organ/keyboard playing the band would ever exhibit. The album ends with a similar note to how it began, and if "Tears of Rage" works as an overture, "I Shall Be Released" certainly feels and sounds like a perfect finale.
The group would make one more undisputed masterpiece before their 1970s output would be hit and miss. But this, their first record, is still an achievement and a sound unmatched by any of their peers then and any release since. A truly superb record that belongs in every household.