Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Agitation Free-Malesch (1972)

Artist: Agitation Free
Album: Malesch
Label: Vertigo
Year: 1972

Agitation Free are one of those groups underrated/under-appreciated by people who like underrated music. Krautrock was a musical movement that was part of the German 1970s artistic renaissance, arguably the first major art movement in Germany after World War II. Groups as diverse as Can, Kraftwerk, Faust, Harmonia, and Ash Ra Tempel/AshRa fall under the genre's umbrella. Malesch is the group's first album, and it is a good primer on what the group could do, as well as what the genre as a whole could do.
The first side of the record, opening with "You Play With Us Today", is freewheeling but certainly not without form. The group uses Middle Eastern-inspired percussion, swirling organ, and pulsing bass to hold down the rhythm while distorted guitars improvise on top of it all. While the first three tracks are separate pieces, they are clearly part of one whole, and flows together.
Things pick up on side two. A little less "experimental" and "spacy" feeling, but the group comes together more to jam and it's a bit more cohesive. If one thing unites the wide variety of music that came from Krautrock's music, it's the repetition in the form, and the second half of the album is slow-building, really well-played, and feels great.
If there's one shortcoming when I hear this album, I know how much I prefer their next album, 2nd which I can't wait to hear next.

Cannonball Adderley-Mercy, Mercy, Mercy: Live At The Club (1966)

Artist: Cannonball Adderley
Album: Mercy, Mercy, Mercy: Live at The Club
Label: Capitol
Year: 1966

The liveliness and excitement and presence of this set is fantastic. Rather than the feel of something more avante-garde, blues-based, or even like a standard blowin' session, there is an "on-point" feel to every track here, with everyone firing on all cylinders playing their hearts out. A great live CD, that I wasn't expecting to enjoy as much as I did. Great set. I definitely need to check out more of his albums.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Cannonball Adderley-Somethin' Else (1958)

Artist: Cannonball Adderley
Album: Somethin' Else
Label: Blue Note
Year: 1958

Cannonball Adderley's 1958 record Somethin' Else features Miles Davis on trumpet and Art Blakey on drums. The quintet is rounded out by Hank Jones on piano and Sam Jones (relation?) on bass. It's a bit perplexing to me how to approach jazz reviews. There are many jazz albums I can tell a story about and have strong feelings of. A moment or song or performance which often sticks out to me. However, there are likely just as many albums that I've listened to two or three times, and can tell you nothing about. Why is Somethin' Else a Blue Note classic? I really can't say. The best I can do is talk a little about why I like it. Sorry, but a lot of the jazz reviews will be like this.
One of the online acquaintances I used to talk to while getting into jazz (about a decade ago) one time made a disparaging remark to me about Blue Note albums in general, calling them just a "blowing session." Sure enough, there is far less of a personal identity among Freddie Hubbard and Sonny Clark's Blue Note output. As fantastic as it is, I'd be lying if I said one record blew others out of the way. I'd be lying further still if I said those records seemed as well-thought out and carefully orhcestrated as Mingus Ah Um or Kind Of Blue. That's not why I like them, though. The sound of a trio, quartet, quintet or what have you, just going to town on a tune, listening to the thunder of the drums or the way the keys dance around the tune is great. As I get dangerously close to becoming somewhat concerned about audiophile-quality recordings, the sound of a tenor sax or crash of a drum that feels like it's in the room resonates with me.
Somethin' Else is a respected classic, and certainly Adderley's earliest classic. What it really reminded me of, tonight, was the Miles Davis album from a year earlier, Round About Midnight. Davis features strongly in the opening tune, "Autumn Leaves," and his playing is quiet and informs the rest of the record. I'm not sure if the term "blowin' session" applies to all "generic" Blue Note dates, but it's always made me think of something like Horace Silver records, which swing and move quickly. This album, on the other hand, is slow and peaceful. "Autumn Leaves", and especially "Love For Sale" and "Sometin' Else" start slow, and before you know it, build into a larger, more forceful sound. Davis' influence is certainly on this record, and his composition fingerprints are littered throughout.
Bonus track "Alison's Uncle" is a much more standard hard bop tune. The album proper, however, is lush, peaceful, and moving. Art Blakey may be the true standout as well. For someone so renowned for his powerful drumming, he lends an extremely light touch to most of the album, never overplaying. A beautiful record, and that's all I have to say.

Ryan Adams-Country Punk (2001?)

Artist: Ryan Adams
Album: Country Punk
Label: Bootleg
Year: 2001

This bootleg is from a live, solo show Adams did in roughly 2001*ish. The only songs with names come from Heartbreaker and the others are listed as new. It is a relatively unremarkable set. While the songs are mostly great, they are all played in a somber tone. More than anything, the bootleg illustrates just how important the arrangements and orchestration are to making Heartbreaker such a fantastic record. The set goes on a bit too long, and Adams' banter with the crowd is cringe-worthy and drunk.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Ryan Adams-Heartbreaker (2000)

Artist: Ryan Adams
Album: Heartbreaker
Label: Bloodshot
Year: 2000

This album has been with me for a long time, nearly 14 years. Ryan Adams was one of the first artists of my age and my generation I got into as a high schooler. This was in the aftermath of The Strokes debut album, and the beginning of the retro-rock revival of the early aughts. As "New York, New York" played constantly on VH1 after 9/11, Adams was an easy artist to get into and be drawn to, especially after some ill-advised years as a nu-metal fan. VH1 actually used to have music writing on the website, and I remember a columnist used to fawn over Adams, comparing him to Springsteen. I continued to follow Adams for a few years, through either Love Is Hell, Part 1 or Rock and Roll, whichever came first. By that time, I had been sold that Adams had made his best album since Heartbreaker so many times (and lied to), I was over him.
Because the truth is that Adams peaked with this album, his solo debut. Recorded after (or perhaps during) the breakup of his band Whiskeytown, it is incredibly diverse, honest, and well-recorded. What we have are 14 fantastic songs. I can only speculate as to the manner in which they were authored, but this is certainly not the most cohesive album. The songs are very diverse and a bit disorganized. There is no grand finale to the record, and it is not perfectly sequenced. Rather, it sounds like 14 songs by someone who is about to strike out on his own, and is just writing his heart out. The music press always liked to reproduce the idea that Adams had hundreds of un-recorded songs written, and I wouldn't be surprised if there was truth to it. But the songs he released after this album just aren't as good.
Let's talk about those songs. "AMY" is intimate and haunting. The loud, low-end drum that accompanies the break between verses is the best example I can give of how well-constructed these songs are. Every moment is pitch perfect. Every note played belongs. Many of the songs are predominantly Ryan on acoustic guitar, with accompaniment from either a sparse drum track, strings, or a haunting female vocalist (including Emmylou Harris on "Oh My Sweet Carolina). Songs like "To Be The One" and "In My Time Need Of Need" aren't particularly anthemic, but Adams is comfortable and makes a big splash, no matter how quiet he gets. And songs like "Come Pick Me Up" and "Why Do they Leave" are among the best songs ever recorded for the "alt-country" genre.
The quietness of the album deserves its own section. The production is pitch perfect. The rock songs have so much space, and a great sound. And songs where it's just Adams and his guitar are given space as well. This isn't something I would've noticed, spending most of my time listening to this album on a discman or in the car, but it's certainly a beautiful thing to hear now as I revisit the album.
Adams sounds hungry on this album. Like he's got something to prove. Perhaps the worst thing to happen to him was the recognition and accolades he received after this album, and especially his next, Gold. The albums that I've heard afterwards sound like generic, slightly above-average singer songwriter music, that reflect none of the earnestness and care on Heartbreaker. But I'll try to be an optimist. It isn't a shame that this is the best Adams gave us. It remains, 15(!) years later, a wonderful document of his talent. Every song is great and this album is one I am glad I never parted with.