Monday, June 29, 2009

METALLICA



RIDE THE LIGHTNING

Nothing summons memories of fall 1984 more quickly for me than this album. Having a morning cig with this blasting through the halls of my high school seems a lifetime away, though. I had bought the cassette while on a trip with my parents to settle the estate of a family member. Kitchener, Ontario seemed to have the right population of metal-heads, so there was no problem locating a record store that stocked the precious item. The place smelled like leather and hash oil. Found Anvil's first release that day, too.

I digress.

This is a response to a long overdue request by a great friend and fellow practitioner of acoustic metal and aggressive folk.

Topping themselves with an incredible second disc was a coup for Metallica, who were gaining a large, appreciative fan base without the assistance of gratuitous airplay on radio or MTV. Monstrous as a live act, they breathed new life into the genre of speed metal. Overnight, many bands stopped in their tracks to listen in awe, then quickly revise their whole approach to the form. This revolution was still an underground party at the time, yet to be fully understood by those who were enthralled by the mindless confections that clogged co-axial cables leading to most every TV in the eighties.

James Hetfield just wasn't much of a dancer.

If you liked your "heavy" performed at the speed of light, then there was no better opener than "Fight Fire With Fire". I remember trying to count it off while marveling at the intensity of Lars Ulrich's playing. For this alone, he deserves that gold plated shark tank bar set up next to his pool. The guitar tones achieved by Hammet and Hetfield were purely violent.

Cliff Burton demonstrated that it wasn't necessary to merely hold down the bottom end. The memorable opening bass figure that explodes into the heavy, Jaws-like "For Whom the Bell Tolls" is a masterstroke. Along with "Creeping Death", this remains an all time, personal favorite out of everything they thrashed.



In their youth, "we're gonna slow things down a little now" meant "Fade to Black" which starts out like a song that your parents might approve of, gets slightly darker and ends with a riff that's more evil than a bus load of school kids careening off of a cliff. Razor sharp triplets break off into a harmonized finale, complete with shredding into the fade. The thrash equivalent of "Stairway to Heaven"? I think so.



Unlike some of their contemporaries, they managed to write epic, multi part themes that were focused enough to keep you interested. Hetfield's singing had a definite bite, though he never dropped melody in favor of the "Cookie Monster" vocal style. This would ultimately widen their fan base, drawing in serious musos with the casual listeners. Twin leads, tightrope act rhythm section, and killer tunes all performed with precision. It just didn't get any better than this.

Ending with a killer instrumental ("The Call of Ktulu"), their masterpiece goes out in style with not one minute of filler to be found. Taking chances at every turn, Ride the Lightning is the work of four musicians who are beyond inspired, redesigning the blueprint laid down by their predecessors. Subsequent output would not come up to the standards set here (Master of Puppets comes closest). Cliff Burton's death left a huge void as well. By the mid nineties, they would be reduced to near parody, creatively, though they still remained a force on stage.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

HUMBLE PIE



Fresh from his divorce from Small Faces in late 1968, Steve Marriot joined forces with Peter Frampton, Greg Ridley and Jerry Shirley. Humble Pie in this incarnation was an incredible live act. Here are two sides of the group, with the second clip featuring a dynamite Yardbirds cover. Marriot was the epitome of brilliance in just about every department. Frampton's style provided an ideal balance.

Words really aren't necessary from this point on.





Friday, June 26, 2009

ELTON JOHN



MADMAN ACROSS THE WATER

Already established as an incredibly productive and talented song writers, the John (music)/Taupin (lyrics) collaboration crafted a fairly downbeat, introspective fourth record. Three of these selections would go on to receive gratuitous airplay over time, though none were hits upon release. No matter, this is an exceptional album that had a minor-key feel which would not be duplicated in subsequent projects.

Before larger than life stage costumes and wretched excess propelled Elton John into mass consciousness as a huge star, there was a non-descript working musician who gave voice to quietly beautiful material. Much of what comprises this set falls into that category. "Tiny Dancer" opens strong, creating subtle tension by extending the verse in a manner that builds expectation in the listener's brain, only to dash it by not jumping to the chorus in a traditional manner. More effective still is the way the pace slows, just a touch, before breaking out of the straightjacket with the falsetto driven hook. Memorably rendered here in 1971.



In a powerful bit of sequencing, "Levon" appears as the next track. Blessed with another ear catching tune, the lyrics are somewhat unfathomable, though they don't detract from the strength of the composition. The one-two punch of these songs is driven home by the emotive vocal performances, tasteful playing and clean production, courtesy of the late, great Gus Dudgeon.



Everything you'll encounter here is engaging, though a slight sadness permeates the material. Dramatic string arrangements shade the title track, which opens with the sharp, stop-start figure on acoustic guitar, punctuated by harmonics, which is then doubled on piano. Can't heap enough praise on an idea that almost fades out mid-song, only to come roaring back with a riff that manages to remain quite hypnotic (as opposed to boring). My vote for the best of the pack, which is saying something considering the high quality maintained throughout.



Interesting musical interludes abound, with a smattering of proggy synth dropped into "Rotten Peaches" , the predominant mandolin touches of the road weary "Holiday Inn" and the gospel flavored backing vocals that take "All the Nasties" to an epic end. "Goodbye" closes the set with an aural question mark. Achingly brief, inscrutable and decorated with strings, Elton delivers a typically passionate vocal.

Madman Across the Water, though uniformly excellent, is not distinguished by flashy, hard rocking fare. The mood is much more in step with the softer tones of the singer-songwriter movement that was quickly gaining a foothold in the marketplace of the early seventies. Despite this, there is still a sense that the artist is treading experimental ground in places. Highly enjoyable on every level, it is fairly underrated when compared with what would soon follow.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

MICHAEL JACKSON

Caught the bad news on the wire. Already, the same phony pack of vultures that picked him apart in life are preparing tributes. Worse still, tasteless individuals have posted jokes in response to the announcement.

Just to dispense with hypocrisy, I was not a huge fan, though I was well aware of his talent. My son, on the other hand, loves all of the songs on "Thriller", which he would request immediately whenever we took him to visit with my sister. Here he is, grooving to MJ about a year ago.



I also had a flashback to the excitement of that same sister dancing around the living room and screaming when she won tickets through a radio contest to see the Jackson's "Victory Tour" in Toronto, way back in the fall of 1984.

His passing will doubtlessly trigger waves of shock, renewed interest in his music and the dreaded, endless symposiums on his personal life from all areas of the media. I'll just keep in mind that he was a man with a family, who will miss him terribly. I hope that the public will display a modicum of respect and allow those close to him the privacy to grieve his loss.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

HAPPY FATHER'S DAY

My son came up to me this morning, patted my arm and said, "Good little Daddy." For a two year old, he is fairly wise.

The roles we play in each others lives will shift as he finds his independence. I hope that he always manages to find time for the "old man".

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

CROSBY STILLS AND NASH



CSN DEMOS

First off, I would like to extend my thanks to Barbara (aka Layla) at http://laylasclassicrock.blogspot.com/ for her thoughtfulness in forwarding this CD along to me. Her blog has an incredible following as she is very passionate about her subject matter, always informative and extremely generous in her support of fellow bloggers and music lovers. Very kind gesture and much appreciated.

The familiar voices of Crosby and Nash were the ones that I first heard in the late 70's via my dad's "Crosby/Nash Live" album. Still have it, 30 + years later , worn and bearing the scars of repeated needle applications. At that time, my favorite tunes were "Immigration Man" and "Deja Vu", which led me to discover the missing member of the "law firm", Stephen Stills. When a neighbor taped "4 Way Street" for me, I was hooked.

"Demos" at first glance presents songs that, for the most part, even the casual fan would know well.

Surprise.

With three exceptions, each selection is presented solely by it's writer. Arrangements are loose, with Crosby turning in very rich, soulful performances of "Almost Cut My Hair" and "Deja Vu", his 12 string filling the empty spaces perfectly. I would nominate the former tune as the stand out track, besting the official version by a mile. Less really can be more. "Long Time Gone" is radically different in feel and tempo, bearing only slight resemblance to how it appeared on the first CSN record.

Crosby's contributions were always the least conventional, bringing a more adventurous approach to the table. Despite the personal battles he would later wage, his intelligence and talent have always earned the respect of his peers. Just ask Graham Nash.

David Crosby - Guinevere


Nash offers his own brand of melodic pop. "Be Yourself" and "Chicago" are definite highlights. The trio combine their voices once here to lift his "Marakesh Express", which leads off this collection and holds up as a dynamite, catchy tune. Even without harmonic assistance, his work catches your ear instantly. I have always counted those distinctive high harmonies as his secret weapon, though he was fairly decent writer and multi-instrumentalist. Nash seems to be the one who was most grounded during the tumultuous periods that the group has endured over the years, including times of estrangement from Stephen Stills.



Dubbed early on as "Captain Manyhands", Stills was a virtual one man band on the initial CSN recordings. Possessing amazing dexterity on guitar, bass, keys and just about anything with strings, he tops his creations with dynamic, bluesy vocals. "Love the One You're With" provided him with a massive solo hit and is included here with an abbreviated "You Don't Have to Cry". "My Love is a Gentle Thing" is the least known gem and really should have been worked on a bit more (by the group) as the melody is uniformly excellent. Sitting in the director's chair has always worked well for Stills as he has been the driving force behind some of CSN's finest moments.

Check out his work with Manassas. Phenomenal stylistic range and work that puts him on a level of excellence. One of my favorite musicians.



"CSN Demos" is worthwhile for delivering absolutely different renderings of classics, mixed with a few that you may not have heard before. You will gain a new appreciation for the fully realized talents of each member.

Their 40th anniversary tour is currently taking them across the US and Europe. Currently, an album of covers is under construction, with Rick Rubin in the producer's chair.





Monday, June 15, 2009

JIM CROCE



About a week ago, I was playing guitar at a party and a small circle formed with people calling out for certain songs. I was floored when Jim Croce's name came up, as the majority of people in the group were fairly young. Later on, we collectively tried to name as many of his songs as we could remember.

There were quite a few.

Croce had recorded two discs in the sixties, though neither were successful. This set would be his first to see wider distribution on a larger label (ABC) with considerably more time and money going into production. The results were impressive.

Storytelling was a big part of Jim's brilliance as a writer, with the title track being one of his most memorable. Focusing on "Big Jim", a pool hustler whose intimidating size ensured that he could carry on with his games unchallenged, the clever turnaround comes when he is thrashed by an opponent ("Slim") who takes exception to being conned. The hook is irresistible.

Teaming with Maury Muehleisen, he had found an incredibly talented musician to provide delicate acoustic lead work and effective harmonies to enhance his music. Together they would weave brilliant lines, lifted by Croce's soulful and easy vocal mannerisms.



One thing that distinguished the Croce/Muehleisen sound was their ability to put across the material without recourse to electronic effects or studio manipulation. If the power went out, they could pull off their entire set without a hitch. Augmentation was present on the recorded versions, though they generally offered stripped down renditions of the songs in a live setting.

Sure hits ("You Don't Mess Around With Jim", "Operator" and "Time in a Bottle") have become radio staples in the intervening years, though it's the lesser known titles ("Photographs and Memories", "Box # 10", "New York's Not My Home") that demonstrate his gifts for consistency and sure melodic touch. His voice has a certain familiarity, almost as if an old friend is bringing a collection of poignant and funny stories to life. Armed with wit and an acoustic guitar, Croce built a huge following in a very short time in the wake of this release. It was no overnight success, as he had been toiling in obscurity for years prior to finding an audience.

In September of 1973, just as his popularity was reaching greater heights, both he and Muehleisen perished in an air crash. All of those classic songs, over three albums, had been produced in just two short years.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

BACK FROM FANTASY ISLAND

My better half, our little guy and I just returned from a trip to Cape Breton Island. Long drive, though it was worth every minute. Very relaxing oasis in the midst of a somewhat stressful time. Such is life.

This visit provided a proverbial open door to balance out the ones that have slammed shut recently, which is a plus.

Never a dull moment.