Saturday, February 28, 2015

PHYSICAL GRAFFITI 40 YEARS GONE



Changes fill my time, baby, that's alright with me
In the midst I think of you, and how it used to be


Anniversaries offer an opportunity for both celebration and reflection, with misty-eyed platitudes often overriding objectivity. Unpleasant memories safely tucked away, the gory details surrounding said occasion (whatever it may be) are often swept aside in a wave of toasts, tributes and trivia. February 24th, 2015 marked forty years since Physical Graffiti was made available to the Led Zeppelin faithful. Jimmy Page had been campaigning for the release of a double album since the sessions for their fourth disc. All was not well within the group dynamic, though the outside world remained oblivious to the fact that any feelings of rancour existed in the Led Zep camp at that time. Manager Peter Grant and the band had a fairly hostile attitude toward the press which guaranteed that virtually no inside information of any substance made its way into print or electronic media.

Let's take a quick look at events leading up to the completion of LZ's sixth record.

Plant-Throat surgery following their '73 tour which left him unable to speak for nearly a month. In recovery, he would lose some of his former ability to bounce notes into the stratosphere. He had also started to formulate a plan for solo work.

Page- Devoting time to personal business ventures, creation of a movie soundtrack (Lucifer Rising) and the launch of their new SwanSong label, while also drifting into abuse of harder substances.

Jones- Tiring of the pressures of an intensive tour schedule and mayhem behind the scenes, he tendered his resignation (though he fortunately had a change of heart) and started working with other artists, playing and producing.

Bonham-Still continued to hone his craft as a drummer, while also increasing his daily intake of alcohol and drugs, which lead to increasingly erratic/violent behaviour.

NEW MATERIAL

Initially, the quartet took a first pass at some tracking in late 1973, though the sessions quickly fell apart and were postponed until the new year. Eight tunes emerged from the work that was undertaken in opening months of 1974. These selections are uniformly excellent and would have made an incredibly tight set if they had been presented on their own. With no tour cycle planned for this calendar year, Zeppelin floated gently back to earth to enter a fallow period, during which time some further overdubbing was done on the most recent recordings. The fighting unit that had made their way around the world filling stadia, wrecking hotel rooms, fucking, drinking, smoking, snorting and playing some of the longest, most mind-blowing shows of that era would now down tools for the short term.

TREASURE TROVE

Uncertain that Jones would return to the fold, Page began sifting through the music that had been stashed aside since Led Zeppelin III. Seven additional pieces rescued from the cutting room floor would now be in the running order of the next grand statement, finally bringing his wish for a double set to fruition. Careful consideration was given to the mixes to ensure that all of the music had a uniform feel, which meant that the mastering process also took longer. It was important to balance the volume of material that had been captured over the course of the past few years with the new recordings. Originally intended for unveiling in fall of '74 to reap the benefit of pre-Christmas sales, the release was pushed out due to further tinkering with the master tapes and delays with cover design.

You may learn more about the construction/inspiration of that iconic sleeve here

With an upcoming tour schedule looming and no new product in stores, the four musicians had to regroup (Jones now back in) for some hasty rehearsals and learn how to be Led Zeppelin again. Reports from the initial dates were not great. Plant was ill and losing his voice, while the others struggled to shake off the rust that had accumulated in the year and a half spent off stage. By the time that their new offering was available for purchase, they were two months into the '75 tour and beginning to fire on all cylinders once again.

APOTHEOSIS

All of their finest elements as composers and multi-faceted musicians coalesce on Physical Graffiti. Free from the confines of a single disc format, there are several long form tracks that virtually swallow needle time over four sides of vinyl, the centrepiece being "Kashmir". Speaking of the black circle, the first half of this staggering listen is comprised of six uncompromising slabs of melodic hard rock and blues, all filtered through the tasteful lens of world class chops playing. "Custard Pie" leads the charge with a simple, effective riff and Bonham's deep pocket groove. The lyrics are an amalgam of several Delta Blues paeans to the joys of oral sex, deliberately slurred by Plant and topped with red hot harmonica blasts. Cribbing from Sleepy John Estes, Bukka White and Blind Boy Fuller, this would be another overt dip into the well of lyrics created decades earlier in the fabled American south by these innovators. While points get subtracted for neglecting to give credit where it should have been due, the instrumental sparks fly as Page leans hard into a wah-wahed solo. Heralded by Bonham's bass foot and high hat accents, "The Rover" offers a sample platter of guitar motifs from Page and an exhortation to get together and see ourselves as citizens of the planet. Plant bemoans the way we treat mother Earth and intimates that things would improve "if we could just join hands". Hippy idealism aside, the remaining time from here until the runout grooves is taken up by a devastating new take on an old theme. Essentially a slide guitar fuelled monster, propelled by Bonham's explosive fills, "In My Time of Dying" is a gripping 11 minute feast for musos. Though his parts are not as flashy in the mix, John Paul Jones burns on the fretless bass, while Robert adapts "Jesus goin' a-make up my dyin' bed" from the mists of traditional gospel as it was imagined by performers who dutifully interpreted Psalms 41:3 "The Lord will strengthen him upon the bed of languishing, thou wilt make all his bed in his sickness".

No words do justice to masterful delivery.



From the dark comes Satan's daughter...

"Houses of the Holy" leads off the second side in style. Wonderfully tight and punchy with typically slick runs from Page, it curiously did not make it on to the previous album which bore its title. Similarly, "The Rover" met the same fate. It is here that the erudite listener will find the delta (not in the Mississippi sense) between Plant's singing voice pre and post surgery. While he still possessed great pipes, the top part of his range never really fully returned. Anything done before 1973 features him reaching noticably higher notes, while vocal takes from 1974 onward contain more gravel in the delivery and are scaled back by comparison.

Never cared for "Trampled Underfoot", which wears out its welcome quickly and is fairly disposable.

Strong melodic themes are very much in evidence throughout, though the highlight of this monster outing is "Kashmir". Built in rehearsal with Bonham, Page apparently had much of this rotating motif worked out in his home studio before uncorking it and letting it breathe with the group. Hypnotic in execution, it succeeds by virtue of the sheer tension that is built by the stalwart, bricklayer hands of Bonham, which keep the ship steady and reverberates in your sternum. Jones adds beautifully decorative touches (and likely contributed to the orchestral arrangement) while the lyrics far outstrip anything that had been attempted up to this point, showing great maturity in terms of subject matter. It is a high watermark in a stellar catalog, rich in imagination and should have been placed last here, as it destroys all that comes after.

Oh, pilot of the storm who leaves no trace, like thoughts inside a dream

INTERMISSION

Jolted as the arm skids out of the fade into the run-out grooves, it's time to get up, empty that ashtray, grab another beverage, divvy up that weed you have left on the back of the die-cut cover and roll it up. Take a moment to recover from the first blast before you slide the second record out of its jacket and apply the stylus...a steadily rising drone begins to fill all space in the room. In the light you will find the road

THE BACK NINE

Side three opens under an opaque fog of Morrocan hash smoke, with ethereal sounds conjured from Jones' synth, Page scraping a violin bow across acoustic guitar strings and massed vocals that float above it all. The spell is broken by the intrusion of crashing drum accents, followed by a flourish of distorted guitar notes. "In the Light" is a very intricately constructed piece, which ebbs and flows, tied together by the clavinet that provides the outro which leads out of an atmospheric verse into yet another meticulously crafted guitar passage. The wealth of great ideas on display within the boundaries of this stunning creation is enviable. Interestingly, it also has the effect of drawing back curtains to allow the morning light to fill a room. As that warmth spreads, the gentle interpolation of "Bron-Yr-Aur" becomes your soundtrack. Fetching and brief, this soothing acoustic instrumental on the "light side" of Physical Graffiti gives way to the Neil Young inspired "Down By The Seaside". Heavy tremolo effects are applied to the guitar and the lads even pinch the gargling harmony vocal trick from "Octopus's Garden". Surprisingly, they manage to pull it off, digressing momentarily in a wild 180 degree shift to a bridge that is far removed from the main theme. Closing the introspective side is the exquisite "Ten Years Gone". One of my personal favourites of the entire Zep songbook, Page scores bonus points for his choice of chords in the silky intro which toggles back and forth from A major to F6/Dm, and then runs from A major to E flat diminished 7th, E minor, D major 7th and finally lands on C major 7th before transitioning to another signature pice of riffage that comes back to rest in A. Setting a wistful, somewhat sombre mood, there are a myriad of overdubs that comprise the guitar army that Jimmy was known to assemble on many occasions. None more memorable than this with fine support by way of a superb lyric and vocal from Plant.



According to author Stephen Davis, Bonham held a few late night drum practices in his suite at the Hyatt House, playing along to the records of jazz drummer Alphonse Mouzon (Mind Transplant being his latest LP at that time) who was a heavy hitter in his own right. Davis was jolted from a dead sleep as his room was directly below the nocturnal percussionist. John Henry Bonham is nothing less than a force of nature throughout, leaving nary a blemish on the foundation work that he lays down. His playing is infused with jazzy touches and that single magic bass foot of his did the work of ten. Fitting that his high-hat starts off "Night Flight" which he populates with triplet fills, raising the game of an otherwise straightforward tune. He continues his grooving, four on the floor streak with "The Wanton Song" as Jones and Page lock into a fierce octave seesaw riff with stop time crashes, which the Red Hot Chilli Peppers would build a future career on. The Leslie treated guitar tone that appears in the instrumental bridge is another mini-masterclass in chord choices for players rolling from F minor to B diminished 7th to C minor 7th into a C sharp diminished 7th. This is followed up by another series of jaw-dropping phrases that end in a full stop with backward echo. This is top shelf musicianship from all involved, the product of very disciplined, schooled song craft.

John Paul Jones always seemed to be overshadowed by the extrovert musical personalities of the other three, though he expertly handles bass guitar, organ, acoustic and electric piano, mellotron, guitar, mandolin, VCS3 synthesiser, Hohner clavinet, Hammond organ and all string arrangements here. Versatility is a woeful understatement in terms of what he brought to the table. That's his mandolin boogieing along with Ian Stewart in the Ritchie Valens tribute (Ooh My Head) and the inside joke that became "Black Country Woman". It isn't fully substantiated, but Zeppelin roadies knew that a certain blonde lead singer had been having a fling on the side with his wife's sister...which may have led to that beer in his face. The line about "I know your sister, too" crops up in a many blues templates as well, so it may have just been coincidence.

Hey, hey mama, what's the matter here????

"Sick Again" provides the closer, bringing everything together in one swaggering blast with a fulsome tribute to the groupies, LA queens and all in attendance at the non-stop backstage touring party so redolent of that timeframe. Muscular in structure with an excellent turnaround, it featured prominently in their set list through to their last gigs and is a stellar tune.

Kashmir still should have been sequenced as the last track

Though Zep III gives this one a run for its money for the top tier in their discography, I rate Physical Graffiti a notch above. When rock afficianados toss out the big ticket names who have painted their masterpieces in broad strokes over two discs, this ambitious set should be involved in the conversation. Very little filler is present, the material is eclectic, interesting and the playing/singing impeccable. No "Revolution 9" or "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" here to detract from the overall pace of the program, either. Simply put, it is work that anyone should and would be proud to be associated with. Which is why we are still talking about it and lending an ear to this timeless record today.

As for the 2015 remaster, it is nice to have, though only completists will listen to the bonus cuts more than once. What really should have been offered as a companion piece are highlight reel, soundboard quality live performances from different stops on their 1975 North American tour.

Jimmy Page gets the final word on this one.

It gave us the chance to put in the material that was left over from the first visit to Headley. There were three tracks that were left off of the fourth album, and that was "Boogie With Stu," "Night Flight" and "Down by the Seaside." If you think about it, you couldn't have substituted anything off the fourth album with any of those tracks, quite rightly so. Each of them had their own individual charm and character.

So with those, plus the fact that "Houses of the Holy" was a track that wasn't included on the album Houses of the Holy, that was four things straight away [to include]. And, you know, given the chance of having a good run at this writing and recording process, I didn't want it to be a double-album with any padding on it. It would be a double-album with all character pieces, the way that Led Zeppelin did their music with the sort of ethos of it, if you like, that everything sounded different to everything else.


Trying to get this airplane on

No, leave it...



Monday, February 02, 2015

NASHVILLE SKYLINE



Bob Dylan closed out his 1960's discography with a set of tunes that confounded even his staunchest supporters. Important to note that this LP did very well commercially, hitting #3 in the US and topping the charts in the UK. The voice that emanated from the speaker grills was not a familiar one, though. Trading in his more abrasive, nasal vocal style, the artist now adopted a smoother approach to singing. Gone were the lengthy verses that stretched the limits of expression. Though greeted warmly, many listeners thought that Bob was pulling their leg. Surely there HAD to be an eight minute long, backward message from the bard tucked away in the run out grooves of this laid back LP?

In the game of chess, it is advisable to:

1. Open with a center pawn.

2. Develop with threats.

3. Knights before Bishops.

4. Don't move the same piece twice.

5. Make as few pawn moves as possible in the opening.

Nashville Skyline took inspiration from the fourth item on this list.

Taking exception to any labels that critics, contemporaries or his fans tried to apply to his music, he veered sharply away from the expectation that he should be landing in a silver spacecraft to deliver an important message through his songs. Instead, you hear a definite scaling back of the operation, lyrically, to take a crack at country stylings that were a huge part of what he heard on the radio as a kid. For the uninitiated, the commitment to this concept is unwavering from the "Howdy, neighbor!" cover art right on through to "Tonight, I'll Be Staying Here With You".

Is it rolling, Bob?



With Johnny Cash guesting ("Girl From the North Country") and "Lay Lady Lay" hitting big as a single, there is lots to like here. It was his most polished recording of the decade in terms of production values, though he never did anything quite like this again.




Sunday, February 01, 2015

THE HISSING OF SUMMER LAWNS



Joni Mitchell made bold strides away from her singer-songwriter-folkie persona in the mid seventies, taking a decision to explore the outer limits of her creativity which would ultimately exceed the expectations of even her most besotted worshippers.

Down the line, this transformation would also pose problems for short-sighted marketing drones trying to shovel out the usual shit-disguised-as-ice cream to the masses. Those who were prepared to classify or label this one were perplexed. Great painters utilize as many colors as their pallet can handle. Understanding this well, Mitchell made a detour into jazzier stylings, augmenting her songs by calling in some of the hottest session players in the business. Intent on avoiding a misstep into bland, cocktail lounge territory, her inspired leap would not sacrifice the edge that she had sharpened to a fine point as a wordsmith. Combining poetic sensibility with newfound instrumental textures gave her a much larger canvas to work with.

Artistic maturation also brought about a rethink in Joni's approach to singing. In short, her delivery was altered to suit the idiom of cool jazz that now colored the tracks. Note that the gentleman making love to the upright in the following clip is legendary bassist Max Bennett, who would figure prominently in her recording/touring cycle in this period.



Always inventive with modal tunings, her original sense of melodic design has often fooled listeners (and fellow musicians) who have sought out the root notes, finding them replaced by an ever shifting musical bedrock. This is just one of the attributes that has kept people crawling back, repeatedly, to immerse themselves in her genius. Each trip through her carefully constructed records leaves no choice but to return again, in the eternal hope of discovering how this canny magician manages to successfully suspend disbelief.

What she has to offer is something far more subtle than the typical street corner hustler's brand of three card monte.

Gently pushing forward, the transition point started with For the Roses. Brilliantly understated, it paved the way for the more grandiose makeover that produced the commercial smash of Court and Spark. The ensuing tour matched her with Tom Scott and the LA Express, bringing all of the pieces into place on stage. Miles of Aisles gave listeners a recorded souvenir of these shows.

Most artists close the loop on a particular period of activity with a live album, which can function as both a summation of what has come before and as a means of satiating their fan base while they re-evaluate their approach to their craft.

The Hissing of Summer Lawns would be a masterstroke.

Employing, for the most part, the same cast of phenomenal musicians who had supported her on the aforementioned Court and Spark, Mitchell's vision for the new material was decidedly much more "free form" in terms of what she had to say. Sheer inscrutability is the one constant of the lyrical subject matter.

Not for the last time, she would be moving much faster than her contemporaries.

This has often been called a "difficult record", though if it is, I don't hear it. Reading certain reviews would almost lead you to believe that this was her version of Metal Machine Music. Don't buy into that.

Sonically, there are instances where she veers away from conventional pop structures ("The Jungle Line" "Shadows and Light") though the surprises primarily turn up in the unfathomable verses. Things start out in relatively familiar territory, with the smooth strains of "In France They Kiss on main Street". In fact, it's pretty much like Old Home Week with pals David Crosby, Graham Nash and James Taylor lending strong harmonies to a track that would have fit in perfectly on Court and Spark.

We'd all go lookin' for a party, lookin' to raise Jesus up from the dead

Listeners expecting another soft landing pad get a jarring wake up with the insistent, pounding rhythms of the Royal Drummers of Burundi. Acoustic guitar, austere Moog synth interjections and a detached vocal float over the mass of percussionists.

Rousseau walks on trumpet paths
Safaris to the heart of all that jazz
Through I bars and girders-through wires and pipes
The mathematic circuits of the modern nights
Through huts, through Harlem, through jails and gospel pews
Through the class on Park and the trash on Vine
Through Europe and the deep deep heart of Dixie blue
Through savage progress cuts the jungle line


Light years away from anything she had committed to tape thus far, you can imagine the subversive pleasure that she must have derived in throwing this musical change-up so quickly into the set. Work of this calibre is a shining example of why so many writers are driving comfortably down roads that she has broken her back to pave.

Perfectly balanced, each of the five songs on this immaculate "Side One" will drag you back for repeated listens. "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow" offers up a patented CGDGBD tuning, searing verses and subtle backing from the players who cradle the tune as if they are at risk of losing it. Definite highlight.



Wrapped in the sweet groove of the LA Express rhythm section for much of this disc, Joni is free to do many aerial somersaults, safe in the knowledge that Max Bennett and John Guerin are there to catch her. Guerin even scores a co-writing credit on the title cut, which involves a sketch of a man who scores a trophy wife and then proceeds to treat her as if she was one of his many acquisitions.

He put up a barbed wire fence
To keep out the unknown
And on every metal thorn
Just a little blood of his own


Treated like a domestic pet, running along the perimeter of a fence with "a diamond for her throat", her incarceration is painted as being one that she has chosen. Mitchell looks, with some distaste, upon the affluent, cookie-cutter style neighborhoods, with the manicured lawn of each home featuring the suburban system of irrigation. The bitter medicine of this subtle commentary on patriarchal materialism is sweetened by laid back electric piano.

Every note of this record hits the mark, with the second side filled with as many engaging melodies, though much more low key. "Sweet Bird" is reminiscent of "Other People's Parties" musically, though the words remain purposely vague. It is very easy to put this album on and just let it play through.

Her happiest musical moment?

"When I wrote 'Shadows and Light', which came out intact, verse by verse by verse with no rewrites; that was a thrill."

Much like the startling innovation of Lennon's "Tomorrow Never Knows" from Revolver nearly a decade before, this stunning track was a departure in form, even when measured against the adventurous compositions that preceded it. It could only be placed at the end of the album, as it would have made anything that came after seem anti-climactic. Mitchell creates her own vocal chorale, using the ARP as her only support.

I leave the interpretation to you.

Fine as it is, "Hissing" occupies a spot in the back gallery of forgotten music.

Having spent a lot of quality listening time with tis disc, I rank it higher than both Blue and Court and Spark (which were both worthy efforts). All of Joni Mitchell's ambitions coalesce as she closes the door on semi-confessional song writing and begins to explore a different type of expression. The joy here is in the veiled word play and her clever way of leaving things unresolved. Some do not appreciate it, though the best art is that which makes your brain work, compelling you to revisit its complexities. Where would we be if everything was completely laid out on flash cards and wrapped up neatly with nary a loose end to be found?

Bored to death.